With The Eyes of My Mother, Nicolas Pesce makes the kind of genre debut that makes you not only eager, but anxious to see what he’ll direct next. Starring Kika Magalhaes as a curious but enchanting young woman named Francisca, the film follows Francisca’s journey after she unlocks an unforetold darkness in herself in the wake of her mother’s violent death. To be a bit crass about it, it’s Alfred Hitchcock by way of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and with the help of an equally impressive feature film debut for cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, Pesce creates a gorgeous black-and-white nightmare that’s bracingly visceral, even for it’s restrained on-screen violence.
While attending Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, I sat down with Pesce to chat about the brutal horror thriller (which ended up being one of my favorites from the fest). We talked about why he felt audacious enough to shoot his feature film debut in black and white, making a restrained 1950s style horror with a modern sense of violence, balancing the line between bleak and entertaining, and why you shouldn’t watch this movie if you just had a baby. Check out what he had to say in the interview below.
Why did you want to use the black and white medium and what made you have faith that modern audiences would be open to it?
NICOLAS PESCE: I didn’t have faith that modern audiences would be open to it [Chuckles]. But I was fortunate that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night had just come out and people were seeing that and I was like, “See? People will see a black and white movie.” But the impetus to shoot it in black and white was that I come from –My world of horror is late ‘50s early ‘60s American Gothic, Psycho, Straight Jacket, Night of the Hunter, Bill Castle, all of that stuff. And Twilight Zone, we’re sitting in a Twilight Zone-themed room. So that was always what I gravitated towards, mostly because at the heart of them they were like family dramas and they used violence and horror elements to kind of heighten the emotional stuff that was going on within the drama, but it was really just character studies.
The black and white came initially from just wanting the movie to sort of fit in with that lexicon of movies, but then it also was an interesting element to the mood and the tone of the movie that I felt like – you know, in 1960 when Hitchcock made Psycho, it was not the norm to make black and white movies. He made the choice to do something different and it was playing on people’s nostalgia and what people’s expectations of black and white were. I was very much trying to do that with this movie. We didn’t shoot it on film and we weren’t trying to make it look like we had made it in ‘60s, but I wanted to make similar choices as they would’ve in the ‘60s to sort of do that same – use the black and white to immediately take people out of –I don’t want you to think this is like a Ring-esque horror movie, it’s like immediately putting you into a different world and letting me play more stylishly with the aesthetic to heighten whatever tone I was going for in each moment.
Was it exciting to you, the idea that you can use that classic style and technique but you can also do things now that would’ve never passed the sensors?
PESCE: That’s what the beauty of it is. Using all these vintage or older choices and techniques, but using them in modern ways with the technology that we have; but also knowing that the audiences can handle more. I still very much use the same tactics that those ‘60s movies for the violence, for instance, there’s never any violence on-screen but it feels like it’s on-screen. But my equivalent of the Psycho shower scene is far more gruesome than Hitchcock would’ve ever gotten away with. Being able to kind of lure the audience into a movie where they’re expecting a certain level of intensity, and then being like, “Oh no, no. We’re going way further” it was something fun, and being able to play with expectations. I think that the black and white also helps to not really know when the movie takes place or where it is, and that’s an important element to the story.
I’m always curious, with this being your first feature, about your process getting there. How difficult was your pitching process?
PESCE: I was very fortunate in that I was working with a group of filmmakers called Borderline Films, they made Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer. And I was working with Josh Mond on his film James White and I was editing and we were already working together. At the time, the had already sort of went through all their first rounds of films and were looking for younger filmmakers to now help them do their first movies, and they asked me if I had a movie that I wanted to make. This was when Eyes of My Mother was in its infancy and it was probably far more violent than it is now, and they really connected with a genre film that at the heart of it was a story about loneliness and about a girl who loses her mother and doesn’t know how to cope with that. They thought that it was interesting that none of them are particular horror guys and I was kind of coming at a similar story that they would come at from a dramatic perspective, but I wanted to do it from a more horror and genre-y perspective. And so they helped me put it together, and I had directed music videos before that so I had a crew that I loved working with. It was a blast. I don’t think I’ll probably ever have as much fun as I did on that because it was like summer camp.
It came together relatively seamlessly just because it was so quick. We finished shooting in October, I cut for three weeks, and then sent the movie to Sundance, and then the movie was finished four days before we premiered at Sundance. So it was such an expedited process that I didn’t have –There’s wasn’t any time to be like, “Oh my God! This is all gonna fall apart!” it was just like, “Oh my God! Keep going, keep going, keep going!” And it’s almost out, the movie comes out in like… a couple of weeks [Laughs]. But yeah the Borderline guys were tremendously invaluable to me and really fostered the movie and helped me make the movie that I wanted to make, that probably most people would not have let me make.
You mentioned that its infant version was much more violent, what was the decision-making process there?
PESCE: I think that throughout the writing stages the most important think was making Francisca as human and real as possible and picking the moments where she would be particularly violent, but it was important to me that the film wasn’t a slasher and there was a humanity and sympathy for this girl. The whole movie was a balancing act of making her evil and sympathetic back and forth and sometimes at the same time, so to sort of play with those expectations and just constantly be treading that line.
Were you conscious or concerned in any way that if you’ve got an evil though sympathetic main character with themes of intense grief, it could easily cross the line into wearying for an audience?
PESCE: Yes, and I think that the movie in its own way has a very twisted sense of humor that I take from my love for Japanese horror, and there is some definite really dark but funny moments of the film that, howerver soul crushing the rest of the movie is, there’s moments where you can breathe. They’re fleeting, but there’s moments in that. I think that the movie isn’t for everyone and I know that, it’s not for the faint of heart. And if you just had a child within like the past week you probably shouldn’t go see this movie, but I think that there’s enough heart and humanity in the story that the violence feels different than violence in a lot of horror films.
That’s an interesting thing. I’ve known quite a few horror fans who had children and then suddenly have a very hard time watching horror.
PESCE: Yeah. This particularly put babies in some very precarious positions. But I think that I even see it, as I get older, my tolerance of is like, “Eww, I feel gross.” And I also think that particularly when it comes to –In Eyes of My Mother I think the most difficult thing is that there’s a lot of children in very vulnerable positions, and for parents particularly –I don’t have kids, so I can only objectively look at it, but I think that for parents watching it there’s probably some difficult things that just the idea of it happening to your child is enough to make you not want to think about that ever again.
As someone who doesn’t have kids — I mean of course you have a mother, but what was your motivations tell a generational story?
PESCE: I think it comes more out of me being a son than me being a parent, and kind of playing with the — Francisca loses her mother before she gets a chance to know who her mother really is, and then trying to grow up and try to do right by a person who you never knew is really interesting. I think that to me it’s about fulfilling the role as like a son or a daughter more than it is about being a parent.
The Eyes of My Mother arrives in theaters December 2, 2016.