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Ti West on John Travolta, Ethan Hawke, and the most incredible dog of all time

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Ti West has made a name for himself as one of the most acclaimed of a new generation of horror auteurs. His The House Of The Devil is considered by many to be one of the best horror films of the new century, including this very site. He’s continued to be active in horror, releasing found-footage chiller The Sacrament and contributing segments to V/H/S and The ABCs Of Death, as well as branching out into directing TV, such as several episodes of Wayward Pines. But his biggest and most ambitious move out of indie horror is his latest project, the old-school Western revenge flick In A Valley Of Violence, which comes to theaters this weekend. Boasting a top-name cast (Ethan Hawke, John Travolta) and a surprisingly funny and crowd-pleasing story, the picture bodes well for West’s future outside the genre in which he made his name. The A.V. Club spoke with West the morning after his film premiered at SXSW, where the director talked about audience reception, utilizing genre conventions, and how working with a talented dog ended up being some of the most amazing moments of his career.

The A.V. Club: The movie played super well.

Ti West: I don’t really—I’ve seen it so many times, I don’t generally watch the movie. It’s sort of like hearing your voice on tape. But since it’s the first night, there’s moments that I’m like, is this going to play? Is this going to get the laugh I want? So I poke my head in the back.

AVC: Was this one of the rare times you did sit and watch along with an audience?


TW: I mean, I’ve done it with all my films. I always keep an eye on the first time I show it because… I don’t know. Neurosis. You have to. But I generally try—I’ll creep in the back. I’ll be outside. I’ll pace around. I don’t really get that nervous about whether people like it. You can’t do anything about that. It’s more technical. You spend two years of your life obsessing, picturing sound details, and you work so hard to make a movie a certain way, that you get there, and you’re like—is it loud enough or whatever, so that this experience with everybody in this room is the fairest chance I can get. And then if you like it, cool, and if you don’t, whatever. But it’s the worst when you meet someone who’s like, “You could barely hear it,” or “The projection’s fucked up.” That’s the stuff that drives me crazy. Because that stuff—that’s not fair. That’s truly what keeps me up at night. If people don’t like it, the ship’s sailed. There’s nothing I can do about that.

AVC: There’s that element, whether you’ve made a record or a movie or whatever—

TW: Humor is more so. If you make just a straight scary movie, people are just—you don’t know what they’re thinking. For this, there’s definitely moments that I think, “I know this part is really funny and I want to see people laugh.” And they do and you go, “Yesss.” That’s really satisfying, because I’m so proud of the performances in the movie and everybody worked so hard. Tommy Nohilly, who plays Tubby, he came down to see the movie for the first time and I was like, “You’ve got to come just to see people react to your [big scene].” I knew that would go well, but it’s satisfying to me when he’s sitting there and it actually does. I’d been all hyped about it, I was like, “Please come,” and to have that and know he’s probably going like, “This is cool,” it makes me feel good.


AVC: The most unexpected thing is how funny the film was. There’s been humor in your other work, like The Innkeepers, but this is one of the first times it’s been so consistent. As you were writing it, were you like, “Wait, this is a funny story I’m telling?” Or did it come out more in the execution?

TW: It was always sort of meant to be. The movie is in no way a comedy, but I would put some of the funny scenes up against some of the funnier comedies this year. I think it’s genuinely really funny, but it’s out of the gallows. It’s out of the construct of the context of the movie. To me, the film was always about a bunch of people in a violent movie who are totally incapable of being in a violent movie. It was people that started all these problems and are like, “We’re in way over our head.” Because that’s real life—the guy who talks a bunch of shit is always a wimp and he’s actually just insecure. And that’s what’s scary is stupid, insecure people. That’s more dangerous than the big, tough guy. Because the big tough guy doesn’t really care. But all these dipshits that get involved in the thing they think they’re supposed to get involved in, and then when it turns on them, they’re like, “What have we done?” And they’re in over their heads. To me, that was always funny.

But that’s what’s interesting about people. It can be funny, but when Travolta got there and did [comic moments] you’re like, “Oh! This is really funny.” Or when Karen [Gillan] and Taissa [Farmiga] do something, I’m like, “This came out so much funnier.” Or when PJ’s [James Ransone] in the street, talking shit, and it’s so awkward. All those awkward moments—that’s on the cast for doing such an amazing job. I think it was funny on the page, but when they did it, you definitely went, “Oh!” Watching it with a crowd that, like you said, was not expecting it to be funny, but then genuinely finding it funny, is totally a credit to their performances.

AVC: What’s also surprising is how much the movie, especially the first half, before the pivot point, feels almost like an old-fashioned Hollywood crowd-pleaser. Did you conceive of it as being in a certain tradition of outsized, emotional, classic studio film?


TW: I did the movie from two perspectives. You’re with Ethan [Hawke] the whole movie, but for the first half, you’re really with Ethan. For the second half, you’re with him, but also you’re with the bad guys because he kind of becomes the bad guy. No one’s really good in the movie. The second half, you’re with the guys that you should hate, but when you start seeing what their real lives are, you’re like, “I do hate you, but at the same time, all right—maybe take it down a notch.” The complications of all that are what’s so interesting to me, those esoteric details—that’s what people will hopefully take away from the movie. It’s not the plot—the plot is the reason to get all these things to happen, all these character moments to happen. It was always meant to have these two perspectives. The first half was to endear you to all these people and give you all these archetypes that you’re familiar with, and then the second half, just to see all those archetypes unravel like real people.

Typically, in Westerns, people who are in a Western feel like they’re in a Western. It’s almost like they know they do all these Western things. I was like, “What if in this really bravado genre all the people decided, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. It got too fucked up.’” That to me seems like real life, and I’d never seen that in that genre before. It just felt like a really fun thing to play with. And from a performance standpoint, it just gives them so much—I had such a great cast—and it gives them the ability to go wild with it and to have performances that are memorable.


AVC: This might be the best cast you’ve ever assembled.

TW: I mean, dude, it’s Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. It’s awesome. They’re awesome.


AVC: When you’ve got people so accomplished who’ve been working for so long, they often have certain ways of doing things. Was it interesting to discover how the collaboration panned out between you guys? Were there things that surprised you about that process?

TW: They—both Ethan and John—really, really got the movie. I always feel like the less you say when you’re making a movie, as a director, is the best. That means everything’s going great. If you ever see the director pulling people aside, that means something’s not working. Because you’re trying to figure out why it’s not working. But we would show up, we would talk about it. We talked a lot. I always talk about movies a lot beforehand, and then we would get there, and I’d say, “Let’s play around and see how it goes.” And they would do it, and I’d go, “Well, that was awesome.” It was really—I don’t know, it was really special to watch them.


That scene with the two of them was the first day of John shooting. They went and did that in the morning, and it was just like, yes, I’m there working, but I was also kind of just watching it. And it was really great. They’re both so good. In that scene, that scene when John gets up and walks over to him, and they’re in the doorway, I thought, “This could very well be the best thing I ever shoot. This is awesome.” It’s hard to explain. But they’re consummate professionals and you see the little choices they make—you see it in their eye. You see these little details they do where you go, “That’s why they’re them.” There’s a great moment when Taissa comes out and Ethan’s about to leave town, and he takes his hat off to talk to her. We didn’t talk about that, he just did that. That’s brilliant. You know what I mean, such great moments.

AVC: Going from horror to a Western, the only genre maybe more laden with iconography than horror would be Western. How much were the tropes—the iconography of the Western—going on in your head as you structured the film?


TW: In my head, a lot. I mean PJ—James Ransone—he was a friend of mine, he probably heard all this stuff, but for the rest of the cast, we mostly just talked about their characters and things like that. That was the business at hand. Of course, we talked about Westerns we like, but it was always thematically in relation to the movie and what the themes of the movie were. And with Ethan, the PTSD, the character and how this would come out—just how weird it is, if you take a step back, that the whole movie, he’s talking to a dog. That’s crazy. And we would set up shots and I’d be like, I’m doing an over-the-shoulder shot on a dog. I’m putting the camera behind the dog’s shoulder. This is craziness. You just accept it in the movie, but when you make the movie, it’s the weirdest thing. There’s dog coverage, like it’s a person.

But also to do all those scenes where Ethan is acting with a dog. One of my favorite scenes of the movie is when he’s sitting at the campfire with the dog. It’s this long monologue with him talking about life and everything with a dog. That’s not in movies. Hopefully when people think about the movie when they go home, they’re like, “That’s weird. He’s maybe crazy. He’s talking to a dog the whole time.”


AVC: The dog is fucking incredible.

TW: I know. We owe a lot to that dog. Riding that dog all the way to the bank.

AVC: Most of that process is working with the dog’s trainer, right?

TW: Jumpy is the most incredible animal of all time. The movie is the tamest example of what that dog is capable of. Everything he could do was too much. If I put it in the movie you would all check out. When he wraps himself up in the blanket, that’s as far as I could go, and that’s not even close. The dog’s amazing. I found him on YouTube. I wrote a movie about a guy with a dog and was like, “What have I done? This is going to be a nightmare. We’re a small movie and we’re never going to be able to do this.”

AVC: Everybody warned you about working with animals?

TW: Yeah. And then I found this guy, he was in L.A., and I went and I met him and I met the dog. And I was thinking like, all right, it’ll be cool. The dog’s cool looking. And then he showed me what the dog could do. And I just went, “Oh.” They put marks down, like T-marks for actors, and he goes, “Go to mark,” and the dog goes to mark. Not like sometimes—every time. So much so, that the joke on set with every other actor was, “Taissa, go to mark.” “PJ, go to mark.” That would be it. He would go to mark or you would go, “Back up,” and he’d back up slow, he’ll walk slow, walk even slower, crawl—you just say that and he does it.


It made me think every one of my friends who has a dog is wasting their dog’s brain because I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s one trick that he does where four people stand, like, 5 feet apart, and you go, “Pick numbers between one and 10.” And they’ll go, “two, “eight,” “seven,” “four.” You go, “Jumpy, go to seven.” He’ll go and put his paw on the person who said seven.

AVC: That’s insane.

TW: It’s unreal. I mean, the dog backflips. It’s amazing. Google Jumpy on YouTube—I had seen the dog first and I was like, “Y’all don’t even know.” Then we got to New Mexico and the AD was worried, like, “I don’t know, man…” And then Jumpy showed up and hit the mark, and he was like, “I’m going home. I can’t believe I just saw that.”

AVC: Since the technical stuff with the dog is what you didn’t need to worry about at all, does that mean the relationship with him and Ethan was the most difficult part?


TW: It went well. It definitely could have been a horror story, oh my God, if the dog was impossible. So could the horses. The hardest animal was the vulture. But the horses were great, the dog was great. It was really easy. And Ethan just—they got along great. He got to act with a dog, for real, and it felt like Jumpy was acting with him. It was a surreal thing to watch. When you watch the movie, you just kind of accept it. But if you do think about how we show—there’s a dog and a movie star interacting—and you buy it. That’s crazy. Sometimes I look at it and go, “How did we do that?” But it’s a credit to Ethan, he had done White Fang, so Ethan is like, “Oh God, that’s right.”

AVC: After the massive scale and the sheer number of people in The Sacrament, this seems like a return to the small, almost chamber-room dramas you’ve done. That seems to be something you really get inspired by. Is there something about sparseness or minimalism, in terms of numbers when you’re telling a story, that appeals to you creatively?


TW: It’s a combination of yes—making a movie about the characters—and then, also, budget. We can’t make a giant sprawling movie. We’re going to make a small movie. And what we got is what I could get, performance-wise. That’s what I hope people take away from the movie—it isn’t necessarily the plot, it’s the part where Toby [Huss] gets shot, or that part when Travolta says this, or the part where Ethan says that cool thing—those details are the things that are interesting to me. So just acknowledging we don’t have a lot of money, so we’re going to make a Western that’s kind of contained, but we’re going to make it super charismatic and we’re going to make it memorable for what it is as opposed to what we couldn’t afford.

I do think, even though I’ve made these genre movies, there’s what happens in the movie and then there’s what the movie’s about. And for me, what the movie’s about is so much more interesting. With my horror movies or with this movie, same thing. The subtext of this movie is what to take away from it. Plot is never something that’s been my driving force as a filmmaker. I don’t go to see movies to see plots. I’m not interested in puzzles like an Agatha Christie story. In general, I go to see the stuff that for me is, “Thank God for that actor, he’s doing something that I never imagined; thank God for this filmmaker, because if this person didn’t exist, this movie wouldn’t exist.” That’s why I go to the movies. That, to me, is what’s so exciting about this movie. It is a very classic Western, and if you like Westerns, you’ll like this movie, but there’s a tone to it that’s all its own that I think is unique and memorable.


AVC: Speaking of actors, at what point did you get James Ransone on board or involved? It feels like it was written for him.

TW: It was written for him. PJ’s a friend of mine, I’ve known him for a long time, he’s always like, “Dude, when are we going to make a movie together?” I finally called him. “Oh, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to write this movie for you.” I wrote it entirely with PJ in mind. I get such a joy out of watching his performance and seeing people watch this. He’s so great. The bravado thing and the foolishness, he does them both so well. It’s weird because he’s so hateable in the movie, but in the end, you’re also going, “I feel bad for him.” That’s hard to do. It’s hard to do that to where you’re like, “This guy’s the worst, but I know why he’s the worst, so it’s a shame this is happening.” That’s the whole thing. To me, when you wrap the movie up, it’s a shame that this went this way. All these people aren’t necessarily bad people.


AVC: None of this needed to happen.

TW: It’s such a shame. It’s one of those things, when you look back on it, you’d go, “Oh, I could’ve done without that. If I could go back in time, I would do it different.” That’s the thing with violence in general. The whole thing is, they could’ve just avoided it. Their whole lives have been fine and they all fucked it up.


AVC: Is it hard to not be hyperaware of all the thematic and political resonance? Just like with horror films, they’re always so full of allegory. Do you try to push that all out of your head while you’re actually making it?

TW: You mean with regards to the commentary that’s in the movie?

AVC: Yeah, the commentary—it’s so suffused with political subtext.

TW: Of course. I don’t think you want to preach to people. I don’t think In A Valley Of Violence, and the same with The Sacrament, there’s a social commentary and a political element to both the films, but it’s not like, “Think this because I think this.”


AVC: They’re not message movies.

TW: If we’re talking about this, even the fact that you don’t think of PTSD from the Indian wars. We don’t associate it with that. But surely it exists, and whether it was a good experience or a bad experience, he’s fucked up from it. Whether you believe in why someone’s been at war or you don’t, it fucks people up. That’s the same thing with the film: Whether they should’ve had this fight or they shouldn’t have had this fight, it happened, and now everyone’s fucked up because of it. You want to be able to say [to Hawke’s character], “Dude, it’s okay,” but maybe it’s not. Maybe he’s not a good person. I don’t know. That’s the thing about people. There is no real good guy or bad guy. It’s all context. Like you said, it’s not a message movie, but those political elements are certainly part of the movie. There’s cinematic history with it being a Western. All this stuff. But really, I wanted to make a movie about: How does violence affect people? This is a take from me on how violence affects people.


AVC: Even though it’s transitioned you into this Western territory, it seems very much thematically of a piece with your work. You’ve always been interested in this idea of what terrible situations do to people emotionally.

TW: That’s always been what all my movies are about. These bad situations—it’s like in House Of The Devil. She makes this dumb decision because she’s broke, a decision she never would have made otherwise, but she’s broke and she’s there, and now, how is this going to affect her? The Innkeepers were two nerds in a dead-end job and then they try to get involved and they get in over their heads, and how does it affect them? That, to me, just seems like what happens to people. The bad guys, when they start getting picked off, they’re upset that their friends died, too. But that’s the thing. That’s what life is. It’s that weird gray area.