X slices up traditional genre conventions

Both an ode to independent filmmaking of all stripes—adult movies, slasher movies, auteur movies—and an evocation of an era and its changing times and mores, writer-director Ti West’s X delivers a wildly entertaining ride about the currency of youth that’s also a potent reminder of our inevitable ageing and mortality.

West built his career on artful simulacrums of low-budget horror films of the 1970s and ’80s, including 2009’s occult slasher The House of the Devil, which established him as an indie maverick whose hardcore cinephilia resonated from the screen. From the lusciously feathered locks of scream queens Jocelin Donahue and Greta Gerwig to the artfully retro use of sound design, score, art direction, and practical effects—including geysers of gore—Devil felt like a true ’80s movie.

For X, which evokes and recreates rural America circa 1979, West turned to his love for 1970s New American Cinema – when young filmmakers broke the rules by trying new things—and to his passion for low-budget horror from the same era.

“When I look at movies from the 1970s, it’s obvious that people who loved the art of cinema were making them—and I miss that,” says West. “One of the main drives for me in making X came from wanting to take something low brow and seeing if I could craft something higher-brow out of it. It was an inspiring challenge to take the traditional exploitation film trope of sex and violence and reimagine it in a more thoughtful way.”

In X, six ambitious young Texans—two strippers, a Vietnam veteran, a serial-entrepreneur producer, an upstart film director, and his seemingly quiet, doe-eyed girlfriend—hit the road bound for a secluded ranch where they plan to shoot their magnum opus, The Farmer’s Daughter. The project is meant to be a renegade pornographic film with artful production values that will seduce the mainstream and make the group millions.

“It’s a crew of young people out to shoot a movie,” says Scott Mescudi (better known as the rapper Kid Cudi), who plays the character Jackson Hole and was an executive producer on the film. “They’re all young and at different parts in their lives and they’re all really excited about the project. They’re also very adventurous and you see them on this journey into embracing the unknown. You almost forget you’re watching a horror movie for a while—but then it flips and goes to another place entirely.”

In the movie, the young director RJ Nichols (Owen Campbell) has studied his Godard and wants to infuse auteurist tendencies, along with the freewheeling spirit of the era, into their homegrown romp. “RJ’s not necessarily a great filmmaker yet, but he’s competent, and the movie that he’s making is not a joke,” says West.

“It’s shot as professionally as they can afford, the actors know how to say their lines seriously without looking at the camera, and while there may be a ceiling in terms of how good their movie can actually be, the characters are still aiming for that ceiling.

Starring in The Farmer’s Daughter is Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), a cocaine-fueled young Texan with Lynda Carter aspirations. She believes she’s destined for superstardom beyond porn, and her brash, go-getting producer boyfriend Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson) will stop at nothing to help her get there. Rounding out the production are RJ’s naïve girlfriend Lorraine Day (Jenna Ortega), who finds her values tested over the course of the production, and Bobby-Lynne Parker (Brittany Snow) and Jackson Hole (Mescudi), a polyamorous duo who are no strangers to the swinging ’70s and porn shoots.

Hovering on the periphery of the production are the filmmakers’ hosts: elderly, cantankerous Howard (Stephen Ure), a World War I & II veteran, and his voyeuristic wife Pearl (Mia Goth in an unexpected second role, unrecognizable in makeup and prosthetics), who becomes obsessed with Maxine after noticing a nostalgic resemblance when surreptitiously watching her mount and ride Jackson during the porn shoot.

“Getting old is an inevitable downer when let’s face it—there are a lot of things in society that are left to the young,” says West. At X’s midpoint, during a break in filming, Bobby-Lynne sings an acoustic version of the Fleetwood Mac ballad “Landslide,” a paean to the pains of ageing gracefully when time seems to be racing by. “The song is very evocative of the melancholy that comes with growing old,” West continues. “It was the perfect song for the split-screen sequence, contrasting the two storylines—the youthful filmmakers and their elderly hosts—because it is the moment when the film really switches gears.”

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Ti West during the filming of X.

Slasher movies, West elaborates, are often populated by familiar archetypes; with X, the filmmaker sought to humanize his protagonists as much as possible. “Most of my movies centre around characters that don’t really belong in a horror movie but suddenly find themselves in one,” says West. “The more fleshed out and relatable the characters are, the less an audience will be expecting them to die, which keeps the film a step ahead of the audience and allows the suspense to work. Even though people may come to see this movie for its high body count, I wanted to make sure all the characters felt missed when they were gone.”

Period texture In X, West brings 1970s Texas to life with as much reverence and meticulous attention to detail as he did in the 1980s in The House of the Devil. From Maxine’s yearning for Lynda Carter’s career to a Blue Öyster Cult needle drop to the specific brand of beer found in a roadside convenience store, West adds texture to the story’s time period with his meticulous approach to the craft.

“You can get in the weeds trying to be very authentic, but I come to movies visually first, so having X feel genuinely 1979 was essential,” explains West. “It’s not a matter of nostalgia or trying to fetishize the era. It’s about firmly placing a modern audience in a convincingly retro world.

X was filmed in New Zealand during the summer of 2020 when Covid was raging in the United States and much of the world.

While initially reticent about shooting abroad, West came to see the distant production as a gift: cast and crew were able to film during a pandemic in a country where there were no Covid cases and safety for the cast and crew would be paramount.

“If we wanted to shoot safely in the States we would have had to push the movie a year,” says West. “That wasn’t a great option, so we went to the other hemisphere to chase the summer.”

Aside from being Covid-free, New Zealand also offered access to WETA Workshop in Wellington, the creative effects house Peter Jackson made famous through his Lord of the Rings franchise. Before LOTR, WETA built its reputation as an effects house servicing horror productions like Dead Alive and The Frighteners. In New Zealand, West found himself in close proximity to the best prosthetics and practical effects studio in the world.

“It was a dream to get to work with WETA on this,” West comments. “Their work on Peter Jackson’s early horror films is some of my favourite of all time. From our very first meeting, they totally understood what I was going for and were excited by the challenge. Nowadays so many special make-up effects that were historically done practically are done with CGI. I was adamant about a return to practical gore FX and world-class prosthetics work for the ageing.”

“In the end, shooting in New Zealand worked out in a remarkable way,” concludes West. “I was there for 13 months and am very grateful for the experience. We got to disappear to an island and make a movie in the traditional way, which otherwise would have not been possible for our extremely not social-distanced film.”