Some filmmakers make a handful of movies before their filmmaking vision becomes clear. In the case of newcomer Nicolas Pesce, the vision is clear from the get-go. His debut feature, “The Eyes of My Mother,” a minimalist black-and-white horror film that premiered in Sundance’s NEXT section last month, tells the eerie story of a woman who grows up on a farm, where she keeps various prisoners in her barn for years at a time while developing various killer habits, and contains a number of shocking moments along with a sense of quiet, atmospheric dread. Audiences couldn’t stop talking about it.
While the film has yet to find U.S. distribution, Pesce’s career is already off to a good start. “The Eyes of My Mother” was the first feature presented by Borderline Films, the collective comprised of filmmakers Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), Antonio Campos (“Christine”) and Josh Mond (“James White”). At Sundance, Pesce dropped by the Indiewire condo to reflect on his inspiration for his first feature and how the Borderline team helped him realize it.
I was raised on “The Twilight Zone,” Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Brian DePalma — that sort of sexy thriller with horror elements. My parents loved that shit. They never had a filter with me about what I was watching and how old I was versus the content that I was watching. I always gravitated towards that moodier stuff. As I got older, I got into David Lynch. “The Ring” came out when I was in middle school and I could not think about watching that movie. It seemed far too scary for me. After I went to film school, I thought I’d seen every single movie that existed and it was kind of a bummer. Then I realized there was this whole section of movies that I hadn’t ever really dived into before. I went back as an adult and watched all the horror movies that had scared me in middle school. They were shitty. But then, [Borderline Films co-founder] Antonio Campos was like, “You’ve got to watch Takashi Miike and Michael Haneke.” Tony introduced me to all these foreign genre filmmakers that were doing a more artful, tasteful takes on genre films and people were responding to them.
I’ve been very fortunate that the Borderline guys has welcomed me into their family. This whole experience has been absolutely insane. The week before Sundance, we finished the movie, so I’d been spending a lot of time in dark rooms.
When I graduated from NYU in 2011, I just started hustling. I was doing music videos. I would do as many as I could to pay my rent. Jake Wasserman, who was a producer on my movie — and also a producer on “James White” — was a buddy of mine from film school and my close friend. He called me up and was like, “They’re looking for someone to sit with Josh [Mond] and edit with him until they find a full-time editor.” I’m not really an editor, so to be honest, I actually said no. I didn’t want to fuck up someone else’s movie. Then Sean Durkin called me up and was like, “Listen, from what I heard from Jake, I think you and Josh would get along really well right now. Josh needs someone who can help him with this movie.” I was supposed to go in for five days, and within first hour we hit it off and ended up working together for a few weeks. Josh and I wanted to continue working together and he asked me if I had a movie I was dreaming to make and I was.
This movie is outrageous. I recognize that. My attitude was always, “No matter who helps me, I’m gonna make this.” The Borderline guys read every single draft of the script, they watched every daily after every single day of shooting, they were in the editing room with me. We always said we felt like we were in a band. So much time as a filmmaker is spent by yourself — writing and editing and talking to yourself and thinking. Being with other people and getting to make the stuff together is what’s exciting about it.
I think storytelling is hugely important in filmmaking, but that’s only one aspect of it. As an audience member, I love that if you can tell an interesting story that keeps people on their toes and keeps people asking questions and then in addition create this other layer of atmospheric mood manipulation, it’s like a magic trick. If I do my job correctly, you don’t know how you feel when the movie’s done, but you know you felt something, and the fact that you can’t pinpoint how you felt is fascinating. I will never forget the first time I saw “Mulholland Drive” or “Pink Flamingos” and my mind was blown.
Hopefully, this movie has moments where you’re lost in this woman’s life and you forget about all the things that she’s done, because she is just a lonely girl. Part of the reason why the movie is so quiet is because I want you to give you space to sit there and sympathize with her, then see her kidnap a baby or whatever. Your attitude of sympathy towards her is confusing because you think she shouldn’t do that. I just have to knock the ball into the air and you do the rest. I don’t have to show you any of the violence or make it gory. You connect the dots in your head and make it far worse than anything I could have done on screen.
People are darker than they think they are. I was actually talking to someone last night and he said to me, “I can’t believe you showed her stabbing that dude so many times. I will never get the image of the knife going into that dude’s stomach out of my head,” and I said, “You never saw that image.” That, to me, is fascinating.
I like to mess with people. I like to scare them and make them think darker. It’s also that I’m attracted to the inherent drama that goes along with that. It’s not just about fucking around with people and making them feel weird.
I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to be a director. Getting into Sundance feels equal parts appropriate and absolutely crazy…I keep saying to my producers that I don’t know what I would have done if I came here without an agent and a publisher and a manager.
There are people my age who grew up loving Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter and all that shit, because our parents loved those movies when they were teenagers. I want to go back to that. And David Cronenberg. I look at Cronenberg’s career and I like his trajectory. He made these weird fucking movies and got away with it. There’s a way to make weird movies that are always good and genre-heavy, but not only for people who like that genre. I hope that “Eyes” isn’t only seen by horror fans, but the same people who had gone to see “Psycho” before they realized what it is.