At only 31 years old, filmmaker Ti West has quickly made a name for himself by challenging audience expectations and assumptions about the horror film genre with movies like 2009's the House of the Devil. His latest film, The Innkeepers (read The Innkeepers movie review), opens Friday at the Denver FilmCenter (2510 East Colfax). We caught up with West via phone to talk about his new movie, the state of the horror film genre, and his forthcoming projects, the ABCs of Death and the Side Effect.
Westword: How did you become this sort of subversive filmmaker?
Ti West: I can't see when I'm doing something subversive. You know what I mean? It's like hearing your voice on tape. You hear it and you go "I don't sound like that" and then you just realize, "oh, I do." I think there's a part of filmmaking that's that way. I know making genre movies I don't want to be derivative of other movies, so I do make an effort to try to stay one step ahead of a very postmodern audience these days, so there's an element of playing with convention, but for the most part I'm just making movies the way it makes sense to me, and then, you know, people have given me these sort of labels as doing such, but I'm just doing my thing.
The Innkeepers has considerably more humor than your four other feature films. How does the humor work in the movie?
I wanted to make a charming ghost story about minimum wage jobs. It was an effort for me to try to make these charming, relatable characters, and humor was the way to do that. I don't really see myself as a funny person, but I like comedy, so I wanted to challenge myself. But the real reason for it was just, that lifestyle -- being stuck at work -- you entertain yourself by being funny. If I could make these characters funny, then you would like them, and then when it got scary, you would get scared, because you were nervous for them, because they were likeable and relatable, and that was really the goal behind it.
You also have these modern slacker-type characters that you've put in this old-fashioned ghost or haunted-house story. That kind of contrast creates this interesting dynamic tension and ultimately makes the movie more frightening as it plays out. Can you tell us more about that?
The goal was to have you fall in love with these people and then put them through some sort of horrible situation so that you can put yourself in their place. I just thought I'm just qualified to direct movies or be a busboy. I don't know how to do anything else. I can either do a minimum-wage job or make my own movies. I don't want to go back to doing minimum-wage jobs, but I have a fondness for having done that, and I wanted to create that vibe of being stuck at work and having that kind of apathy. I thought it related itself in a weird, ironic way. These people are stuck in this hotel at work, and the ghosts are stuck there as ghosts. So I thought that was interesting for me to see how they were connected, but also see how the minimum-wage job people aren't equipped to deal with ghosts like normal movie characters.
You use these long takes some people have called the "slow burn" that kind of comes out of '60s horror. Can you comment on that?
Here's the thing about that: it's just the way it makes sense to me, but I think I just have an old-fashioned aesthetic. I don't go to the movies for escapism, nor do I make movies that way, so to me, it's kind of the more suspense-driven approach. That's the way I look at the genre. And I like long takes. I think there's a sense of build to it, and I just think that if the acting is good in long takes, you know that means the acting is really good, because it's not the editor saving them.
You've described your films as appealing to a "postmodern horror audience" that's really gotten inside and deconstructed the genre. How does your film play to them?
It's polarizing. It's polarizing to everybody. I think there are a few types of crowds out there. There're ones who generally go see everything, which is great, and they've very supportive. There's the kind that want conflict, or titillation from things, and generally that means violence. I don't really have the goods for them a lot of the time. Then there're people who love the genre, and they love the experimental nature of the horror film genre, and love the metaphorical angle, and they just want to see more in these movies, and I appeal to that audience, but I also appeal to the crowd of people who don't watch horror movies.
I always have a situation where people say: "Oh, I won't ever see it. I don't watch horror movies."
And I'm like "Jesus! What about The Shining"? and they go:
Well, that's different."
"What about The Exorcist"?
"Well, that's different, too."
And it's like, why? Those are some of the scariest, most famed horror movies of all time. But the problem is, people nowadays associate all of it with just lowest-common-denominator violence. A lot of people like horror movies, they're just put off by the current trends.
Can you tell us anything about your forthcoming projects The ABCs of Death or The Side Effect?
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I've shot The ABCs of Death and delivered it. I don't know when it's going to come out, probably a little while from now. There're a lot of filmmakers [involved with it]. It's a good group of people making this sort of weird, bizarre anthology. The Side Effect, we just cast Liv Tyler, and hopefully after Berlin we'll get ready to start filming.