[Stanley '14 Interview] Ti West On Mass Murder in ‘The Sacrament’

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If you read my review of The Sacrament out of the Stanley Film Fest earlier this week you can tell I was pretty engaged by it. So it was a no-brainer for me to sit down with writer/director/editor Ti West the following morning at the Stanley Hotel to talk about the themes of the film and the challenges of making it.

By the way, you can actually watch The Sacrament right now! The film hit iTunes and other VOD services today (May 1st) and will arrive in select theaters June 6th.

Check out the interview below!

aj bowen the sacrament crowd church

You were talking last night about the difference between mass suicide and mass homicide and I wanted to get into that a little more.

Yeah, even though the movie isn’t technically about Jonestown, when you take a look at Jonestown you find that people generally think of it as the mass suicide of all of these crazy religious fanatics. That’s a very reductive way to look at it. I think there’s a distance from Jonestown or any kind of tragic event you hear about on the news. There’s a safe distance from it, where you don’t connect to it emotionally. For me, an important part about making The Sacrament is that you sort of get put into the horror of it all. When you’re part of a group and your whole family and whole world is so small, no one just joins a cult. It’s you and your new family and this groovy new lifestyle that’s better than your old lifestyle. A lot of that comes out of desperation, which isn’t a great place to be coming from.

That’s the only way some people change though.

Exactly. When someone says “drink this poison now”, you don’t want to do that. But you’re watching all of your friends and family die around you and you have no money. In the case if Jonestown, you’re in the jungle of Guyana in 1978. You don’t just walk out of there. It’s not like there’s a plane waiting for you. You’re stuck there. You’ve been told over and over again that the CIA and the American Government are going to come in and wipe all of you out and you’ve been terrorized. You’re watching babies die around you. What are you going to do? Are you somehow going to get out of the jungle? Somehow get to an airport? Somehow get to the United States with no passport? And then be homeless with no money? That’s not really an option.

They presented a situation where drinking the poison is the better of the two options because the other one is so hopeless. You’re being manipulated by a psychopath. It wasn’t just some kooky religious people drinking poison. That’s not what happened.

Have you seen Faults?

I have not. The Riley Stearns movie?

Yeah. Both movies are very different, but they kind of get at an understanding of how this kind of thing could happen. Here you have Amy Seimetz’s character at the beginning where Bowen and Swanberg are like, “well she seems okay.”

Most of the time when you see movies with cults, they’re the bad guys. And they’re the bad guys from the moment they show up and they just get worse. They’re always seen as these crazy nuts, these violent people. They’re just seen as villains. To me, when you look at actual cults that’s not really the case. They don’t look like that. Nobody signs up to be in a cult, you just end up being in one. So it’s important that in the first half of the movie you’re seeing what it could have been like. There’s a part where AJ says, “I get why people live this way. I don’t want to live this way, but I get it.” That was important – that you see why people would do this if they had no better option. You need to humanize these people. Otherwise it’s not scary and it’s not about anything. And of course [Bowen, Swanberg and Audley] are a little skeptical when they get there because that’s their job. But aside from the weirdness it’s not so bad.

There’s a lot of action in the last third of the film and you edit your own stuff. What’s your system like with that? Because you’re not doing traditional coverage.

Yeah, this was a really hard movie to edit. I had an idea of how every scene was going to be put together, but the nature of how I shot it in this “doc style” opened a can of worms for a million options. And because the subject matter was serious and not overtly genre, I took a lot of time to get it right. It was hard. It was time consuming. This is also a movie where a lot of stuff got cut out. There are a few 3-5 minutes scenes that didn’t make it in and the central interview ran even longer. I’ve cut more out of this movie than any other movie I’ve made.

 
  • Maxime C

    Can’t wait to see it any longer. It’s gonna be great, I’ve total faith in Ti West. This dude is awesome. I didn’t dig the Cabin Fever 2 thing, of course, but everything else was really good. Really good !!