A week before we were scheduled to talk, I saw Ti West’s “In a Valley of Violence” at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood as part of BeyondFest. It was the second time I had seen the western, which premiered earlier this year at SXSW, but with new eyes when the screen stretched out to the edges of the theater, a size ordinarily reserved for their 70mm screenings of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“That’s the experience this movie’s hoping for,” West says, his eyes widening as the screen did just before “In a Valley of Violence” unspooled upon hearing this, displaying the same boyish enthusiasm he had when I saw him introduce his first feature “The Roost” at the original Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin just over a decade ago. It wasn’t just that the film itself was destined for a screen this big – boasting a cast that includes Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, James Ransone, Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan, it is the writer/editor/director’s highest profile film to date – but for the consummate craftsman who has been working towards such a moment with virtually the same crew from “The Roost” on every film since, it feels as if this is truly where West’s work belongs, using every inch of his canvas visually and sonically to make you feel the dirt in your boot.
Set in a town where Hawke’s grizzled ex-soldier Paul rightly wonders how one could spend their time when seeing a “Be back in an hour” sign on one of the many dilapidated buildings on Main Street, “In a Valley of Violence” won’t allow the stranger to pass through peacefully, as the son (James Ransone) of the local marshal (Travolta) is eager to pick a fight and after being embarrassed when he tries, seeks revenge on Paul and his trusted dog Abby (Jumpy). Although the open air of the Southwest provides far different territory for West to inhabit than the claustrophobic thrillers he’s become known for, there is no shortage of tension as Paul’s survival instincts kick in, but the light isn’t constrained to intense desert sun, as West embraces the more charming traditions of westerns and the more clumsy aspects of violence to keep audiences both on the edge of their seats and at risk of falling off them with a number of big comic moments.
It is one of the director’s most entertaining and — surprisingly — provocative films to date and shortly before it hits theaters, West spoke about the desire to make something different after the hyperrealistic horror film “The Sacrament,” orienting audiences for the experience of his films in cinematic terms, his love of title sequences and delivering a dog performance for the ages.
You’ve said you wanted this since it was the polar opposite of “The Sacrament.” Do you find in general that your next one is a reaction to your last one in some way?
Yes, they are reactions to the last one, but movies take about two years, if you’re lucky. And you change a lot in that time, yet you’re making the same thing [in terms of] expression, so personally by the end, you’re like get me out of here. By the end of “The Sacrament,” which was a movie that was filmed in a way to seem real, using a real news brand, a real historic news story and to present violence not as escapism, but as confrontational, tragic, upsetting violence, I was just worn out by such grim realism, so I wanted to make something that was traditionally cinematic. For me, the western is the most traditionally cinematic genre and it’s not that far removed for me as a filmmaker to go convince someone to go make it with.
One carryover from “The Sacrament,” was this great sense of geography outdoors. After making your first films largely indoors, was that something you were excited about, particularly in terms of a western?
I used to always think that was something low-budget films could use more of — a sense of geography — and now I even think it’s big-budget movies. So often when I see a movie, I don’t know where I am and I can’t quite follow — because the pacing is always so quick, and it’s a lot of long lenses and constantly editing where you’re changing the shot. There’s something refreshing for me about looking down the street and seeing a character and panning all the way over and seeing the other character and go, okay, I know where everybody is. Now when I cut to the other character, I wonder what the other person is doing because I know where he is. I know he’s around the corner because they just showed me that, and it creates not only a sense of geography logically in the movie, but it makes the movie larger than the screen. It makes you think about it and it creates suspense. We used to be really good about that, but [with] the ADD-ness of people now, we’re always moving the plot along so fast, you don’t get a sense of where you are and where everybody is and that’s doing a disservice to movies.
Did you know of this western town location before actually embarking on this film or did you discover it in scouting?
There’s about three or four western towns that exist — one out here in L.A., three in New Mexico and one in Arizona. We couldn’t afford to build a town, so I knew we were going to be in one of those and one of them is booked for “Westworld,” so that wasn’t going to happen. I looked at New Mexico and one was not quite right for the story I wrote, one would work and then the other one I looked up on the New Mexico website, and I [picked that one] to write the script [around] because I needed some sense of geography in mind and if we changed it, we could change it. But if I just write anything I want, then when we get there and find the location, I’m just going to change the whole script. Thankfully, it was available and [the town in the film] doesn’t look anything like it did when we first got there, but it definitely gave a sense of this is where this building is and it definitely helped to visualize everything.
Was this a fun one to write?
Yes, what I love most about movies is the performance of movies. And I don’t just mean the acting performances – I love that, but the camera direction performance, the music performance, the art direction performance, I love title design…I love all of it. I don’t look for realism and plot in movies. Those are the two things I care about the least when I go see a movie. You don’t need to explain to me why [the characters] would go outside and make it super-realistic — I don’t care. It’s a movie. Let them go outside so that the next part of the movie’s going to happen. Just make it great. Make it interesting. Make it exciting. So for me to go and make a period piece, which again is the most fun to do because you’re already transported — not just as an audience, but also as a filmmaker — you’re already in some make-believe land and all bets are off. You can really embrace the cinema. To make a western that leans a little bit in the spaghetti direction of things [where it’s] heightened, was always something that was very exciting to me — to make something that felt like pure cinema.
The title sequence is perfect because it’s of the spaghetti western tradition, but your tradition as well in how it’s slightly diseased. How did that come about?
When Neal Jonas, who’s worked with me doing effects a bunch of times before, sent me the first cut of it, I was like, “Duuude, this is awesome.” He did an incredible job. Title sequences are very important because a lot of times, you need to be in the right headspace to watch movies. It puts everybody who worked really hard to make this movie great up on a pedestal to celebrate them, which I think is important because making a movie is not an easy thing to do. People give up big parts of their lives to do it and go a little crazy, so that’s special. But on top of that, I think when you watch the opening scene and the title sequence of this movie, you’re pretty much in or you’re out after that. And it gives you time to settle in and primes you to be in the mindset where you need to be to hear what I’m trying to say. Because [most movies are] always trying to move it along, they don’t do that, but then you feel like, “I never settled into this movie.” People always say “slow burn” [about my movies], but I always feel like this is a way to settle into the movie so that when we get into the movie stuff in the second half when it gets crazy, you’re in the right headspace for it.
One other sequence that’s particularly striking is the dream sequence, because it introduces a contemporary idea of PTSD in a contemporary aesthetic – night vision – but it feels of a piece with the rest of this period film you’re making in its simplicity. Was it difficult to figure out?
It wasn’t. I had Graham Reznick, my sound designer who really drives that sequence with the sound – do a quick first edit of it and then I tweaked it from there, but I thought this is a moment for you to shine because he’s a filmmaker also. So we collaborated on that quite a bit because that was a very transitional moment in the movie where we get to learn more specifically about [Ethan Hawke’s character Paul]. It’s a dream sequence, so it’s different from the rest of the movie and it triggers the second half of the movie, which is seeing [Paul] differently. Even though you want him to get revenge and you want to be on his side, there are no heroes in this movie. You’ve been on his side the whole time, but in the second half, we switch [slightly] and we’re with the perspective of the bad guys who you hate, but then ideally as it goes on, you still may hate them, but you start to go, “Yeah, but I get it” and [Paul] starts to look a little bit like a bad guy. That’s the thing about violence. There are no good or bad people. It’s a very complicated thing for human beings.
I know you can only speak for yourself, but there have been a few films lately, I’m thinking specifically of Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” among others, that have focused on how the average person would handle violence – do you think something’s in the water as far as screen portrayals of it?
This is a movie about how violence affects people, so I was very interested in setting up a lot of traditional archetypes that we’re familiar with and then not having them act like the archetypes when faced with the violence. They act like regular people. The guy who’s tough and spins the gun perfectly, when the shit hits the fan, [you see] none of that’s real. That’s all ego and facade, and that’s all of these characters. Out of desperation, all of them have created facades for themselves – the girls have, Ethan has… perhaps the dog has not. [laughs] But when hit with the archetypal movie plot, [these characters are] all ill-equipped to handle it in all different aspects. I thought that was really interesting to unravel because you don’t get to see that in westerns.
As far as how violence is handled, we are certainly desensitized to violence in movies at the moment, so you’re always trying to find a way to recreate that visceral impact. In this movie, there’s a threat of an animal, which is what seems to get people all worked up. If [the violence] happened to his wife, no one would care, but if it’s a dog, you’ll get nervous. It brings the violence to life in a different way than it normally. If it had just been hey, everyone kills each other, you would’ve been like, “Okay, next.”
You really give Jumpy the dog a character to play in the film – when you wrote this initially, did you create generic scenes for the dog to act in and figure it out closer to the shoot or do you consult with the trainer as you’re writing, knowing what the dog will be capable of doing, to give personality?
I wrote the movie not thinking about any of that with the dog, but then I Googled talented dogs and found Jumpy. He could do so much more than I ever imagined, so when I met Jumpy and knew that Jumpy was going to be in the movie, I researched things Jumpy could do. He auditioned for me in a way and it was mindblowing, and [I realized] I could go so much further because I thought it was going to be really hard to work with a dog. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was easy in every step of the way working with Jumpy and because of that, it made me go, “I know Jumpy can put his paw over his face, so I’m going to write a scene where that happens. I know Jumpy can wrap himself up in a blanket, so I’m going to write a scene where that happens.” So after I cast Jumpy, I did a pass on the script giving Jumpy more character.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
No. This went really well. Shooting the barn scene at the end was rather stressful and hard. We had one day where it rained, which was really kind of terrifying and slowed us down, and I would say the stuff that we shot up on the cliff, the whole – spoiler alert – the Jumpy death sequence. [Physically] it was very hard – we had to hike up there, and it was the very last thing we shot and it was very odd because it affected everybody. It’s fake, but there is nobody more loveable than Jumpy and we spent so much time with Jumpy that when it finally came time to do the scene, James Ransone was just bummed doing it. He’s like, “I get it, but it all feels weird,” because Jumpy really just laid there. And Jumpy was having a great time. He didn’t care, but it was a weird thing to finish the movie on that.
What’s it been like traveling with this?
Of all of them, this and “The Innkeepers” are the most pleasant to watch with an audience. I can’t watch the whole thing because it’s just too traumatic, but I always watch up to the opening titles to make sure everything looks and sounds okay, and then I’ll go do something else and come back [for] the last quarter of the movie, when everything gets really outrageous. I’ll poke my head in, “Are they going to laugh at that? Are they going to have a big reaction to this?” Because it is satisfying when you worked really hard on something and you’re hoping this is going to be fun and you’re hoping this is going to be exciting, When there’s a really great, excited audience and they all applaud or laugh in unison, it’s fun to see that.