'Piercing' Director Nicolas Pesce On His Gnarly, Surprising Horror Mash-Up [Interview]

Piercing doesn't ever pull a punch. The title of writer-director Nicolas Pesce's adaptation of Ryû Murakami's novel of the same name couldn't be more fitting. From its earliest images, audience members will know if this movie, which features visceral body horror, S&M, and cruel and ridiculous laughs, speaks to them.

Pesce, who previously directed The Eyes of My Mother and will follow this up with a remake of The Grudge, again establishes himself as a bold director with Piercing. "Pesce delivers a carefully crafted sophomore feature that explores the dangerous limits taken to rectify trauma and fulfill various desires," Marisa Mirabal wrote in her review for the site. "A sick and stylish love letter to Giallo films of the '70s, Piercing is cinematic kink at its finest."

It's a love letter to Giallo and more, as Pesce recently told us in conversation about his influences, references, and taste in movies.

This movie tells you immediately up front what it is. Does it have a similar opening as the novel? 

Yeah. I mean, I think one of the biggest things that I knew I needed to capture in my own way I needed to capture was the book has such a bizarre sense of humor, everything is so emotionally dark in the book but it's still really fun and playful in the weirdest sort of way. And Murakami his probably most famous book is "Audition," which is what the movie is based on and I think a lot of Japanese and Korean genre movies have a really awesome bizarre sense of humor and so I knew I needed to capture that. However, it may be my own, but I wanted there to be this sense of humor and it was always a thing where I always said like you need people to laugh at the baby talking in the beginning of the movie and then you have them. Because it is dark subject matter that the movie deals with but being loud with the tone and the mood was very important.

From the get go we start off from the title, from the company cards even, it's like I want to get you steeped in a mood so that you understand what you're about to watch. Because it is unique and different and definitely is way more of a niche sensibility so I think getting people into the world, into the tone of it all as quickly as possible. That was something that was very important.

That tone we've seen in some amazing South Korean movie, but that sort of tone is often not embraced by American audiences, even critics. 

Yeah, because they think it's campy.

Do you have a theory why American movies, tonally, generally aren't as adventurous? 

Well I think that we, it's all because camp is a bad word here and it shouldn't be. In western cinema tradition the movies that did that sense of humor were, like, cult grindhouse movies and then bad movies that have become funny because they're so bad. And I think that it's, and because people in America associate dark subject matter but I'm kind of laughing with like, is this campy? And people have difficulty wrapping their heads around. I will say that nowadays I think we're getting more okay with the tone juxtaposition. For the longest time, Tarantino was the only one who could get away with throwing a pop song on a murder scene, but now I think that audiences like the kind of twist on tone that they're used to. You see it in so many movies now from action movies to indie movies that people are down for like you come out of the theater being like, it was weirdly fun, like it was kind of funny.

And yeah, I think critics buck against it, particularly in the big movies because it does feel like such a weird, bold choice but I think it's awesome and you're right. Bong Joon-ho, Chan-wook Park, they all get away with it so well. The Wailing was such a funny, weird movie and I think that's a lot of what I was going for. I asked Mia so many Chan-Wook Park stories and the way they handle tone is awesome, and I think that fortunately I make movies, or at least this one is very much for cinephiles and I think so much of the weird tones is like a play on the genre expectations that I hope that a more cynical audience will feel like there on the inside of the joke and get to have fun with it.

It takes a lot of work filmmaking-wise to make the audience know that that's okay. I think that part of the reason why it works in foreign movies is I think there's a really naïve perhaps inaccurate impression that like, oh well this other culture has a different sense of humor than I do so I can accept it more, and maybe part of that is true but I think that it really is like, they do a good, like Chan-wook Park just does a good job of letting you know that you can be in on the jokes and they're our jokes. I think that's the hardest thing, being like this is funny, I know, I know it's funny, it's okay. And as a filmmaker, not doing that with such a heavy hand that it's like you're literally like, you see what I did there. You have to be subtle with it but yeah you want all that in there.

piercing reviewFrom talking to people who have seen the movie in the states versus overseas, have you noticed any differences in the reaction?

I always tend to feel like on both of my movies that European audiences tend to get what I'm doing a little bit more. I think part of it has to do with the fact that I'm ripping off distinctly European movies. Italians have a way deeper knowledge than Americans do of seventies Italian movies so they will get the references more. But I think on this movie, it's such a specific thing that is kind of cross cultural that it's like you either like it or you don't. It's a polarizing movie, I knew that from that start and I think no matter where the audiences are I get people who are either like, what the fuck is this, or like, it's not like the book, or people who are like, this is awesome, this is so weird and feels so strange and unique. My goal is to make something that's such a mashup of cinema cultures that it kind of works, you might have a pocket of references that you like somewhere in there so no matter where you are you find.

I think about a few references, I admit not all of them, but I was wondering is there maybe a reference or two that was in Italian horror, in maybe a movie or something that would maybe surprise an audience to think, oh that was a reference in this movie?

I mean there's a bunch. There's a lot of weird ones. I mean Playtime, the Jacques Tati movie is like a huge reference, particularly in performance quality. The way Chris is almost a little goofy in his performance is very Pink Panther, Tati, Peter Sellars, I was very much going for that sort of thing. I always have David Lynch in there. And then honestly there's a lot of real weird retro romantic comedy kind of twinges in there. And then also people will be like, I saw you stole this from this, and I'll be like, oh yeah, I did steal that from that, and I don't even realize it. If you picked up some weird ones I may or may not have intended it.

I always think of movies like Piercing as "a blender movie," where you can tell a director put all these different interests, likes, or passions in a movie , like putting all these different flavors together into a blender and coming up with a unique flavor. That sounds like how you approached it. 

Very much. Piercing came at a very particular point for me where I had made Eyes of my Mother and also the fact that I got the job directing The Grudge for Sony. So I knew that I was going from this tiny, tiny movie to my first studio movie and the investors from my first movie wanted to make another one and studio movies take much longer than indie movies do, so I was like I want to raise to get one more movie in before I do my studio movie that is uniquely me, unabashedly me, pulling no punches, just being as referential as I ever wanted to be, using fucking film from other movies, like doing every trick that I ever wanted to do because I was afraid I would never get to do it again.

And so, what you get is like a movie that I am super proud of because it is unabashedly me but you can watch that and know exactly what I'm into. Not necessarily all the S&M stuff, I don't want people to think I'm too much a freak but cinema-wise, you can see it's a diary of all the movies that I love. And I think some people are going to have a problem with that, and that's fine, but I'm a filmmaker who made a movie that is first and foremost for me, and I get to share it with all the fans who have my same taste or taste that they didn't realize.

Like the coolest thing about making referential movies is I discovered Takashi Miike because Quentin Tarantino talked about him. If I can turn people onto guys, like everyone now knows Dario Argento because of Suspiria, but like Luigi Bazzoni, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, there's so many great Italian directors that I stole from that I wish people saw more movies of, Mario Bava. These are names that in a small circle everyone's like, yeah you just listed the best Italian directors of the seventies, but weirdly people don't know these names and like Argento has made more movies than Suspiria, arguably better ones than Suspiria.

I think for me, I love being able to tell people about movies that they've never seen, directors that they've never heard of. The directors that I love like Tarantino and Scorsese have made careers of doing that, and I think that's so cool. That's such a cool aspect of being a filmmaker, getting to share what you love. Especially if younger people are seeing this and like, it's shocking to me when people haven't seen Audition but people haven't seen Audition and it's like, yo Audition is one of the greatest movies ever. If my movie gets people to watch Audition and be like, oh shit this is a way better movie than that one, fine you got to go see a great movie. And that is totally part of it for me. It's fun in the filmmaking but it also makes this part of it fun to get to talk about all of the shit that made me make this weird movie.


Piercing is now available in limited release and on iTunes.