This Kind of Limbo: Ti West on ‘The Innkeepers’

The acclaimed horror director talks minimum wage horror movies and the real reason why he makes movies about women.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

 

I don't know about you, but Ti West's superlative satanic cult movie House of the Devil made my Top Ten list back in 2009. How good was it? I ranked it higher than Pixar's Oscar-winning tearjerker Up. So his follow up film, The Innkeepers, was at the top of my "Must Watch" list. The film, about two hotel workers who spend their last nights of employment searching for the truth behind a supernatural urban legend, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, and was the first movie in years that made me scream "Don't go in there." I talked to Ti West about the motion picture upon its original release, but due to unforeseen circumstances we were forced to hold off on publishing our talk until the home video release. I recommend you take a read: West is one of the most promising new horror directors in years.

 

CraveOnline: I loved House of the Devil, and I loved Innkeepers too. I feel like House of the Devil was always pushing toward an inevitable conclusion, whereas Innkeepers was a bit more “anything could happen.” Tell me a bit more about the structure of Innkeepers, like where was that going?

Ti West: I think thematically, it’s just very different. I think House of the Devil is a movie about desperation, about making bad choices out of desperation, and where that can lead you. It’s about this one girl that finds herself in worse and worse situations because of that, whereas Innkeepers is much more of an existential crisis kind of movie, and I feel like that. Especially the lame existential crisis of having a minimum wage job. It’s not digging ditches, but it is still your life, and I think that mixed well with a ghost story. Being stuck at a job where you can’t leave, and you don’t quite know where you’re going with it, is kind of similar to ghosts being stuck in this kind of limbo.

So those things were interesting to me, and what was really important to me was, having made House of the Devil, which is a girl by herself for a lot of the movie, and this movie with two people by themselves for a lot of the movie, it’s a very dialogue heavy movie. And I wanted to do a character-driven, dialogue heavy – my goal was to make a charming ghost story, I’ve never seen that before. And my goal was to really create the minimum wage job vibe, which I had never seen done – I suppose you could say Clerks, but for the most part.

 

Most people perceive it as un-dramatic. It is limbo, there’s nothing going on. So you want to, like… Someone starts a minimum wage job, and then they’re a spy!

Yes. Also, then they discover this… Sarah, for instance, after Kelly kind of makes her feel shitty about not having these aspirations, she sort of latches onto the ghost hunting as something to care about, but she’s not very good at it. And I also like that people who have minimum wage jobs, it’s just like, I could either make movies or I could be a bus boy. I don’t know how to do anything else. So I like that they try this thing, but they’re not very good at it. Luke’s website is a shitty website. And he might know, and he might not know, but he’s like, frontin’ like he knows what he’s doing, and then when he gets his covers pulled, you realize he doesn’t. I just find all of that, from an introspective standpoint, interesting. So I wanted to make a much more “character study” movie than House of the Devil, which was a very plotted-out movie.

 

There was one bit I really liked in the movie, and I felt, for me, and I know there’s a lot of different ways to interpret it, but for me the film boiled down to that one video that Pat shows Sarah early on. You’re waiting, you’re staring, you’re staring, you’re staring, and you’re kind of getting what you deserve.

Yes, I think thematically you’re dead-on with that. I also think it’s a comment to anyone who thinks there needs to be a kill in the first ten minutes, or a scare in the first ten minutes of the movie. So I put one in, but it’s sort of a postmodern goof, you know? It also sets a primer for the rest of the film, like you’ve just come out of a title sequence that sets a primer, or tone, for the rest of the whole… what the movie is going to be like, and then you get this gag scare that’s like, “oh, this movie might not be what I thought, it might be this kind of movie, with these goofballs.” Because I don’t think people anticipated that. I think the movie’s kind of been around enough now for people to know that, but certainly when we first made it, I don’t think people thought it was going to be that.

 

Usually if there’s some kind of horror comedy that isn’t really broad, it’s more of a supernatural comedy, like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, that sort of thing. And this is an interesting balance, because everyone’s really likeable, but at the same time I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie and was like, “Don’t go in there!” It’s all that build-up of suspense, because you like the characters.

I think it’s because… I wouldn’t call it a horror comedy, I’d call it a horror movie that has a lot of funny parts or funny characters in it. Horror comedy is almost like it’s own thing, it’s like some slapstick thing, which I actually personally really strongly dislike. It’s just not my sense of humor, with the exception of very few. But I think because these characters are relatable and because they’re funny, when bad stuff starts happening, you find yourself being like, “Wait, they’re gonna do something bad to Sarah Paxton?” You watch her take out the trash and you fall in love with her, and then when you see blood on her, you’re like, “I don’t know if I like this.” You have hardcore horror people who just go to movies to see people’s heads get cut off, and even they’re like, “I don’t want to go for that, I don’t want to see that girl get hurt.” And that, to me, is what I was trying to do, is make you care.

 

You, and maybe Lucky McKee, are the two horror directors right now who have come up with the most compelling female protagonists. Because they seem very real, and usually they’re sort of a cypher. Your characters are flawed, but they’re flawed in a likeable, human way. The girl in House of the Devil, she just wants to get out of her apartment, she’s willing to make a few moral compromises to get there. And Sarah is really intensely neurotic, but also just really sweet. Where did you start with on her character?

Well a lot of it is probably putting my own neuroses into them. I think that’s part of my personal filmmaking element. It’s funny, I don’t really think… people always say, “Oh, you make all these female-driven movies,” and the next one I’m making is going to be that, too. But I’ve written plenty of movies about guys that just don’t get made. For some reason, these are the ones that get made. So I’ve back-doored my way into being a little Feministy by accident, but also there’s something, as a guy… I have to fixate on this movie for two years. There might be something subconsciously that goes, “You should fixate on a girl, because that will be easier for you.”

 

[Laughs] Yeah, Ariel the mermaid is really hot, and I’m sure that made it easier for the animators.

I don’t know, like I don’t outwardly do this, but there might be an element of fetishizing whoever I cast, and being like, “I want to see if I can make this person the ultimate version of them in my mind.” And that’s a little psychotic, but…

 

Well, Hitchcock did it, so you know…

Yeah, well I think any director… I think it’s there, for sure. But Sarah’s a representation in this movie of just the feelings that I’ve felt, and the jobs that I’ve had, and the people that I’ve worked with. So she’s a culmination of all that, and I just think what she’s going through, although subtle, I think it applies to the same – kind of being stuck at this job, stuck in this place in your life, just like the ghosts are stuck in the place in there, you know. And whether there’s anything wrong with that or not.

 

In House of the Devil, you dealt with – and I realize these aren’t the only movies you’ve made – but that one is about the whole Satan worshipping thing, craze, sort of media fanfare in the ‘80s. Here’s one that has another sort of Americana aspect to it, the haunted old inn. Is that a coincidence?

It might be. I mean, I think that I am probably affected over the years by pop culture, and by these things, so certainly I know exactly… I’ve stayed in hotels that are this way, I grew up going to hayrides and all this stuff, and the fascination with creating haunted environments for people, and I remember the Satanic Panic craze very well. I also, while I don’t know if they’re directly connected, my sensibilities are very Americana. When I was growing up, my formative years, for most people it’s probably in their teen years, mine was probably younger than that because I was a weird only child. So sort of old fashioned style Americana, before… because now there really isn’t much Americana anymore, everything’s global, and I find it to be aesthetically incredibly uninteresting.

So I will always be charmed by rotary phones, and I will always be charmed by shitty websites, and always be charmed by these more homemade things. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been more of a kind of DIY kind of person, but that is just my aesthetic, like I like Sarah with a rip in her jeans because she can’t get new jeans. Her shoes are falling apart. It’s something that somehow relates to me, in a way that I can’t – it’s hard to be specific about it, because so much of filmmaking or being an artist is just, you’re just like, “Waughgh!!” like, you’re getting your bullshit out there, and it manifests itself in different ways. But I just know part of the joy of making House of the Devil was just having all those cool props around. It’s like, “Wow, this thing, and that…” I don’t think of myself as that nostalgic, I just think, like, “Remember when people made stuff, or when people had a connection to things?” Like now it’s just so global, and so Internet – it used to be like, “What do they have in Tokyo?” I remember growing up like, “There’s Super Mario 20 in Japan!” I don’t know if they ever did, they probably didn’t.

 

They had The Lost Levels, where there was no traction on the ground. That didn’t get released here until like the late ‘90s.

If that was happening now, you would just get on eBay or Amazon and order it. But there was something great about, “They have… what?!” and you would imagine all these things, and that’s just gone. So I have an attraction to that, which probably ended in the early ‘90s.