'Pearl': Ti West's 'exciting' origin story for Mia Goth's 'X,' 'MaXXXine' character

·6 min read

Set more than 60 years before Ti West’s X, Pearl (part of TIFF the Toronto International Film Festival and in theatres Sept. 16) gives us the origin story of Mia Goth’s character from the original slasher movie, just as the announcement for the third film, MaXXXine, was made this week.

Set in 1918, the title character, Pearl, longs to be a movie star, but she’s stuck on a Texas farm with her overbearing German mother (Tandi Wright) and her father, played by Matthew Sunderland, while her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is away at war.

Having to go into the city to pick up medication for her father, Pearl likes to make a stop at the cinema. One day the projectionist at the theatre, played by David Corenswet, invites Pearl up to the booth, and shows her French pornography, opening her eyes to a possibly bedazzled life outside the constraints of her family farm. This is just as she hears about a dance audition from her sister-in-law that could move her into the stardom she craves.

Pearl has a lot less of the sort of graphic slasher kind of stuff, and the sexual stuff, and emphasizes more that story about a young woman who you're really rooting...throughout the entire movie,” Corenswet told Yahoo Canada. “Then once you know that things aren't going well for her, you're just hoping that she gets what she wants, which is kind of cool because that maybe isn't the greatest thing.”

“It's hard to watch your own movies as an actor because you don't get to watch it as an audience member, so to have something that went through such a transformative cinematic process, guided by Ti, to see that up on the screen and be able to just go, ‘this is a great film that I'm enjoying watching,’ it's awesome.”

Visually, Pearl is enticing eye candy on the screen and we’ve replaced the 1970s porn aesthetic with vivid technicolor, paired with an alluring orchestral score by Tyler Bates, all reminiscent of movies like Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins and Singin’ in the Rain. It’s those aesthetics and references for the film that really attracted Corenswet to the project.

“When Ti pitched to me what he envisioned for the film, it was all about visual aesthetic and cinematic references, and this core idea of…doing a horror film, telling a tragedy in the shell of a movie musical,...and I love that idea,” he said. “It immediately resonated with me and struck me as a great film that I would want to see.”

“I love watching movies where it's clear that all of the different aspects of film, the visuals and the sound and the music,...each hold their own weight and tell their own story, and it felt exciting.”

Mia Goth and David Corenswet in
Mia Goth and David Corenswet in "Pearl" (Christopher Moss)

'They were both so interested in making something good, which is not always the case'

The projectionist in the movie is the only person who believes in Pearl’s potential, the person who makes her feel powerful. But as their relationship continues, the arc of the projectionist's story has you question whether he’s being sincere, or if he could potentially be a threat to Pearl.

“It's always a great choice to be made, whether a character is introduced as bad and then redeemed in a way that makes you think, ‘Oh, well, maybe he's not so bad.’ Or the reverse, whether the character is introduced like, ‘what a great guy’ and then in the next scene you're going, ‘Oh, I don't know if this is so good,” Corenswet explained.

“It's always fun when you have a scene where if you read it on the page you think, ‘Oh, this guy's conniving and manipulative and has an ulterior motive,’ and then to play that scene with that exact dialogue like you've got the best motivation in the world, and really believing that he's a nice guy who wants to help her out. He's encouraging, he's attracted to her, he thinks she's a beautiful young woman and she should go off and pursue her dreams, and have a shot at being in the movies.”

Corenswet was the only member of the Pearl cast who flew in to New Zealand to film this movie, specifically, with the rest of the cast and crew still at work on X.

“When I'm coming in and I know that Mia [Goth] has been working on it for months, and has been working many hours, long days, I was doubly aware of that and really just wanted to sort of treat it like I was showing up to support her in accomplishing what she needed to accomplish,” Corenswet said. “Same with Ti, Ti had a film that he wanted to make and so I was showing up to help him make that film, and make it as easy as possible for him to accomplish what he could accomplish.”

“I think they were both so interested in making something good, which is not always the case, especially when you've been working six-day weeks for four months, and pre-production before that. Sometimes at two o'clock in the morning you go, ‘you know what, let's just call it,’ and they were really, really committed to making sure that they got the best version of the thing they could get.”

Mia Goth as Pearl in Ti West's
Mia Goth as Pearl in Ti West's "Pearl" (Courtesy of TIFF)

In Pearl, West continues to expand his unique perspective of and complexity with the horror genre, fuelled by Goth’s strikingly committed performance. As Corenswet highlights, what makes this genre a particularly effective space in which to tell this story is that it welcomes the use of “extremes.”

“I think it's giving Ti permission to use the extremes when it comes to images and sounds, and music, the elements that make up the film that evoke the emotions from the audience,” he said. “In a genre like horror there's permission granted to use the most grotesque and vulgar images, and sounds and situations, and there's also the opportunity to have ridiculously silly moments.”

“I think the one piece that isn't always included in the horror genre, which Ti really did a great job of including both in X and in Pearl, is the earnestness, the feeling of hope and of really feeling for your characters, not just, ‘oh, no, they're going to die.’ They're in a terrible situation, they're going to get hurt, but the sort of yearning for the character to get what they want and to be happy, and to be at peace. I was struck by that watching X, where you really felt for Pearl.”