There’s something both odd and reassuring that the most hyped young horror director in America today is a full-blown classicist, but that’s the case with Ti West, whose two major films, 2009’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, which opens on Friday, operate on the decidedly old-school logic that things are occasionally scarier when they’re not seen, that a dolly down a hall can reach a level of visceral terror that 10,000 exploding CGI heads could never hope to achieve. Thankfully—like Carpenter, Craven, and Dante before him—West also has no issue with indulging in a little bad taste; as such, both films build to gleefully Id-iotic eruptions of genre goodness. Slant recently spoke with West about his new film, the end of celluloid, genre filmmaking, being fed up with America, and why everyone in the world should be talking about Louis C.K.
One of the most striking points of continuity between The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil was the degree to which they both come out of economic desperation—here it’s in the death of the small, family-owned business.
Kind of, I think it’s more existential, with where you fit in with things. Which made it to me a good parallel with ghosts who are just stuck somewhere. There’s the idea of, “Oh, what do you do?”…“I work at the hotel”…“No, what do you really do?”…“Well, I work at the hotel…is there something wrong with that?” Questioning yourself in that way, but yes, there’s certainly a theme of a place like the Yankee Pedlar going out of business because the Holiday Inn moved in.
There’s the joke about the Courtyard By Marriot. It seems like this is the kind of movie that couldn’t exist in a world without Yankee Pedlars, I couldn’t imagine this in a Courtyard By Marriot.
No, it wouldn’t work.
The Yankee Pedlar is where your crew stayed while you were shooting The House of the Devil.
When we were making The House of the Devil, we stayed here because it was cheap. We drove about 30 minutes to set everyday to make our satanic horror movie, and then weirder stuff would happen back at the hotel and it became more interesting. The whole town believes it’s haunted, the whole staff believes it’s haunted, the cast and crew believed it was haunted—all this weird stuff would happen. I only thought of it as funny stories, because we were making a horror movie, but when I wanted to make a ghost story a year and a half later I was trying to think of an idea and, well, we lived one. I know the location, so we could totally make that movie, and it would be a weird, personal movie to go back there and make it; fortunately they let us shoot there and we went back. So we went to this weird, tax-incentive state to make a movie in the middle of nowhere and then we went back again, which was so bizarre, to do two tours at the Yankee Pedlar.
So you weren’t thinking about it at all while you were working on The House of the Devil?
No, not at all. I was far too stressed out to be thinking about something like that. It popped into my head, and then I talked to Joe Swanberg and he thought it sounded like a funny movie so I thought, “I’m just going to go write it.” And I wrote, not even thinking that if the Peddler had said no it would have been a waste of time. Thankfully they said yes, so we went and made it. You can go to Connecticut right now and think you just walked into the movie.
Would you have found a way to make it if they had said no?
No. I would have had to rewrite it to be in a Courtyard By Marriot and then who cares? It was discussed, but there just wasn’t anywhere else.
You mentioned Joe Swanberg. What was the chronology of you making this and acting in You’re Next and Silver Bullets?
Silver Bullets started when I was doing sound on The House of the Devil and it finished when I was in post on The Innkeepers. We were going to shoot something on the set of The Innkeepers [Ti plays a horror director shooting a werewolf film starring Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets], where it would have been the movie within Joe’s movie, but it was too much; we had to say, “Get the fuck out, we’ve got a movie to make.” You’re Next was later; we were working on it last spring.
So this is the first film you’ve finished since acting in others where you weren’t the director. Do you think that had any influence on you as a filmmaker?
No, because Joe’s style is such its own entity, and I was also basically playing a parody of myself in his movie. I don’t think so, it could have subconsciously, but I never thought of it that way.
One of the defining traits of your movies so far has been their texture. What are your thoughts on continuing to shoot on film?
Well, film’s days are numbered and it is what it is. I shot this on 35mm, and I was reminded every day that it cost us an extra $150,000 to do that. But I never knew where that money would go. Where else am I going to spend it? Can I keep it? We made the movie in 17 days, which is nearly impossible, but we didn’t need another day; we even finished early every day, so it was a really effortless shoot in that regard. So I didn’t need more time. I guess I could have gotten some crane shots, but was that really worth not shooting on film? I couldn’t find a reason why it would have been better. This movie, shot on 35mm and released on 35mm, it’s got to be my last one; if not, it’s one of the last ones, at least as far as I’m concerned.
So you think whatever you make next will be shot digitally?
It’s getting so hard to make the argument. It was hard on this one, but on the next one it’s going to be incredibly hard. If I were to make a giant studio movie, it wouldn’t be that hard. I like the alchemy of it. I like the process of film better. Because I don’t like playback, I don’t like people huddling around the monitor. I don’t like that at all. That to me harshes the mellow. I prefer there to be this mystery to what we’re doing and we have to believe that we’re doing our jobs, and I think having an HD monitor and an Alexa, everyone has an opinion then and I just don’t care, I want to keep making the movie that we set out to make. I think the vibe just would not be there. But I try not to be so retro—like film, just for the sake of doing it. I do like it, I think it’s better, but the argument is getting tough.
Do you think shooting on film had any influence on the actors, or the freedom of the improvisation?
I’m not sure how the actors felt, but at the end of the shoot we almost ran out of film. So I was paranoid on the last day that we were going to run out of film, and I talked to Pat [Healy] and Sara [Paxton] and was like, “Let’s just try to be really, really serious today.” Of course, they think I’m being like, “You guys are terrible,” but I didn’t think anything of it, I just thought I was stressing out. So while we’re working I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, we can do two takes of that.” Literally, there would have been no more movie, when we ran out it was done. This was the whole scene in the basement with the contact with the ghost, which I would have loved to shoot a lot of footage of, and we just couldn’t. I think we finished with two rolls left, but there was a conversation where I asked if we could get more just in case, and it was just flat out, “No.”
It also impacted the scene where Pat goes outside in the rain. I would have covered it in a whole bunch of ways, but we just couldn’t because it suddenly started raining. So we just did that one shot, and ultimately it’s one of the best shots in the movie, but at the time we didn’t even know if it was in focus. We didn’t even get dailies of that until after we wrapped, and we knew we weren’t going to; that whole day was a toss up. If that footage had come back soft or fucked up, we were doomed. I don’t know what we would have done. I was really paranoid about that. So those are two things about film that are scary; it could have been a real problem twice, but it wasn’t, so let’s keep doing it.
You mentioned wanting to avoid a retro fetish for film earlier; The House of the Devil received so much praise for those elements, and they’re almost entirely absent here. Was that something you were looking to actively avoid?
Well, I accidentally got a lot of credit for The House of the Devil being retro. We were making a movie that took place in the ’80s, so I just looked at it as a period piece, and I didn’t want anybody to be able to pick on the movie for not being accurate—“You didn’t even do the period! It sucks! You don’t have any money!”—so I just tried really hard to make that not an issue, so that no one could poke holes in that. I wasn’t doing it to be Mr. Retro, I just did what anyone would do who was making an ’80s movie. But then it turned into this focal point where everyone is saying how amazingly we did it and we were kind of just like, I know. [Laughs] So we worked really hard on that, but we just backdoored our way into the praise. I don’t want to do it again, but I do always like making movies in the ’70s or ’80s because of the props that I get to take home with me.