Last year, Ti West was granted admission to an exclusive club whose members include Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, and Spike Lee. Like them, West can now say he has released two films in a single year. His Seventies-set slasher X and its lurid prequel Pearl were shot back-to-back and released within six months of one other in the US. The latter is now finally hitting UK cinemas, which has put West on an unusually long conveyor belt of press, giving interviews for a film he believed to be done and dusted months ago – not ideal for a director who prefers writing in short bursts. “I find writing to be unpleasant, so the faster I can get it done, the better,” winces West over Zoom from Los Angeles. Pearl was written during a two-week hotel quarantine in New Zealand.
If the film was made in a rush, it doesn’t show. Unlike X, a terrifically bloody pastiche of Seventies grindhouse about an amateur porn star (Mia Goth) and her crew who are hunted down by murderous geriatric farmers, Pearl takes its cues from Douglas Sirk melodramas and Disney movies. West’s murderous plot, about a freckly farmer’s daughter (Goth) with big dreams and homicidal tendencies, unravels patiently, and in sumptuously saturated colours – the antithesis of the sterile-looking office room he’s speaking from now. The double whammy of Pearl and X has earned West – a genre auteur known for soliciting shivers in The House of the Devil (2009) and The Sacrament (2013) – some of the best reviews of his career. No mean feat given that he hadn’t made a horror movie in nine years. “Generally pretty happy” is how West feels about Pearl’s critical reception. His mind is elsewhere, though, namely on MaXXXine, the trilogy’s final instalment, on which he is currently working. “Now, I’m trying to stick the landing.”
Goth is the star of all three films. In X she plays two roles: a porn starlet suspiciously good at wielding an axe, and the elderly owner of the farm, who is hell-bent on killing her. In Pearl, which Goth co-wrote, she is the bloodthirsty, squeaky-voiced title character on a knife’s edge. Her performances – a deranged blend of Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson, plus a good deal of Judy Garland – are lensed by West and his stylised framing. It’s a moment of cinematic synergy; you get the sense that Pearl is a turning point for both West and his star.
In a glowing review of Pearl, Martin Scorsese referred to Goth as West’s “muse and creative partner”. “Muse” is an interesting term – is it accurate? “I don’t know. I’m definitely trying to create opportunities for her in all three movies, to show different sides of not just the character but Mia and her ability,” West says. “To know [that] the lead of a movie is willing to basically do whatever to make the movie is a good feeling. That inspires the confidence to push things. Movies like Pearl and MaXXXine can be just that little bit wilder than they would have been otherwise. And that’s fun.”
West, who is 42, is decidedly nonchalant, a demeanour matched perfectly by his dark bushy beard and overgrown hair, both of which are cradled in a fleece hoodie. He’s calmed with age. In a 2009 interview, West said that he hated being called a genre guy. Today, he is less fussed about the label. “I don’t really care that much,” he says, only adding that “it seems a bit restrictive to be thought of in a certain way, or within one genre, in the same way that if you call someone a scream queen, it’s both a compliment and a box to put them in.” He sighs, shrugs, and reels it back. “At the end of the day, they’re still compliments. I don’t feel the need to worry about it all that much.”
Given its A-lister reviews and white-hot festival reception, fans were sad to see Pearl shut out of the Oscars. Sad but not surprised: the Academy has never warmed to horror. Goth herself recently responded to the snub, stating that “change is necessary” and that the awards are “very political”. You’d think that West, someone whose name was made on the genre, would have a similar bone to pick, but he is largely unbothered. On the question of whether horror is sidelined come awards season, he says: “It depends on how seriously you take something like the Oscars. If you take it very seriously, then maybe you’ll notice that a certain kind of movie isn’t there as much, but also maybe the Oscars see themselves as more about movies that are representing a different message in a way. It’s hard to say.”
Does he even care? “No. Not really,” he laughs. “It would be dishonest to say winning an Oscar wouldn’t be awesome. I’m sure it would be great, but if it matters all that much to you, inevitably that’s going to make your life a downer.” That being said, he’d have loved to see Goth at least nominated. “In my opinion she deserved it, but at the same time, I don’t feel that it takes anything away from what she did. [An Oscar] would have just been a nice addition.” Another shrug.
Growing up as an only child in Delaware, West was “basically raised at the video store” but a career in film was never the plan. Rather, it was a last-ditch attempt at figuring out what to do with his life. “I was 17 and came to the realisation that I didn’t have plans for the future.” He liked movies; maybe he could try to make one? The result was a short film called Out of Order. “It was stylistically a rip-off of Pi by Darren Aronofsky,” he admits. It starred his friend Graham Reznick – now the sound designer on all his films – as a student in detention who bleeds to death from a nosebleed that won’t stop. It sounds good, I tell him. “It was OK,” he laughs. “It did what it needed to do” – which was to get him into film school.
West had been out of the horror game for almost a decade before he made X. During that time, besides making a western (2016’s In a Valley of Violence) with Ethan Hawke, he was “happily doing television episodes and having a great time”. Horror, when he left it, was getting boring – something that, of all things, it should never be. In an interview at the time, he compared the genre to pornography.
“A lot of the movies felt like the same movie over and over again,” he explains now. “And it became, like, everyone’s going to see the same thing over and over again. For the genre and for movies, it felt cheap and repetitive. And in many ways, you can make the allusion to porn, because the reason you’re [making it] wasn’t for great quality or anything like that. It started to feel like – and this is just subjective to me – the people making the movies didn’t particularly care as much either.” West pauses. “But also, I was probably mistaken, and still am, so it’s hard to take anything I say without a grain of salt. I’m no authority for anyone to actually take seriously.”
Horror now, like the industry in general, appears to be in its reboot era, with existing franchises preferred over original stories. “The thing that everyone always complains about is Marvel movies, but there will be something else after Marvel that people love and hate at the same time. That’s just how it goes,” says West. Cue the shrug. “To use Marvel as an example, they’re not in that business [of telling original stories]. They’re going to keep remaking Spider-Man because that’s their thing, so that is unfortunately going to drown out some other things due to the scope of those movies. But they were never in the business of doing some small original story thing. Anyone in that business has been in the minority for some time, so it’s not new.”
The bigger issue, West says, is money. “From a box office standpoint, certain prestige movies of this last year – Covid notwithstanding – have underperformed. If you’re going to make another movie like that, the metrics they’re going to be compared to are not great. So, if you’re going to make a movie like one of those movies, you’re inevitably going to run into people saying, ‘But the movie you’re saying that your idea is like, made no money.’ And you’re having to be like, ‘OK, but this one will...?’” He laughs.
For now, West only has one movie on his mind: MaXXXine. The sequel to X has just entered production in LA, and after our chat, West will be heading straight into an art department meeting. He doesn’t have time to ponder the so-called state of cinema. “The difference for me, in the last 12 or so years, is that I’m not worried about what other people are doing as much. I got my own problems,” he smiles. “I’m just trying to make this movie and somehow survive the process.”
‘Pearl’ is in cinemas now
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