After receiving warm critical response during a handful of film festivals, the cinemagoers nationwide will be able to see the black-and-white arthouse take on a lonely serial killer story on a remote farm. The Eyes of My Mother opens in the UK cinemas tomorrow – and we caught up with Nicolas Pesce, the director of the film.
Nicolas Pesce has been making headlines with his film for quite a while – since it premiered during Sundance Festival in 2016. But how did it all start?
“A few years ago I was working with Josh Mond on his first film James White and we became best friends. I was editing it with him and when we got to the end of it, it became clear that I wanted to make a movie. We started thinking about the beginning of what became The Eyes of My Mother,” Nicolas says. “We talked about it and it was set in one location, with minimum characters, so we figured we could make it very cheaply.”
Nicolas already had a crew that he had already worked with on the music videos he did before – and they were keen on helping him. From New York, where he lives, they drove upstate to find the perfect location. Then, they started to shoot, and they managed to complete the project in just eighteen days.
“The crew were ready to work for next to no money, and it happened really quickly. We put this all together, we found a house, started shooting. When we came back, we cut for three weeks and then sent it to Sundance. It was like a whirlwind. It was better that way, I didn’t have too much time to overthink it,” he tells us.
Such a brief production process was possible due to a massive amount of planning Nicolas and his crew put into preparations.
“The film was only placed in one location. There are also very few characters, so there weren’t a ton of moving parts, and we could stay contained to this one house. I had been working with the crew for years, so it’s such a shorthand that they were able to work so fast,” he reveals. “We really planned it meticulously, we shot every shot of a movie as a still before we shot the movie itself, did storyboards and planned everything to a tee so that we could shoot as rapidly as possible.”
His film is brimming with the inspirations from the past century and looking as sleek as Hitchcock’s movies. It was shot in black and white, paying tribute to its influences: American gothic films of the Fifties and Sixties. Nicolas mentions The Night of Hunter, Strait-Jacket and Psycho as his influences.
“As we were looking at the films that it was inspired by story-wise, it’s just occurred to us that all these films were all in black and white,” he explains. “We wanted the film not to feel like we’re simply making an old film, but that we were making decisions that these filmmakers of past decades had made.”
It also turns out that visually, ditching the colours contributed much more to how the story was told and helped the filmmakers to adapt their surroundings better.
“The place where we were shooting was a lush pastoral landscape, very vibrant, and that’s not the world of the film,” he notes. “And this didn’t match how the main character perceives the world. Her world is a lot colder, more isolating, and we really wanted to extract the vibrance out of the background of it all.”
The Eyes of My Mother introduces us to an empowered heroine with the complex personality that we try to understand as the events pass. Why did he make such a particular choice regarding his main character?
“This isn’t always the case, but in America, much of women’s roles in horror films feature the girls topless, running around covered in blood. It’s a waste of good actresses,” he responds. “When I started getting into Japanese horror, the freshness of the female characters was striking, so I decided to take a cue from these films. You see these amazing women that are so terrifying there. We’ve seen a lot of the ‘lonely boy at the farm pasture kills girls’ theme, but we don’t see the female in that character as often. And a female serial killer just by the nature of this is a different thing than a male serial killer, and with that come different sets of motions, and different things to consider. The movie is also very much about motherhood. The desire to be a mother is such a present motif in the film.”
And East Asian horrors ultimately helped with crafting his film, too. He mentions Takashi Miike, one of the prominent horror film directors in Japan, known worldwide for his particular style.
“His Audition was one of the greatest horror movies ever made, in my opinion,” he states. “Besides the use of female villains, there’s a certain tone and a quality to the way the Japanese horror films are handled. There’s a subtler, more artful atmosphere to it, that isn’t as flashy and in your face. It’s more thought-out, emotional and realistic. And aesthetically, there’s a very particular look to the traditional Japanese female killer, with the long, dark, oily hair and chilling gaze. These are the visual things in the film that I took from it, but also these subtle, emotional, artful things that create the atmosphere. Also, Korean horror films are great. Chan-wook Park is an unbelievable director, he’s doing a lot of really inventive, tasteful things of the genre.”
Although no word of Japanese or Korean was spoken in the film, The Eyes of My Mother uses the language barrier as a way of articulating the heroine’s solitude and exclusion, too. The film was shot in two languages: English and Portuguese.
“It’s about loneliness and isolation. The main character and her family are the only ones to speak the language that they do in their world, and early on in the film, the main character loses her parents. She becomes the only one who speaks Portuguese,” he explains. “Having that is so isolating, you’re surrounded by people who don’t speak the same language as you, they sound different, they have different cultural values than you. I think it’s a very harrowing, lonely thing, and it worked for expressing many things in the film,” he adds.
Much celebrated during last year’s Sundance Festival and London Film Festival, the film has brought Nicolas recognition for an innovative take on arthouse horror genre. But prior to that, did he face any challenges while making it?
“Movies are a lot of hard work,” he laughs. “You get so close to it that at some point you have no idea about what you’re looking at anymore, and you have to put so much trust in yourself that what you’re doing is right, even though it doesn’t necessarily always feel the way it should. The movie feels very different to you than it does to audiences. You need to be able to make it and to watch it, be objective and judge it yourself before it’s shown to your audiences – something that’s remarkably challenging.”
Without a doubt, it’s difficult to predict how your audience will feel about the art you present to them – so the differences in his own perception and the views of the filmgoers did bring a couple of surprises.
“Making a movie like this is extreme, and you don’t want the more brutal parts of the film to overshadow the more artful and emotional parts of it,” Nicolas speaks of his initial concerns. “I’ve seen that people do respond to the more human themes. They weren’t as distracted by the violence or the brutality of it all. It’s black and white, subtitled, brutal, and it’s not a typical movie for modern audiences, so I thought I’d receive more polarising reviews. But people saw what we were trying to do, and that was exciting and unexpected.”
Besides the attachment that might get in the way, the independent filmmakers often face issues like financing or organisation, but Nicolas tells us that wasn’t the case.
“There are always challenges, you know, whether it’s financial or in terms of the types of personalities on the set, and the managing of it all. But I had a uniquely pleasant experience. The movie was made quickly, we got into Sundance and it got a warm reception. I feel lucky and spoiled, and there’s a lot of pressure on me now because I need to live up to what I have already done!” he says.
The recognition opens the new doors, and Nicolas is now working on his newest feature film Piercing, which is currently in post-production. This time, he teamed up with Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska.
“It’s the adaptation of a book by Ryu Murakami, who wrote the novel that Audition is based on. It’s also dark and twisted, but a little bit more fun. It’s similarly contained, but it’s very different from The Eyes of My Mother, it’s in colour and in English, and it’s more of an Italian giallo sexy thriller than brutal, black and white horror film,” he promises.