Ti West on MaXXXine: “Part of the charm of the trilogy is to embrace the artifice of Hollywood”

We talk to the X trilogy director about favourite 1980s slashers, the fearless unpredictability of Mia Goth, and why adding messages to movies pollutes the experience.

MaXXXine (2024)Starmaker Studios LLC

MaXXXine concludes Ti West’s horror trilogy with a thrilling Hollywood-set romp in which the eponymous porn star attempts to enter mainstream moviemaking with a lead role in slasher sequel The Puritan II. Around her, friends and others are being murdered, but is this the ‘night stalker’ spreading fear across the city or someone she knows already?

Mia Goth returns as Maxine Minx following the character’s first outing in X (released in 2022 and shot back to back with prequel Pearl, another lead role for Goth), again bringing her trademark energy and charisma to a tale that’s both a knowing homage to the kind of horror her character is trying to appear in and a fun trawl through the seedier side of LA

Goth’s status as the contemporary scream queen is now surely cemented, if it was ever in any doubt. Aside from West’s three films, she is delightfully deranged in Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool (2023), and she’ll soon be seen as the bride in Guillermo del Toro’s new take on Frankenstein.

Aside from Goth, Elizabeth Debicki is on fierce form as the tough director guiding Maxine into legit stardom, while Kevin Bacon’s memorably sleazy private eye is surely the best thing he’s done in a decade or more, and Giancarlo Esposito has fun in a small but important role as Maxine’s pugnacious agent.

In London to discuss his film, West is an engaging and eloquent speaker, keen to explain what he loves about A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the surprising difficulties of shooting in LA and why the house from Psycho (1960) features in one of the film’s best scenes. When he studied at School of Visual Arts, one of West’s professors was director Kelly Reichardt. “She was the first real filmmaker I’d ever met, and that was very inspiring to me,” West explains. “We make very different movies, but there’s a sense of naturalism in her movies that my movies sometimes have as well.”

Why set MaXXXine in the 1980s?

Ti West filming MaXXXine (2024)Starmaker Studios LLC

Ti West: In 1979 her goal was to become a star. The logical next step was to take her to Hollywood. The 80s was an appropriately excessive time for both era and industry, for the peak of VHS and the kinds of movies that were being made, especially horror movies. To take her to the belly of the beast and to set it in the summer of 1985, which had the backdrop of a real-life serial killer as well as a lot of moral outrage about music and movies and censorship, felt like the right setting and the right time and place. This trilogy has become, in some ways, about how cinema is affecting the characters – so it felt like the logical progression.

We can discuss other influences, but you cite two 1980s films from big-name directors – Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987) and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) – as early inspirations. Why did those films appeal to you?

Those were the first two movies when I could wrap my head around the fact that somebody made them. I had loved plenty of movies prior to those, but they were a foreign thing – I didn’t understand how they were made. Whereas those are the first two movies that I could see, “Oh, that’s just him running with the camera,” or “Those are props that they just made.” I could understand you could just go out and make a movie. You could go to the beach near your house or the woods behind your house and make a movie. It made it possible in my brain that if you’re creative, hardworking and hopefully talented, maybe you can get better at all of those things as you do it. Prior to that, something like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was a completely foreign idea – how anyone would ever do something like that.

Did any other 80s movies influence the film specifically?

I wouldn’t say a specific film or films necessarily but more the vibe of Los Angeles particularly. I really wanted LA to be a big character in the movie. There’s a subgenre of movies where LA plays itself and that was a part of it. There are certainly nods to aesthetic references throughout different movies and homages, all the way down to something as literal as Psycho (1960). But it was more just about recreating a vibe of an era, which you can do by researching the news or documentaries. In other ways, you can do it via the time capsules that are movies of the era, because our memories are made up of both realism and the media we consume.

MaXXXine (2024)Starmaker Studios LLC

How did you go about getting the 1985 aesthetic right?

A big part of it is not limiting it or obsessing over only 1985. If you were there in 1985 not everything was from the summer of 1985. The cars were from the 70s, the 60s, the 50s, the 80s; the furniture was from whatever. So it wasn’t just all people in leg warmers listening to the number one song on the radio. It was a mixture of different things. I think that gives it more of a lived in, authentic feeling. You’re seeing a side of the 80s that is not purely pop culture. It’s a mixture of pop culture and mundane realism. I think that makes it more believable, and the more believable it is, the more relatable the story is.

It’s difficult to shoot in London, but presumably in LA people are very used to it.

You’d be shocked. I bet it’s easier to shoot here.

How come?

There’s a lot of resources in LA, but getting permits and doing everything – especially in the locations we were using – is a huge inconvenience to the city. It’s not easy. This movie was very challenging. It’s why so many things go to Atlanta and places like that. There are places that are more conducive to filming than LA, as ironic as that sounds. There are parts of LA that are no problem, but Hollywood Boulevard and places like that are a major pain in the ass. 

Even shooting on a movie backlot is mostly reserved for people who are shooting on those stages because that’s where they’re making the movie. To shoot it as a backlot and then to inconvenience all the other movies they’re trying to shoot there, it’s not something that’s typically done. It’s very rare that you have that opportunity. It’s one of those things that seems simpler than it is.

What are your favourite 80s slashers?

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

As a kid, I was very into all of the classics, from A Nightmare on Elm Street to Friday the 13th (1980). And I don’t know that those have too much connective tissue to these movies necessarily, but I loved those movies. I loved the giallo movies that I didn’t see until I was a little bit older. In the world of those things, Deep Red (1975) is pretty great.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a borderline surreal movie. It’s people being pulled into their beds, and tongues coming out of phones, and it’s people on the ceiling. It’s very stylised and surreal and disturbing, and it’s difficult to make a movie like that and to have the imagination to make a movie like that. Someone stalking your dreams is a great idea, and a great scary idea for a movie, because everybody has to sleep, but the execution of it is so particularly cinematic, especially coming from a director who was known for doing such realism prior to that. That’s really inspiring.

How did you end up using the house from Psycho?

Psycho (1960)

In X, they had a little conversation about Psycho. Psycho loomed over that movie. You could call it a slasher movie but also one of the great horror movies of all time. When I was making this movie, I was like, “Well, if she’s going to be on a movie backlot, where could they go?” I knew it was there, and I wrote it into the script. I didn’t think about getting permission or anything like that. Then it was a bit of a panic because, “What if they say no? I don’t have a backup.” But the Hitchcock estate said yes. It was very surreal to go there and film it and not be making Psycho. That was part of the charm of the movie and of the trilogy as a whole: to embrace the artifice of Hollywood.

Tell me about casting Kevin Bacon. What does he bring to the piece?

I had been a fan, and he allegedly had been a fan of my movies, but we had never met, so let’s send it to him and see if he responds. He responded right away, and we got on the phone and really hit it off. He was looking to play something a little more outside the box than he’d been doing and to really get to stretch. He’d never played a private eye.

Weirdly, him and a lot of other people, Elizabeth Debicki and Lily Collins, all had this desire to shake off the last things they’d done in a very different way, so it made this great collaboration: “We’re all very proud of the thing we did right before this, but we also want to shake that off and change it up.”

MaXXXine (2024)Starmaker Studios LLC

Elizabeth Debicki’s character seems to represent a fight back against typical Hollywood misogyny. What was your intention there?

I didn’t think about that as much as I think people might think I would. It was more about a character Maxine could look up to and relate to, in putting a director in Hollywood who’s made a movie independently and now has an opportunity to make a bigger movie within Hollywood, and is now dealing with what comes with that. That’s a situation that people are aware of, but you don’t really get to see behind the curtain of that very often.

She knows that she’s making The Puritan II, and she knows what the opportunity is, and she’s trying to be a bit punk rock and cast someone unexpected, and trying to make a name for herself as a filmmaker that matters, but at the same time doesn’t want to screw up the opportunity. I think whether it’s movies or not movies, people have a little bit of that in their lives.

So there’s no particular messaging with the film?

No, I don’t really sit down and do that. There may be people that will extrapolate whatever they want from the movie, and that’s subjective, but I think if you sit down and try to do that, then in my opinion you’re adding a sense of propaganda to the creative experience. Maybe you agree with all the propaganda, but it pollutes the experience. If it’s subconsciously in there, if it’s in the subtext or people are taking that from it, great; that’s what art seems to do for people. But if you sit down and you try to go, “I have a message and I’m going to just disguise it in a movie,” it’s a different process.

MaXXXine (2024)Starmaker Studios LLC

What is it about Mia’s presence and acting that makes her right for these roles?

We met at the perfect time in each other’s lives to level each other up in the best way. She’s very authentic, and I think people respond to that. As absurd as the material could be or as grounded as the material could be, it is real for her. You see that on screen.

She’s a very fearless performer. She wants the challenge, the messiness and the blurred lines and the complicated emotional stakes that go into throwing yourself into a character. She really embraces performance and the art form in that way, and because of that you get a very unpredictable performance from her. There are other people that are really talented, but they don’t do it like that. She would probably say I owe nothing to her, but in my mind, without that connection there’s no chance that I have a career.

MaXXXine is in cinemas from 5 July 2024.