Ti West interview: The Sacrament, documentary horror & more

Interview Ryan Lambie 6 Jun 2014 - 05:52

Writer and director Ti West talks to us about his new film The Sacrament, his forthcoming western, documentary-style horror, and more...

NB: The following contains mild spoilers for The Sacrament.

Writer and director Ti West has long taken an individual approach to horror, with such films as The House Of The Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011) emphasising tension, character and atmosphere over constant shocks.

West's latest film, The Sacrament, is similarly measured, and its air of slowly building dread makes its pay-off all the more powerful. In it, Vice Magazine journalist, Sam (AJ Bowen), his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) decide to cover the story of a remote and secretive commune located in South Africa. Presided over by a charismatic leader (Gene Jones), all seems peaceful and idyllic in this tiny community - until Sam and his friends begin to realise that something far murkier is going on beneath the surface.

Based loosely on real events, The Sacrament deals with its bleak subject matter with restraint, and there are moments in it that really lodge in the mind. With The Sacrament appearing in the UK on the 6th June, we spoke to Ti West about why and how he made the movie, his opinions on the horror genre, working with the great Tom Noonan, and what we can expect from his forthcoming western, In A Valley Of Violence.

I was wondering if you could start by talking about what inspired you to write The Sacrament.

I wanted to do a horror movie that didn't have any supernatural elements. I wanted to do something that was heavily realistic. Because the last movie I made was this rom-com, and I wanted to do something very different from that. I wanted to use a real historical event as a framework for something that still seemed relevant today, and I wanted to use a real brand to tell that story, in a fake documentary sort of way.

I've always been fascinated with what happened at Jonestown, because a lot of the things that brought people to Jonestown in the 60s and 70s are totally relevant today. And I think that a lot of what happened in Jonestown is misunderstood, and I think a lot of it's been reduced to a pop culture line of "drinking the Kool-Aid".

It's always been something that's been really fascinating and really horrific to me. So I started thinking about that, and I thought about a real brand to tell the story, and I thought about Vice. So those two things sort of made sense. They're the sort of people who would report a story like that, I think.

That's where it came from.  I was talking to Eli Roth about it, and he really liked it, and he said, "I think we can get that movie made." That inspired me to go and write it.

So was using the Vice name important in building up that air of realism?

Yeah. I feel like most media brands in the States, as far as news brands, are heavily slanted to the left or the right. They have their own agenda to what they're doing. Whereas, while Vice is a brand, they don't have their own political agenda. That made sense to me. And also, they've been at the forefront of video journalism and fringe stories like this, I think.

I think, ultimately, when you see the movie and you see a brand you recognise, it's something from real life you're used to seeing. There's something interesting about that. You go into a movie that you know is fake, yet you see a name and it messes with your perspective a little. And then, ideally, when the movie's over and you're back in the real world, and you see that brand again, it makes you think again what happens in the movie and what it's about.

It always interests me when horror movies do things like this, because it's something of a tradition - it stretches right back to Edgar Allan Poe, when he used to write fake newspaper stories.

Yeah. I think the best horror is often a metaphor or keys into people's real life paranoia. There are the kind of movies you go and see - like a zombie movie or a vampire movie - where for an hour and a half you have a scary experience in the theatre, and then you leave and go about your day. You don't think about it anymore.

Then you have a film like The Sacrament, where you go and have an hour and a half of being scared, but when you leave, it's connected to enough things in real life, or your personal life, or real news brands, that you are still scared. You're still thinking what that movies about.

That, to me, is what's always been exciting about the horror genre. That it can transcend being just a visceral experience - that was the big goal for me. To try to make a movie where, when it's over, it still resonates with you. 

The movie reminded me that horror can deal with weighty, serious  themes maturely. The themes of power over other people, and getting satisfaction from wielding that power - those are dark areas of the human psyche to explore.

To me, manipulation of desperate people is something I've always found relatable and scary. I wanted to make a movie that, because it was so steeped in realism, the violence and horror would be confronting, and unpleasant, and disturbing, and provocative.

Because I think we're so overwhelmed with media. And we're so desensitised to real violence, when we see violence in movies, it's set up to be an escapist experience. When we see violence in the news it doesn't really mean much to us anymore. But when you're really confronted with real violence, even the most diehard horror fans are often turned off by it.

That was the purpose of this movie. The story that you're familiar with from the past, when confronted with what it looked like to be there and experience it, it should almost be revolting and uncomfortable to watch. You're being forced to sit through real horror, which, to me, is much more scary than real horror.

The film certainly looks authentic, so what was shooting like?

Well, we shot it in Savannah, Georgia, so it's a lot of trickery! Anytime someone says it looks like someplace exotic, I breathe a giant sigh of relief because we worked very hard at that. No, we shot it in someone's back yard - it's a big hay field, and we brought in palm trees and plants and things like that. So we worked hard to make it look like a nondescript foreign locale, but it was very much just here in the States.

The film's about city boys going into the wilds of South Africa and biting off more than they can chew. So was there any parallel between art and reality there?

Not really. The benefit was that I work with the same crew on most of my movies. These are people I've known for a decade, and we're all close friends. So really, we got there and said, "we're gonna do our thing."

The building of Eden Parish was an odd experience, and when the movie was over, tearing it all down was an odd experience. So that was a bit weird - to create this community and populate it with extras, and then when we were done, just to take it away, that was a surreal experience. But part of the benefit of working with people I knew was that we were able to make a story about an incredibly grim subject matter, and yet still have an okay time doing it. 

When you were writing it, were you conscious of the handling of these grim subject matters sensitively? Because as you said, they do have a connection to real world events.

A good part of the reason why the movie has to be so confrontational and unpleasant is because of that. If at the end there was loads of shooting and heads being blown off, and the audience is cheering, that would be an incredibly gross, exploitative thing. But with this movie, it's really about showing you that an event that has been reduced to this, "Ho, ho, drink the Kool-Aid" - that, to me, is more insensitive than making a fictionalised movie.

I think it's about reminding people. "Look at what a cult leader is actually like. Look at what someone who is desperate to belong can be manipulated into doing. Look at how graphic it is when this happens."

That, to me, is not exploitative. I feel that were respectful of the fact that something real did happen, and that we were treating it in a way that was honest.

I thought Gene Jones was great casting as Father. Can you talk a bit about how you found him and his involvement?

Oddly enough, I was watching an episode of Louis, the Louis CK show, and Gene had a very small part as the pharmacist in one scene. He was standing behind the counter, and this woman's asking questions and he's not paying attention. Then he turns to her and just says [adopts deep southern accent], "Have you had a bowel movement today? Was it soft?" And the woman gets embarrassed and leaves.

I was just like, "That guy is amazing!"

He's also the guy in No Country For Old Men, in that coin toss scene. So we tracked him down and we had him do a little audition, just to see what he thought of the material - just in case he turned around and said, "I don't want to have any part in a movie like this." And he did a great audition, and then I met him for the first time in Georgia.

The whole film hinges on that role, and I'm so fortunate that I was watching Louis that day, because Gene is so incredible. I don't know what we would have done if we'd not had him. 

He is fantastic. One of the things I liked as well, which ties in with his performance, is the way you structured the film. You didn't rush into anything. I don't think you meet Father until the start of the second act, where you have that quite lengthy interview with him. I thought that was a bold move.

Well, for me, it was important that for the first half of the movie, this place seems great. Maybe you don't want to live there - it's too hippy or whatever - but you can understand what these people are saying and why they're there. And when you meet Father, everything he says makes sense.

You might be sceptical because you're coming from the outside, or you as an audience member have a historical knowledge of things like this, but I feel like, in movies, cult members are always depicted as villains. That's too reductive and too simplistic. Nobody joins a cult - you just end up being in one. I think it was important to show that Eden Parish, in these people's minds, either could have or was working. Because otherwise, why would they be there?

The things Father says have to make sense, and have to be inspiring, or else why would anybody follow him? So the first half of the movie has to show it as a positive place. And therefore all the scepticism and paranoia you might have, you're bringing to it. That's something you have to confront and question.

There's even a point, just after the interview, where AJ [Bowen]'s character says, "I can see why people would want to live like this. I don't want to, but I get it." He's starting to come around to it. So with all his cynicism, he starts to say, "Everyone's really pumped. So fuck, maybe I'm an asshole for thinking this is weird." Then you realise that no, not everything is as it seems. 

The thing The Sacrament has with your earlier films, as well, I thought, is that you don't rush into the horror. You build the suspense. This isn't something you necessarily see all the time in horror these days, but it is something you see all the time in horror literature. Do you have to hold your nerve a little bit when you're writing and editing, to not give into the temptation to show too much too soon?

For me, I don't think you can have a successful - and by successful I don't mean financially, I mean successful in that it scares people - horror movie if you don't have a contrast between the not-horror and the horror. You just have to, otherwise it doesn't mean anything.

I think the best horror movies, right up until about 15 or 20 years ago, treated them as movies first, and then horror movies. Then horror became popular in the 2000s, and it just became this derivative thing: aim for the lowest possible common denominator, and make it about escapism and titillation. And every ten minutes, just give them what they've paid for.

I don't think that makes a good movie, and I don't think that's what people want. People see a movie that's successful, and think, "Oh, we've just got to do that again, because that's what they'll watch". So you get these derivative things, where you have the same scene in every movie, over and over again. I don't think that makes for a good movie, and I don't think it makes for a scary movie. You just end up with a movie where people are getting killed off more often.

And so it's not really something I really consciously think about, but I'm aware that when the movie's done, I constantly hear, like, "Slow burn! Slow burn!" But when I'm making the movie, I'm just thinking, "What other possible way could there be that would make any sense?" It's the only way I really know how to do it.

So when it comes to that approach to writing and filmmaking, who would you say your influences are?

I like filmmakers where, when you go and see a movie, you can tell who made it. Just by that feeling you get from it. So when you go and see a Coen brothers movie, you can tell it's a Coen brothers movie. If you see a Steven Soderbergh movie, you can tell. If it's Terry Gilliam, you can tell. Whether it's because of the way it's written or the acting or it's the lens choices they use, there's something intrinsic to that filmmaker's perspective that is totally unique. It feels like only this person could give you that experience.

Those are the filmmakers I like, and those are the movies that inspire me. Where I go, "Wow. There's only one person on earth who could have generated this material, and this is amazing to see." That's what I'm inspired by, but there's no one person over anybody else. That's just the kind of stuff that gets me excited. When I see something that's a whole, unique experience. 

Obviously, The Sacrament is a documentary-style horror film. So do you that subgenre of horror, which can also include found-footage, is the cinematic equivalent of the first-person, classic horror tale in writing?

I don't know. I think it's a trend. I think it's a trend that will last a little bit longer and then go away, or it'll stick around. So much of our media comes to us in the form of internet videos, and everyone's carrying a video camera on their phone these days. Things are coming to us, like, "Somebody fell out of a limousine and some guy recorded it on their phone." Or, "There was a fight in the mall and someone recorded it on their phone." Or, "Some political person did something stupid and someone recorded it on their phone."

We're so accustomed to this "everybody's filming everything" thing that it makes sense that people would relate to movies made in that same way. But that's not a particularly cinematic style. It's a topical, relatable style, but it's not a very cinematic medium. I think people are starting to get a little bit worn down by it, and I think ideally, the only movies that will be left will be the ones that do something a bit different.

With The Sacrament, it sounds like semantics, but I always thought of it as more of a fake documentary than a found-footage film. In that it's a movie made by characters who make documentaries for a living, and it was made into a documentary after the fact - it just so happens that it's not real. Whereas, a found footage movie is, "We found this tape in the dirt, and this was what was on it. Let's see what happens."

Obviously, Blair Witch reminded everybody how successful that can be. It's a gimmick now, that has been so overused that, outside of a brand like, say, Paranormal Activity, I think people are pretty over it. I think you'd have to find a new angle for it now. But it makes sense that it became so popular, because so much stuff I look at on a daily basis, like on the internet and on my Twitter feed, is stuff like that in real life. So it makes sense that you'd make movies from that same perspective.

Personally, having made fake documentaries, I'm now only interested in making something totally cinematic. So I'm making a western [In A Valley Of Violence, starring Karen Gillan, John Travolta and Ethan Hawke],  now, which is the polar opposite of a horror, found footage-style movie. I feel I really need to cleanse my palate.

With The Sacrament, it made sense to make a movie so based in realism, but now I have no interest in realism whatsoever, so now I'm trying to get back to what I think of as cinema.

From a visual perspective, one of your films I really liked was The House Of The Devil. I thought that was a well-shot film. And it also had a great performance from Tom Noonan in there as well.

Yeah.

What were your memories of working with him?

Tom was great. We worked together twice, and I'm sure we'll do it many more times. We did my first film The Roost together, and I think he was pleasantly surprised by that experience. Then I called him back for House Of The Devil, and I think he was into it but a little unsure. But then he got there and he had a really great time making the movie, and even though it was a very small, low-budget movie, I think he found us working together to be pleasant.

I'm aware of Tom Noonan's strengths in terms of letting him do his thing, and he just really enjoyed the movie. I'm not totally sure he expected to, but I remember at the premiere he was just like, "That has genuinely turned out really well". He really loved the movie.

We have a great working relationship. He's a really interesting actor, and a really smart guy, and once you get to know him, he's really fun to shoot. Especially because when you edit the movie, you see so many little subtle things that he does that are really fantastic. 

Well, he was so great in Manhunter as well, wasn't he?

Yeah. He was awesome. He keeps the rest of the cast a little bit... I think he's a little bit of a prankster, in the way that he's not quite as strange as he seems, but he likes the idea that people think he might be. Especially on House Of The Devil, it was great, because everyone's interacting but didn't quite know, like, "Is this guy a little strange or not?"

He's a totally normal guy, but people have this idea that he might be a little odd, and they act a little nervous around him. On House Of The Devil, that was fantastic, because that was exactly what I was hoping for. It really helped everyone's performances.  

I think on Manhunter, there were stories of him being the same way, in that he kept himself secluded from everyone in the movie. Which makes sense from an acting perspective, but he also might have just had his own life, you know? You can look at it, like, "Hey, he just had his own life and they were working on a movie."

Or you can look at it, like, "Oh, he wanted to be removed so he could make everybody feel weird." It's a somewhere-in-the-middle kind of thing. That's the genius of Tom, he can be living a normal life, but he can also be making everyone feel a little off, and he can accomplish a better performance that way. So he's pretty great.

So with your western coming next, does that mean you're stepping away from horror for a while?

Yeah, I'm going to take a break for a while, because I've made seven horror movies in ten years, and that's quite a bit. So I'm making a western now. It's not too far removed - people do get shot. But we'll see. Maybe the next film will be a horror movie again, but I'd like to do some other stuff. And I think, if I don't do it now... I made a promise to myself that I'm not going to write any more horror movies for a little while.

I wrote a western, and it's getting made, which is a miracle because so few westerns get made. I have an amazing cast in it, and it's been a great experience so far. So it's one of those things where I think, "Let me try to write a western. This will be an uphill battle", and then it ends up not being an uphill battle. I'm actually talking to you from New Mexico right now - we start shooting in a few weeks.

Well, best of luck with it! Ti West, thank you very much.

The Sacrament is out in UK cinemas on the 6th June.

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