Nicolas Pesce will be the first to tell you: he’s not the “safe” choice to direct a big studio horror film, though that’s exactly what he’s done by helming The Grudge (out Friday).
As the filmmaker’s Twitter bio notes: “I make weird shit.” Somehow, that’s an understatement. Pesce’s 2016 debut, The Eyes of My Mother, split audiences at Sundance with its horrifying premise and esoteric construction. Shot in crisp black-and-white, divided into three sections, and fueled by gory nightmare logic, it was one of the most strange and arresting films of its year, an American gothic told partly in Portuguese.
His followup, 2018’s Piercing, was in some ways even weirder, a kinky marriage of Italian giallo to Japanese horror—or “J-horror”—that found its two leads (Mia Wasikowska and Christopher Abbott) engaging in psychosexual warfare within the four walls of a Tokyo hotel room.
Pesce’s Grudge reboot breathes twisted new life into the franchise that first terrified audiences in 2002 as Ju-On: The Grudge, a J-horror film directed by Takashi Shimizu, and two years later got an American remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.
When Pesce was first approached about making a new Grudge film for Sony, he had just brought Eyes of My Mother to Sundance, where producers Rob Tapert and Roy Lee saw the film and, impressed, met with Pesce.
Soon, the director was sitting across from Evil Dead filmmaker Sam Raimi, who runs Ghost House Productions with Lee and Tapert. Raimi, a horror-movie icon, had previously produced the 2004 remake of The Grudge, and had been searching for a new director whose vision could reimagine the franchise for modern audiences. In Pesce, they found a filmmaker whose dark, brutal take on horror was packaged together with an artist’s visual acumen and the cunning of a true genre storyteller.
His Grudge is armed with an R-rating and an A-list cast, led by Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Demián Bichir, Lin Shaye, and Jackie Weaver. Taking place concurrently with the 2004 film, it moves the action to a small New York City suburb, where a supernatural curse created by the violent murder of a housewife in Japan has spread through the lives of all those who’ve come into contact with it, reaching American shores.
“There was just no way I was going to make an easy, fun Grudge movie,” Pesce explains, speaking to Fortune by phone. “It was always going to be this intense, brutalist sort-of nightmare.”
Pesce discussed the influences on his Grudge, the nature of so-called “elevated horror,” and the surprising influence who introduced him to J-horror years ago (hint: he’s won five Oscars).
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This is your first franchise film. Why did you get involved?
Nowadays, everything’s getting remade, and however you feel about that, the beauty of The Grudge is that you look back to the Japanese movies and it’s an anthology series. It’s new characters and new story every movie. And I thought, “Here’s an opportunity to not have to remake anything.” This was an opportunity, to me, to just add a new story into the canon. It was important to me that this not say, “Hey, remember all those movies you guys love, the reason you came to this one? Well, forget about those movies!”
I think so often, with reboots, that’s the message. For me, this was an opportunity for people who’ve never seen a Grudge movie, a new starting point and an entry point into the franchise for younger audiences. But for people who are familiar, here’s something that exists in the same universe and just adds new mythology to the canon.
While rewatching Ju-On and The Grudge, it struck me how each film itself contains stories like vignettes, in addition to the overall franchise telling different stories each movie.
That’s something baked into every Grudge movie. It’s always multiple storylines. The franchise itself is an anthology, but even within each movie it’s an anthology. The nature of the grudge, of this curse, is that it spreads to everyone who touches this house, so you have so many stories of people who’ve just interacted with this thing.
With our movie, we wanted to explore the idea that this thing spreads like a virus, so it’s unrealistic that it’d just stay contained to one neighborhood in Japan. It’s everywhere. We wanted to use this movie to expand the confines of the grudge. It starts in Japan, with the movie everyone knows and that neighborhood in Tokyo, but this movie also shows how far it spreads.
Your movie moves The Grudge to America. The original is a J-horror classic, and even the previous American remake is set in Japan. How did it feel for you to bring this story stateside?
Moreso than translating the Japanese movie to an American setting, it was about bringing that curse from Japan to America. It was important that we didn’t erase the Japanese stories, that mythos. That’s still propelling our film. You have detectives doing research into that Japanese case, characters going into that house, so there are still narrative ties to the older films. That gave us license to try not to make a J-horror movie in America.
J-horror had such a splash in America in the early 2000s, and while there are a lot of aspects from the tone to the atmosphere that do hold up, I think a lot of the imagery and stylistic notions have been spoofed so many times that they’ve become a different thing. We’re too aware of what J-horror was, so we knew from the beginning we weren’t going to be able to make a modern J-horror movie. I don’t think that’s what people want, anyway. There are 12 Grudge movies out there. If you like J-horror, go watch one of them.
Your story in this film takes place in New York City suburbs, in a town called Cross River. That’s your actual hometown. Why did you use it as a setting for The Grudge?
The best films are rooted in things that are personal to the filmmakers, no matter what they are. I grew up in a small town outside of New York City. And in every town all over the world, no matter how idyllic it looks, there are real-life horror stories behind every door. I wanted to take all the folklore from my town growing up, stories and rumors, and put a Grudge-y spin on it. The characters and events are inspired by various stories and suburban legends that I grew up with. It was about me finding my way into the world of The Grudge.
How would you describe the style of your Grudge, then?
My previous movies were very referential of specific styles. My first movie is very much a 1950s black-and-white American Gothic, and my second is very much a 1970s Italian giallo. With this, I knew I didn’t want to make a J-horror movie. I wanted to be a film fan, honestly. Before I was a director, I just loved movies. I wanted to carry over how things were handled in Ju-On; there’s something really lo-fi about how it’s made. The first couple are straight-to-video. They had very little money and time. What resulted was this really charming, super realistic ghost story. It feels a lot like you’re watching somebody’s home videos and then ghosts walk through the background, and that makes it so much scarier.
No American studio was going to let me do it as lo-fi as those early Japanese ones were, but our version of that was finding this grounded human stories, basing it in a lot of realism. That’s where the stuff with my town came in, to give the world texture and details that makes it feel real. That’s not something people necessarily think of when they think of J-horror, but if you go back and look at the original Japanese Ring movie, it’s a lot more grounded and realistic than the Gore Verbinski remake. I really latched onto that.
How rigorously did you lay out the look of the film before you started shooting?
I’m a very meticulous planner. Me and the cinematographer had worked together before, so we were very collaborative in terms of the look of the movie. We looked a lot at David Fincher films because, whether it’s Se7en or The Social Network or Zodiac, it all feels grounded in reality. There’s a realism to it that’s still very stylized in its aesthetic.
We talked a lot about Se7en and how the look adds to the grittiness of the movie without so loudly screaming its style at you. The beauty of filmmaking is the visual, photographic aspect to it. If it’s just about performance and storytelling, there are plays that do that as well. With movies, we have this added obligation to make the way the movie looks add to the storytelling.
I’m someone who tends not to like things that feel super-real in an indie way; you’ll see in this movie there’s not a lot of handheld or natural light. We’re very much affecting a version of reality but—in the way that my other movies kind of divorced themselves from reality, taking place in this weird, other world that we built—The Grudge very much takes place in our world. But it’s heightened. There are other surrealistic aspects. You can see, even from the trailer, that the film is very yellow, and that tinge to the whole movie is very intentional. We looked at this photographer, Andres Serrano, who did this series of photos of religious statues submerged in tanks of urine. [Laughs] It sounds gross, but the images are stunning.
“Piss Christ,” right?
That guy. With those photos, there’s this murky, yellow tinge to the whole thing. We would say we wanted the movie to feel like it was submerged in urine. [Laughs] We wanted to add a seedy, organic grossness to the film to affect the atmosphere.
I’m obsessed with David Lynch, too. And what he does so amazingly is that, while you might not have any idea what the fuck is going on in terms of story, you’re steeped in this mood and atmosphere that makes you feel such specific things that almost help you follow the story. What I love about horror is that you can use all this atmosphere, tone, and style to steep the audience in this mood, so that when you do scare them they’re already keyed up for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on. To me, the cultivation of the look is all about that.
What I love about you mentioning Se7en is that Fincher’s also going for this idea of uncontrollable rage, a Grudge trademark.
What’s awesome about The Grudge is that the nature of this supernatural occurrence is rooted in human action. In the original movies, it’s a husband killing his wife out of anger that starts the grudge. It’s not like a witch casting a spell and suddenly you’re cursed. If a human does something horrible enough to another human, this horrible thing can happen. That was interesting to me: the power of human evil.
Horror-movie audiences right now are so much more welcoming of family drama horror. Look at things like Hereditary or The Haunting of Hill House, and first and foremost they’re family dramas that happen to have these horror elements in them. We really ran with that, and because of how rooted the franchise is in the power of human emotion, we really leaned into the human drama.
That’s as much an element in this film as the supernatural drama; these characters are all dealing with something really difficult emotionally before they even encounter this house. There’s a big motif in the movie that real life can be more horrifying than ghosts. We wanted to explore the power of human emotion in traumatic situations.
You’re making me think about how emotionally fraught, very psychological horror has surged in popularity this past decade, with movies like Get Out, The Witch, and Hereditary all getting labeled as “elevated horror.”
It’s a weird term! And it’s been applied to your films. What do you make of that turn of phrase?
I think the phrase is funny, because it suggests horror in and of itself is not elevated. But when we talk about comedies, you don’t say a really well-written comedy is an elevated one. You just say, “It’s really good.”
Part of the elevated horror thing comes from the fact that for so long horror was always the bastard stepchild of genres. People would say, “I don’t see horror movies.” You don’t really say that about any other genre. You don’t say, “I don’t watch comedies.” It’s really horror that gets cast aside. So, when we say elevated horror, I think it’s coming from people who don’t traditionally like horror, seeing more sophisticated horror films and being like, “Oh but this isn’t a slasher movie. It’s elevated.” And I laugh because Rosemary’s Baby is elevated horror. Stanley Kubrick made The Shining.
It comes from a misunderstanding of what horror historically has been. When people think of horror, they think of Freddy Krueger movies—not to disparage a slasher, because I love them—but I think a lot of people think horror is one thing. Because a large portion of the audience doesn’t want to pay to get scared, they avoid those types of movies, and so they don’t realize there’s a lot more going on than just being scared.
You look at Night of the Living Dead and all that followed, and they’re so loaded with political and social commentary. But if you don’t go see it, you think it’s just a zombie movie, even though it’s not. I laugh when I hear it. It’s one thing that I consider my movies to be “art horror.” They’re arty and perhaps more esoteric in style, but I think the notion of elevated horror suggests there’s also unelevated horror. And of course there is, but there’s also unelevated action, unelevated comedy, unelevated drama—but we don’t talk about other genres like that.
It’s almost like a qualification of “the genre’s bad, but this one’s the exception.” Do you feel like horror directors have something to prove in terms of showcasing the genre’s history, showing people what they’ve been missing?
That’s definitely one side of it. When I made Piercing, it was very much an ode to 1970s Italian giallo movies. When I was making it, people would always be like, “What is a giallo?” And to be able to start conversations where I was directing people to Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava, I really loved being able to expose audiences to subgenres and movies they’ve never heard of.
When I was growing up, I looked at guys like [Martin] Scorsese and [Quentin] Tarantino, who half the time they’re talking about their own movies they’re actually talking about the movies they’re stealing from. That just gave me a list of movies to go watch. I discovered J-horror by way of Tarantino, because he was obsessed with Audition, the Takashi Miike movie. I watched that and was like, “Oh my god.” It was the greatest thing I’d ever seen.
That definitely is a fun aspect of it, especially because for decades horror was generally under-seen, especially foreign horror. On the other side of it, for my work—and I’m sure other filmmakers feel this way—there’s just something heavy metal about making a horror movie. I equate it to music: punk rock or metal. We recognize that we’re the genre people don’t know if they can handle. There’s something cool about making a movie that is “forbidden,” that a kids’ parents told them they can’t watch and that’s going to be the first thing they watch when their friend comes over. It’s not exactly rebellious, because it’s good business these days, but something I feel is that I’m not interested in making “soft horror.” I make more aggressive stuff, and if your complaint is that it’s too intense for you, I think I did my job perfectly. [Laughs]
One of the elements of your movies I do love is the jet-black humor unfolding inside the horror, more statedly in Piercing with the quirkiness of your characters but even with The Eyes of My Mother, where there’s this heightened sense of camp. Is there any of that in The Grudge, or is this your darkest film yet?
It’s not as light as Piercing. It’s somewhere in between, not as light as Piercing, not as dark as The Eyes of the Mother. There are three different stories unfolding in the movie. One of them has more odes to camp than the others, so you see different flavors in the different storylines. I wouldn’t use “fun” as a way to describe this. The new Halloween was fun. This is… not. It’s pretty dark, and it’s going to make you sad. [Laughs] I hope you enjoy it.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Inside 1917: designing a World War I battlefield
—Little Women director Greta Gerwig and cast reveal how they reinvented a feminist classic
—Aldis Hodge on going to “that dark place” for death row drama Clemency
—Hasbro’s toy box is bigger than ever with $3.8 billion Entertainment One takeover
—What did and didn’t work at the box office in 2019
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.