‘MaXXXine’ Director Ti West on How ‘Body Double,’ the Moral Majority and Mia Goth’s Leading Lady Aspirations Inspired His ‘Self-Actualization’ Slasher Movie

With “MaXXXine,” writer-director Ti West completes the trilogy he began with “X” and followed with the prequel “Pearl,” shepherding audiences through three bloodstained stories of ambition in as many years. After himself infiltrating Hollywood’s ecosystem as a scrappy outsider with acclaimed projects like 2009’s “House of the Devil” and 2011’s “The Innkeepers,” the three-quel marks West’s biggest film to date. Even so, its potential for success presents him many of the same risks faced by his protagonist Maxine (Mia Goth), who hopes to move past a troubled, violent — and to some, disreputable — past in order to fulfill her larger silver-screen dreams.

Speaking to Variety at what for him is the end of a very long journey, West takes the challenges in stride. Set in 1985, “MaXXXine” is drenched in history and iconography from the time — not only when the popularity of slasher movies like “X” were booming, but during the same period that the real-life serial killer, the Night Stalker (whose exploits figure into the film’s plot), paralyzed Los Angeles in a grip of fear. In addition to speaking about the inspirations (both exact and existential) that shaped the look and story of this final chapter in Maxine’s saga (at least, for now…), West reflected on his collaboration with his spitfire leading lady, his own working methods, and the balance between homage and originality that filmmakers must maintain in order to both satisfy and challenge their audiences.

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How early did you envision the ending of this story?

I had written “X” as just one movie, and at the same time I had the idea for “Pearl” I had the idea for “MaXXXine.” But the idea for “MaXXXine” was mostly that she went to Hollywood in the ’80s and she got into movies. It was a much bigger, sprawling movie. My pitch to A24 was that we could call them “X,” “XX” and “XXX,” but that really came down to whether we could get “Pearl” made first; let’s see if anyone likes these movies, and then we’ll talk about “MaXXXine.” So we did, and they did. I wrote “MaXXXine” in post-production on “Pearl,” with the hope that we would just roll right into it, and credit to A24, we did.

Since “House of the Devil,” one of the things that impressed me was how skilled a mimic you are of the films and genres that you’re drawing from. On “MaXXXine,” were you identifying shots or images from older films to replicate, or have you long since internalized those inspirations?

It’s less about replication and more about trying to build a lived-in, convincing aesthetic so that you’re not aware of it — or if you are aware of it, you’re enjoying it. A big part of that is to try to make, let’s say 1985, have generational aspects to it, and to feel lived in. Then, as far as photography goes, if you start moving the camera in very modern ways, it will bump up against the [desired] aesthetic. Sometimes people will think, “You must be doing that zoom because of the movies of the era.” But no, if you don’t do it, it starts to not feel of the era. My goal is to put you in the era and to put you in the aesthetics of that, so that way it feels end-to-end created.

I see Brian De Palma’s “Body Double,” another story about an aspiring actor, a porn star and a murder, in “MaXXXine,” among other films. Were there specific movies that inspired the film’s aesthetic?

When you’re trying to recreate the ’80s aesthetic, what you’re also recreating is a sense of the media of the time. They’re less specific than you might think — though yes, “Body Double” is a really great, rich, aesthetic movie that takes place in Hollywood, behind the scenes of moviemaking. But giallo movies obviously play a role, as far as black-gloved killers and things like that. And then movies that are time capsules of Hollywood, from “Vice Squad” to “Angel” to “Foxes,” that show you the glamorous side of L.A and the non-glamorous side, that work as almost research of what it looked like at the time. But the spirit of all that is very alive in it more so than the replication of it.

The exploitation of women is a theme that runs throughout the relationships that Maxine has throughout her life. How difficult was it to depict that while also ensuring that the story of “MaXXXine” is one of self-actualization and empowerment?

It was always a self-actualization story. I wanted to, with “X,” create a main character that on paper, her aspirations are that she wants to be famous. She doesn’t want to work for UNICEF, you know what I mean? Her goals are somewhat shallow and superficial, but she’s fully committed to [accomplishing] them. And in “X” she’s found a way in with no help from the industry, but then she hits a ceiling — there’s a bigger barrier to entry into straight pictures. But she finds her way in, and the last thing she wants is to lose that. So I wanted to always put you with a character that, whether you agreed with her aspirations or not, you were aligned with her.

Not unlike “House of the Devil,” this film explores extreme religious beliefs. How much is that just a sturdy horror boogeyman, and how much is it indicative of you making a more deliberate commentary?

Religion is such a massive part of culture that it’s relatable to everybody in some capacity. With anything on the fringes of what’s acceptable, religion comes along, and judgment comes along with it, so it’s hard to not include something that’s such a part of everyone’s life. Even if you’re an atheist, that’s a decision on it.

But in “MaXXXine,” 1985 happened to be a very ripe time with the Moral Majority and Satanic panic, and that also seemed thematically relevant in Maxine’s background. It all made for a more interesting character, who wants to be in adult movies and be famous, but grew up in a church and is a preacher’s daughter. Also in the case of Maxine, whose father was a very larger-than-life, televangelist version, that’s showbiz too — just a different branch.

Was there a particular actress who influenced Maxine’s style or demeanor?

No, it was always just someone who was going to get what they wanted at all costs. When I first met Mia, and she related to the character, I think that she had a little bit of a chip on her shoulder — she was ready to be the lead in a movie. She was ready to be looked at as more than she had been. That tracked with what this character was, and so I think that’s part of why she was so eager to do it and why she was able to do it so well. Because there’s a little bit of her in Maxine, and vice versa. She is the one that really personified that in a way.

Has Mia become a bit of a muse for you? What made your collaboration so fruitful?

I wouldn’t describe it as that. It was more that I wrote “X,” and when I met her, she was very confident and very fearless about taking on those two roles. And that’s what you need as a collaborator to do something as ambitious as having one person playing the same person in one movie. And then to roll into “Pearl” and give a completely different performance, that is also very challenging, especially when she’s in every frame of the movie. But I knew she was game. And then by the third movie, she has more than enough ownership over Maxine to understand the character. I’m providing the boundaries within the movie — ‘this is the playground you can explore’ — and she’s a very unpredictable and spontaneous actor, so we were figuring it out as we’d go.

In “MaXXXine,” there’s a filmmaker in Elizabeth (Elizabeth Debicki) who is fighting for a sense of legitimacy, and a video store clerk with Leon (Moses Sumney) who is obsessively exploring these genres. How much are these characters little voices in your head articulating different opinions or goals that you may have for yourself?

As much as it’s a trilogy about cinema and how it affects people, for me it was always just a matter of trying to offer different perspectives on movies, good and bad. To have a director character to represent or explain their love of movies, and also show them as a flawed buffoon — but not to do just one. “X” was a way to show people something that is supposed to be erotic, but is really ridiculous when you film it. But in RJ’s case (played by Owen Campbell), just because it’s silly when you see how the sausage is made, he’s still trying to do it well. It was the same with Elizabeth Bender — she’s making a movie called “The Puritan II,” but she is trying to do it very well and build a name and a career for herself. Or Leon talking about movies and why one movie won’t stand the test of time where this other one will.

It’s not that [either character] is a proxy of my opinions, because I don’t even share some of those opinions. But I think it’s a good way to invite people to think about movies, because the real driving force behind “X” in the first place was to put craft on display. And to build that out through the three movies is satisfying, as someone who loves movies.

More than ever, we are in an era where films seem to stand on the shoulders of the ones that came before. If it’s even possible, how important for you as a filmmaker is originality these days?

It’s very important. I’m always trying to be like, “Maybe you’ve seen something like that, but you haven’t seen it exactly like this.” Sometimes you have to build [a story] with a few things that are archetypal, but it’s always good to then try to find a slight different angle on it.

In “X,” it’s not as if we haven’t seen a slasher movie in which people are getting killed on a farm before. But traditionally, the liberated young people get killed by the puritanical old people to punish them for [being sexual], so I thought, “What if they were just jealous and resentful of it?” “MaXXXine” was a similar type of thing, where there’s an archetype to the murder mystery, whodunit of it all. But to set it in the preposterous [environment] of Hollywood, that feels like a fresh take — to see behind the curtain in a way. Or to see a movie backlot play itself. I’m always trying to think of things like that.

But as far as pure originality, it’s amazing when someone can do something that feels like we’ve never seen anything like it before. But it’s very rare to do that without it being completely avant-garde, and we are not in a moment when something that’s avant-garde that has the running time of a feature film has a chance these days.

You’ve already discussed the possibility of another installment in other interviews. What needs to happen for you to make another film in this series — or to make it your next film?

Making a movie is, at best, two years of trauma, so we’re just figuring out a story worth enduring that. I’m very grateful to A24. I’m very proud of these three movies. And it feels like a good place to stop, but I do have ideas of how to continue this “universe,” or whatever you want to call it. But in about two weeks, I will wake up for the very first time not thinking about something related to these movies. Then, the movie is done, it’s out, and I’m off to the next thing. And if that brings me back around to “X,” great. But if it brings me to something else, that’s fine too. So, we’ll see.

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