Ti West

Prolific filmmaker Ti West returns with The Sacrament, a chilling mockumentary thriller that sees three journalists head out to a strange cult and discover what really goes on behind closed doors.

We had the pleasure of speaking to Ti on the phone, discussing the challenges that come with the handheld footage sub-genre, ensuring that his feel is steeped in realism – in spite of the overstated, cinematic approach – while he discusses his upcoming feature In a Valley of Violence, which stars a certain John Travolta…

The film is of course presented as a faux-Vice documentary. How did they come to be involved, and why them in particular?

I wanted to use a real brand to do this fake documentary thing, and you know, what Vice are doing is really cool and they’re at the forefront of video journalism and embedded journalism, and doing these fringe stories. But more importantly, in the States a lot of the media is very biased and Vice doesn’t have a political agenda. They have their own brand, but they don’t lean to the left or the right politically, they don’t have an agenda in the way they deliver their news. Everybody else seems to. To me that muddied up what I was trying to accomplish, and what’s good about Vice is that they’re known for going out and finding stories like these, but they’re also known for being very subjective about them, but honest too. So I went and asked them.

The film is steeped in realism, but as with any mockumentary, or found footage film, there’s always that need to justify whether somebody would be filming in certain situations. Was that a challenge for you? Was it always at the back of your mind?

It wasn’t really a challenge, as by making the characters professional documentary filmmakers and dealing with a news type story helps, because there is wild footage from people in Afghanistan or Iraq or places like that, which is just an unbelievable. So that helps as a plot device, because it’s their job and it’s what they’re interested in.

Given it’s set up as a mockumentary, it actually provides an element of hope to proceedings, to know the footage survived insinuates the characters might…

For me it was important because I was able to shoot it in a certain way, and edit it in a certain way. I wanted the violence in the movie to be upsetting and confrontational and provocative, but also emotional. You’re actually faced with the reality of what this is actually like. You’re confronted with the emotional reality of what these people are going through. Making it a little more like a movie, adding music and stuff, it helped get that point across better. We didn’t just want it to be an exploitative, and hopefully makes you think about the context of everything and then the ramifications when you’re watching it.

Did you have to do much research into cults?

I knew a lot about cults already, that’s the reason the movie became an idea in my head, because I was already full of stuff like that. Over the years I’ve done a lot of research for no reason, and that reason turned out to be making this movie in 2013, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like I came up with the idea and then did the research, I came up with the idea because I did the research. It’s one of those things I’ve always been fascinated by. To me, there is horror much scarier than ghosts or zombies and vampires, in what people do to each other. I’m a weird person, and those type of stories are always very fascinating to me. I know a lot about serial killers and cults. When I was a kid that’s the kind of stuff I read about.

When watching the movie back, are you able to get scared and caught up in the tension? Or are you too close to the project to feel what the audience might feel.

I’m far too close. I can’t get any enjoyment out of any of my movies. It’s like hearing your voice on tape, where you think, ‘I don’t sound like that’, but you do. I can stay objective enough where I know if it’s working or not, but I don’t have the experience the audience do. I can tell that all the technical elements are in the right places. It’s like if you tell a joke and the whole room laughs, and your friend tells the same joke and it bombs – somehow you just knew how to emphasises the right moments just a little better to make it work. The joke isn’t funny for you, you just knew how to craft it in a way to get people to laugh more than somebody else did, even though you can’t get the enjoyment out of it.

In regards to the casting, finding somebody to play Father must have been tough, because you need an actor that has this natural charisma to work, which you either have or you don’t. Fortunately, Gene Jones has that in abundance – you must have been thrilled when he signed on?

Yeah it should have been hard, but I was watching an episode of Louie, the Louis C.K. Show, and Gene was in one scene and it caught my eye, and I thought that guy has amazing screen presence. So I tracked him down, and he’s also in No Country For No Men, he’s in that coin toss scene. He just has this great screen persona that I was infatuated by. I wondered if he would do something like this, and we had him read for it, and we were like, that’s him. It was amazing because the first scene we shot with him is the big interview scene, which is arguably the best scene in the movie, and the scene that, if it doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work. He just came in and did these 12 pages of dialogue without dropping a line. He killed it. It was amazing to watch. Every movie you get like one, maybe two scenes, that when you’re filming they transcend the experience, you can just check out of being a director for a minute and just watch it, and watching Gene do that scene was one of the most in my career, I’d forgotten I had written it. It was a real pleasure to see that.

What comes of that scene – and this is one of the things I most enjoyed about the movie – is that initially the cult seems like quite a tempting place to reside. The way the characters speak about it, and the way Father speaks about it, you can see how people have been pushed into that way of life.

That was one of the biggest reasons for making the movie. In movies the cults are always portrayed as the villains, and you know that’s such a simple, reductive way to look at things. ‘Oh they’re just a crazy religious cult, they’re the bad guys’. In real life, nobody signs up to be in a cult. You just end up being in one. So it was important for me in the first half of the movie, to portray it, as while being weird and maybe not for you, is still a a potentially great thing for these people. Everything that Father is saying in the movie makes perfect sense, and whether they can pull it off or not is a different question. But that was the idea, for the first half of the movie to really make out this alternative lifestyle might be better than the one that even the audience is comfortable with. But then you see how it can become dangerous. These aren’t just bad people though, they’re being manipulated.

To change the subject somewhat, there does seem to be a movement of sorts at the moment, with you very much at the forefront, of a group of filmmakers including Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Adam Wingard, Sara Paxton, Amy Seimetz, etc – it’s all very collaborative and you appear in each other’s movies. Do you think that really benefits the finished product?

Yeah, and I write all these parts specifically for these people because I know them and I knew they would do the movie. So I write the parts with them in mind, and therefore able to write to their strengths. Then if I need them to improvise off of that, they can only make it better. Plus they’re filmmakers, which is convenient. We’re all good friends, and as filmmakers and friends, they all came to be in my movie to make my movie. Nobody had an agenda to further their career, to look better than anyone else, it was just, ‘how do we help Ti do his thing?’ You might think, isn’t that what it’s always like? But it’s not. When you work with people you don’t know, a lot of times they’re there protecting their own agenda, and that can backfire. So it’s great working with people you know are all likeminded and have the same sensibilities, and the same goal as mine, which is to just make a good movie. All the people you mentioned, their goals are to make and be in good movies, and that’s idealistically, what they’re trying to do. That’s what you want to work with, people like that.

How is it directing such close friends? Is it easy to move between being a professional director one second, and then a friend the other? Or is it much of the same thing?

Well, writing it for them, I knew what to expect when they got there. But it’s easy, because we can disturbing, heavy subject matters, and yet not have a miserable time making the movie. There was a pretty mellow, light vibe on set, and I don’t know if fun is the right word, but it was basically a fun shoot making this movie.

Finally, next up you have In a Valley of Violence, starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. That sounds quite exciting?

Yeah we’re down in New Mexico now and we start shooting in a few weeks. It’s pretty cool.

The Sacrament is released on June 8th.