I saw The Eyes of My Mother at Sundance this year, and when the film played Fantastic Fest in Austin, I was able to interview writer/director Nick Pesce. Even though I wasn’t able to physically go to Austin for Fantastic Fest this year, we spoke by phone.
The Eyes of My Mother is a black and white horror film in English and Portuguese. As a child, Francisca (Olivia Bond) and her mother (Diana Agostini) are attacked by Charlie (Will Brill) who kills her mother. When her father (Paul Nazak) returns home, he is able to capture Charlie and imprison him until Francisca grows up (Kika Magalhaes). The Eyes of My Mother opens December 2 but here’s an interview with Nick Pesce to tell you more.
What was the process of making your first film, The Eyes Of My Mother?
It’s been a whirlwind. Two years ago now I was working with the guys of Borderline Films who made Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer and a couple other movies. I was working with them on a film called James White. I was editing it with the director Josh Mond. Josh and I just really hit it off. They were at a point where they had done all of their first films, gone onto their second round and done the whole festival thing a couple times. They were looking for younger filmmakers to foster and impart upon them what they have learned. They asked me if I had a movie and Eyes of My Mother was in its infancy. I spoke to them about it and they really responded to the fact that it was a film about loneliness and a family drama that just used these horror elements and violence to heighten everything. They helped me put the movie together and I had done music videos before this so I had a crew that I had worked with a ton of times before. It was crazy. We shot for 18 days and then I took one day off. Then I stared cutting and I cut for three weeks straight, sent it to Sundance and finished the movie four days before I flew to Sundance to premiere the movie. It was just a total whirlwind, super crazy, but it was nice because in having to go so fast, there wasn’t any time to backtrack or second guess myself. We just plugged along and I’m almost at the end. We still haven’t come out yet but almost.
When the buzz for Eyes of My Mother started to spread at Sundance, how did that feel?
I was very surprised. I knew making the movie that it would be polarizing. I guess I was surprised that people actually kind of understood what I was trying to do and understood what I was going for. And actually liked the movie. It had started conversations that I was trying to start. It was definitely surprising and I think that every festival that I’ve gone to now, we continue to get this warm reception. Obviously it’s polarizing. We get plenty of walkouts at every screening and there are plenty of press that says that I’m going to hell and I need to read the Bible more.
Press says that?
Yeah, yeah. I actually got a tweet two days ago that said I should read Ephesians because I’m definitely going to hell, after they saw my movie. Which I loved. [Laughs]
I don’t know Ephesians specifically. What is in Ephesians that would save you?
I do not know. I’m not well read in Ephesians either. But I think that as polarizing as it’s been, for the most part people actually are receiving it well and understanding what I’m going for and taking away from it the more thoughtful parts that I had hoped they would.
Fingernails and eyes are things to which people are viscerally sensitive. Were you intentionally provoking those visceral sensitivities in Eyes of My Mother?
Totally. I have a baby on the bed with a woman with a knife. I think playing with those things that will get anyone but to me, what is the most terrifying parts of the movie aren’t even the eye removal or the fingernails and all that. That’s kind of like the fun, textural part of it for me. I think what becomes real scary stuff is the fabric of her life. As you think more deeply about this stuff and get into her head, it’s easy to break a fingernail. Even though I did that, every time I see that shot, I know exactly when it’s coming, my fingernails hurt every time I see it. Thinking about it now, I cringe. To me, It’s all the things of having your eye removed is, yeah, horrifying. What’s even more horrifying is living in the barn in your own filth with no eyes for 10 years. The bigger ramifications of these smaller violent acts, the actual act itself might be visceral but what stays with you I think is the aftermath.
When you emphasize Francisco’s eating sounds, it makes him sound like an animal. Was that your intention?
Yeah, yeah. I always thought of it as in Francisco’s world, she’s treating him like a wounded stray dog that she brought home and is bringing back to health. She doesn’t really quite fully understand the situation. Yeah, I wanted him to feel like an animal so that eventually, we jump ahead quite a number of years and he’s still in the same situation but has kind of accepted it in a weird way.
Did you have any fun foley tricks for those animalistic eating sounds?
That’s actually production sound. That’s literally him eating steak with hoisin sauce. We use this stuff called UltraSlime on his lips to make it look like he’s drooling. That’s really what makes the smacking sounds.
How did you cast Olivia Bond and Kika Magalhaes?
Well, I used to direct music videos and Kika I had worked with on a music video before I had even started writing Eyes. When I did start writing, I wrote it for her from the get go. There’s just a very otherworldly quality to her, from the way she moves to the way she held her hands, her facial mannerisms that were odd and captivating. She’s still so beautiful so there are a lot of interesting things about her. She’d also just moved from Portugal and barely spoke English. I thought it was really interesting to have the character not only not be able to communicate emotionally but literally have difficulties physically communicating because she speaks a different language. The real tricky thing was finding a little girl who could both match Kika’s otherworldly qualities but also it was really important for me to have a young actress that we didn’t have to shelter from everything. Obviously there’s stuff, like to this day I don’t think that the little girl knows what the second half of the movie is. But when we were shooting her, I didn’t want to have to shelter her from what was going on. Those are her hands stitching the prosthetic. I wanted her to do all that, to find a girl who was young but had a certain level of sophistication enough to be able to talk about the really adult topics and not be bothered by it, which is very difficult but we found her and her parents were wonderful. She’s nine years old and would have real conversations with me and the other actors about what this character would be going through. As a little girl, we’d call cut and she’d be giggling and happy. She was still able to bring what an adult actor would bring to the role in spite of being a young child dealing with some difficult subject matter.
Why did you want to make The Eyes of My Mother in black and white?
It started off as a sort of love letter to the horror films that I love, late ‘50s, early ‘60s American gothic, William Castle, Night of the Hunter, Straightjacket, anything with Bette Davis, all that stuff. Whether the audience had seen any of those movies or not, I wanted to first, right off the bat, just harken back to a different sort of horror film and tell the audience right off the bat where in the lexicon of films I want this to fit in, but I also was going for a more expressionistic take on the style of it. Sort of using Francisco’s psychology to emulate the tone and visual aspects of the world. Shooting in black and white let us do a lot of certain visual tricks and tonal things that we couldn’t have gotten away with in color, that I think helped really add to the mood and heighten her psychology.
There’s of course the 10 year time jump but there are other time jumps in The Eyes of My Mother too. How did you think about narrative time?
Well, it was important for me that the film feels like we’re jumping in an important moment in her life and that we understand that there’s large amounts of story that have taken place in these jumps. I think to me, what the fun of it is, especially with a movie that’s as slow and quiet as this, is it really gives the audience a chance to put the story together for themselves. I really wanted the audience to have to actively participate in the storytelling almost. Like when I jump from Francisca age nine and her living father to Francisca age 20 and her dead father, a lot has transpired in that time. I give you hints but to me, the fun of the storytelling in those moments is letting the audience do the work and try to piece the mystery together itself. And then, being coy with where the actual time jumps are taking place. For instance, I’m a big fan of Park Chan-wook and in both Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, he’ll jump in time and not tell you that he did it. I think that, and I’m trying to do a lot of that in this where you jump in time, you don’t necessarily know exactly where the jump was because where the jump was is not what’s important, but the fact that there was a jump is the more important thing. To play with that unsettling quality that’s in the storytelling, that’s in the tone but also impacts the timeline, never giving you anything to latch onto and steadfastly be comfortable with.
77 minutes is a very lean running time. Did you ever have longer cuts of Eyes of My Mother?
Yes but only by like a little bit. For me, I wanted the movie to be slow and my feeling from the get go was it can be slow and quiet as long as it’s not two and a half hours long. It’s a taste thing and plenty of people, I love Tarkovsky and there’s a not a Tarkovsky movie that’s under three hours, but as a filmmaker, I know that if I had made this movie twice as long it’d be asking a lot of of the audience. I think I already do ask a lot of the audience and I’m not a believer in dwelling in anything. I think that the script was 75 pages and the first cut of the movie was maybe 85 minutes, but it’s always been a very contained, simple sort of short, quick film. That’s just me as a filmmaker. I once heard Woody Allen say he would never make a movie longer than 96 minutes and I think that’d be too long. I have no attention span so I like short movies.
So the longer version of Eyes of My Mother wouldn’t have more plot. It would just take longer to show the same things.
What do you want to do next?
I’m gearing up, we start shooting in five weeks and I deal with similar themes but it’s a very different kind of movie. Playing with the ideas of what would have to happen to you to lead you to kill.
Do you have any ambitions to take on a franchise or do some pre-existing property?
I won’t tell you what it is but this next one is an adaptation. My next few I think are adaptations but I’m eager to get back to the original stuff.