TI WEST IS in the middle of a potentially horrifying situation. The 29-year-old director, having just returned to L.A. from Sundance, is driving on one of the city’s infamously clogged highways in a car that is gradually dying on him.
“Everything in my car stopped working,” he exclaims. “Not even the speedometer works.”
He’s hoping it’ll make it as far as the dealership and not leave him stranded on the side of the busy road.
Even if his car stalls on him, his talents will take him very far. West has released four feature-length films in five years, culminating in last year’s critically acclaimed “House of the Devil,” which attracted a small but avid following and heralded him as not only one of the best horror directors working today, but one of the most exciting and visionary young filmmakers in any genre.
After graduating from the esteemed School of Visual Arts in New York City, West returned to Delaware to make his first two movies. “The Roost” is a story about twentysomethings trapped in a barn full of killer bats and bloodthirsty zombies, ambitiously framed as part of a creature feature television show. Filmed along the Brandywine River in his hometown of Wilmington, “Trigger Man” follows three friends as they are terrorized by an unseen sniper.
West’s films, while all falling within the horror genre, are remarkably varied and ambitiously experimental. “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever” is a horror-comedy that takes gore and grostesquerie to unbelievable heights (or depths, depending on your threshold for dismemberment and projectile-vomiting blood), while “House of the Devil” is enthralling for its restraint and discipline. Set in 1982, it follows a college student on a very odd babysitting job, the camera trailing her around an empty house, showing how vulnerable she is and ratcheting up the suspense to unbearable levels before letting the movie just explode. (In a clever nod to the time period, Dark Sky Films is releasing the movie on in a collectible VHS clamshell case as well as on Blu-Ray and DVD.)
And yet, as varied as his small filmography may be, there are similarities between each of his movies, a particular style that marks them as Ti West films. Each is patiently paced, intelligently and unpredictably structured, and intensely atmospheric, emphasizing characterization as well as carnage, empathy as well as terror.
Each film, that is, except “Cabin Fever 2.” Even though it bears his directorial credit, the straight-to-DVD sequel (from Lions Gate), shot in 2007 but shelved until this month, was re-edited without West’s permission, and while it retains a resourceful approach that is entertaining and often hilarious, West nevertheless disowns it as inferior and clumsy — an unnecessary perversion of his original vision.
West is an inventive filmmaker, but he is also exacting and uncompromising, which has led to some friction with his backers. After the “Cabin Fever 2” debacle, West struggled to keep “House of the Devil” intact after his producers cut a scene. It wasn’t anything especially controversial — just the heroine puttering around on an old piano — but they thought the movie was dragging and needed to be tightened up. West had to fight to keep it in the final cut.
Talking and thinking at a speed-reader’s clip, West comes across as a dedicated, disciplined artist who views his films as all-or-nothing projects that either perfectly reflect his vision or are utter failures. It’s an approach that may keep him well out of the Hollywood mainstream, but will likely leave an indelible mark on cinema of the 2010s.
As West piloted his dying car to the dealership, he talked to Express about the troubled “Cabin Fever 2” production, casting friends in his movies, and why he’s pessimistic about the state of horror.
» EXPRESS: What happened with “Cabin Fever 2”? Was it difficult shooting a sequel?
» WEST: It was not a very daunting idea. I wanted to do something very different with it, and everyone was very supportive, and that was great. They liked my idea. I wrote a script, cast who I wanted, had an amazing time shooting the movie, put a cut together, and it was going to be this John Waters/Todd Solondz/Paul Bartel anarchy of a movie, then all of a sudden they realized, this is crazy. In postproduction, they took it away from me and hired a new editor who deleted everything and started from scratch without me. It completely changed the entire movie, and I tried to take my name off of it. The movie that you see is something that I had nothing to do with and want nothing to do with, and I really wanted an Alan Smithee credit but couldn’t get it. That being said, it’s really neither here nor there whether people like it. It’s not really my movie as much as it’s the movie of the producers, editors and executives. Which is a weird, downer, Terry Gilliam experience. But that’s the short version of what happened.
» EXPRESS: How different is the DVD version from your vision?
» WEST: It’s still the same story and it’s still the same footage, but it’s vastly different. What I wanted to do was make a very edgy social commentary about high school and STDs and paranoia and how people treat each other, and I wanted to do it in this incredibly black-comedic way that was just disgusting. I just think a lot of the stuff that I wanted to accomplish, after they tried to lowest-common-denominator it, is not effective, and the movie just feels clumsy to me. A whole part of the narrative and part of what I envisioned the movie to be just doesn’t exist. You’re seeing the footage being put together in a relatively similar order, but that’s about it. It’s not the same takes, it’s not the same tone. It’s still a gross, wacky movie, but I don’t think it’s a very good gross, wacky movie. The silver lining was going to be the Alan Smithee thing. I thought, at least I’m part of that club. But since I’m not DGA [Directors Guild of America], I couldn’t have the union enforce it. And since I can’t do that, the producers have to approve, and the producers aren’t going to approve taking a director’s name off because that would just be a nightmare. This is years ago, stuff that happened long before “House of the Devil.”
» EXPRESS: Those two movies seem so different in terms of story, subject, approach, everything.
» WEST: I don’t ever want to repeat myself, so in my career or whatever you want to call it, every one of my movies … they’re all very different, from “The Roost” to “Trigger Man” to “Trigger Man” to “House,” but there’s this through-line that you can see. On “House,” I had a lot of pressure because coming off the disaster that was “Cabin Fever 2,” I was like, “Nobody’s getting in my way on this one.” I was really a drill sergeant about it. I wasn’t going to let what happened with that other movie let people think that that was me. I put a lot of pressure on myself to prove that what happened to fuck up that movie wasn’t my fault. So I went on to make “House,” got the money, made the movie, finished the movie, premiered the movie at festivals, had a festival run and released the movie in theaters and on DVD before “Cabin Fever 2” was even out — and it was made two years prior. It wasn’t me that was holding it up. I felt like I had a lot to prove to myself.
» EXPRESS: “House of the Devil” is very disciplined and very restrained, as if there were certain things you didn’t want to do. Can you tell me about your approach to that movie?
» WEST: It’s just what seemed right for the movie, and it’s also sort of my style in general. That’s part of what happened: “Cabin Fever 2” had a lot of that, which is what was part of the problem. I’m a very specific person in how I want scenes to play out and how I want a scene early in the movie to affect a scene later in the movie. And I’m very anal about it. With “House of the Devil,” I set up little plot points early on and then gradually let them play out as you hang with the characters. You get a contrast between who the people are and the horrific stuff that happens to them. I think that contrast makes it scary and makes it effective and makes the suspense work.
» EXPRESS: Can you tell me about the cast, especially people like Tom Noonan and Larry Fessenden?
» WEST: Larry produced all my movies, and he’s one of my best friends. I always promise to kill him every movie, even though I couldn’t find a way to do it in “House of the Devil.” Tom Noonan I had worked with on “The Roost,” and when I finished the script for “House of the Devil,” I got an e-mail from him saying that he somehow got a hold of it, really liked it, and wanted a role in it. I said, Great! It’s a really simple situation: We had a really good time working together before and I thought he’d be perfect for it. They’re just relationships you have with people, and for me that’s important. Film isn’t just a career. It’s a lifestyle. It’s important to work with people that you respect and like and get along with, because making movies is a really traumatic experience, so you don’t want to have people that you don’t like around.
» EXPRESS: So they weren’t cast for the cultural weight they bring, like Pam Grier in “Jackie Brown” signifying all the blaxploitation movies that made her famous?
» WEST: I can’t speak for Tarantino but I think, yes, Pam Grier is a cultural icon because of all of that, but she does have a particular cadence to her acting that made sense for that movie. There are a lot of actors like that, but it’s not about bringing them back or paying homage. I want to see more movies with those people in them, because I grew up watching them and I liked them. Mary [Woronov] is one of those people who I’m a huge fan of, so it’s not a matter of throwing her in there because she worked with Andy Warhol or Paul Bartel. She has the most amazing screen presence ever and goddamn I want that in this movie.
» EXPRESS: What attracts you to horror?
» WEST: I don’t really know. Growing up in the video store, I was always interested in taboo stuff and what you’re not supposed to see. So that’s just something that for whatever reason was in my DNA. Aside from that, I like the genre quite a bit. It’s not what I only want to do, but it’s what’s happened so far just by coincidence. I can generate my own material, I like doing my own stuff, and I think the horror genre has a vast range of things you can do and experiment, unlike other genres. You can try out all different techniques and effects and acting styles because there’s this built-in audience for what’s eventually coming. It’s not something that’s explored very often — the artistic merit of the horror genre. It’s generally lowest-common-denominator body-count movies, which I find to be uninteresting. But it’s great when you see movies like “Let the Right One In” or “The Host” or maybe this movie — I hope — you think, “Hey this is a different take on what we’re used to.” You can do so much in this genre, and it’s just a shame that people hold themselves to doing the same things over and over again.
» EXPRESS: Last year there were several small, thoughtful, outside-the-mainstream horror films released that got away from remakes and torture movies.
» WEST: Larry and I call them B-movies with A-ideas. It’s getting away from it, but it’s not going where you’re implying it’s going. The only way it will ever go there — or the only way it will ever go anywhere — depends on the audience. The reality is, last year the only two original horror movies from studios were “Drag Me to Hell” — the man himself Sam Raimi‘s return to horror — and “Jennifer’s Body” — from fresh-off-the-Oscar-win Diablo Cody. Neither of those movies were especially successful. I don’t know if they were epic fails, but they did not do well. You know what did do well? The “Friday the 13th” remake. Everyone hates it and says it sucks, but it made $40 million in its opening weekend. So it’s our fault. You know why they made another one? Because dumbasses went to go see it. You know why Sam Raimi isn’t making another “Drag Me to Hell”-type of movie? Because you didn’t go to see it. I don’t want to say it’ s a responsibility, but in a way it really is.
» EXPRESS: “Paranormal Activity” seems to be an exception.
» WEST: I have my opinions on it, but do you think studios are going to say, “Wow, they took a chance on a little indie movie and tried to market it in a unique way on a big scale and it killed?” Do you think they are going to say, “That means we can take a risk on other small indie movies and they can find an audience?” Or, do you think that means, “The fake real movies make money. Let’s make more fake real movies.” And you know it’s the latter. And that’s unfortunate, because that’s not really what it is. It’s the fact that that they brought something new to the table with a unique approach. But they don’t look at it that way. They look at it like, “How do we copy that movie?” People don’t want to see that again. They want the chance of seeing something fresh again.
» EXPRESS: How do you feel about entering into this industry that is obviously run so poorly?
» WEST: If I could stay on the outskirts and continue to do what I want, I’m perfectly content. Everybody from my agent on down always says, “Don’t you want to do this big giant movie?” Of course I do, but the baggage that comes with them isn’t worth it. If it becomes worth it, fantastic. Like I said, filmmaking is a career, but it’s also a lifestyle, and you devote your life to something. I’m a personal filmmaker, and to agree to do something completely opposite from the way that I know how and the way I believe in, it better be a lot of money. If it’s a retirement amount of money, then I could be convinced to sell out and try something. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, you know what? I’m retired. So I can do whatever I want. But if it’s not that and if it’s just a lot of money that’s tempting but isn’t going to last forever, I don’t know. I had a trying experience on “Cabin Fever 2” and I don’t want to go through that again. It’s not like I love making low-budget movies as opposed to bigger movies, but it’s not worth the ulcer for me.
Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photos courtesy Dark Sky Films