Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Expressively shot and deliberately paced, The Eyes Of My Mother is a cunningly elegant film, given the dark and extremely gruesome acts committed by its heroine. Newcomer Kika Magalhaes stars as Francisca, a young woman deeply scarred by witnessing her mother’s murder when she was just a child. But the real surprise in this neatly wrapped box of horrors is the film’s emotional resonance, a quality that turns out to be inspired by director Nicolas Pesce’s own family history.

The Eyes Of My Mother premieres in select theaters throughout the United States and on demand on December 2, but The A.V. Club caught it at both the Toronto International Film Festival and at Fantastic Fest, where we said, “It’s a profoundly disturbing film, made even more so by how profoundly sad it is.” (Read The A.V. Club’s full-length review here.) We talked to Pesce shortly after Eyes’ Fantastic Fest screening, where we asked him to peel back the film’s horror surface to reveal the personal story underneath.

Photo: Magnoila Pictures

The A.V. Club: This is such a disturbing film, but it’s also very sad and melancholy. Could you talk about that?

Nicolas Pesce: I think that to me, beyond it being a horror film, it’s a film about loneliness. It’s a film about a girl who loses her mother and doesn’t know how to cope with that. The impetus of the whole movie was asking, “What is the scariest thing that I can possibly imagine right now?” And it was losing my parents, and the loneliness that ensues from that. And no matter how terrifying or violent or gruesome it gets, this is a story about a girl that wishes she could just be with her mother again. She’s constantly looking for that companionship, and doesn’t find it. Or sort of finds it.

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AVC: In really twisted ways. But even when [the heroine] is doing these twisted things, I found myself feeling bad for her.

NP: For us [making the film], we were constantly dancing on this line between—we had to find a logic for every illogical thing that she did. And finding a way to make her human and grounded and emotional so that when she’s cutting out people’s eyes, there’s a love in there, however weird it is. And even as a little girl, she doesn’t quite understand the ramifications of what she’s doing. It’s twisted, but her intentions are really benevolent. She’s trying to do everything out of love, it just comes out in very disgusting ways. I wanted throughout the whole film for the audience to feel like she needs a hug and to be killed.

AVC: Another interesting element is the parents being immigrants from Portugal and speaking Portuguese. Why is that included in the film?

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NP: Storywise, I thought it was really interesting, that on top of all the other stuff that’s going on with her, in this attempt to connect with Francisca, there’s a really superficial boundary that makes her literally hard to understand. It was a nice symbol of her as a whole, that even if she did sit down and speak with someone, they’re speaking different languages, and they’re talking in different ways. And also, the biggest story that’s in Eyes that isn’t actually in there is, “What’s the deal with her parents?” Which I will not answer.

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

AVC: But you know.

NP: I know. And I leave a bunch of hints. But also, on a practical level, I met [star] Kika [Magalhaes] before we really even started writing. I worked on a music video with her—I used to direct music videos—and she had this otherworldly quality to her. The way she walks, and holds her hands, and her facial mannerisms—that’s her, in real life. She’s actually quite bubbly and happy in real life, but all those mannerisms were just the way she naturally was, and I found it so interesting and unique. And she had just moved from Portugal. She barely spoke any English. My thought was, “This is the right girl.” I don’t speak Portuguese, but there’s not enough dialogue in the movie for that to necessarily be a problem. She became a collaborator as I wrote, and I was able to talk to her about things, and then we’d be on set, and she’d say something in Portuguese, and I’d call cut and say, “What’d you say?” [Laughs.]

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AVC: That’s a lot of trust.

NP: And she’d tell me what she said, and I’d be like, “Okay, do it again, and say this now.” And I’d be really happy with a cut, and she’d say, “But I said this.” I also thought it was important for this sort of film, because my inspiration, as far as contemporary movies go, was in Japanese films and French films, and my experience in watching them without subtitles. I really wanted it to feel like a foreign horror film. A lot of people come in and they’re like, “I was expecting you to be Portuguese.” And nope, I’m Italian. The language, both stylistically and storywise, did a lot of interesting things in the film.

AVC: If I can get personal for a moment, the house that they live in and the way that the father reacts to the situation, reminded me a lot of my grandparents.

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NP: That’s my grandparents, too. They’re from Sicily and lived in the Bronx. My grandfather is who the father is modeled after, down to the fact that my grandfather only watched Bonanza, and that’s what’s on TV [in the movie]. And the smoking, and the way he dresses. But I think that there’s a generation—I don’t know where your grandparents are from?

AVC: They’re a branch of German Mennonites.

NP: Oh, okay. So there’s a generation of my family, of immigrants, where nothing in the world could happen to make my grandfather call the police for any reason. You take care of yourself, and if there’s something that you need to deal with and you have to remain secretive, that’s the way it has to be. And that can mean that, “You don’t get to go to school anymore, because we have to deal with this.” And my grandfather was like that. My grandma was very religious, which is where a lot of the St. Francis stuff [in the film] comes from. For Francisca, if her dad had just called the cops, maybe this all wouldn’t have all happened. But that was not even an option for him.

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And in that moment, he taught Francisca that you have to deal with everything yourself. You solve your own problems, and in a weirdly cowering way. Then she does it in all the wrong ways. But his message to her is, “We’re going to deal with this. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this yet, but I’m dealing with this. This is the reality of the situation, and we are going to keep going, and you don’t get a chance to sit there and be sad about this, because I don’t know how to do that.”

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

AVC: Very practical. Since we were talking about grandparents—the film is set in an ambiguous time period. What were you going for with that?

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NP: I think that I wanted to be ambiguous, and the only clue as to when it takes place is the cars that are in the parking lot of the bar, and the way that Kimiko is dressed.

AVC: Her jean jacket did make me go, “Ohhh.” I thought the story was set in the ’50s until I saw that jacket.

NP: I’d say that sequence is 1988, and then you can backtrack from there.

AVC: It does span decades.

NP: Yeah. In my opinion, it goes from late ’60s to early ’90s. And the cues are really just the bars. That’s the only thing that gives you a sense of when and where you are. I liked that, in this movie, where [an audience member] is like, “This is the ’50s or ’60s,” and all of a sudden there’s this girl who looks like she watches Beverly Hills, 90210. And it’s like, “Whoa, wait a second, where are we?” This isn’t as far off as you thought it was.

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AVC: You have this very insular world Francisca lives in, and when she interacts with the outside world is when you see where and when it actually is.

NP: In my grandparents’ house, it still looks like it did in 1970, and for Francisca, I think she kept the house exactly as it was the day her mother died, and that’s the house. She’s going to keep it like that, and it becomes this bizarre time capsule. Everything around her keeps going, but everything in the house stays the same, and she stays the same, and it’s this weird place of no progression.

Photo: Magnoila Pictures

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AVC: One thing that really resonated for me was all the plastic bags for putting all the pieces [of meat] in, because that’s Depression stuff. That’s totally my grandma. You don’t throw anything away.

NP: Yup, even if it’s a body! The family details were a big thing for me. There’s a lot of me [in this movie]. For instance, the cow dissection in the opening scene—me and my mom did that in real life. My mom was an eye doctor and was also my Sunday school teacher and was into religion and science and taught me dissection as a way of understanding anatomy. So throughout the movie there’s all these little moments that are very real family things, because they’re from me. And hopefully they ground the more bizarre stuff in reality.

AVC: Why did you decide to shoot in black and white?

NP: Stylistically, I wanted the audience to know right off the bat what sort of horror film they were getting into. If you’ve seen Night Of The Hunter or Straightjacket or Psycho, or any of that stuff, there’s a sort of nostalgic harkening back to a different realm of horror. But I was also going for a German expressionist sort of thing, an extension of Francisca’s psyche. [With black and white,] I was able to use older filmmaking tactics with shadows and lighting and cinematography to heighten the mood. And if I would have shot this film in color, they would have looked campy and too over-the-top. For instance, all the nighttime stuff was shot during the day and underexposed, and all the daytime stuff was shot at night, and we lit it. We lit the hillsides and everything.

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AVC: Really? Because sometimes [day for night] is obvious, and this does not look like that.

NP: In black and white, you throw a red filter on it, and the sky goes dark. There are a lot of older techniques that Hitchcock and those type of guys used to create a certain unsettling nature in the cinematography. We wanted to use new, contemporary technology and still make those choices.