Ti West: Things I've Learned as a Moviemaker

Ti West began his career in the early 2000s, and like many early-career moviemakers, he did almost everything — wrote, directed, produced, and edited. Even as Ti West has become one of the most respected names in horror, he still does everything. And watching a West feature — including his latest, Pearl – it’s impossible not to be impressed by his elegant manipulation of our fears. 

2022 was a busy year for the Delaware native, who first broke out with 2005’s The Roost. Pearl is a prequel to his March release, X, a slasher movie set during a 1970s porno shoot that examines our expectations around sex and violence. He hit on the idea of making two connected films while shooting X in New Zealand, a land seemingly unaffected by COVID. He and Mia Goth co-wrote Pearl, the origin story of one of the two characters she plays in X, with her returning to the role. Then West pitched it to A24, and started shooting Pearl just three weeks after X wrapped. Days before Pearl’s release in September, West announced a third film in the series, MaXXXine, which will focus on the other character Goth plays in X.

We met up with Ti West at the Venice Film Festival, after the premiere of Pearl, to ask what moviemaking lessons he’s learned. Here’s what he told us. — By Ti West, as told to Caleb Hammond.

1. Just do it. Waiting for the right situation and resources to come around — I’m sure it’s happened to somebody, but I’ve never seen it happen. Just get out and make stuff. Now you’re a filmmaker — now make more stuff. Everyone that says, “I want to make a movie,” Write a script! “Well, I have, but I haven’t finished it.” Finish the script! “I finished the script.” Write another script! “But I just finished this one.” I know, you’re going to need another one.

It’s a little bit like exercise in that it’s not necessarily that hard to do, but everything else is more appealing and easier. So you just have to force yourself. When Mia Goth and I were collaborating on Pearl, I would say, “Set a timer on your phone and write for 20 minutes, because something will come out of it.” But if you think about writing, you’re going to talk yourself out of doing it, because it’s very unpleasant. So for anyone who’s thinking about making stuff, you just have to sit down and do it, and try to have as few people that you can rely on as possible, because that will at least make it have a chance. So whether you’re making a short film that you’re going to put on YouTube, or whether you’re trying to make your first movie, or a $100 million movie, you’re going to need to just get going on it.

2. If you’re the director, you never want to be the person that doesn’t have an answer. But you can’t have a fake answer either. You have to really know what you want and be prepared. Otherwise people won’t respect you or take you seriously. You are there for when they ask: “Do you like this one or that one?” Your job is to say, “That one.” If you can’t make that decision, and you’re like, “Oh… I don’t know,” you are not performing your role.

3. You can tell a joke, and the whole room laughs, and your friend tells the same exact joke, and it bombs. It’s about where you pause and where you put emphasis, and some of that is personality based. But you can get better at anything the more times you do it. Part of why I’m writing, directing, editing, and producing is that I came up doing everything myself. So I got better at it all, the more that I did it. I’ve done 17 episodes of television in the past five years, and I’m a better filmmaker because of it. That’s 17 times I’ve had to edit something in four days. That’s 17 times I’ve had to shoot something that I didn’t write. You get better by doing it. A lot of people wait for inspiration to strike. They think that it will be this romantic thing, and it’s not. Making a movie is a challenging, psychologically-draining, traumatic experience. Once you know that, each day, you can chip away at it.

4. On set you’re going to run into all sorts of personalities, because you’re working with a large number of people. Some of these people are going to be a bit eccentric, and you must be ready for that. You have to be open and thoughtful to the fact that everybody there — certainly actor- and filmmaker-wise — whether they will admit it or not, are going to have insecurities surrounding: What if this thing is not good? What if I’m a fraud, and this is the one that everyone discovers that on? That’s something that everybody goes through. You have to be empathetic to that, so that you’re not forcing someone into being defensive. A lot of clashes on set come from people arguing over something that has nothing to do with the thing they’re arguing about. What they’re actually fighting over is about something else from three weeks ago. Now it’s manifesting itself as this, because someone didn’t communicate properly. You have to be a bit of a psychologist, and you must try to be as understanding as possible to what people’s goals are.

5. With X, I asked every cast member, “Why the hell do you want to be in this movie?” Because there was no shortage of reasons not to be in a movie like that. So I was interested in hearing why they would want to do it. And if we were on the same page, then great, and if their reasons didn’t align with my reasons, it’s like, well, this is not the project for us.

6. I learned a lot from doing TV as of late, because you’re not personally connected to it so much. So you watch the people who are personally connected to it have their strife. And you go, “Oh, wow, I’m you in my other life.” And then you see things that they’re really passionate about that are actually meaningless. And you think, “Oof, I do that, too.” That was really helpful, because as a director, you don’t get to see other people directing.

7. As a director, one of the more difficult things to do, beyond the technical stuff, is articulate what you want from an actor. It’s not obvious what you’re supposed to say and how to communicate what you want. There’s no preseason, where you can practice how to talk to actors. I only get to do it every once in a while, if I’m lucky. And it’s while we’re there on set, while we’re running out of time.

8. When the time comes to shoot the movie, everything’s going to go wrong. So the more prepared you are, then when something goes wrong, you can pivot easily, and you can turn it into something that’s still good for the movie. If you don’t prepare, and you assume everything will go fine, you are asking for trouble. I try to be prepared for when the shit hits the fan, knowing that it will. That goes from making the movie all the way to the final mix — something technically will be wrong with it. There always is. So expect it to go wrong and be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t. 

Also Read: Ti West Almost Made Pearl in Black and White. Then He Did the Opposite

9. Whatever I’m not doing is the part of the process I like the most. When I’m writing: I hate this, why can’t I be directing? When I’m directing: Why can’t I just be back writing where no one was bothering me? And then when I’m editing: Oh, no, I’m stuck with all of my decisions. Why can’t I go back to where I was around 60 people every day, instead of being alone in front of this computer. When it’s your own work, it’s like hearing your voice on tape. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that you just have to power through. But being on set is the most gratifying because at least it’s social, you’re around people and you’re collaborating. Writing and editing are a bit of a grind.

10. Find ways to be as ruthless with yourself as you can, knowing that the movie does have its final rewrite in the edit.

11. You don’t always have to make something difficult out of strife. A lot of people think that conflict creates something special, and I’m sure that it does sometimes. But you could have maybe done without it. But we’ll never know, because you went that other way. My mantra on set is, “Don’t harsh the mellow.” Come prepared and everyone’s expecting the best of everyone, but “don’t harsh the mellow.” We can have a good time and hopefully be world class in what we’re doing without making it a miserable experience. Life’s too short.

Mia Goth in Pearl, directed by Ti West

Mia Goth takes a bow in Pearl, directed by Ti West

12. People say “Well, if it doesn’t move the story forward, you don’t need it.” That’s bullshit. That doesn’t mean anything. They may be right sometimes, but in general, the plot is not necessarily the most important element of each moment. 

13. The benefit of watching movies is A) movies are cool, and B) people have been doing this for over 100 years, and they’ve been doing it in a more diverse way than people often know about. And it’s a bizarre art form: a whole bunch of people get together and make this thing. It’s good to have an appreciation of that. It’s good to learn from stuff that’s come before. It’s good to learn things that you wouldn’t think could work, actually work.

14. My movies are pretty esoteric. So I’m looking for collaborators who get it right away, and it becomes very apparent who doesn’t get it and who does. That’s also why I work with the same people over and over again. If your collaborators only kind of understand what it is that you’re going for, there’s going to be a point where they misfire, and that’s risky. You don’t want to micromanage too much. If they don’t get it or kind of get it, you will have to micromanage them.

Pearl is now in theaters and available on VOD, from A24. 

Main image: Ti West and Mia Goth on the set of Pearl