It's strangely appropriate that the rising career of filmmaker Ti West hasn't quite been meteoric, if only because his indie horror features (five and counting, including "The House of the Devil" and his experimental sniper-in-the-woods thriller "Trigger Man") are known for their slow burn. Reverential to cinema past while shrewdly and artfully revitalizing tired horror tropes, West's naturalistic stories fit right into the wheelhouse of his producing mentor Larry Fessenden—whose Glass Eye Pix label has unleashed most of the 31-year-old filmmaker's projects, including his latest spooker, "The Innkeepers."
Speaking to its technical polish alone, his most recent movie marks another steady foot forward for Ti West. A seemingly lighter riff on the haunted house flick, "The Innkeepers" owes as much to its game cast (asthmatic heroine Sara Paxton, spot-on hilarious sidekick Pat Healy, blast from the past Kelly McGillis) as it does to the Yankee Pedlar Inn—a Connecticut hotel so wonderfully kooky that it's actually real. On the eve of the Pedlar's closing, two front-desk employees and ghost-hunting hobbyists discover what bumps in the night, yet the playful tone dwells somewhere between atmospheric creep-fest and disenfranchised minimum-wager comedy.
The Playlist sat down with West during last year's SXSW Film Festival, where "The Innkeepers" made its world premiere, to discuss his trademark style, the sad state of American horror today, and his upcoming foray into science fiction.
Much like "The House of the Devil," your new film gradually creeps up on viewers, unlike "movies that scare you by throwing a cat at the camera," as Roger Ebert said. What attracts to you that quality?
I'm starting to realize that I have no idea because even [sound designer Graham Reznick] and I used to joke, "This movie's regular burn," and everyone's like, "That's slow burn." Alright, I'm out of touch. It's just my own personal aesthetic. I don't feel like the horror works unless you're invested in the characters before then. And if there isn't a strong contrast, then it doesn't matter when anything scary happens. I like hanging out with people in the movie before the shit goes down, but I also like the horror slowly sneaking up on you. Once you realize we're in the horror movie, it's too late. That's what's happening to the characters, and to the audience.
As far as any similarities [to "The House of the Devil"] or structural things, that comes from being low-budget. If you don't have enough money to make a big movie, you make it in a confined location. If I had 20 million dollars, there would be a whole shitload of locations and extras. You try to do the best with what you have.
Speaking of locations, how did you find the one-of-a-kind Yankee Pedlar Inn?
It's a goofy place because there are a lot of historic, old, beautiful parts, and then terrible '70s renovation. When we made "The House of the Devil," that's where we stayed. We drove 40 minutes from there to go shoot, then when we'd come back to the Pedlar, weird stuff would happen. The experience of being at the Pedlar was almost stranger than making a satanic movie in the middle of nowhere. A year and a half later, I was moving onto a bigger thing. When I didn't think I was going to make that film anymore, I thought, "What could I do that's small?" I'm very impatient. I was talking to Joe Swanberg, and somehow the Pedlar came up and we were laughing about it. I was like, "Maybe I'll just write that movie because it's ready to shoot." [Producer Peter Phok] called the Pedlar, and they remembered us: "Yeah, you can come back and shoot a movie!"
Did any of your actual experiences there inspire the story?
[Like the name of Pat Healy's character], there actually is a Luke who works at the front desk that has a ghost-hunting website. He's still there. When we went back, it was like "Luke!" and he was pumped. They would say the same things about doors opening and closing, lights going on and off, piano clangs, but that's all classic ghost story stuff. ["The House of the Devil" co-star] Dee Wallace is a healer now, so she would talk to me about healing stuff and pendulums, and although Kelly McGillis' character is nothing like Dee Wallace, that's where that idea came from.
Do you attribute any of your film success to the fact there's so much mediocrity in American horror?
Yeah, I think I'm doing something slightly different so it gets me more attention. Horror is grim right now, and it's been that way for a while. Maybe you get one or two films a year that stick out. As long as people keep going to see lowest-common-denominator movies, they're going to keep making them. You don't have to like my movies, but skip the remakes unless you really like them. To me, these are movies, and then they're horror movies. When the horror is all people care about, well… That's insulting to an audience, that we wouldn't be intellectual enough to watch a movie that didn't have scares every five minutes.
Would you ever work outside of the horror genre?
Definitely. I've made five in a row, but that's an accident because people will give me money to make these movies. They've been my own movies so I have no problem with it. Steven Soderbergh had that amazing quote, where he's like: "I just can't get excited about over-the-shoulder shots again." It's getting to the point where I don't want to repeat myself, so I've done ghosts, weird killers in the woods, zombies, bats, satanic cults. The only thing left that I think I'm going to do next is this science fiction movie. All my scripts that I've written that are not horror cost too much money. They'll get made someday.
I don't believe you've spoken publicly about the sci-fi project until now, what is it?
It's called "The Side Effects." It has to do with pharmaceutical testing in space. It would be a little bit bigger budgeted, but in a way it would fill out a trilogy with "House Of The Devil," and "The Inkeepers," as far as dealing with isolation and paranoia, that kind of psychological fear. I had a very difficult run-in with an insurance company and that's what [begat the film]. It was me against a corporation and I just knew I couldn't win, but I felt like I was going to make it as painful for them as possible because this is unfair. So I would just drag it out and [that element] — one person against a corporation — is what started the idea. It's much more high-concept than my movies usually are. I had a groovy idea and went: "Oh, and that fucking nightmare with the insurance company." It's a mixture of those two things. [Editors Note: the film recently cast Liv Tyler in one of the lead roles, and you read more details about the project here]
What scares you that you haven't exorcised in film yet?
Maybe the space stuff? Not really though because it's about something being physically wrong with you and the way someone says, "You'll be fine," but you can't believe them and make it worse. That's something I do in a hypochondriac way, and that's also what that movie's about. It's about a woman who does pharmaceutical testing, some things backfire, and she's losing her mind.
You have a regular stable of crew support, such as sound designer Graham Reznick and composer Jeff Grace. What specifically do they bring to the table?
They bring everything to the table, especially those two, because I write and edit with sound in mind. They also have the same sensibilities. When I show a cut to them, anyone else would see it and think it doesn't work at all, but they're like "Oh, yeah." This movie is particularly sound-design-driven with the headphone scenes, and one of the big tentpole scenes in my mind was when [Paxton]'s hearing something, she takes the headphone off, and she doesn't hear it anymore. It's a visual medium and you're making a whole scene about audio. Is it the right idea? But Graham is so good that when he first showed it to me, it went quiet and I was like, "This is awesome." With horror films, sound is especially effective.
As far as working with the same people, making movies is so traumatic that you want people who can elevate your game, and are just enjoyable to be around. In a way, it's a year of misery, and this creative endeavor just beats the shit out of you. When you can be with your friends, essentially, that's uplifting and important. Graham Reznick and Jeff Grace are both secret weapons, is the best way to call them. I've worked with Peter Phok, the producer, on everything because he's really good at organizing and making everything happen. That's something I can't do because I'm too neurotic. These are all people that I feel comfortable around, and they've got my back.
We shot this movie in 17 days and finished early every day. That's nearly impossible, but it's because we don't even talk to each other, we all know what we're thinking. Jade [Healy], the production designer, when she brings in stuff to put in the room, she's like, "I want you to come check this out in case you don't like it." I always walk out and say, "It's fine." When you bring new people in, you're micro-managing them because they're not on the level of a Jade or [cinematographer Eliot Rockett], where they just know what you want. That makes it easy because you're not spending time trying to figure shit out. Shorthand is key.
What do you know now making your fifth movie that you didn't while making your debut feature, "The Roost"?
It's weird because "The Roost" was made in 13 days with very few people. That was the only feasible way to do it, and it is what it is. "Trigger Man" came out of the necessity of all these movies falling apart, and I was like, "I need to just go make something arty and experimental, just to get it out of my system." It was something we could make for $10,000. "House of the Devil" and "Innkeepers" are more or less the same budget range. I'm succeeding backwards instead of failing upwards, but you just get better because you've done it before.
I hope to, on the next one, bust out the crane shots and motion controls. What I don't want to do is make it poorly. When you don't have a lot of money, you can try to be ambitious and maybe fail: "This is an imitation of a movie." Or, you can use what you have to its fullest and not try to go outside of that. Take those limitations as a positive, that's what I've been trying to do. If I made another movie in a house, I bet I could do it really well because now I know everywhere to put the camera. I know how to do it all. [laughs] I don't want to do that, though.
"The Innkeepers" is on VOD now and opens in limited release this weekend, Friday, February 3rd.