Keeping a movie’s plot a secret is hard enough work in the age of constant surveillance – we already have a sizable chunk of Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie film only from candid set photos. But keeping a movie’s entire existence a secret from the jump? That’s practically a lost art, fallen by the wayside after JJ Abrams’ clover field shocked audiences in 2007—when an untitled, undated, immediately viral teaser kicked off the official trailer launch just weeks before the film’s premiere.
So when the March SXSW premiere of Ti West’s bloody-brilliant slasher X ended with the unveiling of a prequel movie titled Pearl-which would follow XDeadly Granny all the way back to the WWI era – it was practically a miracle that no one knew about it beforehand. Plus, it wasn’t just an announcement: the film, which was shot back-to-back with X, was already preparing for the release. A teaser trailer graced audiences who were patient enough to linger in the final bits of Xthe credits.
six months later, Pearl is tearing its way into theaters on Friday. Where X was an eerie homage to both 70s horror and retro porn, Pearl is a technicolor blow to the gut. The film follows Pearl (a transcendent Mia Goth, who takes her role of X, only without the creepy age makeup) in her early days on her family’s Texas ranch, as she struggles against her mother’s cold German upbringing and sheltered religious beliefs. Pearl longs to escape to a greater fate, just like the girls in the movies she’s not allowed to see.
West continues his deliciously pastiche take on eras from the film’s past, while Goth – who co-wrote the film with West while quarantined in New Zealand for two weeks prior to shooting – this time gets her teeth into her character even harder. Pearl is a good character study; Goth can go from reserved to ferocious at the touch of a button. It is nothing short of dazzling to look at. But like X, PearlIts main achievement is the ability to gain a surprising sense of empathy from those who watch this murderous villain make his way through everyone in her path. The two films reach a remarkable symbiosis, peeling back the layers of their central villain’s past to delve deeper into her psyche.
Ahead of the film’s premiere this weekend — and Monday’s announcement of a third, unrecorded ending to the trilogy, MaXXXine—The Daily Beast spoke with Mia Goth and Ti West about recognizable villains, the Spanish flu, preparing for Pearl’s intense monologues, and how far along the third film could be.
Both X and Pearl are really fun movies, but they’re also so empathetic to Pearl’s character. When she’s older, we see her as discarded; when she is younger, we see her as someone who longs for love and wants to be seen so badly. She’s a killer, but she’s also human. Why was it important to you to maintain that sense of humanity when writing this script?
Ti West: I think with everything you have to consider and care about the characters. If you’re not in a relationship, and you don’t care, then the whole movie won’t do much for you. It just gets messy. Especially in XWhen Pearl was the bad guy, I didn’t want her to be supernatural. I wanted her to be a normal person. If you are an ordinary person then? [her actions are] complicated. If you’re an ordinary person, you can’t vouch for what she does, but you can understand how that could happen.
You love [Young Pearl] because she is ambitious. And the public is ambitious too. You also have to deal with the idea that there is a life ahead of you that is more than the life you have. … That recognizability is key for any movie, just to experience it with the character.
The theme of illness – both physical and mental – is intertwined everywhere Pearl. How did you decide to turn what was happening to you at the time – you wrote the film while quarantined in a hotel room – into a dissection of masking? Both in terms of the literal masks people wear to protect themselves and the figurative masks we use to make ourselves appear normal to society.
West: The short, less compelling answer is that if you subtract the age from the old Pearl to get to the young Pearl, [we] happened to land very close to 1918. So it was very easy to move [the story] to 1918, which was a very interesting year overall, and certainly a very interesting and timely year when we were writing the film. It seemed like the whole world was doing something that people had no relationship with before we started writing the script. We knew it was going to be a story about someone who was isolated despite illness, and who wanted a different life than she had. But to add to that a world war and a pandemic and all this uncertainty – that just felt modern.
But also, to your point, people pretend to be the people they want to be, and that is, thematically, present. … I think people will have a little more empathy and relativity for a character who struggles with isolation [now]because everyone in the world happened to go through it.
It struck me that in the third act of the film, Pearl takes off her mask for society to reveal her true self in grim, horrifying glory. Mia, there’s one long take that was poignant to say the least. How do you prepare for such a scene, both as an actress and a writer who understands this character so deeply?
Mia Goth: I had never done anything like this before, so I was very nervous leading up to that scene. Fortunately, Ti planned the shoot so that it was actually the last scene of the shoot – we shot it on the very last day – so that I went over the rules every morning and every night. I didn’t go to drama school, so I didn’t have the traditional means to break something like that down. I just had all the preparations I did, the recordings we had [so far on Pearl]and all the filming we had on X– I just took everything. I think the fact that we shot that on the very last day, [all of the] emotional baggage I had from the entire shoot informed it all. We did it for the first time and it was a little nerve-wracking because you don’t know how it’s going to go, but it turned out pretty good, and after that we were able to relax into it. We’ve probably done it five or six times.
I can imagine it must take a few hours for the muscles in your face to recover from laughing as hard as in that scene, right?
goth: I was so happy with how that turned out in the end. I was buzzing. It’s actually much harder to shake something off when I think it went bad. It takes much longer for me.
Is it hard for you to let go of Pearl’s mindset when Ti mentions “cut”? Is her mind something you live in during the shoot, or do you drop it off-set?
goth: I felt like I was almost on set all the time.
It wasn’t really something I ever let go or wanted until. There were times when I had to ring around for about eight hours, so I would literally go back to my hotel, sleep, and wake up eight hours later and be ready the next day. It was challenging, but I loved it, and I was so ready for something like this. And I just feel like everything I’d been working on and being involved in led me to this.
In Xwe saw that there are things in common between [Goth’s younger character] Maxine and Pearl, things that drive Pearl’s desire and anger. The prequel links them even more closely, especially ideologically. Yet they strike me as two completely peculiar characters, not innovations of each other. How did you ensure that the synergy was apparent while preserving Maxine and Pearl as individuals?
West: Conceptually, we were talking about Maxine and Pearl as different characters, but the same person. But [we were] writing two different people, who just have the same feelings about pious subjects – they just approach it from different angles. I try not to think too much about subtext while I am [writing]. ….. If you try to write it, you become preachy, and nobody wants that. If it can become an organic part of [the script], that is amazing. And the only way you can do that is if the character is a fully formed character who has their own interests.
Mia, is it hard to switch between those two characters?
goth: The only thing that was difficult about that were the practicalities: the fact that I sat in a makeup chair for 10 to 12 hours at a time preparing for our shoot. [for Pearl’s scenes in X] that day. As for the characters, I treated them very much like two individuals. They shared a similar essence, a similar spirit. But they were their own individual people. And it just so happened that all the preparation and work I did for Maxine would in turn inform Pearl and vice versa.
I need to ask about Pearl’s… flirting with a scarecrow. Was dancing with and kissing a scarecrow a nice break from the heaviness of the shoot? Were you able to laugh on set during the recordings?
goth: I wouldn’t say it’s a laugh on set, but I’d say every day on set is fun. The fact that we can be on set and making Pearl– it was all so wonderful for us. … All the dashing work is done before you get started, so when you’re there, play and explore. You just try to think less and feel it and see if something special comes along.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to pry a little – is there anything you can share about the status of a possible third film in the trilogy? I’d love to see what Maxine did in the 80’s after she escaped the ranch in X.
West: We are all very hopeful. We had a great experience with A24 and X, and luckily we made these two at the same time. There was a prequel whether anyone liked it or not!
West: That in itself was a real miracle. We have now caught up with ourselves. We didn’t make three movies at once. So now my whole “making two movies at once” has completely taken up my life until actually Friday [when the film hits theaters]. And if there’s an opportunity to do more of it, I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to work with Mia and A24 again. Ideas are certainly there. But yeah, we only made two.
That’s something you want to keep a secret, I can imagine. Just like you did with the prequel.
West: That was his own miracle! Every time I think we made it all the way to SXSW and nobody knew [about Pearl]. I don’t know how we did that.
The SXSW premiere of the film was exciting, both as a fan of yours and as someone anticipating X heavy.
West: That’s the nice thing about these movies. It’s such a forward thinking idea to shoot these two movies back-to-back without filming the first. And to be able to keep it a secret and release them is all in the fun and spirit of what these movies are. These movies are cinematic, and they should be fun trips to the movies. … So anything it can give it some bait is nice.
I stayed at the end of X in the theater, knowing the trailer was coming, and seeing the delight pass over the faces of everyone who didn’t know it would be there was pretty spectacular to watch.
West: That made it worth doing. That was the hope, I don’t know if I’ll get another chance to do something like that again.