Not many filmmakers are having as good of a year as Ti West. The writer-director made waves March when he released X, his A24-produced love letter to 1970s slasher flicks. Now, he’s back with Pearl. The new film, which is a prequel set 60 years before the events of X, reunites him with star Mia Goth, who reprises her role from the first film and plays Pearl‘s titular killer. Together, the two films have cemented Goth and West as one of the most exciting director-actor pairs working in Hollywood right now.
Despite their obvious similarities, Pearl is also strikingly different from X. Unlike West’s previous directorial effort, Pearl boasts a vibrant, colorful look that makes it feel, as West recently remarked during a conversation with Digital Trends, like a “live-action Disney movie from the 1940s, ’50s, or ’60s.” The film’s playful Technicolor aesthetic, when combined with its tale of madness and murder, helps cement Pearl as the second great horror movie that West has released this year.
Below, West opens up about how a global lockdown gave him the idea to make his surprise X prequel, reveals what it was like writing the script for Pearl with Goth, and names the beloved Michael Mann thriller that he thinks has the best needle drop in cinema history.
(Note: This interview contains minor spoilers for Pearl and has been edited for length and clarity purposes.)
Digital Trends: You’ve mentioned that you wrote Pearl while making X, but what was that process actually like? How quickly did you write the film’s script?
Ti West: The bulk of it was about two weeks. I say that very specifically because we went to New Zealand to make X because it was peak COVID and New Zealand was a safe place to make a film. So after we’d gotten our visas sorted, been granted our essential workers permits, and had a crew assembled, we were going to go and build all these locations for X. To me, it seemed weird to then just tear all that down and go home when we had no sense of whether we’d ever make a movie again.
We were so fortunate to be there that I had the idea that we should make two movies and just stay in New Zealand. I didn’t know how I was going to convince A24 of that, but I thought, “We can’t make a sequel to X because I don’t want to just have more people show up at a farm and get killed. That doesn’t make sense.” So the question became, “Well, how do we use all the same sets?”
I thought, “Well, we could go backward and focus on a younger Pearl.” At the same time, I was already talking to Mia a lot about Pearl’s backstory because we catch up with Pearl very late in her life in X, and that became the idea behind this other movie I wanted to make. I pitched it to A24 and they were intrigued, but they weren’t quite ready to just make two movies. But then we had to do a mandatory quarantine period to get into New Zealand, so we all had to sit in a hotel for two weeks. I went there ahead of Mia, so I started writing it right away.
Eventually, I said to her, “Let’s do it together.” After that, we’d FaceTime and, for those two weeks, we just cranked out what essentially became the gist of Pearl. We sent that to A24 when we left quarantine. They became more intrigued and, about a month later, they said, “OK, we’ll do it,” which is incredible because they were greenlighting a prequel to a movie we hadn’t even shot yet. But because they did it at that time, we were able to make X informed by what Pearl was going to be. It was really a unique situation.
Mia has a co-writing credit on Pearl. What was it like writing with her?
There would be no Pearl without Mia. To me, it just felt like she had to be part of it from its conception. That was the only way that made sense to me, and it was really cool. I had not written with an actor before, but she already knew the character pretty well and we had already been coming up with her backstory together, so we would FaceTime and I would write stuff, or I would give her things to write about.
She would then send stuff to me and I would put her scenes into more of a script format because she hadn’t really done that before. We would just bounce stuff back and forth, or I would say, “Hey, what kind of scene do you want to do in a movie?” She’d go, “I like this,” and we would say, “OK, well how can we work that into it?” We came up with the film’s scenes that way.
Pearl feels like a riff on a kind of movie that hasn’t been given the horror treatment very often. What sources were you pulling from when you were conceptualizing it?
For me, the main drive of the film was that Pearl is full of wonder and hope and ambition. To me, she felt somewhat childishly naïve, and that made Pearl feel like a Disney movie in my mind, like a kind of live-action Disney movie from the 1940s, ’50s, or ’60s. The contrast between that and Pearl’s psychological journey felt, in a demented way, fresh. It felt like a way for me to take something that was relatively retro and kind of modernize it in a way that I hadn’t seen done before.
The film’s set design is really striking. Everything is just covered in bright pastel colors. In your mind, was that just a reflection of Pearl’s own optimism and sense of wonder?
In a way, but once you start committing to the aesthetic, you have to commit, you know what I mean? You couldn’t half-ass it or else it wouldn’t look like anything. It was weird, though, because we were coming off X, which was a very different aesthetic. So when we started working on Pearl and we started redesigning the sets, I definitely thought, “Oh … I hope this works [laughs]. There are some big swings here.” But, you know, if you’re gonna get wet, you might as well go swimming, and we just went for it.
Pearl is also a character study, whereas X is an ensemble film. It feels like that greatly affected the way you structured the two films. Did the differences between the two just come to you naturally?
I don’t do a lot of thinking like that about my scripts. I usually just have a sense of a story or a sense of the characters, and then I just start writing. I don’t really outline. I just get characters talking to one another and get scenes rolling, and then they turn out the way they do.
I always know the basics of where each movie is headed, but with Pearl, it wasn’t like I took a different approach necessarily than I did with X. It was just about asking, “OK, what’s Pearl’s story?” Mia and I just took it from there. That said, from an editing standpoint, Pearl’s certainly a more straightforward beast because it’s never bouncing around to as many points of view as X.
The violence in Pearl feels very different than it did in X, which leaned into its ’70s-inspired slasher movie version of gore. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
It was just a different story altogether. With this film, it was always about serving Pearl’s psychology and emotions. It’s a more traditional movie than X is, and it’s probably a more well-structured film all around because it’s about a person going through something and less about a group of people going to a place and shit happening. In that way, it tells a more traditional story, but every choice in it was pretty much made just to serve Pearl’s emotions.
Pearl also culminates with what is essentially one very long monologue, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horror movie do before. How did you and Mia land on that as the film’s climax?
I always had the idea that the climax of the movie, which is very showy aesthetically, needed to be a close-up of Mia. The climax had to be about Pearl’s psychology and her emotions. That’s just what the climax had to be. It wasn’t about something blowing up or people getting killed. It was about how Pearl is feeling, and all the roads led to that.
I don’t know why it became a monologue, but I think one day we just thought, “Maybe she’ll just say how she’s feeling.” From there, the dominoes slowly started to fall and we ended up with the monologue that’s in the movie, and Mia kills it. It’s all a credit to her.
The shot you pull off after Pearl’s monologue is one of my favorite horror movie moments that I’ve seen in a long time.
I appreciate that. There were some high-stakes behind that shot. I had seen that shot in my head from the very beginning of making the movie, and it was this really deceptively complicated thing to do. It’s really a credit to Mia and [castmate] Emma [Jenkins-Purro] and how they timed everything out. It was very complicated to do, and I had no backup plan [laughs]. I was like, “We’re gonna have to do this all day, and I don’t know what to do if we fail.” But it’s a credit to everyone involved that we actually did it.
The film also ends on a really interesting note. You don’t ever flash-forward to X or show Pearl again as an old woman. Was it always the plan to end Pearl where you do?
It was always going to end how it ends.
Yeah, and the ending is a big credit to Mia’s talent. I had an idea originally that Pearl was going to open with a freeze frame involving an alligator, which it does, and I thought that we’d have the end credits be Pearl giving a big smile that we’d freeze frame. But then I had this weird idea about Pearl trying to hold an organic freeze frame for as long as she could. I sprung it on Mia right before we shot the scene and she was like, “OK, I’ll try it.”
We only did it once, and I just knew that we got it because what you see is what happened. I didn’t know what was gonna happen before we shot it. I just told her, “Hold it for as long as you can until your face gives out,” and I was just sitting there watching it happen. I saw what everybody sees when they see the movie, and I thought, “This is the perfect encapsulation of how this story ends and what’s still brewing for the future.”
I have just two more questions for you. The first is: What’s your favorite movie you’ve seen this year?
You know, I have seen so little this year. I would love to see The Fabelmans, which just premiered at TIFF. What have I seen this year [laughs]? I’ve seen Top Gun: Maverick like everybody else, which was great. But I’m trying to think what else I’ve seen that was good. A lot. I have one more week and then I can sleep for a minute and, hopefully, get caught up on a whole year’s worth of movies.
Last question: Both X and Pearl feature some of this year’s best musical moments, so what’s one of your favorite movie needle drops?
I like the Send Me An Angel montage in Rad [laughs], which is a BMX movie I saw when I was a kid. That was a very memorable one for me, but [Quentin] Tarantino probably does it as well as anybody. I feel like every movie he makes always has at least one really incredible needle drop. But I’m trying to think of what I’ve seen lately that has a really good one …
Oh, the best one is in Manhunter! The Strong As I Am needle drop in Manhunter when Tom Noonan thinks he’s watching Joan Allen flirt with somebody else, but she actually just has an eyelash in her eye. The way he’s gripping the dashboard while that song plays is so great.
Pearl is now playing in theaters nationwide.
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