As passionate as horror fans are about championing up-and-coming filmmakers and their films, it seems like the community as a whole was caught off guard by last year's The House of the Devil. Even though it was director Ti West's third film, the moody thriller sort of came out of nowhere, not only earning some respectable commercial recognition despite its limited marketing and distribution, but eventually breaking through to the mainstream, if only modestly, garnering praise from audiences and critics.
Since then, West has become something of a standard-bearer for independent horror – the latest embodiment of the do-it-yourself spirit that has fueled the genre for decades. Most recently, he appeared alongside mainstream newcomers like Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) and Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) on a South by Southwest panel in Austin, Texas, entitled "Directing the Dead", where he offered some choice insights about making the movies he wants to make outside the auspices of the studio system. A few days after that panel, I sat down with West for a lengthy discussion about his work, including his next film The Innkeepers, which is set to start production soon. At the same time, he offered his thoughts about the current state of the genre, reflected on the folks who think his movies "f*cking suck," and examined the opportunities and challenges he faces as he continues to work as a horror filmmaker.
Were you surprised at all by the success of The House of the Devil?
Uh, I don't know. I was happy that the people I wanted to like it liked it, so I don't know if surprised is the right word. It didn't blow anyone's hair back theatrically, but that's because it was a limited release. But I was surprised that VOD did well, and that was a very pleasant surprise; it was like, I'm glad the movie didn't bomb, because that would have made life a lot more difficult. But I can't say enough good things about Magnolia; they did a fantastic job, and I haven't gotten the DVD numbers and MPI is putting out the DVD, but everybody has been great. I mean, the VHS thing is great, and everything has been great, so I hope it continues to do well.
When I talked to you at the theatrical junket, you were very specific that you didn't want the film to be kitschy, but the idea of an ‘80s horror movie sort of superficially lends itself to a degree of kitsch, down to that clamshell VHS you released. How careful did you have to be not to have that element overwhelm the impact of the film itself?
When they said they were going to put out the VHS, it was originally just going to be a promotional item, which to me was like, that's cool – better than keychains and matches, you know what I mean? Then they were like, no, we're going to make thousands of them and we're going to sell them on Amazon, and it became a whole different thing. It was really great for them to do that and they were like, we're going to do a big box, and then I just got really anal on the artwork. They were nice enough to tolerate me on that, because I was like, we need to have a "New Release" sticker, and there were all of these details that I wanted to be there.
Like the Gorgon Video label?
Yeah, to actually have it be a real Gorgon release. It was a legitimate Gorgon release, which is really cool. When you watch it, it's pan-and-scan and has the logo, so it's maybe the last Gorgon Video release there will ever be. So, yes, there's a kitsch value to it, but it's not just "I like VHS because it's old and retro," it's a cool thing to have on your shelf. And they did such a good job – they didn't make it cheesy.
I was happy to see that the film found such a widespread audience.
It did. We were so close for it to be crossing over more, and I think we fell just a little bit short of that, just because it's hard when you're a small movie. But I'm so glad the theatrical made money, and critically I couldn't ask for much more; we did very well with that. It's weird how in my opinion the sort of like highbrow press, who I still hold in some regards, were very kind to me, and the message-board horror fans were not as much. I mean, some of them were really great, and some of them really hated the movie. But I'm okay with that because I think the horror community is great and they're really supportive and that's one of the best things about the genre and the fans, but I also feel like horror has become lowest common denominator and a lot of times fans have lowered their expectations so low that to get some "this movie f*cking sucks" I think is important. I think you need some people to hate it just as much as you like it. I think you should always have that polarizing reaction.
How much thought goes into your movies, not just when you're making them, but when you're conceiving them, to distinguish your films thematically or structurally from the rest?
For me, it's mostly that. When I have a movie in mind, there's thematic and sort of social and personal reasons why I'm making the movie, and there's technical reasons for what thins I want to accomplish. I think of myself as a personal filmmaker so I'm trying to please myself and get that out of me, but I think I have pretty decent taste, so I think if I can accomplish what I think will make this movie be good, I think it will turn out good. Some people will say I'm ultimately making a movie for the audience, but I don't think I am. I think I'm making the movie for myself, but if I'm pleased with it, then it can appeal to an audience, so it's like I'm coming first, which is selfish, but that's okay kind of, because it's my movie. But I'm not making it not wanting to share it with people, I'm making it so then I can share it and have you appreciate it. That's my goal; I'm not trying to solely entertain. But it's great when you can do both.
How much is filmmaking an intellectual exercise versus an intuitive one, in terms of coming up with ideas and building a movie around them?
It's sort of subconscious. I mean, sometimes you go, oh, there's a theme I want to explore, like I want to talk about this political issue - but I don't really think that way. I generally come up with an idea where I'm like, I would like to see that movie, and then my own personality goes into how I see things. Like, a girl in a house, that's not revolutionary, but I think girl on a toilet while something scary is happening is really gallows-humor funny – like you're holding a knife and you're on a toilet and there's something scary that happens and you're in a very vulnerable place. That to me is like my sense of humor. So it's all just things like that that go in there. I think horror is an excellent place to have metaphors and allusions; you can really explore that stuff in the genre and you can't as much in romantic comedies, and that's what's good about the genre – you can kind of ultimately always make an experimental film. Because there's an audience for it and there are certain things you have to deliver on, so you can make experimental films that have some narrative sense to them, and that's just fun to me. It's not about killing people, but if someone's going to get their head cut off in a movie, there's a whole audience of people that will want to see it, so I can do all kinds of other shit in there and make crazy, personal, experimental films that have certain things that appeal to a certain audience.
[Because] it is this kind of weird, experimental [genre], but not as much any more. When it was the underdog and it was sleazy, then it was truly that. Now it's become so commercial, it's not as much because people are expecting every little indie horror movie at a festival to become the next Saw or whatever. It didn't used to be like that. It used to be that these were the gross movies that no one wants any part of, and it was like punk rock; you can have your own scene. I mean, it's great that people can make a living doing it, but now that it does well, everyone has expectations that your movie should be a huge hit and not just part of this scene. In the same way that pop-punk music has become mainstream, and where it came from was a total anti-mainstream thing; and in a way it's good because people can do that, but in a way it's like it's not as cool any more.
Are you interested in working exclusively in horror because it gives you that variety of opportunities, or do you want to venture outside that genre and try other things?
I don't want to say I don't want to do horror movies, but I don't. What happened was I met Larry Fessenden, who paid for a horror movie [The Roost]. It worked out, I was going to make The House of the Devil, it fell apart, and he paid for an experimental horror-ish movie [Trigger Man]. I got Cabin Fever 2, which was going to be a crazy comedy that was just in the shell of a horror movie, and that kind of backfired. The House of the Devil was kind of to cleanse the palette and it was the movie that I wrote years before and thought, yeah, there's something valid about this movie. But The Innkeepers is way more of a character-driven movie; it's way more situational comedy. But when it gets scary, it's stuff that actually scares me, I think. Also, it's personal; it's experiences that I actually had, so there's stuff like that that makes it worth doing. But I can write a movie like The Innkeepers and I can go to Sundance and meet with those people and I can convince them to make the movie, so I can go out with all of the people I care about and make this movie and work together. But if I write a romantic comedy and it costs too much money, no one will give it to me. So it's like, no, I'm not only into doing horror movies, but I can get money for them.
I saw David Gordon Green speak the other day, and he was like, "They're not going to let me do these ridiculous, fucked-up comedies for long. All it takes is for me to fuck it up once, so I'm going to exploit it as long as I can. I'll go back to making George Washington when I'm done, because I can always make personal little character movies. But I can't always make Pineapple Express. If I make a movie that bombs, they won't let me do it anymore." So I'm in that window to do it. I'll write my other movies and I'll try to get them made, but what happens is what I've learned from people who pay for movies, which there aren't very many: they like to develop movies to death. They like to talk about it, they like to work on things, they just never actually want to make the movie, because then all of the accountability comes into play. But that's the benefit of MPI – they actually step up to the plate and they make movies, and that's a big credit to them.
How tough is it to retain that sense of both idealism and pragmatism? It it hard to be resilient when people seem to want those broad, dumb slasher movies instead of something more sophisticated or smart?
Well, if that's what you want, go see it. I'm not saying someone should have the same taste as me, or the same taste as someone else; just because I think The Ghost Writer is great it doesn't mean someone should go and see it. But so many people complain about remakes and all of this shit, and the only reason [that happens] is that Friday the 13th makes $45 million in three days, and it's so obvious that people should make more of those because everyone wants to make $45 million. I want to make $45 million! So people just have to take some responsibility, and that's not just in movies, that's in life. That's the reality, that until these movies start doing bad, they'll keep making them. It's like when Scream came out: they made every movie like Scream until it stopped working. They ran it into the fucking ground, and then it went away. But right now the remakes are doing well, so it's not going away.
But I've just been through it the hard way. I don't know – I realize how personal the movies are to me through all of that. I don't know – the Cabin Fever thing, I'm not emotionally connected to it anymore, but it was super hard when it happened. That fact that the silver lining was to get an Alan Smithee credit was terrible, and I'm not proud of how that worked out. I don't dislike the people. I don't know – I thought it could have been a really good movie, and I realized it couldn't any more, and what are you supposed to do? So I was on the Haunting in Georgia movie for a while, and we got to the point where we were making different movies, and it was like I don't want to risk us realizing that so late in the game. It's also important for me to write and direct my own movies and edit them, so with this MPI-Glass Eye Pix thing, I can do that. The Innkeepers can be my own movie, and [to do that] as long as I can do that is important.