The Eyes of My Mother marks an impressive feature debut for writer/director Nicolas Pesce.  Both highly psychological and highly visual, Pesce’s self-assured grasp of visual composition and quiet sound designed is further elevated by shooting in black and white.  The detached examination of lead character Francisca further contributes to the uncomfortable, unnerving atmosphere Pesce has created, and it’s one of the most memorable films in recent memory (review).

After the film’s Fantastic Fest debut, we sat down with Pesce to discuss the influences behind his first feature, the surprising personal history that was woven into the film’s narrative, and more.

(Laughing) Thank you. First of all, it started off as just a love letter to the era of horror films that I love, which is late ‘50s, early ‘60s American Gothic, William Castle, Night of the Hunter, Psycho, Straight-Jacket; all of that stuff. And, to me, what always attracted me is that it’s family dramas or character studies that use these horror elements and violence to just heighten the tension of the family drama. I started off by asking what is the scariest thing that could happen to me, which is losing my mother and losing my parents, and exploring that along with, and this is dark, but I always used to say that Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate 17 people. That is insane! But he didn’t spend 100% of his time killing and eating people. He had to go to the grocery store, take a shower, and eat normal dinner. Seeing that inner life when you know what else a person is capable of made both the quiet things and the violent stuff so much more complicated and interesting, and exactly what you said is exactly what I was going for. I want you to equal parts feel bad for her and feel afraid of her, and we always tried to dance that line of, “Do you want her to get away with this?” It was important to me to step away from the traditional slasher and give the appropriate complexity and emotional difficulty that comes with these sort of violent acts.
Anything that I could show you with our limited special effects budget would not be nearly as haunting as what is in your head. I think it’s the Reservoir Dogs ear cutting scene; everyone thinks they see the ear being cut off when it actually does a really terrible pan to the corner of the room and back. It’s about, to me, the audience is going to make something way scarier than I could show them, and chances are probably make it even more fucked up than it was in my head. The best thing ever is when I hear, like a bunch people have come of the theater and have been like, “Dude, I was with you until you showed her stabbing him 37 times.” And I tell them they didn’t see that, it didn’t happen on screen. There wasn’t even a knife in her hand when we shot that. The idea that the audience can scare themselves with just a little nudge is way more effective.
Totally. You might not see him getting stabbed 37 times, but you sure do hear it!
Actually, the hardest thing was finding a girl who could handle the subject matter. Because I knew I wanted this girl’s hands on a dead cow’s head. I wanted her sitting in the room while this stuff was happening. You’d hear stuff about like The Shining, where they’d have Danny in other rooms and they’d only bring him in for his close-up, and so I wanted to find a child who could handle this. And whose parents were comfortable enough with me and the crew to know that we weren’t going to fuck up their daughter, and have a respect and sensitivity to it. But I really did want a child who would understand at least a fraction of what they were talking about. We really lucked out with this girl, Olivia Bond. She’s unbelievable and her parents are unbelievable. I think that I knew I had found her when she came in for the audition and, this girl is 9 years old, she asked me, “Don’t you think that she’s equal parts curious and afraid of this guy while she’s standing over him?” And I was like, “Yes! Yes, I do!” She was very much in her own way able to understand what was going on, but as soon as we called cut be like, “Hey! Was I good?” With this huge smile on her face and this really positive energy, and I think that it made it a lot easier than we all thought it would be dealing with such dark subject matter with a child.
Yeah, I mean, before her mom was killed there was the whole cow head and talking about St. Francis, and you can tell that there’s something there that’s not quite normal. But that cow dissection, that came from my life. I did that with my mom. My mom is an eye doctor, and she brought home a bunch of cow eyes one day and just started cutting them up. It was about teaching me anatomy; my mother was a surgeon and it was a very scientific exploration of anatomy. For Francisca, she didn’t get to spend enough time with her mother to understand what the context for all of that learning was. Even the story that her mother told her in the beginning about St. Francis; it’s about this guy who thought something miraculous had happened to him but just turned out to be a crazy person. She’s imparting this very unique outlook of the world to her daughter, but then as soon as the trauma happens, all of these sort of seeds grow into the wrong plants. Maybe if she’d spent more time with her mother, she would have understood. But instead, in an attempt to connect with her mother after her death, she uses the things she learned from her in all of the wrong ways. So yeah, part of it is nature, and part of it is nurture. But how much? We don’t know.
To me it was important that you got a glimpse at Francisca’s life at different stages and that the audience understands that there are large amounts of story that’s happening between these moments, that it’s not linear, and that it’s asking you to fill in the gaps yourself. There’s a huge jump from chapter one to chapter two, from Francisca age 9 dancing with her dad to Francisca age 20, and I never really explain what happens in those 10 years, but there are a lot of seeds and details that are planted throughout the film that lets you paint what that story was. To me, in a film that’s so quiet, the fun of it is letting you think for a moment and piece things together for yourself, and actively be working while you’re watching the movie.
And then those moments were you would just relax and breathe I have you working through all of this story that now makes you feel way grosser. By the time you’ve internalized that, she’s killing someone again.
My next one is so thematically similar. It’s another sort of dealing with dark fantasies. It’s more thriller-horror, but it’s still dealing with the themes of what would need to happen to make you kill someone.