Shock Value: Ti West’s X factors

Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) is ready for her star moment in X. — Credit… A24
Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) is ready for her star moment in X. Credit… A24

X writer-director Ti West discusses the palpable ingenuity of his A24 slasher and making movies about making movies.

From its opening flashes of decomposing flesh to the orgiastic splicing of sex and violence throughout, Ti West’s X is a true grindhouse indulgence—the kind of down-and-dirty picture that doesn’t merely emulate ’70s sleaze but also honors the edgy, entrepreneurial spirit that so often fueled its creation.

In this A24-produced, late-1970s-set slasher, an ambitious group of filmmakers head to a remote stretch of Texas to shoot an adult movie and hopefully hit it big. But when the elderly couple living in a nearby farmhouse discover what these pretty young things are getting up to on their property, producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) and his would-be future stars Maxine (Mia Goth), Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and Jackson (Scott Mescudi)—plus aspiring auteur RJ (Owen Campbell) and his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega)—end up fighting for their lives.

Throughout, West unleashes an arsenal of cinematic techniques recalling everything from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with its surface jaundice and destabilized low-angle dollies, to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, with its stutter cuts and aggressive zoom lenses. A savvy genre craftsman previously best known for The House of the Devil and The Sacrament, West treats X as a full-blooded slasher on its own terms. He also seizes the opportunity to explore the tensions—social, political, generational and of course cinematic—that once burned beneath the skin of ’70s exploitation.

Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) making sure the boom is in place. — Photographer… Christopher Moss
Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) making sure the boom is in place. Photographer… Christopher Moss

Specifically, West identifies a symbiotic relationship between horror and pornography, two historically disreputable genres that once attracted all manner of independent filmmakers to Hollywood’s margins (including future legends like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara, all of whom got their start in exploitation).

X is suffused with the same die-hard, DIY ethos that once governed such low-budget productions. Shot during the pandemic near Whanganui, a small city in New Zealand, it’s West’s first film in six years—though he will follow it up quickly, revealing he also shot an X prequel, Pearl, while down-under.

Much of the picture’s formal playfulness stems from West’s passion for filmmaking. “The camera changes things,” says Ortega’s Lorraine at one point, and West seems to agree. As X’s characters set out to make a good dirty movie, he mirrors their efforts, allowing uncanny reflections of death and desire to echo through his movie’s meticulously composed frames until they start to come undone.

Following the world premiere of X at SXSW, West joined Letterboxd to discuss the craft of subversion, terrifying triple features, and the reason he set his film against the last gasp of the 1970s.

Bobby-Lynne and Jackson (Scott Mescudi) lounging before the blood flows. — Photographer… Christopher Moss
Bobby-Lynne and Jackson (Scott Mescudi) lounging before the blood flows. Photographer… Christopher Moss

X is such a tactile, atmospheric experience. I haven’t shaken it. Tell me about the craft of this film, how you wanted it to look and feel.
Ti West: Craft is the right word. I wanted to make a movie about filmmaking. To me, that meant taking something that was traditionally thought of as low-brow and trying to do something crafty with it. I say crafty, and I mean that specifically in reference to the craft of cinema: the many different crafts, be it cinematography, sound design, score, acting or makeup effects. I wanted to put all of that on display, which is why I made a movie about people making movies. They put things on display. That was always a big part of what the DNA of the movie would be to me.

Your appreciation for ’70s slashers, and particularly the films of Tobe Hooper, comes through in the craft of X. Filmgoers will spot loving references to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive, especially. What genre films inspired you?
Whenever you make a genre movie these days, you’re going to have some great genre movies that came before you, that loom over you. I just feel like it’s best to take that head-on. With X, knowing that there’s an archetypical setup to it, and that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has an archetypical setup—it may have been one of the first to really define that archetype, in a way—I just felt like, ‘Well, let’s let people think that it’s going to be like Texas Chain Saw [Massacre] and, at some point in the process, they’re going to realize that it’s not like that.’ But there’s no sense of me trying to force them to not have that feeling, when there’s this incredible masterpiece of a film that’s out there, that is in everybody’s consciousness.

I just think that, as long as fifteen to twenty minutes into the movie, you start to go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this is a different movie, and maybe because I was thinking about Texas Chain Saw [Massacre], I may have missed something, and now I’m trying to catch up, and I don’t totally know the movie I’m in’—and in there, and hopefully in my case, the suspense and the surprise is better. I made a movie years ago at a haunted hotel, and I had a movie looming over me for that one as well, so I feel like you just embrace it the best you can, and you let the audiences think what they think, and then hopefully they’ll come around to what you’re up to as you go.

“Well, let’s let people think that it’s going to be like Texas Chain Saw [Massacre] and, at some point in the process, they’re going to realize that it’s not like that.”—Ti West on subverting genre expectations.
“Well, let’s let people think that it’s going to be like Texas Chain Saw [Massacre] and, at some point in the process, they’re going to realize that it’s not like that.”—Ti West on subverting genre expectations.

I wanted to ask about your editing and camera movement in X: quick cuts and zooms, bird’s-eye-view camera angles, low-angle shots, full-screen wipes, stutter cuts, that aspect-ratio shift coming out of the barn. It’s all so pleasurable, but it also sets up the film’s scares and subversions.
I just have a great reverence for the craft of cinema, and I wanted to make a movie where someone would say what you just said. I wanted people to leave this movie feeling like they had a great night out, that it delivered on being scary and funny. They can tell their friends, “I don’t want to tell you anything about X, but you’ve got to see it.” But I also want them to think ‘Also, the filmmaking was kind of cool’ and then hopefully, they’ll think ‘Actually, filmmaking in general is cool’. That’s why they’re making a movie in this movie.

I get asked a lot, “When you make horror movies, is that scary on set?” The answer is no: it’s not at all scary, which seems obvious to me, but it’s not necessarily obvious to people who don’t make movies, so I wanted to invite them in to see what it’s like to make a movie. That way, when the movie I’m making is doing dare-I-say slightly avant-garde things, you’re more aware of it, and you think about it more. Hopefully the craft that’s going on in X—be it the camera direction, the cinematography, the editing—that you normally don’t notice in other movies, you notice in this movie. There’s also how the score has an organic aspect of coming out of vocals, and the craft of performance.

This movie, in particular, is about what it means to act in a movie like this—or twice in a movie like this—as well as special-effects makeup, and how amazing that can be when done practically. It was really just a way to put all the things I love about movies into a movie.

Writer-director Ti West on the set of X. — Photographer… Christopher Moss
Writer-director Ti West on the set of X. Photographer… Christopher Moss

You reference The Farmer’s Daughters in X directly, and RJ certainly acts like he’s seen Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones. Which roughies or adult films influenced your approach?
The movie is much more about making the adult film than the adult film itself, so it wasn’t all that essential to go beyond the movie that RJ was making. That having been said, it was the golden age of porn in the 1970s, and that’s what’s going on in the references you’ve just named, as well as Behind the Green Door and all of these other things I was aware of.

In 1978, Debbie Does Dallas started to do well. These movies then had a huge boom on VHS. [The characters’] entrepreneurial instincts are not incorrect. But, to me, the movie is far less about The Farmer’s Daughters as a movie, and far more about the ambition that everybody has of what The Farmer’s Daughters movie will give to them.

I really enjoyed X’s take on the social undercurrents of ’70s horror, how it’s this idea of mortality rather than morality that drives the film’s antagonists. There’s a real conversation going on in X about jealousy and desire.
The movie will be subjectively different for everybody based on how they think about things. Thematically, all of these things are just this soup. You can’t have one without the other, with all of those things. What I didn’t want to do is make a movie about people whose lives went horribly wrong, and they end up in this situation doing something they don’t want to do. I wanted to make a movie about a bunch of ambitious people who have their own specific goals in doing this [adult film], and they’re also friends—I think there’s a relatability and a charm to that.

To see all these people hang out, and to see their opinions come naturally out of their characters, and then for them to be hypocritical and clumsy and funny and loving at times, that seems to be relatable to me. I wanted the audience to be put in a situation where they like the characters. Often in slasher movies, one knock against them is that it’s just a bunch of unlikable characters, and you’re waiting for them to die. I wanted to do the opposite, where it was a bunch of likable characters that you’re hoping don’t die—even though, in the movie you came to see, surely you’re expecting them to.

Mia Goth as Maxine, one of her dual roles in X. — Credit… A24
Mia Goth as Maxine, one of her dual roles in X. Credit… A24

Mia Goth plays a surprising dual role in X. I know you’ve already filmed a prequel focused on one of her characters, which Goth co-wrote. How did you find her as a creative collaborator, and what’s her X-factor as a performer?
I had seen Mia in other movies and thought she was great. When you go to make a movie, especially a movie like this, you don’t know how many people are going to be interested. You send the script out, and there’s a movie that people have in their head that they’re terrified that this movie might be, and then the movie’s not that at all. It’s a weird, oddly optimistic movie rather than a nihilistic one. But you send out a script, it’s horror and porn, and people run for the hills.

Anyway, she’s someone I was a fan of. She’d read the script and liked it. We talked over Zoom, and we had a really good conversation about the script. She told me all the things she liked about it. She understood the script in a way that was very on-point to what I was writing. She understood the characters really well, and she understood the duality of Maxine and Pearl. And I was like, “Well, my ultimate goal is to have whoever plays Maxine play Pearl, because I always thought of them as different characters but the same person.” There was this total pause on Zoom, and I could see the wheels spinning in her head and she was just like “I could kill that”.

That was also very apropos of Maxine’s energy. She just thought about it, and I could sense that the opportunity was so exciting to her, which is what I was hoping she would say. I just believed in her confidence, so much that I thought she was the right person for this.

It was a similar thing with the rest of the cast, where the first question I asked was, “Why the hell do you want to be in this movie?” Everybody who ended up in the movie idiosyncratically understood it and had a very particular way into the movie I was making. They also had their own little personal reasons for why this opportunity was meaningful to them, that was an odd juxtaposition to the characters in the movie; their reasons as actors were different than those of their characters, but there was that same [spark of] “I want to do this”. That’s the energy we needed to go make this movie. That’s what I was looking for.

I found that in spades with Mia. To take that on, people have to realize that it involves six hours in the makeup chair before a ten-hour day. Absolutely gnarly, you know, and it needs to work because, if it doesn’t work, we’re doomed.

Jocelin Donahue as Samantha in The House of the Devil (2009), West’s breakout film.
Jocelin Donahue as Samantha in The House of the Devil (2009), West’s breakout film.

The Sacrament was about Jonestown in 1978. The House of the Devil was looking at satanic panic in the 1980s. The timing of X falls between them. How did you settle on a 1979 setting?
When you were making an adult film in the ’70s, you still had to make the rest of the movie that wasn’t the porn parts. You’re still making a feature-length movie. So that was part of it. Also, 1979 was the changeover year between decades, which was thematically interesting to me, and poignant, I hope.

Also, the ’70s is probably the most revered time in American cinema for the craft of cinema, and so the milieu of ’70s avant-garde, challenging, auteurist kinds of movies fell into line with the style of the movie I wanted to make. As well, it fell into line with the narrative of RJ and his character in that, yes, he has an opportunity to make, not the ideal movie, but he’s trying to hit the ceiling as much as he can with what he’s making, because he is informed by great movies that are going on around him.

Last question: X is a gateway to this avant-garde, auteurist cinema you’re describing, and it celebrates ’70s horror. What are some horror movies you personally love and would recommend for viewers to seek out?
Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is the one to remind people of. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is still great, as is The Changeling with George C. Scott. I could go on, but there’s three. You could have a good triple feature with those.


X’ is in theaters now, via A24.

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