I caught up with director Nicolas Pesce for a chat on filmmaking, influences, filmmaking, counterintuitive uses of music in movies, challenges, and the Italian film genre giallo as it relates to his latest film Piercing, available now VOD and Digital HD. Pesce is also helming the reboot of The Grudge coming in 2020.

Piercing is essentially what would happen if Takashi Miike, Brian De Palma (in Piercing’s extensive use of split screen as a technique), Dario Argento and Mario Bava did a psycho-sexual thriller together. It is an exquisite cat and mouse game between a businessman (Christopher Abbott) who intends on checking into a hotel and killing a prostitute, and the prostitute who ultimately answers his call (brought to life by a haunting and disturbed Mia Wasikowska). The problem – as the viewer quickly finds out – is who is playing who here?

Piercing (based on the eponymous novel by Ryû Murakami) is very much a love letter to giallo as a cinematic tradition. It is pulpy in its deepest essence, just like the pulp crime novels written under Mussolini which came to define giallo as a literary and later cinematic style. So, it's important, to get the most from Piercing as a film, to have at least a bit of an understanding of giallo.

Giallo has more than a few similarities with American film noir (a subject I've written on extensively for The 405 and elsewhere). Like noir, it saw its beginnings in pulp crime literature. Also like noir, it is more of a style than a genre. As film scholar Gary Needham noted, "giallo in its cinematic form appears to be less fixed as a genre than its written counterpart... it functions in a more peculiar and flexible manner as a conceptual category with highly moveable and permeable boundaries that shift around."  It is for this reason that you will see horror movies, crime dramas, and psycho-sexual thrillers (like Piercing), also labeled “giallo”. Just like The Maltese Falcon is both a mystery and a film noir or how 1943's The Seventh Victim is considered both a horror movie and a film noir.

So, if definitions are somewhat loose here, what does make a movie "giallo"? As this source put it, "Nearly all contain gushing gore, erotic themes, a heavy emphasis on visuals (with things like script coherence often taking a back seat), questionable/campy English dubbing, characters gripped by paranoia, gorgeous women in peril, and ruthlessly brutal masked killers fond of sharp objects, rope, and black leather gloves." 

Piercing has all those things but the campy dubbing, and mask-wearing, black-gloved killer. Pesce's movie does transport you to its own haunting and enthralling world (the city background is purposefully campy) to witness this brutal and captivating game. It is, in many ways, an English-language giallo picture that is beautiful to witness – and fun as hell – from beginning to end. Fans of a great thriller owe it to themselves to catch it.

Writer and director Nicolas Pesce of Universal Pictures Content Group’s horror film “PIERCING”. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.

Enjoy the interview below and take a look at the trailers of a few classic giallo pictures that I have added below it – these movies are also all referenced in the interview – along with where each can be watched online (in some cases for free).

Piercing had me fascinated with and wanting to find out more about giallo. I hope it does the same for you because that journey is way worth it. 

Hello Nicolas.

Hey Wess, how you doing?

I'm good. How are you?

I'm good.

Let's see, getting right into it. What was it that initially attracted you to is it "Murakami"? Murakami's novel "Piercing"? That is, what inspired you to make that into a film.

I read "Piercing" while I was making my first film, The Eyes of My Mother. And I was doing that, my first movie was so specific, I was looking for something that was distinctly different, stylistically. And found "Piercing" ... I had discovered Murakami because Takashi Miike's movie Audition is based on another Murakami novel, and I love Audition.

I watched Audition the other night too. Very interesting film.

So I was reading "Piercing" and I felt like it was an awesome way to keep playing with similar thematic elements that I had played with in my first movie, but get to do something just totally different. Like baked into the novel is this awesome, weird, twisted sense of humor. It felt like a great way to showcase my more playful side as a filmmaker.

Absolutely. That also kinda gets into the next question I had. You were talking a bit about the influences there for it: how did giallo figure into that? I had actually read a review of your movie right after I watched it, and they're like yeah, this is pretty giallo, and I'm like, "yeah, I never heard of that." [Laughs]

(L-R) Laia Costa as Mona and Christopher Abbott as Reed in Universal Pictures Content Group’s horror film “PIERCING”. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.

So I did a bit of watching. I actually checked out The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and What Have You Done to Solange? (which allegedly Nicolas Winding Refn was looking to do an adaptation of), And I gotta say, it's a pretty fascinating genre, or style rather.

And what you just said is my favorite thing ever. So much of ... The reason I discovered ... as I just said, I love Audition, but the reason I discovered Takashi Miike was because I heard Tarantino talking about him. The cool thing about being a referential filmmaker is getting to… for all the people who know giallo, the movie is a bucket of inside jokes, and to all the people who don't know giallo, it's like "hmm, what is this?" And then you get to see these awesome movies that it's like, "how have I never heard that this existed?"

Exactly. That was totally me.

So for me, the novel is very much Murakami as a Japanese author poking fun at the Western psycho-sexual thriller, like Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, that sort of movie. And in adapting the book, I wanted to find my own cultural touchstones and references and my own way in.

I'd absolutely say you succeeded.

Murakami's relationships with movies like Basic Instinct are very similar to my relationship with giallo movies, and I also think that there's a very strong connection between giallo movies and movies like Basic Instinct.

I agree after watching them. I was thinking that it was likely a logical jump from the more American style of film noir. Almost like Italy took the classic noir and added their own distinct cultural touches and touches from genre films, particularly horror. Of course, you also have like the grand guignol theater tradition that really factors in to giallo too.

So, I used ... That was my touchstone of how do I find my way in stylistically, and it felt like a giallo thriller where you have these two kind of archetypal thriller characters and you don't know who is tricking who. And I love all those movies, and yeah, like I said, getting to turn people on to the genre. I think now more people are aware of it because of the new Suspiria movie, so they know who Argento is. But Argento made better movies than Suspiria, and Suspiria isn't even like quintessentially giallo. It's one of the few movies that actually looks like that.

Totally agree on his having better work than Suspiria. Like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

And yes, the way movies like that one but also like Argento's Deep Red and Tenebrae. But I also love Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood and Luigi Bazzoni's The Fifth Cord, and others written by Lucio Fulci. They're such great filmmakers, and if you watch these movies, it's like, a lot of the crews that made these movies were the people who were coming out of Spaghetti Westerns. It was like really great film making that's just under seen and underappreciated, so I love when my movie turns people on to more good movies.

Yeah, like Dallamano with What Have You Done to Solange?. He was the cinematographer on For a Few Dollars More, and a couple of those other spaghetti westerns, with Sergio Leone. It's just fascinating.

Mia Wasikowska as Jackie in Universal Pictures Content Group’s horror film “PIERCING”. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.

Getting into the sound and the music choices in the movie. I found "The Girl from Ipanema" for that scene to be just cool, just amazing and compelling. I'm curious. What was your process like with that part of it? Giallo historically has some interesting uses of music like that.

With that scene? With that sequence in the movie?

With the sound and music as a whole, with how that played into Piercing.

I think so much of it was about trying to figure out a way to keep the audience in the right tone, and to really play this delicate balance between being playful and being dark. And the music and the sound really help to both guide you and confuse you about how to feel.

The music is almost mismatched in a lot of places, and that juxtaposition and that contrast is what creates a lot of the tension in some of those weirder scenes. And that has always been something that's so fun to me as a movie watcher, whether Tarantino or David Lynch, these guys that have such an awesome handle on music. Knowing what music, what the intended expectation is for a certain type of music or a certain type of melody and using it in almost the wrong way to get a new effect is something that's super fun as a filmmaker.

Oh, absolutely. Makes me think of "Stuck in the Middle With You" in Reservoir Dogs.

Exactly. Exactly.

Another great example. Yep.

What were the challenges like?

It's like, the movie ... it's an indie movie, so we made it fast, and I think the hardest thing is always time. You know, you try to set it up for yourself so that that is less of an issue. You shoot with very few characters and very few locations and it all of the sudden becomes a lot easier. But I think there's always, with a movie like this, they're making a lot of really bold choices and just having faith and trusting that what we're doing feels rocky but it's right.

Absolutely.

It's kind of… it's a blessing and a curse on an indie movie. You don't have time to second guess yourself, so you just really have to go. But I think as a result, the product that ends up on screen is something that, at least for me… this movie is unabashedly me. It couldn't be more me if I tried. So it's hard in a practical way, but I think there's something that if you release yourself into the void that is making a movie, and just trust yourself, the challenges become ... the challenges set you free.

Very well said.

(L-R) Christopher Abbott as Reed and Mia Wasikowska as Jackie in Universal Pictures Content Group’s horror film “PIERCING”. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.

Getting into our last question as time is short. What's next for you, Nicolas? I know you are working on a reboot of The Grudge.

Yeah, so I'm in post on that. And that'll come out later this year, and yes. It's a very different Grudge movie. We kind of updated it for today's horror audience sensibilities. I think audiences are much more hungry for more character driven, more story driven genre movies that challenge them a little more. So we've kept all the mythology and the elements that everyone loves from the movie, but we definitely updated it for the new audience that's here for and hungry for horror.

Oh, that'll be great, and having Andrea Riseborough in it, too. Man, she was fantastic in Mandy. That movie blew me away.

Yeah. I mean, yeah. That's a great cast, and I think our cast is a testament to the movie. It is definitely a more elevated take on the franchise, and yeah, our cast. John Cho, Andrea Riseborough, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Betty Gilpin, Bill Sadler. We've got a lot of greats in there.

PIERCING red band trailer.

Trailer for Pesce's first, 2016's THE EYES OF MY MOTHER.

Giallo selections:

1. 1970's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (rent it on YouTube here)

2. 1972's What Have you Done to Solange? (rent it on Amazon Prime here)

3. 1975's Deep Red (watch free on Vudu)

4. 1982's Tenebrae (rent on Amazon Prime)

5. 1971's A Bay of Blood (rent on Amazon Prime)

6. 1971's The Fifth Cord (watch free on Vudu)