The director of “The Innkeepers” talks horror.
Writer/Director Ti West has only made a handful of features in his young career, but they tend to garner him a lot of acclaim. The House of the Devil (2009), a loving ode to ’80s horror films, earned him high praise and set the stage for The Innkeepers, released earlier this year. The film concerns a pair of acerbic front desk workers at a haunted Connecticut hotel on the last weekend of its existence before being demolished and is suitably filled with humor, spirited homages to past horror films, and a good deal of its own anxiety-driven moments. Now, as the film is being released on DVD and Blu-ray, the director spoke with us on the nature of horror itself, proper casting in his films, and what elements you need in order to have a truly scary looking apparition.
I understand that you’re a fan of The Shining which is right up there for me too. What other horror movies are in your personal canon? The Shining is great, Rosemary’s Baby is great, Repulsion. I love Don’t Look Now. All of those I’m a pretty big fan of.
Why do you prefer the auteur approach particularly?
I think horror has the reputation to become the lowest common denominator, or become exploitation. Anytime you can see a movie and say “that’s a so-and-so” movie, that’s appealing to me. I like when you can tell that’s a Spielberg movie or a Coen Brothers movie or a Terry Gilliam movie, and when those types of people approach the horror genre there is so much you can do. Horror is almost an experimental genre. There’s so much diversity, but unfortunately, everyone just does the same derivative things over and over again. When auteurs do it they find what’s great about the genre and use horror as a metaphor. There is a movie first and then horror second.
Why are there such few good horror movies out there?
Not only are there very few, I run into a lot of people who tell me they don’t like horror movies, and I say ‘What about The Exorcist?’ and they say ‘That doesn’t count.’ People don’t realize they are horror movies. I think Black Swan was a horror movie that did really well and that was another situation where a really interesting filmmaker “vouched” for it, which elevated it in a way. And so did The Sixth Sense, The Silence of the Lambs, or The Others. I think my movies lend themselves to people who don’t like the horror genre. The response is always “but I don’t like horror movies.” There’s always that hurdle to say “dude, mine isn’t going to be the way you think it will be.
When people hear horror movie they immediately associate it with Friday the 13th style slasher films, which can be frustrating.
Right and that is why I think the term thriller was invented to try and circumnavigate that.
In your own films are you basing them on any of your childhood fears, worries or anxieties or are you basing it more off of previous horror films?
Not from other movies: I am far too insecure to take anything from other movies and not feel like I have stolen it. It is case by case specific but I like to think my movies are very personal. For instance, when I wrote House of the Devil I just got out of college and I was broke. I really didn’t know what I was going to do which was a very desperate feeling. So I wrote a movie about feeling that desperation which can lead to making poor decisions , so poor that you end up in some sort of satanic cult. I related it back to the panic feeling I used to have as a child in the ’80s when they said if you were alone at the park, a van with no windows comes along and they will pick you up and sacrifice you to the devil. That came from something that was implanted in my brain when I was younger, mixed with current issues. When we made House of the Devil, we stayed at this hotel, so while we were making this satanic horror movie, weirder things were happening at our hotel. So, when it came time that I wanted to make a ghost story I was like, we just lived one the year before, so why don’t I just make that movie.
This film is a really interesting mix of horror and comedy. Playing with the conventions of the genre. You keep it very light at first but then, suddenly, you throw a switch and things get really creepy. Were you at all worried you wouldn’t be able to successfully throw that switch?
What makes horror work, what makes any art accessible, is the contrast. If you don’t have contrast then neither one really means anything. If you do both, it’s more impactful because you’re invested. If you don’t have an equal part NOT-horror, then no one cares. That was a big part of this movie, to make it relatable. When the characters you know so well suddenly get put in a horror movie, they’re not equipped to deal with it, and if you as an audience relate to them, then you are no longer able to deal with it. We’ve become so post-modern about movies. The audience likes to keep a step ahead of the movie, and that doesn’t work. When you break conventions, it allows me to be a step ahead of the audience, which is how it should be.
To that point, we have an ending that’s definitely unexpected. No spoilers, but I can’t imagine you would have been able to keep that ending if this were a big studio affair.
That’s come up a lot. To me, you can’t have a ghost story without tragedy, that’s why the ghosts are there. They aren’t there because everything went well, they’re there because of unrest. So, to me, it didn’t make sense to avoid that kind of ending. I think if I did it in a studio they would let me keep the ending but cut the first two thirds in half.
Could that have worked?
It would have been shorter and wouldn’t have worked. It is what it is. If you named a list of ten horror movies that are really good, you’d find a majority of them take their time to build character and you follow clues and there’s a mystery to it all. It’s not just about seeing people get slaughtered or something popping out of the closet every five minutes, that’s boring.
And to be truly scary, you’ve got to confound expectations. You can’t do a paint-by-numbers thing and expect an audience to truly be scared.
Yeah, there was a point when all those Japanese remake movies happening, and The Ring was a really good remake, but then, ten of those Japanese remakes later, every time you saw a little girl with black hair, everyone collectively rolled their eyes. Like, you really think you’re going to scare me with this again? That’s silly. But I think Hollywood just has to run things into the ground.
As far as casting, I thought Sara Paxton was sort of a revelation: Incredibly charming and dorky and lovable, as well as beautiful, which isn’t easy to pull off. How hard was it to find someone with the right mix of those elements?
It was a really tough role to cast because I think it was such a specific vibe that I wanted. You know, I’m only qualified to either make movies or be a bus boy, you know? I could have a minimum wage job, or direct movies. I don’t know how to do anything else. So I’m forever charmed by the love/hate of that. When you audition actors, a lot of them just have never really done that. Either they just moved to L.A. and their parents supported them or they were actors when they were kids, so a lot of people don’t know that vibe. It was hard to get the snarky sarcasm. Dry humor is much harder than what people expect. It was very hard to find the right balance. I met a lot of actresses but I wasn’t sure they got it. When I met Sara she was not at all what I expected, she’s way goofier in person, much more like this character in real life then she is other characters she’s played. She would play a cheerleader on some TV show or something like that, but that’s so not who she is, but you wouldn’t know that until you meet her. I think she understood the movie very well and I was able to exploit the quirkiness of her, manipulate it to make people fall for her.
She has a peculiar way of walking so she’s almost constantly off-balance slightly.
Yeah, she’s a goofball.
Was that her natural gate, or something you guys developed for the role?
I think it’s a little bit of both, but she’s so not what you think. She’s a goofball and always bumping into stuff. I used to joke that she was like a muppet, and she would say it was her dream to be in a muppets movie. So, she’s a strange one. She’s been in so many movies where they hide this, and for me, it was all I wanted to see.
How much work went into the look of the ghost to actually make it appear to be scary as opposed to a CGI confection?
It was a lot of work. I wanted to take a relatively familiar ghost story structure that everyone is familiar with but I wanted to put in modern, nerdy characters that don’t belong in that. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted for [the ghost] character, I had some references I showed to Brian Spears, the make-up/effects guy and he did the test. So it was pretty easy because I was pretty specific about what I wanted. With the ghost I just had a hunch that it would be scary to see because I made it realistic, which is sometimes just enough to become frightening. We didn’t push too hard with the ghost thing, which I thought would work.