Filmmaker Oz Perkins discusses the making of his eerie ghost story I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
Actor-turned-director Oz Perkins (February) knows horror. His father was the late, great actor and sometime director Anthony Perkins, the man whose turn as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (and its three direct sequels) continues to chill the blood. But Perkins’ cinematic style is his own. Sure there are traces of Hitchcockian elegance in his sophomore film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (read our review here), but with its moody, slow-burning tone, poetic sheen and unshakable ambiguity, it’s clear Perkins is on to something that is anti-commercial, artfully minded…and refreshingly scary.
Credit juggernaut streaming service Netflix for giving Perkins the resources and long leash to create such a personal, obsessive work. Pretty Thing premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week and it’s a film almost pornographic in its portent, every second of it seductive and ripe with tension, promising money shots that never come. And that’s what makes it so perfect; those small moments that feel like mammoth rewards, the ways in which Perkins makes the viewer work for gratification. The film stars Ruth Wilson (Luther,The Affair) as Lily, a hospice nurse who takes the job of caring for an elderly and demented horror writer (played by the amazing and semi-retired Paula Prentiss as a kind of quote of iconic Gothic horror writer Shirley Jackson). The batty scribe keeps calling the nurse Polly, who is in fact a character from one of Blum’s most popular novels. Lily reads said book and becomes lost in its narrative, the likes of which is realized for us in some effective asides, and soon, what’s happening on page begins to affect what’s happening in the real world.
We had the honor of sitting with the intelligent, articulate and talented Perkins the afternoon prior to the film’s September 10th TIFF world premiere, a chat that covers not only the genesis of the film, but his memories of his dad’s films and the freedom of working for Netflix, a company who has become famous for letting filmmakers explore and express their ideas free of studio interference.
CS: How did this project end up at Netflix?
Perkins: I made a movie called “February” which A24 ended up calling “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.”
CS: And how do you feel about that?
Perkins: I feel like I chose the new title when they offered a title that was “When the Dark Calls.”
CS: That’s so generic. That’s horrible.
Perkins: And I said, “We can’t do that VHS title.” So in any case, we made the movie and we brought it here. And Netflix saw it and loved it and A24 sort of had already made their move to buy it. And so, Netflix called my producer, Rob Paris and said, “What do you got? What are you doing? What are you doing next?” And Rob called me and said, “I don’t know. I had this little thing that I think I’m just going to like, give as Christmas presents. It’s a tiny little script. I mean, it’s barely a movie.”
CS: It’s a poem, really.
Perkins: It’s a poem. And the screenplay’s really a poem. And so, we sent it to Netflix and the next day they said, “Yeah, great.” And I said, “No changes, no notes?” “No, no changes, no notes.” We asked for money and they gave us the amount of money we wanted, which was two-and-a-half times as much as we had the first time. And they let me put whoever I wanted in it. And they never bothered me and they never came to the set and looked over my shoulder. They never came to the set. And at the end of the process, in the final week of cutting they had five notes and they were all great. That’s the true word for word about Netflix.
CS: You literally had complete creative control on this project.
Perkins: Complete creative control. It was like the ’70s.
CS: Wow, you’re getting spoiled.
CS: Just don’t get used to it.
Perkins: Guess who’s going to work with Netflix for the rest of his life?
CS: Well, let’s hope that Netflix stays like this for the rest of its life.
Perkins: It may. It may.
CS: It’s kind of the wild west right now.
Perkins: They’re kind of winning right now.
CS: Watching this movie equates to listening to it, and not just the words, but the sound. Who did the soundtrack for this?
Perkins: My brother, who did the score for the first movie. He’s a singer/songwriter. He’s got three records to his name. His name is Elvis Perkins. And Elvis had never written a bar of score before, but I brought him in to do “Blackcoat’s Daughter” and he killed it. And then, brought him to do this, and he didn’t want to really because “Blackcoat’s Daughter” almost killed him because he’s a poet. He’s a singer/songwriter. And so, to say, “Do this for that long here and here,” almost killed him. So he begrudgingly did this movie and they just f*cking gave him a Vanguard Award. He got an award for best score. What we have in this movie is, because Polly’s story is based on the American folk song, “Pretty Polly”, which is just about a guy who takes his girlfriend out into the woods one day and is like, “Look, I dug a grave and now I’m putting you in it.” And that’s just about it. And I’m going to kick some dirt over you and I’m going to leave you. And then, the birds kind of give him a hard time. Well, we have this friend, Frank Fairfield, who’s a very accomplished fiddler. He’s an old American singer, who sings all these old American songs and fiddles them. And so, we had him do “Pretty Polly” on his fiddle. And that’s Polly’s theme, is “Pretty Polly”, but slowed way down and stretched way out.
CS: So this movie, actually, it feels haunted. Like the entire movie, it’s about a haunted house, more or less, sort of…
Perkins: I like how you say, “More or less, sort of,” yeah.
CS: There’s this ambiguity about it, which I always appreciated. But just tell me about the house. Where did it come from? Whose house is it?
Perkins: So, my father bought a house—I wish I knew exactly when—but I think either in the late ’50s or early ’60s, back when people said to you, “Kid, buy land.” He had movie star money, right? And before they said, “Buy stock,” they said, “Buy land.” And so, we have acreage and this house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in Wellfleet, which was built in 1796, I think. And I’ve gone there every year of my life. And so, it’s loosely based on that. A lot of those sort of fixtures and things aren’t the same, but in terms of the layout and the size of it all, it’s quite different. It’s quite bigger and it’s like that. But no, I sat down with my production designer and said, “These are the things that I like. This is what I think it is.” And we built it all. I mean, we built it on sound stages.
Perkins: Right. We built it all on sound stages in Ottawa. We found an exterior house. We’re now in Canada. We make movies in Canada.
CS: Do you have a duel citizenship now?
Perkins: I don’t, no. At some point, honorary citizen, I think. I mean, I’ve made two movies there in like, two years with Zed Filmworks. Rob Menzies. But so, my brilliant, brilliant designer, Jeremy Reed just said, “We have enough money,” and we built two stories on a sound stage and the whole thing is fake as sh*t.
CS: Yeah, well, it’s great because it feels fake. That’s the thing I was wondering about. It feels like an Mario Bava movie, with this stylized fakeness to it.
Perkins: Yeah, totally. Yeah, the kitchen was like, the biggest kitchen in the world.
CS: Back to your dad, my favorite “Psycho” movie has always been…
Perkins: Psycho III.
CS: You got it. Your dad’s directorial debut.
Perkins: It’s great. Just the fact that my dad’s crazy making a crazy movie. He doesn’t care.
CS: Yeah, and also just it’s such an existential, almost art-house “f*ck you” to what everybody expected a “Psycho” movie to be.
CS: Was that an influence on you at all?
Perkins: I think my dad’s humor about all of it, like the fact that he just wasn’t—I’m not saying he wasn’t going to take it seriously, because obviously, he was being paid well to sort of do right by the franchise and to do right by his character and all of that, so he obviously took it very seriously, but there was a quality I think for him of like, “Why wouldn’t I f*ck around with this? Why wouldn’t I push the envelope? Why wouldn’t I have it so that Norman walks through the door, he enters the door in the diner, but he comes through the door in his living room? Like, why wouldn’t I have things like that in a movie? This is what movies are for.” And I know that he had an attitude on the set, where it was like anybody who had an idea, please say so. And there’s a bit in the movie where Mother is chasing after somebody and they go up the stairs and they knock a painting. And Mother keeps coming up and she straightens the painting.
CS: Of course, yeah.
Perkins: And that was a grip’s idea. A grip said, “She should straighten the painting.” And he was like, “Yeah, straighten the painting.” And so, I think there’s a quality for me, of just like, there’s no reason why this has to be a bummer. This can be like, a really good time and you can really use everybody’s ideas.
CS: Bob Balaban. Can you talk about him? I always think of, well, obviously his screen presence, Midnight Cowboy, Seinfeld…but he’s a good director, too.
Perkins: He’s great.
CS: Have you seen Bob’s movie Parents?
Perkins: Yeah, I haven’t seen it in a long time. Is that Randy Quaid?
CS: Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt are in it.
Perkins: Is it cannibals?
CS: Maybe or maybe not, because it’s told from a child’s point of view, and the kid wonders, “are my parents cannibals or am I just walking in on them f*cking?”
Perkins: The essential question.
CS: Did Bob offer his two directorial cents to you?
Perkins: Yeah, and I mean, and I’ve said this to everybody, and I kind of knew this coming in, but it’s like, when you get Bob Balaban, you get Bob Balaban from the second he walks in.
CS: What does that mean?
Perkins: It’s like for me, I’ve said it’s like you get Christmas and you come downstairs and it’s, “Mom, I got a Bob Balaban.” And you just take him out of the box and you put him on the thing and it’s just Bob.
CS: And you just let him go.
Perkins: Yeah. And it’s just Bob Balaban. And he understands everything and he’s funny and he’s dry and he does sort of a confused thing. All of his things, they’re just on point right away.
CS: Okay. So is it being marketed as a horror film? Because it’s kind of genre-less and it’s the antithesis to all the Blumhouse movies that are booga-booga, jump, jump, jump, bang, bang, bang.
Perkins: Well, you get that it’s a Blumhouse, right? You get that her name is Iris Blum…
CS: I was wondering if that was an intentional nod…
Perkins: Yeah, it’s a Blumhouse nod. So Netflix is bringing that on October 28th, so they’re not pretending to not bring it out on Halloween. But they made a little trailer for it, you know, they make these little trailers. And they’re not twisting it. They’re not trying to make it look like something it’s not. They’re not doing any of that. They’re being honest.