Following the premiere of his directorial debut, The Eyes of My Mother, at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, young filmmaker Nicolas Pesce has fast become a rising star in the world of horror cinema. He’s already wrapped his next feature, Piercing, which stars Mia Wasikowska and Christopher Abbott and is based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, the author behind the story of Takashi Miike’s Audition. And, at the time of writing, Pesce has just been tapped to direct and rewrite a reboot of The Grudge/Ju-on for Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures.
A fondness for Asian horror comes up in our discussion with Pesce about The Eyes of My Mother, which is now available on VOD in the UK. The film follows the unsettling actions of a young, lonely woman consumed by dark desires, triggered by both a childhood tragedy and memories of her mother, a former surgeon who taught her daughter to be unfazed by death.
We sit down to talk working with Borderline Films (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Simon Killer), southern gothic classic The Night of the Hunter as a key influence (spoilers for that 1955 film ahead), The Eyes of My Mother’s black-and-white aesthetic, and how he wanted to make viewers scare themselves.
What’s been your experience with the film’s polarising reception as it played festivals and opened around the world?
The beauty of the film is that right from the get-go, or at least about 10 minutes into the movie, it kind of tells you what it is. And my experience has been that if it’s not your type of movie, you’re walking out within the first 15 minutes. I made the movie for such a specific audience and, fortunately, it’s found its way to those people, and I think what’s been awesome is seeing that the audience that it was made for is responding how I wanted them to respond. It’s not the kind of movie [where] you’re just gonna be like, “Oh, I heard good things about this, I’m gonna go check it out.”
It was like that early on, right when we premiered [at Sundance 2016] , but at this point, there’s enough about the movie that people know that it’s a bit aggressive — in the same way that no one’s going to watch a Takashi Miike movie or Martyrs or any French extreme movies and be like, “Whoa, that was too hard for me!” You know what you’re getting into. And the beauty of it has been all these people who really do respond to it, and not just the genre sense of it, but see the heart in the film and know that, while you might need a certain tolerance to sit through the movie, there is a lot more going on in there than just the traditional horror tropes.
It’s good that it’s reaching the right people, but do you miss anything about the element of surprise from when the film first launched – springing that on people?
Yeah, I mean, at the festivals there’s still plenty of the audience who are like, “Oh, I heard this was cool. I don’t quite know what it is, but it looks interesting. It’s in black and white, how bad could it be?” And I always start off my intros for the film [as that] the best thing is if you don’t know what you just sat down for. I think that even now that people sort of know what the movie kind of is, nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of watching it. And I think that no matter how much is written about it, the expectations are different than what the movie ultimately is, and I think there still is that element of surprise even if you get up there and people are saying this movie’s so twisted, before you see it – you watch and it’s a very different experience than you necessarily thought it was.
You’ve cited The Night of the Hunter as a key influence in some other interviews. Could you discuss your relationship with that movie?
I have this fondness for the 50s and 60s American gothic films that have kind of been lost in the spectrum of the genre. It was a time when horror and violent films [were] done with a lot more taste and tact and expressionism and the elegance of painting, more so than the grindhouse-y sort of thing. I think that a movie like Night of the Hunter deals with family and parenthood and small-town American life with this elegance and grace that makes the scope of everything feel grander, but also more surreal. Night of the Hunter, to me, is a movie that’s really contained; it’s really simple and really beautiful-looking, but the style is very much ingrained in the psychology of the children and of the characters.
Using the sort of similar choices to even Psycho – this era of films just handled the genre far more elegantly and quieter and subtler, and violence was not shown. You saw the aftermath more than you saw the violence. I think of in Night of the Hunter: you spend like 20 minutes not knowing whether this woman is dead or not, and then you get the beautiful shot of her decaying body underwater. It’s the way in which the story is told that particularly drew me in.
There’s a couple of shots where it almost seems like characters are about to break the fourth wall in how they look to camera. Was that a conscious decision to throw viewers off even more?
That’s the sort of thing I think Korean horror does really well – Chan-wook Park is like the master of you not quite understanding what the tone of the movie is, and not knowing what to expect and when. I think that with Eyes there was very much a blurring the line between reality and fantasy – what is real, what is just the filmmaking – and kind of keeping you on your toes. At no point is there ever a chance for you to breathe and be like, “Okay, I know what’s gonna happen. I get what this is now, I’m used to this.” It’s sort of, both tonally and story-wise, to keep you on edge and keep you guessing; wondering and asking yourself questions.
Could you tell me about your relationship with the Borderline Films team?
I met Josh Mond a few years ago, while he was editing James White. They needed some help and I spent a couple of months editing with him, and we became fast friends. And Tony [Antonio Campos] and Sean [Durkin] , I was just working with all of them so intimately and they were at a point where they were sort of looking for younger filmmakers – after having done all of their first movies, they now wanted to find younger filmmakers to kind of do what people like Ted Hope had done for them and foster careers of younger filmmakers. Josh asked me if I had a script, and I was sort of in the preliminary stages of coming up with Eyes. It was a movie that, within their sort of model of indie film, made a lot of sense. It was one location, it was not a lot of characters; it was kind of easy to produce, in that sense. They were drawn to the fact that I was doing a genre film [where] the actual themes of the movie were grounded in reality; it’s a movie about loneliness.
They were super, super supportive and basically taught me to be very specific with what I want, what I’m trying to do, and helped me do that as best as I could. And I think that each one of the three has a unique perspective and taste on things, and together I couldn’t ask for a better support system; people did give criticism. I respected them as filmmakers before I started working with them, and then even more after working with them now.
This film thrives on only little visual glimpses of violence and, instead, the horrors of the sound design. Was there ever a temptation to veer towards a more explicit bloodbath?
Not really. My reference was always Takashi Miike’s Audition, [where] the finale of it is a really, really gruesome scene that people can’t handle, but you don’t actually see anything on screen. To me, it was all about [how] the audience is better at scaring themselves than I am. I think whatever image you craft for yourself is far scarier than anything I could have shown. But there’s also the element of if I show you something, you can close your eyes or look away, but if I just give you one piece of the information, your brain puts that image in your head whether you like it or not. And now you’re asking yourself what’s happening, and then as you start to answer that question, you wish you had never asked it in the first place.
I think it was about letting the horror be from the audience. There’s nothing overtly scary in Eyes if you were to put it on mute. I think it’s just giving you enough information to fill in the gaps in your head and wish you hadn’t.
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