The multiplying horror of Ti West
By Erik Piepenburg
There’s something unusual about Ti West’s latest film, “Pearl,” now in theaters. The movie is a 1918-set prequel to “X,” West’s homage to ’70s grindhouse, but that isn’t strange. It’s not the gruesome story of a young woman who tries to slaughter her way from farm life to silver-screen stardom. It’s not the Douglas Sirk style with a slasher sensibility.
What’s peculiar is that both “Pearl” and “X” were released just six months apart, a bonanza for any filmmaker. It’s a twofer for the actress Mia Goth, too: In “Pearl,” she plays the unhinged title character; in “X” she plays Maxine, a porn starlet, and another role.
There’s more: West announced last week that Goth would reprise her role as Maxine in “MaXXXine,” the third film in West’s trilogy, which will be set in ’80s Los Angeles.
It’s not unheard-of for a director to have two films come out in one year. Alfred Hitchcock did it with “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder” in 1954. Ida Lupino, Steven Soderbergh, and Spike Lee did it, too.
But for a genre guy like West, an indie director best known for slow-burn horror like “The House of the Devil” and “The Sacrament,” it’s unicorn territory. The same for Goth.
“It was my first leading role in a movie, and then it snowballed into two leading roles in two films,” Goth said in a phone interview. “It’s become the most creatively fulfilling experience.”
In a video interview, West talked about the genesis of “Pearl” and what it means to have a double-feature year. These are edited excerpts from two conversations.
Q: How does it feel to join the two-films-in-a-year club?
A: It’s very strange, but it’s cool. I’m super grateful to [the distributor] A24. When I first pitched it to them, I was like, “X” can come out and then we can announce “Pearl,” and it can come out soon after — that will be so fun. We’ll never get that opportunity ever again, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
And credit A24: They loved that about it. It felt like such a vanguardy thing for them to do. I’m very proud of both movies, and I’m proud of how the movies are totally different in that you don’t need to see “X” to appreciate “Pearl.” They enrich each other, but they are stand-alones.
Q: It’s not just that you have two films in one year. It’s that the films are related.
A: There’s all sorts of details that all relate to both movies in a fun, world-building sort of way. It would not have been that interesting to make another movie where, like, a new crop of people come to this farm and are killed or something. There wouldn’t have been enough movie there.
Q: It was almost a three-film year for you.
A: I’ve been downgraded already. [Laughs] It was impressive but now — ‘You made two movies and wrote a third, but it’s a shame you couldn’t get a third one out.’
Q: Why did you want to make a trilogy?
A: They’re all connected in their own way. The joke I made was like, ‘We had to go back into the Biff Tannen timeline and fix everything, like in “Back to the Future,” so we could set up the third movie.’ You want the extra context for the third movie to land the way I’m hoping it does.
Q: Where did the idea for “Pearl” come from?
A: When we were making “X,” we were going to New Zealand because there was effectively not a pandemic happening because they’d secured the borders. We had a crew, and we were about to build these locations in the middle of nowhere. I thought, when we make this movie, we’re just going to tear it down and go home. What if we made two movies back to back?
I was thinking we could make a prequel to “X” because I had an idea about young Pearl. We cranked out a script in two weeks, and we made it better later. That was enough for me to say: This will be cheaper than the first movie and, I think, a good script. A24 agreed.
Q: “Pearl” marries a Technicolor style with a slasher story. What did you like about that mix?
A: I wanted to have an aesthetic that was radically different from “X.” Originally, I thought we could do it in this German Expressionist, black-and-white way. That would be cheaper, because we wouldn’t have to paint anything. But the idea of doing it in this Golden Age of Hollywood style seemed more appropriate for her character.
The idea of mixing that almost Disney aesthetic with demented, psychological issues — I had never seen that before. A24 was like, ‘Don’t worry about the slightly cheaper option, let’s do the right thing.’
Q: You took a foray into the Western genre in your last movie, “In a Valley of Violence.” Why did you come back to horror?
A: I had made a whole bunch of horror movies in a row. And you know, it’s quite traumatic making a movie. You have to really want to do it for two years. So I did a western and then I was doing television shows and I enjoyed that. I felt really sharp, and it was a good time to make a movie again.
Q: What’s a sequel or prequel that you enjoy?
A: “Evil Dead 2.” It’s the same as the first movie, but just completely redefined. It leans into who Sam Raimi was at the time as a filmmaker. His brain is what made that movie. Without him, that movie doesn’t exist.
Q: Halloween is right around the corner. Are you a Halloween guy?
A: I like that people who don’t watch horror movies are a little more open to it in October. It’s fun when someone who ordinarily wouldn’t watch “Nightmare on Elm Street 4” is like, ‘Well, it’s on TV and I’m curious to see how they get out of this.’