Longlegs director Oz Perkins on making movies to deal with death

“Horror movies are self-help movies about dealing with death,” says Longlegs director Osgood “Oz” Perkins, who is painfully familiar with tragedy: He lost his mother, Berry Berenson, when she was a passenger on one of the planes in the 9/11 attacks. She died a decade after his father, Psycho star Anthony Perkins.

He didn’t initially process his grief through his art, like his brother, musician Elvis Perkins. The New York native had numerous acting roles, including a memorable turn in 2001’s Legally Blonde, and co-wrote the thrillers Removal (2010) and Cold Comes the Night (2013).

The first thing he wrote for himself to direct was 2015’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter —  “I had a little bit of money so I spent time figuring life out,” he explains — and he followed it the next year by writing and directing I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House.

After directing the 2020 Gretel & Hansel, he returns to writing-directing with Longlegs, a time-skipping horror thriller starring Nicolas Cage and Maika Monroe that makes dastardly use of sound. We talked to him about his influences, family and fears.

Maika Monroe in Longlegs. NEON

Oz Perkins on the Sound of Horror

Sonya Alexander: How important is sound in horror?

Oz Perkins: Jack Kerouac has a great quote: “Silence is the sound of diamonds that can cut through anything.” I try to use silence when I can. It can be nice and noisy. In the process of posting these movies, I really dislike them until the sound is done, which is almost the last thing to do. Then the mix comes on, the score gets placed, and the needle drops go in, and the sound gets taken out. Then I start to feel good.

Sonya Alexander: How did you decide what sounds to use and where in Longlegs?

Oz Perkins: To be honest, I have had, on this movie and one I just finished, a really brilliant team of other people. Artists who are better at their jobs than I am at their jobs. The sound designer, Eugenio Battaglia, is just a brilliant guy and we did a lot of weird stuff.

When you start to feel good about a movie, when you start to feel the taste of a movie is right, it’s like cooking. You go, “Oh, that’s tasting right.” … Eugenio said he was going to put in subliminal messages but I don’t know if he ever did that.

Sonya Alexander: How does your experience with Longlegs compare with your first writing-directing experience, The Blackcoat’s Daughter?

Oz Perkins: I had no idea what I was doing when I did that movie. The good news was I could see it in my head because I’d spent a lot of time with it. I developed that script over a much longer period than I do now because I was very new at everything. 

Sonya Alexander: What inspired the character of Longlegs?

Oz Perkins: I assume all writers have a bin of things we’ve sort of half completed or that we don’t believe in or like too much. I go shopping in a lot of bins. Sort of coming in and out was this tall figure who initially was a man in black with white face paint who visited people’s houses and brought out pianos and little stuffed animals. He tried to entertain children. He had different names in his existence, in my psyche. 

He was known as the pale-faced minstrel for a long-time. These ideas swim around like fish and then they find their bite. It became Longlegs. I just liked the way the words sounded. I just look for the source. If the source says it’s Longlegs, then it’s Longlegs. I’ll figure out why. The white face paint was always a thing. That’s derived from Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue from the ‘70s. 

Sonya Alexander: Did you pitch Longlegs

Oz Perkins: I wrote it as a spec. I wrote it with the encouragement of some people, specifically Dan Kagan, who’s a producer on the film and was in on it from an early stage. He worked on Gretel & Hansel when he was at Orion. With independent financing, you have to find someone who makes your movie worth more money than you do. In this case, Nicolas Cage read it and wanted to do it. When that happens, the plane takes off.

Sonya Alexander: The movie shifts through time periods seamlessly, leaving us wondering exactly where we are. 

Oz Perkins: The way into the movie is through Silence of the Lambs. Using the shield of Silence of the Lambs to get in the door, I figured I’d set it in the ’90s and have a young female cop who’s sort of out of her element but she has a venerable older dude who knows exactly what he’s doing. I realized I would have had to use a photo of President George Bush if I had it set in 1992, so I put it in 1993 and used brother Bill’s photo.

Oz Perkins on His the Influence of His Parents

Sonya Alexander: How do you feel your father has influenced your work?

Oz Perkins: There are two sides of it. There’s the one side of it, which I connect to the most, where he was an icon of the genre in one of the most important movies that have been made, particularly crime or horror films. His work in it isn’t ordinary, it’s extremely special. It’s a singular contribution. 

At the same time, when I was coming into my own as someone who might make movies, around 13 or 14 years old, at that point in my dad’s career, he was doing very bad movies. He had kids in private school, so he had to do what he had to do. Retroactively, I could see saying, “We’re a horror family, but that kind of sucks.”

Osgood “Oz” Perkins. Photo by Jared Boyce.

Sonya Alexander: How did your mother influence your work?

Oz Perkins: My mom was such a stylish person who came to NYC at the height of the late ’60s, early ’70s style boom. Halston, Warhol. Her grandmother was [fashion designer] Elsa Schiaparelli. So she came from this world of what things look like. My overall sense of visual style and the ease with which that happens I got from her. She had a predilection for things that were cool, beautiful, hip, chic. 

Sonya Alexander: How would you describe your visual language for Longlegs?

Oz Perkins: We shot it in two aspect ratios and in two formats. The ’70s is in the 4:3 aspect ratio and we shot it on 35 mm film, and the ’90s is shot in digital.

Sonya Alexander: What scares you?

Oz Perkins: Increasingly the idea of being buried!

Sonya Alexander: Psycho was released in 1960. How would you say horror films have changed since then? 

Oz Perkins: They’ve gone through patterns of beauty and ugliness. There are three ways of approaching a horror film. It makes you feel bad, it is torturous. You’re put through the ringer. It’s Funny Games, Hostel, Hereditary. Then there’s the beautiful horror pictures like The Shining, Don’t Look Now, House of the Devil, Eyes Without a Face, Hour of the Wolf, Eraserhead. Beautifully off and weird.

Then there are the fun ones that purposely don’t want to take anything seriously, like Evil Dead. Within those realms, everything has sort of stayed the same. We may have fewer good new ideas, so it’s about doing your best with old ideas. 

Sonya Alexander: What horror novel would you like to adapt?

Oz Perkins: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Longlegs, a NEON release, is in theaters Friday.

Main image: Cinematographer Andres Arochi, left, and Osgood “Oz” Perkins on the set of Longlegs. NEON.