In his few short years on the independent film scene, director Ti West has been able to create a major buzz for himself. His early works such as “The Roost” and his indie horror smash, “House of The Devil,” established him as a filmmaker to watch amongst fans in the horror community. In 2012, he has returned with a brand new tale of terror, “The Innkeepers.” In the haunted house thriller, which debuted last year at South by Southwest and was very well received, West tells the tale of the Yankee Pedlar Inn. The story focuses on Sara Paxton (“Shark Night 3D”) and Pat Healy (“Dirty Girl”) as two, slightly quirky employees of this quaint New England hotel which is on the verge of shutting it’s doors for good. For the establishment’s final weekend in business, the duo opts to spend the night so that when they are not tending to the Inn’s mere three guests, they can explore and perhaps catch a glimpse of the hotel’s most famous ghost, Madeline O’Malley. They soon find out that the dark side of The Yankee Pedlar is far from just part of the local lore. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Ti West to discuss what sparked the idea for his latest film, the challenges involved with bringing it to life and his thoughts on the reactions to his recent open letter to the Internet regarding film piracy.
Your recent projects have definitely established you as a young filmmaker to watch. What got you started on this journey in the entertainment industry as a director?
I don’t know if I consider myself part of the entertainment industry, per se, but I had just finished film school when I met this guy named Larry Fessenden. He liked my short films and he said “If the only thing stopping you from making a movie is money, what would you say if I gave you a little bit of money?” That was great and he gave me fifty thousand dollars and we made “The Roost”. We went to SXSW with it and it sold! Since then, I have been kinda scrambling to keep the snowball rolling ever since!
Starting out as a young filmmaker, who were some of the directors that inspired you?
Any sort of auteurist director or any filmmaker that when you see their movie you instantly say “Oh, that is a movie by so and so!” and you are not so sure why it is so identifiable but it is. For example, if you see a Coen Brothers movie, you know that it is a Coen Brothers movie or if you see a Terry Gilliam movie, you can tell it is a Terry Gilliam and so on and so forth. Those were the filmmakers that always interested me, the type of people who had a voice, a specific voice that you could see in their style of filmmaking. That was always appealing to me. The first movie that made me realize that I could make a movie was “Bad Taste” by Peter Jackson. It was really the first time that I could wrap my head around it all. A light went on like “Oh, they put the camera on a car to get that shot!” or “Oh, he is using his friends to do this!” It just seemed possible once I saw that movie. Before that, growing up watching Steven Spielberg movies, it seemed so removed, like something, someone somewhere else did — where with “Bad Taste” it seemed like “Maybe I can figure out how to do this!”
Your latest project is ‘The Innkeepers’. How did the idea for this story initially come about?
When we were shooting my previous film, “House of The Devil,” we stayed at this hotel called The Yankee Peddlar, basically because it was a cheap place to stay. When we would make our thirty minute drive to the set to make our satanic horror movie, weird stuff would happen back at the hotel. A year later, when I wanted to make a ghost story, I started to think about what it would be about. Then I started thinking “Well maybe I can make it about the place where we stayed when we shooting the last movie.” I wrote it and we went back to the actual hotel and ended up staying there again while we filmed the movie.
There is no shortage of talent with Sara Paxton and Pat Healy along for the ride. What sort of life did they breathe into this project?
I think particularly with Pat and Sara, there wasn’t a lot of improvising but their charisma elevated the material beyond what I could do by myself. The goal with the movie was to make it a charming ghost story. I think that was only possible because of their ability and the way that you relate to their characters as people. When it starts to get scary, that makes the scary elements all that more scary.
The film balances some terrifying elements along with some humorous elements. Did you find that to be something difficult to pull off?
I really didn’t think too much about it. In hindsight, when someone like you asks me that question, I have to say I didn’t think about it too much while we were filming because there were so many other elements that I had to focus on to make the movie. I mean, I was making a concerted effort to try to make a funny movie that worked it’s way into a horror movie but it didn’t seem like a big deal per se, until it was all done. Then I was able to look at it when it was all done and someone could say “Wow, that really blended together!” Then it’s like “Oh, OK! Thank God!” [laughs] I think when you are making a movie that you are so deep into flying by the seat of your pants!
What do you consider the biggest challenge that presented itself during the making of “The Innkeepers”?
This was an odd situation in which this movie, more or less, kinda went well. [laughs] Generally, you are just trying to deal with one disaster after another and not have the thing fall apart. “House of The Devil” was a very difficult shoot and everything was always going wrong. On “The Innkeepers,” everything went OK! However, the music was a very difficult aspect to get right and took a very long time to get together. I would say the music was the hardest “Let’s throw this all away and start it over.” kinda thing. I generally score every movie I have made and this one, I wouldn’t say that it stumped us, but there was a long trial and error period. It was tough because the music is kind of quirky but not so quirky that it becomes tongue-in-cheek and at the same time it needed to be scary. It was a very fine line and it was very hard to walk that line.
The sound design plays a huge role in this film. What can you tell us about that?
Sound design, to me, is really important in every movie that I make. It was really the hardest thing on this film. That is because I work with the same sound designer on every movie, Graham Reznick. He is incredibly talented, so it has made my life a lot easier. One of the big selling points of the movie for me and Graham, was the scene where Sara Paxton’s character is recording and then she takes her head phones off.
Yeah, that is exactly what I mean. It is an amazing moment in the film.
Thanks! The movie was really designed to be seen on 35mm, in a big theater, with big, loud 5.1 surround sound. Realistically, more people are probably going to see the film at home. I hope that if that is the case that they see it on a decent sized, plasma TV and I hope that if they do have a setup like that, that they turn it up! We worked very hard, meticulously crafting it and I think that the sound design in this movie is part of the narrative. If you don’t fully hear it, I don’t think that you won’t understand the movie but I do think you will be missing a layer of the film that is very valuable.
You recently published an open letter to the Internet addressing your views on video piracy. (Check out Ti West’s statement here) Aside from being a director, someone who can be directly affected by piracy, what was it that made you speak out?
Well, I was thinking about the release off “The Innkeepers” and I was thinking about how piracy is inevitable. The one thing that I hope gets across, and maybe it doesn’t because people are so reactionary anytime you say something like that, I don’t really think of it as stealing. It is not worth thinking about as stealing. It is not as much about stealing as it is about supporting, ya know what I mean. I am not shouting “Don’t steal the movie, man!” It is more like “Support the movie.” And it is not about me. You don’t have to like me or my movies but I am sure there are other indie filmmakers that you do like who you could go support. I think of independent film as a lifestyle or a culture, more than a career or an industry. I think it is worth having these dialogs because it is that type of community and I think more people should be talking about it. It is not a matter of “How dare you take our work!” It is nothing like that. It is more like “Let’s have a dialog about this.” because I think everybody sees independent film getting smaller and sees movie theaters and video stores going away. Nobody really likes it but when is anyone going to do anything about it? It isn’t that we need to change it and make it go back to the way that it was because it is not going to but it is worth having a voice about it. That is what, I wanted to convey as I was thinking about the movie, that I realized it was inevitably going to happen. I don’t care about the money and it is not like you are stealing from me. It is more about “Let’s talk about it and all weigh in on it.” It is a powerful time to be a consumer and it is a weird time for the music and movie industries, so it is a good time to make a statement about what you want as a consumer. I hope that more people are thinking about that. I tend to think that people aren’t. I hope that I am wrong and that people are thinking “Yeah, I want to support things or pay for things that are important to me. That is what I hoped to achieve, to get that talked about a little more.
I think it was an interesting thing to say and I know that it did spark some debate in the different forums and social circles that I frequent. I felt that your statement came across crystal clear.
People tend to get this knee-jerk reaction to rationalize that they have downloaded a movie. And again, it’s not like I am saying “How dare they download a movie!” Don’t think about it like the Lars [Ulrich] from Metallica thing “You’re stealing money from me!” It’s not about that. It’s like I said, it’s not about stealing, it is about supporting. What you choose to support is something you should think about and not just be a passive consumer or a passive audience because that is what gets us into the situation where our movie theaters are going away.
Being a seasoned veteran of the film industry at this point, what is the best piece of advice that you would give to young filmmakers?
I think it is important to remember that when you are starting out, you will never have that level of enthusiasm again. It is like your enthusiasm slowly chips away after time goes on. You really need to channel that and go make a movie. Don’t wait around! You have it in you because you are young and this is new. The other thing is that there has never been a better time to buy one of those 7D cameras and have it be accessible to you. The one good thing that has come from reality television is that it made people accept video. Also, video got better along the way. It is a great time to make a movie on video for nothing and have no one bat an eye at that! Where it used to be “Ughh, this looks so cheap!” That isn’t the case anymore. The most important thing to remember is that there is really no one holding you back but yourself.
What is next for Ti West?
I have a science fiction movie that I am hoping will happen next. It is very close. I did a segment off “The ABC’s of Death” that is done and I also did a segment in this film called “V/H/S” that will be at The Sundance Film Festival in a couple of weeks.
Well, it sounds like you enjoy having a full plate!
Yes, like I said a lot of that is already done but if this science fiction movie goes, and it sounds like it will, my plate will be full!
Thanks for talking time out to speak with us, Ti. We really enjoyed the film and are looking forward to spreading the word on it and all of your future projects!
Thank you and thanks for your support!