The House of the Devil: Ti West Interview

Drew Fortune :: Thursday, February 25th, 2010 5:00 pm

Writer/director Ti West’s The House of the Devil (in stores now on DVD and Blu-Ray) is a loving throwback to those scrappy horror movies churned out in the 1980s by companies like Vestron and Cannon Video. Take a mental trip back to the horror section of your favorite Mom n’ Pop video store growing up, and you can imagine seeing a sun-bleached VHS copy of The House of the Devil perched on a dusty shelf, right at home next to a copy of Slumber Party Massacre 2 or 976-Evil. The film nails the details of that era with an uncanny eye for little details (the wood paneling, the old Pepsi logo on a paper cup in a greasy pizza joint). Although the film may give you pangs of nostalgia, House of the Devil is not an exercise in camp and West is not interested in winking at the audience. It’s a slow burn, steeped in dread, paranoia and old fashioned, haunted house chills.

The story concerns a strapped for cash college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who takes an ominous babysitting assignment from a creepy couple, played with quiet menace by horror vets Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov.  With a lunar eclipse in the sky and the growing realization that she may be trapped in a house with Satanists, Ti West has given us one of the most engrossing horror films in years. In an industry obsessed with delivering instant visceral gratification to gore hounds who happily lap up whatever torture porn vehicle or remake is shoved under their nose, West takes a different approach with House of the Devil. By saving most of the shocks for late in the third act, we are caught up in Samantha’s growing dread and we feel for her plight. When the shocks do come, West knows how to deliver. With this loving ode to the past, West has established himself as the future of horror.

Have you always wanted to do a period piece set in the 1980s, and it just took the right script to make you want to do it?

Ti West: It’s a little bit of both. I’m very fond of the era, and I love ‘80s movies. But really, since the movie is about Satanism in the United States in the early 80s, there was this kind of weird hysteria surrounding Satanism and satanic cults, so it didn’t make sense to me to set the movie in any other time period.  That was the real driving force behind setting the movie in the 80s. It’s like if you were making a movie about psychedelics, you’d want to set it in the sixties.

You just turned 29. Since we’re about the same age, growing up I remember the ‘80s pretty well, but I’m wondering how you were able to capture the time period so well, with idiosyncratic touches that make it truly feel like the film was shot in the early to mid ‘80s.

TW: I think I’m just a bit of a weirdo. I guess it’s just this bizarre skill that I have. I have a very photographic memory of my youth during that time, and I’m an only child, so I was just very absorbed by what was going on around me during that time.

Did you grow up in a small town? In the film, a lot of the clothing in particular mirrors a small town image. There’s not a lot of valley girl or over the top ‘80s fashion going on.

TW: Yeah, I didn’t want it to be a parody type of thing. I feel that’s been beaten to death. I grew up in Delaware, in the suburbs so that’s what I grew up around and what I knew.

How long was the shoot? Did you experience any satanic related interference?

TW: (laughs) It was a total of 18 days.  Every movie is a horrible, traumatic experience. It’s really an unpleasant thing making a movie, especially if you’re in charge. We had a lot of weird electrical problems and a lot of problems in general. Lights would explode, generators would break and lightening would strike.  We all made the joke that we were making a movie about Satanism and we felt like we were cursed.  It was just a lot of bad malfunctions. Eighteen days is incredibly short for a movie shoot, so we’re rushing around trying to get things done when all of a sudden a camera breaks, and the second generator breaks, and it’s like, “Dude, we don’t need this.” Coming off the nightmare that was Cabin Fever 2, I was very much a general on the film because that movie got so fucked with, so I was really stressed out trying to make sure that House of the Devil went smoothly.

So did you feel like a dictator on House of the Devil, maybe more so than you felt comfortable with? I mean, you seem like a pretty easy going guy.

TW: I would like to think I am, but some people may argue with that.

In terms of casting, and particularly the role of Ulman, you really needed an actor with a lot of presence and implied menace.  Did you always have Tom Noonan in mind for the role?

TW: He was always in the back of my mind. The casting of the female lead (Samantha) was really important to me, as it takes a very certain type of actress to pull off that role, but Noonan read the script and liked it. It was really the easiest situation ever with him, because he was like, “Hey, I think I’d be great for this role,” and I was like, “I agree.” It was kinda weird, because I hadn’t even gotten to the stage of casting for that role yet, and Tom reached out to me, so it was perfect.

With Jocelin Donahue, what was it about her that made you feel she was right for Samantha. She certainly has that innocent, female in peril look of an ‘80s scream queen.

TW: She came in on the first day of casting, and I had a pretty good feeling about her right off the bat. I kept making her come back and putting her through the shit, just to make sure she could put up with me and the movie, because I knew I was going to be putting her through hell in the actual movie. She really understood the movie from an intellectual point. She got it, and felt really connected to the character, so it was a pretty easy decision. I tested her will, but she passed the test.

You definitely put her through the ringer in the film’s third act.

TW: Yeah, I’m sure she totally enjoyed that.

Speaking of the film’s climax, it’s gory, but never exploitive. Have you always had a “less is more” take on horror, in terms of atmosphere over gore?

TW: Yeah, that’s just always been my taste. Some people are the other way around. Some people make horror movies and are only focused on different ways to kill people, and I don’t really think that way. This movie was more about paranoia and things like that, so the violence wasn’t my top priority. In terms of shooting the violent stuff, it’s almost a bummer because it’s so technical. You have to be so concerned with every little physical movement, and make sure that someone is looking a certain way, so it doesn’t feel overly creative by the time you’re done. Dreaming up the ways to do the violence is very exciting, but the actual making is pretty exhausting.

I grew up watching Tales from the Crypt, and I’ve been a gore hound ever since. Growing up, were you always into horror or was it something you got into later in life?

TW: I think if you look at my taste in movies, it’s not all horror by any means, but I basically grew up in a video store, so the taboo stuff on the shelves always intrigued me. I was always on a quest to find the most upsetting, frightening movies out there. Gross-outs, and movies with a lot of sex, those are the things that as a kid you’re always trying to find. Subconsciously, as I got a bit older, my taste in movies became a bit more intellectual.

I remember always trying to get my mom to rent Waxwork for me, because technically I think it was X-rated.

TW: Oh yeah, I think I pulled the same scam.

With House of the Devil, and I hate to lump it in with something like Grindhouse where the director is winking at the audience, I think the fact that we care about Samantha and feel sympathy for her plight, really sets the film apart from other genre films. In the future, are you interested in character-driven dramas?

TW: That’s really all I’m interested in at the moment. I’ve made four horror movies, and all have had fun, pulpy horror stuff in them. I’ve done really intense, graphic violence, and Cabin Fever 2, which was this outrageous, over-the-top disgusting comedy, so I’ve spent the last four years killing people in movies. It’s satisfying to a certain extent, but you feel like sometimes you’re making the same movie four times in a row. It’s like a writer making a movie about the writing process four times in a row.  As you get older, and more interested in people and certain emotions, you do want to find horror stories that are about people that you care about and can relate to, or that add something believable to a genre that tends to forget about character. That sort of high concept, effects driven stuff has gotten pretty tired. It needs to go away, and come back in five years, and then it will be cool again, but it’s just so exhausting now. Saw, Cabin Fever and Open Water, those films really hit and brought horror back to the mainstream. It was great, but then the torture porn stuff kept dragging on, and it’s like, “Ok, we get it.” You know what I mean?

In that regard, where do you see the future of horror going, or what trend would make you happy? As a fan and as a filmmaker?

TW: I would be happy if I saw more movies like The Eclipse, which hasn’t been released yet but I saw at Tribeca and really loved.  Any kind of subtle, spooky movies like Let the Right One In or even something like District 9 is pretty great for the genre. The reality of the “Where is horror headed” question is really a matter of what the audiences will pay for. Everyone bitches and moans about remakes and sequels, yet last year the two big studio released horror films were Drag Me to Hell and Jennifer’s Body, neither of which did very well. But, the Friday the 13th remake killed at the box office. So it’s the public’s own fucking fault. If you don’t want this shit to get made, don’t pay to see it. Studios don’t do these remakes because it’s such an amazing concept, they churn them out because they make money and it’s a business. I wish that the people who care about good films would step it up a notch and go out and support the hell out of Let the Right One In to show that a movie like that could make a lot of money.

Like anyone needed a PG-13 Stepfather remake…

TW: Exactly! Give your money to Let the Right One In and not the fucking lame studio remakes!

One thing that I find really disheartening was Rob Zombie remaking Halloween. I loved House of a 1,000 Corpses, and Devil’s Rejects to a certain extent, but it seems like someone with an obvious love for the genre and a unique sensibility as a director shouldn’t do a remake. If some studio drove a dump-truck full of money up to your house, would you do a remake?

TW: I doubt it. There’s the career boosting element to it, but I don’t think so. As a filmmaker, it just seems pointless to make a movie that’s already been made, even if you add your own unique touch. It’s even worse when they’re remaking good movies; it’s really hard to improve on that.

Do you see yourself as always being a writer/director?

TW: I think it’s just pretty much the same job. I’ve tried to work on other people’s scripts and nothing comes to fruition. I read other people’s stuff and I’m always thinking, “It would be better if it was like this.” I basically just tell the writer that they should just go out and make the movie, because they know the story better. So to me, being a writer and director is part of the same job, in the sense that if someone has a question about the script or the shot, you have the answer, and are equally qualified to answer both questions. It’s like if I was working on someone else’s script and had to say, “Well, let me check with the writer.” That, to me, doesn’t make sense.

Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?

TW: No, I figured that out pretty late in life. I went to film school in NYC, and met Larry Fessendon (Habit) who liked a short film that I made. He said that if the only thing stopping me from making a feature was money, he would offer to give me some and see if I could do it. So that’s how my first feature Roost got made. Before, during and after Roost, I worked in the mall and made the movie in my spare time. There was none of the “I come from a family of filmmakers type stuff.” I was in bands my whole life and that’s what I wanted to do. But then I got to a point where everyone was going off to college so I figured I should probably try and figure out a fall back plan. So moviemaking was something that I just went out and gave it a shot, and fortunately it’s worked out so far.

Looking at Fessenden’s career, he never really made the leap to mainstream, but he’s gone on to inspire a lot of filmmakers and certainly has a cult following. Would you like to follow that career trajectory, or do you want to take on the mainstream and do damage from within the system?

TW: Well, I think anyone to a certain extent wants to be in the mainstream, if nothing else then for the film to get seen by more people. But I’ve come to realize that what makes Larry and I get along so well is that our sensibilities are very similar, and unfortunately those sensibilities, which I think are very great, are not the mainstream. The reason that it’s so hard for Larry or someone like me, is that we have to go against everything that makes sense to us. It’s like we have an idea for a movie and we really see it happening a certain way, and while it may have potential to be a bigger movie if you changed things, I really don’t want to make those changes and sacrifice integrity. It doesn’t mean I’m right and the studio or whomever is wrong, it’s just that it’s a creative lifestyle making movies, and you never know if the movie you just made may be your last. It’s such a fucked up industry, so that’s why I fight so hard to make it my way, because I’m always thinking that each movie may be my last, so I want to make sure I’m super proud of it. Because that’s all I’ve got. If you don’t like it, that’s cool, because you don’t have to like it. But I want to be able to feel that I did my best with it. If you make a movie with all kinds of input from people whose ideas you don’t agree with and people don’t like that movie, it’s just like “Fuck, I should have just done it my way.” I think that mentality, and maybe it’s a bit selfish but that’s part of being a director, I think makes it hard to succeed in the mainstream.

One Response to “The House of the Devil: Ti West Interview”
  1. Drew is HOT! And perhaps the best writer you all have! I great writer because I’ve read his stuff. Hot because I met him a few weeks ago!

    Posted by: Stacy March 5th, 2010 at 4:12 am