Let Me Out: Ti West on The Innkeepers
The problem with so many horror films today is that you feel like you’ve seen them before. I’m not talking about their plots or characters because ghosts, vampires and serial killers have been and will be dramatized again and again. No, I’m talking about the feeling of watching these films, the internal clock that prepares you for this jolt by minute three, that one by minute 10 and a final shocker just before, or after, the closing credits.
Among the many excellent qualities of writer-director Ti West’s filmmaking is its refusal to be straitjacketed by the more programmatic notions of what a horror film is supposed to feel like in 2012. This is not to say that West doesn’t provide his share of jolts; he does, and some even occur at those minute marks. It’s just that through the four features he’s proud to call his own, there’s an equal investment in character and craft, allowing West to dip into familiar sub-genres with conviction and a sense of fresh possibility.
Delaware-born West made his debut in 2005 with The Roost. Set in a deserted farmhouse, this tale of friends besieged by killer bats is affectionately framed as the kind of late-night creature feature one watched as a kid. The no-budget Trigger Man, a creepy, existentialist-flavored tale of hunters who become the hunted, followed in 2007 and preceded the lamented Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, a for-hire sequel to Eli Roth’s flesh-eating-virus shocker that West lost control of and tried to remove his name from. While that drama played out, West quickly and successfully moved on to 2009’s The House of the Devil. Jocelin Donahue stars as a college student who takes a babysitting job from an eccentric couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) and finds herself sucked into a satanic ritual. Set in the early 1980s, the film is a genre hound’s loving throwback to the era’s best horror films, with spooky, deliberate pacing and a gripping performance by Donahue. (The film was also the subject of some controversy, as distributor MPI resisted what is now West’s trademark “slow burn” pacing in one lengthy scene.)
If The House of the Devil was best appreciated by fans sharing West’s love of ’70s and ’80s horror, his new film, The Innkeepers, is for everyone. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy play amateur ghosthunters, Claire and Luke, who work at a supposedly haunted New England inn. It’s the hotel’s last weekend, and they are determined to catch on audiotape the whisperings of its lone female spirit. As in all of West’s work, there’s a fetishistic precision to the camerawork (excellent, by Eliot Rockett) and editing (by West himself). But there’s also an unexpected, sometimes goofy humor and a deeper focus on character. As Luke and Claire play their paranormalist games, we realize that Luke has a thing for his pretty coworker, who he’ll probably never see again once the inn closes. That unrequited longing simmers below the film’s surface, giving the film’s third-act scares a surprising emotional gravity.
The Innkeepers is currently available on VOD and will receive a February theatrical release from Magnet Releasing. West will also be represented at Sundance with a segment of the anthology film, V/H/S. Here, West and I talk about his filmmaking beginnings, the struggle to move up in budgets and why horror movies aren’t as ambitious as they need to be.
How did you start making movies? I grew up in Delaware, and there’s not much of a movie business happening there. I’m sure there’s probably still not, but I feel like now people are more hip to [making] movies because of YouTube, reality TV and indie movies selling for a lot of money. I think I was somewhere around the last generation where no one really understood it, so I don’t have any of those cool, “I was making Super 8 movies with my friends and they were epic” stories. When I was in high school I took a film history class, and I think it was the first time I ever got an A. [The class taught] a very classic film history, everything from German Expressionism to Citizen Kane up through the Coen Brothers, and it gave an understanding of movies as art instead of just entertainment. For whatever reason, it clicked with me. [After high school] I had no idea what I was going to do, so I made a short film as a “Hail Mary” to con my way into some sort of college. Based on this short and an essay I wrote, I got into the School of Visual Arts. Kelly Reichardt was teaching my freshman year. She was super cool and we got along. One day she asked if anyone in class knew who Larry Fessenden was. I was the only one who had seen his film Habit. She was like, “Well, I’ll bring him in to talk about independent film.” She kept forgetting to bring him in, and I kept bugging her about it every week until she finally said, “Dude, here’s his phone number.” So I called him, and he let me intern for him. Basically all I was doing was cleaning his apartment and wrangling cables — things like that. As he likes to tell it, I was using his facilities to make dubs of my short films, and he’s not entirely wrong. We became friends and then, as I graduated college, he asked, “What are you going to do now?” “I don’t know. I guess write a script and move to L.A.” He said, “Well, if the only thing stopping you from making a feature is money, what if I gave you a little bit of money? Could you just go and do it?” I was kind of lying and I said, “Of course. I’ve got a script. I have all the crew. Everything’s ready to go. I just want to tweak a few things.” I didn’t have any of that stuff. I went home and wrote a script very quickly, and that became The Roost. He liked it. Then, I assembled a crew — half people I went to college with and half new people. We had $50,000 and a 16mm camera, and we just sort of went for it. We went to SXSW, sold it and everything sort of worked out. Ever since then I’ve just been trying to keep it going.
What about your focus on genre? Why have you focused on making genre films? Well, I think the genre director thing is a bit of an accident, although I suppose it’s a happy accident. I didn’t grow up making movies, but I did grow up watching movies obsessively. We had one video store called Video Frequency, and I was there every chance I could get. I was always attracted to the sort of stuff you’re not supposed to see as a kid. Anything edgy or taboo or counter-culture always appealed to me, whether it was horror movies as a kid or punk rock as a teenager. Also, the box covers were so much cooler in the horror section. And because I grew up reading comic books, it was visually more appealing to me to hang out in that world. I think the first filmmaker who made me realize I could make movies was Peter Jackson. [His film] Bad Taste was the kind of movie I could wrap my head around. I could [figure out] stuff like, “Oh, they just put that camera on a stick and lifted it up — that’s how they did that shot.” If you watched Spielberg movies growing up, there was a disconnect to the actual experience of making the movie, but if you watched Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, you could get how he built his own props and made this movie on weekends. Then, when I was in college, I made short horror films partially because it’s a genre where you can do a lot of experimental stuff yet still have a narrative structure and core audience. And no one else was making horror shorts, so it also helped me stand out.
In your movies you seem to reject not only the kind of pacing but also the dramatic structure of horror movies today. Where does that come from? Are you bringing in influences from various art movies, or, as you say, is this just what you like to see in a movie? I think it’s more the latter. I may have seen such movies you’re talking about, and they may have been subconscious influences, but I’m not a “direct influence” kind of person. I think it comes from two things. I don’t set out to make a horror movie with the idea of making the lowest common denominator of genre entertainment. I don’t approach it like, “Here’s how it could be really successful.” Maybe I should start doing that, but that’s just not the way my brain works. If it’s interesting for me, I like to believe that it will be interesting for other people as well. I do know that I am somewhat esoteric with maybe my style or pacing. But the other thing that’s true is that in the last several years, horror became really popular again, and a huge majority of people making horror movies are commercial or music video directors who get the job because they have a really popular, lowest common denominator aesthetic. I just don’t come from that background. I come from a more, I guess sincere, or maybe you could even say pretentious, background of film. If you look at The Shining, it is a movie about a guy who hates his family and he’s unraveling in this hotel. The horror stuff is secondary. The Exorcist is about a woman with a sick daughter. The possession stuff is secondary to that. They’re always movies first and horror movies second. I think that’s been flipped recently where it’s horror movie first, and I think that’s just sort of lame. It’s weird too because the people who make the really lowest common denominator stuff will all agree that The Exorcist, The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby are the best ones, but they don’t even want to try to make anything like that.
Why do you think it is? Because it’s easier. Because look, those three movies I just referenced are some of the not only best genre movies ever, they’re some of the best movies ever. To try to make a movie as good as those, the chance of failure is so high. The world of studio filmmaking is about sure things; no one wants to risk anything. But when you don’t risk anything, you don’t make anything interesting ever.
You’re known for the “slow burn,” where the jolts come later in the movie after the characters have been defined. Again, does that happen organically, or are you sometimes turned on by the formal ambition of delaying the scares and playing with an audience’s sense of time? I think in order to have a successful horror movie you have to have a pretty substantial amount of contrast between the horror and the non-horror because if you don’t give that contrast, then it’s not shocking when [the horror] shows up. It doesn’t mean anything because you have no attachment [to the characters]. It becomes almost like porn. If you spend time convincing an audience that there’s no way this character’s going to die and then they get killed out of nowhere, they’re completely uncomfortable. I also reject this post-modern filmmaking where the movies are constantly acknowledging that they’re movies, constantly being like, “It’s just a ride. Don’t take it too seriously.” And the audience is so hip to everything. It’s like if you see a horror movie and someone goes in front of the mirror in the bathroom, you know when they open and close the mirror the thing’s going to be behind them. And if it’s not behind them, it’s going to be when they turn around. If you know what’s going to happen, why are you watching the movie? So, for instance, in The House of the Devil, [spending four minutes with the protagonist] walking around the house was because, one, it’s just sort of spending time with the character; and two, it’s setting up this location and giving you some sense of geography. But the main reason was, you expect her to walk in a room and something to pop out and kill her, but it doesn’t. Then she goes in another room and you’re like, “Well, it’s going to happen in this room because it didn’t happen in the last one.” And then it doesn’t. Then she goes in another room and it doesn’t. It gets to the point where you go, “You know what? I don’t know what’s going to happen because she’s walked in five rooms and this is not what happens in horror movies. Usually something pops out of the closet.” I think as soon as you give up trying to be a step ahead of the filmmaker you can actually chill out and enjoy the movie again.
How does it play out practically for you as a filmmaker when you go and pitch projects? Do you have to play down your ambition and convince them that you can make what they want, or do you try to get people to be excited and go along for the ride? Whenever I’m interacting with people who are not into what I do, it’s generally because they’re saying, “We want you to come in and talk about this remake we’re doing.” Or, “You made a movie called House of the Devil. Our movie takes place in a house, so we think you’d be good for it.” But, the people who really seek me out, who I’m genuinely close to and who are trying to do more interesting things, the problem is, those people don’t have as much money. The people who are like, “We totally want to do what you’re doing” are broke, whereas the people who are like, “We just want to make a sequel exactly like the last one because it made money” have tons of money. It’s weird because I would go into those meetings and say, “I will do exactly what you want in exchange for money and success.” But then it’s like, “Well we also want you to be serious about it. We don’t want you to just, like, copy.” But, it’s like, you do want me to copy! I understand all the trends. I know that in fight scenes these days the punches go at regular speed and then go really slow until they hit someone and then speed up again. Or like, after The Matrix, I know that every time you shoot a gun you’ve gotta move the camera around the bullet. I’m not stupid. I see it just like everybody else. I know that if you get $40 million to make a movie that’s the kind of crap they want in there. I’m not going to not do it for them, but there’s a trade-off. It’s like, “Well, if I’m going to do these completely derivative things, what do I get out of it?” I had a conversation with Joe Swanberg once about how we both love the Roger Corman checklist model: “Here’s what it’s going to be called, here’s the poster and here’s a checklist of what we need in it. We need this many boobs and this much gore. Within that framework, do whatever you want.” I love that style. Now they want you to be completely derivative, but they want you to be genuinely derivative, which is weird. I’m like, “Can’t we all just acknowledge that with the bullet thing we’re copying The Matrix and then move on with our lives?” But they don’t want you to be that way. They want you to really believe what you’re doing is something new, but I unfortunately know that it’s not. So, it’s hard.
I know you’ve had issues with distributors and producers on some of your films. Speaking generally, what do you want and need from producers? And when things don’t work out, why do you think that is? Well, I think great producers are there to help you accomplish your vision with as little interference as possible. And that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t giving you ideas — no, you want to hear from everybody. You might not take every idea, but you constantly want to hear what people have to say. There’s this idea that if you say no to someone that means you don’t compromise. All directing is is compromising! It’s like, “Hey, I want to do this shot on this thing over there.” “Well, we don’t have a crane.” “Ugh, all right, well we can put the camera on the ladder.” “The ladder’s broken.” “All right, we’ll just do a close-up then.” On every level it’s some form of compromise, and just because you disagree on one thing at some point, it turns into, “You don’t listen.” And, I don’t feel that’s fair. If you’re the kind of director who has their own style… then a producer should be trying to help you do that [style] with as little problems as possible. And be there from the beginning until the end. A lot of producers aren’t like that because that’s hard.
What about Cabin Fever 2, where you left the editing and tried to take your name off the movie? What’s the story there? I had made The Roost and Trigger Man, and then I got this opportunity to make Cabin Fever 2. I’m hoping to progress into bigger movies, and that was, theoretically, my first step into those movies. Eli Roth recommended me for the job and said, “This is the guy, let him do his thing,” and everything was fantastic. I’ve never been more supported. I wrote the script, got the cast and crew I wanted, went to North Carolina and had an amazing time making this crazy sort of John Waters/Todd Solondz/Paul Bartel-esque sequel. Then, post production rolled around and somewhere around the first cut of the movie there became this kind of overall realization that the movie was super weird. I don’t think [Lionsgate] wanted a lowest-common-denominator sequel, but maybe when they realized this thing was really weird, they thought it might be better to have that instead of this. That’s fair, I guess, but I felt very strongly that we had already gone so far down this other road. I mean, would you rather have this really interesting, bizarre cult sequel or try and turn this footage into something that you can’t because I just didn’t shoot the movie that you now want? We didn’t agree, and they tried to do it — I felt very unsuccessfully. People say, “But if you wrote it and shot it, how different could it be?” The best analogy I have to describe what it’s like is Dane Cook telling Seinfeld jokes. It’s like, “Well, the material is pretty good, but the delivery is all fucked up, so it’s not funny.” I feel like every joke in the movie falls flat, every scare falls flat. They deleted everything I did and re-edited it from scratch and put together a totally different movie. I was trying to make this really weird, cult-y commentary on STDs and awkward teen sex. That’s the way I make movies — go all in on an idea and risk it. Granted, maybe Cabin Fever 2 should’ve just been more kids in a cabin, but we didn’t make that. So I unsuccessfully tried to get my name taken off it, which is incredibly difficult to do. I was sad I couldn’t get the Alan Smithee credit. That would’ve made me feel a lot better. Ever since then I’ve been gun shy whenever I have those meetings and people are offering me those jobs — I don’t totally trust the scenario. It was traumatizing to have that happen.
Was it a case of them changing their minds after the film was made? Or do you think that during production they just didn’t get what you were trying to do, or in preproduction, didn’t get what you wanted to do? I think it’s both. I mean, I wasn’t slipping anything past them. People were there. People saw the dailies. The full frontal discharging male nudity, you can’t miss that, you know what I mean? The footage was so crazy that of course people were aware of it. I just think when they got presented with it as a whole, it maybe didn’t play like Cabin Fever 2. It played like a different weird movie. But I always approached it like Evil Dead 2 — we were just going to go bananas.
One thing I’m always really impressed with is the precision of your shooting and editing. Your films never feel put together out of bits of random coverage. They feel very precise, controlled, constructed. I know you make them on very small budgets in very short time frames. How do you get that level of precision with the resources you have? I think part of being a good director is being really prepared. Certainly, if you’re a writer-director, people are going to come to you with so many questions, and if you don’t have the answers, that just means that you’re not very good at what you’re doing. So I think I am very particular. We shot The Innkeepers in 17 days, which is brutal. Some days we were shooting nine pages a day. I didn’t have the time to do coverage, but, also, I’m not interested in doing a lot of coverage. I’m interested in being like, “This is what this scene is about, and this is what makes sense for the camera to do to add to that.” And then we just sort of do that and go home. I suppose if I was shooting two pages a day for 60 days, I’d be like, “Hey, let’s just try to get a really crazy shot over here.” With The Roost, we had $50,000 and we shot on film. No one got paid. Every dollar went to paying for the developing and the majority of that movie we got in one take, two if we were lucky. I think the budget maybe helped me become more prepared, but I’ve always just been that way. Part of it is being an only child and being obsessive compulsive.
Do you storyboard? I don’t storyboard because I operate the camera. However, I do make these really meticulous, color-coded shot lists that are in my pocket every day, mostly just so I can have something to cross off so I feel like I’m accomplishing something. But if I’m ever at a moment where I’m like, “Ah, what are we doing?” I can go, “Let me just look at my list.”
How would the shot list differ from a normal shot list? I don’t really know what a normal shot list is like because, again, I’ve never really worked on another person’s movie. I only learned to read call sheets on Cabin Fever, and that was my third feature. They’re probably very similar, just a little bit more shorthand oriented. I color code mine based on, okay, everything that’s red means we’re looking in one direction, everything that’s blue means we’re looking in another direction and then everything that’s, I don’t know, green is a third direction. So I can walk onto the set and ask Eliot [Rockett], the d.p., “Which way is easier for you to look first?” He’ll go, “Let’s look out the window first because it’s going to be a bummer when the sun starts to set.” Then when we finish the scene I might jump ahead and get another shot [from another scene] because we’re already set up for it. I do it because it helps me. The process of making these shot lists is the process of thinking about the movie.
Tell me about the origins of The Innkeepers, the concept and where it came from. When we made House of the Devil, we stayed in this hotel called The Yankee Peddler. We would drive 20 miles to set every day and shoot this satanic horror movie, but weirder stuff kept happening back at the hotel. The whole staff — the whole town — thinks it’s haunted. And our cast and crew started to think it’s haunted too. It became this overwhelming goof that we were staying in a haunted hotel, but I didn’t think much of it. [Afterwards] I signed on to do a big studio ghost movie, but it became apparent that it wasn’t going to work out. So I [thought], “You know, I should just write my own.” I was trying to think of what it should be and thought, “You know, we kinda lived one when we were making House of the Devil and that location still exists.” Peter [Phok], the producer, called the owner of the Peddler to see if we could come back. They said yes, but they had a very limited window. So I just wrote it very quickly and rushed it over to Dark Sky Films. “Look, I have another movie. It’s about the place where we made the last movie and they have a window in May and we can make it for a tiny bit cheaper than The House of the Devil.” They green-lit it very quickly, and the next thing you know, we were there making that movie. I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with the classic ghost story structure, I was just trying to take a classic ghost story, but then put in characters who have no business being in a ghost story. I wrote a movie about a place that I stayed at one time, and then we went back to that actual place and made a movie there and lived there again.
What was being in a supposedly haunted hotel like? Were things happening that were genuinely scary or was it more just kind of weird and odd? More weird. The hotel is kind of like it is in the film — this weird mixture of 1800s historic architecture, bad ’70s renovation and twenty-something slacker kids behind the desk. It has this kind of kookiness to it.
In terms of either stay, what was the weirdest thing that happened? I’m pretty much a skeptic, so I really don’t believe in any of that shit. But doors open and close by themselves, things turn off and on by themselves, TVs turn off and on. The phone rang in my room and when you answer it, no one’s on the other line, which apparently happens a lot. There’s also just an overall vibe there that is, like, odd. It’s hard to explain, but when you spend a lot of time there, there’s just something off. You have very vivid dreams every night, but not just you — the whole crew does too. And, in terms of coincidental ghost-y kind of stuff, the room in The Innkeepers that’s the haunted room, the honeymoon suite, I picked because it was at the end of a hallway big enough to do a dolly shot. It was for purely technical reasons. We found out when we wrapped shooting that that room is actually the haunted room in the hotel. There were hundreds of rooms to pick from, so that’s pretty weird.
One thing that’s cool is that it’s a very bright hotel. It doesn’t have a lot of trappings of the typical haunted house. Yeah, we talked about that for a while. I sat there with Eliot being like, “You know, if we turn all the lights off, the movie gets scarier, but it doesn’t make any sense because it’s an operating hotel. They wouldn’t be working there with all the lights off. So I think we need to just leave all the goddamned lights on for the whole movie.” I remember both of us just being like, “That is the right decision, but whoa, everyone will go, ‘Why are they not in the dark all the time?’” But again, in the world of going for what’s easy and going for what’s hard, making a horror movie where the lights are on the whole movie is sort of left of center. To me, it’s more interesting. It helps you focus on the characters and the realism. I think a lot of times making your movie look scary is overcompensating for the fact that maybe the way you are shooting it or have structured it is not scary. Making it dark doesn’t necessarily make it scarier. The same thing with overdone sound design and scary music — it doesn’t necessarily make the movie scarier, it just helps distract [the audience] a little bit. With this movie, I tried hard to make any kind of scary sound stuff a misdirection or a joke, whereas all the actual scary stuff in the movie is played very quietly.
What are you working on now? I know you’re finishing a couple of things. I just finished something and I’m waiting to see which [other project] is going to go first. I have a science fiction movie that is on the down low and ready to go, and that looks like it’s maybe going to happen. And then, I have a werewolf movie that I wrote for another company that could happen at any time. And then there’s a third movie I wrote, something else that could happen at any time. But today, I would put my money on the sci-fi movie. I’m very excited about it. It’s horror-ish. It’d be fun to get on a spaceship and do a movie about that.
It would be done on somewhat of a similar scale? A little bit bigger. I mean, I’d love for it to be a lot bigger. I feel like today your aspirations really need to be to do comic book movies because that’s all that’s getting made. But since I don’t have those aspirations, I don’t know how I’ll ever achieve making a $75 million movie because if it’s not a comic book movie, what is it? But, you know, maybe things will change. In the world of indie movies there used to be a lot of movies around $5 million, and there just aren’t so much anymore. Everyone wants to make things for under a million. I just made two movies back to back for under a million and it’s not that it’s not enough money, it’s just that if I make another movie for $800,000, what can I do differently? And, if we go, “Oh, it’s one location, and there are no crazy shots or CGI,” people go, “Oh, you’re so anti-CGI and old school.” But it’s because I have to be — I don’t have access to ILM. I can’t afford that. In The House of the Devil, the house was supposed to burn down. Well, we couldn’t burn it down, so we didn’t. If I make another $800,000 movie I can make a cool movie, but it starts to feel a little repetitive because we can’t do the shots that we want to, or we can’t get this star because they need to get paid a lot more money than we have. Having made so many [low budget movies] now, it’s starting to feel like I’m stifled. So I do want to hold out for a little bit more money.
Which one trumps the other, the desire to make a film or the desire for a bigger budget? Would you wait five years, like some directors do, for that larger project? I’m not capable of doing that for a couple of reasons. One, I’m impatient. I could never imagine going a year and a half or two years. That, to me, is like a long time. And so I’m always trying to do something. But yeah, I’ll hold out as long as I can to get bigger budgets. I don’t think I would make the space movie for less money, but if it was taking forever, I would go make another $800,000 movie that I felt excited about just because I gotta do something. My true goal is to progress into larger movies, but I just don’t have five years to wait. I always say that I’m qualified to direct my own movies or be a bus boy. I don’t know how to do another job. I can’t wait five years because I’d have to go work retail or at a restaurant because I don’t know how to do anything else. All I have done are minimum wage jobs and directing my own movies. A big part of The Innkeepers is an ode to the time from [when I was between] 16 to 27, doing minimum wage jobs, and the weird, charming friendships you form with the people you work with. I really wanted to try to create a charming “killing time” vibe, and then drop the ghost thing on top of that. I hope that the movie’s relatable to people who have worked for a living, who have sold jeans or worked at a hotel. Hopefully you like these characters and find them relatable so you don’t want something bad to happen to them — even though you came to see a horror movie. That is the goal.