A Conversation With Ti West (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL)
Ti West isn’t even thirty years old, but with his latest feature, The House of the Devil, he has already proven himself to be a maestro of the horror genre. After making two well received micro-budget features—The Roost and Trigger Man—West was hired to direct the sequel to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, a process that didn’t end well (read Karina Longworth’s much publicized pre-Tribeca Film Festival conversation with West here). But West was not to be deterred. Larger in budget and scope than his first two features, The House of the Devil is still a relatively small-scale production. But it certainly doesn’t feel like it. West orchestrates his ode to a popular 1980s urban legend with the confidence and authority of a virtuoso. From the very first frame, it’s clear we’re in the hands of someone who is more concerned with creating a genuine relic from a lost time than poking fun at the past. As we watch a pretty young college student, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), accept a babysitting job from an imposing man (Tom Noonan) in an even more imposing house on the night of a rare eclipse, West drags us by an unbearably tight thread into this terrifying nightmare. The House of the Devil is, without question, one of the most assured directorial efforts of 2009. Just days before the film’s official theatrical release—though it was released on Amazon VOD weeks before—and the morning of the premiere of his new IFC web series, Dead & Lonely, I spoke to West on the phone about his creative process with regards to both projects and how he pulled off such a miraculous feat.
Hammer to Nail: I was very proud of you and Mr. Lowery (filmmaker/H2N contributor David Lowery) for making the trek two hours north of LA to see After Last Season on opening day.
Ti West: That was definitely surreal. Did you ever get the DVD? ‘Cause you didn’t see it, did you?
H2N: I just watched it last week. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it.
TW: The thing that we all seemed to decide was that it was some giant embezzlement plan. That’s the best we could come up with. Part of me, just as a human being, still can’t believe it’s real.
H2N: Actually, the more that I think about it the more frightened I get for humanity, so let’s move on to your awesome movie. First off, I want to just nerdily thank you for making The House of the Devil. Personally, I feared that I’d never see a movie like that again, I didn’t think it could be done, but you pulled it off and then some. So thank you!
TW: I’m glad I could help. (H2N laughs)
H2N: Was this an idea you’d been sitting on for a long time or did you come up with it after you’d made your first few features?
TW: It was right after I made The Roost. I had an opportunity to get paid and write a script and go make the movie, and this is what I came up with. A Satanic movie/babysitter movie combo. And everyone liked it, so that was that. I wrote it very quickly, but then it had trouble coming together. I wanted to use my own people and just make it the way I knew how, and they were not really into that. And like all movies do, it just kind of fluttered around that world for a while and eventually fell apart. And then out of frustration of it not happening, I called Larry (Fessenden, actor/producer/head of Scareflix) and said, “If you give me 15,000 dollars I’ll make Trigger Man,” and he was like, “Alright.” So then I went and made that.
It resurfaced a year-and-a-half later. They called me back and said, “We actually have the money now!” And I was like, “I don’t believe you,” but they actually did. (H2N laughs) And I was able to use all my own people that time. So, it had been around for a couple years, but it wasn’t something I’d been trying to get made for a long time. Once it fell apart I figured that it would just never happen.
H2N: I have a movie that’s set in the ‘80s that I’ve been wanting to make for seriously over fifteen years, but whenever I watch a film like Streetwise or Seventeen I psych myself out and think that the moment has passed and it can’t be done the way I see it in my head. Were you ever concerned, with the budgetary limitations and whatever other factors, that you wouldn’t be able to pull this off?
TW: No, because Jade (Healy), the production designer, is really, really fantastic, and I’m really obsessive-compulsive about that stuff. I just knew going in that it was never gonna be a “wink,” elbow-to-the-ribs kind of ‘80s. It wasn’t gonna be a “Video Killed the Radio Star” ‘80s. It was gonna be very real looking. I think because of that people have latched on to the fact that it seems like a relic from the time. That’s just a testament to how hard Jade and Robin (Fitzgerald, costume designer) worked.
I had a very clear idea of what I wanted it to look like as far as the feathered hair and clothing and so forth. We used a lot of yearbook photos and things like that. But also the movie takes place mostly in a house. So it’s not like we had all these crazy scenes where we had to deal with massive set pieces. So it always seemed relatively affordable. As far as the clothes and the decorations, I had great people with me so it wasn’t so bad.
H2N: And how about that balance between expending energy on maintaining the historical accuracy and simply directing a scary movie? Did you try to work things out with Jade as much as possible beforehand so that didn’t get in the way of the more pressing job at hand?
TW: I don’t know that we really talked too much about the directing of the movie part. Jade and I have almost identical sensibilities. So, like, when we decided about the kitchen, she was like, “This is what I’m thinking for the linoleum floor,” and I said, “That’s exactly the linoleum it should be.” And she would ask, “Which of these wallpapers do you like?” and I would say, “This one,” and she’d go, “That’s the one I like too.” (H2N laughs) It was almost like we knew what each other was thinking. I mean, she completely retrofitted the entire inside of that house. The inside of that house looks nothing like it does in the movie. At all. It’s like bright lime green walls with Ikea furniture sofas with split sheets over them and, like, giant poodles running around. It’s not ‘80s looking at all. So it was really just a matter of her setting the right tone and once that was set up I could go in there and do my thing.
H2N: Did you prep the whole house beforehand or were you working room-to-room or floor-to-floor?
TW: I’d say it was about 90% done beforehand.
H2N: That’s such a better way to go.
TW: Yeah. We also tried to shoot it in as much sequential order as possible to help Jocelin (Donahue), so we wanted to be able to walk in and out of rooms.
H2N: Did you storyboard? It feels like these shots were very calculated, and not in a showy way or anything. Did you plan things out to that extreme?
TW: I didn’t storyboard because I write, direct, edit, and I camera operate the movie. So for me to draw pictures is time that I don’t have, but I make these little lists that I keep in my pocket the whole time. It’s all very specific. I don’t just make it up as I go along. I have very specific shots that I want to do, and the scenes are all planned out to be shot a certain way. But I don’t actually do the drawings just because of the time crunch thing, so I make these little color-coded shot lists that I keep in my pocket and scratch them off as the day goes on.
H2N: How about Jocelin Donahue, who is just perfect for this role? Did you always have her in mind or did you find her while casting?
TW: She’s actually the only person I didn’t have in mind, because everyone else in the movie I had a relationship with. But Jocelin came in the first batch of people to audition. I brought her back like three or four times just to test her interest in the movie, and she was very intellectual about her understanding of the movie and she got that it was serious, that it was more of an art horror movie. She wasn’t a bimbo about it. That was really huge. And the fact that she related to the character and understood what I was going for and we got along well, it just made it a very easy decision. I knew we were gonna put her through hell so I wanted to make sure she was dedicated. (H2N laughs)
H2N: You mentioned earlier that you like working with your buddies where you have this sturdy background and understanding. Especially with regards to Graham Reznick (sound designer) and Jeff Grace (composer). These elements are so incredibly important to the final result. Are those things you’re talking about in pre-production or production or do you save most of those conversations until the film’s in the can?
TW: We talk about it beforehand for sure, and we have ideas. But we do the real work very compartmentalized. I write the movie in one big chunk. Then we go and we make the movie. Then I edit the movie, but I don’t really temp anything. And that’s where I come up with most of my ideas. I mean, when I’m shooting certain scenes I know like, “Well, you’re gonna hear this off-screen and that’s gonna motivate this,” and “there’s gonna be sound like this and music like this.” I know all that stuff ahead of time. But we haven’t done it yet. When I finish editing it and I lock picture, I give it to Graham and Jeff and I give them all my ideas and they give me their ideas and we just start working on it. If the scenes are not temped and don’t work as a movie we make them work. So it’s a very regimented process. They’re really awesome and I’ve worked with them forever. A huge part of my movies is sound driven and I think sound is a huge part of the narrative, so it’s very important.
H2N: When you were talking about the initial push to make this and they didn’t want you to use your guys, were you talking about those guys also, even though they’re so integral to what you do?
TW: No. Not necessarily. It was more just that I wanted to take the people I know who produce movies with me and the people I know who work on them, but we were all kids, so there’s this element that there needed to be some “adult supervision.” (H2N laughs) And I think that slowed it down so much, and then they realized they didn’t have the money, and I just lost interest. I’m not interested in making a movie that way. So it was like, “I have a whole crew of people and I’m ready to make the movie right now,” and they were like, “Well… I think we could find a better way to do it,” and I just wasn’t interested. This time around, having done two other movies, all of a sudden we weren’t just kids anymore, we had proven ourselves, so they were like, “Oh, okay, you can do it that way.”
H2N: I purposely didn’t read other interviews with you before we talked, and I don’t want to harp on this point, but it’s obviously great that you got your wish and Magnolia has reinstated those scenes that were excised before the world premiere in Tribeca. Now that I’ve seen that version, I completely agree with you. Was that another drawn out battle or did they give in easily to you?
TW: The big ordeal happened at Tribeca when everyone heard about it. That was the big ordeal. After that, you know, we were all sort of mad at each other for a while, but all the reviews were very good, and a lot of people had seen my version of the movie. A lot of people commented on the fact that they agreed with me and that either A) They agreed with me and thought it was better, or B) It didn’t make a difference either way, so why alienate the director? So when Magnolia came on board, I was like, “Listen…” and they said, “We know. We’ll put it back.” (H2N laughs) And to MPI’s credit, at that point they didn’t care anymore either. After Tribeca, they were fine with everything. It was just an unfortunate situation and the water’s under the bridge now.
But it was really important to me because when it happened before Tribeca I felt like it was just this last minute fear-based decision, which I don’t think is a good idea. And I don’t think it was gonna do anything to better the situation. Really, all it did was create this sort of drama a week before, a rift between everyone on the movie, and that was a shame. I think the intentions were good but I don’t think it was fully thought out. And I think pressure was just being put on everyone to make these decisions. So after that pressure came off everyone calmed down and realized that going back was the way to go. And it’s important to me because I think it’s better with that stuff. For Jocelin also, she has the unfortunate role of the straight man for a lot of the movie, just carrying the plot. And that’s the only time in the movie where she has no responsibility and she can just be the character. And I think that’s really interesting and adds a whole ‘nother layer to her character, another level to the movie. And part of the reason why I made the movie was the idea of being alone in someone else’s house, and those weird fascinations you have with snooping through their stuff. You’re like, “Why am I doing this?” but you’re compelled to do it anyway. And that was a big reason why I was interested in the movie in the first place. So that was personal stuff for me. And if you haven’t seen the movie, shit’s scary. If you’ve seen it and you know what happens at the end of those scenes, well then of course it’s not gonna be that scary. But if you haven’t seen the movie, and it’s called The House of the Devil, and she’s finally alone in the house and you know some bad stuff’s gonna happen, when she goes into these rooms it’s like, “Oh, no!”
H2N: But it isn’t a one-and-done type of experience. I’ve seen it multiple times and that tension is as strong in subsequent viewings.
TW: There’s also a lot of foreshadowing stuff in there [the reinstated scenes]. Just small, subtle story point stuff, as far as the little kid’s room and things like that, that I think are good for people. Plus, in indie movies, you really don’t get a lot of spatial relationships. That takes you on a tour through the whole house. Now we know where everything is. And a lot of low-budget movies, you don’t get that because you’re so constrained on time that you don’t get to see how everything connects. You get a good geography of the house, and I think that’s important, because the house is a character.
H2N: As far as the release, what’s your take on the VOD vs. theatrical discussion? Do you have any gripes or issues or concerns with anything? Or are you just psyched that it’s getting out there?
TW: I think it’s great. There are people all across the country who have heard about the movie but aren’t gonna be able to see it for the next six months and that sucks. But because of VOD they are gonna see it. And especially now with VOD, you can download it in HD and watch it on like a 50” plasma TV, and that’s a huge step up from someone just downloading it. So I think it’s good and a lot of movies have been very successful in VOD, which is another way for a smaller company like Magnolia to be like, “Look, we do these theatrical releases and we do VOD at the same time.” If you’re not in New York or LA or one of these cities that has the movie and you want to give your money to Magnolia, you can now. You can pay to see a movie you want to see and you can support movies and companies you want to support from your own home. Which is more important than people give it credit for.
H2N: Have you heard any VOD stats yet? It’s been available for a few weeks now on Amazon.
TW: Apparently it’s doing great. I don’t have specific numbers, but Magnolia’s always known for telling you if it’s doing really badly and they’ve been being really terrific. (H2N laughs) I’ll have to take them at face value. But they seem very pleased.
H2N: This week marks the premiere of Dead & Lonely, your new web series for IFC. I have to confess that the ultra low-budget production value and scrappy camerawork caught me off guard, especially compared to your work in The House of the Devil. Was that a budgetary decision or were you simply adapting your style to the format you were working with?
TW: It’s definitely that there is not a lot of money to do it so there is no point in investing money in certain things. But with web series, or the web series I’ve seen, that is just sort of the aesthetic that I’ve seen so far. I don’t think shooting a web series like a big, controlled movie would be effective. I think it would look even more low-budget, because it would look like you were trying and failing. Like when you see kids make these student films, they use cranes and shit, and you go, “Ah! But it it’s on video and it just looks bogus.” I think the same thing would have happened with the web series. So I definitely embraced the aesthetic that already existed, and, I mean, we made it for like five bucks, we made it with four people in a room, so that’s just part of it.
H2N: Is the plan to keep going with it? Have you shot more episodes? This is just one encounter that plays out in five episodes every day this week, correct?
TW: Yeah, it’s just five five-minute episodes and that’s all we’ve done. I don’t know if I’m gonna do a second season of the same show, but I would love to do another web series with IFC. It was a really great experience. So if it does well and people pay attention, maybe we’ll do another one.
H2N: I know how these things go, but I’ve heard your name connected to a bunch of features. Are you close to actually shooting anything?
TW: It seems like it. You never know, I don’t want to jinx it. I’m attached to things. One is The Haunting of Georgia, which is this big, expensive studio movie. And then another one is called Losers Take All, which is this indie hardcore punk band movie.
H2N: That’s with Mike (S. Ryan, producer/Hammer to Nail contributor), right?
TW: That’s the one. I don’t know which’ll happen first, both are in the early stages, but I’m excited about both of them.
H2N: I guess that’s all I got for ya. You talk faster than most!
TW: I’ve been doing this every day for the past three weeks so I’ve pretty much got the answers rehearsed at this point.
H2N: It means that people care, at least, but that’s got to be exhausting.
TW: It is. I do appreciate the first question you had not being, “So, why the ‘80s?” (H2N laughs) ‘Cause if I have to explain Satanic panic in the ‘80s one more time my head will explode.
— Michael Tully