Interview: Ti West on “The Innkeepers,” Charming Horror, and Tea with Nicole Kidman

The writer/director discusses why his latest thriller is something you've never seen (or heard) before, why he can't get movies made with male leads, and how he learned Nicole...

When I first saw Ti West, it was at the University Filmmakers Alliance conference at the University of Texas at Austin, not long after his first film “The Roost” had played SXSW in 2005. Sitting in front of a group of aspiring film majors, West would seem like the odd man out amongst a group of industry veterans such as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” editor Michael Tronick and “Equilibrium” director Kurt Wimmer giving pro tips and telling stories of how they made it into the business. But the 22-year-old West stood out for having really made it, scraping together the cash for a two-week shoot in his native Delaware (in the barn where “Marnie” was shot, no less), convincing a known, gifted actor in Tom Noonan to play a role, and logging footage as his own editor to shape “The Roost” into one of the aughts’ most promising feature debuts.

Even then, West exuded a confidence that has been the hallmark of his films. They’re patient, immaculately crafted thrillers that are honed as if they were fine swords. And while his pride has perhaps prevented him from making a bigger name for himself, as West’s two attempts at the rite of passage for most directors who aspire to bigger productions – the sequel to a studio hit – both ended in creative differences, that’s allowed him to keep carving out a place as one of the most original voices working today, whether one wants to qualify that with a “genre” tag or not.

His latest film “The Innkeepers” is only further evidence of this, ostensibly a ghost story set in a creaky, soon-to-be-closed Connecticut hotel where two twentysomething desk clerks get excited by the prospect of the supernatural since the natural has led them into a quarterlife funk. In a film that ultimately gives you chills, it’s more likely to give you the warm and fuzzies first, either because of the touch of nostalgia West brings to the proceedings or because the patter between the titular duo of Pat Healy’s Luke and Sara Paxton’s Claire lures you into believing you’re watching a buddy movie, making it all the more uncomfortable when things go south.

Of course, that’s the very reason West’s career has been going in the opposite direction, and as he explained to me last week, it’s a result of doing things differently and winning over some unlikely fans in the process.

When you’re inspired by a physical location such as the Yankee Pedlar Inn [where West and his crew stayed during “The House of the Devil” production], does the challenge of actually shooting there set in after you’ve written it?

This particular case, and it’s a one-time only thing, was remarkably simple because I wrote it so specifically for that place that when we showed up, even when the crew who showed up that were tech scouting, they were like, “This is weirdly accurate to the script.” There were only a few things where I [thought], “Oh, I remember this differently,” but it would be like if you wrote a movie for your parents’ house, it’s like you know it like the back of your hand. So I was able to write in the script and write and do all the pre-production very easily and very quickly. There’s no way I’ll make a movie that’s easier than this movie. This went off without a hitch.

You’ve said before that you set out to make a “charming horror film,” and since you succeeded, the film should be explanation enough, but how would you describe it to people who haven’t seen it? Is it more than just creating characters that you care about?

In a way, a little bit beyond. What it comes down to is that I’m cut out to direct movies or be a busboy. I can either do minimum wage jobs or direct my own movies. I don’t know how to do anything else. And I spent 10 years having minimum wage jobs. When I was at that talk in Texas, I probably had to leave because I had to get back to working at the mall because I was selling jeans. I never want to go back to that, but I’m also forever fond and charmed by that insular world you create at work and feeling stuck and having a weird existential crisis, but you’re not digging ditches.

There’s just something weird about being stuck in that place and I felt that related to a ghost story very well because they can’t leave this building. They’re stuck working there and they’re stuck at that place in their life where they don’t have aspirations, and so are the ghosts. I’d never seen anything like that. As far as the charm goes, likeable is more or less the same as charming, but the nuance is a little different. I wanted to make a movie that you really did kind of go, this character of Claire is so endearing that towards the end of the movie when she has blood on her, you’re almost like “I don’t know…I would’ve been fine with this not being a horror movie. Couldn’t they just…” That’s rare that you feel that way in a horror movie. Usually, it’s just about how do we kill people. And I’m not into that.

Your sound designer Graham Reznick has talked about how you often develop that aspect of the film even before finishing the screenplay, which is obvious from the scene where Claire can only hear what she believes to be apparitions on a headset. How did that become such an early part of the process for you?

It’s just always been important. You have one picture, but you have a hundred soundtracks. You can add so much to the movie, layers-wise with sound and it’s neglected in most movies. And I think sound can even carry on the narrative, which I don’t think is risky, but people don’t do it. I love doing it and when I pitched Graham the idea for the movie, I [knew we] we’re going to have these great scenes where she puts on the headphones and we go into the perspective of the headphones. There’s going to be a moment where she doesn’t see anything, but she hears it and then when she takes the headphones off, it’s all gone. The first time he showed me the first cut when it goes like “hwoo…,” we were high-fiving because it worked.

It’s something to get me excited about the technical aspect of making movies because I’ve made a lot of movies in a short period of time that it starts to feel a little repetitive. But to come up with themes and technical things like that to do differently is exciting to me.

I’m sure you’ve gotten the question a lot, but I couldn’t help but notice your next film is a bit of a departure since it’s a sci-fi project, but it once again features a female protagonist and isolated, since she’s in space. What’s attracted you to young women as your leads, particularly in a psychological sense?

It’s partially an accident. I write movies about guys, they don’t get made. The movies with women seem to get made. But it’s reasonable to imagine that because I have to obsess over a movie for two years and obsess over a character, I just am more drawn to obsessing over girls. That’s perhaps what’s happening. I don’t know. But to put all that effort into making Jocelin [Donahue in “House of the Devil”] into this fetishized thing or to do that with Sara to make her the most charming, I might have some weird, psychotic artist thing about being let me take what I see in this person as interesting and attractive and try to manipulate it into the way that’s the ultimate for me. That’s possible. I don’t outwardly do that, but as I get the questions and I think about it more, that is a trend that seems to happen in movies and art and whatnot, so it’s possible that I’m doing the same thing. The next movie’s going to round out some weird, accidental trilogy of women alone, paranoid, is-it-real-is-it-not-real horror movies and it’s just because that’s what can get paid for.

Has it also been coincidence that in both this film and “House of the Devil,” you’ve cast an iconic older actress to parallel the younger lead actress? There’s a tension between old and new in your films in general that make it seem like it could be intentional.

I was obsessed with Mary Woronov my whole life, so the fact that she’s in [“The House of the Devil”] is just one of my life’s checklists. The Kelly [McGillis] character [in “The Innkeepers”] is more in line with what you’re talking about. Her character is not based on Dee Wallace [who also appeared in “The House of the Devil”], but the idea to have her character is because Dee Wallace did a spiritual reading for me in that hotel while I was making “House of the Devil.” Now, Dee Wallace is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met and Kelly’s character’s an asshole because if she showed up and would be nice like Dee Wallace, it’s just not interesting for a movie. It’s just not dramatic and it doesn’t do anything for Claire’s situation.

What it is based on is the fact that I sat in [Dee Wallace’s] room in the hotel and she had a crystal pendulum and talked to ghosts in front of me. So that’s where the idea for that character came from and Kelly came up because she was in “Stake Land,” which the same producer [Peter Phok] had made. He just said, “What about Kelly?” And I had a really hard time casting that role because even though I thought everyone would want to do it, older actresses were so offended that I would offer it to them — they just had no sense of humor about being an older actress – that they just kept saying, “how dare you want me to play a has-been” or “change this and I’ll do it.”

I felt like the context of where I’m coming from is so not what you’re taking in, so I was reluctant to talk to Kelly because I thought it’d be the same thing and I also didn’t want to feel like I’m taking out of “Stake Land.” But Pete was like, “No, I’ll talk to her.” So we Skyped. She was in London and she already had this weird, standoffishy vibe – she was very nice, but it was intimidating to see someone smoking a cigarette through your computer and I was trying to be so delicate and say it’s not this. And she blew the smoke almost into the camera’s face and just went, “I don’t give a shit.” She wasn’t sensitive about that. She had a self-deprecating sense of humor and because of that, it made her the perfect person for the role.

I actually wanted to pick up on something that you said in your previous answer about having to think about things based on the questions you’ve been asked after you made the film. You live with the movie for a year in production and then you live a year with it on the festival circuit – do you get anything from the latter experience as a filmmaker?

I look at independent film as a lifestyle more than a career or it’s like a culture, so you do just sort of live it. I did festivals for six, seven months with this movie and then press and then it gets released, so it is a two-year process more or less for a movie, which is partially why you’ve really got to care about what you’re doing because to do something you don’t care about for two years is like suicide because it’s very traumatic making a movie. But I can tell you that I never expected “House of the Devil” to do what it did. I never expected that some of the people that I have met that liked that movie. I never thought I would have brunch with Nicole Kidman because she saw it at the Angelika. That’s stuff that as time goes on and as you live with the movie and you do these things, you get the word out, some people don’t find it right away, but they eventually find it and it’s great.

I can’t let that go without asking — brunch with Nicole Kidman at the Angelika?

I had tea with her somewhere else, but that’s where she saw the movie. I was just fascinated with the idea that Nicole Kidman goes to the movies. And she loved the movie and was so complimentary. I was like, “I’m going to call everyone I know. This is an amazing experience.” But that’s great. I didn’t compromise on the movie that I made. I made the movie I wanted. It was an indie movie and look, it still got there somehow.

“The Innkeepers” is now available on VOD, Vudu, iTunes, Amazon Instant, and Xbox, and will open in limited release on February 3rd. A full schedule is here.

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