One of my more anticipated movies of the year would be writer/director Ti West’s newest collaboration with actor AJ Bowen, The Sacrament. Although both West and Bowen have a following in the horror genre, The Sacrament deviated from those strict genre limitations. Despite some people dismissing the film early on as being “found footage”, it’s rather a faux-documentary style, or “point of view” horror film, that mirrors the immersionism style of video journalism made famous in various VICE specials. The Sacrament is about a filmmaking crew who go to an isolated community where a journalist’s sister has taken residence. The film unfolds as a believable exploration of what inspires people to connect with other individuals who live on the fringe of society and the sacrifices that must be made for these people to be “happy”, and the film has some of the most disturbing sequences I’ve seen in any of West’s previous films. You can see from my review (which you can read here) that I was a big fan of the film when I caught a surprise screening at Fantastic Fest and it managed to exceed expectations. The following is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with West and Bowen down at Fantastic Fest, which you can read in its entirety over at The Wolfman Cometh. I’d like to thank Ti and AJ for taking the time to sit down and putting up with me!
WolfMan: AJ, people love seeing you as a villain. They love seeing you as a bad guy. And Ti, people know the deliberate, slower pace of your films. How do you find that balance between what your creative vision is while also not wanting to fall into the things that you get almost “typecast” for doing?
Ti West: Every movie I make, I try to make different movie than the last. That’s really the only effort I put into that. It’s really not for anyone else, other than me not wanting to repeat myself. Everything is subjective, so I don’t really give a shit what people say, since I can’t control it. I’m making these movies for myself, and if I can make them good enough for my standards, there will be other people out there who like them. I don’t know how many, but there will be someone besides just myself. There will also be people who hate them. I’m happy with movies that are either 1 star or 5 stars, those are the ones that are most interesting to me. The ones that are polarizing, because it means you’ve at least done something. I don’t even think about an audience. I’ve never made a movie for the audience before. It’s a very different process to do that, to make a movie that’s all about the people’s experience in the theater and their enjoyment and their attention span and that’s what you’re manipulating the whole time. I’ve never done that, it’s always just been about the movie. I assume if I did a big studio movie then I’d have to switch gears and just try to make a movie for an audience, otherwise it’s such an uphill battle that it’s probably not worth happening. With this movie, it’s tough for 15 year old kids to go see. Whether they know about Jonestown or not, there’s a lot of context and content in the movie that was born in 1992 might not get.
AJ Bowen: I don’t mean to sound glib about it, but I don’t give a shit.
WM: Wow, that’s very glib of you.
AJ: Fuck you. (laughs) I can’t concern myself with that stuff. What I concern myself with is my own sensibility. Another silly thing is the group of people who are making genre films. Ti is one of my closest friends, Ti’s my favorite filmmaker, I want to make movies with Ti. Our sensibilities are in line. I don’t concern myself with whether or not people like it. Obviously I’m not trying to say, “If you want to hate on it, hate on it.” It’s always preferable for people to identify with your work. I’m lucky because I’m just the actor in this group of people, so I tend to get a lot of good will. I’m very fortunate and grateful for that. As these movies get a little bit bigger, as more people see them, there’s a lot more criticism. I could spend a significant amount of each day reading people talking shit on me, and that’s fair. When we got into the movie, we knew that if we got to keep doing it, that eventually it would get to a place where people are seeing it that aren’t our buddies. As long as there’s a creative sincerity behind what you’re doing, we try really hard to do that, and I know for certain, myself, I’m just trying to do it better than I did it last time. I’m trying to not let my collaborators down. Like Ti said, if that means that five people are into it, great, because they’re into it for the right reasons. If that means 5,000, awesome, maybe it will make it easier for us to make another movie, but that stuff is a non-issue. It’s a non-factor.
WM: Are you glad you got to play a guy people liked? I mean, I didn’t personally like you, but I hear other people could relate to you.
AJ: It’s a weird thing, when you talk about performance. I still have to try to make the guy sympathetic when the first time you’re seeing him, he has a schtick that could be considered invasive of people’s privacy. It was important for us to try to find that line, that transition from turning that machine off and realizing he’s a person who has feelings and has to care. Beyond that, I can say that I’m profoundly grateful that we got to make this movie. For me, personally, it was such a hard right turn from stuff I had encountered right before. I think that’s important for creative people. Tell a story, and it’s important to allow yourself the privilege of taking a right turn like that and doing something different. It forms everything. It makes you better. I’m lucky. I love this movie. It took me a couple of days to figure it out. I knew it was good, in my opinion. I knew it was a bummer. This is some sad, sadtown, I don’t know if I like it. Then I figured out I love it.
WM: I really dug it, I hope it bums out a lot of people.
AJ: How can we make people more sad today…
WM: Obviously there are similarities between what happened in this movie and the events of Jonestown and those events were influences, but what were some of the things you tried to do to distance this film from the events of Jonestown?
TW: It’s certainly updated to a modern time, as far as that’s concerned. Some of the issues that were relevant in the 70′s to Jonestown are still relevant today, so that felt like a natural parallel. Involving something like VICE, it was a way to update things. It’s a personal story about someone who wanted to see his sister, so Jonestown was a model, but it’s really about what people in cults are like. There’s a three-dimensional perspective on that. When people say they know about the mass suicide (in the film), I’m okay with everybody knowing that’s going to happen because it’s not about the actual act itself. It’s about the things leading up to it and the things after it and what causes people to do that instead of them just dying in general. It was about counter-culture and feeling like you don’t have a place in the world and making your own version of that.
AJThere’s also a difference in that it led to other things that I thought about that we hadn’t actually discussed. We discussed plot and that kind of stuff, but just putting it in the VICE world and this concept of “immersionism”, it creates an entirely different conversation. It raises some questions about both mainstream media, fringe media, and how we get our information and how it’s presented as a piece of entertainment vs. information. I watched a lot of VICE for the movie, as well as other news, and Ti watched a lot of it, and I was aware of VICE, and I just thought, “Holy shit, these guys are putting themselves in these crazy positions,” and one thing that I never saw in any of it was any sense of judgement. We were talking a little bit about this concept of judgement and how important it is to reduce that as much as possible. That’s very interesting, especially considering the descriptions of “hipster journalism”, and it’s like, right, cool, you can say that behind a keyboard, but where are YOU going? Why are you coming from a place of judgement towards people sharing information?
WM: I think the lack of judgement from the VICE crew can be interpreted as oblivious. It’s like they Googled “conflicted areas” and the response is, “Oh, apparently the border between India and Pakistan, there’s a lot of shit going on down there, let’s just hang out see what happens!”
TW: The thing about it is the amount of education and riches that would be required to get there and do that…like, we can’t just roll up there and do that. There’s a process of very intelligent people working it out safely. I think the media in this country, there’s a very clear divide: there’s MSNBC and there’s FOX. There’s not a lot in the middle. Not to say that VICE is the middle ground, but they just don’t have that agenda. I think it’s interesting, there’s also about the balance of the media’s role in these conflicted places.
AJ: That kind of stuff is important and it sucks that it’s considered fringe.
WM: I stopped listening to the news when I could no longer get it from Tabitha Soren. It’s like, what’s the point.
AJ: I’m a little bit older, so Kurt Loder is where I finished.
WM: Isn’t he still out there, though? I mean, he’s alive? Good for him.