‘The Eyes of My Mother,’ quickly raced up the list of my favorite horror movies of the year. It is a disturbingly beautiful experience. It isn’t your typical horror movie. It isn’t PG-13 and it isn’t filled with haunted house jump scares. It works on a different level, it seeps in, it stays with you, it’s sound design manifests horrors. It is a transportive and at times suffocating experience.
Director, Nicolas Pesce accomplishes a unique movie experience by piecing together the mosaic of his horror inspirations. His approach to telling a horror story by means of a family drama, takes us back to a lot of classic cinema premise. It is one of those films that feels like it could have always existed and is just now being discovered. It feels timeless in that way.
This is usually where I would give synopsis. But, much like Pesce himself discusses, it is best to go into with as little information as you can. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, go and do that and then come back and read a great interview with a director that we will be keeping our eye on.
iHORROR: Can you tell me about your main character, Francisca? She is a character with a complex dichotomy, that ranges from absolutely heartbreaking to fucking terrifying.
Nicolas Pesce: That was always our dance with riding that line. You want to hug her but you are terrified of her. Something that was great in the writing process, was that I knew the actress who plays Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) and knew I was writing it for her. So, throughout the writing, I would call her over and we would talk about the logic of the character. Getting to have those conversations and be collaborative from the get-go enabled us, with the dichotomy that was so engrained in Kika, that her character screams that duality.
iH: What was the reason you decided to go with black and white?
Pesce: It came about for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was the world of horror that I come from and am inspired by. 60’s early 70’s American gothic stuff. So, William Castle, ‘Psycho,’ Night Of The Hunter,’ or anything with Joan Crawford or Betty Davis. What I love about that genre is that it’s family drama and character studies. They all use violence and horror to heighten the drama, as opposed to the story being a horror story with traditional horror set pieces. Those films could have been Ozu films with horror things stuck in. I was also trying to go for an expressionistic take on Francisca’s world view. She sees the world as this cold, stark, clinical thing. It’s not a colorful world for her. The black and white, allowed us to do older filmmaking techniques that guys like Castle and Hitchcock used to do to achieve. Visual tones and moods that we don’t do anymore, cause color film doesn’t play with shadow and grey tone the way black and white does.
iH: The guy who plays the drifter, Charlie (Will Brill) was insanely intense. I would love a prequel just about him going house to house before meeting Francisca. How much of that character was on page and how much of that intensity did the actor bring to the character?
Pesce: He (Will) is a good friend of mine. Will is a guy that usually gets cast as a comedian, as a goofy guy. He is very zany and wacky in real-life and I always said to him, ‘you could play creepy so well, because, the clowniness makes it feel creepier.’ So, the kind of line that we were dancing with with his character is that, Charlie could start cracking up at any moment cause he thinks this is so funny. He knows exactly what he is there to do. It’s terrifying in the early moments with him, just how off everything feels. You can’t even place your finger on why it feels so distorted. There is nothing that he is saying or doing that would make you scream ‘Why are you letting this guy into your house! Don’t let him into your house!” Nothing is suggesting at this point in the movie, that anything bad would occur from him. Watching him stand there and be charming is is where the scariness comes from.
iH: A lot of the violence happens off screen. It still feels like a violent movie, the same way Texas Chainsaw Massacre felt super violent but wasn’t. Why did you go that route instead of showing the gory details?
Pesce: I think the scariest thing, no matter what, even if you were in the room with a serial killer is you scaring yourself. We can scare ourselves more than anything in the world can scare us. In moments of real fear, its not even a fear of the actual thing. Its a fear of looking into yourself. Fear is such an internal thing, that it does not exist outside of your own neurosis and worry. So, to me, if I had showed someone getting stabbed thirty-something times, chances are it’s not going to look as good as it does in your head. And even if I had the best special effects makeup artist ever, if I showed you, you could look away once you saw the knife. In not showing it, by the time you realize what is going on, it is too late, you have seen it in your mind and can’t get it out of your head and you are forced to think about it. That, as opposed to being able to remove yourself from it. I don’t want you to be able to remove yourself. It’s like the ‘Reservoir Dogs’ ear scene, everyone thinks that you see the ear get cut off, when its just a pan to the corner of the room. The best compliment I recieved was a guy who came up to me after the Sundance premiere. He said ‘I was with it till you showed a character getting stabbed so many times.” I had to tell him, I actually didn’t show the character getting stabbed. It was sound your own mind. I want the audience to scare themselves and that’s not even in just the violence. Really there is not a lot of stuff that is overtly happening in the film. It was important to me that when there are body parts wrapped up on the table that nothing is discernibly a body part. It’s you that slowly realizes what it is. There are little moments, like where Francisca drinks a glass of wine that is a little too thick for being ‘wine.’ There are all kinds of subtle things that, I want the audience to be actively thinking about it. The process of those thoughts are actually what is making it scary.
iH: At a film fest, a lot of what we saw was a complete surprise. The synopsis was a couple of sentences long and most of us hadn’t seen a trailer. When it goes out for distribution, how much would you want your audience to know about the film to get the most out of it?
Pesce: The best thing that could happen is that you know that its crazy and you nothing about it. In the trailer now, there are certain things that I want the audience to be arrested by. Its mostly because I’m not a big fan of seeing ‘It’s the scariest movie ever. 80 people fainted and we had to call an ambulance after the first screening!’ Cause then you go to the theater and its not the scariest movie you have seen in your life, and there is no reason anyone would have ever had a heart attack and is possibly stupid. Even if it isn’t a stupid movie, you were just lead to believe that. What is difficult with horror and especially one like this, is how its not scary the way ‘The Ring’ is scary or a movie with a lot of jump scares is scary. This film isn’t ‘The Conjuring.’ My favorite experience was going to Sundance and how we built it up as a drama, a family drama. Ten minutes in, people didn’t know what to think. Its best viewed not knowing anything, because part of the shocking qualities is not knowing where it’s going to go. So reviews that give away plot points, will cause the movie to feel softer than if you had gone in blind.
iH: Francisca is complex and a lot of what happens to her could be the reason that she ends up the way that she does. Situations are forced upon her and she becomes this. On the other hand, could it be nature vs nurture or was this just how she would have turned out, regardless of any trauma in her life.
Pesce: You only get a glimpse of her before the trauma. Even that wasn’t particularly a normal glimpse. It was odd. Without the trauma I dont’ know if she would go as far as she does. But, I don’t think she would have been normal. By showing the early memories of her, if her mother had stayed with her, and been able to contextualize the lessons that she was teaching her, Fancisca might not have used those lessons for harm. Without having her mother, she tried to maintain the connection by doing these things that she had done with her mother, but she didn’t have the right context in which to do them. She probably wasn’t good to go from the start, but the trauma definitely propelled her down the path towards darkness faster than it would have otherwise.
iH: Current top horror movies? I understand it’s an ever changing list.
Pesce: ‘Audition,’ ‘Psycho,’ ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ ‘The Shining,’ The original ‘Dark Water’ and ‘The Grudge,’ all the Chan-Wook Park movies. Japanese, Korean and French contemporary horror and black and white 60’s American horror.