'MaXXXine' is Ti West's Hollywood horror story. The real-life locations are even scarier

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Horror filmmaker Ti West steps out of the blackness behind the Bates Motel hours after the last tourist tram has made it to safety. Behind him looms the “Psycho” house where Mrs. Bates lurked in the window monitoring the movements of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane — a shot West references in his 2022 slasher “X,” set in 1979, about an elderly farm wife named Pearl who becomes murderously inflamed by a troupe of adult actors shooting a skin flick in her barn. Pearl, an aspiring performer herself, got her own movie the following year in West’s eponymous prequel that rewinds to 1918, when the psychotic failed starlet fed her rival to an alligator named Theda Bara.

Now, West is releasing the third chiller in the series, “MaXXXine,” which finds Maxine Minx, the sole survivor of the first film’s “Texas porn star massacre,” hellbent on becoming a legitimate movie star in 1980s Los Angeles. After six years of sex work, Maxine, played ferociously by Mia Goth, has finally landed her first mainstream role in a sequel called “The Puritan 2.” But her past is still in pursuit, with one chase scene sending Maxine fleeing for her life across the Universal Studios backlot, through the Old West facades to the New York stoops, eventually scampering up the jagged “Psycho” stairs right behind him.

“It’s a weird thing to point a camera at if you’re not making ‘Psycho,’” says West, 43, as he heads farther into the darkness, lighted only by a handful of eerie red lanterns. He calls his trilogy “movie-flavored movies” — artifice and dreams are the top notes. “X” is about scrappy strivers trying to break into the business; “Pearl,” about the dangers of buying into the fantasies onscreen. “MaXXXine,” the highest-profile film of West’s career, wrestles with accepting that Hollywood isn’t quite what one hopes.

“He was ready to deal with this kind of scale, and it’s definitely something he was hungry for,” Goth says, chiming in over Zoom. In addition to playing multiple roles across this mini-franchise, Goth co-wrote “Pearl” and executive-produced the last two films. “We just kind of manifested it,” she continues, “built this entire trilogy into existence. And it’s been incredible to see it unfold.”

West, however, tends to be scrupulously anti-hype. “It is not lost on me that there is a meta thing happening with these movies and me and Mia, and that’s gratifying and strange,” he says. “And it’s also something that we’ve never taken any time to stop and talk about. We were too busy making movies.”

While the marketing team at A24 is all in on “MaXXXine” — “I’ve never had a billboard before,” the director beams — West has been a legitimate filmmaker for well over a decade. His resume of well-regarded independent movies includes the 2016 cowboy vengeance drama “In a Valley of Violence” with Ethan Hawke and John Travolta, plus a string of festival hits like 2009’s “The House of the Devil,” which disposed of a pre-celeb Greta Gerwig early on in a marvelously nasty Hitchcock-esque shock.

Still, he’s come a long way since his first trip to the Bates Motel. When he was in middle school, he and his family vacationed at Universal Studios Florida, which had just wrapped “Psycho IV” on its own copy of the set. As a promotional tie-in, the park launched an attraction that taught fans the camera tricks behind the famous shower scene. One volunteer got to brandish a rubber knife and learn how to stab a Marion Crane scream-a-like. West wasn’t chosen, but he went back home with a pair of Bates Motel souvenir slippers and an appreciation for film craft.

“Now that’s all gone, and it’s a Shrek ride or something,” he shrugs. “No offense to Shrek.”

West spent the rest of his youth in Wilmington, Del., renting five VHS tapes for $5 on Fridays at his local video store. One weekend, he rented “Habit,” a grungy but brilliant microbudget vampire flick made by filmmaker Larry Fessenden. Shortly after, he moved to New York and took a film class taught by director Kelly Reichardt, who’d played a cameo in the film. Reichardt introduced the two and Fessenden became West’s mentor, eventually producing his debut feature, “The Roost,” shot exactly 20 years ago with more moxie than money.

“Apparently, now we’re mentioned on the tour,” West adds of his upgraded circumstances, in mild disbelief. “I feel a little bit like I’ve made it.” Filming on the lot took Herculean coordination. Some theme-park trams were rerouted, others couldn’t be. Shots were hastily filmed in the gaps between gawkers. Once, the timing went awry and a few dozen tourists interrupted a take. Cameras out, the visitors snapped away at Goth and Elizabeth Debicki like they were tigers in a zoo.

If West is now a Hollywood animal himself, the only affectation he’s adopted is a tiny 12-pound black dog named Molly who accompanies him everywhere. During this night stroll, she’s quietly tucked into a sling around his hips. On set, Molly had her own chair that read “Executive Paw-ducer.” The next morning, as our personal tour of “MaXXXine’s” locations continues, she’s wearing an A24-branded leash and trying to sneak sips of West’s iced oat-milk latte.

Today, he and Molly and a photographer are piled into an SUV that stops at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the location where two of the film’s detectives, played by Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Cannavale, make a grisly discovery. (Molly insists on relieving herself in a spot without any graves — she’s a professional.) The fictional corpses planted here by the production were mutilated in the manner of Richard Ramirez, popularly known as the Night Stalker, the real-life L.A. serial killer who murdered at least 13 people during the ’80s. That paranoia is the film’s terrifying backdrop, just as the Spanish flu pandemic leaves scars on “Pearl.”

But this isn’t a Night Stalker story — there’s already half a dozen of those. “MaXXXine,” like West’s “The House of the Devil” before it, vibrates with the tension of Reagan-era Satanic panic, a moment of media-hyped conspiracy that manages to feel both old-fashioned and contemporary.

“When I was growing up, you could get arrested for skateboarding, and now it’s going to be in the Olympics,” West says. But grandstanding moralists stay the same, even if A24 had to hire faux protesters to wave placards that read, “Honor God, End Smut.”

West puts a lot of emphasis on making the past look real, not cartoonish. No ridiculous zebra prints, no suburban mall pastels. Authenticity is baked into everything, from the camera techniques and practical effects to Maxine’s fried split ends.

The “MaXXXine” review embargo has just broken as our car arrives at Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue, but West barely glances at his phone. “It’ll be the appropriate mixture of ‘best movie of the three,’ ‘worst movie ever,’” he says calmly. So far, the critics like it, but West seems more fulfilled by the act of making, promoting and releasing three films in four years with barely a day off. During that same time span, he also met his fiancée, DJ Alison Wonderland, and welcomed his first child, who was born two weeks after the trilogy wrapped. (Wonderland, nine months pregnant at the time, cameos in the film spinning records at a nightclub.)

“Weirdly enough, my first place in Los Angeles was also on Hollywood Boulevard,” West says, crossing the street toward Maxine’s second-story dump, which usually houses overstock from the Hollywood Suit Outlet next door.

He moved to L.A. in 2005 after wrapping “The Roost,” figuring the natural progression of things was to head west and write another script. Relocation was daunting. “There’s no real sense of where you’re supposed to live and who to send the script to,” he laughs. His first spot was quieter — “a little garden apartment, very L.A.” — but it amused him to get mail addressed to Ti West, Hollywood Blvd.

Nearly two decades later, he’s lived and worked here for so long that he pokes fun at being that naive kid who hoped he’d be instantly handed the keys to the city. In truth, his ascent has been a grind. West kept at it, as did colleagues Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers, who also premiered films alongside “The Roost” at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, the year that mumblecore became a movement.

They were all “making very tiny movies,” West remembers. “I think that’s where the chip on your shoulder comes from: Why doesn’t someone just realize all the work I’ve been putting in? Why don’t they know that I’m up 19 hours a day, seven days a week, working on this thing?” He describes those lean, exhausting years like someone who’s scaled his share of mountains.

“But I came of age in the ’90s, when making independent movies was cool,” he continues. “Are the 25-year-olds sleeping on floors doing that now? Or do they want to be making influencer content? Probably I would have wanted to do that too because if it goes viral, you just jump ahead. If you’re trying to change your life, that’s a quicker path.”

West’s first climb when he arrived in town was a hike up to the Hollywood sign before more fences and alarms were erected around it. “I had to do it,” he recalls. “I just thought, ‘Are they really going to arrest me?’” He hesitates, then chuckles. “Maybe the answer’s yes.” But he got away with it and was permitted to legally return while scouting for “MaXXXine” as he wanted to stage a showdown under the letters. For practical reasons, he was forced to rebuild the sign nearly to scale in Santa Clarita. Even so, the shoot was so tight on time and money that he had just eight hours to film at the duplicate site, including a lunch break and the commute up and down the hill.

“PTSD,” West mutters, flashing back to the hectic pace as he continues down Hollywood Boulevard and turns into the alleyway where Maxine gets menaced by a Buster Keaton clone. Every scene shot on the busy street — and there are a lot of them — had to be completed in four days, with the vintage store fronts mostly erected the morning-of to make sure the sets weren’t destroyed. When the film’s phony video shop went up, West’s phone buzzed with texts from friends who’d happened to drive by. A few asked if he was behind the fake signage; others mistakenly celebrated it as real.

“To turn this all into an X-rated area was a very big project, lots of neon,” West says. As he gestures toward the marquees of the Déjà Vu gentlemen’s club and the Vine Theatre (both seen in “MaXXXXine”), a bus pulls up and unloads 50 or so Scientologists in matching navy skirts and trousers who politely ignore his descriptions of sin as they head into the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition. West is also unfazed. “We had to be out here in the chaos of it all. It shows in the movie.”

Some days, he got lucky. West wanted an insert shot of Theda Bara’s star on the Walk of Fame as a nod to Pearl’s pet gator, and, magically, it was just steps from the Déjà Vu. Kevin Bacon, playing one of “MaXXXine’s” heavies, has his own star across the intersection, while Giancarlo Esposito, cast in a memorable role as Maxine’s agent, is embedded three streets to the east.

But this is also the block where an angry driver smashed through the barricades and crashed into a parked car in the middle of filming. The cops who were hired to guard the set had to abandon their posts in pursuit. West and the cast and crew held their positions and finished the scene.

“From making a movie here, I realize it’s difficult to get permits because the neighborhoods just don’t want movies shooting,” West says. “But it’s Hollywood. If there’s ever a reason to be in traffic, it should be because Will Smith is flipping a car in the middle of the street. Every other reason to be stuck in traffic sucks.”

West hopes to stage his next movie in a more controlled environment. He’s 40 pages into that script — “It will not be a trilogy, I assure you of that” — and already imagining the comforts of constructing a set that’s “meticulous and complicated.” He’s challenging himself to surprise audiences and top all three Maxine films combined. “That’s the goal: You put in the reps and you keep getting better.”

But for now, he’s focused on getting people to root for the trials and tribulations of his marvelously wicked Maxine Minx. Right after the car crash, West and Goth hustled to film a scene of Maxine strutting the red carpet at Mann’s Chinese.

Eventually, “MaXXXine” itself will debut there too: an ’80s-chic world premiere with Angelyne parked outside in her pink Corvette and attendees dressed like Gordon Gekko and Sunset Strip metal heads. West wears a white suit jacket — “very ‘Miami Vice,’” he says — while his toddler sports “Risky Business”-style sunglasses and charms paparazzi by giving them a let’s-do-lunch-babe finger point.

That was a couple days ago and West is back with us at the Chinese’s autographed concrete, still finding his footing in the surreality of it all. He nods approvingly that the town hasn’t swapped out its shoe prints of classic stars for, well, Shrek.

“The movies aren’t going anywhere, because telling stories is how people communicate,” he says. Tenacious creatives like Maxine and Pearl and yes, even he and Goth, are now part of Hollywood lore. West exhales. “Maybe someday, someone will say, ‘I really like those old movies — like ‘MaXXXine.’”

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