I first learned about Ti West through Netflix. A few years ago, just as I felt I’d exhausted the horror options available on Instant Watch–be it Korean, serial, classic or new–I stumbled upon The House of the Devil, West’s suspenseful, nail-biting thrill of a film both artfully shot and perfectly paced. Its moodiness and uneasy nature harken back to an age of horror never hell-bent on jumping out at you, an age where 3-D belonged far off in some dystopian movie reality where millions of dollars can’t buy substance.
West’s catalogue is full of films just as invigorating, marked with those same slow pans and tricks designed to make you squirm. His latest, “Second Honeymoon,” is just one of many terror-gems in V/H/S, a compilation of shorts by some of the greatest horror contemporaries around.
Though West was on location, he was kind enough to chat with us about what scares him, filmmaking tricks that always work, where horror has gone wrong and how we can get it back.
Hey, Ti. How are you doing?
Good, how are you?
I’m good! Where are you calling us from today?
I’m in Georgia making a movie.
Ok, great. I just wanted to say I saw V/H/S and really enjoyed it.
I felt like all the pieces were so terrifying in their own ways but yours was especially so because it played off of that sort of home intruder subgenre. These sorts of films are always the most scary to me because it feels like a realistic danger, so I want to start off by asking–are there certain types of horror that scare you more than others?
Not necessarily but I think that anything rooted in realism is always scarier. Like the interest in horror movies maybe comes from some sort of weird mortality issue that people have and to me, the weird emotions that I get about–for instance, things like home invasion–the fear that that can happen is actually pretty relevant. And I feel like one way to deal with those weird emotions is to see movies about it, to go through that experience without having to actually go through it, or make those movies. I just fall into the latter camp and said, “Well this is something that seems actually scary to me and I don’t know how I feel about that so let me try and make something about it.”
That’s really interesting. So you confront your own fears through filmmaking?
Yeah, I mean I think it’s all pretty subconscious. I don’t sit down and think, “I need to confront.” I had just gotten back from a road trip that was very similar to that and was thinking about all the creepy things along that trip and so that’s where it came from. So it came out like a personal experience and was just like, “Well, that seems scary to me so maybe it will seem scary to other people.”
Well, it was. I actually wanted to ask you about “Second Honeymoon” because you worked with Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal as your actors; what was it like directing other directors? Were there any pros and cons?
It’s great. I mean, they’re both close friends of mine and it made it very easy and very tolerable to go on a road trip with them and that was sort of a prerequisite for the movie–that whoever was in the movie and was going on this trip was someone I was enjoying my time with. So that was a big part of it but I was just thinking of a relationship movie, so I figured I should cast people who make relationship movies and that’s what they do and would add another perspective to the movie. And they already knew each other so that rhythm was already there. So one, it was good because I was already friends with them so it made the trip pleasant but it was also strategic knowing what their skills are is doing what the movie was. Even when I gave them the camera it was great because it was like, “That’s what you do, so just do what you do in the context of what we’re doing.” And as far as working with people who are directors, it’s the best because they really understand my side of things and they understand that they’re in someone else’s movie and they understand what I’m going through. They’re easygoing and fun to work with and more inclined to try things because they’ve been on my side of the camera.
Awesome. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the format of the film. In my experience, people tend to roll their eyes when you mention a found footage movie, sort of a not another Blair Witch kind of reaction.
How did you approach found footage and manage to keep it fresh? Was that difficult?
Well, no, I think the thing is that when found footage became popular then it became very derivative and that’s what people roll their eyes at. What people roll their eyes at is when people make a movie and they’re like, “We’ve gotta turn it into found footage, that’s a trend.” So then they find some arbitrary reason to make it be found footage and it just feels lame or they’re trying to present it as real and it’s just very condescending to an audience. That’s wasn’t what we were doing and the idea for this movie solely existed by the constraints of found footage. If I had shot it like a regular movie where you saw Kate [Lyn Sheil] sneak into the room filming, it wouldn’t work. The whole move was devised to be a found footage movie. So if it’s devised from the ground up–the same way Blair Witch was–it works and it’s fine. The only thing that people might roll their eyes at is that it’s going to be a handheld video thing, it’s not going to be a very traditional style or composition that you might prefer. But other than that, it didn’t really feel like we were trying to do a gimmick here; it was just the constraints we were working with. I think that makes a big difference. I think when people are rolling their eyes, they’re really rolling their eyes at bad found footage movies.
Right. So I have to ask you about House of the Devil because it’s got one of my favorite moments in horror history, where Samantha tries to open a locked door not knowing what’s behind it and the camera pans over and we see what’s on the other side of the door and it creates this tension because she has no idea. What are some of your favorite horror movies or moments that have stuck with you to that extent?
Well to me, the movies–whether they’re horror or not but for the sake of this conversation, horror movies–it’s always ones made by filmmakers who are putting the story first and the genre second. You know, The Exorcist is great because it’s about a woman with a sick daughter and then it’s a possession movie. But first and foremost, it’s about that and I think that’s what makes it resonate with people because there’s actually a social issue there or a personal issue there that people can relate to. It makes the horror scarier and makes it about something. It’s not just some surface-level technical titillation. The Shining is a movie about an alcoholic man who hates his family and then it’s a haunted hotel movie. If it was just a haunted hotel movie, it wouldn’t have any oomph to it; it would just be blah. Or it would be like any of the other million forgettable haunted hotel movies. So I think that to me is what’s most important. As far as the technical sense of stuff, the scene in House of the Devil, I don’t think Hitchcock invented it but he sort of coined talking about it when he said that if you show the audience something that the character doesn’t see, that creates suspense because the audience knows it’s only a matter of time. I think it does the same thing when Greta [Gerwig] gets killed in House of the Devil, it’s sort of this tangential scene but once she gets killed and Samantha doesn’t know it, the whole rest of the movie you’re like, “Oh my god, that’s gonna come back on her” but you just don’t know when and where. So it kind of puts the audience in a situation that when she’s just walking around not thinking about it, you’re like, “UGHHHHH. We know and you don’t know!” [Laughs] It’s just sort of technique that is universally successful.
Mhmm. The personal interest is very important and I feel like the horror genre, in contemporary horror, is slipping in that regard. You have a lot of shockers and thrillers and cheap scares and high-budget special effects but I feel like we’re lacking in movies like The Thing and The Shining and Burnt Offerings. Is there anything you’re noticing in contemporary horror that you wish were different?
Well pretty much exactly what you said. The thing is that unfortunately that’s really on the audiences because if you want to see more of those movies, you’ve got to support it. And I think what happens is people support the movies that aren’t necessarily that good. They don’t do it on purpose but a cool trailer comes out and they all go see it and a movie ends up not being very good and they’re disappointed but the movie made money and that sends a message to the people who made it that these are the kind of movies that people will pay to go see. And they might make a serious, interesting horror movie and it didn’t make money so now those are the movies that people don’t want to see. The causation and correlation are two different things but when you’re simply trying to make business decisions, you’re just going to go with the lowest common denominator and that’s what’s kind of happening. I think it has success with hiring commercial and music executives who have a very pop-culture-influenced visual aesthetic that they can bring to horror and do scary set pieces very well visually but there’s not much to the movie. It sends a message that that’s OK but as an audience I think we need to be more proactive about what we support.
I completely agree. Somewhat related to that, you’ve made some movies fairly independently and then you’ve made some like Cabin Fever 2 and you’re working on Sacrament and a science fiction film but these are bigger budgets. I’m sure that both independent and major studio have their good points and bad points but after experience with both, do you tend to have a preference?
I wouldn’t say that the science fiction and Sacrament were big budgets but they’re definitely bigger; they’re still considered very low budget. You know, it all has its own headaches. The benefit of making really small movies is the interest in people involved is much smaller. So like when someone invests half a million dollars in a horror movie that I am making at this point, chances are it’s–unless I really screw up–it’s likely going to make its money back. So they pretty much leave me alone. They know that if they leave me alone, they’ll at least make their money back and maybe they’ll make a lot of money and who knows but they won’t lose money. When you make a bigger movie, suddenly everyone has to have their opinion because it’s more of a risk and that gets to be kind of a headache. The tradeoff of a filmmaker is “I’ll take that headache because you’re giving me more money.” Or maybe even personally I’m taking a big salary so it’s like, “Yes it’s annoying to deal with your notes but I’m getting paid well so I shouldn’t complain.”
But the business has kind of shifted where they want to do things small and they want to have a lot of influence but they don’t want to give you anything. The only way you can really do it is to make something small and have a big hit and that will sort of give you the control to keep doing what you’re doing. But for me, I would love to make a $60 million movie just to have the comforts of being able to make it properly and not have to worry about having to compromise every two seconds, which is what you have to do when you make independent movies. But, you know, the kinds of sensibilities that I have and the kinds of stories I want to tell and the kind of people I like to work with are kind of just more indie. If someone comes along with the opportunity to do a bigger movie that’s not so dumb that I feel embarrassed making it, I’d be happy to go do it. But that day hasn’t come yet. It’s always been something where I’m like, “AAAAUUUURGH.” Like it’s not something that I think is going to be good and I’m not going to be rich forever off of it, so if it’s not good and I’m not rich, it’ll be just a real downer. I’m happy to sell out when selling out is worth it but until then I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing.
Good to hear. Ti, do you happen to have any advice for horror movie filmmakers?
Yeah, I mean just go do it. Now everyone is very comfortable with video so you can buy a [Canon] 5D for two thousand bucks and make a movie on it and no one will question the technical relevancy of it, so that’s a really powerful thing. It didn’t used to be like that. It used to be very expensive to make a movie because of film. And now not only is it cheap but because it’s video and people are comfortable with it, so it’s really just your laziness that’s stopping you at this point.
Thanks so much, Ti, and good luck with your filming!
Thank you very much.
V/H/S is currently available on Video On Demand, and in select theatres beginning Friday, October 5.