With a franchise, especially these days with Twitter and the wasteland that it is, you’re not going to please everyone.
A couple of years ago, Anthem was invited to a special screening of Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother at Vidiots in Santa Monica—now sadly permanently closed—with the lure of apple cider, candy, and donuts. Let’s just say that we were like putty in their hands. That debut feature, about an infant child kidnapped and raised by a lunatic, was a masterful exercise in minimalist horror. Importantly, while a lot of young filmmakers who display a modicum of talent swiftly get labeled as “ones to watch,” in this instance, we were obliged to agree.
Happily, there’s no sophomore slump to report. Inspired by Ryū Murakami’s 1994 novel of the same name—he also wrote the source material for Takashi Miike’s Audition if you’re wondering what flavor of fucked up we’re dealing with—Pesce’s sadomasochistic two-hander Piercing lifts the lid on the twisted urges of two misguided misanthropes. The film follows Reed (Christopher Abbott), a new father and closet psychopath who is tormented by the compulsion to take an ice pick to his baby. To appease this inconvenient bloodlust, he plots to exorcise his infanticidal desires by taking them out on a surrogate. Under the pretense of a business trip, he waves his wife (Laia Costa) goodbye, checks into a hotel and books a call girl, planning to murder and dismember his unsuspecting victim, then return home with his impulses satiated. But off-kilter call girl Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) tramples all over his scheme, proving an ambiguous force of chaos with wildly unpredictable plans of her own. And so begins a cat-and-mouse game replete with power reversals and dark revelations. Did we mention that this is a black comedy?
Next up for Pesce is Grudge, a new entry in the J-horror anthology that Ju-on kicked off in 2000. That first title spawned a slew of Japanese sequels as well as an American remake franchise, 12 all told. Pesce’s take—“not necessarily a reboot”—stars Andrea Riseborough and opens this summer.
Anthem reached out to Pesce to do a deep-dive into his seductive vision of horror and beyond.
Piercing hits select theaters, and Digital HD and VOD platforms, on February 1st.
I heard that you read Ryū Murakami’s Piercing and fell in love with it during the production of The Eyes of My Mother. Was it very difficult to then secure the rights to that book?
Surprisingly, no, and it was my first time ever dealing with getting rights. The only people that have ever made Murakami adaptations are Takashi Miike and Murakami himself, which are big shoes to fill. [Laughs] I read Audition first because of the Miike movie and then In the Miso Soup and Coin Locker Babies. All of his books are great, but something about Piercing spoke to me. The investor from Eyes wanted to make another movie with me and we reached out to Murakami’s reps. It was a relatively straightforward process.
You must’ve received all different kinds of offers with the success of Eyes. Were there other projects that you were considering for your sophomore feature?
Well, I signed onto direct Grudge for Sony right after Eyes so I was also writing that script. What I very quickly learned is that studio movies take way longer than indie movies do. I was pretty eager to sneak another movie in before I did Grudge so it all kind of happened at the same time. I ended up writing the script for Piercing while I was on the festival tour for Eyes. The timing just worked out. Piercing is small and contained. We could do it all on set. We could do it in New York—I was living in New York at the time—and put it together pretty quickly. There’s not many actors in it. I kind of used it as an opportunity to get everything that I wanted out into the world. The Eyes of My Mother is a very, very specific movie and there was another half of me that wasn’t seen: a way more playful, colorful filmmaker. Grudge is not nearly as artsy as Eyes, but it’s in the same vein of that level of seriousness. I wanted to make sure that people knew I could be fun and playful as well—in my own weird way.
You have such a steady hand as a filmmaker. You’re obviously meticulous. You have impeccable style to boot. Importantly, you have a keen sense of tone. I feel like Piercing could’ve gone so horribly wrong in the hands of someone less capable.
When I’m directing, I’m first and foremost focused on mood and tone and style, whereas the writer half of me is worried about story and characters. I knew very much what I wanted the look to be, and the tone of it was very much inspired by Japanese and South Korean genre movies. Chan-wook Park, Takashi Miike, Bong Joon-ho—these guys deal with really dark subject matter, but the tone is weirdly funny in the most awesome way. I was really trying to capture that weird sense of humor. That’s baked into the book, but in cinema, it’s definitely harder to achieve. So that was what we were always chasing. Then there’s also a lot of Jacques Tati and Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies. There’s a lot of almost silliness in there that we disguise under elegance. It’s silly in performance quality, which I think is in a lot of Asian cinema and genre cinema, specifically. Finding that tone where it’s kind of funny, but also fucked up, and figuring out how to get the look to be bold—that was the delicate balance we were always trying to strike.
There are also the more obvious influences like giallo and the music of Goblin.
Yes, of course! The movie’s premise as it is in the book is very much a Japanese writer poking fun at a story like Basic Instinct. Murakami goes so far as to even mention Basic Instinct in the book. I wanted to do similar things he had done, but in my own way. For me, it’s like an American filmmaker poking fun at Italian thrillers. There’s something that works so much with the archetypes of the characters that Murakami put forth that, superficially, feel like giallo characters. The beauty of Piercing is that everything is meant to upend the expectations that giallo movies put forth. I love giallo! [Laughs]
There was an interview where you mentioned Jonathan Glazer’s Birth in passing. That’s a movie I personally love and believe to be highly underrated. Could you go a bit more in-depth about that particular contemporary reference?
There’s a formalism to Birth that comes across in a way that’s softer than the way Kubrick did formalism or the way that Wes Anderson does formalism. By formalism, I mean the centered shots and the one-point perspective with all the lines and everything. It’s such a texture of Italian movies. Birth is a really interesting look at a movie that does a very Kubrickian thing. I mean, Jonathan Glazer clearly loves Kubrick. He does a lot of the framing and camerawork the way that someone like Kubrick did with a lot of lines and architecture dominating the frame, and where the design of the rooms dictate the size of your shots. He did it in a way that was a little bit less in your face than the way that Wes Anderson does it. There’s something about the way Glazer does all of his movies, but particularly with Birth, that we sort of wanted to capture. This was especially true when we were shooting in the hotel, capturing those wide shots in small spaces and really letting the architecture and design shine.
How do you communicate your ideas and references to Chris [Abbott] and Mia [Wasikowska] so they understand your worldbuilding? Do you inevitably point them in the direction of a lot of movies?
Yeah, we watched and talked about a lot of movies. I always say, “I’m a fan first.” I love movies and my love of movies always ends up on screen. I want to bring all my collaborators into the movies that I love and the movies that I’m trying to recreate texturally so that we’re all coming from the same reference points. I show different people different things. With Chris, we talked a lot about Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart’s performances: how unrealistic his performances are, but still grounded and relatable in spite of them being so overtly stylized. With Mia, I asked her countless questions about Chan-wook Park. I think she had the benefit of having previously been steeped in his world with Stoker—a world of this odd sense of humor. I think it’s something that Mia just naturally clicks into. You look at a lot of her work and there’s a—zany is the wrong word for it, but—quality to her that’s so quirky and unusual and unique that brings such a specific tone to the movie. So much of the fun for me as a filmmaker, whether it’s making the movie or being on this side of the movie [talking about it], is being able to share the movies that I love with people. There’s a lot of people who I made this movie with who didn’t know what a giallo movie was before. Now it’s like, “I heard you say the word ‘giallo’ eight million times!” [Laughs] Getting to introduce people to other filmmakers and other worlds of cinema is super fun for me. People know who Argento is now because of Suspiria, but Argento’s made a lot of movies and he’s made better movies than Suspiria. There are other guys like Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. There are all these other directors like Luigi Bazzoni who are so good and, at least in America, forgotten about outside of very small subcultures. Tarantino introduced me to a lot of Japanese filmmakers. The only reason I discovered Takashi Miike was because I heard Tarantino talk about him. My dream is to be able to do that for other people. I get to make movies and have fun doing it, but I also want to use it as a platform to educate people about movies because I love that so much.
Piggybacking on that, you must’ve witnessed such different reactions screening Piercing at Sundance compared to a place like Fantastic Fest, which is a genre festival.
So is it more exciting to you when you’re confronted with an audience that’s new to a lot of the references that you’re making or when they’re totally in on it with you?
It’s two totally different things. When making the movie, you know that there are two audiences. There’s an audience that gets all your references and is gonna call you out on bullshit or laugh at your inside jokes. Then there’s another half of the audience who doesn’t get any of your references and they’re not gonna get any of the inside jokes. So you can’t rely on any of that shit. [Laughs] You have to simultaneously make both movies. The best thing that happens is when you walk out of the same screening and one guy comes up to you like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you used music from The Red Queen Kills Seven Times! I didn’t know that anyone else had ever seen that movie!” And the next guy says, “What the hell was your soundtrack? It was so incredible!” Then you tell them what it is and they’re like, “Oh man, I gotta go watch that movie!” They’re both equally exciting in their own way. There are things in the movie that are there for just the fans. There are Easter Eggs, like the first time Mia’s character meets Chris’s character and she takes off a pair of black leather gloves. If you know giallo movies, you know exactly who that character is and what that means. But for people who don’t get that, it doesn’t matter. It’s only there for people who get it. You do have to operate on both wavelengths and try to isolate as few people as possible. Also, it’s a little easier when you know going into it that I make movies for niche audiences. Not everyone and their grandma is gonna go out and be like, “Oh my god! You gotta see Piercing!” It’s for the people that it’s for and the people who don’t even realize that it’s for them. Before I saw a David Lynch movie, I didn’t know that I was obsessed with David Lynch. But the second I saw a David Lynch movie I was like, “Holy shit, give me more!” I think it’s such a weird relationship with fans and audiences, and I think you just have to know that there’s so many different people watching your movies, whether it’s at Sundance where you have an audience that’s coming off of a bunch of indie dramas and see this movie and go, “What?” or Fantastic Fest where everyone knows the name and artist of every music track we drop. It’s all kind of exciting in it’s own way.
From your BUILD Series interview for The Eyes of My Mother, I learned that you sort of got initiated into the BorderLine Films gang when you helped out on Josh Mond’s James White. Did that also lay the foundation for your future collaboration with Chris Abbott on Piercing?
Yeah. Before I ever met the BorderLine guys, I knew that Ezra Miller was one of the greatest young actors—ever. [Laughs] Antonio Campos put Ezra in his short film Afterschool and that’s when I became aware of them. I went to NYU, as did they. When I was in school, Martha Marcy May Marlene came out and that was like, “Oh look! Those NYU kids stayed together and did that. That’s awesome.” I graduated and directed music videos for a couple years. A friend of mine from college, Jake Wasserman, was working with the BorderLine guys on James White and said that they were looking for someone to work with Josh until the official editor could start. That’s when I met Josh and Antonio and Sean [Durkin], and I also met Chris through that. Chris and I became close friends. What’s so funny to me is how Chris always plays these burly guys. They always tell him to gain weight and grow a beard. In real life, he looks like a movie star. He looks like a leading man and no one ever lets him play that. He has this really quiet charisma to him. In real life, he’s a quiet guy and he has so much going on inside his head. That’s what I knew I wanted for the character: this guy who doesn’t say much or reveal a lot, but you know there’s so much being worked out inside. Chris is such a smart, great guy. In reading the book I was like, “Oh, this is a role for Chris. This is going to be Chris.” Then, as you know, the BorderLine guys produced Piercing with me. My collaboration with them has been incredible. It’s absolutely invaluable to me.
How’s everything going with Grudge?
It’s been great. I’m definitely making a very different Grudge movie. There’s almost a dozen Grudge movies that exist between the American ones and the Japanese ones, and those will always exist. You can always go back and watch those, but this is darker, more grounded in reality, and a character-driven drama. We have such a phenomenal cast: John Cho, Andrea Riseborough, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faizon, William Sadler, Demián Bichir… That’s what I’m in post with right now.
It’s a different animal working on a studio film, isn’t it?
The biggest difference between an indie movie and a studio movie are the resources and the time. When you’re doing an indie movie, you have very little time, and on a studio movie, you have more time, but the issue is always that the work expands to fill the time allotted. No matter how much time or money they give you, it never feels like enough. I think there’s something weirdly similar about doing the smaller movies as the big movies. With Piercing, I was talking about how there are two audiences: one that knows giallo and one that doesn’t. With Grudge, there’s an audience that knows the Japanese movies and an audience that knows the Sarah Michelle Gellar movies, and there’s an audience that loves them and an audience that hates them. With a franchise, especially these days with Twitter and the wasteland that it is, you’re not going to please everyone. I think everyone knows that going into it. We’re just trying to make a really good movie that is true to the heart of what the old movies were.
You’ve gone on the record to say that your take is much closer to a movie like Se7en.
Stylistically, it’s definitely closer to a Fincher movie like Se7en, and horror-wise, it’s definitely closer to a movie like The Sixth Sense. I think audiences are hungry for that kind of stuff now if you look at what’s doing well like The Haunting of Hill House. Whether it’s Hereditary or It, you’re seeing a lot more family drama and character-driven stories in horror these days. It’s a testament to audiences not being okay with stupid movies anymore. Not to say that the old ones were bad—it’s just a different environment and climate for horror movies than it was in 2004. I think we’re just really trying to update the franchise to fit in with the sensibilities of people now.