Mitzi Peirone Weaves a Surrealist Horror Standout with Braid

Horror is looking good in Braid, the creepy, gorgeous first film from writer/director Mitzi Peirone. Out in theaters this Friday, the film stars Imogen Waterhouse and Sarah Hay as a pair of women who, in desperate need of money, decide to drop in on—and steal from—their rich childhood friend. Only one problem: the friend, played by Cam’s Madeline Brewer, is obsessed with a game of make-believe the trio used to play as children. Three rules: Everyone Must Play. No Outsiders Allowed. Nobody Leaves.

Peirone plays with time, story, and reality itself, crafting an intoxicating blend of genres that reads like a surrealist Sofia Coppola film mixed with modern-day Gothic horror, with just a skosh of PCP thrown in for good measure. In the end, what she’s crafted is a film unlike any other we’re likely to see this year.

I saw Braid at Tribeca, and since it’s been about eight months, I rewatched it to refresh my memory. It really holds up on second viewing.

I think the second viewing is often very rewarding, because you get to see all little Easter eggs. I know people that have watched it a second time, and they’re like “Actually, the movie’s very straightforward!” You just have to pay attention. It is kind of like a visual crossword in a certain way. You have to piece all the things together.

The plot of the film appears confusing at first, but it comes together. You could definitely be like, “I’m just going to put a whole bunch of weird stuff onscreen, and it doesn’t have to make sense because nobody’s going to know the difference.”

Just as a human, it’s part of our human nature to dismiss something that we don’t immediately understand. And that transcends filmmaking. It goes for anything. We have a tendency to label anything that’s not immediately clear to us, that stands outside of our standards and our expectations, as confusing, foreign, bad, strange, or “not for me.” There’s this strange resistance to accepting something that isn’t immediately straightforward. If you think about The Shining, when it first came out, everybody was like, “What the fuck is this? It ruined the book!”

So much of Braid is told through visual storytelling as opposed to an expository information dump. You really have to pay attention.

It is definitely a very cerebral movie. I personally always feel very self-conscious watching movies that have the so-called “spaghetti scene,” where the characters sit down at a table say ‘So here’s what we’re going to do,” I felt like they were aware that I was there, as the audience. I always shied away from that type of structure. Although it’s super helpful, it’s easy, people get it. And it’s good to get the audience onboard with what the characters are about to do. But, at the same time, I did not want that to happen for Braid.

Relying heavily on more visual and literature and artistic references—so many of the most iconic shots are  inspired by paintings and sculptures—it did help really well translating the movie across different audiences, from South Korea to Russia to Kazakhstan to Italy. My mom doesn’t really speak English. She watched the movie as Tribeca, and she didn’t miss a beat. She loved it, and she understood everything. And that, to me, really means a lot. Because I wanted to make a movie that could be universal, that could transcend borders and audiences and cultures, that could really talk to anybody.

Was piecing the intricate puzzle together all done in the script phase? Or were you piecing together any of it in the edit?

I wrote like ten different drafts of the script within a year and a half. Sometimes I felt like I was telling too much. Sometimes I felt like I was telling too little. But I pieced the whole thing very carefully together in chronological order, on separate pieces of paper. Then I could figure out how I wanted to show it, which scenes had to be shown first. Because really we realized afterwards, in post-production, that the movie could have been cut a million ways. It’s a cyclical movie, and it plays so much with time and our perception of time. The camera becomes this unreliable narrator, because it’s sort of getting dizzy with the girls playing make believe.

Myself and my DP [Todd Banhazl] and I spent three months together crafting this Bible, a lookbook, with all the different looks for different moments. We used black and white at times. We used different lenses according to where the girls were. For instance, when they’re in the grungy Brooklyn apartment counting drugs, we used a spherical lens to give a distorted, gritty, dirty look. And then the second that we got to the house, we chose these super-wide anamorphic lenses that gave this hyper-lyrical, beautiful, cinematic look. 

What were some of the things in your lookbook?

Frida Kahlo paintings. [The have a quality of] hyper-saturation, infatuation with your own nightmares. Lots of Caravaggio. We used a lot of chiaroscuro, casting a light from one point and letting it bathe the whole scene. Lots of Renaissance paintings, very dramatic, and at times well-staged in an almost statuesque way. The girls are staging every scene as they would like to be seen. Because in the end, it’s all part of their game of make-believe, and they’re always performing to some degree. They’re always living in this hyper-realist, lyrical, operatic form of life.

The idea that we’re always forming the image of how we want people to see us has always been around, but in the age of social media it’s definitely gotten more prevalent than ever.

I wanted this to stand the test of time, so I tried to stay away from Facebook, social media, Instagram, etc.. I didn’t want to make it part of the narrative. But there was a draft that had a heavier accent on our social media personas, our virtual selves. We pick out fragments of our lives that we want people to see, but that creates such a big schism between who we are and we want to be.

That’s also why I use mirrors a lot in the movie. It’s not just like, oh yeah, identity crisis. It’s literally that we create our own reality. Reality is like a mirror. If you convince yourself that you’re somebody, then you give off that vibe and you become that person. I think reality works like that. It’s all invented to some degree. Society, our names, our jobs, geographical borders. Even time, philosophies, and religions, and politics. It’s all made up, in a beautiful way.

It feels like that sort of surrealist, subjective philosophy had a baby with a Sophia Coppola film, in a way. Her films are very much about forming yourself in an unfriendly world.

When I think about this movie, the word “friction” comes to me a lot. Just like thinking about how I needed to get this out. I wrote it in my early twenties. I was trying to figure out where I fit. I came from Italy to study theater, because I wanted to deepen my understanding of the human soul after reading so much about it through philosophy and the church. But I didn’t want to be an actor. I started writing, and then felt like I needed to like make this like visual manifesto to explain the difficulty of finding your own identity in a world where everybody’s playing games. 

I’m a big Gothic nerve, and I felt like this was a modern-day, Gothic, trippy thing. Is that a genre you have interest in?

I’ve always loved Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve always loved romanticism. I’ve always loved gothic art and churches. I was also thinking a lot about baroque art and how creepy and gothic Christianity is. I was raised Catholic, and after traveling the world and studying other religions, I realized how creepy and gory it is. 

How did the cast come together? Had you already known the three actors?

I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t have any connections, really, after I was done writing. [My producers and I] were very lucky to land an amazing casting director [Matthew Glasner]. And he brought us Madeline Brewer, who loved the script. She FaceTimed me, and she was like, “I am scared of this role. And that’s why I’m going to do it.”

Was this before or after she did Cam? Because she’s starting to blow up a little bit.

It was right after she shot Cam. She shot Cam in I think spring of 2017, if I’m correct, and we shot Braid in summer of 2017. Madeline’s brain is just phenomenal. She talked about the script as if she had written it herself. And then we got Imogene [Waterhouse] from CAA. And then Sarah [Hay] was the last one to get onboard. Tilda was a really hard role to cast, because we had already cast the other two girls, so she had to be the perfect fit. I think it worked out, because all three actresses are so complimentary. They’re very different, but they fit together so well. Sarah’s one of the smartest girls I’ve ever met. She’s so intelligent. In spite of how convoluted and complicated the script is, and the fact that we didn’t shoot in chronological order, she always knew where she was.

Can you talk a bit about how any visual reference points that you had for the color palette of the film? There’s this dreamy quality to it, with splashes of color.

Todd Banhazl and I really wanted to stay away from painting the scary, horror-driven scenes in a horrific way. We wanted to embellish these moments, because in the end Braid doesn’t rely on jump scares or traditional horror. It’s more of an intimate and psychological fear of not knowing reality and not knowing exactly who you are. And so we were thinking about how much we have a tendency to romanticize our on fears or anxieties or issues. Because to some degree we do nurture them everyday. We do feed them and give them something to stay alive. We wanted to make these moments of fear beautiful.

The first color that came to mind was green. It started from a whimsical fairytale, a truly magical place, this emerald green. And then it slowly deteriorates with the character’s minds, turning into a muddy, almost toxic green of something that’s sick and dying. Outside of the house and in Brooklyn and on the train, we tried to stay with very murky colors, brownish and dirty reds and blues. And for the PCP scene, with the purple trees, the look was inspired by military film, infrared, and Richard Mosse photography. The film was used for military purposes, and once the war was over Richard Mosse bought tons of the film that was left and started shooting beautiful landscapes, with all the purple trees. His was more a magenta pink. Instead of that scene looking like something scary, we wanted to make it beautiful and elevated.

Rebecca Pahle

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