Director Ti West on The Innkeepers and the Current State of the Horror Genre

By , Columnist

For fans of traditional horror movies that value suspense, atmosphere, and dread over empty gore and endless jump scares, Ti West is somewhat of a genre saviour. He first came onto the scene in 2005 with the zero budget bat/zombie romp The Roost and followed that up with the experimental and minimalist hunted humans thriller Trigger Man. Both were strong genre entries, just produced on such a small scale that they didn’t get much attention outside of the horror community.

That all changed in 2009 with his fantastic satanic horror flick The House of the Devil, a movie that carefully teased audiences for the bulk of the running time, pulling in countless critical accolades and achieving cult classic status by the time it hit DVD. A studio-mangled but hilariously disgusting sequel to Cabin Fever followed that West publicly dismissed before it was released straight to DVD.

Everyone was anxious to see how the budding auteur would finally follow up The House of the Devil and the good news is that on February 3 his latest horror movie The Innkeepers drops onto screens (and on VOD) and doesn’t disappoint. The subtle ghost story about a pair of aimless 20-somethings working dead end jobs in an aging hotel they are convinced is haunted instantly ranks amongst West’s finest work. It’s a gently comedic and character-driven piece that slowly builds towards a brilliant ghostly climax that will not only please fans of the filmmaker, but also provide an effective haunted house antidote to the overblown genre productions to disappoint in recent weeks (I’m looking at you, The Devil Inside).

The Morton Report got a chance to chat with the budding horror auteur about the origins and influences of The Innkeepers, his thoughts on the current state of the horror genre, and his plans for the future. Read on if you enjoy things that go bump in the night.

I heard the hotel from The Innkeepers was the same one you stayed at while shooting The House of the Devil. Could you talk a little bit about how the first experience staying there led to your current movie?

Yeah, we stayed there because it was cheap. It was strange because there we were making this satanic horror movie, but weirder things were happening at the hotel. It was really kind of just goofy stories. But then when I started making my next movie, I’d always wanted to make a ghost story and thought, “Well, why don’t I just make the one that I lived.” So I just wrote it really quickly and then I realized, “Oh no, if the Yankee Peddler says no, then I just wasted my time and all I’ll have is a writing sample.” Thankfully they said yes and the next thing we knew we were back there. It was really surreal, but we went back there and made the movie.

Did anything specific happen at the hotel that eventually led to a scene in the movie?

Not really, it’s slightly familiar that way. But nothing particularly amazing happened. I don’t believe in ghosts, so for me it’s kind of hard to buy it. But, doors opened and closed by themselves. Lights would turn on by themselves. TVs turned on by themselves. My phone would ring and no one would be on the other line, which was weird.

One thing that happened when we were shooting The Innkeepers that seemed particularly weird to me was to do with the room we chose to be the most haunted room in the hotel, the honeymoon suite. I picked it because it was on the third floor and at the end of a long hallway that I could use for a dolly shot. So I saw it and thought, "That’s what we need, we’ll shoot there." But then when we wrapped we found out that’s supposed to be the most haunted room in the hotel in real life. It could just be a coincidence, but when you add it to all the other stuff, I don’t know, it’s just a strange place.

I was wondering if there’s a personal element to the film for you because the down 'n' out ambitionless 20-somethings in the movie felt very authentic?

Yeah, I think I could either make movies or be a busboy. I don’t have any intermediate skills. I could either make my own movies or have a minimum wage job. That’s all I did with my whole life for 10 years or so. I’ve had every crappy job there is. I have a kind of love/hate relationship with it. To me, I find it really charming that you sort of create an insular world at those jobs. You have work friends who aren’t your real friends. All that stuff is really appealing to me. The goal with The Innkeepers was to make a ghost story, but to make a really charming ghost story. That’s what we went for.

Was the comedy in the movie important to you in that respect, because it does make it feel quite different from your other movies?

Yeah, House of the Devil was a real downer of a movie in as far as it’s about a broke girl in college who is kind of desperate and bitter. And because of that situation she ends up in a far worse situation. So, I ended up trying to make a movie that went the opposite way. Despite this movie having another downer ending, it’s at least upbeat for the first half.

Was it difficult to find two actors like Pat Healy and Sara Paxton who could play this sort of dry and awkward humor in the script?

House_of_the_Devil_02-740221.jpgDry humor is very hard and not a lot of people do it well. It would have been very easy to make Pat’s character the big fat guy who keeps falling down or whatever, but who cares about that. That’s every movie. But to find someone who can do the dry snarkiness, there are very few people who can do it well. I knew Pat and had him right from the get-go, so that was easy. But to find someone to play Claire was really challenging. It is a very subtle…not everyone has that humor and that ability. But when I met Sara she really got it. She’s not necessarily like Claire in real life, but she is closer to her than other characters she’s played, so it was really easy to manipulate and exploit that.

Did you have any specific haunted house movies in mind as an influence?

Yeah, the original A Christmas Carol was one. I get really concerned about copying stuff, so generally around the time of making a movie, I don’t watch a lot of movies. I might show the DP something for color palette or lens choices. That’s just an easy way to get a visual representation of it to the crew so that they know what I’m talking about. But I’m never like, I want to do shots like these or make it look like this movie. So I’ll use it like a tool, but never in a sense of bringing everyone together to say, “hey guys, this is what we’re going for.”

I really enjoyed how your film felt more quiet and delicate than the sort of jump-scare ghost stories that are more common today.

Well, the majority of things now are such lowest common denominator. To see something that’s not just someone getting killed every ten minutes or something derivative or familiar every ten minutes is novel. I don’t necessarily want to say that I get more credit than I deserve. I don’t quite know how to put it, but I make horror differently than other people do simply because I have an old fashioned sensibility. I don’t think I’m doing anything groundbreaking, I’m just not doing the current trend, so it kind of makes it sticks out a little bit more.

I loved that all of the effects in the film were practical. I was wondering if you deliberately avoid digital effects and whether you ever considered using them in The Innkeepers or any other project?

No, it’s a financial thing more than anything else. It’s not that I love CGI or anything like that, it’s just that I’ve never really had the budget to be able to do CG well and I don’t want to do it poorly. All of my movies have some CG in it that you just wouldn’t necessarily notice. Just simple stuff like painting out a light in the background. I’m always doing digital effects, like for example in The House of the Devil the house was supposed to burn down at the end, but we couldn’t really burn down the house and I didn’t have the confidence to do it in CG and have it not look shitty, so we just didn’t do it. But if we could have, I would have burned the f***ing house down. Or if I could have had WETA, I would have CG burned the house down. But I couldn’t, so we didn’t.

Was there any expectation on your part that The House of the Devil would make the impact that it did? Obviously an excellent film, but definitely surprising how much it popped over your previous movies, which were pretty strong as well.

Well, when House of the Devil came out, I had such a chip on my shoulders to prove that Cabin Fever 2 wasn’t my fault. So that was all I was thinking about. I just wanted to make this movie the way I wanted to make it, because I got screwed on the last one. And then the fact that it did well, I felt vindicated, but I was also like, “Thank god.” And then as far as my movies before that. I mean, Trigger Man was kind of an experimental arty movie that I really just made to get that much attention. And also the combined budget of Trigger Man and The Roost was like $65,000. So, I’m still proud of the movies and think all of the stuff that’s in there is great, but you can only do so much for that much money.

Whereas to put it in perspective, we shot Innkeepers on 35mm and just shooting on 35mm cost $150,000. We shot The Roost on 16mm, which meant every dollar went into that. We only ever did one take. The enthusiasm was there, but it wasn’t until House of the Devil where I had $900,000 that I got to be like, “Okay, it’s more like a movie you’re used to because I actually have the time and the money to do it." I guess it’s the same with The Innkeeprs. I have the budget to at least make it technically accessible.

I actually quite liked Cabin Fever 2. Even though it felt disjointed and had clearly been tampered with in editing, there were passages that worked incredibly well. Is there any chance of a director’s cut ever being released?

I’d love to, but I think it’s unlikely. I’d have to budget it out, but I would need $200,000. Because I’d have to re-edit the movie from scratch, so that’s one project. And then I’d have to re-sound design the whole movie. Rescore the whole me. Redo all the CGI effects, re-do the titles, re-do the color correction, re-do the sound mix. I feel like it would cost at least $200,000 and I just can’t see that happening. Why would they do it? But, if someone approached me and said, “Hey, we want to do that,” I would do it tomorrow.

Have you seen the version that exists and is it close at all to what you intended?

I don’t know if I’ve sat down and watched the whole thing, but I’ve seen enough of it once it was out of my hands to kind of have an idea. I’ve probably seen it all in chunks, but I don’t own the DVD. I’ve never put it in and watched it. People say, “But if you wrote it and directed it, how different it could be?” and the best two analogies I can come up with are, it’s like Dane Cook telling Jerry Seinfeld jokes. The material isn’t necessarily that bad, but it’s just not hitting right because the delivery is messed up.

Or the other example is that it’s like a local band playing “Bille Jean” by Michael Jackson. It’s the same notes and the same song, but for some reason it doesn’t sound right. That’s the best way I can describe what happens when the person who wrote and directed the movie isn’t involved in the editing and the sound design and the score and everything. That’s kind of what the movie feels like to me now.

Each movie you’ve made has tackled a different subgenre of horror; any others you’re interested in trying?

Well, it seems like I’m going to do this science fiction movie next. So, that’s that. I was part of an anthology movie of found footage movies that played at Sundance and that’s probably about as far as I want to go into the found footage world. I wrote a werewolf movie for a pretty cool company that I hope we make. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ve got werewolves and sci-fi and probably one or two other ones and then I’ll be tapped on horror. Who knows?

What’s your angle on the werewolf thing, if you don’t mind talking about it?

The werewolf movie is like a comedy. It’s sort of like The Cable Guy, but with a werewolf. That’s the easiest way to describe it. I’ve just got to find the money to make it.

I’ve heard you react negatively to the “slow burn horror” label in the past and I was curious why because I don’t think it’s a bad thing and certainly not something that we see often anymore.

No, I don’t think it’s a bad thing and I think the people who say that mean it to be complimentary. I know everyone means well, it’s just because I hear it so often I spend a long time thinking about it and I feel like no one says, “Wow that’s a slow burn comedy.” No one comes out of Moneyball saying, “Wow, that’s a slow burn baseball movie.” It’s only for horror and it’s new because when The Exorcist or The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby came out no one said, “Oh that’s a slow burn horror movie.” It’s only new horror movies that are described that way and I think it’s because so many horror movies in the last ten years have been fast-cut and lowest common denominator.

So when something comes along that’s not like that people feel this need to label it as something. It’s complimentary, so it’s fine. But it’s a weird thing where it’s like, why call the thing that is more like everything up until now slow burn instead of calling everything else or fast burn or something? In my world, I hear it a lot, so I just think, “Where does it come from?” I get it, but where did it start? Why did it start? Like would you call The Exorcist slow burn? At this point I think it would be, right?

Yeah, in fact you could call every horror movie up until a certain point slow burn.

Yeah, and that’s my other thing. I would say that up until the '90s everything was slow burn. So if everything was slow burn, what’s not is what’s different. I guess it’s just because now I’m in the minority of horror movies that aren’t people getting killed every ten minutes, so they came up with a minority label for it. I guess my thoughts about it are since it’s such a commonly used buzzword, I want people to question it. It’s fine to use, but why are we using it? I don’t know if anyone really does, it just sort of happened.

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Phil Brown was born years ago. He then grew up, went to university, and now reviews movies, interviews people and writes comedy. He writes for a number of websites and publications including the one you are currently reading. Phil can be found haunting movie theatres around Toronto. He isn't dangerous,…

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