You are what you eat. For writer/director Nicolas Pesce, all he seems to consume are Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors of horror. He has spent a lifetime devouring the genre, and he’s eager to contribute back to the community that made him. His first film, The Eyes of My Mother, was a rich, black and white human haunting that borrowed heavily from Hitchcock, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Night of the Hunter. Look a little closer, and you’ll also see plenty of William Castle pumping through its twisted heart.
His follow-up film, Piercing is another movie with a lot of other movies on its mind. Takashi Miike might have brought Pesce to Ryū Murakami’s novel of the same name, but giallo was the subgenre that took over production. With direct lifts from Dario Argento’s trusted band Goblin and a very particularly framed ice pick in the foreground, Piercing is looking to reintroduce contemporary audiences to a very specific style of yesteryear.
Christopher Abbott is a loving husband and father who hungers to experience the thrill of murder. He pretends to depart on a business trip but actually rents a hotel room where he can dial-up an escort for the sole purpose of slaughter. The treacherous act becomes more complicated when Mia Wasikowska darkens his door. Violence and mayhem ensue, and both parties trade roles of perpetrator and victim.
I spoke to Pesce just before the Fantastic Fest premiere of Piercing. We talk about how Murakami’s novel fell into his hands, why he chose this to follow-up The Eyes of My Mother, and how he assaults his cast and crew with a myriad of film titles before starting production. We also discuss how to maintain your own style under the weight of such heavy influences. That is a proposition that may not be as hard as it looks.
Here is Part One of our conversation (Part Two will arrive closer to the December 7th release date):
Have you always been a fan Murakami’s novels?
I found him because I love Audition, the Miike movie. It’s based on one of his novels so assume that I was like, ‘Oh, wow! I’m gonna read this book.’ Read Audition, loved it, and kind of fell in love with Murakami. I read Piercing while I was making The Eyes of My Mother, my first movie. Just really fell in love with the book, found that it had all these things that were in my wheelhouse, of interest to me subject matter-wise. But it was an opportunity to do something 100% different than my first movie. It had this like weird, dark sense of humor that I really loved, that I hadn’t really gotten to flex yet. So I was reading that, the investor who financed my first movie got me the rights to the book and we were off.
Do you read a lot while you’re filming?
I don’t but that was a situation where we were up in the middle of nowhere and prep was, at least in the early days of it, was really just the production designer getting the location ready and me like waiting for more people to come up. And the book is 150 pages, it’s like a really quick book. I needed something to do and I read it and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I love it.’ Usually, when I’m working I only watch stupid television so that I can like clear my brain.
Great British Bake Off.
Oh yeah, Netflix just added more seasons for it so- very happy man.
So, you sought out Piercing because you loved Audition, but Piercing is very different from Audition and your film is certainly different than anything made by Takashi Miike.
You were obviously not disappointed by that difference. How did you go about getting Murakami’s book onscreen?
My movies are very heavily influenced by whatever I’m into at the time, as a viewer, and at the time of Piercing, I was really into giallo movies. It is very much Murakami by way of giallo and like how can I make my own take. The book is very much Murakami’s riff on Basic Instinct and he has a fascination with Western thriller cinema. He talks about Basic Instinct a lot in the book. To me, Basic Instinct was kind of like an extension of what every giallo movie was and so that’s kind of the lens through which I translated it.
What I found most effective about the book is that it’s this like really morbid, twisted fairy tale and it’s like, essentially, a love story and kind of distilling it down to it’s simplest parts that I can be loud with the style and have fun with it but maintain the kind of twists and turns that Murakami dialed so nicely.
‘Loud with the style,’ that’s perfect. Obviously, Eyes of my Mother is very stylish too, in a very different way, but this one, I feel like, you’re having a little more fun, playing around with references. How do you manage to bring your influences into a film but also making it your own?
I think it’s really, actually hard to copy someone to a T, and I think that I’ve always found, being such a movie buff, is that you can try to copy things and they’re gonna come out differently because I’m not Argento, I’m not these guys, and I have a different set of tastes and influences so while Eyes of my Mother is very much my like, 50s / 60s American Gothic, it came out of me in a different way than it came out of Hitchcock.
And audiences are probably less familiar with those influences.
Totally. And I think that part of it is also picking worlds that audiences aren’t aware of. So many people on the movie have never heard the word “giallo” before they heard me say it 85 billion times. I think that even if you do know what a giallo movie is, you’re like, “Oh! Suspiria!” and it’s like well, there’s like, a lot more than Suspiria, and Suspiria is actually kind of an outlier. They don’t all look pink and green.
Even when compared to other Argento.
Yeah, and so I think that people are less aware of that and here, we’re in a place at, Fantastic Fest, where the audience is gonna get all the references and they’re gonna know where the music comes from. But in a place like Sundance, people didn’t…people were like, ‘What is this music?’ and it’s like, you don’t know Goblin? How do you not know Goblin? I think for me, it’s fun to write these love letters to these worlds of cinema that I love but, just by nature of me doing it, and doing 40 / 50 years after it was done originally, it comes out differently. I’m a different guy so my tastes… you still gotta trust your own taste even if you’re pulling from references and finding your way through it just naturally kind of makes this own unique thing.
How do you bring your cast and crew on that stylistic choice?
You make them watch a lot of movies.
One of the big ones was Bird with the Crystal Plumage, also Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord was another big one. And then, in terms of the actors, like with Chris, I talked a lot about Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant and how you watch these Hitchcock movies, and especially, to a modern audience, Jimmy Stewart is not a real person. The way he talks, the way he acts, it’s so affected, but at no point does it take you out of the movie, and a lot of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, the old style of acting was going for something different and naturalism was not a thing that they were chasing. It was this very specific effect that guys like Hitchcock crafted so well. That was a lot of the influence in Chris’s character.
And Mia, Mia just kind of brings her own weird sensibility that is imbued with so much tone. She naturally kind of leans into certain things that I think fit so well within all the other shit that I was going for. Looking at a lot of the Italian movies, the femme fatales are a very different brand of femme fatales. You think about Basic Instinct even and Sharon Stone is such a specific type of character. Even on the more contemporary side of things, we talked a lot about the Jonathan Glazer movie Birth. There’s this weird, stark formalism to it and people are not necessarily acting naturalistically but it is very grounded still.
And then a lot of Chan-wook Park, which Mia would give me a lot of great stories. He’s got such an amazing way of, the most fucked up shit is happening and you’re like, “Am I supposed to be laughing, ’cause this is kind of fun?” I think the way he plays with tone was really important on this. It’s kind of like, that’s the hodgepodge- a little Hitchcock, a little giallo, a little Korean.
Piercing arrives in select theaters and on VOD and Digital HD on December 7th.