After the visceral insanity of David Bruckner's "Amateur Night," it makes perfect sense to slow things down a bit, and you're not going to find many independent horror filmmakers who are better than Ti West when it comes to patient, dread-building storytelling. Between his early 2012 supernatural horror-comedy The Innkeepers and 2009's critically acclaimed, satanic '80s throwback The House of the Devil, the 32-year-old writer-director has established a formidable reputation as a champion of pacing; "Second Honeymoon," his sneak attack of a V/H/S segment, keeps his modus operandi firmly intact.
With a videocamera in hand, a young married woman (Sophia Takal) is documenting the road trip she's taking with her hubby (fellow V/H/S director Joe Swanberg) throughout the Grand Canyon area, Flagstaff, Arizona. After a day's worth of sightseeing, mingling with donkeys, and having their fortunes read by a robotic, pay-to-guide teller, the couple gets ready for bed inside a hotel room when, suddenly, there's a knock at their door. Opening the door, the husband sees an off-putting woman pacing around the parking lot, wearing a mask and a black hoody. Needless to say, the couple's vacation has taken a dark turn, one whose bleakness increases as it progresses toward a gruesome climax.
More so than the rest of V/H/S, which favors supernatural antagonists and fantastical horrors, "Second Honeymoon" remains grounded in a stark realism—in one key moment, there's almost a "snuff film" quality to it. Interestingly, as West points out here, that was by an early design that, as the other segments followed in his own's wake, morphed into something else entirely once the film was finally assembled.
You were the first person involved after the wraparound shot. Did you see that as an advantage or a disadvantage?
Ti West: Yeah, after Adam’s wraparound, I was the first. I didn’t think much of it at the time; now, I think it definitely informed the movie I made. If I had gone last, I might have made something that was more in-your-face or outrageous, had I seen the other ones.
Going first, the idea I came up with a very based-in-reality, found-footage snuff film sort of vibe, and if I had seen what everyone else did, maybe I would have thought of something different. I don’t know. It’s not as much an issue of it being an advantage or a disadvantage as it just informed the idea that I had.
For you, was the idea was less about it being this subversion of found-footage and more about getting to work with friends on a road trip film?
West: Yeah, and some of my favorite movies are verite documentaries, so making a movie in this style doesn’t bother me at all; I actually really enjoyed it. I don’t really mind movies that are made in this way—I get frustrated with the ones that are trying to represent themselves as something they’re not, where they’re like, “These tapes were discovered and on them is…” They’re trying to represent themselves as something real, and I think that’s condescending to an audience. It’s not real, stop lying and pretending that it’s real. Just the style in general doesn’t bother me at all. I looked at it as something where I got to go out with people I like hanging out with and making a weird documentary. So it was fine for me.
Where did the initial idea for "Second Honeymoon" come from?
West: I had gone on a road trip… They asked me to be a part of it, and I didn’t say “No,” but I did say, “Well, probably not,” because I didn’t know if I wanted to be part of an anthology. And then I went on this trip and I started thinking about if I could come up with any ideas, and I couldn’t come up with anything. Then, I realized that the trip was the idea. So when I came back and pitched them that and they said, “OK.” A month later, I had flown Joe, Sophia, and Kate to LA and we rented a car and went back on the exact same trip and recreated it with them. It really was that vacation that informed the whole thing.
What was it about the scenery of Flagstaff that made you think it’d be good for a film?
West: It’s just a really interesting part of the country. It doesn’t feel like anywhere else. There’s also a lot of weird, creepy hitchhikers and there’s this meth problem. The Southwest is really strange. The Grand Canyon is this really amazing area, and then there’s Flagstaff and Williamson, Arizona; there’s this really tourist-y yet creepy vibe about that area that’s just really appealing to me. I really like that part of the country. It was about exposing the threat of being on a road trip, feeling like you’re sort of out there alone, and people could be following you.
How long was the shoot/trip?
West: It was only about four days; we drove out on a Thursday and came back on a Sunday. We would drive and I would say, “OK, there’s this gas station that we’re going to stop at in a little bit to get gas and I want to shoot a scene there.” So we would pull over, get gas, and I would shoot a scene there and then we’d go.
Then I’d say, “There’s this little town I want to stop at off Route 66, and I want to shoot some stuff with you guys talking about this there,” and that’s how it went along the way. I had it mapped out. I remembered the trip enough to where I wrote the movie outline before we left, and all the actors read it. The outline was very specific except for dialogue. We’d do a scene a couple times, and then we’d go out, get some dinner, and do some karaoke.
Joe Swanberg: My feeling is that, as much as possible, that's how a movie should feel for the crew and the cast. It should feel like everybody's at summer camp; you have a job to do, of course, and everybody should be professional, but as soon as the cameras stop rolling for the day, I feel like the best movie sets are the ones where everyone says, "OK, so where are we drinking now?" [Laughs.] Ti's segment definitely had that awesome feeling.
Ti, was this your first experience working without a firm script and without specific dialogue?
West: Yeah. I mean, I’ve written very specific dialogue for all my movies but I’m not particularly married to any of it. So the idea of going off the page doesn’t bother me at all. But that was also because I knew who I was going to cast here and I knew that they could do it very well, so I wasn’t concerned about it.
The most interesting scene in "Second Honeymoon," for me, is the run-in with the mechanical fortune teller. The fortune that's given to the couple very slyly and shrewdly lays out the segment's entire plot, which becomes clear once the segment ends. What made you decide to include that?
West: I had seen them along the trip, and I thought, Oh, maybe something like that could work in the film, who knows. The fact that the fortune came out the way that it did was just a happy accident. When they came back in having shot that scene, they were like, “Dude, wait until you see this!” And then they played me the footage, and the card basically outlines the entire fucking story. [Laughs.] That was just a total bonus. It was just dead-on.
Swanberg: Yeah, it was crazy. Sophia and I had this really crazy moment when we were shooting that scene, where she pulled the fortune out and read it, and we were both like, "Whoa, man… That is nuts!" That was one of those really happy accidents where we felt like the universe was really giving us some golden material for the movie. Even as she was reading it and I was holding the camera, part of me, as an actor, switched off, and I was thinking as she was reading that, "Wow, man, this is so perfect! This is going to be amazing!" It was one of those things where everyone knew that something crazy had happened.
What would have happened if the fortune had said something completely different?
West: It was one of those things where… That scene would not have been important enough to be in the movie had it said something else. I would have been like, “Eh, that scene’s cool but we don’t really need it.” We shot a bunch of scenes like that. We shot some really cool stuff out in the desert, some really groovy stuff that was just cool but it was stuff I couldn’t justify keeping in a 20-minute segment. It was just some weird Route 66 stuff, whereas the fortune-teller was actually describing the plot, which was kind of interesting. It was pretty amazing.
The mask worn by the stalker has a really cheap, store-bought feel that makes it seem very familiar, but also creepy. Was that the intention?
West: The mask actually has a really crazy back-story. When I had seen a little bit of the footage they had shot for the wraparound, there was a scene in the wraparound that featured the mask. So I was like, “Who has the mask?” Simon had it, so I was like, “Let me use it, I’ll incorporate it into my segment so that it’s connected to the wraparound,” and everyone was like, “That’s great.” I go and we use the mask and it’s connected to this secret society of people who have these tapes, and it’s gonna be all connected and it’s gonna make sense, and then they cut that out from the wraparound. [Laughs.]
So now she’s just wearing a scary mask, and it doesn’t have the value that it was initially supposed to have. Originally there was a scene where someone, I think, went to buy the tapes, or, no, wherever the tapes were being held, a person goes in there and kills the person, takes the tapes, and is wearing that mask. So my idea was the killer in my segment was connected to the people who took these tapes.
Does that bother you at all?
West: No, it’s fine. The mask serves two purposes: One, to connect to that story, and, two, to conceal her face. And it still does the latter. It’s not an issue where it has no value now—it just doesn’t have two values.
Why weren't you initially interested in participating in an anthology movie?
West: I don’t know. They all have moments, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that on a whole is really great. That’s because they’re all over the place. I really enjoy anthologies as a TV thing; like, Tales from the Crypt, I think, is the most successful example, where every week you’re going to get a different type of story that’s presented by someone who’s connecting them all together.
In movies, it’s tricky; in Creepshow, there are parts that I like and there are parts I don’t like. I think it works better on TV than it does in movies. By nature, they’re all over the place, so, on one hand, it’s great because there’s something for everybody, and on the other hand you’re probably gonna like one more than you like the other one. But I think V/H/S falls less into those traps than the other ones do.
The film’s go-for-broke, punk rock mentality seems to help V/H/S suffer from that problem less, since it’s quite obvious that the film was made with any anything-goes mentality—it actually benefits the movie.
West :I agree. In a more formal structure, it’s trickier. Because of the punk rock nature of this movie, it doesn’t suffer from the problems that anthologies normally do.