Ti West first made an impression back in 2005, when his horror film The Roost premiered at SXSW. Since then, West has directed the somewhat ill-fated (and received) Cabin Fever 2, and the surprise hit House Of The Devil, a 70's period piece and an homage to the Satanic Panic sub-genre that was so popular during that decade, a time when everyone was sure they had a secret Satanic cult in their town. West made the wise choice of eschewing any post-production gimmicry, such as "scratching" the film or adding erroneous lens flares, instead opting for a more subtle approach, relying on art direction, costume design, and pacing to evoke the feeling of the era.
That same sensibility is on display in his latest film, The Innkeepers (available today on bluray), a subtle, genre-mashing tale that is parts buddy comedy, character drama, old fashioned Gothic ghost story, and balls out horror flick, and deftly plays on the current trend of ghost hunter shows and real-life paranormal programs. The story involves two hotel workers, Claire and Luke, who are manning the desk for the final three days of operation of the Yankee Peddler Inn, an old and semi-threadbare but venerated establishment soon to close it's doors for good. Luke is obsessed with getting documented proof of the paranormal, and Claire is his defacto partner. When odd, last minute guests begin showing up, and strange things begin to occur, Claire and Luke begin to suspect they may have hit ectoplasmic paydirt.
With The Innkeepers, Ti West is also able to work in an old fashioned milieu, but with characters that reflect his actual generation. Thankfully, West also uses a measured hand and good taste with these characters, who could easily come off smarmy and over-hip. Instead they dovetail quite nicely into the juxtaposition of old world elegance, and the Gothic mood that eventually envelops The Innkeepers.
To celebrate the release of The Innkeepers on dvd and blu-ray, Ti West himself was kind enough to sit with us for a few words about the film, as well as his upcoming project.
TWITCH - Your cast for The Innkeepers is really strong, and helps anchor an admittedly unbelievable situation firmly in reality. These characters are people I walk by in everyday life. Introduce us please to your cast.
TI WEST (TW) - Well Sara Paxton, who plays Claire, I wasn't familiar with. She came in like everybody else, I'd never seen her movies, and I didn't know much about her, she just seemed like some blond girl. What made me cast her was, she came in and she was ridiculously awkward, clumsy and goofy. I had not anticipated that at all, and I was so charmed by it. Then I saw her work on film, and she wasn't anything like that. It made me wonder how she got these roles, and why no one had ever cast her in a role that she is actually like, and exploited what I was seeing. That was really the final straw on casting her.
Pat Healy who plays Lucas, I had known for a few years. he did a movie in, I think, 2007 called Great World Of Sound, which I really liked, a friend of mine had directed. Pat was really good in that, and he also actually lived with a friend of mine for awhile. So I kind of just e-mailed him and said "I have this movie and I think you might be good in it" and he had seen House Of The Devil and liked it, so he said "yes" before even reading the script. That was a piece of cake. That's how it always should be! (laughs)
Then Glass Eye recommended Kelly McGillis, who had just done Stake Land, to play retired actress turned psychic Leanna Rease-Jones. So I Skyped Kelly, we hit it off, and she was down. I thought it was going to be a really easy role to cast, that of an older actress who is now a spiritual healer, and she can be mean, she can be nice, she can be insecure, all these facets are there to explore. There's some real depth to the character. What I didn't realize is that a lot of older actresses don't have a sense of humor about being "older actresses", also a lot of people I talked to about the movie got kind of offended that I would even consider them for the role. It hit too close to home for some people, and the fact that I might be commenting on them in particular, which I was not, in any way, shape, or form. Still, I could not make them un-think that. So when it came time to talk with Kelly, she was in London doing a play, and we Skyped. I was giving her this very delicately worded pitch about the character, you know "She's not a has been, she's not a nutcase..." and Kelly is sitting there smoking a cigarette, and she blew the smoke right into the screen, in Skype's face so to speak, and said "I don't give a shit. Why would I care about that?". I was so relieved, and from that point on we could really talk about the material. She had a good take on it, and she also had a great self -deprecating sense of humor about any similarities between herself and the character of Leanne. It's what I was looking for all along, but had been hitting a wall with people who were maybe a little too sensitive about the role. Kelly has been through so much, and it's made her wise I think. She was really easy to work with.
TWITCH - Let's talk about shooting at the Yankee Peddler Inn. It serves as a character for the most part in The Innkeepers, and you have almost a relationship with the place at this point don't you?
TW - Well when we were shooting House Of The Devil, we were staying at the Yankee Peddler. That's pretty much what gave me the idea for the movie, is spending two months there. So shooting there. it would kind of be like shooting in your house, it's comfortable, but you have all these memories associated with the place too. So it was kind of weird, to go back to the Yankee Peddler with a bunch of people and make a movie there, let alone go back a year later, show the film to a sold out 1,700 seat theater, then have a party at the hotel afterwards. It's been a really...it's a weird place in a world I am connected to. It's a strange place, not particularly scary, but it's kookie. Kookie as hell. (laughs)
TWITCH - What about the "big ghost scene" I've heard about that was never shot.
TW - Oh! Yeah. man it's kind of a shame we didn't get to do this. Anyway, and this is a spoiler section if you've not seen The Innkeepers already ...at the end of the movie when Sara goes upstairs and finds the dead old man, then she goes out in the hallway...in the movie she opens the door and finds the girl hanging herself and Sara gets scared and runs away. Originally, the third floor in the script was empty, but all the doors were propped open, so when she runs away scared you were supposed to see a kind of flip book animation as she passed each door, of the woman hanging herself and the image progresses as Sara runs along, room by room.
But that's the reality of budget when you are making a movie. So you consolidate it, and get the point across. Still, losing that was kind of disappointing.
TWITCH - I dig the chapter title cards. Where did that idea come from? It really connects The Innkeepers to older cinematic history, something I find lacking in a lot of new product.
TW - It's really kind of a two part thing for me. One, the main reason, is the Yankee Peddler, when you go there it's a mixture of great 1800's historic architecture meets bad 1970's renovation. Then it's revered as a landmark by the town, but staffed by slacker kids. It has this weird vibe of authenticity and historical value, then this crappiness. What I wanted to do with The Innkeepers, because I was using these modern characters in this setting, was to have a very traditional kind of ghost story. The ghost story to some degree is purposefully your by the numbers ghost story, like a campfire tale. I wanted to treat it in an almost Charles Dickens way, and have these 1800s type chapter headings to go with the more Gothic part of the movie, then to play with the contrast of these modern characters.
The other thing, is you get some value as far as suspense. Everyone kind of shifts in their seats knowing kind of what to expect when a title card drops, and in the case of a film like The Innkeepers that can help create tension. But like I said, mainly I wanted to keep part of the style of the film looking historical, much like the location itself.
TWITCH - Going back, and we are both total horror geeks, what's it like now seeing your own visions up on a screen. You've come a long way since The Roost.
TW - Oh man, we've shown The Innkeepers to some gigantic crowds. We showed it to a 2,300 seat theater that was sold out, and they liked it! Even more than them liking it, was the fact that such a large number of people came out to even see it. We premiered it at South By Southwest (SXSW) too, and just to say so everyone knows, the two forces most responsible for my career are Larry Fessenden and SXSW, but to go there and have the Paramount theater on a Saturday night, and it's full and people who are psyched to see the movie...those moments are fulfilling. Then there's the "someone wants to meet you" thing, like I got a call once, saying "Nicole Kidman loved House Of The Devil and wants to speak with you", which is crazy and cool.
TWITCH - Wow. Did you go meet with her?
TW - Yeah yeah man, we've been trying to make a movie for the last two years.
TWITCH - So you are here to promote the blu-ray release. I am curious if there is a specific kind of excitement about seeing the home release, especially considering home entertainment such a huge part of the market.
TW - Oh I'm looking forward to seeing it at the kiosk when I go get paper towels, for sure! (laughs) No but seriously, off course the theatrical experience is really more exciting. The home release is too, in the fact that it's now like "Part 2" of the roll-out. We had the VOD date, theatrical date, and home release all really close. That's nice, it's made me feel...relevant? (laughs) It all serves to extend the life of the movie though.
TWITCH - There's the limited gatefold release of The Innkepers, and a bunch of us writers have been scrambling for them!
TW - Oh man, there's not many of those and they are hard to get. Like when we did the House Of The Devil VHS and we made 1500 and they sold out immediately. So with this limited release it was decided they weren't going to be sold outright. I have a small box of them, like 10. I gave some to some friends, but I'm like "Man, when these are gone they are gone forever". I like the special editions, because for one, I am a collector myself. It also helps to brand me within the genre. I mean whether someone likes my work or not, hopefully I've been around long enough now, to where I'm "that guy, oh yeah the one who does the slow burn" and if I can have the VHS or the crazy collectible edition out there floating around to extend that? Like "Oh that dude always does cool special editions of his films" I think that's appealing, it's plain ole' cool. I'm so happy Dark Sky did the gatefold edition of The Innkeepers. To be associated with such nice treatment, of films I made, is very very special to me.
TWITCH - Speaking of the dvd and blu-ray, how do you enjoy the commentary process?
TW - It's ok. It's one of those thing, I want to put bonus stuff on the dvd, the fans like it, I like it, but really? By the time it's around to doing the bonus features stuff I am so exhausted, there's so few of us that work on the movie doing so many jobs, then it's like "Ok let's go back and talk about it all, the little things, the crazy stuff, all that!" I'm sitting there thinking "Oh dude, I just don't have it in me." So Pete Phok, the producer, had a guy do a behind the scenes making of, which covers a ton of stuff, then I did two commentaries. It seems like the commentaries are the special feature that people like the most anyway. So, I did one with the producers, that was a little more technical and went into how The Innkeepers got made, and another with the actors, which initially I didn't mean to be on. You usually end up there, making sure everything goes ok, but I ended up in this commentary. It is a character driven movie though, and I think what the actors have to say about making the film is extremely important.
As far as me on there? I dunno. I can't remember what I said now! (Laughs) But yeah, I hope it's interesting.
TWITCH - Do you have a personal belief in the supernatural, or have you had any crazy, weird, creepy, unexplainable experiences?
TW - I don't believe in ghosts, but I've had weird stuff happen. I mean staying at the Peddler, weird stuff happened. But when a door creeps open by itself, that may be strange , but probably not a ghost. I can tell you though, that the entire town for the most part, and the workers at the hotel, and a lot of the crew, believe the Yankee Peddler is indeed haunted. Until I have a ghost floating in front of me and I know that's what it is I won't be a believer so to speak. But staying at the Yankee Peddler is the closest I have ever come!
TWITCH - To wrap this up, I was hoping you could speak a little about the new project, The Side Effect.
TW - Sure. It's a science fiction thriller, starring Liv Tyler, about a woman who is doing pharmaceutical testing in space, because there is a pandemic going around, kind of like a new cancer, which they are trying to cure, with radiation and other stuff. SO she's up there by herself, and she gets pregnant and doesn't understand how. So the company sends a team to go get her, and bring her back to base camp. Most of the movie takes place during that return trip, where they try to figure out just what in the hell is going on.
TWITCH - When are we going to see The Side Effect?
TW - Well, it's like everything, money. We have almost the amount we need, but there are certain things, like space ships and stuff, and I have a number in my head which we need to meet first. I don't want to do the film unless I am totally comfortable with knowing we can make it how it needs to be made. I mean, we could just go "Eh" and go now and do if for cheaper, but considering the whole movie will be on a stage, and it's supposed to be inside a space ship...I just don't want to half ass it man. I can't wait to make it though.
So, there you have it ScreenAnarchistss. If you like a good ghost story, and want to see a fresh take on the genre by a burgeoning new voice ion film making, I urge you to go out and snap up a copy of The Innkeepers on dvd or blu-ray. Extras include two commentaries, a behind-the-scenes making of featurette, and the trailer. Run don't walk, and pick up The Innkeepers today for a creepy good time.