Ti West On 'V/H/S,' Road Trips, (Not) Selling Out, And The Wonders Of Karaoke
Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) delivers a slow burn with a killer pay-off in his contribution to this weekend's horror anthology V/H/S, a road trip-cum-nightmare starring fellow indie veterans Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, and Kate Lyn Sheil. Before departing to Georgia to film his next feature, The Sacrament, West rang Movieline to discuss his V/H/S short, filmed on the road with a camera and no crew other than his three actors, how to recreate their L.A.-to-the-Grand Canyon V/H/S adventure, the creative struggles involved in making personal independent films at increasing scale, and — of course — the magical phenomenon that transforms strangers into compatriots within the confines of a karaoke bar.
What was your first reaction to the idea of a found footage anthology horror movie and how did you find your way into your segment?
I don’t have a real aversion to found footage but they told me the idea and I thought, ‘I don’t know.’ But I went on a road trip and in the back of my mind I was like, ‘Do I have any ideas for this thing? I don’t think so.’ But by the end of the road trip I realized the road trip I went on was the idea. So I put together this paragraph and emailed them thinking they’d probably say no but they liked it, and within a month I’d gotten Joe and Sophia and Kate flown to L.A. and we rented a car and went back on the exact same road trip that I had just been on, and made the movie along the way at all the spots I’d been. So it was really weird but similar to The Innkeepers in the sense that on House of the Devil we stayed at the hotel and went back to the hotel to make [Innkeepers]. I realized on this that’s probably a trend for me. I went on this trip and I thought, ‘I have an idea based on something I just lived – let’s go do that.’
That is most unusual.
Joe and Sophia had never seen the Grand Canyon and I was like, ‘We can see that along the way, it’s pretty amazing!’ We were able to have a fun experience and make a movie. That was a lot of the motivation behind it, to sort of not have such a terrible time.
Was it literally just the four of you? No additional crew or anything?
Yes – it was the four of us, that’s it. We had nothing. No lights, no nothing. We didn’t even have a boom.
I was curious how that worked since Joe and Sophia are also directors, actors, editors – they've got experience serving multiple roles in front of and behind the camera, which must have helped.
That’s why I cast them, because I knew if I were to give them a camera and send them out to do something with some ideas, they’d be able to handle it.
Did you write a script or give them more broad scenarios for them to play out?
There was a pretty specific outline, although I didn’t write dialogue. They read that then when we got there I said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, here’s what I want to happen…’ I would shoot it or if I couldn’t shoot it I would be like, ‘Sophia, I want you to do these things with it – do it however you want, but make sure you get this, that, and the other thing.’ Then Kate and I would go hide in the bathroom of the hotel room and they would shoot, and when they were done I’d come out and watch it and go, ‘Let’s do it again, but focus more on this and that…’ We’d do three or four takes, and we’d do everything in big long chunks and that was it. Then we’d go do karaoke in Flagstaff.
Are you kidding? How was the karaoke out there?
Oh, we did so much karaoke on this movie. Every night. There was actually one night where we decided we needed to work a little extra the next day because we’d been doing too much karaoke.
Well, you’ve now ruined road trips for the rest of us. You should map out the V/H/S road trip so people could take the tour in real life.
It’s a great trip from L.A. You can do it in a weekend. If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, it’s incredible. You can’t overhype it – it sounds like something that would be cool but when you actually stand there it’s kind of breathtaking. It’s pretty amazing.
What was the Wild West town you guys shot in, where Joe and Sophia get their fortune out of the machine?
With the donkey? That’s on the way. Oatman. If you’re ever on your way to Arizona, Oatman is the town to stop in. It’s a weird little town and kind of tricky to get there because you take one road essentially out to Arizona and along the way everything runs parallel to the main road. There’s this one section where that town is where you have to go through all these weird mountain switchbacks and it’s kind of a dangerous drive, and you come down a hill and boom, there’s this little town. It’s very Wild West, there are donkeys that roam the streets. You’ve got to go to the Grand Canyon and you’ve got to go to Flagstaff. The town that’s near both of those places, Williams, Arizona, is a tourist trap but there’s something really appealing about that area. It’s also really scary because there are a lot of weird meth hitchhikers everywhere. It’s cool. I’m into it.
You’ve done so much horror but you've also said you don’t necessarily want to be known as a horror specialist. What is it about the genre? Why do you think you’re so good at scaring people? Do you see the potential for terror in every normal, everyday situation?
Well, maybe. Why I’m interested in it, I don’t know, but as far as an ability to do it, it’s like telling a joke. You can tell a joke and make the whole room laugh and then someone can tell the exact same joke and it just bombs – even though it’s verbatim, it’s the delivery of it that made it work. For whatever reason, I can just tell this joke. I’m able to read the room and do it that way. I don’t know where it came from or why I’m interested in it. I think I might be a slightly dysfunctional weirdo and that could be part of it. But it wasn’t my goal to do this. I enjoy doing it, and these are the movies that people will give me money to make, so I keep doing it. But I don’t know; the joke is the best analogy I have to make sense of it. Here’s what I think will scare people, and I have to trust that I’m going to try it and it’s going to work. In the same way as when you tell a joke, it’s the pauses and the way that you deliver it and the way that you talk to the people you’re telling it to. It’s how it’s done, it’s not actually the material itself.
When you watch V/H/S with an audience, do they react to your segment the way you intended or hoped they would?
My segment is the most rooted in realism and it doesn’t necessarily play to an audience, whereas all the other segments play very heavily to an audience. Mine is sort of the weird slow-burn one, of course, and I will say I think I get the biggest scare in the movie. I was surprised by how much that was effective. But I made a much more low-key psychological segment and it plays well with an audience because that one moment really shines, and it kind of informs me that it must have worked – the fifteen minutes leading up to it must have been going well.
An upcoming non-horror project is the sci-fi Side Effects. What's the latest with that film?
Side Effects is still out there. Because it’s a science fiction movie it costs a whole bunch more money than usual, and we have most of the money but not all of the money. It’s a very slow-moving process, which is very frustrating to me, but it’s coming together.
What’s your perspective now on how much you get to make the movies you want to make and what your options are in the marketplace?
I think if it’s a movie for a million dollars or less and it’s a horror movie, my options are pretty decent because I could create my own thing and go out there and probably talk somebody into getting it made. But I’ve done so many of those now, six of them, that I don’t really want to do that anymore because it feels like the same old thing. So that’s where projects like Side Effects come in; I want to do a science fiction movie that’s going to cost five times as much as The Innkeepers because it’s going to take place in space, and it’s going to be great, and we’ve got Liv Tyler – but I got The Innkeepers made in a conversation at Sundance, and three months later we were shooting it. When it’s more money it becomes a whole nightmare of putting too many things together. But I’ve gotten to the point where the really small movies are great because I can do my own thing with them and that’s important to me, but I’m starting to do my own same thing over and over again and that’s really unpleasant to me, to repeat myself.
So there’s that, and there’s the option of doing the bigger gun-for-hire movies, which is very appealing from a financial standpoint; I would love to make a movie where I could make tons of money, have a really cushy schedule, have celebrities in it, and have it be on billboards everywhere. I’d love to do the big sell-out thing. The problem that I have is that to me, when you work as a gun-for-hire my attitude would be as a gun-for-hire. The way I look at that is, ‘This is great – I don’t have to stress out as much.’ When you make your own little personal movie, every choice is like, if I don’t do it exactly this way it will be embarrassing because this is important to me.
When you go do some sequel to a big goofy comic book movie, I understand that all they want is cool stuff. I can show up and just make it cool, I know how to do it although it’s not something I aspire to do. The problem is, they don’t want you to show up and be a gun-for-hire – they want you to care just as much as you care about your own personal movies. But to me that’s silly, because I’m making a big goofy thing. So that’s my struggle. Every time I start working on it we get to a certain point in the process where I’m either too checked out to care enough to keep doing it, or they’re onto the fact that I don’t really care and they want to get someone who cares more. And even though I don’t care that doesn’t mean I won’t do a good job and try really hard, it just means that when I go home at night I’m not going to panic, because the content isn’t that important to me. I’m trying to find that movie where I can do that but I would always much prefer to make my own independent stuff - it’s just that the independent world has gotten so small. It’s not a matter of me wanting so much more out of the independent world, or wanting to make more money; it’s solely that I’d love to make movies that don’t take place in one location. I’d love to make movies with a bunch of people in it. I wish I could pay a famous actor that wants to do the movie but we can’t afford, but we can’t, because they won’t come unless they can fly first class and we can’t fly them first class. I’d love to not have to deal with that dumb shit anymore, to get past that and keep doing my own thing.
You seem to have made a lot of careful career choices along the way, but you had a well-documented brush with the studios on Cabin Fever 2. What did you learn from that experience?
I have enough options and certainly shouldn’t complain, but as you said I’ve made careful choices. I made one choice that turned out to not be a careful choice and it was really difficult to deal with and I don’t want to deal with that again. So with all of the bigger movies I’ve been involved with, at any moment that they feel like they could go in the Cabin Fever 2 direction, I bail out.
You’ve recently done some acting as well for Joe Swanberg, in Drinking Buddies, in a reversal from your V/H/S roles. How did he get you involved?
He just said, ‘Come to Chicago and be in this movie’ and I said, OK. He’s one of my best friends so it was a no-brainer. I don’t have a big aspiration to act and I don’t even think I’m very good at acting, but he had me come there and just be kind of an idiot and I was like, I can do that! It was a really great thing to be a part of Joe’s biggest movie to date, and the cast was really great. To see Joe have more money and have a more deliberate schedule and this great cast, but still hanging out making a Joe movie, was really fun.
Because of our shared love of karaoke: What do you think your karaoke song choices say about you?
Hmm. I don’t know. Lately I’ve been doing “She’s Like The Wind” by Patrick Swayze and feeling pretty good about it. I enjoy karaoke because it removes all snootiness from the environment, and L.A. is a very snooty, stuck-up city. When you go out to bars in L.A. everyone’s there just looking miserable. But when you go do karaoke in L.A., everybody’s having a good time. And there’s nothing like a great song choice where you can catch people off guard and they’re like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome.’
V/H/S is in select theaters today. Read more here.