‘Longlegs’ Director Osgood Perkins Doesn’t Watch New Horror Movies 5

Longlegs’ Osgood “Oz” Perkins is remarkably even-keeled for a filmmaker who’s enjoying the finest reviews of his career. His Maika Monroe and Nicolas Cage-led horror-thriller has been the talk of the town for months now, as Neon’s marketing department has put together one of the more inspired promotional campaigns in recent memory. They’ve made Perkins’ fourth feature feel like a buzzy event film à la the work of his friend and collaborator, Jordan Peele, and the creepy procedural about an FBI agent’s (Monroe) self-actualizing pursuit of a Satanic serial killer (Cage) is more than worthy of that treatment. (Perkins played director Fynn Bachman in Peele’s Nope.)

Perkins’ Longlegs enters into theaters on Friday, joining Ti West’s MaXXXine, which bowed last weekend. The two genre pics share a rather interesting connection in that MaXXXine features a couple sequences involving the Psycho set on the Universal Studios backlot. Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 horror film turned Perkins’ late father, Anthony, into a cultural icon, and he’s keenly aware of how his father’s legacy as Norman Bates informs his own complicated relationship with genre work all these years later. (West’s film also references 1983’s Psycho II, in which Oz plays Young Norman Bates.)

“My dad [Anthony Perkins] was, on the one hand, a real shining light in the genre space, having created one of the more indelible characters in movies, nevermind in horror movies or in crime movies and killer movies. So there was the intense radiating pride around that that was mixed with this very uneasy thing that was happening,” Perkins tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When I was coming into my 12- to-15-year-old self and getting into movies, my father was making very bad horror movies. He was being paid well to go to Europe and do shit. And it was obvious that this stuff was shit; it used to upset my mom [Berry Berenson] quite a lot. So the disparity between the zenith of things, which was Psycho, and the basin of things, which was, for instance, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde movie [Edge of Sanity] that he made when I was a kid, has always planted in me an uneasiness around the horror genre.”

That aforementioned unease and inner conflict is partially why he creates his own modern horror movies, but also avoids the more recent work of his peers. 

“On the one hand, I want to identify or atone with the father by going down the same path and representing the good name in the genre in question, but then I also have a sort of a distaste for it,” Perkins explains. “I wouldn’t say I’m someone who likes or dislikes horror movies. I don’t see new ones. I have no interest. I’ll never see MaXXXine, I’ll never see Pearl. I saw X for reasons; it wasn’t on purpose. I don’t see contemporary things. They don’t interest me at all, and that’s not to say that they aren’t great. I’m sure they are great and make a lot of people happy, which is all that really matters. But I like the horror genre because it’s the genre that permits the most invention and it encourages the most poetry. It’s all guessing and grasping at what is essentially unknowable.”

Longlegs is largely about the varying degrees of lies parents tell in order to protect their children, and naturally, Perkins pulled this theme from his own relationships as both a son and father. 

“I try not to tell my children any protective lies, having grown up in a family where certain truths were curated, not maliciously and with any kind of cruelty or dismissiveness, but rather as a move to sustain the family and keep things together,” Perkins says. “So the idea that a mom, in this case, can create a story, a lie, a narrative, a version and dress their children in it like a hazmat suit, is definitely where [Longlegs] came from. That’s the kernel of truth that started the process.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Perkins also discusses why he changed his mind about casting Monroe, before previewing the highly comedic approach to his next film, The Monkey, based on the Stephen King short of the same name.

After I saw Longlegs, I walked down the hall to see MaXXXine, and I ended up going from your present to your past, because MaXXXine has a couple sequences that take place on Universal’s Psycho set. The film even references the 1983 sequel you were in [as Young Norman Bates]. Can you draw a line from that foundation to Longlegs? Can you identify how those days inform what you’re doing now?

That’s a really good way into this interview, I must say. As the son of a father, there’s an inherent pursuit of who that person is. We try to emulate our parents, or in this case, emulate the father, atone with the father. If you’re into the Joseph Campbell-ian sense of things, you want to try to align yourself. How do you match up both for better and for worse? 

My dad [Anthony Perkins] was, on the one hand, a real shining light in the genre space, having created one of the more indelible characters in movies, nevermind in horror movies or in crime movies and killer movies. So there was the intense radiating pride around that that was mixed with this very uneasy thing that was happening. When I was coming into my 12- to- 15-year-old self and getting into movies, my father was making very bad movies, very bad horror movies. He was being paid well to go to Europe and do shit. And it was obvious that this stuff was shit; it used to upset my mom quite a lot. So the disparity between the zenith of things, which was Psycho, and the basin of things, which was, for instance, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde movie [Edge of Sanity] that he made when I was a kid, has always planted in me an uneasiness around the horror genre.

On the one hand, I want to identify or atone with the father by going down the same path and representing the good name in the genre in question, but then I also have a sort of a distaste for it. I wouldn’t say I’m someone who likes or dislikes horror movies. I don’t see new ones. I have no interest. I’ll never see MaXXXine, I’ll never see Pearl. I saw X for reasons; it wasn’t on purpose. I don’t see contemporary things. They don’t interest me at all, and that’s not to say that they aren’t great. I’m sure they are great and make a lot of people happy, which is all that really matters. 

But I like the horror genre because it’s the genre that permits the most invention and it encourages the most poetry. It’s all guessing and grasping at what is essentially unknowable. At least that’s what it is for me. If someone dangles a retelling of Jeffrey Dahmer in front of me, I couldn’t pass on something harder. It’s not interesting to me to see someone pretending to be a serial killer. It has no appeal. It’s very base to me. I’d much rather watch Tod Browning’s Dracula and feel the romanticism and the luxury and the pomp and circumstance and the majesty of that kind of work turns me on. But to see a contemporary Terrifier or things like that, it’s the opposite of what I want to be putting into my brain. 

DP Andrés Arochi and Oz Perkins on the set of Longlegs

Courtesy of NEON

There’s a coming-of-age moment where we realize the big and small lies our parents once told us in order to protect us, and as you’ve confirmed, that’s what Longlegs is mostly exploring. Did your parents’ protective lies inspire this story, or was it more the protective lies you’ve told your own children? 

I try not to tell my children any protective lies, having grown up in a family where certain truths were curated, not maliciously and with any kind of cruelty or dismissiveness, but rather as a move to sustain the family and keep things together. So the idea that a mom, in this case, can create a story, a lie, a narrative, a version and dress their children in it like a hazmat suit, is definitely where the movie came from. That’s the kernel of truth that started the process. What gets the ball rolling for me is, “What’s the kernel of truth?” And then you figure out how to dress that truth up.

As far as plot, Silence of the Lambs and the JonBenét Ramsey case were your jumping-off points? 

Silence of the Lambs became the shorthand invitation to the audience to step through a door with me and to feel relaxed and soothed with a familiarity. It’s quoting a song that everybody knows, and it gets the audience in position. So that was what the Silence of the Lambs bit was about.

The JonBenét Ramsey case was a true crime piece that I was really interested in when it was happening, and it really was compelling to me because the hidden solution was so hard to see. It seemed so clear what the answer was, and, of course, it wasn’t that answer at all. I read a nonfiction true crime book about it, and on the night that she died, it was Christmastime. And one of the presents her parents had gotten her was a life-sized replica doll of herself that was in a box with a bow on it in the basement under her bedroom. So when she was being murdered, there was this doll of herself 20 feet away, lying in the same posture in, essentially. a coffin. That detail was just such a wild thing, and certain things stick, so that became an influence for how this movie was going to work. [Writer’s Note: In John and Patsy Ramsey’s The Death of Innocence, Patsy described retrieving the doll from its basement hiding spot, and being startled by how much the boxed doll looked like her daughter in a coffin.]

Nicolas Cage as Longlegs in Longlegs

Courtesy of NEON

Did Nic Cage show up to set with the Longlegs character ready to go? Or did you set the dials together ahead of time? 

We set the dials together ahead of time. It started with the words on the page, which he faithfully said. He performed the words as written. He treated the script as text. There’s no riffing. There’s no improvising. There’s no ad-libbing. Everything that Longlegs says in the movie was in the script that Nic got. And, from there, we just started talking about who we thought this kind of person was and what his life had been like and where he was coming from and what it felt like to be him. And then you toggle between the melody or the cadence of the words, the poetry of the language. You start to match that with a certain sensibility. You start to shape your voice around certain words, and it evolves organically between the two of us over the phone. 

And by the time he gets to Vancouver to meet me to shoot the movie, he’s in it. He doesn’t want to hang out. He doesn’t want to go to dinner. He doesn’t want to meet the producers. He doesn’t want to shake anybody’s hand. He wants to talk to me between takes as Nicolas Cage. He didn’t talk as Longlegs between takes. He talked as Cage to me, but to everybody else, he was only Dale Cobble all the time. Nic is an astonishing finely tuned instrument. It should come as no surprise because he’s such a special performer. You think, “Well, of course, he’s finely tuned,” but nobody reads more and remembers more and knows more and can reference more and is quicker on their feet than Nicolas Cage.

Maika Monroe has done all sorts of work, but she really seems to thrive in genre fare. Why do you think this type of material suits her so well? 

Because she’s one of these actors who can do this really important thing, which is to show that they’re hiding something. On camera, when the lens is on them, you can see that there’s something that’s being contained. I think of movies, or any story that you tell, as a sequence of revelations to a conclusion. So, if you’re going to be dealing in revelations, you’re also dealing in concealment. And if you’ve got an actor like Maika or all the actors I’ve worked with like Sophia Lillis or Ruth Wilson or Tatiana Maslany a hundred times over, they are so brilliant at submerging something really significant in their faces and behind their eyes. And it really works for the horror genre where everything is about what is submerged, what is out of sight, what is in the shadows, what is beyond the door.

Maika Monroe as Lee Harker in Longlegs

Neon/Courtesy Everett Collection

Maika told me that she had to fight for the role of Lee Harker after initially being told no. What were your hangups at the time? 

I don’t know that I had any hangups. I don’t want to say that casting is the hardest thing. It’s actually an easy thing, I find, because you know the person more or less when you see them. And so, after I’d met Maika, I knew she was really great for it. But you end up seeing a lot of people and you end up going down a lot of roads in your mind about what it would be like, a year from now, to have done it with that person. So it takes a certain amount of time to just settle on your leads because they represent so much of the meaning of the picture. But, ultimately, the disparity between who Maika is in a coffee shop and who she is on screen, the disparity between those two entities is so vast. To me, that’s where all the energy lies. The energy lies in that disparity, and it becomes very filmable.

I seem to be alone in this observation, but was Lee’s hair and makeup meant to resemble a porcelain doll at all? 

I never told anybody to do that. But I really do believe in the very basic and elemental fact that there are going to be people in and around the movie who have better ideas than me. So, is it possible that one of the makeup people took it upon themselves to tweak in that direction and not say anything? It could have been. My job, as director, is that if I see something, I say something. And when she got in front of the lens, it looked right. If there’s some subliminal meaning embedded, then there is.

Are you willing to testify under oath that Kiernan Shipka is actually in this movie? Because I still don’t believe she played Carrie Anne Camera.

(Laughs.) Yeah, she’s in it. We had her come out for a day. I had a part that needed filling, and she’s such a great actor and such a badass and such a machine. She just does it and she does it right every time. She’s eager and she’s enthusiastic and she’s alive and she’s smart and she’s funny and she’s just a stone-cold pro. And the Carrie Anne Camera dialect is very difficult. It’s a very difficult piece of monologue writing that she performs, and a lot of letters are in the wrong place and a lot of the words aren’t words. And she still did everything to the letter. I never had to ask her twice or even ask her once to do it that way. She really observes the text and makes it work. She’s amazing.

You thanked your Nope director, Jordan Peele, in the credits. Was he a part of your note network? 

No, Jordan is a friend who’s shared a lot of his work and his process and his drafts with me. That’s a level of engagement that just turns you on. It’s so hard to do what we do and just make things up all the time, while alone in front of a blinking cursor that doesn’t care about you. So, when you have a certain comradery with people who you admire, it’s worth thanking them. They give you power, and you’ve got to get your power from somewhere. So you feed off of other people’s brilliance, and I don’t mind feeding off of Jordan’s a little bit.

Who is currently in possession of Longlegs’ “bits box”? [Writer’s Note: Lee’s mom is a hoarder who saved Lee’s fingernails, teeth and hair at different ages, so the props department collected these “bits” from their own family members.]

(Laughs.) I hope the bits box is with the kids in the prop department. I call them my kids because they’re in their ‘20s, and there were times when the bits box was going to get cut from the movie. And every time we almost cut it, I said, “I just can’t cut the bits box. It’s too beautiful a work of cinematic prop art. It has to go in.” So the kids must have it still. 

You wrapped your adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “The Monkey” not too long ago. Is The Monkey really the funniest movie you’ve ever made?  

By far. It’s deliberately comedic. It’s feeling more like an old John Landis movie or a Joe Dante movie or a Robert Zemeckis movie. I saw an opportunity to make a wry, absurdist comedy about death. It’s about the very basic fact that we all die — and how fucking funny and weird and impossible and surreal is that shit? And to come at it from a tragicomedy kind of voice felt like it fit. At the end of the day, if you want to reduce it, it’s the haunted toy or evil toy subgenre, and I couldn’t imagine doing a serious one of those. To me, it rang utterly false to approach it that way, so I just went in the other direction. For me, the movie is a smile from top to bottom, and I’m really looking forward to people seeing it.

You have male protagonists in The Monkey, but you’ve mostly worked with female protagonists. Do you have any theories as to why you’re normally drawn to stories with female leads?

I think it infuses the material with mystery for me. It makes it harder for me to be an expert on what I’m doing, and it keeps my curiosity active. It keeps some aspects of the thing hidden from me as well. So, if the hidden in horror movies is where everything lives, then I had better have established some hidden spots for myself. If I’m going to know everything about the picture, it’s more useful to have a female protagonist who I can never fully get. It keeps creating a space for me to try to fill in and interpret. It’s something to create or develop or grow in that space.

Lastly, a Longlegs story point is that Lee can’t remember her ninth birthday, but I also can’t remember mine for the life of me. Can you remember yours? 

No, man. No way. My ninth birthday would’ve been in 1983. That was my Miami Vice period. On Halloween in 1983, I went as Sonny Crockett with my sleeves rolled up. But, for my birthday, I was certainly in Los Angeles, in Laurel Canyon, with my folks and a bunch of fancy people. But no, I can’t remember.

***
Longlegs opens in movie theaters on July 12.

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