Ti West on Horror Comedies and ‘The Innkeepers’

The acclaimed horror director on his latest spook story and what makes the genre work.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I feel like I’ve been on the road with The Innkeepers. I saw Ti West’s latest horror film at SXSW. Then it came to the Los Angeles Film Festival, and it closed Fantastic Fest. Now it’s finally coming out, VOD December 30 and February 3 in theaters. For fans of House of the Devil, this is a much lighter film, but I still got to geek out with West about horror technique and obscure recommendations.


CraveOnline: What are your favorite horror comedies?

Ti West: Horror comedy is a weird word because a lot of times they get campy and they get to the point where they don’t feel like movies anymore. They feel like the whole thing was just way too postmodern and too jokey. Recently, Shaun of the Dead is great. Obviously Evil Dead II was like that but those movies are totally different than this movie because it’s dry humor. Well, Shaun of the Dead is dry humor but it’s a tough one to mix. Maybe Evil Dead II or Dead Alive do it best.


‘The Frighteners’ works too.

I love The Frighteners. I don’t have direct inspirations for this movie but things that did influence a little bit would be The Frighteners. Ghostbusters to a certain degree is another good example of comedy and horror, even though it’s not ‘scary’ scary but there are some moments like in the library that are kind of scary in Ghostbusters. I really liked The Frighteners. I liked the way that Peter Jackson shot it and I like the kooky music in that that Danny Elfman did. I remember when we were working on the movie for this, Jeff [Grace] and I, I brought up The Frighteners a few times.


Not even as influences, but just to recommend other movies out there.

I’m a big fan of The Golden Child which is not really straight up horror. It’s this odd movie that’s Eddie Murphy comedy/magic kid and the devil movie. It’s really strange. Gremlins, The ’Burbs so you’ve got Joe Dante in there doing it well twice. Golden Child is one of my favorite movies.


I love ‘Gremlins 2.’

Oh, it’s amazing. That movie is like crazy place of movie. That’s one you don’t realize until you watch it now when you go like, “What were they thinking making this movie?” The weird interludes with the Warner Brothers stuff, that’s just Joe Dante going all out. That movie is brilliant because it’s just craziness. Someone says to Phoebe Cates about Lincoln’s birthday. She goes, “Don’t mention Lincoln’s birthday.” It’s pretty great. It’s so aware but not calling attention to itself and I think that’s a really fine line to walk and he does it well. And I love Hollywood Boulevard, one of his movies he did. Now that we’re talking about it, he’s got three movies in the list that we just came up with so he’s maybe the best at it.


What kind of director would not also edit his films?

I don’t know. I don’t know how to not do that. I feel like they’re all the same job. Writing, directing and editing are essentially just filmmaking to me.


There are some great filmmakers who don’t, but I can’t imagine what they’re giving up.

Part of it literally just runs into a union issue. On bigger movies, the reason I think it doesn’t happen, I think Steven Soderbergh does his own stuff under a fake name, and he shoots it too under a fake name. That’s how he gets around it and I operate the camera as well. All that makes sense to me. Robert Rodriguez does his own stuff.


Could you conceive getting to a level where you’d use a union editor?

Yeah, I’m sure it will happen. I’ll try to keep doing it myself but if there was someone we were really on the same page, all the crews I work with, we have a very good shorthand. We’ve been working together for so long that they know how I think, I know how they think and it’s very easy to collaborate with them. There’s got to be an editor out there that’s the same way. It would be nice to not log the footage myself and sit there and do that. It would be nice to go in a room and have him go, “I took a stab at this and I think you’ll like it.” And I go, “I have a little problem with the way that shot is but yeah, this is how I would have done it.” That would be great. I just don’t know that person yet.


Even as mundane as logging can be, don’t you need to see the footage firsthand?

I think so. Larry Fesenden, who’s one of the producers of the film, he edits his own stuff too and that’s why we get along. Even though all the misery of logging and all the hours of being up at night, that’s filmmaking. It’s not always glamorous. It’s rarely glamorous and that’s part of discovering the footage and that’s part of discovering what you can do with stuff. Yes, I believe if you go into a room with someone who’s already cut it, you don’t really know what those other [options are].  You don’t know what it could have been and you just have to trust this person. That being said, you might go in there and it might be a really great collaborative experience.


You play with a lot of depth of field in ‘Innkeepers.’ What was your idea to use screen depth rather than length?

Because the movie is a lot about perception and perspective and things like that, I wanted to use these kooky wide angle lenses and steadicam shots and just float around and really just use the space. So that was just the aesthetic that made sense to me, when I pictured the movie in my head. Just the way I wanted to introduce things, I mean the way the movie is paced slowly as everybody seems to say, the same way I wanted to reveal things with the camera that way. A ghost story in a way is a mystery and you’re following the clues. I wanted the camera to follow and do that as well.


People are saying this is slow? Are they people who found ‘House of the Devil’ fast-paced?

No, they’re people who found that slow paced too, very slow paced. It’s funny because everyone on House of the Devil was like oh, slow burn. Everyone uses that buzz word. It’s okay with me, it’s fine. I get it, I know where they’re coming from but I don’t think it’s that slow, but fair enough. This movie which I totally don’t think is slow burn at all, when people started being like slow burn, especially the other night everyone’s laughing the whole movie and they’re like, “It takes forever to get to.” I’m like, “You’re laughing the whole time. What lull were you watching?” But it’s really weird. If it wasn’t a horror movie, no one would think it was slow burn. They would just think it’s a movie. But when you’re making a horror movie, if there isn’t something horror happening, it’s like wow, you really restrained yourself.


Even when Sara Paxton’s sitting in rooms recording EVP, I guess it’s not visual but it’s part of the horror. It’s doing something.

And it’s engaging because you have to pay attention and there’s these techniques like when she takes the earphone off and it goes away. I don’t know, man. They keep saying slow burn and they mean it positive so it’s fine by me. When we came here with this movie, I was like they won’t say slow burn this time around. And everyone’s like, “So you’re the slow burn style.” I’m like dude, what the fuck? I don’t know how. I’m oblivious I guess.


Even if the payoff is a joke, not a scare.

Yeah, on this movie. Okay, when someone says House of the Devil is slow burn, I get it because it’s a girl in a house and she’s by herself, she’s walking around, fine. But this is two people chatting it up with lots of jokes, and the jokes worked. Everyone was laughing. There were these false scares and real scares. It seems to me to be having beats consistently the whole time but like I said, people have expectations I think to see people get killed and that’s what they’re looking for. At this point, I don’t know why they expect that from my movies.


Back to the depth of field, even to having foreground and background people talking to each other.

Yeah, a lot of it was to familiarize you with the space because that was our whole movie, was very few rooms. So to be able to give you an idea of where everything is spatially to each other. I don’t feel like we had these really strong depth of field conversations when we were doing it. You start shooting it with a few ideas like oh, we’re going to shoot with these kooky lenses and we’re going to do some moves like this. And then the movie sort of dictates what you do. You start to put the camera somewhere and you’re like, “You know what? The movie kind of wants me to put it here.” When that happens, you get into a rhythm. So I feel like every movie case by case, you go in with plans and as it goes along, the movie subconsciously works itself in.


What do you want to write and direct next?

I have a space movie that I think I’m going to do next. There’s something else too but it seems to me like the science fiction movie is probably going to be it.


Is it space horror?

Yeah. It’s like paranoia, psychological horror in space.


What sort of budget will you need?

More than this but not a huge amount. Enough to build a spaceship that doesn’t need to fly. We’ll find some warehouse in a state with a tax incentive and build a spaceship set and we should be good.


Can you tell us about the characters?

Not yet. Because it’s about to go, I’d rather wait and do it on an organized front. But it’s a psychological movie about a woman in space.


Are you storyboarding?

I’m not there yet. Casting is where I’m at now. It’s very cast dependent in the sense that it’s really character driven.


Would you storyboard?

Well, because I operate and edit, I do very specific shot lists for myself but I don’t take the time to draw them because I’m the one that’s looking into the camera so it’s an extra step I don’t need to do. But I keep a very specific color coded shot list in my pocket that has everything that I want to do meticulously planned out. I just don’t do the drawings.


When you got to film festivals, is that the one place where you do a Q&A and the filmmaker gets all the questions?

I think anywhere, a Q&A, you’ve had this experience making this movie, it’s your one chance to be arrogant and egotistical for a minute and that feels good after a year of just slaving over a movie. So I think people always ask the filmmaker questions. If there’s celebrities in your movie, they’ll probably get a lot of questions but even the other night at our Q&As, the heart and soul of the movie are Sara and Pat and they got a couple questions, but every question should’ve been for them. Everything should have been to them but I think people are interested in the filmmaking, the technical stuff. I don’t know if people know what to ask actors sometimes.


It’s interesting to me because in most cases, the actors are the story.

That’s a good point. Also because it’s the independent world, there’s maybe a little bit more auteurism. For me who wrote, directed, edited, I did so much of the movie, I can answer a lot of questions.