Over this past weekend, Nicolas Pesce celebrated the world premiere of his second feature, Piercing, at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival (his debut film, The Eyes of My Mother, premiered at the fest back in 2016). While in Park City, Daily Dead caught up with Pesce and Piercing co-star Christopher Abbott, where they chatted about working together on the adaptation of Ryū Murakami’s novel, tapping into the physical comedy of the story, the distinct visual style of the movie, collaborating with Mia Wasikowska, and more.
Congratulations, Nicolas. We talked a while back for Eyes of My Mother, and I've been waiting very patiently to see what you were going to come up with next. This was a completely different experience, and a lot of fun. What was it about the source material that you decided this was going to be your next project? And what was the process of adapting it for film?
Nicolas Pesce: I discovered the author, Ryū Murakami, because he wrote the book that Takashi Miike's Audition is based on. And I love Audition. The novel of Piercing is already written like a movie, and when I read it, it felt easily adaptable. I could so see the movie in my head, and it was the perfect sort of size. There were a lot of stylistic and narrative elements that I'd been looking for.
One of the fun things with the book is that it's a Japanese novel, but it's very referential of American thrillers. It talks a lot about Basic Instinct and the character is aware of tropes of American genre movies. It was fun to play with that in the film. Some things were tricky to adapt; the trickiest was a 45-page section in the book where Chris' character is just literally sitting in a hotel room thinking about his plan. You can't have 45 minutes of a dude sitting on a couch, thinking, in a movie. That sequence became the murder rehearsal in the film, which I think is one of the coolest scenes.
Overall, the movie is very close to the book. I think that while there's more backstory in the book, we've dropped little bread crumbs and hints of everything throughout the movie, too.
Chris, one of my favorite parts were those run-throughs and the pantomiming and everything. I love the fact that Reed feels almost like this bumbling version of Patrick Bateman in a way, which is where a lot of the humor comes from in this film. What was it you saw in this character and how much fun was it to dive into someone like Reed for this film?
Christopher Abbott: Well, with this specific situation, between Nic and his script—which, even the first draft was really on point, concise, and hit all the beats—and I was also lucky enough to have the book to read, which is where you get all the backstory. We hint at a lot of things in the film, but in the book it goes a little bit more into detail of their relationship and why he’s like this. All the research in that way was kind of done for me.
We didn't want to do it like Patrick Bateman, though. It's very scary in a way, when someone is essentially docile, but yet, is a murderer. That's usually how it's described in real life where it’s the guy next door. "Oh, he seemed super cool. He had a golden retriever."
But, the humor is what I was really loving to be able to tap into, and it was as funny shooting it as the end product is. I have never been able to do physical comedy before in that way. It was a kind of strange little ode to all these movies from Jacques Tati, almost like silent film-esque. Both Mia and I dance throughout the whole movie, where things were very physical in our performances. It was very fun to do that.
What was the process for you guys working with Mia? There's such a fun back and forth between your characters, where it’s also a very intimate relationship that we're watching between these two characters over the course of this 36-hour period. Parts of it are almost kind of sweet, but their relationship is still really messed up, too.
Christopher Abbott: It's very sweet. That's what's funny about it. It's quite beautiful in that way. It's a romance that's not even sexual. It's almost like they're kindred spirits in a way. Mia obviously clearly understood that from the get-go. She got the tone right away. Her take on the character is so strange, weird, and so much fun. She was a perfect person to play with.
Nicolas Pesce: So much of the chemistry between the characters just comes from the two of them having a lot of fun together and whether it was dark and they're wrestling or whatever, they had a blast together. I think it shows on screen.
Even though this is an intimate story that you’re telling, much like Eyes of My Mother, it's a complete 180 in terms of the look, the tone, and things like that. How conscientious was it for you to do something that was a complete left turn from your previous film?
Nicolas Pesce: First and foremost, I'm a fan of film before being a filmmaker. I think that the common theme through both movies is my ode to niches of genre film that I loved. Eyes of My Mother is very much my 1950s, ’60s American gothic horror story, whereas this is very much my 1970s Italian giallo thriller.
I wanted to do something different, but I don't think it was necessarily conscious. I knew I wanted to do something in color and in English. I think that the movie just took on a life of its own, and while it's stylized in a very different way than Eyes is, I think it's equally stylized, just different.
It's fun for me to play in these different spaces. One of the best things about horror is that there are so many little niches, that I think in the mainstream space, we get one type of movie. But if you look back through the history of genre, there are just so many different types, and really getting to play with those things, and then also take non-genre influences, too. We were talking about Jacques Tati and we watched Playtime, and brought in things that aren't only genre things and used those techniques. I like that there are certain tactile things of filmmaking that we got to play with in this movie, like miniatures and screens behind all the windows. There are just a lot of fun tools you get to play with in the genre space. The weirder you get, the more fun things you get to play with.
The production design in this movie was a key element, because you're really working in some confined spaces, but you also have to keep the visuals compelling for audiences. Was that a big challenge for you?
Nicolas Pesce: I love design and I love production design. I think one of the coolest things we get to do as filmmakers is build a fake world.
Christopher Abbott: Quickly, also, Nic loves fashion.
Nicolas Pesce: Yeah, my dad's a fashion designer and in my house, every wall was a different color. We had shag carpeting in every room. My house looked like a retro-futuristic Jetsons set in the ’90s. So, I grew up with these wacky influences, and a really heightened sense of design around me at all times. With this movie, I saw an opportunity. Even with costuming—we had Chris' suit made specifically, because that's the exact fit and style we wanted it to be. The designer that made Mia's dress was a very specific designer. It was about the art on the wall, none of it is stock art, its real art that you can see in museums that we got from art dealers.
The beauty of this movie is that I wanted to create a different world. A city that doesn't exist. A place that we can't put our finger on. It goes from the city-wides to a one-room apartment and how do you make that one-room apartment feel just as off and strange and unsettling as everything else? Allan Lambert was the production designer and designed and built all the sets.
It was about finding weird, subtle things to make it feel like a place you're never been before, because the movie only takes place in a couple of rooms. With Eyes of My Mother, it's one location, but there are a lot of different spaces in that one location, whereas this movie we're just in rooms. So the spaces had to be vibrant, lush, and filled with character. I think that Reed's apartment, versus Jackie's apartment, versus the hotel all feel so different and the worlds that they inhabit really inform what's going on.
The fun of sets is getting to really manipulate reality between the sets, and all the exteriors of the city are all done with miniatures. This was a movie where, in order for it to feel like a fable or this dark fairy tale, having all these kinds of textural design elements really heightened it and brought you into the world.