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SYFY WIRE Features

The director and star of 'Pearl' on bringing the 'demented' prequel to life

Ti West and Mia Goth on their 1918 horror origin story.

By Matthew Jackson

Pearl and X are very different movies. Yes, they take place in the same universe, and Pearl serves as the origin story of Mia Goth's elderly killer from the original film. Yes, they even take place at the same location, a secluded Texas farmhouse with an alligator-infested lake nearby. But in many other respects, the two films are wildly different horror journeys, and that's all the more impressive when you consider that the cast and crew had less than a month to transform the film's set into a decades-earlier world. 

"It was strange because we only had about three and a half weeks to turn around the world of X into the world of Pearl, which is not very much time," director and co-writer Ti West tells SYFY WIRE. "We were obsessing over wallpapers and paint chips and things like that. Once you start building it out, it starts speaking to you and kind of telling you where to go with it.

"But it was wild. I mean, forgetting the fact that we just made a movie that looked nothing like it three weeks earlier, it was just strange when you started seeing everyone in their costumes and everything. It was like, 'Wow, we're really going for it.'"

Announced as a surprise reveal at the March premiere of XPearl takes viewers back six decades to 1918, to tell the story of the title character (Goth, who played the elderly Pearl under heavy makeup for X) and her descent into a particular kind of madness. Building on the bits of her life story she revealed in the first film, Pearl casts the future murderer as a young dancer, caught in a boring life on the family farm despite big dreams of stardom. After playing dual roles onscreen in X, Goth took on dual roles again for the prequel, this time serving as both star and co-writer.

"At first, I found it a little difficult because I had never done anything like that before," Goth says. "Eventually Ti suggested that I just put a timer on my phone and just go write for 30, 45 minutes at a time, and that's what I started to do. I found that to be extremely useful, and then I would send that over to him, and then he would implement that into the script and he would ask for certain ideas and things. We really were establishing a really great relationship, and we would FaceTime often, most evenings and we really kind of took it from there."

After the challenge of scripting the film, West and Goth then had to deal with the challenges of making Pearl a distinct film apart from the aesthetic of X, which took inspiration from the gritty early slasher and exploitation films of the 1970s. For the prequel, West wanted a different approach, and drew inspiration from films like The Wizard of Oz and even Disney movies to give a dark twist to the hopeful, over-the-rainbow atmosphere of Pearl's early life.

"Pearl's emotional state is one much more of wonder and hope and ambition," West says. "And that just made me think of this sort of Golden age of Hollywood or almost Disney movies in a way, because you have this somewhat naive character who's living in a world she doesn't want to live in, and she has a fantasy of the world she'd be better off in. That just made me think of this sort of children's movie-type approach."

He adds, "There aren't really demented Disney movies about psychopaths. And so that contrast and that irony, it just kind of made it feel fresh and not so retro."

For Goth, who listed Björk's performance in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark and Bette Davis' iconic work in What Happened to Baby Jane? among her influences for the film, making Pearl was a process of both embracing the new version of the world West created, and drawing on all the work she'd already done for the character with X, just weeks earlier.

"I mean, that's really what you hope for, is that all the prep that you do will eventually lead to you getting onto set and letting all of that go so that maybe something magical will happen that you could never have thought of," she says. "I think that happened a lot during Pearl, and I think it speaks to the overall quality of the film. And the fact that I was able to play Pearl in a much older state of life just ended up being the best prep I've ever had the chance to do for a character really. If I could do it for everyone that I ever played, I think that would be great."

Earlier this week, A24 revealed that West and Goth will re-team for yet another film set in the world of X, this time a sequel that follows Goth's other character from the first film as she heads out to 1980s Los Angeles. It sounds like a very different journey, much like Pearl is a very different journey from X. For West, though, it all ties back to the vision he had when X first emerged: To make movies that make people think about the craft of filmmaking as they watch.

"The series of strange circumstances that led to Pearl coming to existence was just an extension of that," he explains. "It was no longer in the 1970s and it was no longer this sort of Americana indie grindhouse aesthetic thing, but still I would think that people would leave Pearl hopefully having a good time, but also thinking about movies and thinking about how movies affect us, how they affect the character, and how the craft of cinema with a movie that certainly looks like this is refreshing to see.

"A bunch of us in New Zealand turned this around in three weeks and made this completely other different kind of movie, [so when you watch it] you can't help but think about the movie making. And Tyler's [Bates] amazing score, which is 80 minutes of live orchestral music in the movie. When you see Pearl, you're watching a movie. Hopefully, maybe you'll even see it in a theater that's like an old theater and you'll have a real cinematic experience. And that to me, as someone who just loves movies, is a worthwhile contribution, and that made it fun."

Pearl is now in theaters.