‘MaXXXine’ Filmmaker Ti West on Capping Off His Unexpected Trilogy and Receiving Calls About Superman

Ti West went into 2020’s pandemic with a script for a slasher called X, and he came out on the other side with two-thirds of a trilogy, the best reviews of his career and newfound supporters such as one Martin Scorsese.

Since the mid-2000s, West has made a name for himself through low-budget genre fare, but prior to X, he hadn’t directed a feature since 2016’s In a Valley of Violence for Blumouse, opting for a change of pace on genre television in the intervening years. But, in late 2020, he partnered with A24 to produce and distribute the Mia Goth-led X, leading to an early 2021 shoot in New Zealand.

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Set in 1979, X follows a group of amateur pornstars and pornographers who film an X-rated movie inside an elderly couple’s boarding house on their secluded Texas farm. Goth, in a dual role, plays an aspiring pornstar named Maxine Mink, and the presence of her and her collaborators sends the property’s unhinged older farmwife, Pearl (also Goth), into a  jealous, homicidal rage. West and Goth’s initial collaboration went so well that they decided to immediately turn Pearl’s backstory into a full-fledged prequel known as Pearl.

As soon as they wrapped principal photography on X, West and Goth began production on the 1918-set Pearl in secret. The homage to ‘50s technicolor melodramas chronicles Pearl as a farmer’s daughter during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Her husband Howard is overseas fighting in World War I, and so she’s isolated in more ways than one on her family farm with her ailing father and strict German mother. The film ultimately shows how Pearl’s broken dreams and unsound mind served as the catalyst for her first of many murders to come.

Both X and Pearl released nine months apart in 2022, garnering near universal critical acclaim, as well as commercial success ($25.2 million gross on a combined $2 million budget). Scorsese, who’s been a vocal admirer of both films, called Pearl “mesmerizing and deeply disturbing.” So, out of nowhere, the X franchise had arrived, prompting A24 to green light the newly released trilogy capper known as MaXXXine.

Set six years after Maxine narrowly survived Pearl and Howard’s farmhouse massacre, the story picks back up with her as a fairly successful pornstar in Los Angeles. She begins the film with a mighty impressive audition for a horror sequel, setting up the mainstream and crossover opportunity she’s been chasing. But just as her dreams are on the verge of coming true, a shadowy killer begins to target Maxine and those around her due to her involvement in the 1979 massacre.

Much like his main character, West felt considerably more pressure now that he has more eyes and expectations on the conclusion to his unexpected trilogy.

“I did feel more pressure, but you get so inundated with the here and now that you can’t worry about it too much. I just really wanted to make sure that I felt like I stuck the landing,” West tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Besides cementing Goth as a bona fide leading lady, West’s trilogy worked with two rising stars right before they were both launched into the stratosphere. First up was Jenna Ortega in X, which released in between Scream (2022) and Wednesday season one, sending her straight to the new A-list. In Pearl, Goth’s title character had a deadly affair with the local movie theater’s projectionist, and he was played by none other than David Corenswet, the new Superman/Clark Kent in James Gunn’s upcoming Superman (2025). Prior to his career-altering casting, West received character reference calls about his experience with Corenswet, as DC Studios and other involved parties were doing their due diligence before signing the Pennsylvanian actor.

“I did get some calls when [Corenswet] was up for Superman. People were snooping around about him for that, and I wholeheartedly endorsed him. He deserves every bit of it, and I’m so excited to see [Superman],” West shares.

As for the future, West has not ruled out a return to the X-verse. MaXXXine even leaves a loose thread or two should he ever have the desire to tell future stories, but at the moment, he and Goth both need a break after nearly four years of perpetual work.

“To make one movie is a miracle unto itself, but to then make three [consecutively] — I’m pretty tired,” West admits with a sigh. “I’m very proud of these three movies, and I feel like we’re at a very good stuck-the-landing stopping point, but there is always room to keep the door open. Let me get this movie out into the world and get a little bit of distance from it, and then we’ll go from there.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, West also recalls the audition story of X’s intimacy coordinator for a standout role in Pearl, before explaining how MaXXXine’s prosthetic mold scene was partially informed by Goth’s own real-life prosthetic mishap.

You made the first two movies down under and under the radar, and then they both became critically and commercially successful, to the point where Martin Scorsese heaped praise on X and Pearl. Thus, did you feel considerably more pressure throughout every phase of MaXXXine?

I did feel more pressure, but you get so inundated with the here and now that you can’t worry about it too much. It was so much work, so things like that would come in more towards the end of finishing the movie and editing it. I just really wanted to make sure that I felt like I stuck the landing. But making the movie itself was such an ambitious thing, and you’re more worried about holding traffic or getting a shot than what the world is worried about at the moment. You’re just trying to survive the movie. But, certainly in writing the third movie and going off to make it, it was more relevant now that people knew about the other ones. So I felt it the most at the very, very end of finishing it.

You thanked Scorsese in MaXXXine’s credits, so was he a part of your note network on this one? 

He was not, but he has been a real champion, and I am aware of what that sounds like in saying it out loud. He was a very big and very kind supporter of X and Pearl, and he was just a real champion. So he was one of the first people that saw [MaXXXine] when it was done. But, no, I’m not confident enough to show him an unfinished version of a movie. I’m not ready for that yet.

Mia Goth and Ti West on the set of MaXXXine

Would these movies exist without the pandemic? I know you incorporated it into Pearl’s story, but did the shutdown lead you to X in the first place? 

The shutdown did not lead to X because I’d already written it, but I don’t think there’d be a trilogy without Covid. It became a part of the lore of the movies. That was the whole thing. So it probably would’ve just been X [had there been no pandemic], and then I would’ve carried on with something else.

Maxine’s father ingrained in her the mantra of, “I will not accept a life I do not deserve,” while Pearl’s mother taught her the opposite by saying, “Make the most of what you have.” Thus, Maxine didn’t settle for what she already had like Pearl did at the end of Pearl. Maxine didn’t give up on her dream as quickly as Pearl did. So does the fundamental difference between Maxine and Pearl actually come down to the aforementioned philosophies of their parents?

I think that’s the general difference, but I also think it’s up to the audience, more than me, to decide what constitutes those sorts of things. But, yes, I think Pearl is an example of someone who had ambitions that were never quite reached, and Maxine is someone who is still trying to achieve those ambitions. You’re just seeing her at a different time in life. We’d have to check in with Maxine when she’s 80 to know how she feels about that, but you’re mostly astute in your description.

Mia Goth in Pearl
Mia Goth as Pearl in Pearl

Did you ever fill in the gap as to what Pearl and Howard did in the aftermath of Pearl? Did they also have to knock off his parents to protect themselves from the inevitable questions involving the disappearance of Howard’s sister?

I have a basic idea of what they would’ve done and things like that, but most of my connective tissue aspects between the timeframes of each movie is more emotional. After Pearl, it’s less about the day to day and more about Howard loving Pearl. So, if there was another movie about it, it surely would be crazy. But, whatever they went through, he is sticking by her side for better and worse. So it doesn’t really matter what the answer is. It certainly was something crazy, but he’s committed. That’s who he’s with, and we know that because of X. He’s with her all the way to the very end, and so whatever happens in between, it doesn’t matter because he loves her that much.

You began X and Pearl with opening shots through the barn in rural Texas, and despite being in L.A. now, you had to somehow continue that motif in MaXXXine. So how quickly did you arrive at the soundstage idea?

Pretty early on. The audition scene was always going to be the opening of the movie, and while I don’t remember at what point I set it on the soundstage, I was trying to find a place in which the door motif could happen again. So it was decided very early on in the script.

Mia Goth as Maxine in MaXXXine

MaXXXine’s sequences on the Psycho set became all the more interesting to me because I had just watched Oz Perkins’ Longlegs before walking down the hall to see your movie. You even referenced 1983’s Psycho II, in which Oz played Young Norman Bates. Of course, there’s the subgenre connection to your films, but did you also opt for the Universal backlot and the Psycho set because it’s such a recognizable way to show that someone has made it in Hollywood?

Yeah, assuming we’d get permission, I knew I wanted to write it on the Psycho set because of the through-line from X and Pearl and all of that. So that was the hope and to also close the loop from RJ [Owen Campbell] and Lorraine’s [Jenna Ortega] conversation [about Psycho] in X. So I didn’t know if we’d get permission, but I knew it was going to take place on a big movie backlot. We shot most of it at Universal, and then we shot at some other places like Warner Bros. for a couple things. But that was always the goal if we got permission from not just Universal but also the Hitchcock estate, and thankfully, we did.

Well, you’ve now made the Universal backlot tour even more compelling, and since the movie takes place in the summer of ‘85, Maxine runs through Courthouse Square at the same time that Back to the Future is in theaters. Did you ever consider using Back to the Future on the movie theater marquee, or was it always St. Elmo’s Fire

It was always St. Elmo’s Fire. There was one alt in case we couldn’t get it, but it was not Back to the Future. It might’ve been First Blood Part II.

Based on the recent report about a St. Elmo’s Fire sequel being explored, do you think someone was anticipating your movie putting it back into the zeitgeist? 

That would be giving me way too much credit. If anything, I think that was probably more associated with Andrew McCarthy’s documentary, Brats. Or, it’s just that everyone wants to make a sequel to everything now and bring all the actors back. So that’s a tough one to pull off, but good luck if they do it. I like the first one.

Have you had auditions like MaXXXine‘s opening scene where someone comes in and just bowls everybody over in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, one very memorable time that it happened was Tandi Wright, who was our intimacy coordinator on X and Pearl’s mother in Pearl. I spent so much time with her in New Zealand because she was our intimacy coordinator, and I was like, “Tandi, you should audition for Pearl.” And she was like, “Ah, I don’t know.” And I was like, “Look, worst case, you don’t get it, and we have an awkward 30-second conversation before getting back to normal. Best case, you’re in the movie.” And she was still like, “Ah, I don’t know.”

And then, on one of the weekends filming X, Owen [Campbell], who played RJ, filmed her audition, and Martin Henderson read opposite of her. And Tandi is not German, but she was off book on this whole amazing audition. I remember showing it to Dutch [Tomas Deckaj], our first AD, and being like, “Yo, look at Tandi’s audition.” And he looked at it and was like … (West widens his eyes in amazement.)

So, while filming a scene in X with her there as the intimacy coordinator, it was fun to be able to say, “Psst, you’re in the [next] movie.” It was very cool, and then she really brought it the whole time on Pearl. So that was one of the more memorable times in which someone who I hoped would do well just nailed it.

These movies are partially about a performer’s “X factor,” and I bring that up because, all morning, my feed has been filled with set photos of Pearl’s Projectionist in a Superman costume. Did you recognize that X factor when you cast David Corenswet?

He does kind of look like Superman, so that seemed sensible to me. But we just had a great conversation [during casting]. We’re from a similar part of the world and we got along and he understood the kind of movie [I wanted to make]. I think he said his favorite movie was Singin’ in the Rain, and when we were going to make Pearl, he understood the kind of golden age of Hollywood thing that he was coming into as a performer. He’s also just a great guy, and we just really got along. I think I’d seen him in Hollywood, and he was a good actor, but it was more that we just had a great conversation. He then came down to New Zealand, and we had a great time together. But I did get some calls when he was up for Superman. People were snooping around about him for that, and I wholeheartedly endorsed him. He deserves every bit of it, and I’m so excited to see [Superman].

There’s all this energy being put toward a stunt Oscar category, and rightfully so, but we’re still in a time where genre performances like Mia’s are mostly overlooked. Do you ever see that changing? 

Sure, yeah. It depends on the movie, it depends on the campaign. It’s complicated. It’s something that I have never experienced, but it’s not as simple as someone being good in a movie and then they get a nomination. It’s a more dense industry-oriented thing than that. So it’s just a matter of the right performance at the right time and with the right campaign. It’s a whole bunch of work, frankly, to be on the trail for something like that. Traditionally, genre is not thought of for that, but I don’t think it’s by any means impossible. I mean, Silence of the Lambs is a great example [having won five Oscars on seven nominations]. I think The Sixth Sense was nominated for [six] Oscars. Jordan Peele, too.

Mia Goth and Sophie Thatcher in MaXXXine

Is MaXXXine’s prosthetic mold scene meant to dramatize a version of what Mia went through to become older Pearl in X

A little bit. She certainly went through that with us. The prosthetic experience is also such a part of ‘80s horror movies. So the idea of kicking off the second act with her finally realizing that there’s a threat out for her — and then having to sit there and be encased in that with her own thoughts — that all just seemed like a groovy idea. And then, Mia, on a different movie, got a lifecast, and she had a bit of a panic attack. So it was very relatable to her.

You’re part of a family tree of filmmakers that have all appeared in each other’s works. Adam Wingard’s You’re Next is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Who’s the John Hughes of this equation? If the FBI did one of those crime boards with red yarn, who’s the person in the middle of it all?

I don’t know if there is one. It’s more the fact that there are people that I have come across over 20 years or so of doing this that are consistently making things. For instance, everyone on You’re Next — Adam [Wingard], Joe [Swanberg], Amy [Seimetz] — if you checked in with any one of them right now, they’re making something or they’re on their way to making something. So everybody was always around and always doing something. And if anyone called for help, everyone was game to do it because we were always just doing stuff. You meet a lot of people that say they’re going to do things but don’t actually do things, and that group of people were always up to something. So, what brought us together in a way is that we were dependable. We would show up, and we could help each other out. And in a lifestyle where you are very uncertain of what’s next, anyone that you meet that gives you some sense of certainty with making something is a real breath of fresh air.

Ti West and Mia Goth on the Set of MaXXXine

A certain VHS tape was likely confiscated at the video store in MaXXXine, so is this really the end? Have you imagined further possibilities within this franchise? 

Maybe. I’ve been working on this [franchise] for three-and-a-half or four years, nonstop. To make one movie is a miracle unto itself, but to then make three [consecutively] — I’m pretty tired. I’m very proud of these three movies, and I feel like we’re at a very good stuck-the-landing stopping point, but there is always room to keep the door open. Let me get this movie out into the world and get a little bit of distance from it, and then we’ll go from there.

MaXXXine is now playing in movie theaters.

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