X writer-director Ti West has a knack for period pieces: His breakout horror feature, 2009’s The House of the Devil cataloged the satanic panic of the ’80s, and was shot in a way that nodded to that era. And the only non-horror entry in his filmography, 2016’s In a Valley of Violence, is set in the Old West.
West returns to horror — and period films — with X, a film set in 1979 about a group of ambitious young people (including Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega and Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) who travel from Houston to rural Texas to surreptitiously shoot a porno on an old couple’s property. Things do not go according to plan.
West clearly has a lot of affection for the different eras he chooses to set his films in, but he never over romanticizes these times. His films aren’t bathed in nostalgia like other films or TV shows. West shared some advice to MovieMaker for filmmakers on how to achieve an authentic film set in another era that never plays as kitschy.
Rule #1: Have a Reason
“If you’re making a period movie, just have a reason for making it in that period,” West advises. “In X, the 1970s was the golden age of pornography… The way you would make a porno now is very different than you would make it the ’70s.
“To tell this story now would be a completely different visual experience, and a totally different story,” he says. “The story would not exist, to be honest, because everyone would just be at home on their computers.”
In X, the ambitious Wayne (Martin Henderson) foresees the home-video market explosion and realizes it will create a boom for the porn industry. To get ahead of it, he enlists his girlfriend Maxine (Goth) and a few others to shoot their own porno with the idea to distribute it via home video.
Rule #2: Nostalgia for the Era, Not Media
“If you’re going to be nostalgic, you should be nostalgic for the era, not for media,” West says.
When West was pitching The House of the Devil, he “was very adamant that this is not ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ ’80s.”
“Nobody in House of the Devil has brand-new clothes. Nobody is at the hot nightclub. It just takes place in the ’80s. You should have furniture from the ’70s, because that’s what people had in real life,” he adds.
This advice mirrors that of Licorice Pizza production designer Florencia Martin, who told us in our Winter 2022 issue that despite the film’s early ’70s setting, her team looked at restaurants, furniture and carpet colors from the ’50s through the ’60s.
When a moviemaker is nostalgic for the media rather than the era, they “end up recreating whatever the biggest commercial trends were,” West says.
“In X, it’s not like I went through all the biggest trends of 1979: Everybody’s got to be wearing these Jordache jeans, everybody would be listening to this song — that to me starts to become a little too kitsch,” he continues.
West’s ultimate mission is “to build a world out that you believe in,” he says.
To West, the timing, camera placement, editing — everything that goes behind staging horror as tensely as possible — is partly instinctual. “I don’t know how to explain that,” he admits.
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Two other elements his films need: knowledge of horror movies and then just “reps on set doing it,” West says.
But West prefers an analogy. “You could tell a joke, and all your friends laugh. And then your friend could tell the exact same joke, word for word, and nobody laughs,” he says.
“It’s something about the way you emphasize this word over that word, or had a little bit more of a pause between these words,” he says.
Again, it’s all about instincts.
“I have an instinctual feeling of how far I can delay this moment to get the appropriate response. I don’t know if I’m right. It’s the telling-the-joke thing where it’s like, I just think if I do it this way, it will work. And sometimes it works better than others. But, that’s the best way to describe it. It’s an intrinsic sense, I suppose,” he adds.
X, written and directed by Ti West, is now in theaters.
Main image (above): RJ (Campbell), Bobby-Lynne (Snow), Maxine (Goth), Jackson (Kid Cudi), and Lorraine (Ortega) arrive on location, ready to shoot a low-budget porno, in X, from Ti West. Photo by Christopher Moss/A24