Ti West, "The Innkeepers" Director, On Indie Struggles And Why Audiences Pay For Bad Horror Movies
It's only with the smallest bit of hyperbole that you can say Ti West is the most interesting new voice in the world of American horror movies. The indie filmmaker is probably best know for his '80s-throwback "The House of the Devil," a methodical movie about devil worshippers that takes its nail-biting time to scare the hell out its audience. With ominous art direction and creeping camera-work, West's filmmaking style has earned him more comparisons to Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick, than the slasher schlock of the genre (he even got a Alfred Hitchcock comparison out of Roger Ebert).
West's newest movie "The Innkeepers" opens this weekend in limited release; the film tells the tale of two low-rent ghost hunters trying to uncover the truth behind the real-life (and supposedly haunted) Yankee Pedlar Inn of Connecticut. Naturally, their ghostbusting ways are unprepared for the real supernatural horror that exists inside the hotel. On top of that, West was part of the Sundance sensation "V/H/S," a horror anthology that was so shocking it made viewers physically ill.
Moviefone spoke with Ti West about these two projects, going up against Daniel Radcliffe's "The Woman in Black" at the box office, and the challenges facing the world of horror movies -- a genre he fills has become "lowest common denominator."
Do you have any apprehension about having to open opposite "The Woman in Black"?
No, I am more apprehensive about opening against "Kill List" because I like Ben Wheatley and I like that movie. "Woman in Black," I know nothing about it. The news of that movie opening this weekend came out of nowhere. So, what are you going to do? I feel like the suburbs are going to see "The Woman in Black," the cities are going to see "The Innkeepers." That's where more of my theatrical fanbase would be. The suburbs are more of the DVD crowd for me.
Plus, you have the OnDemand pre-release for "The Innkeepers." What do you think of that model?
I was skeptical of it on "House of the Devil," and then it was really successful; I had to eat my words on that one. Doing it this time, so far, so good. I would always rather the movie be in 3,000 screens and everyone going to see it in the movie theater, but it's not realistic to think it will be on that many screens. The way to get it to people who wouldn't see it otherwise is to have it be one click on their TV. And a lot of people have great 50-inch plasma TVs and 5.1 sound, so it's not so foreign anymore. We worked really hard at meticulously crafting the movie to be seen on 35mm on the big screen with loud sounds, ideally with other people reacting around you, but if it ain't gonna happen, then at least it's better than nothing.
Do you worry about losing part of that cinematic experience, especially for a genre like horror, which really needs that community vibe?
You do lose the experience, and that's why people should see it in a movie theater. The first time I saw "Melancholia" I saw it on DVD. Loved the movie. When I saw it in the theater, it was such a crazy, more intense experience because it was so much bigger, so much louder -- and I watched it in a good way at home, but it's not the same. It's like "The Innkeepers"; DVD will do just fine for you, but it's not the same as seeing it there and when you chuckle at a joke, seventy five people also laugh at it. It's infectious that way.
Watch the Trailer for "The Innkeepers"
Speaking as an indie filmmaker, do you think that the video-on-demand service is the best model going forward for indie film?
I'm not sure. If you can create your own content and then sell it directly to the audience that wants to see if yourself, then absolutely; because you're in charge of your destiny. If it's successful, you're successful. It's very simple to wrap your head around that. That's not the case right now. VOD is still pretty much owned by a few big companies.
As time goes on, if you can make a movie in your backyard for $1,000, get a really good deal on Netflix, where every time someone watches it, you get paid, that's pretty good. That's the Louis CK model; that's direct from the artist to the consumer. It's working on getting that way, but it's not quite there yet. I have a fantastic relationship with Magnolia Pictures and I would just assume I'll make every movie with them, I have no complaints. But there is something to be said about creating the content yourself and going directly to people. The problem with that is, I can't afford to make those movies; I don't want to make a movie for $5,000 on my credit card, so I still have to get indebted to other people and if they're good people, it's a worthy trade off.
Would you prefer to stay lower budget and have more creative freedom or would you like to try a big "Woman in Black"-style horror blockbuster?
I would like to do a big movie with investors, and producers who are on the same page with me. There's this idea that, "You do these kinds of movies so you have all creative control and you have to give that up to do a studio movie." I want to make bigger movies, the problem is, the people who have the same sensibilities as me in a studio world, there's not as many of. Those producers, who are very strong producers, they're making a Coen Brothers movie right now. I gotta get in line behind some big people. To jump onto like, "Prom Night 3" that's what you're talking about. Where you have to make a music video with talking, and that's not what I do.
You had that experience on "Cabin Fever 2," and you separated yourself from the final product. As a director, that's a double-edged sword: if you don't speak up so you can play nice with others, your name gets attached to this thing you're not happy with; but if you do speak out, you earn the label "difficult to work with." What do you think is the path for a young filmmaker trying to navigate that world?
It's tough. I probably do have that label in some people's eyes, but the way I look at is: it's unfair when you get put in that situation. I wanted to have my name taken off the movie and if my name was taken off the movie, I would have never said a word. It would've been enough for me to go, "Even if people know the details, I'm separated from this, and I wish you the best." I don't dislike any of the people in that movie. All they had to do was take my name off of it. They think I'm unwilling to play the game, but they were unwilling to do anything either. It always gets pointed back to the filmmaker; if I had any control over that movie, it wouldn't have happened the way it did. If you don't like "The Innkeepers," if you don't like "House of the Devil," that's fine. But "Cabin Fever" is just one of those things where I don't want the credit or the blame for it, which is a weird scenario.
Now how did you get involved with "V/H/S"?
The company came to me and asked if I was interested, but I was reluctant at first because I was like "I don't know if an anthology is really my thing." And "found footage" is not my favorite so I was like, "I'll think about it." But I came up with an idea where I could work with people I wanted to work with and it was an experiment really. "They'll probably not let me do this, but if I could do this, it would be worth doing." I pitched them my idea and they liked it, so I went to Arizona and made a short. I got to work with everyone I wanted and they were very respectful, creatively. I was the first one to do it; I turned it in and then everyone else just sort of fell on and the next thing we knew, we were at Sundance.
"Found footage" seems to be the most successful approach when it comes to genre films, like "The Devil Inside" and "Chronicle." Do you think it's a sustainable approach or can it burn out really fast?
The reason I'm uninterested in it is because I'm a very aesthetic person. "Found footage" is this loose, rough-around-the-edges, documentary-style which to me, loses some of the excitement of moviemaking. It can be a gimmick a lot of the times, but I think the real problem is not "found footage" because we live in a world where everyone has cameras on their phones and everyone's watching YouTube. It's not going anywhere because it's similar to real life. The problem is bad "found footage" movies. I don't think "Blair Witch" is bad, I don't think "Paranormal Activity" is bad. But you go on Netflix and there's all the weird rip-off versions and you're like, "Man, everyone's trying to cash in on this style" and that sucks. To to use it as, "Oh, that movie made money at the box office so we have to do it that way just because," that's where I think bad movies come out. On "V/H/S," none of us were that psyched about "found footage," so we all had pretty clever ways on how to use it. The wrap-around story is people breaking into a house and finding tapes; I remember one point people were like, "We don't know if we want to call it a 'found footage movie.'" I said "Dude, the movie's about finding footage. It can't be more of a 'found footage movie.'"
It's a mixture of tapping into something psychologically that people can relate to and it's a mixture of your storytelling ability. Have you ever seen people tell a joke and it just kills, and then you tell the same joke and it just bombs? If someone tells a scary story and their timing is well done, it's generally a gut, instinctual thing. But a move like "The Devil Inside" they say, "okay, found footage and devils equals success, let's just make more movies like that." It might work because you have audiences that keep going to see bad movies, but a person's accountability has to kick in and people will stop being conned by these movies. It depends on the person's ability to present it, not the derivative nature of jumping on a trend. But it should be noted that I don't have a No. 1 at the box office movie, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.
Yeah, but everyone walked out of "The Devil Inside" hating it.
Universally hated movie. I haven't seen it and I got no qualms with that movie, but it's universally hated, yet it made $40 million. That's like when the guy says, "All you gotta do is pick the red card!" You know it's a scam, it's not going to be that easy. When you see a trailer come up out of nowhere for a movie opening in two weeks that's "found footage," and the trailer shows all the people in the audience getting scared with night vision cameras -- dude, it's the same trick! I can't be the only one who knows that. Audiences have to wise up and and go "I don't trust this. I gotta see how this plays out before I just throw my money at it." But we're pretty lazy, if you come to us with some excitement we always fall in line.
You know your shit, so when it comes to the world of horror and sci-fi, what movies are overlooked?
I could go on about "The Changeling" and "Don't Look Now" that are known by film fans more than audiences. But as far as recent, there's an Australian movie I saw about a year or two ago called "Lake Mungo" that I thought was really good that nobody's seen. People should check that movie out, it scared me. "Attack the Block" was also pretty great. Horror has become the lowest common denominator commodity. Part of why I got attention is because there's not too many people making horror movies that poke their heads out. Either they end up being just on video with a derivative box cover, or it's a big hit. I'm somewhere in the middle.