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Dialogue: Ti West on the Difference of Shooting Film, Current Horror Trends, ‘You’re Next’ and Joe Swanberg

Ti WestWe recently sat down with writer-director-editor Ti West, best known for his masterful The House of the Devil, to talk about his latest film, The Innkeepers (out December 30th on VOD), and it ended up being an in-depth, hour-plus discussion about the unique and borderline obsessive way West approaches filmmaking, how his films are marketed, what really happened with Cabin Fever 2, what the current state of indie filmmaking is like, what it’s like trying to make a film in the studio system, and what he’s working on next. 

Since it ended up being such a beast of an interview (the final transcription came in just shy of 7,000 words!), we’ve decided to break it up into different sections instead of assaulting you with a massive wall of text all at once. Note, missing links will be added as their respective posts go live:

The Cabin Fever 2 Controversy and What Actually Happened

Movie Marketing, Poster Designs and Obsessing Over the Little Details

His Style of Filmmaking, Clashing With the Studio System, His Space Movie and His Werewolf Comedy

The Difference of Shooting Film, Current Horror Trends, You’re Next and Joe Swanberg (you are here)

The Roost How much do you leave on the cutting room floor? How close do you shoot to what you end up using? I assume for The Roost it was pretty close, but have you gotten more buffer over the years?

West: With The Roost it was different because we only got one take of everything. That was a really difficult movie. I hadn’t seen it in years, but I watched it the other day at the screening, and I could see the scenes where we had coverage and the scenes where we had one take. We shot Innkeepers on 35mm and we broke everything down and time and time again it was brought up to me that if I had shot it on the Red, we would have saved $ 162,000. The Roost we shot on film and the whole budget of the entire movie was $ 50,000. I was watching it the other day wondering how we even accomplished it. Not paying anyone was a big part of it. Literally 85% of the budget went to film. So that movie didn’t have much room to have anything left over.

Trigger Man had a couple scenes that we didn’t end up using. Oddly enough there were a lot of scenes of talking that weren’t in the movie. [laughs] I was looking at them going, “These don’t belong.”

The House of the Devil doesn’t have much missing. Usually the stuff I leave on the cutting room floor, I discover I don’t need it before I even edit it. I think on the House of the Devil DVD there are these scenes, but they’re not even edited together, they’re just raw footage. I think there were three scenes that didn’t make the cut.

On The Innkeepers we had a lot of different takes, a lot of times were we did things very differently than the last take that we didn’t end up using. There’s one scene, and in its context of this take alone, it’s the greatest Sara Paxton thing you’ll see in your life because she was so George Costanza-y. That was the direction I gave her, “More Costanza!” Then I was trying to get her to be this goofy muppet, and there were some takes that were like the best take ever, but in the context of the movie they stood out. So I had to edit it to more streamline her character.

When Pat [Healy] is like, “I don’t want to scare you, but,” there was a lot of [does impersonation of over-the-top reaction] and they began hitting each other and it just got ridiculous. I’m blanking, but there are probably only two or three scenes that aren’t in it. Now shooting on 35, was that decision a purely aesthetic one or do you like the restrictions that it gives you?

West: It’s both, but aesthetically, I think it’s getting close now. I still think 35 is better than Alexa or Red or whatever, but it’s close, very close. Part of it was thinking it looks better, part of it was just wanting to do it and not wanting anything else. It was part of my conditions of doing the movie. Pete [Phok] was like, “You know, they have this new Red…” and I was just like, “Nope!”

I like the workflow, I like the alchemy of it. I like that there’s still some mystery to it when you get the dailies and see what you got. I can see the benefit of looking at an HD monitor and seeing exactly what you’re getting, but I do like the workflow of it the other way. I don’t mind changing mags, I don’t mind the experience because it’s always been what it is for me and I’m comfortable with it.

Also, the days are numbered. One more at most, probably? No one is going to let me keep shooting on film, it just doesn’t make sense. Even when I was at the Drafthouse last night showing House of the Devil on 35mm, only one of their screens has a projector. I was like, “Wait, all the movies you get here come on DCP?” and that was a big moment for me where I just went, “Huh, you only have one film projector? Holy sh*t.” That’s where we’re at.

Greta Gerwig House of the Devil Do you find that it makes other filmmakers a little lazier to just be able to get blanket footage and then, like Paranormal Activity 3, which has a ton of stuff in its trailer that isn’t anywhere in the movie, figure out what movie you’re making in post?

West: I haven’t seen it, but I’ve been hearing that, yeah. I don’t think it’s lazy, it’s just different. It just doesn’t make sense to me. To me, the way I see movies and the movies I like and the movies I make are very auteur. I finish early every day, we never go over. I show up with a very specific shot list, I operate the camera angles, and just say, “This is what we’re doing.” That’s just the way I grew up.

But I remember watching behind-the-scenes of a Gus Van Sant movie and I’d never seen more of a, “Oh, maybe we’ll try this or maybe do this,” and I’m like, “What do you mean?! Your movies are so specific, what do you mean ‘maybe we’ll do this’? How are you not a Nazi?” I don’t know how he can do that and his movies are still so very specific. The shoot a bunch of footage and cut it together thing is just not my thing, but it works for some people. To me it’s less interesting and, from a filmmaker perspective, per se.

Joe Swanberg is a good friend of mine and people say his movies are all improv, and it is, but it isn’t. Joe is very specific about what he’s doing. He’s very specific about where he’s putting the camera, more now than he used to be, and where he’s going to edit. There’s no dialogue written, but it’s not just making it up and figuring it out later. That’s why a lot of people, after this sort of mumblecore thing got named, that went, “We’re all just going to jump in and start doing that,” and it didn’t work for a lot of people. The people who were already doing it are still around, though, because they weren’t just winging it, you know? It just seems like that.

The Paranormal Activity movies are weird because they’re like gag movies. It’s like Final Destination to a certain degree. They’re both just a bunch of little events. It’s a weird product in and of itself. But, in fairness to those movies, and as much as I haven’t seen the second and third ones, and I didn’t even love the first one, but it could have been a lot worse. For that to do well… there are worse things that have done well, you know? It was still a relatively restrained movie and a relatively intellectual one. Yes, it was derivative of other things, and yes, it was cheap scares because of just waiting in silence, but that’s still better than another remake or sequel. Of course, now they’ve become those things, but I still assume that the sequels are still relatively intellectual even being what they are. They actually are. I wish they’d change up the schtick a bit by now, but as far as the story goes and the way they’re back telling it, it’s a lot more interesting than you’d expect from a Paranormal Activity sequel.

West: I think it’s gotten to the point where it’s like, “Can we please just not make any more?” They’re not bad, but can we find a new thing to go with? That’s the only thing that to me is a bummer. You could be doing more stuff. It seems like there is a growing boom of indie talents that are sticking together and working again and again because they can make waves in those circles. You do it with Glass Eye Pix, Swanberg does it with his team, but it seems like a lot of these circles are colliding together now.

West: I guess we stick together, yeah. From traveling festivals, you see people who were able to… When I was here in 2005 at South By, that was when I met Joe. Then when I came back in 2006 to hang out just because I had such a good time, Joe had another movie and I was like, “What the f*ck? How do you have another movie?” And he was like, “What do you mean? I just made another movie,” and I was just like “Ah!”

Then the next year I was back with Trigger Man, but he was back with Hannah Takes the Stairs! Then I cast him in Cabin Fever 2 and got him to do the behind-the-scenes for Cabin Fever, so there are just certain kinds of people who I like and who as creative people are just doing things no matter what. I also think that Joe is just an amazing actor who is often overlooked.

Joe Swanberg in a Horrible Way to Die He’s damn good in You’re Next.

West: He’s the best part of the movie. I’m not a super fan of his movies, but I’ve also only seen so few of them, so You’re Next was kind of ripping off the mask for him and I was left wondering why people give him so much sh*t.

West: It’s a weird thing with Joe. It’s totally understandable, people not liking his movies. But there became this weird thing where his movies are somehow who he is, which is a little bit unfair. He’s making his movies and if you don’t like them, that’s fair, he’s not going to argue with you about them. But people get so up in arms about him because a lot of times he’s in the movies and they have sexual things so people project a lot of that on him. But as a person, he’s just awesome. As a creative person, it’s really impressive how prolific he is, whether you like his stuff or not. He’s incredibly talented, yet just because he’s doing his own thing, if he does something else, he can do it really well, it’s just not what he’s choosing to do.

So it was nice to see him in You’re Next in a very kind of lowest-common-denominator kind of role being really good and having people go, “Wow, that guy is really good.” Oh, he steals the spotlight.

West: He certainly does. It’s frustrating because I tried to cast him as the lead in Cabin Fever 2 and they wouldn’t let me. I tried to cast him in The Innkeepers, which was sort of written for him and I still couldn’t really do it. Pat’s great and I can’t imagine it not being Pat now, but it was originally supposed to be Joe. But there’s always been this, “No, not the mumblecore guy!” type thing.

Now because Adam [Wingard] and Simon [Barrett] were able to pull it off in You’re Next, hopefully that starts helping people get the approval to put him in movies. Because he’s good and he’s really smart and can bring a lot to it. Amy Seimetz is the same way. She’s really smart and should be in a million movies, because she knows how to up the ante on things.

But for us, it’s just that we’re like-minded people. You can be like, “Hey, we’re making a movie, it’s at the Pedlar,” and they’re just like, “Great, I’ll be there.” There’s a support to that.

Trigger I used to see that as a sort of anti-establishment, “Yeah, we’re going to do it on our own!” type thing.

West: Yeah, but it’s also that no one is helping us. No one will help. The space movie, we need so much f*cking money and no one is giving it to us. But if I call Joe and say, “Look, we’re going to go out to Palm Springs for a weekend and make a movie,” he’ll be there. But if I say to someone, “Hey, we need $ 4 million to make this space movie,” there’s crickets.

So there’s an element of it just being people you can rely on. When I called Larry [Fessenden] when House of the Devil fell apart back in 2006 and said, “F*ck those people! I need $ 50,000 to make Trigger Man,” he just said “Greenlit.” Because it wasn’t a big deal to him.

That’s where it comes from. We have all this passion to do things, but then you run up against this wall of ‘can’t do it’ people, so you stick with people who are like-minded and say, “Let’s just go make it.” Yeah, it’ll be lower budget, and yeah, it’ll be rough around the edges, but they’ll never make it, so we might as well do it. I think that is a great attitude.

West: That’s all there is to it.

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