An elegant Gothic tale of innocent depravity, shot in carefully-composed brooding shades of gray, The Eyes of My Mother (2016) charts the twisted coming-of-age of Francisca (Kika Magalhaes), a solitary young woman raised on a farm by her parents (Diana Agostini and Paul Nazak). A shattering disruption to her family’s isolation leads the young woman to apply the techniques taught her by her surgeon mother to human relationships, for purposes of control and of intimacy.

The film brings a meditative, artistic approach to retro 1960s lurid melodrama material, presenting chapters from the life of a young woman trying to bridge the gulf of loneliness by anatomizing the connective tissue of humanity in the most concrete and visceral of ways. The film itself shares a common nature with its main character: it is a thing of precision and brutality, engaging in a world of human relationships that is both operating theater and abatoir.

At 2016’s Fantastic Fest, Diabolique sat down with the film’s writer-director-editor, Nicolas Pesce, to discuss his haunting debut feature.

Diabolique: Why did you make this movie?

Nicolas Pesce: That’s a good question. I think that it was equal parts love letter to this era of horror movies that I still love, that sort of late fifties/early sixties American Gothic horror movies, Night of the Hunter, Strait-Jacket, Psycho. But also I really wanted to explore a character that would normally be the villain in the movie, and to kind of explore the sort of humanity that someone who doesn’t normally get that treatment does. This is a crass analogy, but Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate seventeen people, and that’s a crazy crazy fact, but he didn’t spend a hundred percent of his time killing and eating people. He had to go get groceries, and make his bed, and do what normal people do, and seeing those in-between moments, when you know what someone is capable of, I think is all the more terrifying, and all the more telling about who they are as a person. Making a film that explored those in-between moments was what the point of Eyes was.

Diabolique: What did that era of filmmaking mean to you, and how did that inform your choices in making your film?

Nicolas Pesce: First of all, I just have a nostalgia for it. It’s sort of what made me initially fall in love with movies. My parents just exposed me to all this stuff, everything from Twilight Zone to all the movies I listed, a the William Castle movies. To me, what was so interesting about that era of horror films was that, at the heart of them, they’re all family dramas. Night of the Hunter is about children who feel unsafe in their own home with their mother’s new suitor. Strait-Jacket is about mental instability of a parent. All of these stories were family dramas that used elements of horror and violence to sort of heighten everything that was emotionally going on, but at the heart of it, it was really just using horror as window dressing to explore something that Ozu would do in just a family drama, but then getting to play with these other set-pieces to heighten everything.

Diabolique: Let’s focus on your main character: How did the character develop in your writing process?

Nicolas Pesce: One of the great things about this was I had worked with the actress, Kika [Malgalhaes], who plays Francisca,  before this, on a music video. As I started writing it, I knew she was gonna be the character in the film, so I got to have a lot of conversations with her, in developing the character. It was a lot about just trying to figure out a character who was both illogical and logical –  logically illogical – and finding the humanity in them so that, even though she was doing something out of a slasher movie, there was a humanity that grounded it, so that she was more than that and that, hopefully, every act of violence in the film is steeped with all these other layers of emotion, and it’s not just the act of violence, but all of this turmoil that’s inside the character. A big thing for me was, I think that there’s definitely some people who’ve killed, and there’s just something that’s off, and they just want to do it, but I think there’s also a lot of people who, there is, and it might not be so neat and tidy. There is a reason why they are the way they are, and it might not be so clear, but there is a trajectory that got them there. For Francisca, she may not have done what she did if someone had helped her when she was a young girl. Just kind of playing with those environmental factors that can make or break you.

Diabolique: What determined your choice in cinematic style for your film? Thinking back to those older film styles, like Night of the Hunter? 

Nicolas Pesce: You know, and I think that it is definitely more stylized than even Night of the Hunter, which is like super-artificial and stylized.

Diabolique: Yeah, expressionistic. How does working in that style help the story-telling. I think that today there are so many films attempting for a more naturalistic style, and no one is taking the–

Nicolas Pesce: The other road.

Diabolique: Yeah, whatever that other road is of having a strong visual approach, which I think points to the internal state of the character.

Nicolas Pesce: To me, as a filmmaker – and this is gonna get a lot of people mad…

Diabolique: Do it!

Nicolas Pesce: …but I have very little interest in watching a movie that looks like real life, because I live in New York City, I can walk down the street and see every indy movie that’s ever been made in about five minutes – in real life. I think that the beauty of film is not – We have eyes to experience real life. The beauty of film-making is doing something to change what real life looks like. The coolest thing about movies is we take a camera, we point it at something that’s real and we make it look different. You have to say something with the way you show the world just as much as you have to say something with the way you tell the story.

For a movie like Eyes, it’s so important for you to emotionally to be in this really unsettled place, that you don’t know necessarily why you’re uncomfortable, you don’t know what’s eating at you immediately. To put you into this other sort of world that vaguely resembles real life, but is doing something that is making you think about those same things differently. There are plenty of shots in my movie that’s like a little girl in a sundress on brass. That in and of itself doesn’t hold any emotion, and shooting that naturalistically doesn’t say anything, but the camera voyeuristically peering through a bush at this girl with all this other stuff going on in the frame – you can tell so much more story without actually having to tell story and let the audience kind of ease into this pool of reality that you’ve created. I think that that’s the beauty of film: that we get to manipulate like that.

Diabolique: I would challenge that photographing naturalistically a girl on the grass does not enhance the story, is what you’re saying: It sort of is what it is, is what you’re saying?

Nicolas Pesce: Exactly.

Diabolique: It opens up for people’s interpretations, but you’re actually guiding them with a stronger hand to what that means.

Nicolas Pesce: Yes, and I think that I’m pushing them to feel a certain way about something that they may already have expectations about feeling, and I think the beauty of filmmaking is playing with expectations, and how we experience life and what you think is the world. But then, as a filmmaker, I get to make you feel however I want you to feel about anything. I think with Eyes, it’s doing on both sides, but it’s making the banal feel more uncomfortable, and then making uncomfortable, violent things feel more normal.

Diabolique: And beautiful.

Nicolas Pesce: And beautiful. And having there be artistic beauty to violence, because I’ve heard so many real serial killers talk about that, and that to me is really dark, and really scary, that someone has that. Dahmer – what he did with those bodies, there’s something that’s really terrifying about pointing out the beauty in something that’s really terrifying.

Diabolique: Why are you fascinated with that? Have you always been fascinated with that? Do you feel that your aesthetic is more of a horror genre aesthetic? Because some folks say, ‘I want to make different types of stories’ and then some people like Argento go, ‘I make horror films.’ They’re just interested in exploring this point-of-view about the world.

Nicolas Pesce: I definitely have no interest in making a comedy, or a romantic comedy.

Diabolique: You feel horror is a point-of-view, right?

Nicolas Pesce: I feel like it’s – I was the kid who, if I found some fucked-up video online, I was like, ‘I’m gonna show this to you, because this happened. Whether you think it’s fucked-up or not, that happened and we should’ – I don’t know if we should –  but in my head, I like to, violence and not-violence, I like to internalize and have thoughts about that, and I think that violence is something, particularly murder, is something that happens every single day, and I think it’s the craziest thing that any person could ever do, and I think that there’s nothing that – The stakes are never higher in a movie than when you’re worrying about life and death, and I think that playing with these dark themes is just something that I’m, as a person, interested in, whether I was a filmmaker or musician or painter, whatever. This sort of meditation on why people do violent things is just a thing that has always interested me.

Diabolique: Does it help you to explore, what does that mean about the human condition – or do you have specific ideas?

Nicolas Pesce: I don’t think I have any ideas of – I mean, I think that it’s also such a person-to-person basis as to why anyone does anything. We see it now, in all these people’s fascination with true crime stuff – I think everyone is intrigued by people who do things that we wouldn’t do. With killers in particular – you look at a guy like Robert Durst from The Jinx, there’s something weird about him just as a character that makes him fascinating and interesting – and then the fact that he may or may not have killed a bunch of people makes it so much crazier, because I would not do that. – At least I hope not! – There is no amount of crazy – I’m not gonna kill anyone, and I never am, and I think that, for the people who have gotten to the place where they’re like ‘Yes, I’m going to kill someone, and that makes sense to me’ is of the more interesting characters to explore.

Diabolique: What do you want your audience to take away from watching your film?

Nicolas Pesce: That, no matter how dark a character is, and how different you may feel from that person, I think that there’s elements of every single person that are relatable, and you can connect with, and whether it’s just, in Eyes if it’s just feeling her loss of her mother. No matter how bad you are, it doesn’t make you not a human with emotions and usually people’s first question to me is, ‘Why did you make this movie?’ and I think that if the character was inherently good people would not ask that question. I think that just because a character is bad or evil doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to have their story told, and their psychology explored.