Over eight films and more than a dozen episodes of television, Ti West has established himself as one of the moviemaking industry’s most skillful manipulators of genre—horror in particular—by reinventing tropes, imagery, and familiar scenarios to tell new stories for contemporary audiences. Where before he breathed new life into the “Satanic panic” subgenre with House Of The Devil and ghost stories in The Innkeepers, his latest offers a new take on the slasher film. In X, a low-budget ’70s adult-film production gets interrupted when the hosts of the shoot get uncomfortably interested in its stars. Mia Goth (Suspiria) leads an ensemble cast including Brittany Snow, Martin Henderson, Scott Mescudi, and Jenna Ortega as they both navigate the vagaries of the porn industry and fight for their lives against assailants who are none too pleased by their guests’ choice of vocation—but not for the reasons you think.
The A.V. Club spoke to West and stars Snow and Henderson on the day of X’s premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. In addition to discussing his inspirations for this particular (and particularly bloody) film, West explained his approach to the familiar ideas and images he hopes to reimagine, while Snow and Henderson talked about the atmosphere on a set where sex and violence are so inextricably linked, as well as their own feelings about the deeper themes explored between those two extremes.
The A.V. Club: Ti, one of the things you’ve always been really skilled at is borrowing the conventions of a familiar genre and giving them a contemporary update. Can you talk about what the original idea was that inspired you with this film?
Ti West: Well, I had made seven horror movies in a row and I wanted to take a break. So I did almost a 10-year break. But I never made a slasher movie. That felt like uncharted territory for me. I had been thinking a lot about if I was to make another horror movie again, why would I do it? And I was thinking that I really liked just like the craft of cinema in general, and I wanted to make a movie about filmmaking because I feel like there’s a lack of cultural reverence for cinema, maybe because we’re just so bombarded with moving images all of the time. But I didn’t want to make a movie about people making a horror movie because that’s too meta and uninteresting to me. And horror and porn have always had this symbiotic relationship of being outsider genres, so I thought in a slasher movie—as the lowbrow combination of sex and violence—a story about the adult film industry made sense. And that was a way for me to bring an audience in, to watch people make a movie and see how making movie is different than the movie that ends up on screen. And then I just felt like horror movies were kind of soft. And so in that I was like, “Well, if you’re going to make a slasher movie, you gotta just go right for it.” So that just started nagging at my brain, and then here we are.
AVC: This is a movie where people who have sex get killed, but they don’t necessarily get killed because they have sex, at least not in the way they might in a Friday The 13th movie. What tropes did you want to reinvent or turn on their ear in portraying this group of adult filmmakers and their eventual antagonists?
TW: My general feeling was to set up a movie that you think you know what it’s gonna be and then have it be something totally different. And I think from a character standpoint, it was to take these archetypes of slasher movies and then make them more like real people and not have it be like, okay, the person that obviously is going to have this happen to them, the opposite happens in this movie.
AVC: At this moment in their careers, Brittany and Martin’s characters are still more or less amateur pornographers. Were there any current or historic figures in the porn industry that you referenced or drew upon to play Bobby-Lynne and Wayne?
Brittany Snow: Ti and I initially talked a lot at length about how an attribute that Dolly Parton had was she knew what she had, she knew how to use it, and she could turn it off at any time. She’s smart enough to know how to read a room and utilize her intelligence and her body for her benefit. And she also knew that she was smarter than what people thought she was, and her superpower in a way was that people were going to underestimate her and she was going to overdeliver. And so that that was a lot that we used for as a character for Bobby-Lynne, of someone who’s at a time when the blonde bombshell type of person could be seen a certain way, but it’s all in her own narrative, in her own control of how she’s using it.
Martin Henderson: Well, like you said, they are novices. And so I think for the character of Wayne, it wasn’t so much of looking to any historical person in the adult film industry. Maybe a used car salesman is more in keeping with how I saw this sort of enthusiastic, ultimately optimistic and positive guy, but nothing had really worked out for him in the way that he had hoped. And so there was almost like a naïveté to the character and a slickness that works for him, but also puts some people off—which I found comical, that he’s unaware of that until he’s called out for it. So I didn’t look at it so much through the lens of a pornographer as an opportunist and someone who still believes.
Ti made a good point early on: He said, “I see this guy as the football coach. He’s trying to corral these wild characters together. And as long as he can keep everything running, he’s sure that there’s gonna be a lot of success.” So that’s what I built the character on.
AVC: The movie communicates very well how comfortable these filmmakers are with themselves and with their bodies. How much of that was baked into the script and what kind of atmosphere did Ti create on set to make everyone feel comfortable enough that nudity or a simulated sex scene felt naturalistic or maybe even kind of mundane?
MH: Well, I felt comfortable the whole time, but I didn’t have to get very naked. So I’m probably not the right person to answer that one.
BS: You’re in your undies.
MH: Well, that’s true, but Ti never drew a lot of attention to that, and I appreciate that. At the first costume fitting, he thought they looked great, and that put me at ease.
BS: A huge part of the initial conversations with Ti was asking a lot of questions of how it was going to be handled and how comfortable we were all gonna feel. And it was at the forefront of everyone’s minds that our security and what we wanted was handled with care. I mean, there was a part when I didn’t feel comfortable with one thing and Ti was like, “Great, you don’t have to do it.” And I think it was all based in the fact that these characters have autonomy over their bodies, and specifically the women are in control of their sexuality. Quite frankly, it’s a very sex positive movie. And so I think with Ti’s care and making sure that we all felt safe and comfortable, also with the characters having their own confidence in who they are, it was a more natural and easy situation.
TW: I always thought of it more about the people making porn rather than porn itself. To me, the porn elements of the movie are very much like you see it onscreen in a way that seems erotic, and then you see them making it and it’s completely clumsy and ridiculous, which is what sort of movies are like. People ask me all the time, “Is it scary when you make a horror movie?” And the answer is obviously no. In the same way, is it sexy when you make a porno? It’s like, no, because it’s a manufactured thing.
Also, I wasn’t necessarily interested in making a movie where all of these characters’ lives went horribly wrong and they’ve ended up doing this. They were like, “Here’s a good idea we all have together.” So that just set the tone, of a lot of ambitious people going to do something, rather than people who have like somehow failed themselves into a bad situation.
AVC: Brittany, this feels like a role where you get into the costume and get your hair teased out and put on those platforms, and then maybe you have to take all that stuff off, and you kind of find the character. What were the elements you keyed in on to define the character throughout the film?
BS: A huge thing for me was to leave and enter a room with agency and with confidence, and really knowing who she is. And that’s something in my early 20s specifically I struggled a lot with, just owning my sexuality and who I am. And that was really fun to play because she’s having fun in any situation with whatever she’s doing. And I think that that’s why her motives are altruistic in a way. She’s just trying to make a better life for herself. And Ti and I always had this inside joke about like, I think she would’ve been like a real estate agent and probably sold your house in 1995. And she just really wanted to get out of her small town in Texas. And I based her on somebody that I felt like I knew. And I think that that was what was so fun—that she wasn’t a caricature. She was someone that I feel like we may have all met, maybe at Chico’s one day.
AVC: Martin, you mentioned the used car salesman aspect of your character, but as the ringleader of this endeavor, your role is one that in many cases historically was a person who was exploitative or manipulative of some of the women who were in front of the camera. What discussions did you have with Mia and Ti to define how earnest or enterprising he was and maybe how seductive or manipulative he was to entice her, much less the rest of these folks, to make this movie?
MH: It’s a good question. I mean, he’s in the business of sex, right? We realized from the beginning, he owns the strip bar. Bobby-Lynne references the fact that they had the topless car wash, which was a failed venture. And I think for him, it’s sort of that he’s desensitized to the idea of sex being something that’s vulnerable or makes women feel vulnerable, for better or worse. I think he sees it as transactional. And that’s pretty obvious when Lorraine expresses interest. And of course [Owen Campbell’s character] RJ is understandably very perturbed by that and upset. And he just sees it so much as business that there’s a degree of minimization around it in order to achieve his goal.
I think in a way Wayne has never been as successful as he feels he deserves to be. I think he considers himself a very good businessman, but history would prove otherwise, but here now I think he feels like he’s finally got it right. So he kind of has blinders on to any sort of vulnerability or sensitivities that any of the women may have, and he’s very black and white about it, which is what he says when they’re all sitting around drinking beer. He’s like, it’s business, you know? And so he’s very much an opportunistic character in that regard. But we talked about the fact that his relationship with Mia’s character is sincere. He’s not using this person. He left his wife for her and I think there’s a degree of commitment and sincerity around that which makes him more human than he would’ve otherwise have been.
TW: I always felt like Wayne was not that interested in sex—he was interested in the business side. And he happened to be in a business where he has been surrounded by women, but he’s mostly interested in the success they could have together rather than the relationships there. I just always thought that was just more appealing.
AVC: Ti, you’ve kind of shuffled through a number of well-established subgenres and given them your own stamp. What’s interesting about RJ, the “director” of the characters’ porn movie Father’s Daughter, is that there’s a degree to which it seems like he thinks he’s better than the movie that they’re making, and kind of learns maybe that he’s not. How careful do you have to be not to simply repeat a scenario that may have inspired you when you’re telling an updated version?
TW: I try to be mindful to not do anything too overt. I like the idea of people having expectations of what the movie is because of other movies, and then at some point subverting that.
As far as the RJ aspect of it, he was really the window into the filmmaker. And I always thought of it like, “Okay, RJ is making this adult movie because it’s the opportunity that he has.” But if you were to talk to him, he wants to talk about Godard. He has this wealth of film knowledge and sees himself—I don’t know if “better” is the right term, but certainly he has ambitions that go beyond making [the film-within-the-film] Farmer’s Daughter. But Farmer’s Daughter is his foot-in-the-door opportunity. It’s not lost on me that you watch a lot of directors get their start in horror movies and adult movies and then go on. Because if you’re not from a world in which you’re inducted into Hollywood in some way, these are the outsider genres that you could—without all of the bells and whistles and stars and money of Hollywood—make something independently and be noticed.
AVC: The movie reminded me of a story about how a friend’s mom told her daughter to wear what she wanted and do what she wanted when she was young, because she didn’t want her daughter to look back with regret. And I feel like X explores that in the dynamic between these older people and the cast and crew of Farmer’s Daughter. For the actors especially, how much is acting an opportunity that gives you a chance to do something that you might not choose to do in your normal life?
MH: I love that about acting, personally. That’s one of the many appeals of it. Obviously there’s self-expression, but then there’s this opportunity to express versions of yourself that you might not ever have an opportunity to in your regular life, or inhabit parts of a character that are so vastly different in a creative, imaginary way, you get to explore the psyche of that aside from whether it’s wielding a gun in World War II or jumping out of a plane or riding a motorbike or directing a porno movie—I never got to do that in my 20s. So there’s definitely a lot of advantages to that and I think it is fun. It’s good to just play and explore. But ultimately it’s about telling a story, and what’s fun is the idea of bringing something to light and hopefully entertaining people like this movie’s gonna do.
BS: I think that my favorite line in the movie is that line that Maxine says when she says “I will not accept a life I do not deserve.” And I think that in general with the whole movie and with all the characters—they’re these ambitious people that want more for their life, that want something more and want something greater and yet they don’t get it. And here we have in juxtaposition older people looking back on their life and wondering why didn’t they get to do these things, or why can’t they anymore? And for me as an actor, I think that we’re just so lucky and grateful that we get to do these things in general, that we later on in life can look back and think, wow, 99% of people don’t get to do these things, and we have to stay in the blessings of that. And so to take it back to the movie, I really liked that theme of this movie and it made me even more grateful to be a part of it because I really felt that in my life. I think we all are as we’re aging.