“Either it Blows Up or it Doesn’t.” – New interview for my Filmmaker Magazine column with Pearl cinematographer Eliot Rockett

Rockett, a longtime Ti West collaborator (X, The Innkeepers, The House of the Devil), talks about Mia Goth’s epic six-minute monologue, using practical effects for exploding bodies and how merely throwing Rec. 709 onto his Sony Venice feed brought Pearl surprisingly close to the film’s Technicolor ambitions. The prequel to X was shot in New Zealand (standing in for Texas circa 1918), with principal photography beginning only three weeks after X wrapped. Also, check out my previous interview with Eliot for X.

Here’s Rockett on how he pulled off Pearl’s “exploding Howard” bit practically:

Filmmaker: There’s a dream sequence where Pearl’s husband Howard comes back from the war and is walking up the front yard and his entire body basically spontaneously explodes. It’s such a believable effect. It felt like a throwback to a 1980s exploding head from something like Scanners. It’s a wide shot and it’s obviously the real actor. There’s no visible cut before he explodes into pieces. How did you do that?

Rockett: We locked off the camera and had the actor walk in and stop on the mark where he was going to wave and then explode. Then, with the camera still locked off, the special effects guys put in a dummy on that same mark with all the blood and guts and explosives in it, and we blew it up. Those two shots are sewn together in the VFX world so that it works perfectly.

Filmmaker: How many dummies did you have? Was this a one-time thing and you had to get it right on the first take?

Rockett: There may have been a second one, I don’t remember, but we only did the shot once. Either it blows up or it doesn’t— there’s not much that can go wrong. On the very first movie I shot for Ti, which was a sequel to Cabin Fever, we did a very similar thing. At the very beginning of the movie there’s a guy stumbling out of the woods into the middle of the road and this school bus comes from the distance and runs him over. We had the guy walk out into the road with the camera locked off, then pulled him out and put the dummy in. Just as the school bus hit the dummy, we blew up the dummy.

Pearl was interesting because with all the other movies that I’ve shot for Ti, the script was exactly what the movie is. With Pearl, there were a number of things that were in the script that we shot but they ended up not being in the movie or were used differently than originally intended. That [exploding Howard] shot was one of them. It happened at a different time in the script and Pearl was actually out on the front lawn hanging up laundry and there was a whole sequence that happened.

And here’s Rockett on that epic six minute Mia Goth monologue:

Filmmaker: Obviously, we’re going to have to get into the Mia Goth monologue shot. It’s Goth’s character and her sister-in-law at the kitchen table and you’re cross cutting between the two, but at one point you stay on Goth’s close-up for something like six minutes. Because there’s other shots during that scene, did you have multiple cameras on Goth for her side of the coverage?

Rockett: We definitely had two, but I can’t remember if we had a third as well. Ti knew he wanted it to play out largely in one shot, but it wasn’t totally clear whether it was going to be the tight shot that’s in the film or maybe a little bit looser shot. It’s just an over-the-shoulder close-up—pretty standard coverage—but it’s the fact that it just goes on forever. I was in awe of Mia that day. She did it over and over again from beginning to end and went through that whole emotional rollercoaster and kept nailing it every time.

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