Ti West was out until four in the morning last Saturday night, carried away by celebrations of the world premiere of his latest movie, In a Valley of Violence. "I don’t know what happens," he tells me when we meet at 9:30 in the morning the next day, both of us groggy from SXSW festivities. "We didn’t rage too hard last night, but I have done my fair share of that, and I’m sure there will be some more of that to come." What he really wants to do is karaoke—"maybe tonight," he says—but so far he's been getting up bright and early to talk and then talk some more about this film. He's already thanked me profusely for bringing him much-needed coffee and donuts—Voodoo Doughnuts, specifically, of which he chooses the kind with Fruit Loops on top from my bag of mixed goodies. I expected Ti to show up hungover to our interview, but his exhaustion had a hint of happiness to it after promoting, then finally showing, and now receiving much-deserved accolade, for his film.
This is West's fourth SXSW world premiere, but In a Valley of Violence marks the biggest production from the director, who's become well-known in the niche community of horror (for The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and a segment of V/H/S, among others) but hasn't had that A-list crossover moment—until now. Valley boasts a cast that includes Ethan Hawke as its brooding cowboy anti-hero, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, and Karen Gillan. What's so fascinating about this movie, especially for fans of West's work, is that it's drastically different from anything West has done before tonally. He's a horror guy (one of the best around today), but this isn't horror. West, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, has even made it a point to call this a "pure Western" because he didn't want people to think it was just another horror film disguised as a Western. "We aren’t trying to secretly fool you into thinking that it is a horror movie," he says. "Like, come to see this movie thinking it’s a Western. I will deliver because it is a Western."
In a way, he's right, but the movie also has the director's unmistakable imprint on it. Of course, West couldn't resist a little bit of horror and as its title suggests, violence is a guarantee. "I don’t go to the movies so much for plot and spectacle, I go for weird esoteric things, things that feel like the movies," he says. "My favorite movies are the ones that feel like if that person who made it didn’t exist, this movie doesn’t exist. I feel that way about this movie." With coffee and donuts in hand, we sat down with West in the Western town of Austin, Texas, to talk about the film that has the festival abuzz.
Warning: Mild spoilers lie ahead.
Would you say this movie is you saying, “Hey, I could do more than just scare the shit out of you?”
Yeah, that’s fair to say. I don’t think that was a motivating force, but it’s in there, for sure. I don’t really want to just make horror movies. This was a good time to try something new. People come into the movie thinking, “Is it secretly a horror movie?” I’m like, “No. It’s not.”
That’s what I thought too—that things would go left.
It’s great because sometimes people are a little bit nervous to laugh at first. Because it’s like, "Is it supposed to be—" Yes. To me the movie is about a bunch of people who get involved in a violent situation who are totally incapable of handling the it, which to me is real life. To me, the guy who talks the most shit is actually the biggest wimp. Insecurity and stupid people are far more dangerous than people who think they are tough. But someone who is embarrassed is a problem. Someone who is stupid and thinks they know things is a problem. To me, it was always a movie about how violence affects people.
I also liked how you used people who are familiar to horror movies even though this isn't a horror movie. Larry Fessenden, of course, gets killed in a lot of horror movies. I realize Ethan and James were in Sinister together. Did that affect casting?
No. That affected Ethan. I went to Jason Blum [of Blumhouse Productions] saying, "I know you have this relationship with Ethan, and I’m a huge fan. I think he would be great for this movie." That’s where it started. James—PJ, as we call him—is one of my best friends. We always wanted to work together, but I never quite had the role. I finally was like, "I think I got something." I wrote the part for him so it plays to his strengths. It’s bravado and then foolishness. He’s really good at that. I was like, "I’m giving you plenty of room to go full on with it."
Can we talk about the amazing dog performance in this?
The real reason to see this movie, is the fucking dog. The dog is unreal.
I cried when she died. It gets me harder than people dying in movies.
People care more about animals than they do about people. But the dog in real life, we could hardly put anything the dog can do in the movie because it’d be too crazy. He could walk on his back legs and open the saloon doors. It was insane. I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s one of the best dog performances in any movie.
So last night I heard people mentioned John Wick...
Which I still haven’t seen, but I know.
That movie is also about a man who kills people who kill his dog. Is that a comparison you are trying to shake off?
I mean, I don’t think about it too much. It’s like, if it’s going to come out what are you going to do? I haven’t seen it, but my understanding of the movie is that there’s this plot element that’s similar, but to me I don’t think Valley is too much about that. It’s one of those things—I can also point to you four other movies about dogs where revenge comes in. I feel like the movies are so different.
What would you guys do after a day of shooting?
We did a little bit of karaoke, which was fun. I try to do that on every movie because anyone that feels nervous about being in there, it’s like a great ice breaker because it’s such a stupid thing to do. You force people that don’t even want to do it—it’s amazing how quickly people bond over one evening of karaoke. Even if they don’t sing, everybody's vibing. When you make small movies, you need everybody to be unified.
Who is the best at karaoke in the cast?
I’m trying to think who really nailed it. It’s always like a sleeper crew member. Karen Gillan was pretty good. She and James Ransone did a duet together that was pretty good.
Would you do a sequel?
I have an idea for a sequel. It probably won’t happen, but I know what it is. It’s called, Return to the Valley of Violence.
Is that something you think every time you wrap a movie?
No, but I do have this one figured out. It would be very crazy. It would be much more violent and much more outrageous. It’s about... I shouldn’t tell you. But I would love to do it. It would be crazy, this times ten.
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