In March of 2022, a surprise hit emerged in X, horror auteur Ti West's acclaimed slasher about a crew of young filmmakers in the '70s who rent a remote farmhouse to shoot a porno. The arrival of aspiring adult film star Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) triggers the farm's elderly owner, the repressed and resentful Pearl (also played by Goth, in extensive prosthetic makeup), to go on a homicidal rampage.
However, the film's biggest surprise came at the very end, revealing the trailer for Pearl, a prequel film that West shot in secret. Set during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the flick is a technicolor origin story for the titular murderous crone, with Goth (who co-wrote the script) playing Pearl as a young woman trapped on her family's isolated farm and dreaming of a life like the ones she saw in the movies.
"We went to New Zealand to make X, because it was peak pandemic and that was the only safe place you could go to make a movie," West explains. "We had built all these sets and had this crew — we had everything there — and it was such a shame to tear it down and go home, not knowing if we'd ever make another movie again. So, it was like, 'We should just stay and make a second movie!' That's where the idea of Pearl first began."
Pearl had its world premiere at the 79th Venice International Film Festival, ahead of its release in theaters on Friday. (A third installment, MaXXXIne, is teased at the end of that film.) In conversation with A.frame, West discusses the unique experience of making his horror duology back-to-back.
A.Frame: The idea of having this surprise prequel that people didn't know about until X opened was such an effective marketing gimmick. I can't think of anyone who's done it since Back to the Future II. What was the strategy behind that?
Once A24 said okay to making the two movies in a row, we thought, "Let's not tell anybody. Let's keep it a total secret." And they were game for that — not just for the marketing, but because we hadn't even shot a frame of X. What if I blew it with X? There’s a sequel? What are they going to do? I think they were more optimistic than that, but still it must have been in the back of everybody's mind. I thought it would make for a really exciting reveal at the premiere, which is what we ended up doing at South by Southwest. To this day, I'm amazed we kept it a secret, especially in 2022. But we did. We made it all the way to that Q&A! Right up to the screening, I was like, "Oh my God, still nobody knows." We showed the clip, and that was when everyone realized it was real.
How did the conversation between you and Mia about sticking around in New Zealand to shoot this second movie evolve?
When I made this movie called The Sacrament, we built a whole community and populated it with extras. And when you wrap the movie, you just tear it all down. It's a very surreal feeling, and I was mindful of that. We were in this unique situation where we're putting all of these people to work and we're building all this stuff. Can we do more with it? I didn't want to make a sequel where more people showed up at a farm and got killed, because that wasn't interesting. The next reasonable thing is to cannibalize the sets we were using to go backwards. Mia and I had already been talking a lot about the character, because in X, we catch up with her in her 80s and we get dropped into her life when she's sort of the villain. We don't get to experience how she got there.
We were talking about that from a character backstory perspective, and then that just started snowballing into, what would the movie of her being a star look like? That's how it began. Then we had to do two weeks of mandatory quarantine before you could get into New Zealand. In those two weeks, we wrote the majority of the script. She was still in New York, and I would FaceTime with her and write. She would write and send it to me. We would send it back and forth and just cranked it out in two weeks. By day 24, A24 was like, "Not only does this make sense monetarily, it's a cool movie." They thought about it for a couple of weeks and said okay.
Seeing both of these films in the same year, there's a strong feeling of isolation and psychosis tied to our current pandemic era. In Pearl, you make it explicit, with the masking and physical separation. Was that something you had in mind from the beginning? Or did it evolve during the production process?
With Pearl, it certainly was, because it was very much birthed in the midst of all that. I had written X before there was such a thing as COVID, but when we were writing Pearl, when we subtracted years from her life to decide when it would be set, I was like, "What's 60 years earlier? 1919? Well, let's do 1918, because we're all living through it." It's like her character is in isolation, so it just added to that.
"It felt like a really interesting contrast to do something colorful and childish with a more demented story."
In both films but especially Pearl, Mia has these intense scenes that are shot in long takes — reaction shots of her emoting, or that incredible monologue in the climax of Pearl that's more than five minutes long. Did you always envision shooting in these extended single takes?
I certainly knew the climax of the movie was going to be a close up of her face, because I felt the movie, which is aesthetically very rich, didn't make sense with a climax that was a big, showy thing that wasn’t about her internal psychology. The core of the movie is about her. The movie is very flashy and getting bigger by the minute, but then it has to go internal for the climax. Easier said than done! But that's where the idea of doing a monologue came from, and we collaborated on writing that. There's a six-minute chunk in the middle where it never cuts on this monologue, and Mia probably did it six or seven times and nailed it every time. We had a chance to bail out and cut right up until the first line of the monologue, because once she started that sentence, if anything went wrong — if a phone rang, if a mic got in the shot — you killed the whole thing. It was very stressful to be on the other side of it, hoping she was going to do a great job — which she did — but just being terrified that somebody would drop something and distract her.
It was also fascinating listening to people's reactions to the closing shot of the movie, where you hold on Mia's face for multiple minutes, in the theater. You hear laughing and then people's breathing change as they realized it wasn't going to cut.
It’s really become everyone's favorite part of the movie. Whereas the movie opens with this scene of her feeding the goose to the alligator and goes into a freeze frame that says Pearl, I thought I'd end it with a freeze frame on Mia and then the credits. But then I had this weird idea that I can freeze it any time I want, like an organic freeze frame, and she'd just hold it for as long as she can and let's see what happens. I sprung in on Mia that day and she said sure, so we did it. We only did it one time, and it's probably just under three minutes long. I think you can enjoy it by itself, but if you've seen X and know where it's going, it speaks to that effectively, too.
The look of each film is very different, because X had this horny Tobe Hooper aesthetic, whereas Pearl, you shot in gorgeous 2.35:1 Technicolor photography. How did you land on your aesthetic choices for each film?
They're informed by the cinema that is affecting the character. In X, the characters were entrepreneurial independent filmmakers, who were inspired by this sort of '70s exploitation filmmaking. In Pearl, it's a story about someone with dreamlike, childlike qualities. When I initially came up with the idea, I was debating doing it in black and white, almost like a German Expressionism type thing like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu. If you read the script, you could picture the movie that way and being heavy and creepy. To be honest, that idea first came from the fact that we were trying to find inexpensive ways to do two movies in a row.
But then I had this idea of a very rich, colorful, like, DIsney version. A24 wasn't as jazzed about black and white at the time anyway, because they had just made three of them in a row. They didn't really care that it cost a few more bucks to do the color version, which was great because it was the right choice. For me, I like it because it has a Golden Age of Hollywood, wondrous, glamorous, ambitious vibe to it that I think relates to Pearl's emotional state. It also felt like a really interesting contrast to do something colorful and childish with a more demented and psychologically grounded story, taking something retro and making it modern.
That extends to the score — normally you don't hear films that are as heavily wallpapered with music, almost like Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa but even more heightened.
Yeah, and [composer] Tyler Bates nailed it, because he had a very short turnaround. He was down to do both, because he and Chelsea Wolfe did X and then Tim Williams came on and helped him with Pearl. It was a little more complicated this time around, because X is a very stripped-down, vocal-driven thing while Pearl was a giant orchestra for 80 minutes of the movie. We had two months to turn it around, and he's the hardest working person I know.
In addition to your features, you’ve worked on several anthology films and TV series, including V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, and Scream: The TV Series. Does your approach differ at all based on the medium?
It's case by case. I spent the last five years doing a lot of television, which is different. It's like being a consultant, compared to doing my own films, which I write, direct, edit, produce. I'm just so in the mix on it. When you go to a television show, it's not really yours. You're there to help them do what it is they're doing. But I think that's great. I'm not there to try to make it my own. When I make my own stuff, I have to come up with a new idea and go try to find the money for it. Then it usually falls apart, and then I go get money again and it's never enough. Then we've got to go make it and somehow pull it off! It's, like, two years of trauma to get a movie going, whereas a TV show is like, "Hey, can you be on a plane to Atlanta on Monday?" "Yes, and how can I help?" It's fun to be able to go in, and I think I have a pretty good skill set for television, which moves very quickly. I get to work with all kinds of people I didn't hire and wouldn't generally work with. When I decided to make X, one of the reasons was I had done 17 episodes of TV in less than five years. From a craft standpoint, I felt sharp.