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Exclusive Interview: Nicolas Pesce, director of “PIERCING”, on Adaptation and Body Horror

Friday, February 1, 2019 | Interviews

By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS

Note: An excerpt from this interview was posted in September, soon after the film screened at Fantastic Fest.

Nicolas Pesce’s second film PIERCING feels like a continuation of his singular voice as a filmmaker, however there was an external inspiration for this one. Adapting Ryû Murakami’s novel by the same name, the film brings the Japanese story to New York city, and hones the greater tale into a manageable and swift film. We sat down with him at Fantastic Fest to discuss adapting the novel for screen.

Did you read the novel PIERCING and want to adapt it, or did someone come to you with the project?
I read the book while I was making EYES OF MY MOTHER and loved it. I felt like it had a lot of DNA that I really liked. I had the opportunity to do something with it that is still in my wheelhouse but totally different than EYES. It felt so ready to be a movie. Murakami has a big love of western thriller cinema. He’s a Japanese author, and this is his version of BASIC INSTINCT, and it has all of these cinematic sensibilities baked into it. The investor who paid for EYES OF MY MOTHER got me the rights to the book, and we were off.

There are so many similar themes in both films, in terms of twisted female empowerment and body horror. Was it an odd experience reading that book while making your first film?
Yeah. At the heart of it, it is about these people who spend a lot of time by themselves, thinking about weird dark shit. I often feel that’s what I do as a filmmaker. Especially when writing, you are just by yourself thinking about weird dark shit. It felt like there were these connections between EYES and PIERCING. What it takes for someone to want to kill someone. But baked into the DNA of the story is a way more colorful world, with a weird sense of humor. That was something I didn’t get to do as much with EYES OF MY MOTHER was play with a jet black sense of humor. What I love in a lot of Japanese horror films and genre film is this weird tongue in cheek quality to them, and I wanted to play around with that.

With only two characters in the film, the casting was so important. How did it come together?
It’s actually funny. When I read the book, I read it as Shia LaBeouf and Sky Ferreira. But then Shia LaBeouf went crazy, and Sky started doing movies and she wasn’t that great. [Laughs]. Sorry Sky. But Chris [Christopher Abbott] is a friend of mine and I wanted to work with him. He always plays these schlubby, down to earth, normal guys. They always ask Chris to gain weight or grow a beard. In real life he is a pretty boy. He does Coach ads. There was a night where we were at the premiere of JAMES WHITE, which he is in. He was in this suit, and he looked great. No one ever lets him look like this. It was an opportunity for me to give a friend something that I knew he could do really well, but no one was giving him the chance to do. He got to play the Christian Bale, AMERICAN PSYCHO role.
Mia [Wasikowska] I have always loved as an actress. She is someone who comes with this tone. She changes the tone of a movie, just because of how she acts. I thought that it would be really hard to get her, and it shockingly wasn’t. Because of the nature of indie movies, and schedules changing, and things happening, she ended up jumping into the role three days before we started shooting. Called her up in Australia, she said, “yup, I’ll do it,” and hopped on a plane. She showed up and threw herself into it, and I can’t thank her enough. Chris had been involved while I was writing. He had read drafts. Mia just threw herself into this role which would be super unexpected for her.

“I like making genre benders.”

Does this mean you didn’t have an actress three days before shooting?
We did. And then the actress got hurt, and we lost her. I’m not going to say who it was, because I don’t want anyone thinking of what could have been. But Mia jumped into it. Similar to Chris, no one lets her play sexy roles. She’s always the demure, quirky character. “Do you want to play and S&M prostitute?” And she did. She brings so much to the tone of the movie.
The one other actor in the movie is Laia Costa who plays Chris’s wife. Alia Shawkat is a friend of the producers’, and we were talking to her. She recommended Laia, from VICTORIA. She was hilarious. VICTORIA is very serious and high stress, but in real life she is literally hilarious and wacky. It’s an opportunity to give these people something to do outside of their comfort zone, and let them play around. Chris and Mia instantly clicked. It was fun.

How do you feel, as a filmmaker, about genre as a classification system?
One of the funniest things that happens on Twitter is the debate over whether or not something is a horror movie. That is a battle, but I don’t care. Whatever you want to call it. I like making genre benders. If you can’t decide what this is, that is awesome. I think that in the past, horror has spanned a lot more types of movies than people let is span now. A big influence on PIERCING was italian giallo movies, which are just Agatha Christie murder mysteries, done really stylized. But they are considered horror movies. At the time they were considered horror because there is death in them. I think other cultures define horror movies differently. I think the internet has become really hung up on what is a horror movie. Honestly, it is a really amorphous thing. The line between thriller and horror is so fine. What tips one film one way or another depends. Is PIERCING a straight horror? Absolutely not. Is it a horror movie? Maybe not. I don’t know. I think that me, as the filmmaker, I am less concerned with how it is classified. I always just say I make dark movies.

There are certainly strong elements of body horror in PIERCING. What attracts you to that sort of filmmaking? Do you like watching body horror yourself?
Love it! I love Cronenberg. The idea of a ghost popping out from under the couch does not scare me. That’s probably not going to happen.

Is that not scary because you don’t believe in it?
No, I do believe in ghosts. I just don’t think they work the way they do in horror movies. Whereas a serial killer is a real thing. People kill people. What’s awesome about body horror, particularly in a movie like PIERCING, is what Mia does with those cuticle scissors. It is a really simple thing to do. You know what cuticle scissors look like. You know what your leg looks like. You can draw the line to what that might feel like, more than you can know what it feels like to get your head cut off. I read this Eli Roth quote that you don’t know what it feels like to be decapitated, but you do know what it feels like to get your nail pulled off. The beauty of body horror, when done right, is one of the most guttural fears that I have of harm to one’s body. There is a fascination I have with self-mutilation. [Pointing to my arm] We both have tattoos. I think that is a weird element of self-mutilation, and I find great joy and pleasure in getting a tattoo. I’m getting blood drawn, and having someone scrape a shaking piece of metal on my arm. We signed up for it. We enjoy it. And we are proud to have done this. I think there is something so much more tangible about body horror, compared to other elements of horror. I also really like makeup and special effects makeup. Michael Marino is the guy who did makeup on PIERCING. When Mia was wearing that leg appliance, she couldn’t tell where the appliance started and her own leg started. That’s an awesome experience. I’m clearly not afraid of just showing you the gore. I think people are averse to it because it is hard to look at. But if you are a skateboarder, the shit that you do to your body is so much worse than the things you see in horror movies. Body horror is such a relatable thing.

Deirdre is a Chicago-based film critic and life-long horror fan. In addition to writing for RUE MORGUE, she also contributes to BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., FILM THRILLS, and HIGH DEF DIGEST. She's got two black cats and wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero.