I recently had an opportunity to chat with horror filmmaker Ti West about his new film The Sacrament, which hits theatres this week. The writer/director/producer/editor has risen in the past decade to become one of the strongest young voices in the current indie-horror scene, responsible for modern classics like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, as well as segments in the recent horror anthology films V/H/S and The ABC’s of Death.
Ti spoke at length about his intentions with the new film, including his desire to create a horror film that was both grounded in realism and confrontational in its subject matter. We also discussed the film’s cast, its unique narrative style and “fake-documentary” structure, and his thoughts on modern horror including the “found-footage” sub-genre.
Read on for the full interview, and click here to check out my review of The Sacrament.
M: Your new film The Sacrament is very clearly inspired by Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre. I was wondering why this event spoke to you specifically, and what inspired you to make this film?
T: Well, I’ve always been fascinated with the Peoples Temple and what happened in Jonestown, or with cults in general for that matter. Also, I think what happened in Jonestown is misunderstood, and was much more of a mass-murder than a mass-suicide, and that’s always just been very scary to me. So in doing this movie, I wanted to do a movie that was really heavily steeped in realism and very serious, because coming off The Innkeepers – which essentially is like a romantic-comedy ghost story – I wanted to do something very different from that. And so, I had this idea that I wanted to use a real event as a framework for the movie, and then I wanted to use a real brand as a way to tell the story, in this sort of “fake-documentary” manner. Because I’ve always been fascinated with the Peoples Temple, it was sort of like that and VICE were the dots I connected, and that became the genesis of the movie.
M: This film has some pretty emotional scenes once it gets into the final act, due to the subject matter, and a lot of them take on even more resonance when you consider the fact that this story is rooted in actual history. I was just wondering what (if any) were the most difficult sequences for you to film, and what sort of emotional impact the film had on you while making it?
T: You know, not until editing did that stuff really…I mean, I’m pretty good friends with the majority of the cast, which was done on purpose so that we could make a movie that was pretty grim, but we still were able to not be, like, miserable when we were making it. Certainly the scene with [Amy Seimetz] and [Kentucker Audley] was a doozy when we were shooting it, but all of it didn’t totally resonate with me until I was alone editing it for like 3 months, and I got to sit with it and watch it over and over and over again. And, you know, no one had seen the movie, and they would ask me how it’s going and I would just be like “It’s grim.” Haha. But that was sort of the point in making a movie that was about a real thing, with real horror and real violence. It was important to me that it be very confrontational and provocative and emotional, and just, like, disturbing. Not as much scary in an escapist or visual kind of way, but…you’re scared when you watch it, and then when you go home you’re still bothered by it. Because I think that we’re sort of distanced from real violence, and in movies or even with the news and media we take in that is all sensationalizing violence, there’s a minute where you’re like “that’s terrible” but we don’t really confront it, because we don’t have to. And so, in using a real event as the framework for the movie, I wanted all the deaths in this movie to be very confronting, to where even the hardcore genre people could see the movie and be like “well I didn’t know it was going to be like that,” you know?
M: Right, and I definitely felt that way about this film. I mean, even after it was over I started looking a bit into the historical events, and everything just kind of hit home once again, you know, the very real horrors that humanity is capable of.
T: Absolutely, and I mean Jonestown’s been reduced to “drink the Kool-Aid,” this pop-culture slogan, and that’s really a reductive way to look at over 900-people being mass-murdered, you know. And it’s just weird because there’s a distance from it – not just in time, but in general – there’s a distance from it where people aren’t really confronting just how horrific it actually was.
M: You mentioned something earlier about being close friends with a lot of the cast members. In this case you had [Amy Seimetz] in the role of Caroline, and then you had [Joe Swanberg] and [AJ Bowen] as the VICE documentary crew, who were basically the protagonists of the film. When you were writing this script, did you have any or all of them in mind while developing their characters, or was that a decision that came later on in the process?
T: I had everything I wanted already in mind. Eli Roth, who got this movie made – he found the money for it – he had final cut of the movie. He gave that to me, and then he gave me final approval so I could cast whoever I want. So in doing that, I was able to write the movie specifically for these actors. And then, I knew them and I knew they would do it, so what’s great about that is I could write it to their voices and to their strengths, and when we showed up and they said the lines, it was like “Well, that sounds just like I thought it would.” Or, if they needed to expand upon it or improvise or ad lib, they could only make it so much better because it was already sort of in their wheelhouse, and I gave them the freedom to take the ball and run with it. And also, we’ve known each other for, I don’t know, 10 years or so, and there’s a short-hand, it’s an easy way to collaborate. With someone like Joe being the character who was holding the camera for the movie – even though I shot about 80% of the movie – the 20% that he shot, it was very easy to give another director – and a friend of mine with similar sensibilities – a camera that he wasn’t confused by, and say “this is what I need out of this scene” and he’d be like “you got it”. So, it was all sort of a strategic way. Plus I think they’re all just terrific performers, and I think it would be fun to make a movie that was such a departure from the kind of stuff they normally do, and put us all in this really sort of intense environment.
M: And just to speak for a second about Gene Jones, who absolutely blew me away in the role of Father, because there’s a scene following the interview sequence where the character Sam describes this sort of energy that Father exudes – this manipulative energy – and I felt that Gene really conveyed that perfectly. I was wondering if you auditioned many actors for the role of Father, and how long it took for you to find Gene?
T: Um, none. I didn’t know who I was going to cast, and then I was watching an episode of Louie, the Louis C.K. show, and Gene had a very small part as a pharmacist in one episode. He sort of popped on-screen, and this woman’s asking all these questions and he’s not paying attention, and he eventually turns to her and he says “have you had a bowel movement today?” and she gets embarrassed and leaves. And I was like “that’s the guy!” haha. It sounds insane, but that’s really what happened. So we tracked him down, he did a quick video audition because he was in New York and I wasn’t there at the time, he sent it to me, and I was like “this is the guy.” So I called him and said “let’s do this” and he was in, and then we met basically for the first time in Georgia, and more or less the first thing we shot was that big interview scene. And, you know, after the first take, we all just sort of looked at each other and we were like “ok, we’ve got a movie.” So I was very fortunate to be watching Louie that day.
M: I’ve heard you discuss how you consider The Sacrament to be a “fake-documentary” film as opposed to a “found-footage film,” since the characters are all professional filmmakers who know how to shoot and edit, etc. I was hoping you could provide just a little bit of insight into your thoughts on the popularity of the found-footage style within the horror genre, and maybe if it’s being overdone? And also, whether this film marks an attempt by you to evolve or elevate that style into something different?
T: I do believe that it’s overdone, and I think that people feel that way too. I think the interest in found-footage, for lack of a better term, is like…we’re so bombarded with video media, whether it’s YouTube videos or the News or whatever, everything comes to us through some form of video media now, and we all walk around with cameras on our phone and everything is being recorded by someone. It’s just, we’re so accustomed to that, that seeing a movie that is done in a way that’s familiar to our real lives I think is just relatable to people. But, there was a whole lot of them in a row, and they’re all very similar movies, and I think people just got burnt out, to be like “well this is so derivative of the last movie, so why should I see this one?” And so, while I didn’t think of this movie as a found-footage movie but more as a fake-documentary, part of that was also saying, well, here’s a way to take a trend that people are very familiar with and has been quite popular, and to do something different with it, and just take what I think are the good things and leave the minuses. Leave the clumsy, shaky camera stuff and the non-motivated camera accidents just for the sake of making it seem real, and get rid of all that stuff and just make it like a documentary. And I don’t know if I really thought of it as like an evolution of the genre, but it was just like…well look, anyhow else it’d be the same movie, it’d just be done a little differently. To me it was just about trying to make it as authentic-feeling of a documentary as possible, where each new set piece almost feels like “wow, they got some really amazing footage in that one sequence.” Also, I have a very traditional, cinematic style, so doing a found-footage movie is not really the ideal thing for what I want to be doing, but I wanted to do a movie that was very confronting and based in realism, so it made sense for this movie.
M: And I think it really works well for this story, the fact that things are just a little bit more polished. There are scenes that you can tell were captured on the fly, but then there’s scenes where they’ve had a chance set everything up, with full 2-camera coverage and B-Roll and everything. So I actually really enjoyed that because it seems to me that people are almost beaten over the head with uninspired found-footage nowadays – I mean there’s a new Paranormal Activity movie every year – so I really enjoyed that stylistic shift in this film.
T: What’s funny is that, I realize that all my movies are a little bit different from the, I guess, “mainstream” horror movies, but with this movie in general, also what I realized is that everyone has expectations when they go into a movie, myself included. However, if the expectations are not met, I don’t, like, revolt, I just sort of adjust accordingly. And then maybe at the end of the day I don’t like it, but it’s rarely because I thought I was going to see A and I got B so I’m really upset. When you do something different, for a lot of people it’s exciting, and that’s kind of what we go to the movies for is to see something different and to be surprised. I’m happy to hear when people say “Oh, this is something different for the found-footage genre” or “this is a more interesting way of doing this,” but then you also run into people that come in and they just obsess over the fact that, like, “how can there be titles or text on the screen if it’s found-footage?” and they can’t get past it. And that whole debate overwhelms them, and it really sort of riles them up. So it’s been kind of interesting seeing that with this sort of found-footage thing of ours.
M: Just one more question before we run out of time. As you said earlier, your films are a little bit different from “mainstream” horror films, and one of the main reasons for that is you’re not afraid to embrace the “slow burn” narrative structure, which I feel is very much in the style of classic horror cinema. I was wondering if you could talk about your attraction to this style of storytelling?
T: It’s just the only thing that makes sense to me. I mean, “slow burn” is a good phrase because everybody sort of knows what to expect, but to me, I don’t really think that I’m making a “slow burn” movie. I just think everything else is just so fast.
Ti is currently gearing up to shoot his next feature, a western entitled In a Valley of Violence, which stars Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan.