Writer-Director Nicolas Pesce on his exceptional debut.
Nicolas Pesce’s stylish, atmospheric horror/drama The Eyes of My Mother is finally out in theaters on a limited release, following its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Full caveat: this film, which is also included in last week’s column on under-the-radar films to see before year-end, won’t be for everyone. It’s brutal, partly visually grotesque and full of despair. But stick with it for a little while, and the film’s humanity will surface at once. The Eyes of My Mother, which traces the isolated life of a young woman from an early age, is ultimately a film about sadness and loneliness. After witnessing the murder of her mother by a stranger, young Francisca (Olivia Bond/Kika Magalhaes) grows up to be a one of a kind female villain and serial killer, still living in her family’s idyllic farm: capable, creepy, awkward and legitimately frightening.
Pesce, who infused his film with various personal references (anything from his memories of his grandfather to his love of gothic horror films of the 50s and 60s), is a fresh voice in genre filmmaking. I am already looking forward to his next project, which he is already halfway through production on. “It’s another strange, dark tale. I’m keeping it under wraps for now.”
Below is an interview I recently did with him. It’s lightly edited for length and clarity.
One of the things that really excited me about your film in Sundance was its clear and complete vision. It wasn’t just the writing, or the direction, or a particular performance in it. But the film as a whole felt like the launch of an unmistakable voice. How did you pull off something so artistically complete in your debut?
I think that I was fortunate. Before doing this film, I directed music videos, so I had a crew that I had worked with for years. My cinematographer was my roommate freshman year of college. The crew that I was working with, I had such shorthand and they knew my taste. I think that what you see on screen is kind of an amalgamation. All these collaborators were precise in knowing exactly what I was going for. The atmosphere, tone and mood of the film are something that’s very, very, important to me. [We tried to capture] every nook and cranny of this world as precisely as possible.
When you sat down to write this script, did you know exactly where you wanted to go atmospherically? Were you thinking of visuals or sound effect, which is really eerie and a standout in this film?
Definitely. With the sound effects for instance, especially for some of the more specific ones, I write that stuff into the script. Before I even knew what the story was, I kind of I knew what the look and feel of the world was. Then the story was birthed out of that.
Where did this film and story come from?
It all started off as just a love letter to the horror movies I grew up with and loved, like the 1950s and 60s Gothic horror films. When it came to the more gruesome aspects of it, it was things that I think are horrifying, exciting, and scary. Then I tempered that all. I didn’t want to make just a movie that was all about the scares that only worked on that level. I wanted to ground it all in something a lot more human and relatable. Obviously, having your eyes taken out by a stranger would be terrifying. But also scary, if not scarier, is the thought of losing your parents and being alone in this world. I explored both of those in a character that you don’t quite know whether to love or hate.
Can you talk about your decision to shoot on black and white?
The horror movies I love came out of film Noir. Guys like Robert Wise and William Castle and Hitchcock. They were changing the style and tools that film Noir had developed. What appeals to me about movies like The Night of the Hunter or Straight Jacket is the idea that it’s a family drama first and foremost. Then they use the genre elements to heighten the scares and tension. The black and white and the way they use it, the heavy shadows and the more impressionistic takes on everything, really creates this mood that is not achievable in color in the same way. I think it immediately puts the audience into the sort of mindset that I want them in.
I know this is strange to observe and to bring up, but not often I see a film that has such a lean running time. Your film is below 80 minutes but still manages to build such a rich, layered story with multiple set pieces.
The script is only 70 pages. It was always kind of a minimalist piece. As a movie watcher, I think I like short movies. But also, you know, with an intense movie like this, if it were longer it would be overbearing. And yeah, we wanted to keep it focused and contained and this is sort of the length that it fell at. We never had a particularly long cut of it. With this sort of film, I felt more confident in giving it a slower, more languid pace knowing that I wasn’t going to do it to the audience for four hours.
I often keep a close eye on how women are treated in films and whether they are given their own agency. From that regard, your film really wowed me. Yes, she was an emotional victim but she was never a physical victim. She’s a complex villain, which is rare.
Women in horror films sometimes tend to get the short end of the stick. They are victims or they have their clothes off and running around, which gives horror movies a bad rap. I started watching French horror films and Japanese horror films and they have these amazing women villains and female characters that just is a fresher take on that sort of role. We’ve seen the male serial killer in the farmhouse too many times…that feels more Grindhouse-y, more like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I think that when I saw movies like Audition by Takashi Miike, [I realized] there’s an elegance a female villain can bring to a film like this. The story was about a mother and daughter. The daughter, who’s trying to grow up to be the best daughter to her mother that she can be. I think that, to me, was a more interesting take on that sort of character.
Kika Magalhaes is terrific in that role. How did you find her?
I worked with her on a music video. There’s something very unique about her, about the way she moved, and the way she carried herself, the way she spoke. As soon as I had the idea for this movie, I called her up. Before the script existed, I knew that she was going to play the role and I sort of wrote it for her and catered it to her. As I wrote and had new drafts, I would sit and talk with her, and we could talk about the character. She was very instrumental in crafting the role. She’s Portuguese and that’s why the character speaks Portuguese. There’s a lot of her in there.
The side characters are very memorable even though they have brief roles. Will Brill was so frightening that he made me lose some sleep in Sundance.
Each side character sort of brought an entirely new energy into the house. We have the one character that’s consistent throughout, but we get to see how each interaction with someone changes her.
Will is a friend of mine and I’ve known him since I was a teenager. A lot of the cast, a lot of the side characters, were friends of mine and they kind of knew what sort of things I made and knew what they were getting themselves into. Will was a guy who is always cast in comedies. He’s usually a very funny guy, sort of a clown in real life. I always thought that he could play creepy so well doing this Bane sort of tone that he does in his more comedic work and it would just come off as really terrifying. I think that’s exactly what you get in the movie.
Interesting that you say Will Brill is actually a really funny guy. I sometimes feel there’s actually a fine line between what’s funny and what’s really frightening.
Watching the film, I often thought about her status as an outsider when she was trying to interact with other people. Previously her mother was the outsider. I assumed she was an immigrant. So that “being a reluctant outsider” angle was always present for me.
Totally, very much so. A part of it is just the idea of this family that is of a different culture and of a different world. They are stuck and isolated in the middle of this entirely different world and different culture. That just adds to the isolation: the unwillingness to interact with the outside world that feels so different.
Why are they watching Bonanza on TV all the time?
It’s a show that my grandpa was just always watching. When I was growing up, he was just always watching Bonanza and it’s so dry and cold and they had all these things about people talking about death and murder in a really cold, callous way. I thought it would be great for this. At the end, the son is watching House on a Haunted Hill with Vincent Price movie. It’s just a little nod to one of my favorite movies.
Are there any other things from your personal life that you directly pulled into the story?
Oh yeah there’s a lot. I did that eye dissection with my mom. My mom was an eye doctor. Like in the movie, she would bring home cow eyeballs for me to dissect. So in the movie, it’s actually my hands cutting open the cow eyes. There are a lot of little bits and pieces of me, taking these aspects from my childhood and taking them out of context and giving them to Francisca.
Now that you’ve done your debut, I’m wondering if you ever think about what kind of filmmaker you want to become or want to be known as. How would you like people to perceive you as an artist?
I don’t think too much about it. I hope that my film speaks for itself and I think that what I’m interested in as a filmmaker is sort of these darker stories and the manipulation of mood. I think more about the movies than myself as a filmmaker.