Ti West’s inspiration for X, his meta slasher film starring Mia Goth, was the independent cinema of the 1970s. Not just the aesthetic style of 70s horror and soft-core pornography — the plot of X follows a crew trying to shoot a low-budget skin flick in rural Texas only to enrage the Chainsaw Massacre-adjacent farmers next door —but also an indie business model invented by the likes of low-budget skin flick in rural Texas only to enrage the Chainsaw Massacre-adjacent farmers next door —but also an indie business model invented by the likes of original Chainsaw director Tobe Hopper, indie film pioneer Roger Corman and their ilk.
“It was an era where you could make movies independently outside of Hollywood and still have a marketplace and a path to financial success,” says West. Ironically, he says, X and its prequel Pearlalso starring Goth, shot back-to-back on the same set—a cost-saving move Corman would have admired—have become “a weird reverse proof of concept that this is still possible.”
Forced to shift production from the US to New Zealand because of COVID, which added the expense of having to “build a little corner of Texas” for the set, West came up with the idea of turning the project into two movies: a 70s- era soft porn-meets-slasher film and Pearl, a 1919-set horror-melodrama-musical. “If we’d made X and then tried later to make a prequel, it would have cost triple the amount” he notes.
Goth, who has a dual role in X as Maxine, the film’s “last girl” and Pearl, an old farm woman excited then enraged by the kids shooting their porn movie in her barn, agreed to spend another three months shooting the prequel, which explores Pearl’s creepy origin story. She and West co-wrote the Pearl screenplay after landing down under, during their two weeks of enforced COVID quarantine. While making the films back-to-back, West and Goth decided the project needed to be a trilogy. MaXXXinean 80s-set sequel to Xis currently in production.
In a year that has seen a death of indie hits, X and Pearl stand out Released by A24 in March, X earned $11.8 million at the US box office, making it the second most-successful independently produced and released film of the year, behind only A24’s mega hit Everything Everywhere All At Once. Pearl, which A24 bowed in September, grossed $9.4 million, good enough for sixth in the all-indie charts. Not bad for a combined budget of less than $10 million for both movies.
In themselves, indie horror hits are nothing new. Jason Blum has built his Blumhouse empire on low-budget scary movies, from Paranormal Activity to The Purge. Terrifier 2, a micro-budget killer clown film, was the surprise success of the year, earning $7.7 million for Cinedigm Entertainment Group, multiple times its production cost. One of the pillars of the American Film Market, running in Santa Monica this week, has always been low-cost horror.
What sets West and his Goth-fronted films apart is their rich cinematic style. X is a loving tribute to 70s grindhouse cinema, Pearl‘s inspiration is Hollywood’s golden age, with West managing to combine references to The Wizard of Oz and Douglas Sirk melodramas with some bloody ax attacks. The plot of MaXXXine is being kept under wraps but West confirms its aesthetic style will draw from 80s video nasties. These are movies for cinema lovers, not just blood-and-gore-fanatics.
With films like Ari Aster’ Heredity and Midsommar and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, A24 has mastered the art of marketing just this kind of high concept cinephilic horror to both diehard scary movie fans and the more urban arthouse crowd.
For the X trilogy, West and A24 created a guerrilla marketing campaign, another 70s indie industry staple, involving a series of surprise reveals. The existence of Pearl was kept secret until the March 13 premiere of X at South By Southwest, when A24, capitalizing on the media attention around the festival, debuted the first teaser. They repeated the trick Pearl‘s Toronto Festival premiere Sept. 12, announcing plans for MaXXXine.
“Keeping the movies secret for so long was part of the journey, and part of the fun, for us and the audience,” says West. “If we had told people in Toronto there was going to be a MaXXXine teaser, it would have been a lot less exciting than what happened, which was seeing the whole audience go: ‘Holy shit!, There’s a third movie!’”
Just six months later X debuted, anticipation was so high for the prequel, Pearl memes were all over TikTok, with young women dressing in blood red mimicking Goth’s ax murdering protagonist.
“Anything that could help the chatter, and the marketing, to get people excited about going to the cinema, well that was just part of the vibe,” says West. “It was a way to keep the mystique of the movies alive.”
West’s instant franchise demonstrates, to all those filmmakers gathered at AFM struggling to find new models to make and release theatrical movies on a budget, that the way forward could involve looking to past indie pioneers for inspiration.
“You have to find a way to eventize these movies,” says West.[that’s] what gets people back to the cinema. They don’t have to be $100 million dollar films to do that.”
This story first appeared in The News84Media’s Nov. 2 daily issues at the American Film Market.
Check the latest Hollywood news here.