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“Polaroids Were Certainly a Key Touchstone Into This World”: Osgood Perkins on Longlegs


It’s somewhat apt to say that Osgood Perkins owes much of his cinematic success to Satan. His 2015 debut as a writer-director, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, explores the sinister presence of the occult at a Catholic boarding school in Upstate New York. He leaned into a gothic ghost story for his 2016 follow-up, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, eschewing devil worship for a clear nod to novelist Shirley Jackson. Longlegs, his third effort as sole writer and director, veers staunchly back toward Satanism, this time revolving around a series of murders committed by the eponymous killer.

Notably, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and Longlegs both share a chilling scene where a character declares, “Hail Satan!” After they invoke the Prince of Darkness, the codex of Perkins’s winding narratives are cracked for the audience, resulting in big reveals that lift the veil between Earth and a molten-hot underworld. While the devil isn’t exactly a niche topic of exploration in the horror genre, it is genuinely rare to encounter films that feel possessed by pure evil. Longlegs, especially, is downright accursed in its tone and vision.

Plot-wise, Perkins’s latest takes place circa 1993 and follows rookie FBI agent Lee Harker (Maika Monroe) as she aids the seasoned Agent Carter (Blair Underwood) with a confounding series of murders believed to be committed by the self-named serial killer Longlegs (Nicolas Cage). Believed to have been active for over two decades, hope is dwindling to nail the elusive murderer, especially because no tangible evidence of his physical presence is ever discovered at crime scenes. It appears that entire families are murdered without any indication of forced entry; the only hints left are cryptid letters written in a Zodiac-esque code, the only legible facet being Longlegs’s signature. Perplexingly, as soon as Harker joins the team, the case that was verging on ice-cold immediately ramps back up, as if Longlegs was waiting for her engagement. Key flashbacks to the ‘70s slowly unpack why this appears to be true.

Aside from the specter of Lucifer, Perkins’s career is also deeply entwined with that of his father’s, the screen legend Anthony Perkins. This phantom is most deeply felt in I am the Pretty Thing, particularly in the casting of his father’s friend and collaborator Paula Prentiss in a lead role. Indeed, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and Longlegs also explore the intense sacrifices that parents make for their children. Sometimes, the link between parent and child is born from more blood than we’re prepared to realize.

I spoke to Perkins via Zoom six weeks before the well-hyped Longlegs hits theaters on July 12 via NEON. Our following conversation covers the creative influence of Silence of the Lambs, T. Rex and Stephen King on the director’s current output.

Filmmaker: This is the first film that you’ve written and directed since I’m the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House. Since then, you directed Gretel & Hansel in 2020 from a Rob Hayes screenplay as well as an episode of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone TV series. What was it like getting back into the swing of writing and directing a feature film considering it’s been eight years since your last hit theaters?

Perkins: In the interim, I wrote and developed things with a lot of people. Like with anything, the more you do, the more you understand what the fuck is going on. I think that by the time Longlegs came together and was ready to go, I had a script that did a lot of the heavy lifting. The script was written in such a way that it engaged all of the other artists that I wanted it to. When you have that going in, it can be pretty smooth sailing. If you’ve communicated the picture in words, then the other departments are kind of excited. You’re building something together. It definitely all starts with the script for me.

Filmmaker: Can you give me a timeline of when you started this script to when it finally came into fruition, production-wise?

Perkins: From the moment I really locked in and said, “It’s going to feel like a serial killer thing” to finishing the script that went to Nicholas Cage, for instance, I would say that was probably four months. That’s writing five days a week at a coffee shop where I’m highly distracted. That’s the way it has to be for me — I can’t be in a quiet room. That doesn’t work. It’s about showing up and writing. It’s not walking around and thinking about writing. It’s not wondering when I’m going to write. It’s sitting down and putting words together.

Filmmaker: Speaking of Nic Cage, I also wonder how Maika Monroe came on board. How did they both shape their characters, and what was that overall creative collaboration like?

Perkins: With Nic, who came on first, he really loved the words. He loved how Longlegs came across on the page, what he sounded and felt like. We had conversations on the phone where we would talk about references and who [the character] reminds him of in his real life, or who it reminds me of in my real life. It’s like making a collage or a crossword puzzle. Then he would go away for a while and burrow into it. He wanted to do a complete transformation with makeup, which we got to much later, but before that he started with the voice, mannerism and cadence of speech. You know, really working with the words and saying, “Well, maybe this word isn’t the right word.” It becomes as granular as that — [he] really liked the words that I wrote for him to say and really wanted to master their best use. That comes from talking it through and developing a voice. He does a really great voice in this picture. Then you start building it up with costume, makeup and wig people. Everybody’s bringing their best self because everybody wants the movie to be cool. Nobody wants a dud. Everybody wants to rise up and do something that shines.

With Maika, I met a lot of actors to play the part, and what I always say is that it’s almost like the person who is the most different in real life than they are on camera is inherently the most interesting entity to try and work with, because there’s something fascinating about the alchemy of certain people. They’re one person when they’re standing five feet from the camera and when they cross in front of the lens it’s a different human being. It is a really powerful thing and Maika has a lot of that.

Filmmaker: The film spans several decades, with the bulk of the action taking place in the ‘90s. What made this period of American history especially interesting for you to explore through a horror lens?

Perkins: I kind of invite you to be in a Silence of the Lambs movie and then tell you at a certain point you’re not in a Silence of the Lambs movie at all. Inherent in that was designing a picture that felt as much like Silence of the Lambs or Seven or Zodiac as possible. You find your references and you say, “Well, the audience at large—both a horror audience and a mainstream audience—is going to be able to key into these cues.” Then you create an expectation, and that’s your opportunity to then do what you want, which is ultimately what the audience wants. They don’t want to see what they’ve seen before. They want to be taken through something new, I think, but in a way where they’re kind of comfortable with it. That’s what we tried to do.

1993 just became the time that looked like Silence of the Lambs and Seven to me. The ‘70s looked like Zodiac, and it was also [the time of] my childhood.

Filmmaker: To that point, what were some era-specific details that felt vital for you and your team to get accurate?

Perkins: The use of Polaroid pictures in the ‘70s is a big part of the fabric of my childhood. I have a lot of Polaroids that my parents took of each other, of me, of friends and of things. Polaroids were certainly a key touchstone into this world.

It’s funny, because the script is written as 1992, but in pre-production, I realized, to my horror, that if it was set in 1992, then all of the framed pictures in the FBI would be of George fucking Bush. So I switched it to 1993, so that at least it would be Bill Clinton. Not that he’s some champ, but he’s better than Bush.

Filmmaker: I did notice the Bill Clinton picture, and was like, “Hmm, just a year would have made this a really different environment.”

Perkins: Talk about getting more ugliness in the world, you know?

Filmmaker: I love the cryptic notes left by Longlegs in the film. How did you develop the cipher he used? Were there specific touchstones for the symbols or structure there, aside from Zodiac?

Perkins: Because the movie has nothing to do with Zodiac, I wanted to leave a clue that it could feel like Zodiac, or at least the audience could feel oriented by their understanding of the Zodiac Killer. The code is pretty close, I think, to what the Zodiac code was. It’s not something I thought about very much. I let the art department have a good time with it. They’d show me five things and I’d say, “Well, it’s not that, obviously. It’s not that, either. It’s probably one of these two.” Then they would revise. A big part of the director’s job, maybe the most important part, is just being confident with choices. Saying, “It’s not the red coat, it’s the blue coat.”

Filmmaker: You brought up Polaroids a couple minutes ago. From a technical standpoint, the aspect ratio change as well as the rounded corners for certain flashback scenes are an aesthetically intriguing choice. How did you conceive this, and how did your DP Andres Arochi aid in executing this vision?

Perkins: We just like how it looks. It’s not meant to sound flip, but we’re just goofy artists who are trying to make something cool because that’s what we’ve always wanted to do since we were kids. Now we have an opportunity to do it with good people. In order to make all of the Polaroid crime scene stuff that NEON has used so well in the advertising campaign, we got a house one day and went in with the art department. Everybody had disposable cameras and Polaroids. We laid people down, put them under sheets, had legs [sticking out] here and there and bloody knives and birthday cakes and stuff. We just took pictures all day, and this was before production. So we had this trove of a vibe, then we just kept doing our best.

Filmmaker: As an enormous fan in my own right, one of my favorite details in the film is the recurring use of T. Rex lyrics and needledrops. What made you want to incorporate the band’s music into Longlegs?

Perkins: When I’m developing things, to think that I’m going to come up with everything and I’m going to be right is kind of far-fetched and an inflated sense of self, right? I’m just collecting what’s around, what the sky is dropping. I didn’t know T. Rex before a certain point. I was late to T. Rex. It was a band that I knew existed—it had been referenced in a Bowie song that I liked—and I had it on the shelf like, “Someday I’ll know what T. Rex is, just not today.” Then there was a documentary that I saw on music in 1971 and all of a sudden there was a T. Rex section. I was like, “Okay, I guess now is the time.” And I loved it right away, of course. It became something that I was listening to constantly as I was writing the script. You don’t question it, you don’t resist, if the universe says to you, “T. Rex is in the movie,” you say, “Okay, I agree.”

In my first conversation with Nic, I felt comfortable enough to say, “It’s T. Rex.” And he said, “It’s so weird, I was just teaching my kid the backwards guitar solo from ‘Cosmic Dancer’” Then for me, it becomes like, “Okay, good, I get it.” I didn’t know that it was right, he didn’t know that it was right, but then it became really right. We were lucky enough to collaborate with Rolan Bolin, [Marc Bolan’s] kid, and we got his permission to use the music.

Filmmaker: Obviously, Marc Bolan is such an amazing figure who had a really untimely death. I was trying to situate the timeline of his existence into the film, and I wasn’t sure if his passing may have had a domino effect on Nic Cage’s character. Anyway, I want to ask about your next film, The Monkey, which you just finished production on. It’s based on the Stephen King short story of the same name. What made you want to tackle this adaptation for your next project?

Perkins: What do you need, right? One guy, Stephen King, is the single most significant contributor to the horror genre, whether it’s film or print. It’s a privilege to be able to tie yourself to his star for a minute. The short story is pretty brief, and there’s not a whole movie in it. The great thing about that is that I was able to write a relatively personal movie within the framework of The Monkey. I was kind of using the rules, but everything that I did was also invention. It’s then especially gratifying when King says, “I approve this.” In all honesty, I just wanted to make a movie that he would like. He’s obviously worth it. I feel like a lot of movie adaptations of his work lack the sophistication, the humor, the touching aspects. Kids and parents are really important to him, and sometimes that doesn’t really come across. He’s really funny and nostalgic. We all feel something about Stephen King, so I wanted to make a movie about all of those things. It couldn’t be more of a different movie from Longlegs. It’s more like Robert Zemeckis on a very little bit of acid.

Filmmaker: You said the source material isn’t very cinematic, but what’s interesting is that King loosely adapted that story itself for an episode of The X-Files that I really love. So I’m excited to see your own interpretation.

Perkins: It’s not that, I’ll tell you that much. It’s a very wild movie. My hope for it is that kids will want to see it with their parents, even though it’s a hard R-rated movie. It’s supposed to be fun, I don’t know.

Filmmaker: I grew up with parents who were pretty lax about that stuff, so it could be great for a new generation of kids with parents who lack media discretion.

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