The horror director Ti West has returned to filmmaking after several years in television with X and Pearl, an A24 double-feature of ambition, desire, and fame. The candy-colored, Disneyfied Pearl, in theaters now, is set during World War I and provides an origin story for the antagonist of X, released this spring, which nodded to ‘70s horror, exploitation, and porn. Both films feature bravura performances from Mia Goth, who plays X’s Final Girl Maxine and the young and old versions of Pearl.
In X, a ragtag group of indie pornographers, anchored by ambitious Maxine, use an old ranch as their set without explicit permission from the owners and pay the price for their vanity. Maxine encounters her double in Pearl, ravaged by age and with her own unfulfilled dreams gnawing at what’s left of her consciousness. In the prequel, we get access to what those aspirations were, flush with color and heightened emotion, with the young Pearl relegated to helping her strict German mother take care of the farm and her ailing father, finding solace in performing for the animals in the barn until her hunger for more consumes her and everyone around her. (The series will soon become a triptych: A24 has announced a sequel to X called MaXXXine).
The director talked to GQ about channeling the sound of fear, making Pearl’s fears relatable, and teaching an audience how to watch your movie.
GQ: I think a lot of the fear in your films is existential; like what people want to do with their lives, what they think that they can do within the limitations of their environment, the transience of beauty and mortality. Talk about why those themes appeal to you?
Ti West: Existential things are just relatable to everybody. I’m also very charmed by people who try to do things that are very difficult with high failure rates. Most people grow up wanting to be a director or be an actor, or be a musician, and, you know, I want to applaud your dreams here. But like, maybe there’s something more realistic you can do. And that’s always a bummer when people don’t believe in you that way. But it’s also because the bullseye is so narrow. Almost nobody does it. It’s so much more likely that you will not succeed at doing that. It’s such a lonely road. And it brings up all these other existential issues like, Am I good enough? Am I wanted if people don’t want me? Hopefully people don’t have [her] exact story, but everyone has a version of Pearl’s story, of, I wish my life were a little bit different.
Have you ever felt that personally?
Yeah, I mean, every time you make a movie, you’re like, What if this stinks? It’s two years of your life obsessing over something that could just be completely rejected by everybody. The whole process of making movies is very traumatic. It’s certainly a wine problem, but it’s psychologically quite draining. I hadn’t made a movie in seven years; I was doing TV, and TV is challenging for a totally different reason. But when I was thinking about making another movie, I thought, Why would I even want to do this? It’s so traumatic, to put yourself through this for two years, it’s just this constant control of something that can’t be controlled. And there’s never enough time, there’s never enough money, and it’s never quite how you want. And it’s a battle. But in my case it is worth pursuing.
The first sound that we hear in Pearl is weird, like the whirring of a projector, and it opens on this very slow push to a barn door, as if we’re entering another world. As in your other films, you make great use of a title card that hits at a climactic moment and gives the audience a feel of the World War I era we’re in. Talk to me about how you approached opening the film?
The opening of a film is really important because you have to teach the audience how to watch the movie, because every movie has its own sort of pastiche and aesthetic and its own feeling. And if you can communicate how to interpret at least 80% of it in the very beginning, then people are [acclimated] to appreciate what it is that you’re doing.
And for a movie that was taking such a big swing like this and being so different from X, I felt like I really needed a way to bring a modern audience into the proper headspace to go like, Okay, I know how to watch the movie that I’m being given because of the title, because of the sound, because of the music, because of the doors opening by themselves, because of the dance, all these different things. And it was just a rehash of the same shot from X, because it was the same exact opening of X just presented very differently. So all that came into play. X was a movie that in some ways was about how independent filmmaking had an effect on people. Pearl in many ways is like how a more glamorous Hollywood idea of lifestyle would affect people.
X is set during the ‘70s and aligns itself with the work of directors like Tobe Hooper and Sam Peckinpah. Pearl is set in 1918, amidst World War I, the flu, and the emergence of movies as a popular entertainment form, but it uses an aesthetic that’s closer to the late ‘40s. What drew you to this particular time period, and what made you decide to use a style from a couple decades later?
It’s a multi-tiered answer. The least interesting one, is when you’re [setting up a story for] young Pearl, and you reverse 60 years or so [from the events of X] you end up in 1919. And 1919 is not as interesting a year as 1918, so we go [with that], for topical reasons, and things like her character feeling isolated make it moderately more relatable. .
We could have used a turn of the century German expressionist, black and white thing. And that would have worked: her mom’s German and it would have been cheaper. Credit to A24, they asked, “Well, what’s right for the movie?” and I said, “The other version is to go way colorful and match what her ambitions are. But we have to buy wallpaper for that, we have to paint things, and so it’s a little bit more expensive.” And they said, “You know, that would be a better choice.”
This Golden Age of Hollywood thing, even though it is not 1918, it’s 20 years later and whatnot, matched Pearl’s mindset better. And it felt to me like that’s how the movies were being perceived at the time because they were a magical and wondrous thing that people didn’t fully understand, and it was a bit of a fever dream to see them. I felt like i had never seen [someone] tell a young girl’s wondrous story but be demented and grounded in psychological issues before.
You shot X on digital but you made it look like 16 millimeter using certain lenses and light fixtures, whereas Pearl looks like it was shot on three-strip Technicolor. How did you do that?
Because we were in a pandemic, and in New Zealand, shooting on film was not realistic because there was no lab in New Zealand, etc. etc. With X, we spent a long time trying to get the 16 millimeter to look as believable as possible. And with Pearl, Peter Jackson’s company Park Road Post Production did our color track; they developed this three strip imitation overlay to start with the color. And then we just adjusted it from there. It was a really aggressive color corrector that goes way further in saturation than most things do. But it wasn’t just a matter of turning up this color knob, it was something that was done through AI and built to really push primary colors in a certain way and to push highlights in a certain way.
And then from there, we tweaked it, then added some grain and things like that. But a lot of that was in camera because a lot of it was done in costumes a certain way. A lot of it was painting things a certain way. It was a bizarro thing to photograph every day because it was always so colorful. Like if you saw it in a vacuum, you’d think, I don’t know, man, that’s a lot of blush on her cheeks. [laughs]
When we committed to the look, there was definitely a moment of everyone looking at each other, like, We sure? Because this is a big swing for a children’s movie for some really questionable subject matter. And everyone was like, Yes, we’re sure. But once we made that decision, it was pretty much like, Well, we’re going down I’m with the ship with this one.
A lot of the suspense in both films is found through the music by Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolf and Tim Williams. X is very ethereal and reminiscent of Friday the 13th, where Pearl’s score is very much this crazy orchestral splendor that puts it in dialogue with mid- century melodramas, like Mildred Pierce, Leave Her to Heaven, and Bigger Than Life. What is your approach when it comes to fusing music with horror?
To me, especially in horror movies, the music and the sound design have to be a character in the movie and in X, [Chelsea’s vocal performance] is such a unique part of the movie.
But that would not work the same in Pearl. The orchestral thing is like 80 minutes of wall to wall music and [that] never happens anymore. It really feels like Pearl and it just gives us such a scope, and it gives us a character. When you go see Pearl in a theater, you have a totally different appreciation for a different kind of cinema. In a perfect world, you’ll go see this movie in some 1940s movie theater, and the room you’re in is almost part of the atmosphere, and then you hear the score.
That emphasis on sound design is evident in one of the creepiest scenes, when Pearl’s in the bathtub bathing her infirm father, touching him. You can hear skin touching skin very, very loudly.
You’re starting to get a sense of Pearl’s not quite right. That was an intimate scene and to basically strip it down to just the dripping water and hearing especially that sound. And everyone knows that [noise] when you have bubble foam on your hands. It makes that weird crinkling bizarro ASMR [sound]. It was in the script that she was going to pinch him and say, “Are you in here?” But then she grabs him and chokes him, and that was actually an improv that Mia did. That was not in the script. We did one take where she just did that. And I said, “Well, we gotta keep that.”
You love a zoom and you also have these really incredible wide shots of the huge marsh or of the vista in the cornfield.
Well, the wide shots, especially in Pearl, are really just trying to give the movie a lot of scope, and make this world feel really big. Pearl is very small in this big world that she doesn’t want to be in.
Zooms are an interesting thing. They have particular fields [of vision]. You could do it really fast; Sam Raimi is very good at doing that. It can really give you a vibe and a feeling of a movie that no other lens can do without that. Then there’s the slow sort of ‘70s zooms that are drawing your eye towards something gradually to go, “Oh, you didn’t see this the first time around.” It’s a tool that gives a certain feeling, but they’re not used as often anymore because it went out of style. And so in a movie like X, they were used at the time. So it feels like the language of that movie.
Within your films, architecture and setting is very much monstrous and imposing. The barn gets to be arena for her performances and the house where X’s horrific events occur. And just wondering, like, what do you look for in setting a location?
The barn built to have a claustrophobic feel. And it was built to have a decrepit aging place, she didn’t really want to be. And then to take that and then reverse it into a brand new place was a weird challenge; to try to take something that we had designed specifically to feel like a place you don’t want to be, where something bad might happen, to turn into a place where like dreams could come true, was very strange. The architecture was a big part of it as far as setting up aesthetically, visually interesting shots. But also [how life on the farm looked was an important part]; like on X, we got a real raggedy looking cow. And then in Pearl, we’re trying to get the most Disney looking cow we could buy.
There’s a really interesting shot in Pearl where she’s at the movie theater and newsreel footage of the war plays. You see the newsreel footage and a soldier’s face burned off. And I think that really speaks to the cognitive dissonance of entertainment and horrifying real world news and the ways in which they look both forms of spectacle.
I mean, you kind of nailed it. She comes in happy to be at the movies, and then there’s a way to see it from her perspective. There’s just something interesting to me about that, when you’re advertising World War One, what’s really going on is quite gruesome. Meanwhile, you’re at the movies, and you’re having an okay time and you’re not there. There’s such a disconnect to that, so it just felt like a way to put that up in front of everybody.
I need to ask about the stag film that you use for the film, which references X’s pornography themes and gives young Pearl a window into sexuality. You got it from the Kinsey Institute?
It’s arguably the first at least archived porno film, called “A Free Ride” or “A Grass Sandwich” (1915) depending on what circles you travel in. I had been aware of the film, because I had been to Indiana where that Institute is, and I had heard about it. And we were thinking, “Do we have to make this?” and then I thought, “Well, let’s see if we could get this.” And they had a version of it and I thought it was cooler to use the real thing.