Exclusive Interview: Ti West Talks In A Valley Of Violence, John Travolta, And Film Criticism
Ti West – a filmmaker known for horror/thrillers like The House Of The Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Sacrament – came to Austin’s South By Southwest Film festival with something more familiar to Texas’ Southern crowd.
In A Valley Of Violence is a gun-slinging departure for its ambitious creator, focusing on gallows humor and lawless revenge. Starring Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, James Ransone, and a host of other periodically-transformed talents, you’re going to have an absolute blast with this dusty tale, especially when you meet the film’s true star, a scene-stealing pup named Jumpy. This is rootin’, tootin’, leather-raw action with a jovial twist – one of my favorites from SXSW.
After its second showing, I sat down with Ti West to talk about his foray into American Westerns, and keeping things a bit lighter versus gritty remakes like 3:10 To Yuma. With Blumhouse’s production mindset, West is able to make In A Valley Of Violence seem much bigger than its budget permitted, and he spoke to some of the ways production was able to save on costs without sacrificing atmosphere. Then, as an added bonus, we discussed film criticism and his interpretation of the relationship between creator and critic, given how some big names have recently lashed out against negative reviews. It’s a meaty chat that I was glad to chew on – hope you find it just as tasty!
We Got This Covered: Let’s get right to the point – the star of your film, without argument, is a canine actor named Jumpy. Was it hard getting the prolific pooch to follow directions, and who would you rather work with now – humans or dogs?
Ti West: [Laughs] Jumpy was a breeze to work with, but from an actor standpoint, including Jumpy, In A Valley Of Violence was a dream. Everybody was amazing. We all got along. It was a wonderful experience, but Jumpy may have unified everyone. Every day on set you’d just look over, see Jumpy looking back, and everything would get better.
WGTC: Thankfully, Jumpy has that power on the audience as well. How did you get anything accomplished with Jumpy there??
Ti West: There’s a lot of footage of people just playing around with Jumpy in between takes.
WGTC: You’re usually the horror guy, but In A Valley Of Violence is a straight-forward Western. What drew you to the genre, and did any classics have an influence on this decision?
Ti West: I love all Westerns. It’s one of my favorite genres ever. I made a movie called The Sacrament, a fake documentary heavily steeped in realism, all about putting the camera somewhere it seems it’d actually go, trying to replicate what Vice does and all these things – more an experiment in new media than traditional cinema.
It was great, and we had a blast, but when I finished that, I wanted to do the polar opposite. Getting back to the traditional feel. Big wide shots, performance-driven, classic filmmaking. I thought, “Well, the most classic American film genre is the Western, and I’m a big fan.” It was a club I wanted to be a part of.
WGTC: Looking at modern westerns, and the evolution of cinema in general, filmmakers are, and have been, adapting a darker reality. Your film, on the other hand, is very bright, and lively. Was this a conscious decision?
Ti West: What I realize is that I love cinema. I don’t care so much about realism in a movie, or plot – maybe if it’s an Agatha Christie movie I do – but in general, I’m there for the stuff that feels like “Thank God for that actor, because he’s doing something no one else will do,” or “Without this director, this movie wouldn’t exist.” That’s what I go to the movies to see.
So, to make a movie that people afterwards can talk about weird, idiosyncratic details like when Tubby gets killed and things like that, that’s the highest compliment to me. Talking about certain lines, or a certain shot. I’m trying to make really traditional cinematic movies with a big, bombastic score, and big performances.
The thing that’s cool about Westerns – both American Westerns, and Spaghetti Westerns – is that there’s an absurdist nature to them. We didn’t go full-in ridiculous, but I wanted to make a movie about a bunch of people in a violent Western who are not capable of handling it. They’re in over their heads, and they don’t realize it, so when shit hits the fan, they fall apart.
In Westerns, there’s typically an ego and bravado amongst the people, where they know how to spin the gun just right. To me – well, especially in this movie, even with the bad guys, when their friends start dying, they get upset like anyone else would. I wanted to make a movie that sets up all these archetypes, and then flips them on their head.
WGTC: Where did filming take place on location? I know you mentioned in the Q & A that your Western town was already constructed, but how did you make the existing buildings part of your own, unique universe?
Ti West: We shot in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it was a town that was already there, so we went in, boarded up the buildings – all the interiors were changed pretty drastically. All the buildings had nothing inside them, so we wallpapered everything. The hotel in our movie? Normally that’s used as a saloon. Then our saloon had to have knock-down walls and needed to be built out. We spent a bunch of time and money building stuff inside, but I wrote the movie as a failing town, basically on its last legs, so we could go in and make it look like it’s almost over, populate it with a few extras, and then when shit hits the fan, there’s not extras on the street getting shot. There was a way to do it inexpensively, but not make it look too cheap, and make it feel like part of the story.