One of my favorite movies I caught on the festival rounds last year was Piercing, the stylish and surreal horror/thriller/romance from Eyes of My Mother director Nicolas Pesce. Inspired by the novel by Ryū Murakami (who also wrote the novel Takashi Miike’s Audition was based on,) Piercing stars Christopher Abbott as Reed, an every man husband and father trying to quell his dark desires after the birth of his daughter. Under the guise of a business trip, Reed heads to a hotel and calls an escort with murder on the mind, but when the mysterious young woman (Mia Wasikowska) arrives, she turns out to be just as twisted a character with plenty of her own surprises up her sleeve.
While the film was on the festival circuit last year, I caught up with Pesce about the film at Fantastic Fest, where we had a chance to dig into the film’s singular aesthetic and why he made such a hard left after Eyes of My Mother. The filmmaker discussed the influences on Piercing‘s high-fashion costuming, how he got his second film greenlit so fast, the surprising sweetness in the film, and his approach to adaptation. We also discussed the film’s ambiguous ending, why he loves leaving it on a note of mystery, and how the cheeky final moments came about. Piercing is now in theaters and on Digital and On Demand, check out what he had to say in the interview below.
So, I love this movie.
PESCE: Awesome. Thank you.
I’m sure you get this all the time, but it’s kind of an unexpected follow-up to Eyes of My Mother.
PESCE: Yes, it is. Very different.
Was that a strategic move on your part, or was it purely driven by your desire to tell this story?
PESCE: A little bit of both. I think that Eyes of My Mother is so specific, and being black and white and half in Portuguese, it was … I knew that I definitely wasn’t trying to make only black and white, super stark movies, and part of me, yeah, wanted to do something that was still in the same wheel house but polar opposite. Super colorful, fucked up, but fun, and kind of like play with a different half of my personality.
It seems like the second film happened really fast for you. What was that pitching process like and how did you get the wheels in motion so quickly?
PESCE: Yeah. I was lucky that the financier who financed As My Mother, wanted to keep working with me. So, when I read the book that Piercing is based on while we were making Eyes of My Mother, and I was like “Oh, this is awesome. I want to do this.” And the investor got me the rights, and I started writing. It was the same producers who produced Eyes of My Mother also produced this, so it was kind of just like let’s rejoin the team, and it’s also super contained and sort of easily producible. We were just all eager to make another movie again and the investor made it happen.
At that point, I … The movie is a bigger budget than Eyes of My Mother was, and so we ended up bringing in more investors, but it was really just the ball got rolling with the team of producers that I worked with on the first one and wanted to just make another one, and I’m someone who can’t sit idle for too long, so we pushed forward and did it.
That’s awesome. So I am not super familiar with the source material. What was your adaptation process? Did you try to stay pretty faithful or were you willing to really stray?
PESCE: The book and the movie are certainly different. The story is the same, but the book takes place in Tokyo, was written by a Japanese writer. There’s certain cultural differences between the book and the movie, and in adapting it, I wanted to … The story’s really simple. I mean, it’s very twisty and complicated, but the construction of it is simple.
I maintained that but wanted to bring it into my own world and kind of set it in a city that doesn’t really exist at a time that doesn’t really exist. All of that stuff … What I loved about the book is that there’s this almost fairy tale fable quality to it, and it’s like, yeah. This S&M fairy tale. So I wanted to kind of set it in this … Yeah, another space of time and place, and with that came other certain stylistic decisions. I think that both with Eyes of My Mother and with this movie, the films are hyper-influenced by whatever I’m into at the time, so in this case, I am really into Italian Giallo movies, and that came out in the movie.
You talk about how this is a sort of fictional time and place, how did you decide the look and feel of it?
PESCE: Everything except for the hotel room is all sets that we built on stages so the hotel room is a hotel in New York City that has like … it’s called Maritime Hotel and it has like a very unique vibe to it. I walked in and loved it. We kind of used that as the jumping off point to kind of create these other worlds. Jackie’s apartment is very inspired by Isabella Rossalini’s apartment from Blue Velvet. Then all the exteriors are actually shot with miniatures and so the opening credits all that stuff is miniatures. The end credits is all miniatures, but you can go so far as like when characters are outside the hospital and you see the city and everything, those are all miniatures.
So there’s this sort of artifice to the whole world and I think a lot of it had to do with the characters and the story are … they’re like feigning what they want people to think they are. They’re wearing these personas. There’s this really constructed artifice in their personalities and how they show themselves to the world. We kind of wanted to use that in the design of the film as well. The sets almost feel like sets. The miniatures don’t quite feel real but leaning into that weird uncanny valley it feels so strange because it’s not real but it is. So, yeah, that’s kind of how the world came together.
One of the other elements I love in this movie is that the clothes are incredible. I know it’s kind of a superficial thing…
PESCE: No, I love the clothes.
I love fashion and the costume design, and I really like the way you combine fashion and costuming in this. What was the motivation to make that element a part of the film? It’s so damn gorgeous.
PESCE: My dad is a fashion designer so I grew up with that and he … I always went to work with him and watched him make … he did women’s formal wear, so I was raised in a house with a fashion designer, cared a lot about fashion. As someone who doesn’t like to put that much effort into what I look like, I see movies as an opportunity to get to kind of flex a little bit. Something that I love about so much of Italian cinema is that no matter the story, actors look fucking amazing. So trying to find what would be authentic for these characters but is high fashion and is gonna be iconic. You know, I always think about Richard Gere in American Gigolo, in that suit, and Christian Bale in American Psycho, and that suit. It’s like we need one of those suits for Reed.
So, the guy who made both the American Psycho suit, the American Gigolo suit and Jordan Belfort, who is the real life guy in Wolf of Wall Street, his real life suits, made Reed’s suit. The guy kind of only does one sort of thing, which is a double-breasted wide collared suit. So he custom made that suit for Chris. Then I was in a really big Claude Montana phase and I wanted a Claude Montana dress for Jackie but they are tens of thousands of dollars.
Bit of a budget breaker.
PESCE: Yeah. On an Indie movie you don’t really have the ability to do that, but our costume designer, Whitney Adams, who did the costumes on Eyes of My Mother as well, designed a Claude Montana-esque outfit for Jackie, and then even though I don’t know much about them. So, yeah, so I think that it was a lot about having to do with the artifice but also just like, I like fashion and I wanted to play with it.
I saw this movie first at the North Bend Film Festival first, and the group I was with there… we all walked out thinking it was a really sweet movie.
PESCE: Yeah, it’s a love story.
Yeah, it’s a love story. A bit of a weird one with the extreme violence and kinkier elements, but is the love story what you wanted people to to walk away with?
PESCE: Yeah, ’cause I think that one of … The way I found the book in the first place was it’s written by the same author who wrote the book that that Audition is based on, the [Takashi] Miike movie. What I love about Miike’s movies is they can be the most fucked up movie you’ve ever seen and there’s this bizarre sense of humor and sweetness to it, and particularly with Audition. I tend to find that’s the case in a lot of Asian genre cinema. They blend genres that have no business being together to an awesome affect. That feeling of not knowing whether you’re supposed to cringe or feel heartwarmed is awesome.
We always went into the movie saying it’s a fucked up love story. It’s like two people who want to do brutal things to each other, but in pursuit of trying to do bad they end up finding this really beautiful connection. There’s built into me…. which I didn’t get to do as much with Eyes of My Mother, is I love ’70s campy horror movies and campy genre films. The way you find yourself laughing during awful things is just a really fun experience and I think can complicate what the audience thinks about whatever the violence is on screen.
A lot of people always ask me, “Eyes is so violent? Why did you want to do that?” I think that if you can find a way to bring a sense of humor into it, it kind of softens the violence a little bit. You can go balls to the walls and go hardcore with the violence but if you have this other stuff in there it makes it far more palatable, I think.
(Editor’s Note: Be aware there are spoilers for the rest of the interview.)
What we did not agree on when we walked out, was the ending. We had a lot of debate about the final moments. I’m curious, in your opinion, do you think that they’ll eventually kill each other?
PESCE: We always joked about what happens after the credits roll. How many times do they stab each other before it’s like, whoops, did it too many times. Or does Reed go home to his wife and pretend all this didn’t happen. I think the fun of the story is it’s up to you to determine where this goes, what will become of this relationship? Is she just gonna kill him? Are they gonna keep playing this game?
I think that I love opening things because it lets the audience kind of insert themselves into it. I’m not someone who likes to wrap everything up. I think I want to kick you out of the theater, and have you, yes, sitting there afterwards with your friends being like, “Well, what next?” And kind of like the thought experiment of what the rest of the story is.
We had a lot of fun talking about it. I think it probably reveals a lot about you, what your answer is.
Which is always fun. You end this film on such a cheeky note, what made you want to send the audience out there?
PESCE: The ending was actually a turbulent discovery. The ending that we shot is a version of the ending of the book and a version of the ending of the script but isn’t either of them. We shot the movie in order, so as we got towards the end, we were realizing that what I had written for the end wasn’t as satisfying … not that this is a particularly satisfying conclusion … but it wasn’t a satisfying enough conclusion for these two characters.
There was a louder way to indicate what their relationship now had become. It was something that on the day on set, me and some of the producers and the actors kind of sat down and tried to figure out where these characters had gotten to over the course of us filming the movie. This movie always changes from the page to the camera, but the beauty of shooting in order is you’re building the movie with each other in order so when you get to the end, you’re like, “Oh, what about all this stuff? How do we rectify this stuff?”
So, yeah. So the ending is kind of a hodge-podge of … not a hodge-podge of ideas. It was like a collective discovery between a bunch of us on the film on the day and when we did it we were like, “Yes, this is how we end this movie.”