Ti West on The Innkeepers

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
The director of The House of the Devil continues to finesse the horror genre with his latest throwback.

Young Delaware filmmaker Ti West has certainly made a splash with his smart, talky horror films, chief among them 2009’s The House of the Devil. His latest, the funny and intense The Innkeepers, successfully evokes the dread-filled horror films of yesteryear, and recently screened at the New Zealand International Film Festival (with director, as guest of the festival, in tow).

“I was never one of those [kids] that made movies, one of those cool Spielbergian stories with a Super-8 camera when I was five,” says West, who was originally drawn towards making music. “[I] was in a band and things like that. When I was in my teenage years, the band and I had to find something else to do, and I liked movies, had taken some film studies classes, and thought I could do something like this. I made a short film, got into film school in New York, and got into it from then on.”

Since then, he has made a number of features in a very short period of time—productivity, he says, that derives from his music playing days. “I’m very impatient, I think coming from a background of playing music and being in a punk rock band, doing everything yourself, that’s the way to make films for me. When I started making movies, other than the money to make them, which is the hardest thing to find, the actual making part, you just go do it. I was fortunate to surround myself with the same people in the movies.”

With those movies, West garnered a reputation as a horror filmmaker, and naturally gravitated towards the genre. “[I] always liked edgier, darker, taboo subject matter. I liked underground cultures. Why I liked horror was that it was one step above porn, it was really frowned upon as this seedy, ‘you’re-not-supposed-to-know-about-this’ stuff, that was what attracted me to it.”

His initial break came through horror director Larry Fessenden. “We became friends, and he liked my short film. He said, ‘what’s stopping you from making a feature?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I guess money.’ He said, ‘if I give you some money, could you go out and make one?’ He wanted to see me make a horror movie. I made one and it did well. I’ve been in this situation since, all of the horror films I’ve made have made money, and they’re relatively successful, so people keep giving me money to make horror movies.”

In between, he has largely made DIY, low-budget features. The one exception was the Cabin Fever 2. “[It] was a disaster in its own right,” West confesses. “That was a weird experience in that it doesn’t really apply because of the studio taking the movie away. I do like having control. I wouldn’t be upset giving up some of that if there was a trade off. If I give up this control and we give you all of this equipment and movie stars, but whenever they get you giving up control and give you nothing in return, it doesn’t seem fair.”

I ask if West worries about being typecast as a horror director. He admits, “a little bit. It’s not so much as being typecast, but I’ve made five horror movies in six years, that I’ve run out of horror ideas. I’m not so worried about being typecast, as much as ‘I’m running real low on horror ideas.’ There’s not much more I can do. I don’t like repeating myself without taking a pretty good break from it.” His films eschew the hip post-Scream horror films, favouring suspense and characterisation. “I’m not that interested in the ‘winking at your audience’ thing,” he says.

He adds that horror is a useful genre to work in as a young filmmaker. “It’s a genre that has a built-in audience, so you really can be a little experimental with it. As filmmakers, it’s interesting; it’s hard to do that with a romantic comedy.  You can really mess with the audience, probably try new things, and take them out of their comfort zone. If you can take them out of their comfort zone without being all post-modern and hip, I think you can scare them a little which is satisfying as a filmmaker.”

His new film, The Innkeepers, developed from shooting The House of the Devil. “When we went to make The House of the Devil, we stayed in that hotel, we drove out to the house to shoot the movie every day. We went back to that hotel to shoot this movie. Everyone believed it was haunted, and there were people who worked in the hotel who thought ghosts had been inside. A lot of this movie is based on stuff that happened to us. We were making this satanic movie and even creepier stuff was happening to us back at the hotel.”

The hotel itself was crucial to the project. “We called the hotel to see if we could shoot there. If they had said ‘no’, we would have thrown the script away. It wouldn’t have translated anywhere else, it wouldn’t have been interesting to me. When they said ‘yes’, we said ‘we’ve got to back there’, which is a very weird experience. It’s in the middle of nowhere, we never thought we’d be going back there, especially to shoot another movie, and re-live these little details.”

By situating the film in a hotel, horror classics such as Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond or Kubrick’s The Shining instantly come to mind. West says, “I wouldn’t say [I was] directly influenced. I’m not a referential person, where I would sit down and say ‘let’s try and shoot a scene like this.’ But yeah, The Shining is one of the best horror movies ever made, and you can’t put a Steadicam in a hallway in a hotel without evoking it. I tried to do my best not to make it too familiar to that. It’s hard not to. It’s good company to be compared to.”

Also featured in the film is Kelly McGillis, playing the role of a mystical, aging actor. McGillis was in another Fessenden produced film, Stake Land, and was recommended to West. “We Skyped while she was in London working on a play, and we got along. I thought the role would be really attractive to a lot of people, but a lot of older actresses don’t have a sense of humour about playing older actresses. They had a really hard time with anything self-deprecating, or anything the other characters would say was mean-spirited. Kelly was great, she just smoked her cigarette on the phone and said ‘I don’t give a shit about that, that’s fine.’”

The Innkeepers also depends heavily on the dynamic between its two leads, and in Sara Paxton as Claire, and Pat Healy as Luke, West was served well. “The movie was written pretty specifically, they both really understood it, and they both really got along. It was a very pleasant, easy-going experience. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had.” Furthermore, he successfully generates empathy for the two characters, something he says is crucial in horror. “You go to see movies about people, and you want to see people you can relate to. If it’s a horror movie, it wouldn’t be scary if you didn’t like them. I always say there has to be a strong contrast; for all the horror, there has to be a lot of non-horror. [If] you don’t have that contrast, you’re not aware of the change. You need that to have that work. I think that’s missing in a lot of horror. Currently, a lot of horror is very lowest common denominator—it’s aimed at how exciting can we kill somebody. Everyone in the movie seems like they belong in the movie—not quite the post-modern Wes Craven thing—but you can tell that it’s just a phoney set-up to see someone get their head cut up.”

The Innkeepers screened in Auckland and Wellington at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2011. For dates, programme details, and screenings in all other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.