Although he is only 32 years old, writer-director Ti West has five horror films under his belt and more in the planning stages. And while he is too old, perhaps, to be called a “wunderkind,” the amount of projects he has realized at his age is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
West, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, has a new film about to open in theaters called The Innkeepers. The movie was actually shot and is set in the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an aging hostelry in Torrington,Connecticut, that( in the movie) is about to close. Clerks Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) tend to the place in its final days. A woman and her young child are the sole guests, until an aging actress turned New Age psychic (Kelly McGillis) checks in. Is the place haunted…or not? Luke’s website devoted to the Inn, with live webcam feeds, may prove it is.
Like West’s previous film, 2009’s acclaimed House of the Devil, The Innkeepers relies on slowly building tension, characterization and edginess to win its scares—gore and violence are kept to a minimum. There is also an element of humor in his treatment of horror, particularly in the first portion of the film, when the focus is on the interplay between the naïve Claire and the cynical Luke.
“It was a concentrated effort to make it funnier,” says West by phone. “I could relate to the kind of job of working at a hotel. I’ve always said I am either qualified to direct movies or have a minimum wage jobs. I spent ten years doing minimum wage jobs. There’s a charm with coworkers. You make the best of the situations when things are like that.
What sort of jobs did West have? “I mowed lawns, worked at Dick’s Sporting Goods, worked at a shoe store and a video store and Diesel (a clothing chain) at the King of Prussia Mall.”
West said things got a little weird while attending a film festival.
“I was in Spain with my first film and there were lots of people there,” he recalls. “I was standing next to Quentin Tarantino, and I realized that I had to be on a plane the next day, (going back to) asking people what size they wanted.”
West, who is planning a science fiction film next, now lives in Los Angeles. The idea for The Innkeepers came from staying at the actual Yankee Pedlar Inn while shooting House of the Devil.
“People think it is haunted, and there was a special allure to it,” says West. “It’s kind of a kooky place. I had wanted to write a ghost story, and I figured now I could since I lived it.”
West recalls that the crew for The Innkeepers comprised most of the Yankee Pedlar’s patrons at the time. The shoot, which lasted an amazingly short 17 days, had to be scheduled between weddings and proms that were booked there.
Like his other films—The Roost, Trigger Man and Cabin Fever 2 (which West disowns and attempted to have his name removed from because of studio tampering), The Innkeepers was filmed on 35mm, a format West prefers to the digital shooting so prominent today, especially with horror films. But he realizes he may have to make the move to digital soon because of costs. “It’s going to be hard to justify an extra $160,000 to shoot in 35 mm soon,” West laments.
Meanwhile, West is “desperately trying” to make a studio film. From his Cabin Fever 2 experience with Lionsgate, he admits he’s been a little ”gunshy.”
“I come from a do-it-yourself indie background, but it’s all about the right pairing. I don’t want to make a sequel. Test screenings scare me. If someone liked my movies and wanted to make a big movie with me, when it gets to test screening, everyone panics and then they change their mind after agreeing with me. I was shocked to see people go 180 degrees who were with me before.”
The writer-director has a strong opinion on what makes a horror film work—and not work. “The key is the contrast between horror and non-horror,” he explains. “That’s all it takes. They (the filmmakers) are afraid of losing the audience. If you put time into making all the non-horror elements good, it should work. A lot of horror movies are kill, kill, kill.
“My brain doesn’t work this way. My sensibilities are old-fashioned. Everything I am inspired by…they have respect for the audience and the notion that the audience doesn’t have to be titillated the whole time.”
West’s influences are films that he saw when he was a kid, but they all share on thing in common.
“I like to see movies where I pay attention closely,” he relates. “Indiana Jones and The Karate Kid. I became interested in horror when it was one step above porn. It was back in the corner of the video store. They were daring you to watch these movies. As far as making films, Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste was important, a goofy, disgusting film. It was the first movie I could watch and I could wrap my head around how they made it. It was silly but good, and you can see how they did it and it was homemade. The Evil Dead was the same way, and (director Sam) Raimi was only 19.”
Like House of the Devil, The Innkeepers has adapted a multi-platform release strategy: available on demand, then being issued in (mostly art) theaters by Magnolia Pictures, and eventually getting a DVD and Blu-ray release. All of this follows extensive exposure—and praise–in film festivals.
How does West view this new way of releasing films?
“It is what it is,” he says. “I didn’t believe in it until House of the Devil came out. Then I saw it was really successful. It didn’t really make sense, but it worked–you can’t argue with the fact. Ever since then, I realized that we’re not a big movie. We’re going to come out in 25 cities and people in Des Moines will order it (on demand). It becomes a home viewing experience. I want them to see them in theater, but it is silly to expect them to.”