If there's a thin line between confidence and arrogance, Ti West straddles it. Not unlike many of the characteristics ascribed to his films, however, that's a compliment rather than a criticism: his sense of self-worth as a filmmaker is predicated on personal responsibility, and because he participates in the writing, directing and editing of his films (among other duties), he is eager to take the credit, or blame, for the end result, which is why he's insistent – or, as he admits, "a little difficult" – about the fact that he wants what makes it to the screen to be his vision rather than the result of test-marketing or some other form of studio interference.
The House of the Devil is his latest film, and thankfully it arrives in theaters this week unimpeded by any such changes. Cinematical recently sat down with West at a Los Angeles press day for a short one-on-one discussion of the film, which follows a college sophomore (Jocelin Donahue) who gets more than she bargains for when a lucrative babysitting job turns into a night of abject terror. In addition to discussing the film's note-perfect recreation of 1980s horror conventions, not to mention period details, West talked about striking a balance between mundane boredom and mortifying terror, and finally, learning lessons even from lackluster filmmaking experiences.
Cinematical: How did this evolve, and how did you develop the aesthetic for House of the Devil? It's an incredibly faithful recreation of a 1980s horror movie.
Ti West: Well, the idea to do a satanic movie, it only made sense to set it in the 1980s, when there was the height of the 'satanic panic' cultural phenomenon in the United States. I was always obsessed with that. I was obsessed with the fact that my mom would be like, "you can't go out by yourself down to the park because someone will come by in a van with no windows and kidnap you and sacrifice you to the devil." What a weird thing for everyone to be obsessed with! It was perpetuated by Geraldo and people like that, and you can Youtube some really awesome Geraldo clips where it's just like putting the fear into everyone that cults are coming; it wasn't really true, but everyone believed them. So when I set it in the '80s, a lot of people call it a homage or a throwback and I don't really see it that way. I'm not so ignorant to say there isn't a few nods in the movie, but really just wanted to make an authentic period piece; if the movie had taken place in the '50s, I'd have made it as authentically '50s as possible. I'm sort of obsessive compulsive with detail, so I tried to be as accurate and as realistic [as possible] because so much of the movie is about realism, and it's played out like a realistic movie about a girl babysitting. So I wanted that to be cohesive in the cinematography and the production design and the costume design, and we had a lot of conversations about the real '80s, not "Video Killed the Radio Star," movie '80s.
Cinematical: Were there any specific filmmakers or films that inspired the visual style of your movie?
West: Not directly, but I think subconsciously, sure. I mean, I certainly think Polanski's apartment trilogy – Repulsion, The Tenant and obviously Rosemary's Baby – but I think The Tenant, pacing-wise and style-wise, I really love those movies. Of course, I really love Rosemary's Baby also. There wasn't anything directly, like I sat down with the d.p. and said, "watch this movie," or "I want it to look like this movie." It wasn't like that, but there were movies that I was influenced by just like those movies, or The Changeling with George C. Scott, The Shining, or The Exorcist – evocative horror movies that were kind of auteurish and not lowest common denominator, and treated the [material] with a lot of respect. I think those movies always sort of resonated with me and I think that's just in my head somewhere. As far as the style of the movie, zooms and things like that, that stuff just came out while we were shooting it; I'd be like, "put the zoom lens on it," and I operate the camera, so I'd find myself just doing it. The movie, once you put her in that outfit in that dressed location, it just felt like this is how it has to be; the movie dictated what it wanted from me.
Cinematical: How difficult or easy is it to sell producers on the idea that you're doing something that is anachronistic in a way that may not be immediately commercially appealing?
West: I think the movie I made before that, Trigger Man, takes that to a whole different level, and borders on an experimental movie, so the fact that I was not going to do it that far made them relieved. But I think that's just my style; I like long takes, I like long, choreographed sequences more than I like fast editing. That's just a personal preference. Also, this is a movie about a real girl doing realistic things, so I liked seeing the mundane, and to me, what makes horror movies – particularly this movie, but any horror movie – effective is contrast. It makes art accessible and I think it makes horror more effective. So I like seeing her walk all of the way down the hallway. I like seeing her have to deal with all of these little minute bullsh*t details. Because all of that realism and all of that sort of day-to-day, mundane stuff in contrast to waking up on a pentagram makes waking up on a pentagram more effective. If you just got to it, or she didn't have enough time to kind of live with the audience, you wouldn't care; it would just be about seeing a girl on a pentagram, and that to me would have been like a failure. So first and foremost, it was a movie about this girl and about understanding who this girl was and kind of relating yourself to that, so that it could be a personal experience and a pro-active experience for the audience, and then hitting you over the head with all of the horror stuff.
Cinematical: What is the secret for you knowing how to balance that sense of anticipation – for the audience not to be bored by that buildup?
West: Well, I definitely think it's subjective. Believe me, plenty of people are bored to tears with this movie. But you can't make a movie for everybody, and I think I'm sort of a personal filmmaker, and I think you can't make a movie for an audience; you've got to make what you want to make and be true to that, and then let it find an audience. I think that's to me, the best movie – movies that are very serious about what they're doing. Maybe you like them, maybe you don't, but they have a very clear voice to them. So as far as how long to do it, I guess it's different for everybody, but for me this is what made sense. I read a thing a long time ago with Polanski about Repulsion where he said, "I tried to lull people just to the brink of boredom," like right on the brink of boredom, and then all of a sudden hands are coming out of the wall, and you sit up going, what? What happened? What did I miss? That proactive response is I think infinitely more valuable; I think it make repeat viewing of the movie a necessity, and it makes the movie all of a sudden rise above. I like challenging movies; I like enigmatic things in movies where you leave the movie going, I didn't quite understand that - is it my fault or is it the movie's fault? I like sort of treating movies intellectually, so for me there's like Hitchcock elements to it, but it's like I'm doing my best at what I think is a mystery suspense movie, and then that turns into a horror movie. If it works for some people, great, then I did my job; if it doesn't work for some people, maybe it's my fault and maybe you just don't like it.
Cinematical: I told a couple of my colleagues that I was a little bored in some of the early scenes in the way I was in '80s slasher flicks – and I mean that as a compliment.
West: I don't think boring is such a bad thing, necessarily. I don't associate that with "I don't like the movie." I also think of myself as a very tonal filmmaker, so it's all about setting sort of a tone and this sort of overall vibe of the movie that people can lock into. But I didn't mean to interrupt you...
Cinematical: I was only going to say that you create a real sense of the mundane, so that when things happen at the end of the film, the stakes are heightened.
West: What's interesting is that if you had a home invasion in your house and get killed, you most likely could have been watching "fail" videos on Youtube the moment before. And how ridiculous is that? It was just like you were [hanging out] and somebody broke into your house, and that's the same thing with this. It's like, I was saying to someone how whenever you see something horrible on the news, like someone really dying, it's not the blood and gore that affects you; it's the way when they fell they dropped something, or the way that their face looked kind of weird. It's those elements that stick with you - that clumsiness, that awkward realism – and that to me what was kind of important about this movie, just having a sense of reality that isn't in most horror movies. Most horror movies today, as soon as that movie starts, as soon as the logo comes up, you're in a horror movie! I'm not so interested in that.
Cinematical: Another really effective part of the film is the score, which seems like a pastiche of John Carpenter and Jerry Goldsmith and Krzysztof Komeda. Were there specific points of reference, or even specific artistic goals you had when collaborating with Jeff Giles?
West: No. I always wanted there to be three sounds to the movie. There was going to be '80s synthesizer stuff or '80s drone stuff, feedback or just the creepy ambient stuff which I do with Graham [Reznick], the sound designer; that was a prerequisite because that was what makes some of the scenes scary and just puts an overall tone under things to make them creepy. I was very adamant about the movie having a consistent piano theme a la a TV movie from the '60s, '70s or '80s.
Cinematical: Like the Incredible Hulk music by Joe Harnell.
West: Well, not the Incredible Hulk walking away, but I think The Changeling has that great music box theme, so something along the lines of that. That was very difficult, because you walk a very fine line with that, and I think Jeff did a really good job. And then at the end, I want it to be just an all-out, just huge almost like attack on the audience with huge percussion and strings and all this stuff. We used artillery shells and all of this weird stuff for that, so again, it was about that element of contrast, about having this throughline and then the stark change at the end.
Cinematical: Without the context of the 1980s, do you think that you can make a contemporary horror movie that could operate the same way, possess that patience, and be successful?
West: Yeah. I think so. I think Antichrist isn't a fast-paced movie. I don't think Let the Right One In is a fast-paced movie – although that might be period, but I don't remember. But either way, it's like cell phones create a lame problem with storytelling, and the internet is not really cool for movies. Those things are effective, but there's no reason that a movie has to be paced like this [snapping his fingers quickly]. There's no reason that you have to abandon suspense. Because I've been through it with a studio situation; I have a friend right now who has a movie, it's not a horror movie, but it's a really good movie and they're happy with the way it turned out and the studio is very happy with it, but it didn't test well. Now, the studio's going, oh now we have to change it, and he's like, but you like it! And you know it's good! So why don't you just leave it alone and just expect that some people are going to like it and some aren't? They're just going to change it because no one has any personal accountability for anything any more, and I think that's a huge, huge part of the problem. You have too many people involved, and too many people that worry, "what if some people don't like it?" Some people are going to hate this movie, and some are going to love this movie, and there's not going to be a lot of middle ground.
But if someone were to say to me, "people are going to hate the movie, we've got to change it," it's like, no, f*ck them. Because if we change it then the people who loved the movie will hate it. You can't win, and it's all subjective. It ended I think in the late '80s, this idea of making serious movies; in the '90s, MTV-style editing and mass marketing, research, testing, all of that stuff became a huge part of the process, and it's become too dependent on that, and it's made [it] lowest common denominator. The studios, the people in charge are idiots – most of the time. Not all of the time. But a lot of the time it's like frat dudes that got a job; they're in control of the kind of movies that you want, and you wonder why there's not better movies. Well, you've got to demand it, and you've got to support the good stuff and not support the bad stuff.
Cinematical: Do you consider yourself a genre filmmaker?
West: No, not entirely. I'd like to make mostly horror movies, but not only horror movies.
Cinematical: What's coming up for you next? I know there was some hullabaloo about Cabin Fever 2...
West: There certainly is hullabaloo. That's an Alan Smithee situation for me, though I can't actually use the credit, but yeah, that's a bummer. I have a web series coming out on the 26th for IFC called Dead & Lonely, that I'm excited about. And then another movie seems like [it will happen] very soon after that, knock on wood.
Cinematical: I know there was some contention about the cut of House of the Devil that was screened at Tribeca, which has now been restored. But how have those experiences with this film and Cabin Fever 2 maybe affected what you're doing going forward? Is there a lesson to take away from those battles you can apply to future projects?
West: You've got to trust your gut. I always look at it like, okay, I wrote, directed and edited this movie, and no matter what, I take the blame for everything. So if people hate the movie because they think it's boring, fine, understood. It doesn't upset me at all because I'm very happy with the movie that I made, but if I'm not happy with the movie I made, then I can't take the responsibility for it. it's a personal experience for me and I believe, like, what if I never make a movie again? I'm going to compromise and the last movie I make in my life was compromised? That sucks. So as long as I have the energy to fight, I will always be very adamant about trying to do things that I feel support the art that I'm making. I'm a little bit difficult because of it, but this is not so much a career for me as much as it is a lifestyle.