“Emotional Heartbreak Can Be Dangerous”: Ti West on His Technicolor X Prequel Pearl
Pearl, Ti West’s prequel to the 70s slasher-inspired X, is a far more claustrophobic study of psychological ruin and bodily decay than it is a gory exercise in picking off victims one by one. Unburdened by the heavy prosthetics and dual role that defined her performance in X, star and co-writer Mia Goth, that film’s de facto villain, gives a gloriously unsettling performance as the now titular character depicted during her early 20s in 1918.
Pearl lives under the domineering thumb of her German mother Ruth (Tandi Wright), cares for her Spanish flu-stricken father (Matthew Sunderland) and desperately yearns for her husband to return from the frontlines of WWI to take her away from the monotonous life she leads on the same Texas farm that X takes place on. Her only solace comes from discreet visits to the cinema in town, manned by a “bohemian” projectionist (David Corenswet), who fuels Pearl’s desire for a career in show business (including a more risqué side of on-screen performance). She desperately believes she could easily secure fame if her strict family would only let her. Luckily, her sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro) visits one day, bearing exciting news about an audition to be held for local girls to join a touring performance troupe. Convinced this is her one shot to get off the farm, Pearl resolves to attend no matter what—leading to a string of grisly events that irreparably alter her mental and emotional outlook on life.
Taking inspiration from technicolor films—most notably The Wizard of Oz, particularly due to an intimate scene Goth shares with a scarecrow—Pearl is another meticulously realized effort from West to capture the celluloid essence of bygone eras of cinematic history. Shortly following the North American TIFF premiere of Pearl, the director announced that a third and final installment of this quickly mounting horror franchise was officially green-lit by distributor A24: Maxxxine, which will once again star Goth as X’s final girl after surviving the grisly events at the Texas farmhouse. Now 1985, the film will surely serve as another immersive exercise for West and his team to recreate the cinematic aura of a distinct decade, no doubt incorporating visual and narrative references to the era’s most recognizable films.
West briefly spoke to Filmmaker about the impressive undertaking the film’s design team took to recreate the 1910s out of the original ’70s set, Goth killing her nearly seven-minute long monologue and the deep-seated roots of porn in cinematic history.
Pearl hits theaters via A24 this Friday, September 16.
Filmmaker: You shot Pearl shortly after X, and both films have a really gorgeous texture to them that evokes their respective decades perfectly. What changes did you make between both shoots to accurately represent these two time periods that span over half a century?
West: Well, I would say that the biggest, most obvious changes were the production design and the costume design. We didn’t have much time between the two movies, maybe four weeks tops. So for Malgosia [Turzanska], our costume designer, to make all of those costumes was a major, major undertaking. Then [the same] for Tom Hammock, our production designer, who took locations that we’d been spending five, six weeks in and completely [transformed] them. It’s all the same stuff [as in X], it just looks so different. There was a lot of frantically ordering of wallpaper and paints. So the aesthetic shift was probably the biggest change. I mean, the tonal shift of the movie is an obvious change, but that is not as extreme as just the overall production aspect of trying to turn a location into a completely different one.
Filmmaker: Furthermore, were there any specific technicolor touchstones that you looked to for Pearl’s visual aesthetic? There are definitely thematic and visual references to The Wizard of Oz, at least that I caught, but I’d like you to expand upon that.
West: The Wizard of Oz was probably something I had Mia watch after doing X as a palate cleanser to get the 1970s out of her head. If anything, Tom [Hammock] and Eliot [Rockett], the DP, would look at certain movies just to see how the color saturation was and try to find all these little esoteric details. From a story standpoint, we didn’t really watch many movies and think about them in that way. But from a cinematography and production design standpoint, [we were] figuring out things like, “Well, how red should the red be?” You could go into our office and see a bunch of red swatches on the wall for the barn, and there’d be like 30 of them. They were basically all the same red, and we’re sitting there like, “Ah, I don’t know, it might be this one.” But it was really a matter of if we have that [shade of red], what else is in the frame? Like for Pearl’s overalls, it was dying them and trying to get them to be just the right blue. A lot of that stuff is done in-camera. I mean, it’s enhanced a bit in the color correction, but for the most part it was very colorful just being on set.
Filmmaker: There’s also the distinction of many of these technicolor films being period pieces themselves, which I think also lends itself well to Pearl’s tragic melodrama. A sense of vivid realism only begins to seep in at the very end of the film, when Mia Goth delivers a powerful, lengthy monologue in a single take. How did you and Mia work to bring that scene to life?
West: The goal was always to have the climax of the film be this surprising close-up and a big monologue. So there was a lot riding on that, of course, because it needed to work. I had all the faith in the world in her, but you know, at the end of the day, you have to just sit there. Mia had her own challenges, and she just kind of nailed it every time. Who knows how much prep went into that? That was what she was bringing to the table. I mean, the funny thing was that when doing that scene—and we probably did it six or seven times—the most difficult part for me and the crew was knowing that at some point in that scene, we would film it from when [Maxine and Misty] came in and sat down all the way through until they leave the room, and that there was going to be a [take] in there that was six or seven minutes long. There was going to be a close-up that wasn’t going to cut.
You had right up until the line where [the monologue] started to deal with a problem, if there was one. Because once it started—and I forget what the phrase was—but once she started saying the things that kicked it into one shot, if anything went wrong after that, the whole thing was toast. So that was very stressful. Make sure your phones are off, don’t bump into the camera, don’t have a microphone dip in the shot, because it would just kill the whole thing. It was almost like doing a stunt, really. Credit to Mia, because she nailed it every time. But that was very stressful right up to the edge, being like, “If we need to fix something, bail out now, because once she starts there’s no stopping without ruining it.”
Filmmaker: I’m interested in the sexual politics of Pearl, which feel like an appropriate contrast from what’s presented in X. How did you work to parallel and subvert the sexual expectations between these two generations in both films?
West: I think in X, we’re used to seeing movies where the old people are very puritanical and are sort of punishing the young people for being too sexually free. Then the irony of X is that they’re actually just jealous of it, in a way. Part of it is also where [Pearl]’s at in her life, being in her late 80s is different from where she is in her 20s. To me, Pearl is just a sort of someone who is isolated and has a lack of connection and a lack of intimacy. She certainly wants a different life and imagines a different life, a more exciting life, a sexier life, that will in many ways solve all her problems. I think that’s universally relatable to everybody: “Well, these are the things that I want that I don’t have, and if I get them, it’ll be great.” Whether it relates to her sexual drive, or her loneliness, I think she’s just someone who imagines her life to be rather different than how it actually is.
Filmmaker: The throughline of porn is also cleverly included in this film, even if it has a less prominent narrative subplot. What feels important to you about acknowledging porn’s place in the overarching history of cinema?
West: I don’t have a strong stance or a position on it, but at the same time, I think that it is very much part of [that history], X being a good example of how horror and porn have always had this sort of symbiotic relationship as these outsider genres. Particularly in the ’70s with the golden age of porn, it was a time where people could independently make movies and they could become their own stars and they could distribute these movies directly to audiences. That’s a big deal within cinema as a whole. Then if you go back to the 1910s in this movie, when people are first learning about motion picture cameras, they’re still filming people having sex. This is just something people are gonna do forever, you know what I mean? The sort of risqué and taboo nature of that is going to change as social norms change. But it’s part of the story of movies, the sort of dangerous part of filmmaking, I suppose.
Filmmaker: I also like the quote in the film where the projectionist is telling Pearl that it’s just human experience. He relays it in a very sincere way, that sex is just something that happens in real life. I think that’s a clever way of putting it. It doesn’t always have to be the seedy underbelly because it’s part of everyone’s lives.
West: I think the characters in both films are not particularly [prudish]. In X, people are very free sexually. The projectionist has a sort of bohemian lifestyle and is also someone who’s been to Europe and doesn’t have quite as repressed feelings about [sex].
Filmmaker: In my opinion, Pearl reads much less as a straightforward horror film. X has these brilliant callbacks to slashers of the ’70s and ’80s, but this film feels morbidly melancholy in contrast. Though Pearl’s ostensibly the “villain” and does commit heinous acts, the audience—particularly women—can identify with her manic impulses as a desperate vie for preserving her own individuality and identity. Can you speak to the decision to depict her backstory in this vastly different mood from X, which casts her as a very scary entity.
West: Well, in X, we’re dropping into her story late in her life. She’s not the main character, we’re rooted with these other characters and she is, in a way, the villain of the movie. But when we go back and make her the star of a movie when she was younger, you get to see how she would end up in a place to be resentful. I think that her story is somewhat melancholy and kind of sad. I think that it’s universally relatable to everybody to have these ambitions. Part of what goes with the glamorous life that showbiz can reward people is the reality that it’s more filled with failure than it is success. Most people who want to do something with such a narrow bullseye, like be a famous showbiz person, are going to fail at that. The very, very small [number] of people who do succeed are going to fail in those successes as well. That’s psychologically and emotionally more difficult than people give it credit for. For someone like Pearl, who may have her own issues, that psychological damage and that emotional heartbreak can be dangerous.
Filmmaker: My last note is to ask about what research went into depicting the pandemic reality of the Spanish flu in 1918. Of course, it’s eerily similar to our current COVID era, but it weirdly also seems that people took it a lot more seriously back then.
West: Reverse engineering her age and going back to 1918 made perfect sense to set the movie, because of both the Spanish flu and the war coming to an end. We did the sort of nuts and bolts research of what it looked and felt like. We were also living through it. When we were writing, it was when it was COVID was at its very worst. So it was relatable to everybody, and everyone was getting accustomed to isolation and dealing with it. For Pearl’s story, for her to already feel isolated and then to have something like [a pandemic] on top of it, was a weird way to make a movie that was very retro feel oddly modern. Partially just because of the tragedy of what was going on in our lives at the time. It felt like a way for a modern audience to be like, “I can imagine what that was like, to feel so isolated and to be scared.”
Filmmaker: Was there anything else you wanted to highlight or bring up before we run out of time?
West: I think this movie’s very different from X, and I think that’s part of the fun of it. In many ways the less you know, the better.