At a mere 27 years of age, debutant writer-director Nicolas Pesce has crafted a simply unforgettable exercise in fear with The Eyes of My Mother. We loved the film, naming it an “immaculately horrifying vision” in our official review, and praising Pesce’s richly cinematic approach to shot composition, characterisation, and genre.
To celebrate the UK release of this monochrome nightmare, Filmoria Sub-Editor Chris Haydon caught up with the New Yorker to discuss the production, his influences, and what lies ahead. The Eyes of My Mother opens in select UK cinemas on Friday, 24th March via Park Circus.
Firstly, congratulations on the film. It is a remarkably accomplished and confident debut, and a film viewers aren’t likely to forget…
Thank you so much! I really hope the movie has an impact on people, and stays with them after watching!
The language of The Eyes of My Mother is extremely rich and cinematic. Can you tell us about your processes of constructing the film, and how it was lensed?
Yeah of course; I mean, as you can probably tell, I’m a lover of movies. I was raised on very particular styles of filmmaking, namely American Gothic – you know, black-and-white Vincent Price horrors and the like. Those movies were the fabric of the cinema that I cared for most, and I wanted to breathe a lot of that energy into The Eyes of My Mother. Tonally, I was keen to pay homage to works like The Night of the Hunter, Strait-Jacket, and Psycho with this film, but not so much that it feels entirely like a throwback.
My DP Zach Kuperstein (who attended film school with Pesce, and shot all of his previous short films, and music videos) and I would just watch all of these older movies, and try to find key things and themes we could pull from them, or adapt into contemporary ways in order to fit our narrative. I see Eyes as a classical work of genre, albeit one made with new technologies, and modern sensibilities.
Despite this being an American production, the film has a distinctly European flavour. Its isolation and emotional restraint reminded me of Haneke, Polanski, and even German Expressionist cinema…
Totally! It’s funny actually; as a kid growing up in suburban America, my first exposure to German Expressionism came through Tim Burton. His films really sparked my curiosity, and through that I made my way to the films of the European Silent Era. Stylistically, German filmmaking played a huge impact on American Gothic. Techniques like heightening shadow play, character perspective, and senses of space and time. It is such a fun form to play with, and movies are the perfect medium for showcasing visual and tonal contrasts.
A lot of the wider European influence – stuff like Haneke – came from being part of Borderline Films (the team behind Christine, and Martha Marcy May Marlene; auteur Sean Durkin served as producer on Eyes). The guys at Borderline opened me up to the world of modern European cinema. At film school in New York, we’re told it’s all Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard; great filmmakers no doubt, but a big disconnection from the contemporary stuff. With Eyes, I took a lot from what the French were making in the early 2000s, with their wave of extreme horror. Movies like Martyrs, High Tension, Frontier(s); these super nasty, really exciting works of genre, which have an distinct edge.
The film is extremely distressing, and tackles uncompromising subject matter, but there is a real sadness to the horror, too. Can you a talk a little about this?
Yeah for sure. Something that was of paramount importance to us when making the movie was that Francisca (astonishingly performed by young Kika Magalhaes, who has worked with Pesce before in music videos) is NOT a monster. She is not evil, because she doesn’t think what she’s doing is bad. If she knew that her behaviour was wrong, then she wouldn’t act like that, but her life is so sheltered and isolated that she is simply detached from normality. She has this tragic ignorance in thinking that she is doing good things, and that she is in her own way caring. Throughout the film, she has these weird emotional breakdowns, but doesn’t fully understand why, or what they represent. In her process to try and understand, she ends up misinterpreting them and doing something else. Because of how sheltered her life has been, and the trauma she has been subjected to, her experiences are so minimal that it’s simpler to take the worst or most extreme meanings from basic interactions and tasks.
First and foremost, I consider Eyes to be a movie about loneliness; it’s about a young girl who loses her parents and doesn’t know how to deal with that. A person whose childhood is actively taken from her, and is consequently raised in an environment of doubt and sadness. She looks for companionship and can’t really find it, and she goes to extreme – and tragic – means in order to rectify that.
I’ve seen the movie a couple of times now, and even on repeat viewings, the emotional impact is still extremely potent. You mentioned the loneliness of the characterisation; is this amplified by the language barriers, too?
Oh definitely. When I first met Kika, one of the biggest hurdles was that I don’t speak even an ounce of Portuguese, but when shooting, it worked perfectly for the development of Francisca as a character, and her interactions with her family. They pretty much live within a constant barrier; an isolated house in rural America, in which they don’t speak the native tongue, nor do they have the opportunity to feel part of a community. Once her parents are gone, Francisca is quite frankly the only person like her – who has her experiences, knowledge and outlooks. It is so painful. As fucked up and twisted as the movie is, a lot of the stuff which connects with people are the profound elements. They are really tangible. The things she does are horrible and unnatural, but she isn’t acting in this way all of the time. It is a small part of her life, but the inability to communicate and connect is a defining part. If she is constantly unable to talk, or be physical with another person, it understandably leads her to act in pretty extreme and disturbing ways.
Likely one of the key talking points is the monochrome presentation. Was the usage of black-and-white purely from a visual and technical standpoint, or was this something essential to your narrative design?
The monochrome was key to the process of the film, and indeed the experience I wanted it to provide for audiences. Interestingly, when shooting in black-and-white, you get a really heightened, almost dreamlike image, which can change the perspective of how something is seen. We shot all the scenes which take place at night during the day, and all the daytime sequences at night with brightened lights. And when we were shooting day-for-night, we used this cool coloured filter over the lens, and with the principal photography being in monochrome not colour, we had a lot more latitude to be able to mess with different techniques and processes. What we ended up making was something peppered with old-school tactics, but built with new-school gimmicks.
The Eyes of My Mother has played at multiple film festivals world-over since last year. How has the experience of seeing your first feature landing spots at Sundance, BFI London et al been?
Oh man, it’s been both crazy and awesome. I mean, when you are making a movie like this, you know you have something polarising on your hands, and people are going to react in very different ways. I think for any filmmaker, when you are showcasing something like an extreme horror or whatnot, the fear is not wanting the actual work to be overshadowed by the talk of “how twisted” a film is, but equally wanting to make it twisted enough to actually deliver. That’s a super-fine line to ride, but the fact that the artful approach of Eyes, and its emotional palette has been noted by writers and audiences is amazing.
I kind of anticipated the film to play better to the European market than the US, simply because of how American audiences consume horror, but I was blown away by how warm the international response has been. It has played to people who wouldn’t likely ever watch something like this, and has received stronger theatrical releases in both Germany and the United Kingdom off the back of positive festival campaigns. In fact, the run in the UK is actually wider than the domestic run in America. There is clearly a demand for these more unique, cinematically interesting genre films; it doesn’t have to be a splatter-fest or torture-porn for people to think it’s depraved and disturbing. The European arthouse world is full of these deeply sinister, massively uncomfortable films which basically have nothing visually “scary” to offer, and I think that’s why Eyes has found stronger footing away from the United States.
Something myself, and many other cinephiles will appreciate, is the approach to fear your film provides. There are no cheap jump-scares, nor a reliance on gore; rather it renders a harrowing, unshakeable atmosphere. What sort of horror movies do you enjoy watching, and which – if any – filmmakers helped influence The Eyes of My Mother?
I really love the 50s and 60s stuff, like Hitchcock. I mean, Psycho is the very definition of a perfect movie. One of biggest inspirations is David Lynch; I love how he manages to make something so ordinary and mundane feel really unsettling and frightening. David Cronenberg does a similar thing too, and I’m fascinated by these filmmakers who are able to make an audience react to something they don’t fully understand themselves. There’s elements of horror in everything, which is really exciting. I think there are certain emotions that only movies can make you feel – we have no words or expressions to really comment on the way they effect us. Like, I couldn’t begin to explain the things I feel when watching a John Walters movie for example. I know his stuff seems strange, but what is it that makes it so? Forever I’m going to be chasing that process; that potential.
But at the end of the day, I’m foremost a horror fan. I’ll happily watch a shitty horror movie and love it, just as much as a peculiar, arty one. And if a movie has a clever jump-scare, then yeah I’m in. That’s fun for an audience when implemented properly. I think it’s an amazing time to make horror right now. When we were shooting Eyes, movies like The Babadook and It Follows were really gaining traction with audiences and critics on the festival circuit. Films like those definitely shaped my experience of making my movie. I take a lot of inspiration from Asian cinema, too. I mean, guys like Takashi Miike, Park-chan Wook; tonally the film of Asia is so rich and vivid. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room was also amazing, and I think Ben Wheatley is doing some seriously cool stuff with genre filmmaking right now, too.
And finally, we’re most excited for your next project, Piercing, starring the ever-talented Mia Wasikowska, among others. Can you provide our readers with any insight on the film?
Sure thing! The movie is adapated from the 1994 novel by Ryu Murakami, who wrote the material Miike’s Audition is based upon. Piercing is kind of a cat-and-mouse psychological thriller about a guy plans the perfect murder of a prostitute, but when he goes to execute the crime, it goes horribly, horribly wrong. I’m really into Italian Giallo filmmaking right now, like Dario Argento and stuff; those sort of sexy horror movies, and here Mia plays the sex worker, so it’ll provide a very different role for her, which is awesome. She is an extremely talented actress, who can try her hand to anything, so I’m really fortunate to get to work with her on something a little more out there…