Ti West was so eager to get back to directing movies that, a few weeks before shooting his new one, he wrote another one in quarantine and shot it in secret. That was “Pearl,” the prequel to “X,” which A24 releases this week. “X,” a ’70s-set slasher movie that marks the genre filmmaker’s first feature in seven years, premiered at SXSW over the weekend with a surprise teaser for “Pearl” that announced the next chapter in a very unexpected new franchise, and West told IndieWire he had a possible third movie on the way.
“I’m trying to build a world out of all this, like people do these days,” he said in an interview ahead of the SXSW announcement. “You can’t make a slasher movie without a bunch of sequels.”
With “X,” West follows the experiences of a young amateur filmmaking team shooting a porn movie in rural Texas, a production interrupted by the murderous advances of the elderly couple who live on the land. (The film was shot in New Zealand.) The cast includes Brittany Snow, Jenna Ortega, and Mia Goth, who does double duty as both porn actress and — under heavy makeup and prosthetics — the spooky old woman named Pearl, who begins to stalk the crew over the course of one disturbing night.
Goth reprises that role in “Pearl” as the younger version of that character, and West shot the movie on the same set immediately after production on “X” wrapped.
“I came out of quarantine and I was like, ‘We’re already building all of this stuff, it’s COVID and we’re on the one place on Earth where it’s safe to make a movie. We have the whole crew from ‘Avatar 2’ who’s on break. We should make two movies,’” West said, and laughed. “The miracle of A24 was that they thought this was actually a good idea.”
Despite the continuity between the productions, West made two very different movies. “X” is equal parts “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and Mario Bava, and the bloody, stylish chamber piece harkens back to his “House of the Devil” days, as yet another ominous set of circumstances based around one location. West used special lenses and post-production effects to create the grainy look of period-appropriate 16mm film and derived much of the spooky atmosphere from the mysterious circumstances of the setting. “Pearl” promises to fill in some of the gaps, exploring how the cabin where the massacre of “X” takes place was a boarding house during WWI.
West said he drew inspiration from Douglas Sirk melodramas and shot “Pearl” as “a Technicolor, ‘Mary Poppins’ kind of movie,” he said. In “X,” the porn directors attempt to position their work as inspired by the French New Wave, which is West’s way of exploring an era in which international cinema inspired even the lowbrow directors on the margins of film culture. “Pearl” goes back further than that.
“If ‘X’ is about the way this auteurist era of independent filmmaking is affecting people, ‘Pearl’ is sort of about the old Hollywood way that affected people,” he said. “The way in which they enrich each other is all a part of the craft of the filmmaking. I wanted to do something where all of the crafts of the movie were their very apparent charms.”
West has already finished editing “Pearl” and plans to head to Nashville after SXSW to record the orchestral score with a targeted end date of May. Footage from the prequel that screened at SXSW will be included with the theatrical release. The project marks the first franchise effort for A24, which recently closed a $225 million equity investment to fund its strategic growth plan.
“If people wonder what the backstory to ‘X’ is, well, I know all of it,” West said. He was currently writing the third entry, which was a sequel to “X” that explores another filmmaking era. “That one will be about how home video has affected people,” he said. “I’m very proud of these. They’re super different and very out-of-nowhere. You won’t need to see one to see the other but they do complement each other.”
West returned this year to SXSW for the first time since his Blumhouse Western “In the Valley of Violence,” but his last horror movie was “The Sacrament” in 2013. In recent years, West has been a work-for-hire director on 17 episodes of television show ranging from “Wayward Pines” to “Them,” and he started writing “X” on a whim.
“I had an idea, I felt sharp, I didn’t want to tell anybody I was writing it, I just wrote it,” he said. “We set the bar high in terms of what we were aiming for in a small movie and I think everybody really delivered.”