SXSW ’11 INTERVIEW: ‘The Innkeepers’ Director Ti West!

One of the most anticipated films of the SXSW Film Festival was Ti West’s latest slow-burn horror, The Innkeepers, which is being compared to his previous entry, The House of the Devil.

About the last two staffers (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) of a haunted hotel that’s going out of business, Bloody Disgusting’s David Harley caught up with West to talk about what people are saying is one of the scariest films of the year.

Dark Sky Films will release later this year.
David Harley: There are a lot of similarities between House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers in terms of pacing and plot and action beats. What drove you to create this kind of style for yourself? What attracts you to the slow-burn?

Ti West: It’s weird. When people say slow-burn about this one, I think `Again with the slow-burn!’ I don’t think I’m really aware of it, it’s just my style. But it’s not on purpose. I really thought this movie had regular sort of pacing, because there’s a lot of humor in it. So, I don’t really look at it like that. But, I think slow-burn is just a way of saying `How come there’s not much more horror in the beginning?’ That, for me, is my own personal taste. I don’t think horror is successful until you really get to spend time with the characters in the movie because if something bad happens to them, they’re just the people in the movie. It’s like, who cares? Then you’re just there to see the special effects which, when making a low-budget movie, is not what I’m really after.

But if you do get to spend 30 minutes with these people, hanging out and laughing, you feel like you get to know them. Then when something happens… Like, I remember one part when Sara falls down the stairs and you see a cut on your head. You’re like `Hey, what’s that? She’s not supposed to have a big cut on her head. This isn’t that movie.’ I think that’s what makes that effect; the contrast of the non-horror stuff. You shouldn’t have characters that belong in a horror movie, they should just find themselves in the situation.

BD: The way you set up the comedy makes the film feel a lot lighter than you tend to usually go. It actually reminded me of The Hole, where all the characters are extremely innocent and it has this kind of whimsical vibe. The characters kind of know what’s going on, but they spend most of the time speculating and trying to get concrete evidence. What made you gravitate towards that? It’s quite a departure from your usual style.

West: House Of The Devil was about this girl who’s broke and bummed out. I just didn’t want to do that again. I’ve had crappy jobs where you’re just stuck there all day and I wanted to make a charming movie about that. I used to sell jeans before I did this. When I was selling jeans, I somehow found myself in a ghost story that’s kind of crazy. So I thought that would be an interesting way to get these people with these mediocre jobs who don’t have that much ambition but aren’t quite apathetic. Then they find themselves in this larger than life situation and we look at how they handle that. That’s sort of where it came from.

BD: When Kelly’s character is talking, there’s a strong emphasis – even in the tagline for the poster – on the emphasis of our country’s current economic state. Like you said, the characters aren’t exactly in the most glamorous jobs. They’re making minimum wage and they might be worrying about what’s next but, at the moment, they’re enjoying themselves.

West: It’s not meant to be a social commentary about the recession, but that’s fine if that factors in because that’s what’s going on. To me, I’m only qualified to make movies and be a busboy. I don’t have any intermediate skills. I don’t even know how to work on a movie. I couldn’t A.D. I don’t know how to do it. I can just make them. That’s all I did before; I mowed lawns, I sold jeans, I was a busboy or a cook. Those are the things that I did.

To me, I like that vibe of that’s who these characters are. Yes, they’re on the bottom rung but it’s not that grim. It’s not like we’re digging ditches, but we’re also not doing anything that cool either. That why there’s that moment when Claire is having a rough time after the person she wanted to like her didn’t like her, and then she has a weird, annoying relationship with the person working next door. She’s just bummed out, thinking `My life’s not bad, but should I be doing something else?’ There’s that weird kind of indecisiveness that I think really exists.

BD: I think the normal, humdrum life you’re creating for these characters really comes out in the dialogue. They have random conversations that aren’t really important, and spend a lot of time bullshitting and hanging out. The relationship rings true.

West: There wasn’t a tremendous amount of improvising in the movie, but there are a few lines throughout the movie that they came up with or weird ways that they delivered it that was all on them. Pat improvised a couple of really funny lines, like the joke about Gozer. He just did that on the fly and I thought it was funny. Lena, the barista, improvised a few things that were great.

As a writer/director, I’m pretty meticulous with how it’ll be. I don’t police the actors too much, I let them do their thing but I run a tight ship about sticking to stuff when we can. Since I write the script, if they go off that and improvise, I don’t care because if they do something, I want it in the film. I don’t have to go consult with the writer; it’s me. It’s not like that.

BD: I know Pat was part of a sketch group back in the day. He seemed to be working his chops.

West: He might’ve been, he did some comedy for a while.

BD: So, the normal, ordinary lives of someone in Anytown, USA influenced you in terms of what angle you wanted to put on the story, but what made you choose ghosts as your next subject?

West: My personal experiences with staying at that hotel. I hadn’t done a ghost movie, so I figured I’d do one. I about staying in this hotel and weird stuff happening. What if I just went back to that hotel and shot it there? I lived that and felt I had a good eye to make it charming and scary. I’d already spent enough time in that hotel already. It was very weird going back there but it was really just my personal experience of having lived there during making House Of The Devil. There’s really a Luke that works the front desk that has a ghost website, having Dee Wallace talk to me about spiritual stuff, and having doors and close by themselves. Everyone kept talking about how weird it was. What better than to draw from that personal experience?

BD: But you don’t actually believe in ghosts.

West: No, I don’t.

BD: I’m pretty curious: As a skeptic, you saw weird stuff there, people told you about weird stuff they’d seen… it seems to me that you would try to rationalize all these strange things.

West: It was the closest I’d ever come.

BD: Was there a specific incident that swayed you?

West: Yeah. My phone rang one time and there was nobody there, and they told me that’s what happens in the hotel. I said `Eh, could be something else.’ Then the door opened by itself, but that could’ve been something else. Someone could’ve opened it, it’s an old building. The only thing I can’t explain is that as soon as I had got there, when I was doing House Of The Devil, I came back to sleep and I’d have these really weird, vivid dreams. It only happens there. I’m staying in a hotel here and nothing. Everyone on the crew had weird dreams, too. They’d all wake up and talk about them. That, combined with Dee Wallace and the people who worked there telling me it was haunted… There wasn’t enough to convince me, but I thought maybe it could be. It was the closest I’d ever come, I’m pretty skeptical. I’d have to see a ghost, then I’d be a believer.

The other thing that was really weird was the Honeymoon Suite in the movie, where Madeline hung herself, is where we picked to shoot simply because it had a longer room and I could do that long tracking shot into the bathroom. After we were done and wrapping up, they said, `Oh yeah, that’s the most haunted room in the hotel.’ So, the room I picked which I had no knowledge of and I only picked because of technical reasons ended up being the room that’s most haunted in the entire place.

BD: What luck!

West: It’s weird stuff, man. It’s like a Bermuda Triangle in that place.

BD: I really love ghost movies; it’s actually my favorite horror subgenre. I think, whether you’re spiritual or not, believe in something or are atheist, the idea of spirits and demons kind of challenges something that nobody really comprehends and is widely enough reported, making it conceivable to some. Whether those people are cuckoo or not is another thing entirely, but out of all the otherworldly threats, ghosts – and aliens – seem to be the most prominent in terms of what adults are actually fearful of. Is that what attracts you to the subject matter?

West: Maybe. Sorta. I think that the reason most ghost stuff is so compelling is that no one really believes in zombies or vampires, but ghosts is something you might run into. I think there’s some element of this could be true and it could be around us at all times and also dealing with our own mortality. What happens after you die? Is it a religious thing or not? I think that’s a more relevant human concern than whether or not a zombie is going to break into your house.

BD: Kelly’s character is an old curmudgeon healer-psychic who drinks herself to sleep. It seems so specific… do you know that person? (laughs)

West: Yeah, but I’m very, very sensitive about it. It’s not based on Dee Wallace because she is an awesome, wonderful leady and the character in the movie is an alcoholic asshole. But, when I was doing House Of The Devil and staying at the hotel… She is a healer now, that’s what she does. She does have pendulums and did talk to me about how that stuff works. It was just really kind of amazing. I don’t know how much I believe in it, I think it might be too new agey for me. It was just really interesting. That’s where the idea of Kelly being that came from, but the personality is not based on Dee Wallace. That’s where I got the pendulum ideas from. I experienced that in the hotel. I was like, `Woah, I’ve never seen this before.’ So that’s where the genesis of the idea came from.

BD: Did you actually see it work?

West: She did what they do, yeah. She was awesome, she kept in touch and gives me all these weird messages. I think Dee Wallace is one of my favorite people I’ve worked with. It was also funny because everyone recognized her, like from E.T., so I wanted to have someone like that that everyone recognizes as this character. But instead of being cool like Dee, she ends up being an asshole. It’s the opposite of Dee.

BD: The creepiest performance in the movie, hands down, is George Riddle’s character.

West: We always wanted this old man at the end of his life to come close out his last chapter in life, and there’s something about the hotel that brings him there. When he auditioned, that’s what happened in the audition and I said, `This is the guy.’ It wasn’t really written that way. He didn’t change the lines, but who knew or thought he was going to deliver it like that? I didn’t even know that guy existed but when I saw the tape, I was amazed. He brought something to it that I couldn’t imagine. He has such an odd way about him.

BD: The film has a very minimalistic approach. It’s not overloaded with effects, it’s a very small cast of characters with really only one setting. Was it important to you to keep it like that and place it in modern day? Since you kind of planned it as a classic ghost story, was there ever a specific time in mind?

West: I had no desire to make another 80s movie, and I really wanted to keep this in modern day. I don’t like technology in movies so I was able to avoid most of it.

BD: I saw Insidious the night before Innkeepers, and I felt like the presentation of the ghosts in both films are the exact opposite of one another. Whereas James goes out of his way to really show you everything, you kind of kept everything ambiguous for the most part.

West: To me, it’s very important that there’s two ways of looking at the movie. One way is the skeptic, cynical way, where you think there weren’t ever any ghosts and she just got wrapped up in her imagination and scared herself. Or, all the stuff in the movie was happening, there were ghosts, and she was meant to be there. I think you can look at it both ways, and it works both ways. Just keep it ambiguous enough that, depending on your own personal interest, you could see it both or either way.

BD: Since you layered the film like that, did you find it difficult to balance out both outcomes throughout the film? Or was it instinctual?

West: I just kind of went with my instincts. It’s kind of the same thing when people ask me, `How’d you know that was going to be scary?’ I just assumed. That was always what I had in mind.

BD: It’s like a parallel mind trek.

West: Yeah, it’s weird. There’s never really a moment when we thought there was only one way to look at it, it was always `That’s just what the movie was and we did our best to make it.’ Thankfully, it worked out.

BD: Were there any films that specifically influenced you, even just for scenes? I’m sure a lot of people are comparing the steadicam hallway scenes to The Shining.

West: Nobody can put a steadicam in a hallway without thinking of The Shining, but that’s really not what we wanted to evoke. No, there wasn’t specific stuff but I think, visually, the closest thing me and Eliot [Rockett] talked about was that I want him to shoot with these kooky wide-angle lenses and a lot of the weird steadicam stuff. We talked a lot about Heavenly Creatures, which is a serious subject matter but it’s shot in this really kooky way. That’s sort of what I wanted to do with this, just not as extreme. People ask me what the movie is like, and it’s really hard for me to describe. That opening basement scene in Ghostbusters was kind of the tone that I was going for, where it’s funny but also sort of scary. Or like The Frighteners.

BD: So, in other words, you really love Peter Jackson?

West: Oh yeah! Quite a bit. So, I’m really not a direct influence kind of guy, but I also don’t tell people to sit down and watch this movie because that’s what we’re trying to do. The vibe of those movies is more of what I was going for.

BD: You’ve done the satanic cult movie, now you’ve done the ghost movie, so what’s next?

West: I think I’m going to do this sci-fi movie I wrote. Since 2005, I’ve made five horror movies in a row so it’s kind of like how many times can I do someone’s head getting cut off? Or how many times can I do something popping out? I gotta take a break. Not that I don’t like it anymore, but it’s like when we were doing the special effects on the movie, it’s what I’ve been doing for the last six years. It’s not exciting anymore. If I can’t find something new to do with it, I feel like I’m doing the same thing.

Steven Soderbergh had this really poignant comment where he said he just couldn’t get excited about doing over-the-shoulder camera shots anymore. He’s just chilling out right now. He’s like, `I’ve been doing it for so long, so I’m gonna do something else to motivate me.’ It’s still horror-ish, the sci-fi movie I’m working on. I’ve done zombies, vampires, like this shooting sort of serial killer thing…

BD: Like your own personal Most Dangerous Game.

West: Yeah, so I’ve done that. I’ve tried to do this gory comedy thing and got kind of screwed on that one with Cabin Fever, I did the satanic cult thing with House Of The Devil, and now I just did the ghost thing. It’s time try something outside of the box.