A Chat with Ti West (“House of the Devil”)

Writer / director Ti West has been in the business for a decade now, helming such memorable – if low-budget – films as 2005’s “The Roost” and 2007’s “Trigger Man,” but it wasn’t until this past year that he finally began to rack up some major critical acclaim, courtesy of a mighty darned cool horror flick called “House of the Devil.” The film made the festival rounds and picked up a lot of buzz, then did a stint on the VOD circuit, but now it’s finally hitting home video, and you can count on it developing a cult following in a rapid fashion. Bullz-Eye talked to Ti in connection with the DVD release of “House of the Devil,” and in addition to discussing how such familiar faces as Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov came into the picture, he also chatted about some of his earlier directorial efforts and acknowledged that he’d much rather Alan Smithee’s name appeared on “Cabin Fever 2” instead of his own.

Bullz-Eye: Big fan of the movie. I heard a lot of the buzz about it, but I only finally got to see it once it came out on DVD.

Ti West: Oh, good. I’m glad it delivered. A lot of times, people hear a lot of buzz, and then they say, “What the fuck…?” That’s the great thing about getting buzz for a movie: it’s like free promotion. And then the bad thing is that the message boards sometimes run wild on you. (Laughs)

BE: Well, in this case, I was more or less familiar with a lot of the films that it was stylistically emulating, so I was, like, “This is sweet.” So what gave you the idea to do this…I don’t know, would you call it an homage?

TW: I wouldn’t. People do. But I more just think of it as a period piece. I mean, it’s set in the early ‘80s, so I tried to make it look like it was the early ‘80s, the same way if, it was set in the ‘50s, maybe it would be, like, Technicolor-looking or something like that. I just think that, because that period is so en vogue to reference and it’s so hip and retro to make movies about it, the word “homage” gets thrown around a little bit more than it should.

BE: So what inspired you to do a period piece, then? (Laughs)

TW: Well, I mean, since the story was about Satanism, more or less, the early ‘80s was really the height of this sort of cultural phenomenon within the United States. Now it’s called “Satanic Panic.” I just remember that growing up very vividly. I don’t know why, but I guess growing up in the suburbs, I just remember that if you went down to the park by yourself, you’d get kidnapped in a van with no windows and they’d sacrifice you to the Devil. And I remember seeing, like, Geraldo and people talking about it on TV, and I just found it really fascinating, so it always stuck with me. So when it came time to make another horror movie, I just wanted to make something Satanic, because I also really like the sort of evocative imagery and all that sort of stuff, so the only time that made sense for me to set that movie was in the early ‘80s. Nowadays, nobody’s worried about the Devil because there’s so many other things to be worried about, whereas in the ‘80s, there was this weird, almost fantasy element to what people were afraid of.

BE: You’ve definitely got a couple of actors in the film who are, if not genre specific, certainly bring to mind a few other creepy movies, like Tom Noonan (“Manhunter”) and Mary Woronov (“Silent Night, Deadly Night”).

TW: Definitely, yeah. I’m huge fans of both of them, and I’d worked with Tom before, so it was a pleasure to do it again.

BE: Had you always considered him for the role of Mr. Ulman?

TW: Not necessarily. It was one of those things where I was so focused on “how the hell am I going to find a girl who’s going to be in every frame of this movie?” that I hadn’t really given a lot of serious thought to who we were going to cast in that part. And then he E-mailed me and had gotten hold of the script somehow…I still don’t know how he did that…but he’d somehow gotten hold of the script, and he liked it and said, “I think I’d be great for it.” And I was just, like, “Done!” It made it really easy. It wasn’t necessarily written with him in mind, but it wasn’t necessarily not, either, because I know him and I knew he’d be perfect for it.

BE: How about Mary? Did you just approach her?

TW: Mary is someone I’ve been obsessed with for years, and she…well, she hadn’t really retired, but she wasn’t really acting at the time. She was working on her painting and writing books. She had turned me down on a previous project, saying that she didn’t do that anymore, but on this one, I just called her back, and her agent was so tired of hearing from me that she gave me her phone number, and she was, like, “Good luck!” And I called Mary, and Mary invited me over to her house, and she read the script and liked the script. When I went over there, we hung out for, like, four hours, and I think I convinced her that it was going to be really good. We really got along. Most of our conversations were…it wasn’t me pitching the movie as much as it was talking about art and movies, what they are and where they’ve been, her career, and things like that. And we just hit off, as I knew we would, and so it was really satisfying when she was, like, “Of course I’ll do this movie!” It’s really been a pleasure.

BE: I take it was your idea to use the Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” in the film…?

TW: Yeah, that was in the script.

BE: Were you a big Fixx fan from way back?

TW: As much as anybody, I suppose. That song, “Red Skies,” and…what’s the other one that was their sort of quasi-hit? I’m blanking on it at the moment, but, yeah, it’s weird that I feel like I’ve heard that song now more than any other human being ever, and I still don’t mind it. That’s good news for them.

BE: Did you see the article on The Guardian’s website, “Why It’s Time to Resurrect the Fixx”?

TW: I did! That’s pretty awesome. It’s funny, ‘cause I don’t have any contact with the Fixx, and I don’t know where they are, so I don’t even know if they’re even aware that it’s in the movie. You do it through the record company and everything. So it’s one of those things where it’s, like, I wonder if they saw it somewhere and were psyched because they had no idea it was going on.

BE: I know Cy Curnin, the band’s lead singer, is pretty accessible. You should drop him a line.

TW: Well, we’ll just see how it plays out, although I appreciate the idea. Just in case I all of a sudden have to pick songs like this for every movie, I want to be a little cautious. (Laughs)

BE: As far as the score of the film, Jeff Graystone’s work is really evocative of the era.

TW: Yeah, y’know, it was really difficult. We worked really hard on that one, and Graham Reznick and I do a lot of sound design, and…it was a very difficult movie, because it was subtle, and it kind of walks the line as far as what kind of movie it is, mystery or horror movie. It’s the most difficult thing we’ve done, but we’re all really proud of what came out of it.

BE: So whose idea was it to release VHS copies of the film?

TW: That was MPI, the distributor, and it was a genius idea. We worked really closely with them on the art, because I was, like, “If we’re going to do this, people are going to be psyched, but if we don’t do it exactly right, we’re just gonna be, like, the ultimate whipping boy.” So we got really anal about it, but I think it turned out fantastic. I just got back from Sundance, and everyone came up to me…I had one in my bag for a friend, and everyone came up to me and was, like, “Dude, the VHS!” And they were all psyched about it, but all I could think was that they knew that I had one in my bag, and I was trying to pretend like they wouldn’t know. But it’s a good sign if people are that excited.

BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of other things you’ve done thus far. I know there was some controversy over the whole “Cabin Fever 2” thing.

TW: Yeah.

BE: I get the impression that you would’ve had no problem at all if the film had been directed by Alan Smithee.

TW: No, that’s what I wanted. But I couldn’t do it, unfortunately, so, sadly, it’s not directed by Alan Smithee. Sadly, it’s still directed by Ti West, despite the fact that it’s not, really. (Laughs) But what are you gonna do? That was so long ago. People don’t realize that that all went down in 2007, which is, like, ancient history now. So I’ve since made another movie that I’m very proud of, “House of the Devil,” and, I mean, we got the financing for the movie, made the movie, had the festival rollout for the movie, the movie got released in theaters and onto DVD, all before they finished that movie! So, y’know, it’s one of those things where…I’m not blaming anyone, but it’s not my fault. I’m still doing okay. So whatever the holdup is with that movie, it didn’t really come from me!

BE: It would be ironic, though, if the success of “House of the Devil” ended up leading to you doing a director’s cut of “Cabin Fever 2.”

TW: It would be fantastic, because, believe me, the movie that I was making, I was really proud of. There’s no moment in there that I’m, like, “Uh, I don’t know.” I was really excited about what that was going to be. But I don’t think that will ever happen because it’s not like the director’s cut is just sitting there, waiting to be released. It would take a lot of time and money to put it together. It’s do-able. It wouldn’t take forever, and it wouldn’t cost as much money as making a new movie, but it’s certainly an investment that I can’t see them wanting to do unless the DVD sells, like, a million units or something like that.

BE: You talked about working with Tom Noonan before, which you did on “The Roost.” What was the origin of that particular film? Did you have a local late-night horror show in your area that inspired it?

TW: Yeah, but…I don’t know, I’ve always liked pulp and EC Comics sort of stuff, late-night horror hosts and things like that. Cable access stuff and just this weird kind of low-budget personal programming. I’ve always found it to be just really charming, and I think it gives a nice primer for when you’re watching a movie, so I think that is really where it came from. And just the fact that, like, Larry Fessenden said, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Why don’t you make a movie? Is the only thing stopping you the money?” And I said, “Yeah,” so he said, “Well, if I give you a little bit of money, could you just go do it by yourself?” So I just came up with the most ridiculous idea for this low-budget, pulpy horror film, and he was, like, “Good!” He liked it, so we just went and made it. The whole crew was, like, 22 years old, and we just went out and did it. Looking back on it, I don’t know how we did it. But we did it!

BE: There’s a thing on IMDb which says that the barn from the movie was actually in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie.”

TW: Yes, that’s right.

BE: Did you know that at the time?

TW: I did. I mean, that wasn’t the reason for picking it, but when I went there, that was the tidbit of trivia that they gave me. And then the people that own that property, he’s a great guy, a really supportive dude.

BE: And a similar question about “Trigger Man.” Was that another concept that had just been gestating?

TW: “Trigger Man” was a response to…there’s this idea that I had that I was excited about, but it was really just a response to the fact that “House of the Devil” had fallen apart, and I was so tired of people saying, “It’s difficult to make movies.” All I kept hearing was, “It’s really hard to get a movie made,” so basically…how did it go down? “House of the Devil” was supposed to happen, and then the money fell through and the whole movie collapsed, and I remember someone saying to me, “It’s not so easy to make movies!” And I was, like, “That’s bullshit.” So I called Larry and I said, “I have this idea, it’s gonna cost $15,000, I can do it with all my friends in Delaware, let’s go do it.” And he was just, like, “Greenlit!” And only Larry would greenlight an experimental horror movie, so it was really great. It was a great follow-up experience, ‘cause I was able to go out and make something and prove that you could do it, then go back out on the festival circuit and sell it. It was kind of, like, getting back in it. After you make a movie and everybody says you’re great, it’s a really terrifying experience to go, “When the hell am I going to make another one?”

BE: So now you’re working on…well, wait, you’re not still working on that web series for IFC (“Dead and Lonely”), are you?

TW: No, that’s done. That aired in October, and it’s still on their website, but it’s finished. It aired somewhere around the week of Halloween, but you can still go to IFC.com and see it.

BE: So what are you working on at the moment?

TW: Um, I’m very cautious not to jinx it. I have a lot of pokers in the fire, but I have something that seems like it’s really gonna go that I’m really excited about. But I’m a little nervous to say too much right now.

BE: Well, on IMDb, they’ve got two things listed for you: “The Innkeepers” and “Losers Take All.”

TW: Yes, and those are the pokers in the fire, but there’s even something else…something that I’m most excited about…that’s on the down low, if you will.

BE: Can you at least speak to what the genre is?

TW: It’s a horror movie. It’s something of my own.

BE: And just to bring it back to “House of the Devil,” was there any specific inspiration that you were drawing from? You mentioned the “Satanic Panic,” as it were, and I didn’t know if there were any specific events or films that had inspired you.

TW: I’m not really a specific-reference kind of guy. I think some of my favorite movies are those types of movies, and I think they may bleed into my subconscious, so there are elements of “The Changeling” and, of course, the apartment trilogy from Polanski and things like that are unavoidable. But it’s more just a style of filmmaking that’s not as common anymore that I always just responded to, as opposed to, “Hey, let’s try to emulate this part of ‘The Shining’!” It wasn’t really like that. The whole playing-by-yourself and the van with no windows was a big thing, and just hearing around stuff. I remember there was this movie, “Evilspeak,” that kinda freaked me out a bit. I don’t know, there’s something about Satanism that’s such a weird thing, such an impossible thing to be afraid of, that it’s the height of scary. I just think that imagery is provocative and interesting.

BE: Well, I appreciate getting the chance to talk with you, Ti. Thanks a lot!

TW: All right, you, too, man!

  

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