Nicolas Pesce on Piercing's taboo romance and whitewashing

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Sep 28, 2018, 6:03 PM EDT

Writer/director Nicolas Pesce doesn't want you to get comfortable. With his debut, the bracingly grim The Eyes of My Mother, he earned a reputation for a twisted brand of terror that including abduction, mutilation, and murder. From the first frame of his follow-up, Piercing, Pesce aims to make you squirm. A plump baby sweetly coos, oblivious to her somber-faced father, who hovers above with an ice pick poised ominously above her pink, soft belly.

"So many movies spend the first 20 minutes making the audience feel OK about what they're seeing, whereas I don't care about doing that," Pesce told SYFY FANGRRLS during an interview ahead of the film's Texas premiere at the Austin-based Fantastic Fest. "Throw them into the world and let them tread water until they're with it, and never let the audience be on steady ground."

Based on Ryû Murakami's novel, Piercing follows a family man who has a dark urge to stab his newborn baby with an ice pick. To assuage this deranged desire, Reed (Christopher Abbott) hires a sex worker, plotting to make her the unwilling victim of his homicidal fantasies. But when the enigmatic Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) turns up to his hotel room, Reed soon realizes he's in for more than he bargained for.

The path to Piercing began when Pesce read Murakami's novel while making The Eyes of My Mother. "I'm very impatient, and I don't like to stay idle," Pesce said. "It was very much as soon as we were done with Eyes I was on the festival circuit with it writing Piercing. I wanted to jump into something that had subject matter similarities, but tonally, stylistically it was something 100 percent different."

"I found Murakami because he wrote the book that Audition — the Takashi Miike movie — is based on," Pesce explained. "And when I read the book, it was like this awesome take on a Basic Instinct sort of story. The book is very self-awaringly influenced by western sexy thrillers. I saw subject matter that I had dealt with on Eyes and liked dealing with, but also an opportunity to do something a little bit more playful and a little bit more fun."

These bits of fun includes a sort of slapstick sequence where Reed rehearses what he imagines being the perfect murder, down to miming strangulation, stabbing, and the dismemberment of the imaginary corpse in a bathtub. And that's not even the film's most shocking element. That would probably be the unexpected romance that blossoms between the wannabe killer and his potential victim, as both share a lust for violent penetration. Asked if he sees Piercing as a dark rom-com, Pesce answered, "Yes. It's a love story. It's just really fucked up."

The taboo romance comes from Piercing's source material. But Pesce made some curious changes in its translation to film. The Tokyo-set novel featured Japanese characters Kawashima Masayuki and Sanada Chiaki. Pesce's adaptation is set in an unspecified American city, featuring white actors in the lead roles of Reed and Jackie.

"The book takes place in Tokyo in the '90s," Pesce explained. "But to me, the heart of the book is this fairy tale between these two people. It was important for me to remove cultural expectations from the story, because prostitution in America versus prostitution in Japan are two wildly different things. You go to any country and they're all different things. I wanted the movie to be out of place and out of time so that you're focusing in on the characters and on the story and on the fairy tale aspect of it. It doesn't matter where it is. It doesn't matter when it is. It's this other nether space where your only guidepost is the characters."

"The American perception of what a sex worker is is something that I didn't want audiences to bring into it," Pesce added. "Because I think that Jackie is a very empowered woman who's made choices of her own. It's not this downtrodden girl who was forced into this. I wanted to be very careful to not bring any specific cultural politics to — particularly — the prostitution."

As to his motivations for race-bending the Japanese characters to white Westerners, Pesce responded, "There are two characters in the movie, so you don't have that much flexibility in how much you do [in terms of inclusive casting]. Chris [Abbott] was a friend of mine, and Mia [Wasikowska] was down to do it. And I think that on an indie movie you're contending with a lot of things, like you have a financier who needs someone who's worth something. I think that it was a choice based on character and performance styles and not about race for me."

"I knew that I didn't want to have Japanese speakers in the movie," Pesce continued. "I do not speak Japanese. I didn't want to do another movie that was half subtitled [as The Eyes of My Mother was], because that hurts it in the marketplace. And I again was trying to kind of remove it from the book a little bit and do my own thing with it. And the nature of casting is get the best people you can get."

With other adaptations of Japanese properties like Ghost in the Shell and Death Note facing whitewashing controversies, I asked Pesce if he was concerned Piercing might face similar criticism as it nears release. "I think that it's, of course, a valid thing," he answered. "I think that it's tricky for me when — you know the book was written in Japanese. I read an American translation of it. It's the sort of thing of like you either are taking it wholesale or you're doing whatever you want with it."

"If people feel that it was whitewashed, I'm sorry," he concluded. "I did not do that intentionally. So I think that — again, there's only two characters. So I would have loved to have a more diverse cast, but with only two characters it's really tricky."

Piercing, which co-stars Laia Costa, Maria Dizzia, and Olivia Bond, opens December 7.

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