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Four movies into his career, Ti West has established himself as one of the most distinctive, inventive horror directors working today. Actually, make that three movies, since he’d just as soon not be credited with the straight-to-DVD sequel Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever. After making a splash with the killer-bats thriller The Roost (2005) and winning arthouse converts with Trigger Man (2007), which alternates moments of deliberate inaction with loving close-ups of exploded skulls, West was tapped to direct a follow-up to Cabin Fever, Eli Roth’s gory teens-in-trouble debut. Assured of a free hand, West pushed the sequel’s tone toward bloody camp, only to have the project wrested from him in postproduction.
Plenty of career stories end there, but West bounced back with The House Of The Devil, out now on DVD and Blu-Ray, garnering his best reviews to date. Set in the 1980s, and shot in a leisurely, bleached-out period style, the film follows a cash-poor college student (Jocelin Donahue) who unwittingly takes a job babysitting for a couple of Satanists (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). The operative word is “follows,” since West devotes a good chunk of the movie to watching his heroine explore the couple’s house, poking around in closets, shuffling through papers, even tapping out “Heart And Soul” on a harpsichord. While her motormouthed best friend (mumblecore icon Greta Gerwig) gets into her own kind of trouble, the babysitter kills time, unaware that she’s progressing toward a confrontation with ultimate evil.
Privileging character and atmosphere over body count and gore (although there’s some of that, too), The House Of The Devil will gratify fans of classic horror who have grown weary of the genre’s descent into contrived formula, while shaking up those who normally predict every turn from the first few minutes on. West recently called up The A.V. Club to talk about his brush with the studio system, how cell phones ruin horror movies, and why he hates the words “slow burn.”
The A.V. Club: How did you approach making The House Of The Devil?
Ti West: Normally when I have ideas, they just kind of pop into my head and they’re pretty much three-quarters there, but not the whole idea. I wanted to do a Satanic movie, but I also wanted to do a movie about one person struggling, because I wrote it right when I got out of college, and I was broke, so I wanted to write something about that also. Those two things meet pretty well. And I like the idea of babysitter stuff, because I like the idea of one person exploring someone else’s house. So I was like, “Oh, that’d be a good movie.” I wrote it pretty quickly. And then it was supposed to happen, and then it fell apart. Two weeks later, people came back with the money and we made a film. It wasn’t something I was pining over for a long time. It was just what I had been trying to think of what to do after The Roost. I was always obsessed with the “Satanic panic” of the early ’80s. It just made sense to me. As far as the period, it wouldn’t make sense to set that kind of movie nowadays, I don’t think.
AVC: With horror movies today, you inevitably have to disable the cell phone at some point. Otherwise, the characters could just call for help.
TW: It’s really a nightmare for storytelling. Computers and Internet—instant communication is just such a bummer for movies.
AVC: So you set the movie in a time before everyone had a cell.
TW: Technology has just been the major progression of the last 15 years—instant communication. That stuff has gone so global. That’s what’s interesting about it. When someone sits down in front of a computer, it’s the same everywhere in the world, and it’s the same screen looking back at you with the same Google, and there’s no individuality to it. So I decided it would be kind of visually uninteresting.
AVC: That instant gratification is something The House Of The Devil and Trigger Man certainly work against, in terms of the way they’re put together. What interests you about constructing films that way?
TW: I hate the term “slow burn.” It’s just a personal preference. I’m not making these movies to see people get killed, so I’m not in a hurry to get there. I also feel in any genre movie, or in art in general, contrast makes it successful. So if there isn’t a strong contrast between the horrific elements of the movie and the non-horrific elements of the movie, it just becomes this blah, milquetoast tone that’s uninteresting. I find that the horror genre, in the last five or six years, has become so popular commercially that it’s pretty played-out. So when you set out to make a movie like that, you can’t just go, “I know what works, so let me copy that.” Or at least I can’t. To me, it’s about how you can present similar genre familiarities, but present them a little bit differently. Part of what interests me is the nonchalant realism of it, because you don’t get that in the big studio horror movies. I like seeing someone walk around a house and sift through the drawers, and things like that, because that reminds me of what I would do, and of weird personal choices that people would make. That, in contrast to seeing someone get chased with a knife, makes it all the more interesting.
In terms of the pacing—I just saw Avatar, and it was pretty good. There was nothing wrong with the movie, but I’ve maybe never seen a movie that’s so by-the-numbers in my life. Forty-five minutes into the movie, I realized, “Holy shit. I know every single thing that’s going to happen in this movie, from the speech, to when they banish him, to when he comes back and proves himself.” I’ve seen it so many times. It’s executed perfectly, but I was kind of bored, because I knew what was coming. So to me, that’s more boring than seeing someone walk around a house. Because when you watch her walk around a house, you think, “Oh my God, something’s going to happen.” And then it doesn’t. As an audience that’s postmodern and hip to everything, you really don’t know where the movie is going anymore. So you get that experience of, “Shit, I don’t know what’s coming next, because she just walked into three rooms and nothing scary happened.” So I think that gets your mind going, and that makes you a participant in the experience, and not a passive movie-watcher anymore. It may not be as successful of an approach, but there’s just something weird about when you’re watching a movie and you know what’s going to happen; you have no reason to give a shit. It’s a good thing [Avatar] was in 3-D, because that made it cool.
AVC: It’s the same with a lot of romantic comedies. Some people like a movie where they know exactly what’s going to happen from the beginning.
TW: Anyone who complains about the state of horror, especially all the remakes, it’s your own fucking fault—you go see them. They don’t make the remakes because people are excited about them; they make them because they make a lot of money. Two original studio movies were Drag Me To Hell and Jennifer’s Body, and neither of them did very well. And then the Friday the 13th remake fucking destroyed the box office. So it’s the audience’s fault. That’s why that stuff is happening.
AVC: What about something like Paranormal Activity?
TW: I personally don’t particularly like that movie very much, but I’m psyched that it did well. What I hope would happen with that is people would be like, “Man, the studio took a chance on a small movie. They spent the money and put it out there to a large audience and it hit, and that means that this could happen with other small movies.” I’m a little worried what they’re going to think is, “Movies that are fake documentaries work really well. Let’s make more of those”—which is what they’re going to do. That will be the thinking unfortunately, from the studio set. That’s the complete opposite of what you’d want a success like Paranormal Activity to accomplish. But that’s unfortunately probably going to be the result. It’s not, “Hey look—this little movie, Paranormal Activity, hit a nerve. So why don’t we take another little, tiny movie, like The House Of The Devil, and put $30 million of marketing into it and see what happens?” That’s not going to happen. What they’re going to do is make more Paranormal Activity rip-offs, which are essentially Blair Witch rip-offs. But good for them: It’s just some dude making a little movie in his house and being successful, and I hope they continue to do well.
AVC: Still, it’s proof that if you rip off a really good movie diligently enough, some of the goodness will come through.
TW: Whoever cut that trailer should have been given a raise. The weird thing about that movie is that it did so well, and yet so many people who went to see it really didn’t know what it was about, because all the trailer showed was people getting scared. Whoever cut the trailer basically set the movie up as “You can’t handle this movie.” There are only two shots of the movie in the entire trailer. No one was like, “We’re going to see the movie about the haunted house. They just said, “It’s the movie where the trailer said it’s really scary.” So it’s a very simplistic approach. Of course, you’re probably going to be seeing a lot more movies with trailers like that now, which I think again will just run that into the grave.
AVC: It’s like the William Castle approach. “Are you man enough to sit through this movie?”
TW: It has that kind of vibe. They were daring you to see it, and people wanted to prove them wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t think people were going to see it because of the merits of the movie, as much as because of the fact they’re being told it’s too scary.
AVC: Audiences are so primed nowadays. So many tricks are familiar to them. The easy way around that is to do some kind of arbitrary twist, but that’s become predictable as well. Is that a problem for you as a filmmaker?
TW: It’s not really a problem. I consider myself to be a personal filmmaker. And I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to turn this into a career, but it’s also more of a lifestyle for me. After Cannes, Lars von Trier has that amazing quote when they were asking him to justify Antichrist. He just went, “You’re my guest. It’s not the other way around.” I think you make the movie in your head that you have to make, and you have to get it out of you. You have all these pretentious reasons why you want to do it, and you set out to accomplish them. And you think “This is important for what I’m trying to accomplish for the story,” and I think those reasons will come through to an audience, and they will find it. That’s the best you can do. There are people—I think this is why there are so many commercial directors doing well in big studio movies, for whom it’s not a personal choice—it’s “What’s the coolest, most effective way to make them laugh, make them scream?” It’s a very calculated approach. And that’s different. It’s not better or worse. It’s just a very different approach to filmmaking. That’s always been the case. I don’t think House Of The Devil is an art film, but there’s a little bit more artiness to it, in the sense that the choices are very particular to me and what I was trying to accomplish, as opposed to what would be effective in a group setting.
AVC: Does the audience’s reaction come into play for you at all?
TW: I can be as stoic about it as I want, but I don’t want them to hate the movie. That would be a downer. I look at it like, I’m bringing to it what I have to offer. I think, like any sort of somewhat-egotistical director would, that I have pretty good taste. I feel like if I can represent my pretty good taste, other people will enjoy it. That’s the way I look at it. There’s definitely scenes in the movie—when the big moment with Greta [Gerwig] happens, if nobody got scared by that, I would be like, “Oh no.” That was a calculated moment that I knew would get that reaction. But it wasn’t so much just for the enjoyment of the reaction, it was what it would accomplish to the audience’s emotional response for the rest of the movie. That’s the importance of that scene. Now, when you watch the rest of the movie, you have a totally different perspective on it, because of what just happened. As opposed to, “Man, did you see it when everyone jumped out of their seats?” You get both with it, but the jumping out of the seats is the less-important one. In more commercial Hollywood filmmaking, it’s not about their own personal reaction; it’s more about what kind of excitement. They always refer to movies as a ride. That’s just kind of lame to me.
AVC: There’s a nice contrast in The House Of The Devil between uneventful scenes with long, ominous shots and abrupt shocks with virtually no build-up.
TW: It’s satisfying because you kind of have to wait for it, and because you have to wait for it, you were caught off-guard, whereas you see so many other movies and you know it’s coming. That is a legitimate moment, when people are like, “Whoa. I didn’t expect something as intense as that to come out of nowhere.” You’re used to getting that little hint. To me, it’s worth doing to put that little spin on it, to take you out of your comfort zone.
AVC: You said you aren’t interested in just killing people off. With movies like The Final Destination, viewers are literally just waiting to see who dies next, and in what elaborately gruesome way. It’s almost pornographic.
TW: I’ve had meetings with the studio where they actually say, “What are the kills?” It’s like the money shot. It’s just titillation. That’s all it really is. That’s what the majority of horror today is like. Everyone’s like, “the sloooow burn.” No one used to say that, even in the ’80s. That was just moviemaking. People made serious movies. But now that everything’s become so postmodern and elbowing me in the rib and lowest-common-denominator, everyone’s like “Bring your water bottles, if you can make it through House Of The Devil. It’s so slow.” Dude, it’s like a 90-minute movie. Chill out. So it’s just weird, whatever the sensibilities of modern audiences are. Trigger Man is a pretty experimentally slow movie. So I get that one. There’s not a lot of dialogue. But with House Of The Devil, there’s only that one section that’s really quiet. The rest of the movie, yeah, it takes a while before people start getting killed, because I wanted to hang out with the characters, but there’s plenty of stuff going on. And even the section where everybody says, “She’s just in the house cruising around.” Yeah, she’s playing the piano, she’s putting on glasses, she’s looking in rooms. But she’s doing all the stuff you do in real life, and I think that’s just as interesting as someone getting chased and killed. It’s just pushing the perspective when someone comes through the movie and says, “Man, nothing happened until the last 15 minutes.” Well then, you know that audience is only going to see people getting killed. But a lot of people see the movie and their favorite stuff is her looking around the house, because that’s refreshing. That makes it worthwhile, when the audience picks up on that stuff. I remember telling Larry Fessenden when we first were making the movie, “We’re making the movie for the walking-around-the-house stuff.” He was like, “Absolutely.” That’s the stuff we love the most. That what makes it fun, to bring your own stamp to it.
AVC: In a way, the period setting and style give you license to make a film where there’s more buildup and things don’t happen so quickly.
TW: Every movie that people care about in the genre, like The Exorcist, which people say is the best horror movie of all time—the first hour of the movie is a mom with a sick daughter. The spinning head doesn’t show up until later. The first hour of the movie is her going to the doctor: “I don’t know what’s wrong with her.” That has nothing to do with horror whatsoever. The Shining, for the most part, a lot of it is just cruising around the house, and there’s a creepy tone because you just know it’s going to get intense, but there’s not that much. Rosemary’s Baby—you don’t even know what the fucking movie’s about for the first half. Even Halloween, for that matter, there’s a couple deaths, but for the most part, it’s him standing in the bushes in the background. All the Godfathers of the genre do that. So I don’t know why everyone’s so shocked when movies take their time. Like, what was everybody’s favorite horror movie last year? Let The Right One In. A pretty slow movie about two little kids. Easily the best horror movie of last year. It was very successful for what it was. It made a lot of money for Magnolia, and that’s fantastic. It’s a fantastic company. It’s important that if you like movies like my movie, or Let The Right One In, or The Host—I know Magnolia is spending money to bring these to an audience. You should go support those movies. That’s where you want to put your money, because these are the people that are bringing you the good stuff, and they can’t bring it to you on the scale that Platinum Dunes can. They just don’t have the financial ability to do that, so the only way that they will is if you support them. I think video-on-demand is helping them, and movies have been very successful that way. But you get what you pay for.
AVC: The economics of studio horror movies is that the vast majority of their money is made in the first weekend, and they drop off precipitously after that, which is not a model independents can compete with. Some of them feel that low-budget horror is really only possible on VOD.
TW: I don’t think horror is necessarily a VOD genre. I think a movie without any movie stars in it that a company, in order to market it to the masses, would have to spend such a crazy amount of money—that risk is so high that it becomes a VOD film. Like I Sell The Dead: How would you get suburban housewives to see that? It’s too hard. Yes, there are some recognizable people in that movie, but not movie stars. And you don’t have the $30 million to make the Paranormal Activity campaign. So IFC is kind of stuck, but what we can do is this VOD thing. We can’t afford to put people on David Letterman, but we can afford to—when you go to the IFC On Demand thing on your TV, you don’t have that for other companies, you have that for us. Same thing with Magnolia. You can go there and see some original stuff. I work really hard on making a movie look and sound a certain way, so it’s a bummer when people don’t see it in a theater on a big screen with great sound. Most people have 50-inch plasma TVs now. Most people have pretty decent sound. Things are getting much better in your home. So you can pay eight bucks and watch the movie in HD on your plasma 50-inch TV, hopefully with 5.1 [speakers]. That’s pretty good. It’s not worth complaining about that. The reality is, if you live in Philadelphia and it’s only playing in New York, at least now you can see it, and you’re not forced to wait and you’re not forced to download it illegally. You can give your money to a company like Magnolia and you can watch it. People want to see movies, but maybe they’re in a place where the company can’t afford to bring it. VOD gives them the ability to bring it everywhere.
AVC: When a movie is in and out in a week, it doesn’t have much time to sit with audiences and develop a following.
TW: That’s why movies aren’t “slow burn,” and aren’t serious, aren’t interesting, because everything from the movie to the promotional materials is telling you that you have to see it between Friday and Sunday, and then you can forget about it. It’s not an important movie, it’s just a lowest-common-denominator thrill-ride for three days when you’ve got nothing to do. That does a major disservice to the quality of the films. Paranormal Activity, that kept making money because it was something different. Look at Avatar. It’s still making $8 million a day, which is just crazy. Even though I’m not crazy about it, it’s a huge scale. A lot of people are seeing it; they’ve treated it like this is the most serious movie of all time. You have to see it. People went, “Huh. Maybe I will check this out.” The Others is another great example of a movie that didn’t even do that well opening weekend, and it’s one of the most successful horror movies of the last 10 years or so. It did okay opening weekend, then the second weekend it came back and did better, and the third weekend it did even better, and it never really went away. That’s a very slow-paced non-exciting horror movie, but it’s a good movie.
AVC: Some of your negative views of the studios are no doubt conditioned with your bad experience making the sequel to Cabin Fever, which was taken away from you, recut, and released straight to DVD. How did you end up doing it in the first place?
TW: I was getting ready to make House Of The Devil, and it fell apart. I called Larry, he gave me $10,000 to make Trigger Man, and as I was finishing Trigger Man, I got a call from Eli [Roth] saying, “You should check out Cabin Fever 2.” I was like, “I don’t know.” And he was like, “Just check it out.” And I met with the people and told them if I could write it myself and change everything, I’d be into it. They were cool with that. I wanted to make a very John Waters/Paul Bartel-style anarchist horror-comedy, a very disgusting social commentary about teen sex and disease and things like that. Everyone was on board with that. It was a really kooky movie, and I got all the cast I wanted, all the crew I wanted. I got everything I wanted, shot the movie, had the best time ever. It was fantastic. And then in post-production, it just kind of hit a wall, where they realized, “Wait a minute. All the stuff that you told us, that we were theoretically in agreement with, now when we’re face-to-face with it, it’s a little bold for a Cabin Fever sequel.” Then the idea of changing it came up. That was really difficult for me. In addition, there were financial problems with the movie, so it went dormant for five months. As soon as I got House Of The Devil to happen, they were like, “You’ve got to stop everything and come work with us.” And I was like, “I can’t. I waited five months for you. Can’t you wait until I get back?” And they were like, “No. We’re finishing without you.” When they took that approach, the “go fuck yourself” approach, they were just interested in doing whatever they wanted, and that was a bummer for me. The reality is, whatever they wanted to change the movie into, I just didn’t agree with. It was just too difficult to stay a part of, because they wanted to be one thing that I didn’t want, and I really had no control to stop it. I just had to go along with it and hope it would be okay, and I’m not the kind of person that could do that. So I left the movie. I tried to get the “Allan Smithee” credit, but unfortunately I’m not DGA, so I had to get approval from the producers and the studio, and of course they’re not going to approve taking the director’s name off the movie. It just became a whole bummer situation. It’s finished now, and I think it comes out next month. I’m sure there will be people that like it. But you should credit the producers and the executives and the editors for that, because they put the movie together, not me.
AVC: Have you even seen the version they’ll be releasing?
TW: I’ve probably seen something similar to the finished cut. I’ve never seen the finished finished cut, but I’ve seen close enough to it. The people involved, they’re not bad people. They just were put in a bad spot. They were doing what they thought was the best thing they could do. I just disagree with it, and I can’t go along with it. I don’t want to say the movie sucks, but at the same time, I don’t want the credit if you liked it. It’s their movie, not mine. It’s still probably really gross, really gory. I try to explain, because people say, “Well, how much different can it be? You shot it all.” It’s like, look at a movie like Trigger Man and look at a movie like Repo! The Genetic Opera. Those are two horror movies on a weird extreme spectrum of the horror genre. Imagine if him and I switched footage and I cut together a version of Repo! with my taste and he cut together a version of Trigger Man with his taste. The movies would be so radically different. So yes, I did hold the camera while lines were said, but I didn’t pick that take. I didn’t cut away from it at that time. It’s hard for people who are not filmmakers to understand. For the most part, anyone who follows me is aware of what happened to me at Universal. Some guy who just rents it at Blockbuster and hates it, it’s hard for me to worry about them. Someone who’s seen The Roost or Trigger Man or House Of The Devil and then sees Cabin Fever and goes, “What the fuck? What happened?” It’s not hard for them to find out.
AVC: Did that experience influence how you went into House Of The Devil?
TW: Yeah, I’m very “Trust no one.” I’m trying to do my best to lighten up, but once you have that happen to you, it’s hard not to.
AVC: Sound design is a key way to inject high production qualities into a low-budget film. What was it like working with sound designer Graham Reznick?
TW: We have very similar sensibilities creatively, and we’ve worked together a long time. Both of us agree that sound is 50 percent of the movie. You’re limited to one image, but you can have 50 tracks. It’s something you’d be foolish not to experiment with. So I’m also very interested in sound that happens offscreen. I think that’s a way to expand the scope of the movie. And it’s all very planned out from the script stage. For me, sound design is a major part of the narrative. I think that’s what makes working with certain people on the producer level difficult. I make sound choices part of the narrative. When you’re putting the movie together in post-production, it doesn’t always work right away. Because you’re editing the movie, and people are like, “Wait. What’s she looking at?” “There’s going to be 30 sound effects.” “But I don’t understand it right this second.” It’s an uphill battle. It’s just as important in the process as anything else, we just haven’t done it yet. But a lot of people don’t see it as part of the narrative. They just see it as adding to the picture. You take people who are financially responsible out of their comfort zone, and they get very scared. That’s when the iffy decisions start getting made.
AVC: You’ve worked a lot with Larry Fessenden, who makes movies on the edge of the horror genre, and also Kelly Reichardt and Joe Swanberg, who do something completely different. Do you think you’ll stick to horror?
TW: It’s a bit of a coincidence. I do like it the same way Larry does. It’s probably our favorite genre. I met Larry because of Kelly; she saw a short film that was a horror movie that I’d made. He said, “If the only thing keeping you from making a movie is money, what if I gave you some money?” The Roost did well, and then House Of The Devil was supposed to happen, and then it fell apart. And then we needed money for Trigger Man, which is horror-ish, barely horror. I could experiment and do all this realism stuff, and Larry was very supportive of that. And the Cabin Fever opportunity came up, which is really just a comedy with a lot of blood in it. And House Of The Devil came back, and I was like, “Well, this is a movie I wanted to do before.” So I would certainly like to continue making a lot of horror movies. But it’s not only what I want to do. I’ve only made four in a row because that’s the way the dominos fell. It was a choice, but it was also how the choice was presented to me. I have a romantic comedy I’d love to make, but I can’t get the money for it. It’s hard to get people to give you money for an arty romantic comedy when you’ve done a horror movie. So I can just sit there and keep complaining about that, or I can go make another horror movie this year. People will get behind me on that, because I’m relatively bankable. As long as I can do my own thing with it, I’ll keep doing it.