At a time when independent horror movies have been pushed to the margins, director Ti West has carved out a place for himself as a smart, distinctive young genre stylist with a mastery of atmospheric old-school scares. After gaining a reputation with his 2005 killer-bats movie The Roost and his 2007 hunters-become-the-hunted thriller Trigger Man, West suffered a setback when his next film, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, a splatter-camp sequel to the Eli Roth hit, was taken away from him in postproduction. But West came back strong with 2009’s The House Of The Devil, a retro-’80s satanic cult thriller that found him firmly in control, deriving a tremendous amount of tension from creepy atmospherics and delayed gratification. West’s new film The Innkeepers operates in a similar mode, patiently (and often hilariously) drawing out the ghostly goings-on at a near-vacant inn during its last days in business. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy star as two low-wage clerks who trade shifts and stave off boredom by investigating the inn’s dark past. In a surprise casting coup, Kelly McGillis also appears as a former actress turned healer who helps Paxton commune with the spirits. West recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the real-life inspiration for the film’s haunted inn, Skyping with McGillis, and how he kept the film “charming.”
The A.V. Club: You just came back from Sundance with the anthology film V/H/S. How did it go over?
Ti West: It went really well. There were a lot of screams and laughs and applause breaks and all the midnight-movie-ish kind of stuff you want to happen. We had the dramatic screening the other night, where two people passed out. I think in fairness, altitude had something to do with that. But it makes me want to only show horror movies at high altitudes from now on, because you get the best reactions out of people. I remember [the people who passed out] were bummed afterward. They were in the lobby when the paramedics came, and they were fine. But they were like, “We wanna go back in!” And the paramedics were like, “It’s probably best that you don’t.” So we gave them tickets to Saturday’s screening.
AVC: Which segment did they pass out during? Yours, right?
TW: I think it was David Bruckner's, the first segment. I wish I could say it just scared them so much that they passed out. But they also, you know—I’ve walked up that hill in Park City. You get a little woozy.
AVC: V/H/S would seem to pose a couple of challenges from the start. One, it’s an anthology film, which are historically lumpy and of varying quality. And two, the whole found-footage concept has been explored pretty thoroughly of late. How did you go about solving these problems?
TW: Well, I only conceived of 20 minutes of the movie, so that’s a question more for the producers of the movie. Generally they think it’s an interesting approach that doesn’t have to be done to the lowest-common-denominator. We all worked very hard to come up with clever ways to make this make sense and not feel like it was just being derivative of a style that was successful. And I think when you see the movie you’ll see that. There’s all these different takes on it and they fit in. My version is about finding a home video of someone on a road trip. And then it starts getting intercut with what becomes the horror element of it.
AVC: Is there something uncomfortable about having your work placed in an anthology context where it’s going to be measured against other people’s work?
TW: Maybe. But I know everybody as people, like as human beings and as friends. So I don’t really care. If I were asked to do this with a bunch of people I didn’t know, I probably wouldn’t have done it. The reason for doing it was I knew everyone involved, even the cast of other segments. I knew everybody. So it doesn’t really become competitive in that way. We’re all friends. It’s a unique project. I wouldn’t imagine there being lots of these projects. For me, anyway.
AVC: Let’s move on to The Innkeepers. This is a film that shares with House Of The Devil an interest in horror films past. What were some of the sources of inspiration for it, and how did you want to put a modern twist on it?
TW: The weird thing about this movie is that most of my influences didn’t come from other movies, but came from personal experiences. When we made House Of The Devil, we lived in this hotel [The Yankee Pedlar in Torrington, Connecticut]. And we made this satanic movie out in the middle of nowhere, but weird stuff would happen at the hotel. The whole town was obsessed with it being haunted; the people that worked there were obsessed with it being haunted. Cast and crew started believing it was haunted. So I wrote a movie about the experiences we had making that movie. That’s really where the inspiration came from. You could say The Shining, maybe Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, the very sort of classic auteur-driven horror movies… The Haunting, The Innocents, things like that. That’s probably subconsciously in there. But really, the simple reason for making this movie was the experience of staying in this hotel.
AVC: Did you experience any of these hauntings?
TW: I don’t really believe in ghosts until I see ghosts. I’ve seen doors open and close. I’ve seen lights turn off and on. I’ve heard all kinds of stories. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to believing, but until I see ghosts, I can’t really buy it. But I will say that it is a very strange place. Definitely the room and the hotel that’s the most haunted room in our story, I only picked it because it’s at the end of the hallway and it was big enough to be at the end of a dolly shot. Purely technical reasons. But then when we wrapped shooting, I found out that that room is actually the most haunted room in the hotel in real life. It’s just a coincidence that the two rooms would be the same, but when you add up everything, it’s pretty weird.
AVC: You’re a filmmaker who is not afraid to build tension and just leave it unresolved. House Of The Devil is all about delayed gratification, but The Innkeepers mixes it up a little bit, with some small shocks in addition to the payoffs later. Was that your strategy? Were you thinking about playing with expectations with this one?
TW: I don’t know if I was. I think I was trying to make a movie that had a lot more humor in it, so that was part of it, and I think misdirection became a big part of it. But no, I wanted to make The Innkeepers a charming movie. I think of all of the little scares, before we get into the horror part of the movie, are generally misconceptions, which I think is part of the theme of the movie. And all the jump-scares, they’re not actually scares. All the actual scares are played very straight. That was my idea, to subvert expectations and have some of those funny moments be punctuated by music stings, and all the scary moments be played violent.
AVC: When you’re building an atmosphere for a movie like this, how confident are you that you have the audience on the hook? Is getting the timing right a challenge?
TW: It is. You know, you can tell a joke and you can make people laugh, or you can tell the same joke and it can just bomb. There’s a certain kind of gut feeling that you have, and that’s what I try to follow. If I can keep myself in suspense or on the line… I feel like I’m so hard on myself that if I can get it to work for me, it must work for other people.
AVC: There are bits in here and in House Of The Devil where it seems like you also hold the shot for a beat or two longer than people expect.
TW: Yeah. Anything that can sort of break with the conformity of what people are used to. We’ve become so postmodern as an audience and we’re so familiar with the style of horror movies that they all kind of feel the same. I think if you can do something a little bit unexpected, then you as a filmmaker end up being one step ahead again. I think that’s the key.
AVC: How did the casting work? Did you cast these two leading roles separately, or were you looking to find a pair that could play off each other?
TW: Pat Healy was the one I knew from Great World Of Sound, so I just got his email. He liked House Of The Devil, so he said okay. It was simple. And then Sara came in the normal way. I wasn’t sure about her, but I called a friend of mine who was doing a movie with her at the time and she went on and on about how great she was. So Sara and I talked on the phone, she really got the material, she seemed cool, and people I knew were vouching for her. Then I discovered that she was this goofball, which I didn’t anticipate at all. And when I saw that, I was so charmed by it and so surprised that it wasn’t on display in every movie she’d done. In fact, she’s kind of reserved in every movie she’s done. So I was instantly excited to exploit what I thought was so charming about the person sitting in front of me. That became my main goal.
AVC: Did you rewrite a little bit around that?
TW: There’s very little improv in this. It’s very close to the script as written. But I did some things to bring out [aspects of her personality], like some of the facial things she was doing aren’t in the script. The lines and the jokes were there, but what her face and her eyes were bringing to it is something that would have been totally different if it had been someone else.
AVC: What about the impulse to cast Kelly McGillis? Was it similar to the impulse to cast Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov in The House Of The Devil? Was there something about people’s memories of her that led to that casting?
TW: Not really. She had done a movie called Stake Land, with the same producers [Dark Sky Films], and they recommended her. But I didn’t want to do what Stake Land did. The problem I kept having [in casting the role] was that older actresses apparently have no sense of humor about being older actresses. So many people were kind of offended that I would even offer it to them, or had come to them to talk about it. So I said, “All right, let me go back and talk to Kelly,” which was the original idea. And when we got on Skype together she was, like, smoking a cigarette, and I gave her this whole big speech about how she’s not a failed actress, it’s not meant to be that way, and all this other stuff that was making everyone else insecure. And Kelly just blew smoke into the camera and was like, “I don’t give a shit.” She had a good self-deprecating sense of humor, and she wasn’t precious about any of her history per se, and she had this very intellectual approach to it. Which was what I was hoping for the role. In a roundabout way, I could have saved a lot of time if I had just listened to the people in front of me when they said to cast Kelly. And I’d said, “No, let me go on the route,” and it led me right back to where I probably should have been.
AVC: The Innkeepers takes place mostly in one location. How did you go about dressing it up? What did you want it to look like?
TW: Well, you could go to Torrington, Connecticut, right now and walk into the Yankee Pedlar and think you just walked into the movie. Because the movie was based on our experiences when we lived there when we were making House Of The Devil. So it’s a rare case of a movie where you lived something, then in another movie you went back to the same place. And while we did do a lot art-department-wise, you would never see anything that we did. It was all so subtle. So if you walked in there today, you would actually think, “This is like being in the movie,” even though people at the front desk wear, like, those burgundy shirts with the hotel logo on them and everything. It was really surreal. If people like the movie and they live in the Connecticut or New York area, they can just take the train up and go do it. It’d be really weird.
AVC: Were the things you did embellish just part of the mythology you were inventing? What sort of touches did you add?
TW: The ghost story I made up, but a lot of things aren’t really changed about it, because I wanted to keep the Yankee Pedlar on display. There were some rooms where it was just like, “Eh, this wallpaper is too harsh,” so we would wallpaper it dark blue. I had a color palette in my mind that I wanted to do. So there were things like that. If you walk into the lobby, it looks the same, but we probably took some things out. We replaced a couch here and there. Things that just made it look a little more appealing aesthetically. But you’d have to be us to notice that stuff. It’s the same way that when I met Sara and I saw these real-life things about her that I wanted to exploit, I did the same thing with the Yankee Pedlar.
AVC: Independent horror films are in a tough position because they’re not big enough for multiplexes, but arthouses can be resistant to them, too. How does that affect these films getting made?
TW: It certainly affects them because they have to be much smaller-budgeted than they should be. VOD [Video On Demand] is helping, because VOD is a good outlet for these movies. But we spend a year crafting a movie to be seen on 35-millimeter on a big screen with loud sounds, and though VOD is getting better—people have better TVs, people have iPhones now—it’s hard. A big part of it is the responsibility of the consumer, putting their time and money into maybe the wrong things. People say, “Oh, we want to see more of these movies.” Then how come you didn’t go see them when they first came out? If you had done that, it would have made such a statement and it would be easier. We made [The Innkeepers] for very cheap, in 17 days, which is nearly impossible. And I think the movie has good jokes and scares, and every scene has likeable, interesting characters. It has everything that a mainstream audience could be appealed to, but we made it for a very small budget and that’s just the reality of the times. Mainstream horror is aimed at the lowest common denominator.
AVC: You mentioned VOD. This film and The House Of The Devil were released on VOD before they were released in theaters. What are your thoughts on that model? To what extent does that undermine the theatrical experience?
TW: I had such success with House Of The Devil that it was hard to argue with the logic—it just became so sensible after that. Like I said, I’d love to be out there on 2,000 screens with everybody seeing it, but right now, people are going to see The Devil Inside. And that’s just not what I make. So until that switches around, it is what it is. I think it’s great there are people like Magnolia that have created this other business model, and maybe will be the champions who were ahead of the game with that. It’s a smaller outlet, but it’s every bit as good. And I think it’s been great for me. So I’m happy doing it.
AVC: You’ve said that you don’t want to be pigeonholed as somebody who is a horror specialist. Do you intend to break out of that pursuit? What do you have coming out that that we should be looking for?
TW: I’m about to do a movie called The Side Effect, with Liv Tyler. It’s a science-fiction movie, though it’s still in the horror ballpark. And I’ve got a few more in me. I’ve made six, more or less, horror movies in six years, so it’s kind of getting to the point where you can only do so much of the same thing. I’ve been hitting all these different subgenres, and they’ve all been my own written and directed movies, so they all feel identifiable to me, other than one perhaps. But I think you get to the point where you need to move on and do something else.