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Ti West on the Relationship Between Porn and Horror That Inspired ‘X,’ His First Movie in 6 Years

The exacting filmmaker explains to IndieWire why he took refuge in work-for-hire gigs and emerged with his most ambitious project to date.

Director Ti West arrives for the world premiere of "X" during the South by Southwest Film Festival at the Stateside Theatre on Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)

Director Ti West arrives for the world premiere of “X” during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival

Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP

Diehard horror movie fans of the past 15-odd years may have started wondering what happened to Ti West. The meticulous genre filmmaker blended exacting formalism with shock and terror across a range of unnerving experiences: Everything from “The Roost” to “Trigger Man,” or “The House of the Devil” to “The Innkeepers,” had their fans, but no two movies were alike. Then, after the strange curveball of his zany Western “In the Valley of the Violence,” West stopped directing movies six years ago. 

The intermission comes to a jolting finale with “X,” West’s A24-produced midnight movie that makes up for missed time. The ‘70s-set story follows a ragtag group of pornographic filmmakers and their cast as they head to a remote farmhouse to shoot their latest project, only to find themselves at the mercy of a psychotic older couple. Mia Goth does double duty as both a castmember for the production and, under tremendous and disturbing makeup, one of the nightmarish assailants. The resulting saga is a grisly haunted house movie doused in ample nostalgia for a grimier era of American cinema.

West’s experience on the project was so gratifying that he immediately shot a prequel to the story, called “Pearl” (set to be released later this year) and already has plans for a third entry. His return to the feature film arena after years of work-for-hire gigs on TV provides a welcome opportunity for the filmmaker to explain himself. He spoke to IndieWire ahead of the movie’s release this week. 

IndieWire: “The Valley of Violence” came out in 2016. Where have you been?

Ti West: I did 17 episodes of television in the last five years or so. When you make a movie — at least, in my case — you’ve got to think about an idea, write it, find the money, and then the money falls through. Then you’ve got to fix the money problem, and then you’ve got to go make the movie, and then spend a year trying to get people to see it. A television show is, “Can you be on a plane on Monday?” And then you’re directing. I appreciated that. 

That’s a bit surprising given how particular you are about the movies you make. TV is not about final cut.

The funny thing is that you would think it’s this system that you go into and just you’re meaningless as the director. My experience in TV has not been that. Nobody has told me what to do. Most of the cuts that are on TV — with the exception of two — are almost identical to the ones I turned in. Nobody’s tapping me on the shoulder saying, “No, no, you can’t do that.” That doesn’t happen because the thing moves so fast that if someone would do that it would just fall over. My experience with TV has been weirdly less notes than I had on other movies. I’m not the creator. I just put together the shots. 

So you didn’t feel ownership of them.

These were more like consulting jobs than making my own movies. It was really cool to be able to bounce around on stuff that I didn’t write. I got to meet the showrunners and see how they were all stressed. I was like, “Oh, man, I’m you in my other life. How can I help?” It’s fun to be able to help somebody find their own vibe. Because I did everything myself for so long, production is not intimidating to me. It’s usually like, “Oh, we don’t have any time or money.” But showrunners have plenty of time and money.

“X”

Your last movie was a Western. What compelled you to return to the horror genre?

It’s been even longer since I made a horror movie because I made so many in a row. The odds of me just making something that repeats myself is so likely at this point. It’s so traumatic spending two years trying to make something and it’s not worth it if you aren’t inspired. But then I had an idea and I felt sharp, I didn’t want to tell anybody I was writing it, I just wrote it.

A24 and I always threatened to make a movie together and had never done it. So I sent it to them and said, “It might be too out there for you guys, but just read it and let me know what you think.” They were like, “Whoa, let us think about it,” and I was like, “I get it.” Then they called back and said, “Let’s do it.” [A24 production executive] Noah Sacco was the guy who was like, “Alright, I think we can dig this.”

What was it like to switch to a project you were more personally invested in?

When it is your own thing, it is a totally different emotional experience. On a TV show, if it’s going to rain tomorrow, I don’t care. We’ll just move the schedule. If it’s going to rain tomorrow on my thing, well, what if we can’t move the schedule around and I never get it the way I want it to be? That’s horribly traumatic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I like about movies, and I’m most attracted to the craft. I wanted to make something that really put acting on display, special effects, makeup, cinematography, music. I wanted to do something where all of the crafts of the movie were very apparent charms of the movie. So part of the reason they’re making movies in this movie is to get the audience to have a crash course on the clumsiness of what it’s like to make a movie. And then hopefully they’ll think about what I’m doing in the movie-movie, and they’ll be a little bit of appreciative of what it’s like to make the movie for the people and for me. 

The movie looks like it was shot on film, but it wasn’t, right?

The original plan was to shoot on 16mm, but because we made the movie in New Zealand during COVID, it would’ve been impossible to get dailies within two weeks. We shot on the Sony Venice and used these groovy hawk lenses. I went exhaustively out of my way so that people thought I shot on 16. That’s not so much because of nostalgia for the format. Film offers a certain aesthetic that digital is almost there but not the same. Especially when you make a movie like this, that is part of the charm of it. 

How difficult was it to create that celluloid feel?

We only used older light fixtures. It’s a pain in the ass because everybody’s used to these lightweight things where you can push a button and change the color rather than using gels. But in my opinion, it does make a difference. In post, there’s a minimal amount of defocus on the whole movie, which takes away some of the sharpness — and then there’s a certain amount of moving grain we shot from film to overlay onto it. All of that sounds like a ton of work, and it’s kind of invisible when you watch the movie, because it’s not grindhouse-y or kitschy. It’s there to take the edge off the modernness of the technology. 

“X” is set in 1979, a year after “Debbie Does Dallas,” what was it about this setting that attracted you?

With Texas, I wanted this sense of the entrepreneurial Americana of the late ’70s and being an outsider filmmaker trying to break into an industry — whether it’s horror or porn. I just wanted to get that sort of entrepreneurial go-getter spirit of it. It just felt like the place to do that. I knew it would be about a bunch of people going to a place to do something. The expectation that it might be like “Texas Chain Saw,” but it’s actually not amused me.

And of course it’s an excuse to play around with analog technology. 

Certainly, if the movie was set now, everybody would be on a webcam and that would just be like the enemy of cinema. A big part of this to me is that in the ’70s, there’s whatever Hollywood system there was, you also started to have a larger rise of exploitation and porn movies. You could make them without any relationship to the movie business whatsoever and there was an outlet to do that. In addition to that, it was the cusp of VHS showing up.

In light of all that, what significance does porn of this era have? 

The thing about porn then is that even though it is what it is, there was still an attempt to make it a full movie. Part of the movie was more important than the other part, but you still had to make the whole movie. You still had to make the story and get this developed and hire people to light it. It was not that simple and straight to the audience. That provided a way here to show people what it’s like to make a movie without the mystery of the money that is in Hollywood. If you were just a couple of people, you could technically do a movie like this. But you do need someone who can work a camera, you do need someone who can sync it.

The narrative seems to equate horror and porn. Where are you coming from on this?

To me, horror and porn have always had this symbiotic relationship. Perhaps horror is like one step above porn, but they’re both always outsiders. Even in the video store, there was the horror section that was a little weird and then there was the door to the other section. It was always like, “I don’t quite know what’s going on there,” so if you ended up being a horror filmmaker, you were finding your way into the movie business without all of the things that you would need to be in the movie business. And if you were creative, you could do that. Porn is different but the same.

Sex and violence, basically. 

I wanted to take the trope of sex and violence that is typically lowbrow and try to do something crafty with it. Having never made a slasher movie, which are mostly people getting murdered, I wanted to do something a little unexpected that isn’t just people getting killed. 

x movie still

“X”

Christopher Moss

Let’s talk about Mia Goth, who plays both Maxine and Pearl, the creepy older woman. How did you arrive at that concept?

The goal was always to have whoever played Maxine to play Pearl, but I wasn’t sure if I could find an actor who could do it. Could you find the right makeup to do it? If you don’t do it well, it’s a disaster. Mia was the first person we met and we realized she could do it. She just had a real grasp of what the movie was. She had supreme confidence. I could sense her ambition and drive. I liked that confidence. It meant to me that she was going to totally own the characters and would make it fun to play them off each other. 

Watching this movie about a bunch of young people trapped in a spooky, isolated place, I couldn’t help but recall that you were fired from a production of “Cabin Fever 2” in 2009. 

That’s funny. Look, I was very fortunate to have made seven horror-type movies in a row. I had a good run with it where it all went pretty well. I couldn’t fathom spending two more years of my life doing scenes of someone opening a medicine cabinet and then closing it, and then there’s something scary behind them. Or someone walking down the street feeling like they’re being followed. I know how to do that and it’s just not that compelling. For me, this idea — setting all the horror of it aside — was something that would make people think about moviemaking. I felt like there was a hole in the current landscape for that. 

Are you worried about the future of the movies? 

I feel like I’m getting less of people doing the art of cinema in movies and I’m getting a lot of plot and digital effects. On a whole, when it comes to the landscape in general, it does seem culturally like there’s less of a reverence for cinema than there used to be. That’s probably because it’s been around for so long. We’re so inundated with moving images everywhere. I’m intrigued by the end credits of a Jackie Chan movie. Like, yo, he fell off the back of the building! That’s crazy! He went out and did that. In this movie, I wanted that kind of surprise on display. 

Now that you’re back to directing movies, have you considered another run at a bigger studio project?

I’m sure that if a big corporate opportunity arises that appeals to me, it should exist, but it’s not my goal. Nobody’s going to come to me with some IP and make me care about it. If someone’s like, “We’re going to do Dracula and you’re the guy,” I’d be interested because I think I’d make a great Dracula. But most franchises out there aren’t that interesting to me. I need to care a lot to be able to deal with the problems that come with making a movie.

“X” is now playing at select theaters nationwide.

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