Famous for his slow-burn approach to trigger chills down the spine of every audience member, American filmmaker Ti West is best known for his work within the horror genre which has included such films as The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers and V/H/S. Like any filmmaker, West is no stranger to the festival circuit with his films screened around the world taking home a myriad of awards along the way.
After treating this year’s Glasgow Frightfest with his latest film The Sacrament we caught up with Ti to discuss the film, the benefits of hiring your best friends and what inspired him to try something up a slightly different street.
Hi Ti and welcome to Glasgow Frightfest. You’re no stranger to the festival after your films The Roost, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers have been shown as part of the official line-up at the London event. You’re here with The Sacrament and it’s great to see you back. What is it about Frightfest that keeps you coming back for more?
In general the three people who programme it, Alan, Paul and Ian are so die hard about doing it and it shows with everything they do. Also, they don’t programme too many movies both at London and here (Glasgow). Instead they only play four or five films each day and it makes it easy to see everything because it’s not overwhelming and you know that the programming is going to be diverse.
And as a filmmaker?
As a filmmaker, when you come to this festival it is a very welcoming environment. Usually when you have a film showing at a festival you miss out on so much because you are working as you’re trying to promote or sell your movie. You’re exhausted. There are a lot of cool movies that you just miss out on and you’re like ‘I really like that guy and I want to see his movie’ but you rarely have time. With Frightfest, this is where I catch up on a lot of movies because everything is usually on one screen which is an important thing. What it does, when everything is on one screen, everyone sees the movie and talks about that movie and I can’t praise this community enough for that. When festivals get too big and there are big films at the same time on different screens there are multiple conversations that are going on and the sense of community gets lost. Here, people will see the one movie then talk about that one. They’ll see the next movie and talk about that. The sense of community is very smart and I like that with Frightfest.
So Ti, you’re here with your latest film The Sacrament. After watching the film I understand that the story was loosely based on real events. Could you tell us more about what inspired you to make the film?
Well I wanted to make a horror film that did not have any supernatural elements. For me as a filmmaker what was interesting was to try something different and challenging also. I think that real life stuff is much more scarier than made up stuff.
I was trying to think of what is really scary and I was always fascinated with what happened in Jonestown and I thought that was very terrifying because people see it as a mass murder thing but the reasons why it happened aren’t as bizarre as you’d think. Once you learn how this happened its that much more terrifying and tragic. This was a good jumping off point for my movie to do that and inject realism presenting it as an event.
I see. So how much of the story actually relates to what happened in the tragic events of Jonestown?
Its structure has many differences in Jonestown and it’s not about Peoples Temple but the last fourty eight hours of Jonestown is sort of the structure for what happens in this movie. Scenes are similar as things that brought joy to a lot of people in Peoples Temple in the ‘70s are still relevant to today. So as history repeats itself this is an updated version with the same themes. Essentially, what was scary then is just as scary now.
The Sacrament is very different to your previous work and many may refer to the film as found footage. What is your opinion of the stigma attached to this form of filmmaking?
It’s more of a fake documentary then found footage but this is of course semantics so no one should get stressed out. Found footage to me implies a tape that was found in editing that’s pretending to be real. I always thought that we were making a mockumentary but there is no fixed term for that but I thought we were making a documentary and I think that people who see it will be fine with that. The impression that it is kind of a found footage-ish movie its not annoying as far as the found footage aspect is. If you see the marketing for the movie you take away from it that there is a point-of-view element in the movie but its not like a ‘hey we stuck a camera in the corner of the room’ or ‘hey we’re on our phone everyone let’s say hi’ so it’s not that weird clumsy behind-the-scenes type stuff. In this movie the characters are making a documentary essentially. I make it very clear from the start of the movie firmly stating that this is a documentary and there’s something cinematic about this that a found footage movie couldn’t be. But at the end of the day it’s not that much of a big deal, the marketing of this movie will serve to help those that are put off by the found footage element. When people are having a debate as to whether it is a horror movie or not, whether it is a found footage movie or not, it’s still good because people are talking about the movie. I would prefer people to talk about the social relevance of the movie and things like that but at the end of the day the aim of this movie is to become something that people talk about.
I know that you used Vice which I understand is an actual real-life video journalism based company. Considering the bleakness of the subject matter how did you get them to let you use their brand for your film?
I just asked them really. It wasn’t hard. It seemed as though it may have been a harder job than it was but it really wasn’t. The movie is not about their company. Sure the guys work for Vice but the movie isn’t really about the company at all. It’s more about the video journalism aspect of it. Vice give the best video reports telling some very interesting stories from odd perspectives without political bias when compared to some of the bigger news companies in the States. Vice are just promoting their brand. They don’t have a political agenda so that is what was so interesting to me. Again, using a real life thing as the archetype for this story and a real life company was important to me. Yes it is a horror movie and all that but it is really about, and should make you think about, the social, economic, political and racial issues. This is an important part of it as this is where people get misled out of their desperation. Using a real company really transcends the movie and hopefully when you leave the theatre you’re thinking about the real company, the real Jonestown and the tragedy behind the myth.
You are well known for shocking audiences and The Sacrament is no exception to this. There are certain key scenes in the film that managed to stun me and that’s usually a hard task. What was running through your head when writing the more sensitive scenes of the film?
I knew when I filmed something with a little kid or an old person the weight of the material just felt heavier. That is what the story was about so it had to be that way. This isn’t a movie about a very attractive white blonde girl doing something stupid and getting killed in some creative fun way way. It’s a movie where the violence should be confrontational. It should make you feel uncomfortable because it is a serious movie at the end of the day. It’s not some kind of fun movie. That’s really not the tone. So in doing that it is trying to present the violence in an unpleasant way. There are a group of people who are accustomed to celebrating when someone is killed in a movie, there are a group of people who see it for what it is and it is those kind of people that make you feel uncomfortable and this is what we’re talking about with this movie.
It’s also a wierd movie too where it has been interesting to see that people think that it is a much more graphic movie than it actually is and when it’s over people will be like ‘Oh my God’. It’s really not that bloody and it’s not that gory, but in retrospect it feels like you’ve seen more than what is actually there. To me, one of the better scenes in the movie is the sister and brother scene. Again, it’s not a gory scene at all but it’s a tough scene to sit through as it’s stretched out. It was on purpose and what it does is stick with you.
Let’s talk about the casting of the film. I know you are close to actors AJ Bowen and Joe Swanson and I understand that you like to cast them in your films and vice versa. Did you write the roles of Jake and Sam for them especially?
I did write the script with those in mind as I knew I could get them. When writing the script I was able to write to their voices and I knew that if I was writing to their weaknesses and their strengths, if they would improv beyond that it would only elevate it like tenfold. It was great for me when we did a shot as they would say ‘This is what it’s going to be like.’ I imagined in my head what they would look like and what they were going to sound like when they said it so I could portray them accurately.
I tracked Gene down after seeing him perform in the CK Louis show. I saw him in the episode and he was so interesting and had an incredible screen presence. I remembered after that scene that he was the guy from No Country for Old Men in that coin toss scene at the counter. I was like ‘This guy is interesting, he has an interesting face and screen presence’ and so I tracked him down to read for the movie and he put himself on tape and it was great so I contacted him back and he said we were all good.
My hands down favourite thing of making a movie with him is that he is such a gentleman. In the big interview scene, which was a real doozy of a scene to shoot, he made it so easy by coming out and nailing it in the first take. We thought we’d have to wing it as we didn’t know what was going to happen. He came out and all the extras were already there, they cheered and sat down. We did a 17 minute unbroken take of him not dropping a line and they all responded in the way that his crowd naturally would. He got up, they cheered and he walked out, we looked at each other and it was like ‘whoa.’ Technically, he made that night so easy as we thought it would’ve been the most difficult night ever but it all worked. The extras and the rest of the acting just fell into place. His acting made their acting great which in turn made his acting even better. There was electricity in the air.
It was one of those things where I would sit there and pan the camera to follow him sitting down and it was there that I caught myself watching him. It was one of the very few times that… when you genuinely write a movie it’s great to hear your words back but that was one of the times where I was totally blown away and it didn’t even feel like I wrote it. He was totally taking it on in a very transcended sort of way. I knew he was going to be good, I just didn’t know it was going to be such a performance. All the extras were like ‘My God.’
I bet. Watching the film I thought Gene’s performance was brilliant. His character was interesting to watch and at times had me agreeing with his beliefs as they appeared to come from reason.
Yeah. The interesting thing about it is that I wrote everything from his perspective to be reasonable as it would not have worked otherwise. If he was sat there as a crazy cult person it would not have worked. When I wrote for anything he said I tried to come up with an argument against it and then figure out what he would say for that so I wanted everything for him to be foolproof as far as his motives were concerned. What was reassuring for me was that when he did that performance, those extras were listening to every word he was saying and acting accordingly. There were times when it felt like we weren’t making a movie. He knew there were going to be over 200 people sat there watching him but their reaction was totally enthralled by it. That is kind of amazing as they agreed enough with what he was actually saying to go along with it and they didn’t know it was a cult movie. In fact, they didn’t even know a thing about it. To have them clap when it was over it was so good to have these extras that were impressed by that. It was almost four in the morning and they wanted to go home but they were still into it and that was a real once in a lifetime evening on a film set.
The compound is such a massive set to have built. Where did you film it and did you live in the cabins during filming?
We filmed in Savannah Georgia and the compound was built on someone’s backyard. We built everything. We didn’t stay there as we were all staying in hotels a few minutes away but to get there you have to drive down a long dirt road and then there would be our trailers in this person’s backyard. It was very weird. I’ve never had a film set that was an entire community before. I’ve built sets before but they were rooms or whatever. We built this community where these 200 extras were just walking around so you could see them all the time. When we were done shooting and we were wrapping out they were tearing it all down. It’s not like tearing down a wall of a dorm room set. It was us living and shooting in these buildings for over a month in this thing and shooting the same people walking around hanging laundry in this community and then all of a sudden it’s scrap lumber. It was a very weird kind of odd melancholy feeling to have and it was a first for me as it had never happened before.
So what’s next for you?
I’m doing a western and I start filming this summer. I can’t go into detail just yet but soon we hope. We’re casting it just now and hopefully by the end of March we will have a big announcement. But i’m excited about it. It’s a very traditional Clint Eastwood type.
We’d like to thank Ti for taking time out to speak to us. The Sacrament has no confirmed date for general UK release yet but those in the US will get a chance to see The Sacrament on VOD from 1st May and in select cinemas from June 6th.