I'd have to imagine that true, lifelong fans of horror films aren't excited that Ti West has entered the scene and written & directed a few films in recent years that feel both familiar and unique. His 2007 feature TRIGGER MAN has some interesting ideas moving about its DNA, but it was his breakthrough--the retro cult movie THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL--that really grabbed people's attention, both with its more tense moments as well as it taking the time to tell its story and develop its characters. I choose to forget CABIN FEVER 2 because I'm pretty sure West does as well.
But his latest movie THE INNKEEPERS highlights what West does best: he tells a creepy story populated by three-dimensional characters, in this tale a pair of hotel workers (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) who are overseeing the final days of the Yankee Pedlar Inn and its last few guests, including one played by Kelly McGillis in a great performance. It's also kind of convenient that Paxton and Healy are amateur ghosthunters with recording equipment and a healthy skepticism.
It also sounds like West's horror anthology V/H/S (featuring contributions from six directors total) killed at Sundance last week; he'll also have an offering in the 26-film horror anthology THE ABCs OF DEATH. I spoke with West and his star Sara Paxton--something of a scream queen herself with appearances in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and SHARK NIGHT 3D (as well as one of my favorites, AQUAMARINE)--a couple of weeks ago in advance of West's appearance on opening day of THE INNKEEPERS in Chicago, this Friday, Feb. 3 at the Music Box Theatre, which is double-billing the film with West's THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. My buddy Scott Tobias of The Onion's A.V. Club will be moderating the Q&As, and it should be a lot of fun. I plan on being there for sure. Anyway, please enjoy my talk with Ti West and Sara Paxton, and consider this a follow-up to Ambush Bug's interview with West from a couple weeks ago…
Ti West: Hello!
Sara Paxton: Hi.
Capone: Sara, we actually spoke a couple of years ago when you were promoting LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. That was a lot of fun.
SP: [Laughs] Yeah, your voice sounds familiar.
Capone: Ti, I actually saw this film at SXSW. I just rewatched it last night at home, which was a huge mistake, because that is not the kind of movie that I want to watch alone ever again, but it’s an awesome film. You've been labeled this guy who specializes in these slow-burn horror movies, but I don’t think THE INNKEEPERS is a slow-burn movie at all, because it gets scary right off the bat, and the pacing is solid.
TW: Thank you. I agree, it’s not slow burn, but you and I are the only two. Actually, you, me, and Graham the sound designer, we three believe it’s not a slow burn, but everyone else tells us otherwise.
Capone: In your last couple of films, you’ve taken these fairly standard horror setups and completely reworked them in a way that seems much more about the characters. THE INNKEEPERS to me is like a buddy film that also happens to be very scary. Is that something you set out to do? To have people look at scary movies in a slightly different way, but still be scared?
TW: Yeah, definitely. I look at it as a workplace comedy that turns into a ghost movie, but I wanted to make a very traditional ghost story, that’s why it has the chapters, and it’s the kind of familiar “bride who hung herself” story. I wanted to play with all of the classic, 18th century, not necessarily clichés, but original haunting themes, but then put in these modern nerds that don’t belong in that setting and just see how they would react.
So I think for the most part that’s how I approach making films and how I approach the genre is like, “Well we’ve seen zombie movies and vampire movies and ghost movies, and we are going to see a lot more. But it’d be interesting to see how different people react in those movies,” and that’s what this was about. The ghost story is very traditional, it’s not revolutionary, but the approach to it and the characters in it I think are unlike any characters that have been in any ghost movie before. So that makes it worth doing.
Capone: I absolutely agree. I mean do you ever see yourself taking that same approach in other types of films outside of horror or thrillers? Do you think you'll always approach films that way?
TW: I think so. I think it’s just a little bit harder for me to get money for movies that are not horror movies, because I have a track record, and the way that people invest in things. They're pretty short sighted in the sense that I’ve made some “successful” horror movies, so therefore I’m bankable to do that again, whereas if I wanted to do a romantic comedy they would go, “Well you don’t do that.” “But if you look at the first two thirds of THE INNKEEPERS, it’s kind of that.” “Yeah, but then there’s ghosts!” It’s just a little easier for me to keep this going. As long as they're my own movies and I’m writing and directing them and they feel like they're for me, then I’m more than happy to embrace the genre.
Capone: I was going to ask you about having the story chapterized. Where did that idea come from?
TW: Well it’s old fashioned in the sense that I wanted to approach it like A CHRISTMAS CAROL, like a Charles Dickens sort of vibe, because I found the hotel to be this great mixture of 1800s historic architecture and bad '70s renovation, and I felt that the tone of the movie should be this very classical ghost story and slacker modern characters. It was the juxtaposition of those elements.
Capone: I wanted to ask you both about the relationship between Claire and Luke, because as much as I enjoy being scared, and I think people who see this movie will enjoy those parts of it, I think the real surprise is that they are going to get this very strong budding relationship film. Sara, how you and Pat [Healy] get to know each other and make it seem like you guys had known each other a while?
SP: Well, I had only met Pat the night before we started shooting, so we didn’t have a rehearsal time or anything to get to know each other. I think that we got along really well. Our personalities meshed, and our sense of humor is similar. So I think the chemistry is real and I don’t think it would have worked out or it wouldn’t have been as funny if we didn’t like each other in real life, but we do.
Capone: Ti, what was important about that relationship as far as the story was concerned?
TW: To me, I’m fascinated and charmed by minimum-wage jobs, because that’s what I had for 10 years, and the weird insular world that you create with your work friends--they’re not your real friends, they’re just your work friends. And you know the way you have a barter relationship with the people next door. There’s just something interesting about being stuck in that environment, and I have done that for so long. I've had every kind of minimum-wage job there is and I wanted to really recreate that vibe of being stuck at work and that charming vibe that I think it has of real people who are making the best of it. If anything, I'd hoped to make a charming ghost movie and I think for the most part people agree with that, and that makes me happy. I don’t know, I wrote the characters that I feel like I relate to and that I’ve spent a lot of time with.
Capone: Are you big on people sticking to the script, or is there a lot of them just talking in this movie?
TW: I think it’s pretty close to the script. There is some improvising, like a line here and there and things that would make it better. I mean, any time the actors want to do something better, we just always do it. I put a lot of emphasis on what was on the page I think, but I don’t know. Sara, do you remember?
SP: No, I don’t remember improvising.
Capone: You do leave open the possibility that anytime we see an actual ghost, which is always through Claire’s eyes or she’s always the one seeing it, it's possibile tjat this is all in her head? Is that an option for us?
TW: It was important for me to have two very clear ways to interpret the movie, a skeptics version and a believer’s version, just the way people feel about ghosts. It’s important to me that you could be driving home with your friend after seeing the movie, and he could be saying, “There’s no ghosts. It was all just paranoia and it lead to her making bad decisions and having an asthma attack and it’s a tragedy,” and then you could be like, “No dude, there were ghosts, and Kelly McGillis explained the whole movie. It was always going to happen, and there was nothing she could do about it.” It was important to me that you could look at the movie both ways confidently, because that’s what it’s like in real life. I did definitely put a lot of effort into that.
Capone: Sara, how did you play with that a little bit? Did you play it like it was for real or did you play it like there might be some psychological imagining going on?
SP: I don’t think there’s really any way for me to play like it’s a psychological thing, because it doesn’t matter, because either way for Claire it’s real, so for me there’s not another way. She’s really freaking out; it’s not like I said, “Now I’m going to act crazy. I’m crazy!” [laughs] Usually she's freaked out about the whole thing, so that’s how I played it.
Capone: The scene that sticks with me both times that I saw it is the one in the basement where they are calling forth the spirit, because it’s all on Pat Healy's face. The amount of scared that I felt watching that scene is all on his face, and yet you never show what’s behind him, if anything. Could you talk about that scene specifically?
TW: I was trying to do what happened to you [laughs], but that’s just the way it made sense to me. I think scenes of people quietly talking to ghosts are very scary and I think it’s not usually in movies, because it’s so subtle that people get nervous to put that in the movie. Believe me, every time I see it in a theater, it’s like if there’s someone with a cough I’m like, “Ugh, this scene is going to be brutal with the guy coughing the whole time.”
It’s a scene you have to pay attention to, and you have to lean forward, because you are trying to hear what they are hearing, and I think that puts you in the perspective of those characters and I think that’s what makes you scared is the relatability to it. And I think you have to have some confidence to do that, because it would have been a lot easier just to have the ghost pop out, but that’s a bit boring. I think it’s a credit to Sara and Pat. You’re talking about Pat’s expression, and it is what makes the scene and it sort of creates the whole arc of it all, and you can’t do that with crappy actors.
Capone: Sara, you've got a nice resume of genre work now. What did you like the most about doing this kind of film as opposed to maybe the last couple that you have done?
Capone: You don’t have to wear a bikini in this one, so that’s a nice change.
SP: I don’t have to wear a bikini. I'm not running from sharks. [laughs] In LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, I was playing an innocent little “woe is me” person, and this was great because I liked that there was so much dialogue and I liked that there would be whole scenes with just me and Pat in a room talking. That was interesting for me, and it leaves room to play around with stuff. I liked Claire, I liked her as a person; I would be friends with Claire.
Capone: I’m a big fan of ghost stories that bring in technology somehow, trying to record the phenomena, especially in films like like THE HAUNTING or POLTERGEIST. And these two aren’t professionals, obviously. What do you like about that element of a horror story?
TW: I think it’s interesting trying to get proof. I think it’s a weird quest that seems impossible. With this movie, one cool reason that I wanted to do it was that I had never seen a movie that was like EVP [electronic voice phenomenon] focused, where you went into the perspective of someone listening to headphones through a microphone the way that we do, and you’re hearing something, but you’re not seeing it, or you’re not hearing it outside of the microphone. I just thought that would be interesting and scary and I had never seen it before and from a sound design standpoint; I thought it was technically really interesting, and I’m very satisfied with the moment where she takes off the headphone and it goes silent. If it wasn’t my movie, I would be really excited to see that.
Capone: That’s a freaky moment.
TW: That’s what makes me get up in the morning and want to do it, it’s trying things like that.
Capone: Sound has become a big thing for you in the last couple of films. Can you talk about some of the soundscape issues that you dealt with on this film beyond the microphones and the headphones?
TW: Yeah, I think sound is important to all of my movies and I think sound is something that’s neglected in a lot of movies, because I think Larry Fessenden always used to say, “You get one picture, but you get 99 soundtracks,” and so you can really do a lot with that. There are no budget constraints for that. So that’s one part of it, but the other part is I think you could really use sound design to carry the narrative at times and I think that’s an interesting thing to do, because these are all parts of the film experience even though it’s a visual medium.
People aren’t necessarily playing with sound that much, but why not? It’s right there. So to do something where the sound design is carrying forth the narrative. I think it kind of requires the audience to be a little more proactive and not as passive when they're watching it, and for me as an audience member when I go see movies, I love movies that I’m not sure what’s going on and I’m discovering it as it’s going and I have to really pay attention. I don’t necessarily go to movies for escapism, so I don’t necessarily make movies that way either.
Capone: I have a friend that has asthma, and anytime she sees a movie where someone has an inhaler, she always gets frustrated, because she thinks that somehow the filmmakers are saying the someone is weird or weak. Why did you make Claire an asthmatic in this film?
TW: It was the way of having the skeptic standpoint, in that if gave her a way to scare herself into a physical ailment that could kill her, and that’s a big part of the story. I also have asthma, but I wasn’t trying to make her weak or anything.
Capone: But do you notice that trend in movies?
TW: The only movie I really think of that had asthma in it is THE GOONIES and I don’t think it was making them weak. I think it’s more about making them charming. Maybe I also thought it would just be charming to see Sara with an inhaler.
Capone: That scene of Sara taking out the trash is so funny. Sara, what did you think that scene was trying to convey?
SP: I don’t know, Ti told me to take out the garbage.
TW: That’s my favorite thing I’ve ever shot.
Capone: Was that really her struggling, or was that how you planned it?
TW: I wrote it really specific that she can’t quite carry the bag, it’s dragging on the ground and leaking milk everywhere and takes a bunch of tries to get it in the trash. But just because I wrote that doesn’t convey how it comes across the way it does in the movie. That was all Sara and her Muppety-like struggle.
Capone: Did you say “Muppety"?
TW: I did say “Muppety.”
Capone: Do you consider yourself a student of horror films?
TW: I’m just a film fan in general. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of horror movies and I like the genre. What’s interesting to me about the horror genre is it’s almost an experimental genre in that there’s so much diversity that you can do almost anything within the genre, but for some reason people just keep being totally derivative and doing the same thing over and over again and I think that’s really short sighted enough, and that’s a shame. It’s a genre that truly as a filmmaker you can just experiment and do all kinds of great things, but you can be successful just copying something else, and so people do that and I think it made the genre very lowest common denominator, and I think that’s a shame. I would like to see interesting filmmakers trying stuff in horror, because even people who think they don’t like horror movies do like horror movies; they’ve just been inundated with not many intellectual horror movies. That’s important, I think.
Capone: It doesn’t help that audiences seem to turn out for the derivative films and remade films.
TW: And that’s the problem. The problem is they keep going to see them.
Capone: Yeah. Sarah, the last time we spoke you were just starting to get into watching horror movies regularly. Have you kept that up?
SP: Yeah. I mean, I’m kind of a baby with it. I’m like Claire; things freak me out, and they stick with me, and then I just in general get freaked out. But yeah I guess I’ve been watching a lot more horror movies since I’ve been in a lot more horror movies.
TW: She only watches her own movies.
SP: All the time.
Capone: It’s just AQUAMARINE on a constant loop.
TW: [laughs] That’s right. It’s my screen saver. We are getting the “wrap it up” signal.
Capone: Okay. Was there something that you had seen Sara in that made you want to put her in this film? Or was it an audition?
TW: Absolutely not. No, I wasn’t familiar with Sara at all. She was doing a movie with a friend of mine, and I called my friend and said, “What’s up with this chick? What can you tell me about her,” and she went on and on about how great she was, so I was like “Nice.” Then we sent her the script, and Sara called me, liked the script, she seemed to really understand the script, and then when I met her in real life I discovered that she’s a goofball, and I was kind of amazed and I spent the night watching movies with her in it and I was amazed that in every movie that I watched with her in it, they seemed to be hiding the goofballness--all I wanted to see. So I was all like, “This is a goldmine,” because for some reason in the movies she’s been in, she’s not been doing all of this stuff that is like the most compelling to me. So I just exploited that to the fullest.
Capone: You’re coming to Chicago in a couple of weeks, right?
TW: That’s right.
Capone: I’m going to try to swing by for the event.
TW: Oh great, yeah I look forward to it.
Capone: All right, guys, thank you so much for talking.