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Ti West’s new haunted hotel saga, The Innkeepers, premiered last year at the Toronto Film Festival but won't make its theatrical debut until this weekend which is–not coincidentally–when The A.V. Club will welcome West to The Music Box theatre for another installment in our New Cult Canon series. Suffice to say that we’re excited to see what the creator of the decade’s slyest and most controlled American horror film—2009’s awesome The House Of The Devil—has come up with for an encore; the reviews so far suggest that this tale of two hotel employees sussing out spooky goings-on at their deserted workplace burnishes its maker’s reputation as the most exciting young American horror director around.
The 31-year old West has actually been turning out mostly stellar work since the beginning of his career, imbuing both the cheapie super-16 vampire-bat goof, The Roost (2004), and the muscular backwoods splatter-flick, Triggerman (2007), with keen filmmaking intelligence. His one outright failure, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, was a troubled production that West has since all but disavowed; one need only look at the glaring disparities between that smirking piece of fan-service and the patient, pensive The House Of The Devil to see where the director’s interests lie. Like his producer and frequent collaborator Larry Fessenden, West isn’t interested in simply putting characters through the wringer; rather, he likes to create distinctive personalities and see how they bounce off of whatever creepy scenario he’s envisioned. Where he actually surpasses Fessenden is in his ability to actually execute scares—low-budget money shots that are pretty close to priceless.
The A.V. Club spoke with West about slow-burning B-movies with A-ideas, and The Innkeepers.
The A.V. Club: I’m at something of a disadvantage having not seen The Innkeepers, but I am curious about how the project relates to The House Of The Devil. From what I’ve read, it’s another slow-burner that betrays an awareness of certain old-school horror conventions or tropes. In The House Of The Devil, the “Satanic panic” framework is allowed to seem almost quaint for a while until the intensity level just explodes beyond anything that you’d have seen in a 1980s film of that kind. Can I assume that The Innkeepers does something similar with that tension/release dynamic?
Ti West: The “slow-burn” approach is still on display in The Innkeepers. It’s funny, because I don’t think of my films as “slow-burn.” I don’t even know if I was familiar with the phrase until people started labeling me with it. I don’t mind it… but to me it’s not so much that the movies are slow-paced as much as they are about spending time building a relationship between the audience and the characters. If you don’t spend an adequate amount of time doing this, then how can you expect to scare anyone? Without a strong contrast between the heavy genre sections and the non-genre sections, it would be completely ineffective. The major difference in The Innkeepers compared to The House Of The Devil is that the first quarter of the movie plays more like a work-place comedy, rather than a serious story about a desperate girl. I think pretty much every scene in The Innkeepers has either a joke or a scare... Yet it’s still labeled “slow-burn.” Like I said, I don’t mind it... But I’m not sure I understand the compulsion to label things.
AVC: It would seem that the subtly comic aspect of your earlier films—stripped-down in Triggerman and sort of around the edges in The House Of The Devil—is foregrounded in The Innkeepers. I’ve seen Cabin Fever and read your thoughts about it, so there’s no need to belabour that episode in your career. But I’m wondering if the bad experience you had trying to make a “scary-funny” hybrid movie there made you at all nervous about attempting that balance in The Innkeepers?
TW: The Cabin Fever 2 debacle didn’t make me nervous at all... In fact it made me determined to finally have a heavily comedic film. I felt like I was robbed of the chance in doing it before... I kind of had a chip on my shoulder about it and wanted to prove that Cabin Fever 2 wasn’t my fault. That being said, I wouldn’t describe The Innkeepers as a “horror-comedy,” but more a horror movie with funny characters. That may sound like semantics, but I feel like “horror-comedy” refers to tongue-in-cheek stuff and self-awareness.This film is a genuine ghost story... It’s just that the lead characters are these quirky nerds who make you laugh. “Charming” was really the goal with the tone of the film. I think having funny characters is just one way of having three-dimensional characters.
AVC: My single favourite bit in The House Of The Devil is when your protagonist is just fiddling around on the piano, picking out a melody and moving on. I feel like it does something to individualize her, even if it’s only a little bit. You did the same thing with Greta Gerwig’s character, so that when she’s killed suddenly, it’s not just a “boo” moment, but a loss of a fairly well-defined person. Is that commitment to character-over-narrative machinery a conscious feature of your work?
TW: Yes. I sort of touched upon this in my previous answers, but to reiterate, it’s very important to me to find ways to relate the audience to the characters. This is the first thing to go in most mainstream horror films. They simply give you stereotypical archetypes and aim for the lowest common denominator. That is really boring to me, and honestly I’m sort of amazed it isn’t to everyone. Also, I just really like seeing mundane stuff in movies. It’s realistic. Since you mentioned the piano scene in The House Of The Devil, I will say that there is a similar scene in The Innkeepers of Sara Paxton taking out the trash... It is my favourite thing I have ever filmed in my life. No contest.
AVC: Why the interest in ghosts for The Innkeepers? Triggerman is more of an earthbound thriller than a horror film, and while House Of The Devil is technically “paranormal” material, it plays it pretty close to the vest.
TW: It’s a different approach in The Innkeepers. It was important for me to tell a ghost story that could be interpreted by both skeptics and believers, so that you could come out of the film believing that there were all sorts of paranormal events that led to the conclusion… or you could make a case that there were no ghosts at all and it was simply the characters’ paranoia that made things worse. I like movies that leave things in the hands of the audience. As for why I made a ghost story... I mean, partly it’s because I had never made one before and wanted to try it out. Also, the hotel in the film is the hotel we stayed in when we filmed The House Of The Devil. It was such a weird place, I felt compelled to make a film about it.
AVC: I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about your working relationship with your producer, Larry Fessenden. What sort of influence has he had on you artistically?
TW: Kelly Reichardt is the one who actually introduced me to Larry. We hit it off pretty easily, and not long after seeing my short films, he was paying for my first two features. Larry used to always say that Glass Eye Pix was about producing Art-Horror movies, or B-Movies with A-Ideas. We both love the genre and want to see compelling stories use horror tropes to enhance the emotional/visceral impact. It’s the only genre that gives you the kind of freedom to make radically different films yet still find a commercial audience. That makes it exciting and progressive. We have always gushed about our fondness of the many possibilities within the horror genre... and complained about the unfortunately derivative nature of so much of the mainstream stuff.
Perhaps we get along because to some degree we feel like outsiders and our interests have always been left-of-center. Neither of us likes the post-modern approach to filmmaking, which of course is the current trend. We are more old-fashioned and like to see filmmaking taken seriously. Winking at the audience has always felt like a lack of confidence to me. It’s like acknowledging that what you’ve made is just a creation, and therefore not to be taken too seriously. That makes it hard to care about anything that happens in the film. And if you don’t care about what’s happening… what’s the point?
AVC: Another artistic intersection I’m wondering about is the horror/“mumblecore” overlap: the appearance of figures like Joe Swanberg in a movie like You’re Next, in which you also appear as an actor. “Mumblecore” is a narrow definition of a big, sloppy group of movies of varying quality, but do you think there’s any sort of burgeoning American indie-horror movement that falls in the same general territory? Horror films made outside the purview of the studios, or inflected by some of the same character-based tactics that mark this moment in non-genre indie filmmaking?
TW: “Mumblecore” is just like “slow-burn.” It’s an unnecessary labeling of films created mostly by the press so they can identify things with a blanket statement. It’s just like “grunge music” was in the 1990s. The press comes up with something they feel is an accessible label. They praise it one year, and tear it down the next. I don’t get it. I think the real connection between low-budget horror films and “mumblecore” is just that they are both very DIY approaches to filmmaking. While thematically the movies are not alike, the approach to making them on your own and not being told what you can’t do is very similar. It’s truly independent filmmaking. I find that most of these filmmakers and horror filmmakers are very like-minded, which makes collaboration easy and worthwhile. On a more specific note, Joe Swanberg is an amazing actor and it is clearly on display in You’re Next. I think he is going to win over a lot of people when it comes out.