Ambition in Filmmaking, Mia Goth’s Dual Role and His Sirkian A24 Prequel: Ti West on His SXSW-Premiering X
After 2016’s Western, In the Valley of Violence, and several years directing episodic TV, Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Inkeepers, The Sacrament) makes a very welcome return to the world of feature horror with X, a ’70s-set picture in which the sort of ambition that has characterized West’s impressive filmography is both evident on screen as well as the subtext driving the film’s characters. The set-up: a ragtag group of filmmakers ensconce themselves in a rented barn outside a foreboding farmhouse straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to make a porno feature, The Farmer’s Daughter. Mia Goth, Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi (Kid Cudi) play the leads, Owen Campbell is the director, and Jenna Ortega is his girlfriend as well as boom operator — a crew assembled by an older producer (Martin Henderson), who dreams of capturing some of the drive-in bank scored by pictures such as Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones. Newcomers to their genre, they approach X‘s film-within-a-film with various higher purposes. In her performance, Goth’s character is clearly drawing on deeply personal subtext while Campbell, riffing on the mobile camerawork and jumpcuts of the French New Wave, sees the film as a kind of artistic calling card. (A particularly hilarious scene involves Snow’s porn star schooling Campbell’s director on how to turn a low-angle shot into sexual visual pun.)
Recalling the fears of any low-budget filmmaker worried about intrusive location owners, scares come from the elderly couple (Stephen Ure, and, in a double role, Goth) who own the barn and distrust the cloaked intentions of their new tenants. In horrific, mummy-like makeup, the husband and wife provoke an initial knee-jerk reaction, but it’s one of the film’s great strengths that, even as the body count begins to rise, their motivations become deeper, more complex and even somewhat heartbreaking — an emotional build that’s the perfect set-up for a forthcoming surprise prequel, Pearl, that West discusses at the end of this interview.
Just prior to the film’s SXSW premiere, West and I spoke over Zoom about how his recent work in television renewed his desire to make a horror feature, how ambition functions in the screenplay, and about that prequel.
Filmmaker: This is your first feature since In the Valley of Violence six years ago, and you’ve been doing a lot of episodic directing in the meantime. Is X a feature that had been in the works for some time that you were trying to get made? Tell me about coming back to features again.
West: I hadn’t made a horror movie since The Sacrament, and because I had made a lot of horror I got an opportunity to direct a TV show. For the entire time I’ve had a career, no one had ever offered me anything. Finally someone said, “Come work for us,” and I was like, “Yes!” When I make a movie, I have to come up with an idea, I have to write it, then go get the money. Generally the money will collapse, so I have to go get more, and we have to somehow make it with not enough money, get through it, promote it, the whole thing. And I’m making sort of esoteric movies in competition with stuff that is trouncing us as far as P&A. So that, compared to “Can you be on a plane on Monday,” was very appealing.
I did television, 17 episodes in five years, and really enjoyed it. I didn’t know if I would, because I didn’t know much about directing TV. But coming from making independent movies, the idea that they don’t have enough time and money just felt very cute to me. From where I was coming from, there’s plenty of time and money! So, going into TV from a production standpoint was not intimidating. And I didn’t go into it necessarily trying to make it my own. I went in trying to figure out what they wanted: “Let me help you get what you want on the screen and make the day.” I would look at the showrunners and creators, and they’d be all stressed out, and I would be like, “Oh, I’m you and you’re me in my other life.” This was profound to see, and I just found [the experience] to be very gratifying. And then in exchange, I got to work with all kinds of people that I didn’t hire, that I didn’t cast, that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of, and I got a lot of cool experience from that.
I was writing some stuff in the meantime, and I started to think about what I liked about movies, particularly horror movies. I wrote X on kind of a whim in maybe a month, and I called A24 — they’re the only people I called because we had been threatening to make a movie together for years and had never done it. They read it and they called me back a week later and said, “We had to think about it, but we want to do it.” And then the pandemic hit, and we had to figure how how to make it.
So, X was not something I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I started to think about wanting to make a movie again, and I thought horror movies had felt kind of soft. Also, what I realized doing TV is that I really love the craft of cinema, and I felt like there was less of that on display lately.
Filmmaker: In cinema or TV or in both?
West: In both. I would hear someone rave about a television show being better than a movie, and I would look at it and go, “The plot of this show is interesting, and the acting is pretty good, but it’s not edited any different than anything else. It’s not shot that much different than anything else. It’s better than a sitcom from the ’80s, but it’s not as profound as something like Don’t Look Now, which is rich with cinema.” And so I started thinking about what was missing in general. I wanted to make a movie where the craft of cinema was part of the movie, not only for my own enjoyment, but to hopefully get the audience to think about moviemaking while watching the movie in the hopes that they’d appreciate some of the craft.
Filmmaker: In my previous interview with you about The Inkeepers you said you don’t storyboard but instead come up in advance with very specific color-coded shotlists. Are you still working that way, or did the intervening years in TV change your practice?
West: It’s pretty similar. I mean, we had an amazing operator, but I still make the same color-coded shot list I made back then, and I still basically do a runthrough with the cameras. This one, I would’ve operated myself, but because it was an ensemble, it was just too much to see. If you have seven people in a room, it’s valuable to have operators on that,. But still my preparation is more or less exactly the same.
Filmmaker: The alligator was a practical effect? Like a shell?
West: I feel like it was made out of foam and fiberglass. We had a couple of them. There was a fiberglass one that could be pulled on the water, a foam one that could operate like a puppet, Jaws-style, and then there was one that was just a tail.
Filmmaker: And how did Chelsea Wolf wind up on the score?
West: [Composer] Tyler Bates and I had a great experience on The Sacrament, and he had just worked with Chelsea on something. I knew I wanted a female vocal-driven score, her music is amazing, and she was super psyched to do it. Credit to her for making all these weird percussive sounds — sex sounds, if you will — that became part of the score.
Filmmaker: When I interviewed you before, one of the things you said was, “I reject this postmodern filmmaking where the movies are constantly acknowledging that they’re movies, constantly being like, ‘it’s just a ride. Don’t take it seriously.’” How would you react to that statement in the context of thinking about X?
West: It’s interesting to hear that. In X, it’s a movie about people making movies, so you can’t help thing about what they’re doing, but it’s not really referencing anything else. I think around the time of The Inkeepers, movies started to be very much for midnight screenings with beach balls flying around. Now, the irony is, if I’ve ever made a movie like that, it would be X. But I just felt with X there was a way to take something that’s “sex and violence,” something historically pretty lowbrow, and do something crafty and pretentiously highbrow with it.
Filmmaker: To your point, one thing I loved about the film is that in addition to incorporating filmmaking in its storyline it incorporates the ambition some people have towards filmmaking. I love the director character, who is tyring to make something “better” than what he thinks he’s being asked to do.
Filmmaker: He’s been giving an assignment to make a porn film, and then he’s riffing on the French New Wave, which was something adult filmmakers did in that period from the late ‘60s to ‘70s. Do you think filmmakers — certainly at least adult ones — have that same level of ambition when it comes to cinematic vocabulary these days?
West: I think the craft of cinema, culturally speaking, is not necessarily as revered as it once, probably because it’s been around longer than it had been then and also probably because we’re so inundated with moving images. Everyone has the ability to make something with their phone, and I think it’s made people less appreciative of the craft as an art form. But, to your point, I wanted to cast someone like Owen Campbell as RJ — someone who actually makes movies himself — because I wanted something [playing the role] who had an actual relationship to making movies.
And about the movie they are making, there may be a ceiling to how good The Farmer’s Daughter could be, but he is aiming for that ceiling. I didn’t want him to be incompetent — the dude is doing the best he can with what he’s got, and so is everyone else. To your point about ambition, that’s driving everyone in the movie, and I wanted people to recognize that. Horror and porn have always had a kind of symbiotic relationship as outsider ways of getting into the movie business, but it’s not as if the people making them aren’t trying to make them great.
Filmmaker: I love the moment when Mia Goth’s character Maxine has her star turn, and it really is a star turn — suddenly you feel that she’s connecting to something deeper.
West: I think her character in a way is taking it a little more serious than the rest of them. This is her moment, and she’s gotta do it, you know? When I was casting the movie, the question I had for everybody when I met them was, “Why the hell do you want to be in this movie?” And everyone that’s in this movie had a very ambitious answer.
Filmmaker: Like what?
West: Well, in Mia’s case, for instance, the opportunity to play two people in a movie is almost never going to come along. She said, “I want to challenge myself,” and she also had a confidence — like, “I believe I can kill, I can crush this” — and I believed her. I always wanted her to play Maxine, but to play Pearl [the older woman] — I didn’t know if we could have pulled that off. There were a lot of variables — like, it’s a great idea until it comes down to doing it. But her being 100 percent is just what the character needed. And Brittany [Snow] is someone who had had an opportunity in the past to play something, not the same as this, but outside of her comfort zone, and she didn’t do it. It had been a chip on her shoulder. She was like, “If I do this, I’m coming in full force because I always think about how I didn’t do that in the past.” Jenna [Ortega] was similar — like, “I always play a different kind of character, the bad girl, and this is a cool opportunity to do something unexpected.” And Scott [Mescudi] was like, “I don’t want to be Kid Cudi in a movie, I want to play a character.” So everyone had not the same ambition as the characters in the movie but the same emphasis on the ambition of what they wanted out of it.
Filmmaker: One of my favorite scenes is, to avoid spoilers, I’ll just call the “if there’s a camera, there’s no love” scene. That’s a very clever inverse of the quasi-legal argument around pornography and prostitution, which is that prostitution doesn’t exist if the sex act is being filmed. How did that scene — the dialogue and the character turn — come to be?
West: I didn’t want make a movie where all the people ended up working [in porn] because their lives went wrong. They all wanted to be there for their own reasons, and it wasn’t like they were there because nothing else was working. [For them] it was fun and going to get them where they wanted to go. And then the character you feel throughout the whole movie is in many ways the judgey character has actually been contemplating it the whole time. Everytime you see her you think she’s judging them based on your preconceived notions about what her archetype seems to be. And hopefully it’s a thought-out enough thing for her character that you’re like, “I don’t really have an argument against her. She’s here now for the reason that she wants to be here.” And then, [in the context of the story], how complicated is that? And certainly it’s amusing that one character gets stuck in a hypocritical argument that they can’t get out of — I think that’s relatable to everybody.
Filmmaker: The film revolves around an interesting structural binary around male sexual desire. Male desire fuels the production of pornography, but then the lack of male desire is present in the other half of the story with the older couple.
Filmmaker: When you talked a few moments ago about having the idea of X, was that sort of elder love story part of that idea, or something that was added to it?
West: Getting older is something that happens to everybody, and there are certain [activities] that seem to be more reserved for the young and have a certain currency. I think there’s also something about the movie where everybody kind of wants what they can’t have. Maxine is like, “If I do this, I’ll be a star.” But if you talked to her [years] after that, she’d probably be like, “If I could only go back to when I was 25 and do it differently.” It’s a tale that’s as old as time. I thought of Maxine and Pearl as different characters but the same person, in way. It’s like, [Pearl is saying], “If you think when [you] get here it’s going to be great, well, when you get here you’ll wish you were somewhere else.” That to me seemed like a humanized way to set up villains in a horror movie. Obviously because they’re making a porn movie, attaching desire and love to that is just complicated and interesting. And then attaching judgement and religion, and the soup of all the things that come with that, well you can’t have one without the other. As far as your specific question about male desire, I always thought of it as more broad than that. The humor in the porn movie comes from male desire being flipped on its head. And then as far as Pearl is concerned, it’s just a resentment, or a regret, that she never got the chance to be who she wanted to be. And then to have to deal with [the personification of that regret] on your own front lawn.
Filmmaker: Anything else you’d like to add?
West: Well, I made two movies back to back. I made a second movie called Pearl, which takes place in 1918 and is about Pearl when she’s young, and she’s also played by Mia Goth. So there’s an entire full movie backstory that is nothing like X at all. And in the way that X is sort of inspired by ’70s independent auteurist filmmaking, Pearl is very much in an old Hollywood, Douglas Sirk [style]. Basically, when I was in quarantine in New Zealand, spending two weeks in a hotel, I wrote Pearl. I would collaborate with Mia over Facetime. I didn’t know if A24 would make it, but we were building these sets so we could just use them again. I thought it would be a cool addition that could enrich the movie and make, to use a modern term, “a world.” I always felt you can’t make a slasher movie without making a bunch of sequels. Full credit to A24 because they loved it. We shot X and then spent a month prepping Pearl and rolled right into it. You don’t need to watch one movie to watch the other, but they enrich each other. But so far it’s been the best kept secret, which has been great until I’ve started to do interviews and have been asked about the backstory. I’m [thinking], “Well, there’s a 99-minute answer to that question,” but I’ve had to figure out how to dodge them. And making movies back to back, that’s new for me. And they’re not alike at all.
Filmmaker: You said the visual style is more Sirkian?
West: It’s like Mary Poppins or something — very Technicolor, an old-fashioned movie that takes place in 1918 during the Spanish Flu and the first World War.