Director Nicolas Pesce’s (The Eyes of My Mother) mines the immersive worlds of Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock (throw in a dash of giallo cinema as well) with Piercing. The narrative, based on a Ryû Murakami novel centers on a guy (Christopher Abbott) who decides to commit the perfect murder.Mia Wasikowska is the escort who may become his intended victim, but fate has a funny way of turning the tables. During our chat Pesce talked about the joys of creating a visually seductive world within an indie budget.
What is the key to creative a visually striking film without it costing millions of dollars?
The key with Piercing was that the world was so specific. We always kind of started from the principle of there’s something about the movie that felt like it could be a game that you would play with two dolls inside of a dollhouse. Their world feels like a dollhouse. Part of that was stylistic and part of it was practical.
I looked at movies like Jacques Tati’s Playtime or Roy Anderson’s movies where these directors build these enormous sets and these tremendously immersive worlds. I wanted to do that and have that feeling, but I also know that we can’t build s**t like that and I look back at old movies where the sets weren’t that good and there’s a charm to that.
You watch old Dr. Who sets where the inside of the Tardis shakes every time they hit a button. There’s a magic and a charm to that I wanted to capture. It’s figuring out creative ways to make the budget work in your benefit. For both of my movies, it starts with a place of very few characters and very few locations. There’s only four locations in Piercing, and each one is one room. And so the sets were relatively easy to build and all the exteriors are done with miniatures and visual effects. There’s always a creative, fun way to embrace the limitations you have and that’s kind of the beauty of indie movies.
Can you talk about casting Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska? They seem to be actors who could fit into any era of cinema.
Totally. Me and Chris talked a lot about Jimmy Stewart and how Jimmy Stewart’s performances nowadays are ridiculous but they hold up. There’s something about what Hitchcock was able to tap into that a lot of filmmakers of the 40s, 50s, and 60s (didn’t). There’s a way to do an almost timeless, slightly arch way of performance that, yeah is timeless.
I grew up watching old movies. You don’t realize that they’re old necessarily and you don’t realize the difference between like why a 50s movie looks different than a 70s movie. They just feel like a thing. I grew up with all those textures swirling around in my brain. The stars that stand the test of time are the stars we still talk about. You watch an old Bette Davis movie and her performances still work. It’s about how were they able to bridge that gap. And I think Chris is really, really good at that.
Mia has a quality to her that is uniquely Mia that no one else can do. It’s steeped in tone, weirdness and quirks. I think casting is a big part of that. There’s a lot of actors that are fashionable for a very specific reason for a very specific time. David Lynch is another guy who’s really good at finding people who worked for bizarre reasons. Then you look back 20 years later and (it’s like) ‘oh wow, David Lynch realized Kyle MacLachlan was a star before anyone else did.’
My favorite director is Brian De Palma, and he’s often complained that few filmmakers are actual visualists. You’re one of those rare directors with that skill set. Do you feel that argument is actually accurate?
It’s funny because I very much obviously come from the school of De Palma. The reason why there’s so many split screens are in Piercing is because of him. He’s right to an extent but there’s always been to me two different – there’s a lot of different types of filmmakers but I often over generalize and split them into two categories. Filmmakers who are trying to use the actual form of cinema to do new things with cinema or play with the actual technique of moviemaking. You see it with guys (like) the Coen Bros., Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, I’m obviously listing the greatest directors alive. You see people who have a skill with it.
But there’s also another type of filmmaker that is way more about – the main focus is cutting to the realism and core of life. When De Palma was young and making movies, all the French directors were doing it and you look back and he had disdain for that too (laughs). You go to Sundance – there are movies that look like the directors did not care where the camera was and they don’t care what the movies look like because it’s about the emotions and the performance and the stories. And there are movies where it’s “oh no, I care all about the way it looks.” I don’t think either one is better or worse.
I think that we go in waves where one is more popular. There is something about indie movies that it makes it feel really difficult to do something visual because you don’t have money. That’s always been the fun of it for me. I care about the story and the characters and the emotion of it all, but we’re also making a movie. There’s another half of this that I really want to flex and play with and explore and experiment. Not everyone does that, and that’s not a bad thing. And listen, I think there are people like me and you could probably say this for De Palma these days, not everyone likes the way we do it.
People come out of my first movie for sure and (criticize) that it looks like they cared more about the way it looked and felt than the story. That may or may not be true but the way there are different filmmakers, there are different audience members. Definitely I fall into the De Palma camp but am not quite as (a curmudgeon) about it as he is.
Can you name one film that has inspired you as a cinephile and filmmaker?
I watch Mulholland Dr. at least once a year and always before I start something. It was a movie that as a teenager, it very much . . . it was like “Cool, that is my favorite movie of all time and that’s what I want to do. It was seeing how Lynch managed to bridge surrealism with a movie that could be accessed by a more mainstream audience. He got nominated for an Oscar for that movie. It was one of the few movies that was so, so weird and it worked.
There’s just a magic, uncanny abstract weirdness that Mulholland Dr. will always make me feel and I can’t put my finger on what it makes me feel and that’s such a cool experience. The feeling that I got when I was 15 and I watched Mulholland Dr. for the first time is the feeling that I will forever chase as a filmmaker to give that to someone else. It was the coolest drug I ever took and I’ve never gotten to take it again.
Thank you for your time Nicolas and I’ll talk to you for the next one.
Nicolas Pesce’s next project is Grudge, a reboot of the successful franchise. Audio version of the Pesce interview is below: