Get Your Writing Done Faster with Ti West's Advice to NFS

Mia Goth in 'Pearl'
'Pearl'Credit: Christopher Moss
Horror maestro Ti West wrote the Technicolor nightmare Pearl in two weeks and shot it back-to-back with gritty slasher X. Here's how he did it.

Few directors have released two movies in a year, and the list is legendary—Alfred Hitchcock, with Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. Francis Ford Coppola, with The Conversation and The Godfather Part II. Steven Spielberg, with Jurassic Park and Schindler's List.

Now we need to add horror writer/director Ti West to that list, who uniquely gave us two films from the same horrific universe, mere months apart, with X and its prequel, Pearl. On top of this, Pearl was shot on the same sets, in secret, with star Mia Goth just after X wrapped, and the two flms were edited basically in tandem. It's a gargantuan feat.

And as a fan of West's, I'm enormously grateful that it happened and that he and A24 delivered such a rare cinematic treat. I've loved his work since The House of the Devil, his lower-budget ode to 1980s horror (which he also wrote, directed, and edited). Since then, West has only sharpened his tools. In X, he gave us a fresh take on Tobe Hooper's Texas. In Pearl, he turns the world of Wizard of Oz upside down and allows Goth to shine in an award-worthy performance.

No Film School spoke with West via Zoom about how he wrote, shot, and edited Pearl, and he offers readers advice for getting up on the screen themsleves.

Editor's note: this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I read that you wrote a draft of this in two weeks during quarantine. I would love to know what that process was like and how you pulled it off.

Ti West: Well, writing is—I find it to be a very unpleasant thing. It's essentially just thinking. So you're spending an enormous amount of time thinking and just running up against so much failure and insecurity and vulnerability the whole time. You might start a script and you might have a 15- to 30-page run where you're feeling pretty good about it, but eventually, that enthusiasm's going to hit a wall and the voices are going to start creeping in about, "What are you really doing?" And my feeling about writing is that you just have to power through, because that's just part of it. I think the two weeks in quarantine was a way to be like, "I can't leave this room for two weeks, so there's no better time to do it than now because there are really no distractions." There's truly nothing I can blame it on. I can make use of this time or I could not.

And that didn't make it fun, but that's just what framed it. I would just write for probably three two-hour chunks during the day. And I would FaceTime with Mia [Goth], who was still in the states when I was down there, and we would just collaborate ideas. I just wrote. It was bad one day, it was better another day, it was bad again the next day. And that's just what the process is, but if you keep at it, you'll get there.

And so I just knew. I'd written scripts faster than that before, and so I just knew it could be done. I just felt like there was an opportunity that if I was able to pull this off, and Mia and I were to come up with something that got A24 excited, we really could make this movie, and what an amazingly fortunate situation that would be. It would be such a shame due to laziness to not achieve that. If I wrote a script and it wasn't good, well, so be it. But if we could write a script and we could get it done, then maybe there was a real chance here. So that was very motivational.

'Pearl'Credit: Christopher Moss
NFS: Just out of curiosity, what is the fastest that you've ever written a script?

West: When I was younger, I used to really try to start a script on a Friday and finish it by a Monday. And it wouldn't be like we were shooting on Tuesday, but the whole movie would be there. And then I would spend maybe a week just polishing it up, or adding better descriptions and things like that. But I would really try to force myself to just nonstop do it.

Because I think the most difficult thing about writing is, it's a little bit exercise in the sense that it's not necessarily that hard to do it, but it's really easy not to. And if you could just force yourself to do it, you can get results out of it. I would just always treat it like the thing preventing me from making a movie was lack of having a script, so I should just sort that out. And then it would have to be a different excuse. I used to be able to do that from a Friday to a Monday. I would get a pretty okay draft out of the script.

NFS: You've also gotten a lot of notice for just how beautiful Pearl looks. Our tech editor specifically was really curious about how you achieved that look on the technical side. What cameras did you use, lenses, post-production processes?

West: Well, the Sony VENICE is what we shot on. And we use these MiniHawk lenses, which are a relatively new lens, and they're sort of anamorphic. They're not anamorphic lenses, but they mimic what anamorphic lenses do. And then post—Park Road Post did the color correct. They came up with a LUT that sort of matched, as best they could, the three-strip process to give it that Technicolor kind of look. And then from there we just sort of pushed it as far as we could push it.

All of that matters, but that matters like 15, 20% compared to the 80% that it's just what we put in front of the camera. They are wearing very bright-colored clothes. The walls are painted very bright color. We just committed that what is in front of the camera looks that way. So if you saw the dailies versus the color-corrected version, the color-corrected version does pop a bit more. It is brighter and better-looking, but it's not like night and day, it's just 10, 15%. And that matters. But what was in front of the camera did most of the work.

Mia Goth, David Corenswet in 'Pearl'Credit: Christopher Moss
NFS: I know that you edited the film too, and I'm interested in what that process was like for you, especially after shooting two films back-to-back. Was there anything that you did to prevent burnout or was it easier that it was so condensed?

West: Editing two movies at the same time proved to be very difficult. And so I had David Kashevaroff come in and help on X, because the goal was to cut them both myself. And then that started to feel like, the movies are going to suffer because of that. And Kash came in and he helped cut X. And so we co-cut that, and it was going to be that I would kind of work on X in the morning and Pearl in the afternoon, and that just became too schizophrenic of a way to do it. And so basically Kash and I hit X hard together and tried to get it done. And then I moved on and just did Pearl by myself. And I would've probably done Pearl with Kash, but he had another job. So I was kind of left to be the only one left to do it.

And at the time I was like, "Ooh, that's painful," because I was going from a fine cut, locked-in picture on a movie, back to looking at slates. Back to zero. And so that week of going back to zero was relatively traumatizing and was pretty daunting. But once I got the rhythm going, the benefit of having finished cutting another movie a week prior, I was just sharp. So I was once I just got over my self-pity about it, I was able to very quickly catch up.

Usually if you have your own movies, the best case, you're doing it once a year, if you're incredibly productive. And so to be able to do it a week after was quite painful, but also I was as sharp as I was ever going to be. So I got up to speed pretty quick.

'Pearl'Credit: Christopher Moss
NFS:  You talk about the whole process of making a movie being a trauma. Was there one part of making Pearl that was more challenging than any other?

West: Not really. I mean, cutting X was hard because it's the movie within a movie aspect and there's an avant-garde nature to it that it's kind of experimental, but that can send you down a lot of forks in the road of, we go this way to, we go that way. And that can do that kind of "paralysis of analysis" thing, where you get in your head about it too much.

But no, what I mean by it being traumatic is that it takes a year to two years of your life to make a movie. You have to hyper-focus on it for all of that time. And you're just constantly up against the reality that you may just fall on your face and not achieve what it is that you're going for. And it's like, it's just a lot. And the hours are a lot.

Most people don't know that you're on set for 12 hours and then you drive home sometimes in an hour and then you go to sleep and get up at four and you're right back at it. And are there more difficult things to do? Yes, there are, but it is not... It is very draining and very difficult to show up and be at your creative, your sharpest creative craft standpoint at all times. And so it's what I love to do, but it's very draining to do that. So by the time it's done, you have gone through a lot to do it, and it's a strange experience. So it's what I mean by traumatic is you just have to kind of accept that your life is going to go off the rails for a little while.

'Pearl'Credit: Christopher Moss
NFS: I feel like I have to bring up the fact that you got such glowing praise from Martin Scorsese. So how does praise like that, if at all, challenge you to continue making such an impact in the genre?

West: I mean, it was incredibly surreal to have a compliment like that. I mean it, if you set out and go, maybe I make movies one day to then be in a place where that happens, it's very much like, "Congrats, you did it." And so there's a moment of taking moments to smell the roses, which is really—I don't totally know how to react to it just yet because it's still only so recently happened that it is so humbling. Yeah, I don't know how to react to it, but I'm incredibly grateful for it.

But as far as trying to do better each time, all you can do, I mean, I think that you always have to be trying to find a trajectory to move forward or else you will just move backwards, and generally speaking, you don't want to move backwards.

So that's going back to the trauma thing. You have to force yourself to be like, "The next one's going to be harder." And the idea is kind of like, "No, you do a good one, and then maybe the next one's easier." And it's like, no, no, no, if you make a good movie, the next one has to be way harder, because you have to aim to top it.

Now, you can't necessarily top or predict how people are going to like it. There will be people that will like House of the Devil in my filmography. When I die, there will be that movie that everybody likes versus something else. And there'll be someone that likes Pearl and not House of the Devil. And you can't do anything about that. All you can do is try to make movies that you're excited to make and be inspired to put in the work to do them. But I think, yeah, even with MaXXXine, I'm certainly in no way, shape, or form thinking I'm going to coast through that one. It just will be as challenging as ever.

NFS: Yeah. Very excited about that one.

West: And I hope that Marty likes that one too.

'Pearl'Credit: Christopher Moss
NFS: Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get into horror directing?

West: I don't know if there's anything that's that specific outside of some technical things with effects or something, which I don't think what you're asking. I think in general with anything, it's a matter of—most of the time, the only thing preventing you from doing it is yourself. You could just do it and you may do it and it may not be that great, but you could just get at that out of the way and you could do it again and it could be better.

I think that it's something that you can learn a lot by reading about. You can learn a lot by listening to people, talking about it, you can learn a lot by studying it, but you learn the most by doing it. And I think you have to just get out there and do it. Whether it's writing a script, I mean, you get better. I've written, I don't know, 30 scripts or something. They're better now because I've written so many.

I was able to make X after doing five years and 17 episodes of TV in a row, which I just like my technical ability from being on set was so much better from doing that. So the more reps you put in on anything—even though people like to sit back and say, "Well, it's creative. It should just hit you." I have not seen it work like that. So I think the more you can just force yourself to do things that are scary and difficult, the more you get comfortable with it, and the more you will get better at it.     

You can watch Pearl in theaters now.

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Great Interview.

September 26, 2022 at 2:10PM

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