Wednesday, January 27, 2010

CB Q/A #31: Ti West, Director of The House of the Devil

I'm kind of persnickety when it comes to horror movies. I used to say I liked high concept and low brow, but nothing in the middle, but as the horror-porn Saw-esque franchises have proved profitable, they've taken over that end of the spectrum, leaving horror film goers a choice between the mass-market dreck, the sophisticated stuff, and 473 new zombie flicks a year.

All this to say, whenever the CIA Cinematheque programs a horror movie, I do my darndest to make sure I see it. Such is the case with the latest artifact from the genre to make John Ewing's programming list, Ti West's The House of the Devil.

The film's creation, which focuses on the experience of a young college student sent to an evil house for a babysitting date with dark forces, was in the capable yet youthful hands of director Ti West, who has put together a nice string of well-recieved indie horror films in recent years. This film was one of West's own screenplays, thus enhancing the directorial likelihood of achieving the author's vision.

Before you venture over to the CIA to see how things turned out, take a gander at my recent Q&A with West below. During our conversation we discussed the film's relationship with the golden age of horror film making in the 70s, the balancing act between director as artist and director as careerist when dealing with obstructionist production companies, and how Cleveland can become a more attractive market for future film makers, among other intriguing topics. Check both it and the film out!

1) The horror genre may be one filled with directorial homages more than any other. Did you directly include any hidden hat tips or love letters to previous films or directors that influenced you in The House of the Devil?

Not specifically. Definitely homage runs rampant in horror movies, but I think The House of the Devil gets classified as an homage more than I wish it would be. Because it is a period piece, it gets people confused and they think it is a kitschy throwback to the 1970s. Certainly, the title sequence has the big bulky font with copyright at the bottom as reminiscent of that time period, but more because I wanted to make it look like that period. Of course, most of my subconscious is filled with a lot of the horror movies that I love from era, but I’ve never consciously made an homage like that.

2) There seems to have been a small dust-up between you and the production company that put out The House of the Devil over removed scenes. How did that issue eventually resolve itself and did you learn anything new about the industry in this instance?

All that actually happened the week right before Tribeca. In the end, it resolved itself just fine – the film showed at Tribeca in a form I wasn’t too in to, but a lot of reviewers saw my version and the hullabaloo over the whole thing caused them [the production company] to change the film back to my original version. Eventually, Magnolia bought the film and fully restored the way it should be.

In terms of learning, I’ve actually dealt with this same issue on a much worse scale on a previous film. I understand why it happens, though. Fear is a major part of what drives people who invest in movies and sometimes bad decisions are made based upon that fear. I just think it is unavoidable and so it becomes really important to work with people who trust you. If I invested a bunch of money, I’d be afraid too. I hope it doesn’t happen again but it has happened two times already.

When it happens, you have to think about how you want to react. You don’t want to be known as a lunatic filmmaker who demands everything, but then again sometimes when you are backed in a corner that’s all you have. It is defintely a career making movies, so you have to make decisions accordingly, but it is also a lifestyle. What if it was my last movie and it came out in a way I wasn’t happy? You have to be proud of what goes up on the screen.

3) You’ve received “special thanks” acknowledgments from a couple of mumblecore staples (Alexander the Last and Nights & Weekends) and Greta Gerwig, one of the leading figures in that genre, has an important role in The House of the Devil – do you see yourself as a member of that movement? Does it influence the work you do?

No, and I don’t think they think of themselves like that. In 2005, me and Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers and Andrew Bujalski were all at SXSW, and we realized we were all making movies and that we all got along.

Rather than a movement, I see it more as we are all just sort of friends who came up at the same time. We help each other on our movies and talk about ideas, but nothing so formal as a movement. Instead, it’s all just people you know and hang out with and have the same sort of sensibilities.

4) What role do you think SXSW plays in film today?

I think there are two perceptions: the real perception and industry perception. To people in the industry, SXSW is on a slightly lower tier than other important festivals. Toronto and Sundance are basically looked at as tier 1, and festivals like sxsw and Tribeca are in the second tier. I think these categories are unfortunate.

In terms of programming being responsible for taking movies and highlighting them and letting people know what is being done, rather than being a launching pad for Hollywood movies, SXSW is way better. Sundance premieres giant movies that are gonna come out anyway.

Austin is probably one of the most artistically supportive places I’ve ever been to. Some people consider it off the beaten path, in that it is not New York or Los Angeles, so the location gets a little bit of cold shoulder, but think it is the best festival in terms of premiering content.

5) Losers Take All seems a significant departure from all the other features on your resume. Is this an effort to break out of the horror genre?

It is more that the series of horror movies I made was a coincidence. It was not my goal or intention to make four horror films in a row; it just sort of happened that way. I love horror movies and I’d like to continue making horror movies, but not only horror movies. But so far, the way the opportunities have come, that’s what I’ve been able to do. And especially when the opportunity to make a movie about the early 80s hardcore scene came up, I had to do it. It is just kind of the way things have fallen. I’ve seen plenty of romantic comedies and action movies I wanted to make, but it just so happens that the money has come through on these horror movies.

In the future, I want to make a movie every year. If it is a horror movie, great, if it is something else, that’s great too. I just want to make movies.

6) The city of Cleveland has been making some noise about wanting to become a more film-friendly city. Beyond tax breaks, what would you advise city leaders to do?

The tax thing is helpful but you need to go to places with filmmaking communities. Aside from offering tax breaks, I’d say city leaders should try to educate themselves about what kind of things need to be done to make the city more desirable for film production. Make it the kind of place where getting laundry done for 80 at 4 AM is possible, where getting scaffolding at 2 AM can be done. My guess is that there isn’t anyone I could call in Cleveland to get scaffolding at that time, but in LA and New York there are clear options.

And then there is just being welcoming by seeing local businesses helping out, giving good hotel rates, etc. Being a city or state that when you go there, the city understands what you are trying to accomplish and is welcoming. Michigan has this great 40% rate, but there isn’t anyone there who can work at the level you need and you have to spend all this money to bring your equipment out of Chicago because you can’t get it there. They don’t have what it takes to make movie on a large scale, say on a budget of $1.5 million and up.

For example, say you are doing a big action film and you need to get 5 blocks downtown closed for 12 hours. If I call the police in Cleveland to ask about that, they aren’t going to have any clue how to respond, but in New York they know where to send you right away.

7) Any memorable Cleveland experiences to share?

Not really, I’ve just kind of drove through it. It was a very quick, very milquetoast experience, so it is not a place I know.

The House of the Devil
will screen at the CIA Cinematheque (11141 East Boulevard, Cleveland) on Thursday, 1/28, at 9:05 PM and on Friday, 1/29, at 7:30 PM.

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