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Ti West talks 'The Sacrament' and why he's leaving the horror genre (for now)

Director Ti West (L) with Examiner's Steven Lebowitz (R)
Director Ti West (L) with Examiner's Steven Lebowitz (R)
Steven Lebowitz

Over the past decade Ti West has built himself the reputation of being one of the newest horror masters around. From "The House of the Devil” to his segment in "V/H/S" and his newest offering, "The Sacrament," Ti West has been frightening some audiences right out of their seats (At a screening of "The Sacrament" earlier this year at the 31st Annual Miami International Film Festival, some people got so freaked out, that they left the theater.) However, when I sat down and interviewed Ti West, besides talking about "The Sacrament" and the art of horror movie making, he also revealed he is ready to take a break from the genre that he has known so well.

The last time most of us saw you, you had an arrow sticking out of your head. Yeah, I remember. Yeah.

What do you like about showing up on a set and just acting? It's not something I am particularly comfortable doing. In the case of "You're Next" or "Drinking Buddies" those are two of my friends that asked me to do it. They were both relatively improvised. "Drinking Buddies" was entirely improvised and "You're Next" was a couple of lines and then Joe and I rifted off that. So that I enjoy doing because I don't have a strong desire to be an actor. The idea of preparing a lot of lines and making a lot of heavy choices; it's good for me to do it to help understand acting better, but you have to really want to do that. The people who were in those movies I acted in were all good friends of mine, so it was kind of like hanging out, which was nice.

In "You're Next" your character was sort of a snobby filmmaker. Yes, who may have also been Arab. I think in the script he was Arab and his name was Tariq. When I got there, they didn't change the name. I was like, "So we are sticking with me being Arab?" They said, "Yeah." I was like, "Okay." All I remember was them giving me that scarf and I went, "Oh, it's a comedy!" Because I got there and they literally handed me the scarf and I said, "I understand the movie now. I understand it's like this 'Clue' type movie."

When you are just acting, does the directing side of you come out at all and think things like, "Oh, man, this should be a close up shot and not a medium." I don't think about it in terms of someone should do it, but I am aware of how they're covering it and how I would do it differently or how's the crew operating. It's weird to be on a set that's not mine because it's only ever been mine. So it is very weird to step on one otherwise, but it is also sort of nice to say, "These are all your problems. All I have to do is say these lines. You figure that crap out." So that's a relief.

Okay, let's talk about "The Sacrament". I think it is the best and most disturbing product I have seen from you. Thank you.

I have always liked how you shoot your films. People may not talk a lot about the cinematography on a Ti West movie, but I believe it is one of the elements that make your movies successful. Even if it is something that may go unnoticed. I remember a shot in "The Innkeepers" and it's when Sara Paxton is doing one of the early recordings. The shot starts out in the hallway and then turns the corner to discover what she is doing. I was wondering if you could speak a little about the cinematography on "The Sacrament", including the storyboarding process since it is not a conventionally shot film. I don't story board because I operate the camera. I makes these lists, these colored coded shot lists that I keep in my pocket. They are mostly for me and the AD (Assistant Director). They are basically story boards. I just don't take the time to draw it because since I am using the camera, I already know what the shot is. If it was a big stunt scene where I need to communicate to everybody else, obviously I might do some storyboards. I think for a movie like this, that is sort of a fake documentary, I have very traditional cinematic type way of approaching movies and this is anti that. So on one hand it was fun to try something different. It is not something I would want to keep doing because I like more traditionally shot films, but it was interesting to find a way to make it feel real. In this case, making a documentary and figuring out how to do that well. Also to find a way to be inventive and hopefully cinematic with the format that's usually not that. The format is so designed to be clumsy and amateurish. It doesn't seem real. I wanted to find a way for the characters to be professional filmmakers, so it could look good and be shot well. When some of the genre elements were happening that it could be choreographed in ways like, "Let's do this all in one shot where we start here, we go into this building and then the camera gets put down and then something happens in the middle." So it was fun figuring out how to do things like that and that was my way of keeping it suspenseful and keeping it sort of cinematic in a way.

I might get some guff for saying this, but there are some religious people out there who are scary in their own right. Yeah.

To take the story of what happened in Jonestown is taking that and multiplying it by ten. Has "The Sacrament" been something you've been wanting to make for a while even though it is very disturbing to watch. I saw some people leave during the MIFF screening, but I would view that as a compliment. There were a couple of doozies in there, yeah. I have always been fascinated with The Peoples Temple and what happened in Jonestown. I think to make a Jonestown movie, it's got to be a mini-series because you can't do it in two hours. You certainly can't do it in an hour-and-a-half. I think you really need an 8-part mini-series, but no one was knocking on my door to facilitate that. It's not something I can afford to do myself, but I can find a way to make these movies. I was trying to think about what I felt what big part of it would be missing of my idea of what the collective consciousness of what people think about Jonestown. Ultimately, it has been reduced to such a way to be this pop culture slogan of "Drink the Kool-Aid" which is odd and disturbing in its own right. Or people think it was just crazy religious people. They forget it was like 900 Americans that were in Guyana in 1978. It was a really preposterous thing that happened that is incredibly shocking, complicated and very dense. People might remember the unpleasant photos of the aerials, but they don't remember much more beyond that, I think. To me, that was what was very scary about it. The people there were like regular people. I'm sure there were some crazy people, but for the most part these were people who were manipulated into wanting something more and they got trapped there. Then they felt they had no way out. That was always scary to me. It was always very disturbing to me and I think that's what thematically I want to get across in this movie. If you leave this movie and you think about Jonestown, your perspective on it is a little bit more tragic and traumatized, as I think it should be.

Right, I was thinking to myself in that scene when they are all playing basketball that all those people will be dead in less than 24 hours. Yeah, definitely, certainly of when you watch the documentary about Jonestown. There's this idea when you're just seeing the footage of people hanging out that in actuality that these people will all be dead by the time this documentary is over and this documentary was made over 48-hours. It is the footage of when Congressmen Ryan went there. That's a complicated thing to take in.

I interviewed John Carpenter a few years ago and I want to ask you something I asked him, how do you create tension? You know, it's sort of like telling a joke. Like you can tell a joke and make the whole room laugh and your friend can tell the same joke and it just bombs. It's sort of the same thing. It's a weird sense of timing thing. I think it all comes down to what you show, what you don't show and what you let the audience know. It's that classic Hitchcock thing really. If the audience knows something the characters don't then every time something almost happens to them, the audience is cringing, but the character is not and the less the character does the more the audience does. It's playing with that. Like I said, it's a weird personal thing and you find your own ways of doing it, but I think it really relies going back and fourth with the audience knows something the characters don't and the character knows something the audience doesn't.

Something that really helps to make your movies so scary is the music you use. What is your collaboration like with your composers? Do you have an idea of what you want as your write these scripts? Yeah, absolutely, music is a huge part of it. You know I've worked with the same composer on every movie except for "The Sacrament." It was still an equally good of an experience. Yes, I have an idea of what it sounds like, it doesn't always end up being that. Sometimes when you shoot a movie, it takes on a new life. With this movie, I knew that at first I thought there might be no music. Again, trying to keep the cinematic vibe in this movie. I wanted to have some sense of melancholy and sadness to the movie and some sense of this documentary type feel. To take it away from "found footage" and wanting to do a documentary. These are all sort of semantics. That was a big part of it. Trying to help facilitate the emotional impact of the movie. So the music in the movie, other than the very opening, it generally kind of lays back most of the time. We found that either the music worked for it or it threw it back in your face. It was a really difficult movie to score. So it is finding that right balance.

I know you like to shoot on film, but does that include editing too with a flatbed and having to sync up your own film to the sound? No. I have done that. I did that when I first started. That is now just too crazy. So I ended on Advid. Everyone now uses Advid or Final Cut. My brain comes from this Steenbeck type way of working in order and cutting and taping together film. I edit in order. So even though I am on a non-linear machine that can do everything, I just start at the beginning and plug my way through.

Okay, let's talk about "The House of the Devil" a little. What films from the 1970s, early 80s influenced the look of that movie? I'm trying to remember if there was anything we specifically looked at referenced-wise. You know it was less films and more just my memory of growing up and old photos of like people I knew as a kid. It was way more duel image search of teenagers and things like that, than it was movies. There wasn't a lot of like, "Oh, here's a movie. Let's try to make it look like this." It was more like, "Here's real life. Let's try to make it look like this."

I remember during the opening credit sequence we see Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) walking and every time a new credit comes up, the action freezes and I thought of how it reminded me of the style used in movies during the 1970s and early 80s. It really worked for the movie too. Yeah, in setting the movie in the early 1980s and trying to really make it feel genuine I sort of stylized the movie in the same way. In my mind I was always just making a period piece, but I would add these stylistic things to compliment the period piece. In that period this is how these movies were also shot so it made sense if they were going to dress that way and the cars are going to be that way, and the wallpaper was that way, then the movie should be that way a little bit too.

How did you get Greta Gerwig into the movie? I've known Greta forever. It was just one of those things. We've been friends and the movie came along and I said, "Come be in this movie." Very simple.

Did you like "Frances Ha?" Yeah, I thought it was great.

What other genres would you like to explore someday? "The Innkeepers" had its share of funny moments. Do you think you'd like to expand outside horror some time? Yeah, I'm not going to make another horror movie for a while. I'm making a western next. It was either going to be a western or a comedy and the Western started gaining some traction so that's the one I'm making next. We'll see what happens after, but most likely a comedy after that.

When you write are you ever limited by logistics? For example, on "The Innkeepers" did you already have a place you knew you could shoot at or do you write and worry about it later? I wrote that specifically for that place. Generally I write with some idea with something in mind because if you are making these low budget movies, it's really the only way to do it. So "The Innkeepers" was a really personal movie about that hotel. I had stayed there and I knew the layout and that was easy. With the western that I'm doing next, like I made it up, but I also knew kind of where we are going to shoot it. On "The Sacrament" at first I thought we'd find some old summer camp, but we built everything. I wrote it so we had to build it, but I kept it somewhat contained.

Which of the films that you have made are you the most proud of and why? It is usually the most recent one I finished, so I guess it's "The Sacrament." The script I'm most excited about is the western I'm doing next. I hope to just always be trying to improve things. I don't want to repeat myself and to try to keep myself interested. It motivates me to push myself.

Finally, what do you love most about directing? The idea of it. Actually, doing it is really traumatic and probably will take years off my life, but the idea of it and the idea of making movies is still fun and exciting as it's always been. The idea of coming up with something and doing it, is great. I'm fortunate. I look at it like I don't have a job, so that's pretty cool.

Ti West's "The Sacrament" is now playing in select theaters and can also be seen via Video on Demand.