Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

MediaApril 9, 2022

How Whanganui became the backdrop for a 70s Texas porno slasher

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Alex Casey chats to Jacob Jaffke, producer of the critically acclaimed A24 slasher X, about bringing Hollywood to Bulls. 

Movies don’t get much more meta than X. The film follows a ragtag group trying to shoot a low-budget R-rated movie (porno) on a creepy farm in Texas, before their hosts start to get decidedly inhospitable. But the actual production of X found itself in a similar situation. Forced out of America due to the pandemic, the low-budget R-rated movie (slasher) upped sticks to the other side of the world, transforming a farm on the outskirts of Whanganui into Texas in 1979. 

Mercifully, their hosts on the farm were a lot more obliging than those in X. 

“Oh no, they were great, they loved us,” laughs producer Jacob Jaffke (Uncut Gems, Sleepwalk With Me) over Zoom. “They had this delightful sort of darkly humorous sensibility – they loved the idea of someone making a film about blood and guts on their farm.” Part of their local hospitality included showing the cast and crew what “real sheep guts” looked like, and introducing the big-wig Hollywood crowd, including director Ti West (The Innkeepers, The House of the Devil) and stars like Scott Mescundi (aka Kid Cudi), Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect) and Martin Henderson (Grey’s Anatomy) to the concept of an “offal pit”. 

It was a dream come true for Jaffke, who has wanted to make something in New Zealand ever since he visited in 2015 during pre-production for another project. But his fixation with the country began even earlier, around when a certain gargantuan fantasy series arrived in the early 2000s. “I got out of film school in 2003, which was basically when the extended DVDs for The Lord of the Rings hit the market,” he explains. “I sat there watching the umpteen hours of special footage about the making of those movies and just marvelling at the craftsmanship.” 

The opportunity to bring X to New Zealand arose in August 2020, right in the throes of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The Covid numbers in Texas were really high, and given what the movie is – scene after scene of very very intimate circumstances with characters – from a risk management perspective there was just so much that could go wrong,” Jaffke says. But they weren’t going to consider moving to New Zealand, which at the time was a Covid-free outlier, unless they could find the perfect farm. 

Stephen Ure and Martin Henderson, down on the farm in X. Image: Supplied

Local location scout David Curtis got to work photographing farms around the central North Island, and sent over a batch of options which included the farm that would make the movie. Neither Jaffke nor West saw it as an option at first, but Curtis insisted it would work, so they asked him to take more pictures. With a better understanding of the expanse of the farm, West looked again and told Jaffke: “wait, this is actually perfect”. A24 were plotting another production at the time – Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s TV show Mr Corman, which was eventually shot in Wellington – so the two were bundled together, opening the financial door for X to move its low-budget blood-soaked skin flick to Whanganui thanks to the New Zealand Screen Production Grant.

Production began in early 2021 after the international members of cast and crew made it through quarantine, which Jaffke describes as a “pretty great” two-week period of productivity. Director Ti West ended up writing a prequel to X, titled Pearl, while in MIQ, and Jaffke got to work on budgets and schedules so they could start shooting immediately after X had wrapped. “I remember sitting in the parking lot of the hotel where we were doing spatial diagrams like ‘the barn will go here, the house will go here’, so it was very productive. When you need to get to work, there’s no better thing than two guys left alone alone in a room.” 

Although shooting around the North Island, the farm is a central tenet in the world of X, as were the people who lived on the land – two women in their late 80s and early 90s named Joan and Spin. “They were amazing,” Jaffke says. “They had been on this farm for their whole lives, they raised horses and they were still active every day.” Joan and Spin were more than happy to advise production on all the ways they were wrongly representing farm life. “I think they really enjoyed seeing the circus come to town and what our interpretation of farm life would be.” 

Mia Goth stars in X. Image: Supplied

For X star Mia Goth, who plays both the role of young woman Maxine and spooky elderly farm-dweller Pearl, their hosts became even more useful. “Without the murderous rage buried inside of her, they were basically who her character is,” says Jaffke, explaining there was no better way for an actor to understand what life was like for a 90-year-old woman managing a farm. “It gave her a lot of rich things to pull from, but also everyone,” he explains. “They loved it too, they would be like ‘is there any killing today?’ and I would be like ‘I’ll check the schedule’.”

One the other perks of filming in New Zealand was that X was able to benefit from productions that had gone before – employing 226 local crew members, many of whom had just come off the Avatar sequels, and unearthing props used by other big movies. Finding period-accurate vehicles was a challenge until they discovered some 1970s police cars that had been left in a junkyard after appearing in Pete’s Dragon. “Three of them were operational so it was just like ‘great, lets fix ‘em up and get ’em out here’” Jaffke says. “Farmland is farmland, it was just the details that were tricky.” 

That said, X did face some hurdles in making New Zealand in 2021 look like Texas in 1979. “We had a hard time finding anything we could sell as a Texas gas station,” Jaffke recalls. The Bayou Burlesque strip club used in the opening scene ended up being part construction build, part VFX. The Wellington skyline has a starring role as Houston in the opening sequence too, but eagle-eyed viewers will notice a few digital additions – namely a swathe of oil refineries. Prequel film Pearl is also littered with local landmarks (and even more local actors), but you’ll have to wait slightly longer for that one. 

Brittany Snow in X. Image: Supplied

Jaffke thinks that X’s connection to New Zealand goes deeper than just the locations. Both he and West are big Peter Jackson fans, with Bad Taste inspiring West to direct and Braindead making an impression on a young Jaffke. “For me, I just didn’t think you could make anything that bonkers and just off-the-wall crazy,” he says. “Even with the Taika Waititi films and What We Do In the Shadows, there is this darkly funny sensibility that Kiwis have that is tied to mortality in some funny way. X is very much in that spirit too, it is in the spirit of a New Zealand film.”

Local audiences should see X in a particular state of mind, says Jaffke. “Don’t go in with prejudice or preconceived notions of what a slasher is because that will do you a great disservice watching this film.” Given the overwhelmingly positive critical response in the US, with Rolling Stone saying that X “marks the spot where baser impulses meets artistry” and The Atlantic praising the film for “taking the formula somewhere original”, audiences should be prepared for some surprises. 

“The movie is a lot more than what it seems to be on the surface or from watching the trailer,” says Jaffke. “For me it is funnier than it is scary, and that’s intentional. There are some kills that are straight up vaudeville comedy gags.” So, along with the North Island landmarks, keep an eye out for the local influence seeping through in the jaw-dropping Weta prosthetics, Peter Jackson splatter homages and Joan and Spin’s offal pit aesthetic. 

“We wanted it to feel as Kiwi as possible,” says Jaffke. “Not just because we were getting a good deal on a tax incentive or because of Covid, but because we are actually becoming a part of its film history.”

X is in local cinemas now for a limited time and will be available from on-demand rental services including Google Play and iTunes from April 21

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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