Although he made his first scary movie in 2005, writer/director Ti West didn't register on the radars of most horror fans until his retro-'80s shocker The House of the Devil premiered in 2009. Although it wasn't a Paranormal Activity-style box office smash, Devil quickly gained a strong cult following and made the 31-year-old filmmaker a person of interest in genre circles. On Friday, West's new film The Innkeepers -- a small-scale ghost story set in an old (and possibly haunted) hotel -- arrives in theaters after premiering on VOD last month. TWoP spoke with West during the New York leg of his nationwide press tour about stealing content, the ridiculousness of ghost hunting TV shows and his theory about Gus Van Sant's controversial Psycho remake.
TWoP: When The Innkeepers hit VOD last month, you penned an open letter asking that people watch it legally. Were you at all influenced by Louis C.K.'s similar note when he released his comedy special online?
West: You know, I have my own esoteric style as an indie filmmaker, but I'm making a movie that's ultimately a broad thing for anybody. Whereas to discover Louis C.K. -- who I think is brilliant, by the way -- you don't necessarily go, "I'm in the mood for comedy!" You seek it out more, in that case. Also Louis was talking to his audience more than, say, I would be, one because he's more famous, but also because anyone who goes to Louis C.K.'s site wants to know what he's up to. Whereas anyone that stumbles across my letter is probably someone on an indie film blog. And in my note, I wasn't saying that people would be stealing, I was saying that it's not supporting. To me, it was a matter of, when you got a museum there's a suggested donation and it's kind of a dickhead move to not toss in $10, because, c'mon, there's some great art in there. You don't have to like me or my movies, but everybody has the thing they like that nobody knows about and you should support that stuff, especially if you wonder why there isn't more of it. My hope with the letter was not so much "Don't steal my movie," it was making people aware that independent film is more of a lifestyle than a career and it's getting smaller. I don't think we can necessarily avert that, but it's still a powerful time as a consumer to say what you're interested in. I think there's a certain amount of apathy today; people feel, "It should all just come to me." And I don't think that's true. If nothing else, I'm hoping someone else will write a letter like I did. If Louis C.K. helped motivate me, I hope I can help motivate someone else to at least start talking about it.
TWoP: The House of the Devil, had the hook of being an '80s throwback. Did you view The Innkeepers as being a vehicle for you to really show what your personal style was outside of a period piece?
West: I don't think so. I mean, I would love to say yes. I think this movie is a weirdly personal movie because we lived in this hotel, while we were making House of the Devil and I'm forever charmed by the sort of minimum wage, stuck-at-work life, because that was my life once. House of the Devil is a little more genre-y than this movie in the high concept aspect of it and I know what you mean about the retro-ness of that movie. But I think people gave me more credit than I was going for. I was just making a period movie and I didn't want anyone to say that I didn't do the period well, because that's just laziness. So I was very meticulous about getting that done to get it off the table, but what ended up happening is that everyone focused on it. And really to me, it was just the setting more than anything else. So maybe this one is a little bit cleaner in that regard, as it's just the story and not the extra caveat of "And it's the '80s."
TWoP: Were there any specific films that influenced you while making this one? It definitely seems hard to make a movie about a haunted hotel without thinking of The Shining.
West: As soon as we put the camera on a Steadicam, I was like, "Ugh, everyone's going to have a field day talking about The Shining." But I didn't know what else to do! We had to move the camera somehow. I think we did our best not to evoke The Shining too much. I tried my best to avoid overt references to that movie -- it's hard, though. The only film I saw as a specific influence on this one was A Christmas Carol. Outside of that, I don't really watch a lot of stuff when I make movies because I'm afraid I'll get derivative or people will accuse me of copying something. Every now and then I'll try to explain something to somebody and I can tell I'm not articulating it properly and so I'll just say, "Okay, let me show you this scene from this movie, because it visually represents what I'm trying to say." But I don't tell the crew or the actors to watch specific movies because it makes me uncomfortable. As much as I'm matter-of-fact about what I want, I think I have a pretty easygoing vibe on set. For me, 85 percent of directing is casting and then 10 percent is editing and maybe 5 percent is directing. I'm completely pretentious on the inside, but I try to be humble and self-deprecating on the outside, because it's just embarrassing to me to talk about the loftier, pretentious things in the movie. I think that stuff is there, I'd just rather not have that conversation. Let's just agree that it's in there. [Laughs]
TWoP: The movie is clearly satirizing paranormal shows like Ghost Hunters and the like. As a more traditional horror fan, do you have a special hatred for those series?
West: I don't hate them. I'm actually fascinated by them because there's about four of them and they're all in Season 3 or 4, yet they fail in every episode! There's nobody better on the planet at finding ghosts than those people and they've never found any. So they've actually counter-productively proven that there's no such thing as ghosts because nobody else could do as good a job as they do and yet they can't find anything. If you had a job where you failed every week, you'd lose your job and the networks just give them more! So making fun of that was absolutely a theme in this movie. The idea that if the people who are the most prepared for ghosts actually found a ghost, they'd drop they're stuff and run away screaming because they wouldn't be able to handle it. I think they're popular because everyone knows somebody that has died and there's something relatable and mysterious about that. We have such a personal connection to that it feels like the most possible of any horror story. I think that's why the Paranormal Activity movies does so well too.
TWoP: I have a theory that Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake is one of the most influential horror movies of the past two decades because it anticipated the current cycle of remakes that the genre is stuck in right now. Your thoughts?
West: I have my own theory about Psycho: I think it's an art film, because there's no way on Earth that Gus Van Sant thought it was a good idea to make an ordinary remake. There's no way! Every movie he's made is artful and unique. To recreate a movie shot-for-shot doesn't make any sense at all. So I'm convinced that it was an experiment to see if you recreate something and make it almost dumb, does it still work? It has to be that, because it doesn't make sense that he would go from the movies he was making to wanting to do a Psycho remake. It wasn't big enough to be the ultimate payday. I would love to talk to him about it because I can't wrap my head around it. I have to think it was some kind of art experiment. It has to be. Finding Forrester is the sell-out Gus Van Sant movie. I can see that. Psycho is something else. I think he hoodwinked the whole world. It was like an Andy Kaufman trick.
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