A Talk with Ti West
Interview conducted by Jack Giroux.
Last year The House of the Devil earned a heap of critical praise and a big backing from the online community. If you're a fan of slow-burning horror films built around a creepy atmosphere, then this movie was made for you. The House the Devil was one of the best horror films of last year and deserved the acclaim it received. Behind this uneasy slow burning horror film: director Ti West. I got to talk to Ti a while back and here's what he had to say:
The House of the Devil is now on dvd and blu-ray.
DVD Talk: Setting the film in the eigties is obviously very fitting since that's when all this Satanic panic was going on...
Ti West: Yeah, the whole genesis of the thing was my obsession with that. Everyone always goes, "why the eighties?" Because I wouldn't know where else to set a movie that dealt with this matter. I grew up in the eighties and that's what I remember hearing about all the time.
DVD Talk: A lot of people have been labeling this as a "homage" to the horror films of the eighties, but it's not. It's just a period piece horror movie.
Ti West: Exactly, that's all it is. The movie takes place in the eighties so we made it look like the eighties. It would be the same way if it took place in the fifties. It would have been techno-color or something. It's not so much of a homage, but [it's] trying to be a very seamless recreation of that time. You wouldn't say Zodiac is a homage to the seventies.
DVD Talk: Is that something that irks you at all? I'm sure you got asked about that a lot.
Ti West: No, I mean in a very minor way it bugged me. I just disagree. I think it's a period piece opposed to a homage. I don't get upset about it, but if people ask I would correct them about it. I think homage implies, not parody, but these days something closer to that. I wanted to keep it dead serious.
DVD Talk: That recreation feels very natural though, many films that take place in the eighties unintentionally come off as parodies with how they show fashion and all that stuff.
Ti West: I didn't want anything to call attention to itself, because then it becomes a skit and it distracts you. I wanted it to seem like real people and real stuff.
DVD Talk: This feels very repressed compared to most horror films released today.
Ti West: Yeah, that would've been a different movie if I did that stuff. I'm not against that stuff, but this just isn't that type of movie. There wasn't a theme that was... If anything, it was more an asexual repression theme than an exploitation sexuality theme.
DVD Talk: Jade Healy did a pretty great job with the production design, can you talk about your collaboration with her?
Ti West: She's incredible. The thing you have to realize about the house is that it looks like we just walked in and shot it there, but the house looked nothing like that. She completely retrofitted everything in the house radically. Every single piece of furniture is different with the floors, the walls, and everything was just different. It was a big deal for her and she did a phenomenal job. She did a flawless job and I owe her a lot of credit. People really like the look of the film with the costumes, the house, the hair, and the production design was a big part of that.
DVD Talk: The first two acts is this very mundane build up and the third is where all the fantastical supernatural aspects come into play. That's a pretty big contrast.
Ti West: Yeah, I think to make art and horror successful you need a strong contrast. Otherwise, it just becomes titillation and shock value. That's not interesting to me. I think you really need the first half of the movie to be about the characters and the real life aspects so when it turns into this horrific thing you need a reason to be scared and excited. Without that, I don't think it would work.
DVD Talk: Structurally, it reminded me a bit of Antichrist. Where it's odd and eery for the first two acts, but the third act just goes all out.
Ti West: Well, I'll take comparisons to Lars Von Trier all day long. Of course we made this movie way before seeing Antichrist. Although, that was one of my favorite movies of last year. I think that movie is amazing... I don't know, but that's a great example of what you can do with the horror genre. Antichrist is not like any other horror movie and that's really exciting. With all the remakes, the sequels and lowest common denominator studio stuff they're all more or less the same movie with slightly different plots and different actors.
DVD Talk: The first two acts is definitely the most polarizing aspect. Some can't get into it while others, like myself, really enjoy it for the awkward realism.
Ti West: If you enjoy it for the awkward realism then you are on "Team Ti" in a sense that you saw what I was trying to accomplish and it made sense to you. If you don't, that's fine. I'm not going to try to argue with you about it. It's one of those things where, I think all [the] good stuff should be polarizing and you shouldn't have a one-sided response. It should either be "I loved it" or "I hated it." I think all the best stuff is that way. I think with this movie there's a subtle sensibility. If you get that then great. I'm making a movie that's personally for myself and I feel like there's an audience that will enjoy that. If you enjoy that stuff then you have a similar taste of mine. I therefore say that is good taste (laughs). If you don't like it, then there's a million other movies you can go see. It doesn't hurt my feelings. I'm proud of the movie.
DVD Talk: While the general audience reaction has been polarizing in the way you talk about it, the critical reaction has been great.
Ti West: I'm terrified to make another movie. I can't do better (laughs). We got all in all real praise and I feel real fortunate that we've had that. Going into our next movie they're going to be expecting Citizen Kane so I hope I can deliver (laughs).
DVD Talk: Jeff Grace's score was especially great and did a really good job setting atmosphere...
Ti West: You should also credit Graham Rexnik who's the sound designer, because he... The three of us worked very closely together and it was a very collaborative process. We all did stuff. I think sound is a huge part of my filmmaking process and it's apart of the narrative for me. I'm very anal about it and Jeff Grace is awesome. He wrote that piano scene which we tried for a really long time trying to get that scary TV movie feel with all the big strings and the percussion. Graham and I worked on all the ambient like whims to really give it this... You only have one image to play with, but you got like a thousand soundtracks. You can do a lot with sound and I do a lot off screen with sound. We worked really hard on that and Jeff and Graham deserve a lot of credit. They really helped make the movie scary.
DVD Talk: I really loved the transition in the third act where it's very bombastic with strings. It makes you feel very uneasy.
Ti West: I think once she wakes up in the basement it becomes a whole different scenario just like it does for the audience.
DVD Talk: There's a good amount of lingering shots. In particular, the one in the pizzeria where it lingers on that statue. I'm curious what was the creative choice behind that shot?
Ti West: It's suppose to do a couple of things. One, from a visual standpoint, rhythmically I liked it. Two, I liked that guy standing there (laughs). There was just something odd about it. It was just something when I was editing the movie I liked. I liked the statue and it's one of those things that makes you go, "huh, why does it wait there?" It's interesting and I think a lot of interesting filmmakers do things that are not as familiar as everything else you see. It's one of those things where it is weird, but it's the beginning of you starting to feel unsettled by things. The more that happens throughout the movie, I don't want to say it's more control over the audience, but it's when you start making people go, "I don't know what's going on here." Everyone is so hip and postmodern to movies where when a girl opens a mirror and closes a mirror we know someone's going to be standing behind her. It's a thing to do that takes you out of your comfort zone. It's something that made sense to me.
DVD Talk: There's definitely a good amount of odd feeling lingering shots.
Ti West: The movie is very much that. This realism driven movie.
DVD Talk: One of the reasons why the first two acts are so compelling is because they're so realistic. When we think we hear something downstairs we usually just stand there for a moment unsure about what to do. It's this very awkward situation.
Ti West: Exactly, I wanted to avoid all movie stuff and do what real people do. That real awkward feeling you have of paranoia and boredom gets into your head to where it becomes fear.
DVD Talk: One thing in the third act in particular that works is how you're more interested in conveying and showing who's involved with the violence instead of just the violence. If that makes sense.
Ti West: Yeah, I've never been a fan of... I've never found just seeing people on screen getting killed a reason to see a movie. I've never understood that stuff. When you physically make a movie and when you're planning on death scenes it's so much fun. When it actually comes to shooting those scenes, it's horrible. It's one-hundred percent technical and everyone is miserable since everyone is trying to get it right. There's nothing really to learn from that experience. It's literally, "on three, two, one turn, blood!" It either works or it doesn't. It's not enjoyable, but what is interesting is the method behind it and the emotional response. To answer your question, trying to make the emotion impact on screen work is the main goal as opposed to just the imagery.
DVD Talk: Is this something you try to achieve while filming or is it something you'd say you try to discover in post?
Ti West: Hopefully you get it while you're filming and you know that. Sometimes, like anybody, you shoot a little extra just in case down the road you change your mind. When you're in post that's where you go, "I don't need that, but I'm glad I have that extra shot of the blood running down," but it all depends. Definitely when you're editing the movie you come up with new ideas. Editing a movie is just like directing a movie except you're in a room with a computer. Editing is huge and that's why I do it myself. During that you really learn a lot about the movie and what the movie could become.
DVD Talk: Did you do any test screenings?
Ti West: No, there was a moment before Tribecca [Film Festival] where we had an argument over something so they tested it without me to try to help their side of the argument. But no, it wasn't the type of movie where that was really necessary which is great. I really don't believe in that process at all. To hear someone go, "I didn't like this part," who cares? It's not my problem, you know what I mean? I understand if companies make posters and trailers and test screen those, because that's what's going to get people to see a movie. The movie itself, you're either going to like it or you're not. Hearing someone say, "I don't like it when she dances around," that's too bad, because I do and I think other people will too.
DVD Talk: Test screening a movie like this would be the ultimate trick, because you either have the right audience or you don't. If people like me are there, they'll love it. But if you get someone like my dad, they'll hate it.
Ti West: Oh yeah, totally. Absolutely. That's why if your movie is very down the middle.... When you make a movie like this or Antichrist it's polarizing. You can't trust one person's opinion over an others. It's neither here nor there. You could show it to a room full of people and one day everyone hates it and then the next day everyone loves it. Critically, we really lucked out. They really liked the movie and it's very flattering. They found a message from it. On the flip side, you're guaranteed to find a group of people who don't feel the same way. It's whatever.
DVD Talk: Do you see yourself continuing to do genre films or is that something you'd like to stray away from at one point?
Ti West: I'd like to stray away from it, but I don't mind continuing to do it. But particularly in doing my own films. I'm not interested in working from other people's material. If I can keep making my own movies like The House of the Devil then sure. It's my own idea, but if it's, "hey, come on and do this sequel or remake to whatever," then I don't know. I kind of went down that road and it was very unpleasant. It's not something I'd want to do again.
DVD Talk: I presume you're referring to Cabin Fever two, which we don't have to talk about, but was that a learning curve for you where for now on you don't want to do another sequel or a remake?
Ti West: Yeah, that I think had potential to be really great and it was really disappointing with how it turned out. I'm assuming that you know that and that's why you said what you said, but it's one of those things where I learned something the hard way. The first half of making that film was one of the best experiences that I've ever had. I really believed in the movie I was making and I was really excited about it. Cabin Fever two could have been this totally unique crazy type of cult movie but, unfortunately, it's not the movie that I made. So after having that experience it's not worth doing that again. The year where it all went wrong it was just so miserable. I don't want to fight to have my name taken off a movie anymore. I just want to do my own thing.
DVD Talk: Would you be able to do a Director's Cut though? I believe you shot mostly what you wanted.
Ti West: It won't happen, because it would take too much time and money. If it ends up being one of the most successful DVDs ever then it's possible, because it would be cheaper than making another movie. The reality is, we're not on great terms so that's an issue of itself. Also, it's just not sitting there ready to be released. I would have to go back, find it, re-cut it, do all the sound, do all the music, all the effects, and all the stuff that was done without me. I would have to go back and do that my way, but it's expensive and it's time consuming. It's not something where they're going to go, "okay, send us your cut and we'll put it out," it doesn't work that way. Unfortunately, the odds are pretty slim. If they ever did come to me down the road and ask me if I'm interested in taking four or five months to do it and giving me money to make the movie I wanted to make, I'd love to. That would be the greatest thing ever. I really believed in that movie and it wasn't like I thought it was going bad, but I was glad to get out.
DVD Talk While shooting you were making the movie you wanted to make, right?
Ti West: Yeah, I was on pace to cut the movie together the way I wanted to, but then they decided they wanted to go an other way. The footage was so difficult... People always say, "how different could it be? It's still your script and your footage?" Imagine if you gave all the raw footage of The House of the Devil to Darren Lynn Bousman and you gave me the footage of Repo! The Genetic Opera. We'd make crazy-as-shit movies. They'd be crazy different. They're story is more or less the same, the actors are still in it, it's still the stuff I shot, but it's not my movie.
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