April 23, 2012|The irony of identifying Ti West as a member of the new guard in the horror genre is twofold in that first, there doesn't appear to be a new guard in the horror genre, and secondly, if he does represent a revolution, it's a revolution in retrograde. What seems refreshing about West's films, particularly his lauded The House of the Devil and now The Innkeepers, is his dedication to character-driven pictures, shot on real film, with long takes and small moments--a babysitter listening to The Fixx on her Walkman, an asthmatic girl struggling to take out the garbage--that build, gradually, to "the goods" in the finale.
In conversation, West is direct to the verge of impatient, quick with unguarded opinions and apparently weary of the usual junket questions. I didn't, therefore, ask him to rehash the story about meeting Kelly McGillis over Skype, or how cast and crew stayed at the Yankee Pedlar in Connecticut while filming The House of the Devil and how fortunate it was that they didn't stay at a chain (specifically The Marriott) during that time, because it would have killed The Innkeepers in its cradle. I didn't want to rehash the 17-day shoot, the strict limits on stock and the fear that they wouldn't be able to complete the film should any reshoots be necessary...
But I did want to ask Mr. West about his relationship to FFC fave Larry Fessenden, producer for all of West's films (except Cabin Fever 2, which was taken away from West--for reasons I also didn't wish to rehash) to date. We spoke briefly via telephone last Wednesday in conjunction with the Blu-ray release of The Innkeepers.-Walter Chaw
TI WEST: My first year in college, Kelly Reichardt was a teacher and we got along really well and Larry had acted in and produced her first movie (River of Grass -Ed.), so she thought that we'd get along and put me in touch with him. We hit it off, we had sympathetic tastes. It didn't hurt that Kelly vouched for me. As time went on he was, you know, a part of that time in my life when I was putting together projects and student films and he saw the shorts that I worked on. Larry and I became friends and I worked for him a little here and there doing whatever, just getting experience, and then I did my last short film for school and he says, "Well, what are you going to do now?"
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Kind of a loaded question.
Yeah. I said I didn't know. Write a script, move to L.A., what are you supposed to do? And he said, "Well, if the only thing stopping you from making a film was money, what if I gave you a little bit of money?"
That was 2005?
Yes--that was May of 2005 and by October we were shooting The Roost. He gave me $50,000, no strings, no nothing, and we went and made a movie. It was the snowball moment for me.
Why'd he do that?
He cares. Really, you know, we have this joking, friendly relationship more than anything else but we do have very similar sensibilities... I know that what I... Let me try to explain it this way: When I first took him The Innkeepers, the pitch I told him was that this is a scene of two people sitting in a break room eating sandwiches out of aluminum foil, and he was like, "I'm sold." What I love about Larry--what he and I like--is that it's moments like that that get us going and it's hard to explain that to people that don't get it--it's hard to explain that to the wider moviegoing public, just as it's hard to explain it to people that produce films to please that wider moviegoing public. But it's the little scenes like that, like taking out the trash, things like that, and Larry's the same way.
The little details.
The little details. Larry's the same way--it's those little details that make movies appealing to me.
How does that manifest into a creative relationship?
It's hard to pin-down exactly beyond just the inspiration of having someone that's in tune with your tastes. It's not like he's giving me notes on set. I'll send him the script and sometimes he'll have something to add, usually not much, and when he does say something either I'll take that advice or ignore it. We don't have a technical, creative process together. It's just a friendly... We just have the same tastes and I'll honestly say that I don't feel that way about a great many of the people that I've met in this industry--especially the people that are working in genre movies right now. I could count on one hand the number of people I identify with creatively or would say that I share similar tastes with.
Well, there's Matt Dentler, the former programmer at SXSW, that comes to mind right away. It's Larry and Matt that are most responsible for where I am right now... Wherever that is. (laughs) Larry gave me the money and Matt accepted [The Roost] into his festival. Without those two things, I feel confident that I wouldn't be talking to you now.
You've talked a lot about how horror now seems akin a little to porn and about the lack of genuineness in the genre--I've just come from seeing The Cabin in the Woods and what can I do but agree.
I haven't seen The Cabin in the Woods. I can't quite work up the enthusiasm to particularly want to see it. I have heard people talk about it and if it's what everyone seems to be saying, I'm glad that an original horror movie is doing well, I guess, but my problem is with what people refer to as "cleverness" in a movie. I mean, when you're being "clever" is I guess when you lose me. It's an exercise more than a movie at some point. So many of our horror movies now seem to me to be more exercises in the filmmakers' cleverness than in any kind of playing out of its own integrity. I guess my hope is that The Cabin in the Woods isn't like that.
Prepare to be disappointed.
(laughs) Well, anyway, I'm not into particular tones or themes that go into this "meta" place where you're smarter than me, I'm smarter than you, we're smarter than the audience, I'm better than this, you're better than this... For me, the tone and themes should really come from a place that's respectful, maybe reverent. My movies are really personal to me. That might sound really funny to say given that they're genre movies.
Not at all--genre movies, done honestly, tend to be the most conducive to personal expression.
I agree, I agree, my movies are just really personal things to me, I invest a lot into them, a lot into the characters and what happens to them. With House of the Devil and The Innkeepers especially, I felt like I was making exactly the movies that I wanted to make from a place where I could be selfish.
Well, there's nothing in them I think, and I knew this, we all knew it, that was there for anyone else--to gratify anyone else. There's no twist, which is what I think these new horror types want to sell their films now. It's all very straightforward. I'd get this response, I'd say, Well, my movie's about a girl who spends the night in a house owned by demon worshippers. What's the twist? No twist, that's it. "Do you mean she goes in there and it's demon worshippers and that's it?" Yes, that's it, that's everything, isn't it enough? Or this movie is about two people who work in a haunted hotel. "Then what, is the hotel really a government conspiracy to..." No, it's just haunted. And two people work there. And they're not ex-CIA or anything, they're just people doing the job I'd be doing right now if Larry and Matt hadn't taken a chance on me. That's it.
Is the tension you create in your films at least in part connected to that feeling that there but for the grace of, whatever, goes you?
Maybe, maybe. Really, I just think that the plot is enough, the characters are enough, the situations are enough. I'm not interested in more. I'm interested in the presentation. I don't want an "oh my God, I didn't see that coming" moment in my movies, I want the style to carry it.
You want the audience to manufacture the dread.
Yes. Any great horror movie, and I'm not putting my films up here, but any great horror movie like The Shining... The Shining is about an alcoholic man who hates his family and then it's about a haunted hotel. Or The Exorcist is about a single mom with a sick daughter and then it's about the Devil. I thinkThe House of the Devil is about a girl trying to better her situation, and then it's about the house of the Devil. And The Innkeepers is about kids being stuck in a dead-end job that they're afraid they're losing and then it's about a haunted hotel.
Any parallels between being stuck in a dead-end job and being stuck for eternity in a haunted hotel?
Definitely. For me, selfishly, yeah. Those things. Putting emphasis on the movie first, though, is what's more important to me than any of those other things that are in there maybe when I'm writing it or talking through it. All that other stuff doesn't matter if the movie isn't true and good.
It seems backwards to that most of the time.
Yeah, that's not the way that current movies generally are being made--especially genre movies that really rely now on a gimmick. It's not the story, it's the way that you tell it. Too much now, we've lost that care and attention to detail. It's the way movies used to be and that's what still makes sense to me. When you talk about Polanski, Kubrick, those guys making movies were making movies, if other sick stuff gets in there, it's always on the back of a solid sense of style and theme and character.
And all these guys worked in genre.
Genre for me is... You can do anything in the horror genre. You can try anything. You can do grotesque, all psychological, all technical, wacky, experimental--you can package it however you want and then when the audience comes you can give them something profoundly different, active, difficult. But people don't tend to like that and so almost nobody, in any genre, does things that are different and difficult. Most horror movies that come out now are just derivative: they look the same, even, the way they're colour-corrected, the way the cameras move. People talk a lot about how you know there's no innovation, how we're remaking everything, making sequels, but the real lack of innovation is in how we're presenting it: Everything looks the same, everything's cut together the same with the slash-cuts and the scissor noises. It's all become the same. As a filmmaker, you're presented with this opportunity, right, this giant opportunity to do whatever you want...
Orson Welles called it the best train set a boy could ever have...
Exactly and you open it up and do exactly the same stuff as everyone else does.
Money, lack of imagination, lack of courage. There's something else, too--I think that a lot of people making horror movies now are making them as calling cards. I think it's like they're trying to be so badass so that people will notice them and give them more money to do something that resets the badass bar again and bigger and bigger. A lot of it's career-oriented, some of it is just sensibility like there are all these guys that do commercials that want to break into film and so they do a movie that's just all about the fancy camera movement and the slick image... There's a lot, too, that's just sort of sloppy fetish. The subtext of all these movies isn't as important as its text--they're movies that aren't about anything. I mean, I guess I should say I'm not offering judgment about whether what motivates people to make movies is better or worse than what motivates me, just that if you ask why so much of our stuff looks the same, those are the places I'd go. It's a box I can't fit into.
What do you like?
I shrugged off The Hunger Games. Mission Impossible 4, not really...you, know, it's fine... What's been good lately?
A few from last year have lingered, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy...
That movie's incredible! It's a workout to follow that movie, I had to stick to my chair and lean forward to follow that movie and I never have to do that anymore. More than that, the movie looks incredible, just spectacular, the acting, the writing, goddamn. It was like, what year is this? Who makes movies anymore that look like this and make you think like this? It's great. Melancholia was great, Attack the Block in a different way. Moneyball. I didn't see The Artist... I'm sure that's fine.
(laughs) It's fine if you read it as homage to Vertigo. Did you like The Tree of Life?
Amazing film and it does strike right at the heart of what I love about movies. I get that it's not going to be for everybody, but to me what's amazing is, "Who makes a movie like this?" This movie is unlike any other movie and I think the frustration that a lot of people have with the film--"It's slow, it's frustrating, it's too weird, it's pretentious"--are just symptoms of us being a lazy audience. We don't want the workout, we don't want the engagement. It's hard for them, I get that, but for me it's invaluable when a filmmaker goes to that place--it's so rare. Malick is like Lars Von Trier to me in that way: Whatever you think of them, their films are their own. Personal.
"Slow, frustrating, weird, pretentious" sounds like some of the reviews you got for The House of the Devil.
I don't know if that's wrong (laughs), I try to leave a lot of stuff open to interpretation and you know just open-ended, but to be fair I do try to write a lot of stuff in there. I'm interested in subtext a lot--I just believe that it's the characters that have to carry it, without a lot of dialogue, they have to be the ones that you get to know so that when their behaviour changes, that's the subtext. But the critical response I get to the films is so polarized...
If you're not pissing off half the people, you're probably doing something wrong.
At a certain point, I realized that it wasn't at all my job to try to convince anyone that they're wrong that my movie is boring and pretentious and frustrating. Generally, too, I think that people are more vocal about not liking things than liking them. I tell myself that anyway. I think it's just this unresolvable thing, though, that half of the people in the world love when Jocelin [Donahue] dances around the house for a whole song [in The House of the Devil] and the other half hate it. That a half of the people think that there's only "horror stuff" at the end of that movie, and what can you say to that?
I want to call out the scene in Innkeepers where Sara Paxton's character takes out the trash.
I love that scene. Sara, you know, she's so goofy, and that's not something that you get from her other roles but you spend like ten minutes with her and there it is. I think you actually have to go out of your way not to film her acting goofy--it's what's so charming about her, really, in person she's completely unaffected and comfortable.
You put a lot of stock in likeability?
I do, definitely, for Innkeepers, for all of my movies really, I pride myself that there isn't an asshole among those guys. It only takes one for the entire vibe of your movie to go south. I really have to like the people that I work with. I just don't feel like I can make a good movie if the environment on the film is toxic. Sara and Pat [Healy] and Kelly [McGillis] are probably the nicest people you could meet, really. They really got along with each other and there was just a really laid-back vibe to the shoot.
When did you know with them? With any of your casts?
Well, I interviewed the hell out of Jocelin to make sure she'd be down with being put through hell. I remember when I cast her, I was totally confident that it was on her now, you know. Jocelin is very different from Sara of course, but again the common thing is that I have to like them and if I like them, they'll probably all like each other. Everyone that I cast I try to be friends with. If you're friends, too, there's a shorthand and I think that 85% of filmmaking is casting. I need them to be themselves, right, but I don't know what that is without that comfort with them and the shorthand that we develop. It's like after hanging with Jocelin and with Sara for a while, you start to notice things about them and then I'll try to figure out what it is that I like about them and then, from there, the trick is capturing that thing on film.
Right--after a while there are things like, hey, it's interesting when Jocelin does this or interesting when Sara does that, and I want to make sure I get those things into the movies. The other way is having them audition, casting them because they do a great reading of a scene, and then asking them to do that reading again in the movie. You don't even know, that way, or I wouldn't at least, know if that's anything that's natural to them and if you're forcing them to do something that isn't right, then it's not going to play the way that I want it to play. I'm much more interested in, like, how they play with the zipper on their jacket.
Do you rehearse with them?
Not at all. Sara and Pat met on the night before the first morning of shooting. It was Sara's birthday, I think, or the day after, and she flew in, was hung over, shook hands, went to bed, and the next morning we're shooting. It made it all the more important having spent time with Sara and Pat and being sure that they were going to get along and be a good fit and it went fine.
Just a coincidence your last two films are women-centric?
It is. I've done a lot of stuff with a guy protagonist that just hasn't been made--it hasn't been conscious in any way. But on the other hand, as a heterosexual male filmmaker maybe it's more interesting to be obsessed about a woman for a whole year.
Do you read your reviews?
No, not a tremendous amount. I'll read a couple, but I feel pretty removed from that. I mean, I made it, it's done, I couldn't do anything about it now even if I wanted to. Honestly, I don't know why I read any at all. I guess I still have a desire to engage in a conversation.
Like Von Trier?
(laughs) He's crazy, I know that, but yes. My favourite thing is that Von Trier said to one guy this one time that asking him about the movie is like asking the chicken about the chicken soup. It's pointless. It's like the people that are angry because you made them feel or not feel something and want an explanation from you about it. I mean, on the one hand, I don't really owe you anything beyond this thing that I made. I'm not forcing you to watch it, and once you do, I'm not responsible for dissecting for you how it made you feel.
There's a sense of entitlement you get from film audiences you don't tend to see in other arts.
Right--no one goes into a museum and asks what something is supposed to make them feel. Or that painting would've been good except that it needed to have more blue to make me feel right. Or there aren't enough notes in that symphony until the second act. But it happens in movies. It's not the point what the artist was thinking--the artist doesn't owe you an explanation. People have this idea that because we're working in a genre, because we're working in this medium, that we have a responsibility to honour a set of contemporary expectations. The only thing we have to honour is the integrity of the story and its characters. They're not listening anyway, they're just mad that there wasn't enough "horror stuff," soon enough, fast enough. It's not my problem. In a lot of ways, the movie's not really for anybody else except me.
You're not getting The Hunger Games sequel with that kind of attitude.
The Innkeepers comes to Blu-ray Disc and DVD on April 24, 2012. Click here to read our review.