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Sex, Violence, and Videotape: Ti West and Mia Goth on Their Game-Changing Slasher Trilogy

The duo behind ‘X,’ ‘Pearl,’ and ‘MaXXXine’ open up about how they crafted an exciting, unique three-film run of horror movie history lessons

Mia Goth and Ti West on the set of MaXXXine

Mia Goth and Ti West on the set of 'MaXXXine.' JUSTIN LUBIN/A24

Once upon a time in 1970s Texas, a group of filmmakers traveled to a remote farmhouse to shoot what they hoped would be the Citizen Kane of porno flicks. Only one of them would leave that quaint rural residence alive. Cut to: that same “Final Girl” close to a decade later, when she has not only endured another round of related homicides but has been christened Hollywood’s Next Big Thing. Sandwiched in between this fairy tale’s beginning and ending is the story of another woman who also yearns for fame, and will eventually have to settle for infamy. The 20th century was rough for ladies with showbiz aspirations. Just ask Ti West and Mia Goth.

Over the course of three movies — X, Pearl, and MaXXXine — the Delaware-born director and the British actor have crafted an All-American nightmare that spans from World War I to the Reagan era. Their collaborations together have also made an extremely strong case for them being the Von Sternberg and Dietrich of modern horror movies, morphing into the sort of moviemaking duo that retrospectively seems to be a match made in heaven, or at the very least, Hollywood and Vine. West had already made a name for himself as a filmmaker with a deep love of vintage exploitation cinema (see: 2009’s House of the Devil) and a keen sense of how to use gore and dread for maximum scares. Goth had worked with filmmakers like Lars von Trier (Nymphomaniac: Part II), Claire Denis (High Life), Gore Verbinski (A Cure for Wellness) and Luca Guadagnino (Suspiria) and had a lucrative side career as a model. Together, they somehow tapped into an alchemy that’s given birth to blood-splattered visions of movie stardom by any means necessary.

Sitting side by side on a Zoom call, West and Goth seem like they might be a couple of old college friends getting together for a cup of coffee. Then they begin talking about convincing A24 to let them shoot a grungy throwback to Forty-Deuce grindhouse pulp — in which Goth will play both an aspiring starlet and a nonagenarian maniac — back to back with 1950s Technicolor melodrama marinated in Caro syrup, and you remember that these two artists somehow turned a trio of cult films into a crossover phenomenon. The two opened up about the process of making all three movies, how they work so well as a team, why Goth needed to cowrite Pearl, the art of recreating the 1980s without turning into nostalgia-bait, and a lot more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you both first become aware of each other’s work?

Mia Goth: I watched House of the Devil I want to say… 10 years ago? That’s one of my favorite movies, so I’ve known about Ti for a while. And then in 2020, we met and got on really well. We had a long Zoom chat and just hit it off. The rest is history after that.

Ti West: I would say that Nymphomaniac is probably where I first became aware of you. And then I had seen High Life and Suspiria maybe within a year of when we started casting this movie. When you start to make a movie, you have certain people in mind, and your casting director will send you a whole big list of names. Mia was at the top of that list; I think you were the second person I met because you were in London and there was a big time difference, or you would have been the first. We had a very long chat about the movie on Zoom, and then it was: Well, there’s this long list of other people I’m supposed to talk to, but why? There’s no reason to now. We were already in sync on what we were trying to do with X.

The idea of having one actor play both of those roles in X was there from the get go?

TW: It was there from the beginning, yeah. But I didn’t tell anyone about it.


TW: Because I didn’t know if we could pull it off. I mean, look, the first question I asked anyone who was being considered for any part in X was always: Why the hell do you want to be in this? Because on paper, it’s a pretty fucking wild movie. Some people were like, “How dare you even send this script to me!?” Even for, like, a small part or something: “I would never want anything to do with this!” So to have someone who’s willing to take on this character, I was genuinely interested in: Why do you want to do that? Why this movie when there are other projects to work on out there?

And based on Mia’s answer… I’m sure this is obvious, but to have a person play both of those roles is complicated. It’s complicated from a performance standpoint, a technical standpoint, and a special effects standpoint. It’s also risky, because if it doesn’t work, you’re doomed. And so I was cautious of when I would bring it up in the discussion, because I wanted to really feel it out. When I mentioned the idea of playing both roles to her, she just kind of stopped — and I could see like her wheels turning. Then I remember she suddenly got really excited and said said, “I could kill that.” I just believed her. Like, okay, she’s up for the challenge of this.

Mia, when he asked you, “Why would you want to be in this movie?” — what was your answer?

MG: Looking back on it, I actually see — more clearly than ever before — how close Maxine was to me at that point in my life. You know, up until that point, maybe I’d been making movies for maybe eight years or so. And I didn’t feel I hadn’t felt like I had been given an opportunity yet to really prove myself. I was hungry. I was hungry to be on a set and just feel exhausted, I just wanted something that really pushed me, challenged me, completely took me out of my comfort zone.

I was waiting for something like that to come along. I was being patient; I really do believe that things happen when they’re supposed to happen. And then this script came along, and it was scary. Not just in terms of the story — there were things about it that were really intimidating. But the fact that Ti was making it and A24 was behind it, I felt fully supported, I didn’t feel that anything was going to be done in a gratuitous way. I knew I was in good hands.

And then Ti mentioned the fact that, you know, maybe you play the old version of Pearl as well. After he said that, it felt like something I had to do. My answer was: Because this was what I’d been waiting for. I knew that I was ready for it, and that I had enough behind me that I be able to tackle something like this. The days were long and crazy, but I was just so happy to be there, doing all of this.

TW: It’s six hours of makeup, then the day, then you take the makeup off — and tomorrow, you’re the other person. Plus we have to work quick, so when you arrive, we gotta switch on and go. And there was a fearlessness that Mia had right from the very beginning where it’s like, Yeaj, I think we can actually make this work.

At what point did the idea of writing Pearl together come up?

TW: I pitched the basic idea of it to A24, then quickly said here’s how we can do both movies back to back. We use the same cast, the same sets in New Zealand, we amortize the cost — I wanted them to have the sense that this was not just a wild idea I came up with on the spur of the moment. It was actually rooted in a very sensible notion, especially at a time when virtually no one could make movies. A24 wasn’t ready to commit, but they were intrigued. So that I called Mia right away and was like, Hey, I have this idea, only you’d have to stay in New Zealand a few extra months. So if you’re not up for that, then I’m not going to think any more about it, because there’s no point. And Mia, to her credit, immediately went, “Yeah, I’m game.”

At that point, I just felt like we had to develop that together, honestly. Because she was already playing the older Pearl, and this is a lot of stuff that we would be probably talking about while researching the character. I don’t know if we would have gone as deep or if she would have gone off and done your own thing. And they may or may not greenlight it — but it’s not a waste of time, because all this backstory will be useful to playing older Pearl. The goal, however, was always to make both. We used to say to each other, we’re making a second movie. We kept trying to just will it into existence.

So off to New Zealand we went, with a raised eyebrow from A24, and two weeks in quarantine to figure out how to not let them change their mind. “I almost got them on the hook for this. They’re almost crazy enough to make both movies.” [Laughs]

MG: I mean, they didn’t have to give us the green light…

TW: Huge leap of faith. All credit to them for saying yes to this.

MG: They really just left us alone. It was just kind of like being at summer camp, where we could write whatever we wanted…

TW: … And then we just would FaceTime and collaborate and trade ideas, write sections of it back and forth. We somehow got it together. I mean, I knew we had to deliver a script that was good so that they didn’t feel like we were they were getting like swindled into a second movie. But I also needed to show them that we had just moved all of this stuff during Covid to New Zealand and built a replica of Texas there, so it was this choice of: Yes, we could tear all of this down when we’re finished and just go back to being locked in our houses. Or we could make a second movie, for half the price, that’s just as good or better as the movie we just finished. Eventually, they kind of came around to the fact that actually, this is not quite as crazy as it sounds.

Had you envisioned what would become MaXXXine at that point yet?

TW: Well, the joke I had was: We have X. We could call the second movie XX. And then, if we just make it a trilogy, we can call the last movie XXX. [Laughs] So yes, I pitched them all three — it was very much, “We could just keep doing it!” And they were like, “Well, we love the ‘80s movie idea… but why don’t we see how X does first? And then you know, if that works, we’ll go make the ’80s one.” My argument was yeah, but the 1980s movie is better as Part Three. And they’re like, “Well, ok then, let’s see how X goes, and then maybe we can discuss Pearl…” Except, of course, if we leave New Zealand and then try to go back to do Pearl, it’s going to cost us three times as much and we all know at that point it’s not getting made. Not then, not ever. So it’s basically like, we have to just commit to doing the first two films now. And if the second one works, then we make the third one. That was the gamble.

Mia, you’ve talked about how Pearl was such a huge game changer for you — how so? Do you feel like you could have done MaXXXine had you not done that film in the middle?

MG: That movie changed my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another role quite like Pearl again. I do think that second movie is what it is because we were all warmed up by that point. I felt very comfy with everyone. That farm really was my home. So by the time we started making Pearl… I honestly don’t think you could do a performance like unless you felt very safe in your environment. But I had never had that kind of material to really sink my teeth into before, either. I’ve never really had a filmmaker believe in me to the extent that Ti did, to really just let me run off and see what I could find in her. It was the first time I was able to collaborate with my director beyond only being an actor. I mean, you used the words “game changer” — it’s changed my own perception of myself as an actor. Just on every level.

It’s interesting that you ask about this, because the response to the first two movies was incredibly positive. And I think that gave me a certain level of confidence and a swagger that I was able to put into Maxine — that she was able to walk around with her head held high — for the third one. I don’t know if I would have been able to give that sense of ease and belief in herself to Maxine had I not experienced what X and Pearl had been and how people reacted to them.

How had that professional relationship evolved and changed going into this film? And how much input did you have into MaXXXine story, if not the actual script?

MG: I’ve known him for five years now. We’re collaborators, he’s a friend and he knows me really well. So by the time we got to the third movie… I mean, you do direct me, but I would I would say it’s more like putting up guardrails at this point.

TW: Yeah. That’s a good way of putting it.

MG: It was much closer to “Okay, that was too far to the left. Go back a little bit.” And then, you know, then we would both find an angle that fit. He trusts me and I trust him. That’s why it works.

Were there specific things — in terms of 1980s movies and references — that you were each looking at?

TW: Not as much as you’d think, actually. I mean, in terms of style — we’re definitely parking our car in the same garage as some of those great movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s that people liked. [Laughs] But, no, weirdly enough, the ‘80s aspect of this movie was less about referencing or footnoting things than getting the story right for me. It’s more about aiming to be as rich and layered as a lot of those movies were at the time instead of just imitating them, and hoping that by simply by going after that other goal, it kind of puts MaXXXine next to those movies. I mean, I think we have a reference here and there for specific ‘80s style thing, or what her apartment might look like during that period. But it’s far less of an homage to those movies and more about what the character is going through. That’s genuinely how I saw it.

The Frankie Goes to Hollywood needle drop does feel like a direct homage to Body Double — but this is not a pastiche. It’s not Remember the 1980s: The Movie.

TW: [Laughs] Right. Yeah, I definitely wanted to avoid that. I mean, if our Art Department was here right now, they could tell you that we were actively trying to avoid pastels, or anything that was trendy at the time. If you go back to House of the Devil — we ended up making an ‘80s movie before it was kind of groovy to make ‘80s movies again. But really, it looks like a late ‘70s movie, because most of us didn’t have all the brand new stuff. The year may be 1983, but your couch was from 1976.

So I approached MaXXXine in the same way, where it’s like: No people in legwarmers. It’s L.A. so there’s a little more high fashion to the movie than there is, say, House of the Devil. To me, it’s less about making a living, breathing flashback and more about putting you in that world. I did want to make something that felt like a big night out at the movies, with everything from the crazy artifice of Hollywood to the bizarreness that accompanies making movies to the craziness of the kills. We just didn’t want to turn into something where it just feels like we’re commenting on it. If we were going to make a reference, we had to justify it. Like, how do you do a scene in front of the Psycho house but still have it be grounded enough that feels like it makes sense? It’s a challenge, but if we can find a way to make it work, we can try it. That’s the line we were trying to walk with this.

There’s this very potent, very toxic and extremely American combination of celebrity sex and repression that runs through all three of these movies…

TW: I should mention that it’s not like we’re all sitting down and having conversations like: Ok, so what are the subtexts of these three stories, you know? But yeah, that’s all in there. And in the case of MaXXXine, I think some of it is embedded in the weirdness of being in Hollywood at that moment — like the opening-scene monologue, for instance, is a perfect encapsulation of that. Because here comes this person that no one believes in, who then shows herself to actually be very talented, and is still sort of reduced to the person on the other end of, “That was great, can you show us your breasts now?” And you’re like, Oh, my God!

I also think that what you’re saying comes up quite a bit sometimes with Elizabeth [Debicki]’s character, because she’s playing a director and you see how she functions in the movie. But even when I was writing her part, I was always just trying to write someone who’s trying to do something rather than have her be some sort of symbol of everything that’s wrong in the industry and society. When she says something like, “They don’t want you to be in the movie, because it’s too controversial for a porn star to be in a satanic horror movie,” it’s definitely meant to be funny and ironic. But I tried to just put it in a real moment between the two of them, within an actually conversation that a filmmaker would be having with a potential actor. You know what I mean?

I do. But the movie that Maxine is trying to book is a sequel to a slasher film called The Puritan, so…

TW: [Laughs] I mean… there are no accidents here. I’ll put it this way: Nothing is coincidental in the film.

Why do you think this particular trilogyhas hit a chord with so many people? Mia, I apologize, because you’ve said these films aren’t horror films to you, they’re dramas — but these are genre movies that are coming out in a moment when horror movies …

MG: Wait, did I say they weren’t horror films?

You’ve taken issue with that label in some interviews.

MG: Oh, no, they’re definitely horror films! Maybe it had something to do with me suddenly being called a “horror actor”? I guess what I was trying to say is that when I’m breaking down a character and digging into the script and everything during my prep, how a movie is being characterized is really the last thing I’m thinking about. And when I’m filming it, I don’t like to categorize what I’m doing in one way. I’m not trying to give a “horror movie” performance. I just try to give myself to it so it rings true. That’s all.

Thanks for clearing that up. But have either of you thought about why this particular trilogy has resonated not just with fans of the genre, but people who don’t normally seek out “horror” movies as well?

TW: You know, we’re going through in real time. So it’s strange. [Turning to Mia] I mean, I don’t know what it’s like for you, but the amount of Halloween costumes I now see based on something we made up in quarantine — it’s like super surreal. We did a screening at the Vista in Los Angeles a few nights ago, which was advertised as a double feature of X and Pearl. We ended up previewing the new film as a surprise. But when you looked out at the crowd, it was not like one person was dressed up. It was like, a lot of people were dressed up, and from multiple movies! A lot of Maxines and a lot of Pearls.

MG: Yeah, I’ve been in Toronto shooting a movie for a few months now, and people come up to me all the time and show me tattoos of Pearl that they have on their arms. Like, multiple people. It’s just incredible.

TW: I mean, I’m on social media. I’ve seen all the memes. So I know what’s happening. But I don’t have the connection to why they might be popular, because I’m just desperately trying to finish making these things. [Pause] If I had to venture a guess, maybe it’s because all three of these movies are real movie-flavored movies. They are movies for people who love movies. And if you love the craft of filmmaking, performance, cinema, time, whatever your thing is, this is a night out the movies, and we have given you three very different kinds that you can really embrace. Or maybe that’s just what I would like it to be. That’s kind of what inspired the need for me to wanting to make them no matter what.

From Rolling Stone US