By Karina Longworth
It’s not unusual for young filmmakers to experience some sort of pain and frustration in making the transition from DIY no-budget feature making, to working with other people’s money and within higher profile marketing and distribution strategies. What is unusual, is for said filmmakers to talk about that pain and frustration candidly with journalists. Before I saw “The House of the Devil” at a Tribeca pre-festival press screening, its writer/director Ti West contacted me and told me that he wasn’t sure which version of his fourth feature would be screening for the press. There’s what he calls his director’s cut, which he says was finished last December; then, there’s a version with a four minute chunk shorn out of the film’s middle, an edit which West says was mandated very recently by “Devil’s” producers, the Chicago-based MPI subsidiary Dark Sky Films, in the hopes of enlivening the prospect of a Tribeca sale. When I did see the film I couldn’t see any obvious slash marks, and I was looking. Still, it wasn’t hard to see how a financier could jump to the conclusion that “The House of the Devil” could be a hard sell.
Though a huge step up in terms of image quality from his 2006 festival hit “Trigger Man” (the director spent the intervening years between this and that working on a comparatively high-budget “Cabin Fever” sequel, with which he’s no longer directly associated and which has still not been released; more on that later), “Devil” employs a similar pacing and narrative approach to West’s earlier work made with the support of producer Larry Fessenden. West seems to be developing a patented style: long stretches of quiet creep, so intensely controlled that only the cultural references distinguish it from a European art film, giving way to unforgiving violence which unsettles while still avoiding the show-it-all sadism of torture porn. If the performance-driven “Devil” (which stars Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov and Greta Gerwig) is an indication of where he wants to go and what he’s capable of, this seems like a worthwhile artistic pursuit; unfortunately, as West is well aware after losing some degree of control over two consecutive directorial efforts, worthwhile artistic pursuits don’t have much of a place in the contemporary horror climate.
I called the director after seeing the film and told him that I liked what I saw, even if I wasn’t sure which version of the film had been shown.
“Did she play the piano?” West asked.
“Then it’s not my version.”
As West explains it, the four minutes cut involve the main character of college girl Samantha (Donahue) exploring the creepy mansion in which she’s been left on an unusual babysitting job on the night of a major lunar eclipse. Some of Samantha’s bopping around the house was left in the shorter cut, but according to West, his ideal version of the film follows the young lady as she snoops from room to room, has a conversation with a goldfish, plays an awkward solo of “Heart and Soul” on a piano, and picks up a clue or two that the family that has paid her exorbitantly for one night’s work may not be what they seem. West acknowledges that the lost moments may not pack much of a narrative punch, and they definitely won’t be missed by those who expect a horror movie to offer non-stop gore, but they’re valuable to him for the ways in which they show layers to Samantha’s charater and to Donahue’s performance. And, West says, for an ostensible horror film in which there is one very unexpected fright about 40 minutes in and then nothing but patience-trying, slowly escalating tension until the film’s very bloody climax, the more blocks with which to build that tension before the inevitable release, the better. West has faith that his audience could wait another four minutes before the final comedown. “The movie’s called House of the fucking Devil — it’s gonna get there.”
“The reason it’s such a bummer is that it’s not going to accomplish anything that [the producers] think it’s going to accomplish. They’re like, ‘We think it’s slow.’ Well, the whole fucking movie is slow, so [why take out] one four minute section that’s like really good if you like slow stuff? If you don’t like slow stuff, you’ll probably walk out before then, anyway. If you don’t like the movie, not having that in there isn’t going to help. I don’t think slow is a negative thing. I think slow is just what the movie is.”
Beyond the missing four minutes, West describes disagreements with the producers over things like festival strategy, trailers and street marketing, and ultimately the film’s overall scale. “I think they’re thinking about it too much like it’s a real movie. Even though it’s low budget, they’re just thinking, ‘It’s a good movie, so people will come see it.’ But I think it still needs to be a grassroots driven thing. And it’s hard, because I don’t have any control. I think they think that as a director, I shouldn’t know or care how to release the movie. But having done everything myself before, I can’t help it.”
You’re forgiven if you’re wondering if West protests just a bit too much. Even without the four minutes in question, there’s no question that “The House of the Devil” is a film that bears his mark as a maker, one that artfully challenges contemporary expectations for its genre while ultimately delivering the horror goods with very little evidence of compromise. Even West admits that the cuts are “not, like, catastrophic.” Still, this director’s experience trying to build a career since premiering his first two features (“The Roost” and “Trigger Man”) at SXSW in 2005 and 2006 offers an instructive glimpse at the various disconnects in attitude and action between no-budget festival filmmaking and for-profit “indie” filmmaking, and the ever-increasing difficulty of funding a personal vision with someone else’s money.
In the case of “Devil,” West says, the money guys knew what they were getting into when they hired him, and didn’t seem to have a problem with what they got until recently. “All of my movies, the first half of them are just like regular movies, and then they turn into horror movies. That’s the only interesting element to me, that contrast. So they’re not surprised. It’s just that everyone is terrified, because it’s 2009, so no one’s going to buy anything.” West says the producers test screened his cut without his knowledge, and then showed him response cards. The audience’s answers to the leading questions along the lines of “Were you bored by anything in the house?” were presented as evidence that the audience asked for the specific cuts that Dark Sky eventually mandated. That he had made a film that was even subject to last minute revision based on testing came as a surprise to the director.
“It was in the rough cut, it was in the fine cut, it was in the final cut it was in the sound edit — it’s never changed, and it was always boring the whole time. It’s this whole last minute fear.”
West says his best case scenario at this point would be for the film to find a buyer who was willing to consider releasing the four mintues-longer directors cut, which West has ready to go on HD Cam. He notes that either version of Devil would probably be most appealing to “a pretty indie-friendly [company]”, and he’s probably right. This isn’t the kind of film that should be dumped on thousands or even hundreds of screens all at once; it’s got a better chance at “Let the Right One In”-like moderate cross-over success if sold by someone who gets both genre audiences and indie art film.
Meanwhile, West’s first work-for-hire assignment, “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever,” remains mysteriously unreleased years after the project was first announced. “It seems like, obviously, I’m the problem, because this is two in a row,” West acknowledges. (Hopefully it’s not Devil’s Donahue, who also appears in “The Burrowers,” another unusually arty genre film woefully abandoned to DVD by Lionsgate.) “But the problem with ‘Cabin Fever’ was I turned in my cut and it was more of a comedy than a horror movie.”
West describes his sequel to Eli Roth’s breakout as “very like a Todd Solondz or John Waters movie — very edgy social commentary type stuff.” His cut bearing out that vision was finished in September 2007; Lionsgate, set to distribute the sequel, wasn’t into it. “There was this idea of, like, ‘Well, we’ll just get another editor.” Which I never really argued with –– it was like, whatever, this is a big movie, let’s work it out. That was in September of ‘07.” But because of funding troubles at the film’s production company, no new editor was hired until the beginning of the following year. In the interim, West went off to work on “House of the Devil.” When a new editor was finally hired, West says she promised him that she would stick to the basic structure of his cut, but “commercialize it up a little bit.” That turned out to be a misrepresentation; West says the film was recut from scratch, and that the new version “totally missed the point” of what he had initially set out to do. More time passed, “and then it got to the point where they were basically saying, ‘We want to be able to call you once in a while, and call you the director, but you can’t really do anything anymore.’ So I just went, ‘Eh, why don’t you just finish it yourself.” Since he “essentially kind of quit “Cabin Fever”,” West says, he hasn’t stayed in touch with the film’s producers, and isn’t sure whether or not the film is finished, or when (or even if) it’ll be released.
As West tells it, both “Devil” and “Fever” were allowed to proceed into post-production before the companies responsible for their funding and distribution got cold feet and asked for changes. What kills West is that in both cases, he thought he was playing the game –– squelching his artsier instincts, appealing to popular taste, etc.
“‘Trigger Man’ is sort of an experimental movie, but I don’t think ‘House of the Devil’ is an experimental movie at all. It has some long takes, and there’s not a lot of talking and it’s about one girl. But it’s weird when I see this resistance to it, like it’s this weird, arty movie. ‘Cabin Fever’ was the same way — ‘Cabin Fever’ was this outrageous comedy, and when it hit the wall it was as if we’d made this weird experimental movie. And I was like, ‘I don’t understand. Did you not see all the blow jobs and boobs and blood spurting through the air? Where did I let you down?’ Again, it kind of came from the first half of the movie being more of a regular movie. There wasn’t a lot of blood in the first half, it wasn’t scary — I was trying to make, like, ‘Rock n’ Roll High School.’ It had heart wipes, and all kinds of weird stuff like that.”
I ask West how these back-to-back experiences have informed his attitude towards making films within or without the industry. What is he going to do to avoid getting into these scrapes in the future? “I think if you make a movie for real money –– I mean, I wish I could say, ‘Yeah, I’m definitely never going to get into this situation again,’ but I don’t know how it’s avoidable.” West identifies himself not as a horror filmmaker, but as part of the indie film strain that started to seep out of SXSW in the middle of this decade. “Joe Swanberg, the Duplass Brothers –– we all came up the same time, in 2005, and all became friends and aligned ourselves as kids making movies, and I just happened to have zombies in mine. I always have [the option] to go make another ‘Trigger Man,’ no one can take that away from me. You just save it for when you have to. But I like making bigger movies. Not just from a greed standpoint, but because you get to do more stuff.”
So why is he so eager to talk about his two consecutive tales of woe, potentially publicizing his plight as The Guy Who Has Films Taken Away From Him? West first pegs it as an obligation to his audience, and then gets personal.
“I’m not looking to get out there and throw mud. I’m a pain in the ass, but I’m a pretty honest person. I feel there’s some value to people knowing that if they go see this movie on Saturday night at Tribeca, and you think you’re at an independent film festival seeing an independent film, you should know that this movie was market researched like a new flavor of Pepsi. Nobody thinks about that, that they’d go see a low budget movie, and that’s the process it’s gone through to get to a film festival. And it’s a bummer. I read this thing — Who’s the guy who did ‘Black and White’?
“Yeah. He said, if someone’s telling you to cut something in your movie and you’re 100 percent confident that they’re wrong, it feels like you’re being raped. It’s like being violated, because you know it’s wrong. And you can’t do that. And that’s a bit of an overdramatic statement for this situation, but it’s the same feeling.”