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A Conversation With: Ti West
Posted Apr 26, 2012 by John Allman
Updated Apr 26, 2012 at 09:04 PM
Ti West doesn’t believe in ghosts.
The director of such fantastic frights as “The Roost” and “House of the Devil” isn’t one for giving in to basic fears. What does interest West, 31, is how things are perceived and what tricks perception can play – both on characters in his films, and on his audience.
That, in a nutshell, is what is most amazing about his latest feature, “The Innkeepers,” which might seem like an old-fashioned ghost story until you peel back the curtain and see the multiple mechanisms at play.
“The Innkeepers” is a very deliberate film.
The pacing is deliberate, and perfectly timed, rolling ever so slowly from an almost quietly-stated workplace comedy with paranormal overtones to a full-blown haunted house with dire consequences at every turn.
The acting is deliberate, and above-average, for what is essentially a low-budget, independent film. And funny – really, surprisingly funny.
And West is deliberate, making sure to keep two possibilities in play at all times, even up to the shocking climax.
It’s all in how you perceive the events unfolding within the historic halls of The Yankee Pedlar Inn.
Skeptics might conclude that Claire (the wonderful Sara Paxton) has been duped into believing in ghosts by Luke (the hysterical Pat Healy), who plays heavily on the fact that the old hotel where they work is about to close and time is running out for the amateur ghost hunters to try to contact Madeline O’Malley, the woman who supposedly died there decades before.
True believers, however, will believe. They will accept that spirits can linger in a place and that spirits can make contact and that spirits can choose to inflict torment and pain, if they so desire.
Besides being a skeptic, West is both cagey and surprisingly frank when reached by phone by BVB: Blood, Violence and Babes to discuss “The Innkeepers.”
If he is to be believed, this may be one of the last horror films he chooses to write and direct. The genre has started to bore him, and he’s looking for new ideas to ignite his creative process.
Let’s just hope he decides to make at least one of two possible projects he’s considering – a werewolf comedy that West describes this way: “It’s like ‘Cable Guy,’ but with a werewolf.”
Now that’s a pitch Larry Fessenden of Glass Eye Pix could never turn down.
BVB: I’ve read stories about how you and your crew stayed in The Yankee Pedlar while filming “House of the Devil.” Was that the genesis of the idea for “The Innkeepers,” or had you been wanting to do a good old-fashioned ghost story for awhile?
TW: I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was just a weird place we stayed in because it was cheap. About a year and a half later, I wanted to do another movie for a low budget. I thought, let me do a ghost story. It occurred to me that we sort of lived one while we were filming “House of the Devil.” I knew the crew knew their way around the hotel, even if we didn’t want to go back there.
BVB: What kind of weird occurrences did you experience?
TW: Doors opening, closing by themselves. Lights turning on and off. TV’s turning on.
BVB: Had you ever stayed in a place you thought was haunted before?
TW: Probably, but I don’t believe in ghosts. The Yankee was the closest I’ve come, but I still don’t believe.
BVB: Madeline O’Malley is your creation, right? What was the inspiration, because I liked how simplistic her story was.
TW: I wanted that sort of urban legend, simple campfire tale, ghost story. When Claire tells the story, she has the flashlight under her chin.
BVB: Sound is such a key element of “The Innkeepers.” How hard was it to get exactly what you wanted? I’m thinking specifically of the scene where Claire is doing EVP tests and hears the music playing. That was such a strong scene.
TW: It wasn’t real hard. I’ve had the same sound guy on every movie I’ve made. He’s like my secret weapon. The first time I saw the scene where she (Claire) took the headphone off, we kind of high-fived because it worked. I had never seen that before. It was cool to try something new.
BVB: I loved how so much of the film was about fate, about the consequences of decisions. There were several times where the other characters almost tried to warn Claire, but she was so determined to have something – anything – happen in her life. Were you trying to imply that we often bring about our own fate?
TW: Yes. To me, the reason for making the movie was I felt the sort of apathy that comes with being stuck in a minimum wage job was a good juxtaposition to ghosts being stuck haunting. As soon as (Claire) finds something to latch onto, it’s kind of all she has, even if it’s something bad. That kind of theme, and then the overall theme of perception. You could make the case that there no ghosts at all in the movie, that Claire let her imagination get the best of her…or you could make the case that she was attacked by ghosts. To me, what’s not interesting is one of those. What’s interesting is the possibility of both. Just having one to me is uninteresting. Having the possibility of both is what makes it worth thinking about.
(WRITER’S NOTE: Spoilers are sprinkled throughout the rest of the interview, for those who haven’t seen the movie yet!)
BVB: Speaking of Claire, her inhaler. I heard a podcast recently where they were discussing “The Innkeepers,” and the theory was that the inhaler was an homage to a certain classic film from the ‘80s. True?
TW: No. The reason she has an inhaler, I needed to give her a weakness that could affect her. I have asthma myself, although I don’t need it if I get scared. I needed to give her a reason she could die of an issue of her own that’s been planted up front. Or it could have been that there were ghosts.
BVB: Pat Healy’s Luke – I loved his character, the humor, and also how he totally bailed on Claire when the ghost hunting got real. Did you worry about audience reaction to his decision, or did you trust that most people would have done the same thing?
TW: I always just imagined – to me it was always funny that the guy, going with the perception thing, he knows the most about ghosts, the moment he interacts with them he wants nothing to do with it.
BVB: The final scene, the extended shot into the room, I kept waiting for Claire’s spirit to come rushing at the camera like in the video that Luke showed her at the beginning of the movie. Were you tempted at all to do that, or did you just have fun playing with the audience’s expectation?
TW: It was always playing with the idea that it was a call back to that. The door closing was my having her rushing to the camera.
BVB: So far you’ve tackled zombies, or zombies infected by bat bites, survival nuts, Satanists and ghosts. You seem very keen at hitting on things that really scare people. What else interests you?
TW: I’ve got about two, three horror ones left in me tops, then it’s sort of time to move on. I made a promise to myself when I wrote the last one, that’s going to be the last horror movie I write for awhile. I made six movies in the last seven years. At what point do you have anything left to say? You’ve got to do something else and come back to it.
BVB: Tell me about “Bedbugs.” You’ve been hired to adapt the screenplay? Any chance you may direct as well?
TW: I have not started writing yet. I have the book. I have highlighted the book. Maybe, we’ll see. I like the idea of letting somebody else go in and interpret it. I might write the script and get really attached to it and want to do it, who knows.
BVB: (WRITER’S NOTE: The conversation began to wind down, but BVB couldn’t help but pepper West with a few final questions, mostly about his early influences, the career trajectory of other genre directors like John Carpenter who seemed capable of shifting genres from horror to action to whatever and other topics that we forgot to write down.)
TW: I think I grew up on 70s and 80s stuff. For what it’s worth, when I’m making these horror movies, I’m not making them to watch people get killed. The technical stuff, the gore, has never been that interesting to me. Now I dread the days on set when we’re doing effects, running the tubing. It’s not fun, it’s just technical work. It’s more fun when you’re younger. I know I can do it. It feels like old hat when you’re doing it, and that gets a little boring.
BVB: (WRITER’S NOTE: Despite promising twice that the last question had been asked, BVB couldn’t stop. We had to ask one final, final question about West’s creative counterpart, Larry Fessenden, the actor/writer/director/producer and founding force behind Glass Eye Pix, which has produced most of West’s work.)
TW: Larry and I are very close. We rarely ever think about whatever creative collaboration process. We’re just friends. The way I pitched “The Innkeepers” to him: It’s eating sandwiches out of aluminum foil in the break room. He said, ‘I’m sold.’ That’s the stuff that’s appealing to us.
Photos courtesy of MPI/Dark Sky Films