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'Pearl' Filmmaker Ti West Wants Sympathy for Mia Goth's Murderous Protagonist in 'Borderline Disney' Horror Film

'I wanted Pearl to be equally as affected by cinema, in a way, but her story was this story of wonder,' West says.

Annie Lyons
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Mia Goth in 'Pearl'

A24

Ti West knows all the best horror killers need to pop up for one last scare — or, as is the case with Pearl, to remember their first.

Earlier this year, the genre writer-director served up the deliciously sleazy X (Metascore: 79), a 1979-set slasher throwback that follows an entrepreneurial crew of pornographic filmmakers who head off to an isolated farm for their most ambitious project, only to face off against their murderous, elderly hosts. 

The A24-produced film added a jolt to the slasher formula through its examination of the relationship between porn and horror, all while paying homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and reveling in bloody practical effects. Mia Goth shone at its center, pulling a double shift as Maxine, the final girl determined to get the life she deserves, and Pearl, the elderly killer haunted by festering regrets. 

But before X even started filming, West already had franchise ambitions. And to pull his ideas off, he knew he needed Goth on board.

"I called her and just said, 'Hey, if we were to make two movies, would you stay in New Zealand and do it?' Because if she said no, then that was the end of that. She said yes, and I was like, 'OK I'm scheming to try to get this second movie going,'" West tells Metacritic. 

While West quarantined in New Zealand ahead of X's pre-production, the pair began collaborating on a prequel script exploring Pearl's backstory. "We would just text each other, like, 'We're making another movie,' and we would just will it into existence. And then that's what happened," West says. 

Four weeks after sending their script off to A24, the studio greenlit the project, and Pearl filmed surreptitiously a month after X.

The psychologically twisted slow-burn turns back the clock to nearly 60 years before X's events take place. Living on the same Texas farm in 1918, cheery teenaged Pearl possesses big dreams of stardom — while also sending geese who interrupt her barnyard performances to an untimely doom. Under her mother's (Tandi Wright) scrutiny, she spends her days tending to her near-comatose father (Matthew Sunderland) and awaiting her soldier husband's homecoming. When auditions for a regional church revue come into town, Pearl seizes on the potential opportunity to escape her dreary life. 

Through Pearl, West wanted to explore "someone who really believed that they needed this type of validation to give them the life that they imagined. When they don't get that, how do you deal with the fact that you didn't get that?"

But while X and Pearl share a setting and central character, the two films feel worlds apart. In Pearl, the former's grainy, '70s-film-esque look is replaced by lurid colors reminiscent of classic Hollywood Technicolor musicals and midcentury melodramas. A grand orchestral score accentuates the feeling. And though things inevitably turn bloody as Pearl unravels, the film's true climax is a breathtaking monologue that reveals her darkest desires.

The prequel won't be the final chapter either. Ahead of the film's September 16 release, West revealed a 1980s-set sequel called MaXXXine is on the way. 

Here, West talks to Metacritic about what drew him into Pearl's tragic backstory, his motivations behind the film's Technicolor look, and his desire to honor the "craft of cinema." 

What makes Pearl such a compelling character to delve into? You really marinate in her psyche here. 

I think she was an interesting character in X, but you catch up with her so late because she's sort of the, for lack of a better term, villain in the story. You don't get to learn a lot about what got her to that place. It just felt really interesting to tell the story of where it began. There's a relatability to someone with ambition. There's a relatability to someone who has a perhaps naive but wondrous hope about what if their life was different. 

People have this idea that if you get the thing that you want, either your life will be great or at least it will match the life that you think you should have in your head. That was thematic in X as well. I just felt like there was a way to show this young person who, via show business, was going to create this life that she actually wanted. Something that comes with show business is much more failure than success; even if you're successful, you still fail a lot. I think that's psychologically an emotionally challenging thing for people, especially when you wrap up your hopes and dreams and your idea of a successful life — in her case, succeeding at something that's so difficult to succeed in.

Were there any other cinematic eras or styles that you initially considered exploring?

In the very, very beginning, I thought about it being black and white, sort of somewhere between a German expressionism movie and a [Ingmar] Bergman movie. If you read the script, you could kind of see that version of it: this heavy, weighted "life on the farm" thing. But the biggest reason for me thinking about that was I was looking for every possible way to convince A24 that we should make two movies, and that would have been a little bit cheaper. Because if a wall was, let's say, purple, it didn't matter. [In black and white] it was gray; we didn't have to paint it or anything. To go from X to Pearl was quite a bit of art direction and production design and wallpaper and paint. I was like, "If we do it black and white, it can be a beat up farmhouse like it already is." I was like, "But there's also this version of the movie that's this borderline Disney movie," and, credit to A24, they were like, "Well, that's more interesting. Don't worry about saving a few bucks. Let's do that." Thankfully, we made that decision because it was the right way to go.

The style speaks really well to Pearl's mindset, like when she's dancing around with the barn animals, she's kind of acting like a Disney princess who's not totally aware that she's in a horror movie. There's this whole demented Wizard of Oz vibe. How did you approach crafting this very off-kilter tone within this vibrant and familiar visual language?

X, for instance, really was [about] how these characters were influenced and affected by cinema. In their case, it was independent filmmaking and '70s auteur-ish, Americana filmmaking and exploitation filmmaking and whatnot. I wanted Pearl to be equally as affected by cinema, in a way, but her story was this story of wonder. To me, the glitz and glamour that is this Golden Age of Hollywood, Technicolor era best exemplifies that. That also felt like as an aesthetic [that made] an interesting contrast. Because here we have this relatively grounded, dark psychological story about someone that ultimately becomes very demented, but we have this very safe, colorful, vibrant, childlike atmosphere that she lives in. That was interesting to me, and then also it took something that was retro and kind of made it modern again because it felt fresh to do it that way.

Were there any specific classic Hollywood films that you wanted Mia or any members of your crew to watch in preparation or have in their back pocket?

Not really. I think that when we finished X, I said, "Go watch Wizard of Oz" just because it's a palate cleanser. Because it's like, you just have to get away from the '70s movie, gotta get away from Two-Lane Blacktop, and reset your brain. From a technical standpoint, Eliot [Rockett, the DP, and I and Tom [Hammock], the production designer, we would look at everything from The Red Shoes to some Douglas Sirk stuff, like, "How red should we go? How much is the contrast between these things?" Like in Gone with the Wind, outside of the window, there's just a big fake branch pattern on the wall. It looks obviously fake, but should we go that far?

The only other movie I think I might have gave to Mia to take a look at was What Happened to Baby Jane? But most of the referential type elements or looking at other movies was really just for technical things. Just [asking] how far can we push this and just crash coursing ourselves, because we had just been spending so much time in a completely different visual language. There was a very short gestation period to then create this whole new world.

Part of the fun with Pearl is the awareness that you're watching a movie — like having your attention drawn to the sweeping score and the slow-motion zooms and all these craft elements. That also felt like the case with X, especially with the movie within a movie aspect, but Pearl's inherently more flashy style really lends itself to that feeling. Tell me more about your desire in crafting these heightened realities. 

X became a movie for me that was really about the craft of filmmaking. That's why they were making a movie in it, and I wanted to take a modern audience and remind them that movies and movie-making is weird and cool. That's what even made me [go] from doing television for five years [to] even want to make another movie. So, when it came time to do Pearl in the same "universe," for lack of a better term, it also just felt important to me, that craft of cinema. You said it well when you were like you're aware that you're watching a movie — I like watching movies that I know are movies! I'm totally fine with a movie having a cinematic, art form aspect to it.

There's less and less of that anymore. Within these two movies, that was a big goal. I'm hoping people leave X being a little bit more charmed about what goes into filmmaking and thinking about filmmaking, and I'm hoping people leave Pearl the same way. When's the last time you've heard 80 minutes of sweeping orchestral score? It's been a minute, let alone in some weird horror movie. It's just appealing for me to give [composer] Tyler [Bates] that opportunity to do that, to give Mia an opportunity to play two people in one movie, to be a little bit more avant garde-ish in some of the choices. A24 has been very supportive of that. Because these movies, it's not like they're crazy risky, but they're certainly outside of the norms of stuff today. That's been really satisfying to get to do that.

Mia's performance culminates in that tour-de-force, long take monologue. It feels like a brief moment of self-awareness for the character and the crux of the movie in some ways. 

The movie is ultimately about her and about what she's going through, and how she feels; it's not really about all of the aesthetics. So to me, it felt like the climax of the movie couldn't be something that was aesthetic driven; it had to be something that was psychological and emotional and super grounded in a movie that up until that point has been more fantasy, I suppose, or more stylistic. It was [important] to drop the style and get inside. 

It's all credit to Mia for doing it. The rest of us just sat there and watched it, basically. But when we shot it, we shot the scene from the beginning all the way to the end, and from the beginning when they walk in and sit down all the way until they leave the room, it's like a 10 minute take. But six of those 10 minutes is the monologue that I'm planning to shoot in a close up and never cut. If anything was to go wrong, it had to go wrong before that. Because if we were going to cut once she started that, we ruin the whole thing. If someone's phone rang, four minutes and 58 seconds into that monologue, we're screwed, if the camera bumps in a weird way, if a mic dips in the shot. 

So, it was almost like doing a stunt. Because it was like, here are two people, simply sitting at a table. But we all know what's coming, which is a complete tour-de-force of the person at that table, and we just have to get out of her way. So that was very stressful on my end. She nailed it every time. We probably did it six or seven times, and I want to say the fourth one is in the movie.

I personally found her audition scene so nerve wracking too. Her opening dance gets interrupted so quickly that you really don't know if she's a good dancer. Part of you really wants her to be, part of you wants to see her get on the stage and succeed. There's some sympathy there. 

Yeah, I mean, the sign of the movie being successful would be if when she goes to that, you're rooting for her, despite her having murdered people. Across the board, everyone feels that way and that's a credit to Mia's performance. Because you want her to win, even though she's not a great person necessarily. She's certainly done some bad things, and you also know that in the future, if you've seen the other movie, she's going to do [more] bad things as well. But in this moment, I'm still on her side. That's a testament to her. 

There was another day and a half of story that has been cut out of the movie that we filmed, and there was some more dancing in there. Part of the reason we cut it out is it was better to go into that not knowing more about her dancing. It's not like the stuff we shot in between would totally explain it to you, but it was best, as you said, [that] she got interrupted. So you never really know, whereas if you saw her dancing some other times, you would have a theory about it. It was nice to just have you go in there going, "I hope that it's gonna be great."


Get to know Ti West:
Ti West had his directorial debut in 2005 with The Roost(Metascore: 62) and is best known for his work in the horror genre, with other films including The House of the Devil(72), The Innkeepers (64), and The Sacrament (49), though he also did the Western In a Valley of Violence (64).