“Either It Blows Up or It Doesn’t”: DP Eliot Rockett on Pearl
Despite their dissimilar filmographies, I have great affection for both the arthouse friendly A24 and the drive-in exploitation of American International Pictures. That’s why I’m such a sucker for the story behind the making of A24’s Pearl, which follows AIP’s old philosophy that if you’re going to go to the trouble of hauling a cast and crew out to a remote location, you might as well make two pictures while you’re there.
Pearl began life in a New Zealand hotel room in October of 2020. While in a government-mandated two-week quarantine ahead of making the 1970s-set horror film X, writer/director Ti West started pondering the backstory of that movie’s elderly murderess (played by Mia Goth). Those musings eventually worked their way into script form and by December, West had a full draft of a prequel ready to go. A month later—before a single frame of X had been photographed—Pearl was already greenlit. Three weeks after X wrapped, West and his crew were back on set for another go-round.
Longtime West collaborator Eliot Rockett (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) was among those who stuck around for both movies. With Pearl currently on VOD and hitting physical media next Tuesday, Rockett talked to Filmmaker about Mia Goth’s epic six-minute monologue, using practical effects for exploding bodies and how merely throwing Rec. 709 onto his Sony Venice feed brought Pearl surprisingly close to the film’s Technicolor ambitions.
Filmmaker: When did you begin thinking about Pearl? Were you doing prep while you were still shooting X?
Rockett: I was still back in Portland where I live when Ti started writing during his isolation period. He was sending me early versions of the script. When I got to New Zealand at the beginning of January 2021, Pearl was already in the mix and, from the get-go, Ti and I began talking about different references and styles and what Pearl was going to look like. Then, about halfway through shooting X the real push to get going on Pearl started, especially for our production designer Tom Hammock. He wouldn’t have had time to do everything he needed to get done had we not given Pearl some attention while doing X. As soon as X wrapped, we were just fully into it.
Filmmaker: You shot Sony Venice and mainly MiniHawk lenses on X. Did you do the same on Pearl?
Rockett: Yes, we just stuck with the camera and lens package and tried to get to where we wanted to get on Pearl using them. They’re obviously two very different looking movies, but that was largely a function of lighting and the LUTs. On Pearl we probably only used three different prime lenses for 80 percent of the movie.
Filmmaker: When we spoke for X, you told me you used mainly lighting units that would’ve been around during the late-70s era that the movie was set in. Obviously on Pearl you’re not using lighting units available in that movie’s 1918 setting.
Rockett: I actually approached Pearl with completely modern lighting equipment. It was a lot of LED fixtures. A lot of Pearl ended up being shot on stage, too. We built a considerable amount of the downstairs rooms of the farmhouse on stage. So, in terms of the day-to-day working life on this production, Pearl was very different from X, [which was shot largely on location]. Pearl has got a visual aesthetic that is reminiscent of certain things—for example, a Technicolor movie like The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind—but it isn’t so completely tied in like X was to a particular time of filmmaking.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the LUT you used for Pearl to create that Technicolor look.
Rockett: We started from a basic Rec. 709 and pushed it a little bit from there. Then, further down the road, when Park Road did the [final color] finish, they pushed it even a little bit more, but it wasn’t as much of a departure from what a normal video camera would pick up. X was very different. If you just turn the Venice on with Rec. 709, you’re not going to get anything that looks like X at all. If you turn on the Venice with Rec. 709 and you light up the world like Pearl was, it looks pretty close to that.
Filmmaker: The first shot of Pearl mirrors the opening image of X, where you’re pushing out through barn doors to reveal the property. Walk me through how you got that shot, down to how you got the doors to open without seeing somebody in the shot pulling them open.
Rockett: It’s just a dolly push towards the barn doors. There were ropes or trick line or something on the barn doors to open them up. Then the sky back behind the house is a full CG replacement. Really, that’s all there was to it. We knew we wanted to do the same sort of shot that was in X and give you this view of this new world that you’re going to be existing in now, where the paint on the house is new and suddenly this place feels very different from X.
Filmmaker: In the night interior dinner scenes with Pearl and her parents at the farm, you have this very blue moonlight and these hard shadows on the wall coming from the windows.
Rockett: At dinner those tree patterns on the windows are just from Lekos with gobos in them that are theatrical tree patterns. There’s a shot where Pearl is in bed praying and the “moonlight” that’s hitting the wall off to her right-hand side is another Leko with a tree pattern that’s sitting on the floor of the stage outside that window and shooting up. Like, when is the moon going to shoot from a down low angle, right? It doesn’t make any logical sense, but that was an aesthetic we embraced, that sense of theatricality.
Filmmaker: What about the wide night exterior shot where Pearl is riding her bike past a cornfield, and you have this blue, backlit fog in the distance?
Rockett: The blue light back behind all the corn was done with a bunch of [SkyPanels] S60s sitting on the ground. I can’t remember exactly how many, but there were a lot of them, because it was a huge area to light and then a mountain of smoke being pumped into all of that. Then we just lit it up crazy blue. In order to light the foreground and Pearl on the road, there’s two Condor lifts with soft boxes just off to the left and right sides of the frame that are top lighting that stretch of the road. That was a big project just to get that one shot.
Filmmaker: There’s a dream sequence where Pearl’s husband Howard comes back from the war and is walking up the front yard and his entire body basically spontaneously explodes. It’s such a believable effect. It felt like a throwback to a 1980s exploding head from something like Scanners. It’s a wide shot and it’s obviously the real actor. There’s no visible cut before he explodes into pieces. How did you do that?
Rockett: We locked off the camera and had the actor walk in and stop on the mark where he was going to wave and then explode. Then, with the camera still locked off, the special effects guys put in a dummy on that same mark with all the blood and guts and explosives in it, and we blew it up. Those two shots are sewn together in the VFX world so that it works perfectly.
Filmmaker: How many dummies did you have? Was this a one-time thing and you had to get it right on the first take?
Rockett: There may have been a second one, I don’t remember, but we only did the shot once. Either it blows up or it doesn’t— there’s not much that can go wrong. On the very first movie I shot for Ti, which was a sequel to Cabin Fever, we did a very similar thing. At the very beginning of the movie there’s a guy stumbling out of the woods into the middle of the road and this school bus comes from the distance and runs him over. We had the guy walk out into the road with the camera locked off, then pulled him out and put the dummy in. Just as the school bus hit the dummy, we blew up the dummy.
Pearl was interesting because with all the other movies that I’ve shot for Ti, the script was exactly what the movie is. With Pearl, there were a number of things that were in the script that we shot but they ended up not being in the movie or were used differently than originally intended. That [exploding Howard] shot was one of them. It happened at a different time in the script and Pearl was actually out on the front lawn hanging up laundry and there was a whole sequence that happened.
Filmmaker: Pearl has another quasi-dream sequence when she’s auditioning for a touring musical company on stage at a church. After she begins her performance, she drifts into this imaginary version of the audition with a full complement of chorus girls and a theatrical WWII backdrop.
Rockett: We did that on a stage in Wellington. I believe it was our last day of shooting. It took a lot of conceptualizing to figure out how to do that transition and, ultimately, we just used greenscreen behind them. We had these big black curtains on the stage so we could pull back the curtains and suddenly you’d be in this world. We had some Par cans up in the perms behind them, back lighting, then up above we just had a big 20’ x 20’ bounce that we lit from the floor off from the edge of the stage. It wasn’t a huge stage space that we had to do this. If you could see four feet over to the left or the right [of the frame], you would see fixtures and all the gear we used. We definitely maxed out that space.
Filmmaker: I love the long tracking shot in the final act where an axe-wielding Pearl is chasing after a fleeing victim on the farm.
Rockett: Ti knew he wanted to do that all in one shot and he knew that he wanted for the camera to rise up and look down at the end of it. So, it was like, “Do we try a Steadicam walking back and then stepping up on some kind of lift, or do we try to do it in two different pieces and sew them together with VFX?” In the end, we used a Russian arm, which is a car-mounted crane. It was very expensive just for a single shot in the movie, but I don’t know how else we could’ve done it, and it’s an important shot. There’s a moment in the middle of it where [Pearl’s victim] falls and for that we buried stunt pads underneath the dirt, so the car had to drive over those pads with the pad in between the tires. I think we did around six takes. I don’t think we did not very much else that day. When you are working with the Russian arm, you’ve got the vehicle driver, you’ve got the person working the remote head, you’ve got the person working the crane, then you’ve got the actors running and you have to have the right distance between them at the right points in the shot. So, there’s a lot of variables, but it worked out pretty well.
Filmmaker: Obviously, we’re going to have to get into the Mia Goth monologue shot. It’s Goth’s character and her sister-in-law at the kitchen table and you’re cross cutting between the two, but at one point you stay on Goth’s close-up for something like six minutes. Because there’s other shots during that scene, did you have multiple cameras on Goth for her side of the coverage?
Rockett: We definitely had two, but I can’t remember if we had a third as well. Ti knew he wanted it to play out largely in one shot, but it wasn’t totally clear whether it was going to be the tight shot that’s in the film or maybe a little bit looser shot. It’s just an over-the-shoulder close-up—pretty standard coverage—but it’s the fact that it just goes on forever. I was in awe of Mia that day. She did it over and over again from beginning to end and went through that whole emotional rollercoaster and kept nailing it every time.
Filmmaker: The last image in the film is a long close-up of Mia staring crazily into the camera as the credits roll. So, that was originally intended to be a freeze frame and then on the day you just kept rolling?
Rockett: Yeah, and it just went on for this sort of arbitrarily long period of time because we didn’t really know how long the credit sequence was going to be. At the time nobody thought it was a big deal. “Let’s give this a try and see how this goes,” and as we watched it was like, “Well, this is kind of amazing.”