Fantastic Fest Interview: A Piercing Conversation With Nicolas Pesce
Why are we all so attracted to serial killers?
By Richard Whittaker,
9:15AM, Thu. Sep. 20, 2018
The accepted wisdom when it comes to storytelling is "write what you know." But that's not what interest Nicolas Pesce, the writer-director behind Fantastic Fest sexual thriller Piercing. He said, "I'm less fascinated by someone who is like me, and more fascinated by someone who is distinctly not me."
It's probably a relief for anyone that knows him that he's nothing like Reed (Christopher Abbott), a seemingly devoted husband and father who takes a quick business trip and hires a prostitute. But when Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), his much darker intents quickly surface.
Pesce broke through at Fantastic Fest 2016 with his debut feature The Eyes of My Mother, a Jack Ketchum-esque study of murder in the heartland. Right now, he's in post-production on Grudge, a visceral addition to the legendary J-horror Ju-on franchise. So Piercing is in many ways the perfect midpoint: a psycho-sexual horror, but with Japanese roots.
The story is adapted by the filmmaker from the 1994 novel of the same name by Ryu Murakami, most famous to cinema audiences for Takashi Miike's 1999 adaptation of his novel Audition. "That's one of my favorite movies," said Pesce, and it became his gateway to Murakami's back catalogue. "A lot of his work has this really jet black sense of humor that I found really appealing," he said, but with Piercing in particular "I found it an opportunity to do something that was certainly fucked up and dark, but with a little bit more of a playful edge to it, and that's built into the book."
Austin Chronicle: Both Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother deal with deeply disturbed characters. What draws you to that kind of story?
Nicolas Pesce: I think I just find them more interesting characters. I think the old adage of movies is, get a character in there that the audience can relate to, and they'll like the movie more. But I'm someone that's fascinated by true crime myseries, and murder mysteries, and I think a lot of people are. ... If you're not someone who has these inclinations towards violence, your perpetual question as an audience member is, why do they do this, and why does this happen in the first place?
You hear stories of serial killers who do crazy things. I always talk about Jeffrey Dahmer, who would take guys home, drill holes in their skulls, and fill it with chemicals in order to make them into sex zombies. That is something that, if you put in a movie, it would be an '80s gross-out midnight movie, but that's real life. You have to ask yourself, why did someone do that? And to me that's a far more interesting story, and I think that both of my films have dove into the consciousness of not the victims, per se, but of the people doing these acts. Not to at all justify what they do, but to give an insight into what they do. Violence is super-prevalent in our world, and I think that the more we have an understanding of why it happens, the better equiped we are to deal with it. So I think that putting people in the minds of killers is a fascinatingly uncomfortable way to spend an hour and twenty minutes.
NP: Exactly. And sympathy and understanding are very different things, and we have to understand both sides of violence in order to deal with it, and to know how to process it. I think movies are a unique place where we can talk about this stuff, and play around with these things, and if you, as an audience member, choose to sympathize with a character that's doing something bad, that says more about the audience member than the filmmaker.
AC: Going back to Murakami's novel, any act of translation isn't just about language, but about finding a way to take cultural subtext and find something anaologous in a different setting. Where there any particular challenges for Piercing's script versus the novel?
NP: The trickiest thing in the book was society's understanding of prostitution in Japan is very different to in America. Every country has such a differing relationship with prostitution, and the book handles it in such a way that it's not this political commentary on the morals of it, and what that life entails. In a world where we're hyper-aware of sex workers rights, that just isn't part of the book. The main character's profession being a prostitute, it serves character development, but it also is a just a way for them to get into the same place. I didn't want to place the movie in America and have the American version of that relationship be bought into it, and that was the beginning of setting it in a city that doesn't exist. We go to great lengths to make this movie out of time and out of place, because this is not a political movie, and I wanted to divorce it from reality. I think audiences, no matter when and where they are in time, are going to assert a certain set of beliefs on things, and the more we could do to start you off on a blank slate, the better.