Following The House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers, Ti West has become one of the most exciting and respected names in modern horror. With The Sacrament, he leaves the supernatural behind to create a terrifying and plausible tale of a journalist team investigating a cult. Is everything as benign as it seems, or is something more sinister going on?
We talked to West about making documentary-style horror, why real people are scarier than monsters, and why he’s leaving horror behind.
Was The Sacrament a conscious move away from the old dark house horrors of The House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers?
Yeah, the last movie I made was kind of like a rom-com ghost story so I wanted to do something that was very different from that, and I wanted to do something that was heavily realistic and more horrific than, say, ‘horror genre’. I wanted to use a real event as a framework for the story because I thought that would be provocative and socially relevant, and I wanted to use a real brand as a way to tell that story to keep everything steeped in this sense of realism.
I also feel like we’re so bombarded with violence in the media and we’re at such a safe distance from it that we’re desensitised to it, that in doing something that was so realistic, in making that confrontational and making that violence really actually scary or disturbing, it seemed valuable and it also seemed like a challenge. So that’s kind of where it all came from.
What I realised in travelling around with this movie is if you make a horror movie that doesn’t have a supernatural element, people get into arguments on whether or not it’s a horror movie. I don’t really know if that’s that really an interesting argument to me; certainly it’s the most horrific movie I’ve ever made. I think it’s more that horror has become so much of an escapist genre; in that it’s the kind of thing you go to and you have an hour and a half visceral scary experience and then you leave and that experience is over and it’s a fun escapism way to confront those emotions. Whereas a movie like The Sacrament, there’s what happens in the movie and there’s what the movie’s about, and what the movie’s about is a lot scarier and more important. And so ideally you go and you have an hour and a half scary experience watching this movie and then when you leave you’re stuck with it. And the themes in the movie are relevant to real life and the horror in this movie is relatable.
The story is obviously influenced by Jonestown but it’s not a Jonestown movie. Was it difficult striking that balance between referencing a real event and portraying it?
That was kind of the goal, it seemed like an interesting idea to me. The story of Peoples Temple and the end of what happened in Jonestown, the final 48 hours in Jonestown is very similar to what happens in The Sacrament. It’s not identical but it’s very close as far as the major things that happened, it was on purpose as I wanted to use that real event so that way when you see the things that happen in this movie you can’t help but relate it to real life. It’s not Jonestown in the sense that there’s a much bigger story about Peoples Temple which is over 20 years and you can’t reduce it to just what happened there because it’s so much more than that.
But in using that as a framework I was able to say that a lot of things that got people to join Peoples Temple in the ’60s and ’70s are still totally relevant today. And a lot of the manipulation of desperation, that is what happened and the fact that it’s more of a mass murder than a mass suicide, is just as terrifying then as it was now. So doing a movie that’s so steeped in realism and using a real brand and a real event as a framework, I think when you leave the movie theatre you can’t help but relate the scenes from the movie to real life and that was sort of the goal to me, to confront people with the fact that vampires and zombies and ghosts aren’t scary. Real people are scary, and this is the kind of stuff you hear about on the news all the time and you’re not confronted with it and this movie hopefully reminds you of just how awful real violence can be.
Yeah, absolutely. If you’re embedded during a war there’s this idea that you’re the press and it’s certainly not a safe thing to do but there’s this idea that you’re not really going to be shot at specifically because people understand that you’re the press. But on a fringe thing like this when you’re the only people there, it’s very hard to remain objective and it’s hard to not get involved because you do realise if you don’t get involved nobody else will. So that calls into question, you want to stay “Hey, we don’t get involved, we’re just documenting the story” but if you don’t nobody will, and these blurred lines as a human being, what do you do?
I just find that stuff interesting, and not specific to Vice but just to media in general. It’s become so ridiculous that now if it’s raining, the reporters are out, “We’re out here in the rain! Documenting what it’s like to be wet!” Everything is trying to put you in the moment and then have no accountability for it. And I think we’re at this interesting time where all of our media and news is coming to us from on the ground live moments and, as human beings, what is your role in that? I understand that in the media “We don’t get involved, we’re just here to document!” But as a human being, there’s an element of how do you not get involved sometimes?
They definitely go in with a very definite idea of what Eden Parish will be like.
I tried in the first half of the movie to show that, maybe it’s not for you, but Eden Parish isn’t a terrible idea. There’s always this misconception or there’s this unfortunate reality that cults are always seen as these religious fanatic people or in movies they’re always seen as the villains. They’re the bad guys, they’re nuts. What I wanted to do in this movie was show that nobody signs up to be in a cult. You just end up being in one.
So I wanted to show like the first half of this movie, Eden Parish might be weird and you as the audience, who is sceptical and knows where this movie is probably going, might be looking for problems but there’s not a lot there in the beginning. Everybody’s kind of like “Yeah, it’s better than what I had before, I’m trying something different.” And everything that Father says in the movie really is idealistic and sounds great. And I think if they could have accomplished that, there’s a lot in the movie, like AJ Bowen’s character says “I get why people want to live like this. I don’t want to but I understand why they do,” and I think that was really important to me. You can be sceptical and you can be looking for something bad to happen but what everyone’s saying is positive things. And I think that’s what’s so scary, is taking people who are desperate and you promise them something to better their lives. And then it’s really kind of a bait and switch.
That’s something you’ve used before, having the audience and the characters looking for something that’s wrong or dangerous…
Yeah and most of the time when you realise it’s time to get out it’s too late. So that’s kind of the goal, the first half of the movie everything sounds great and you’re like “I’m sceptical but also what everyone’s saying is great,” and then when you realise “Oh, now I’ve confirmed that it’s not great!” You’re too far in, you can’t just leave it. And that’s the same thing that happens to the people there, is that “This guy offered me something better and it was better for a while and then when I realised wait a minute I can’t get out of here, it’s not so great, it’s too late, I’m too deep in now.”
With The House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers having supernatural elements, was it challenge to find different ways to tip the audience off to that threat while keeping the found footage format?
I guess as far as technically, because it’s sort of a documentary style…this sounds like semantics but I never really thought of it as a found footage movie, I always thought of it as a fake documentary, and in doing that since the characters make documentaries for a living, I could make it slightly more cinematic than you could a found footage movie, and I could after-the-fact made documentary. So I was able to shoot it a little bit more interestingly, I was able to edit it more like a movie, and I was able to score it and just make it bit more manipulative just from an emotional standpoint. So that technically made it doable to do that.
Also I just tried to again just stay true to everything that everybody was saying in the movie, to make sense. Because the more I could get you as a viewer to go “Ah, it’s not so bad!” the more that I could be slowly building all the scary stuff underneath that you’re not noticing. It was sort of like making you look at one hand and then the other hand’s been there the whole time. And that’s just kind of in trying to make it socially relevant and compelling what everyone was saying and relatable, it was just able to distract you from the horror stuff that was about to happen. And then when you realise “Oh wait these people want to get out,” you start to realise “Oh, I see now a lot of problems with what a lot of people were saying.” At the time I just tried to make it as genuine as possible.
Had you always pictured the story as being documentary style?
Yeah, because it was about this visceral sort of realism, I always wanted to use a real event as a framework for the movie and I wanted to use a real brand as a way to tell the story. And then having always been interested in Peoples Temple and the things that brought people to Peoples Temple were still relevant today so that made sense to use as a real event, and then in looking for a brand I was trying to find a media brand that was not, didn’t have a political agenda. They may have had their own brand agenda but they don’t lean to the left or right, and that’s what made me think of Vice, that they were on the forefront of video journalism and immersionism but they don’t have this sort of like political agenda to what they’re doing, they just have a sort of subjective Vice vibe.
There’s a scene with Amy Seimetz’s character that uses that documentary style very powerfully, and there’s also that scene with Father’s interview. Were you planning ahead for sequences that could really make the most of that style?
A little bit. It was more that, with the scene with Amy it was more that was a scene was a big thing that was in the script from the very beginning, in doing a movie that was really steeped in realism, I was like “I want to see someone die in real time.” And really be sort of confronted with that. We talked about it a lot and that’s a tough scene to do. But there were ideas like that, it wasn’t so much about the cleverness of technically doing it as this movie is like a documentary and these people are dying, let’s see what the raw footage looks like where this person can’t escape this and you have to sit there and watch. She has to sit there and live with what she just did and so does the audience. And that was the scene, even the hardcore horror fans, that was the first moment where everyone starts to shift in their seat a little bit and go “I don’t know where this movie’s headed” because it’s not that escapism horror, it’s confrontational in that it’s not particularly gory or anything but that’s a pretty emotionally devastating scene. Even for people who are gore hounds, that scene just makes people uncomfortable. And that was a big point in the movie was to remind you that real violence, there’s accountability with that and that it’s actually scary.
You’ve got Joe Swanberg playing the cameraman; was it helpful having another director shooting? How much did he actually shoot?
It was super helpful. I think I probably shot 80% of the movie and then he shot 20% but just knowing Joe so long as a friend and also that he’s a filmmaker, when I would say “I can’t be in this shot because I want to see everywhere, here’s what I want you to do, I want you to do this, keep this composition, do this.” That’s the extent of the conversation I needed to have, he was like “I get it.” And then he could do it, he wasn’t limited by operating the camera, he wasn’t challenged to be able to act and operate at the same time and he wasn’t worried about how to get the compositions and the things that I wanted out of it.
So I think if it had just been a regular actor who was not a filmmaker, it would have been doable but it would have been more of a project and I would have had to explain more and it would have been more time we needed, whereas Joe was able to just say “I get it” and just do it. And that was a big part of that of writing him as that character.
Did you write all of the roles with actors in mind?
Yeah I wrote the script with everybody except for Father [Gene Jones] in mind because I knew everybody, so it was written for everybody’s voice pretty specifically. But the idea was that I would write it for them and they could just improvise the whole movie. And I’ve already written it into a realm of what I think their strengths are and as they improvise they would just make it better. Funnily enough, we did almost no improvisation, but yeah I wrote it for Aimee and Kentucker and Joe and AJ and it was when we got there and they started and it was like “Oh this sounds like we all thought it would. So I guess we can just move on…”
Is that also what happened on You’re Next? Did Adam Wingard write that role for you?
I don’t know, maybe. I know that Adam just emailed me and said “Will you come and play this part?” And I was like “I don’t know man, I’m not really an actor…” and he was like “It’s fine!” And he told me everyone else was in it, and I was like “Oh, am I just hanging out with them?” And he’s like you can improvise or whatever and I was like sure, so we just sort of went and Joe [Swanberg] and I just did some improvising at the table there. But I don’t know if it was written for me or if I just seemed like the right kind of person that could just be a dickhead about it. It was a fun scene to be at that table with everybody you know and Joe and I just argue about ridiculous filmmaker-y stuff.
It’s a weird thing. I don’t think any of us really think about it very much. I think that the positive side is the press came up with this goofy thing to like label a group of people and it’s this really stupid word and it’s not that interesting, but it did call attention to what we were doing. And so while I don’t know that anyone who was doing it necessarily agreed with the way it was being labelled or the way people were seeing it, people were talking about it. So ultimately it’s been a very positive thing to be like “Oh, you’re part of this thing that people talk about?” Whether that thing is even real I don’t know, but the fact that it’s being talked about is great. It’s a silly word and I don’t even know what a better word would have been, so I don’t know.
Making a movie is just like here we go again. It’s time to do a new movie. I’m in New Mexico now getting ready to make a new movie [In A Valley Of Violence] and I’m sure people will find a way to call it “A mumblecore western!” Or “A slow burn western,” it will be some adjective they have to apply. It doesn’t really…whatever, just talk about it so that way people are interested.
Was The Sacrament intentionally the first step away from horror?
Yeah. The Sacrament was meant to be, not like my last horror movie, but it was meant to be like, I’ve made like 7 in 10 years, that’s a lot. So I’ve kind of run out of things to say in horror movies, so The Sacarament was definitely kind of a one foot in one foot out kind of thing in that I consider it a horror movie, but it was definitely like alright let me make something really horrific and then I’m going to not do this for a little while, I’m going to make some other stuff.
Because what I found myself doing was thinking like “I want to do different stuff and then not doing it,” and being like “Well it’s really up to me.” So I was either going to write a western or a comedy and then I met Ethan Hawke and he wanted to do a Western, so it’s like let’s do that first. So the western is probably like, if the Sacrament is one foot in one foot out, the western is like both feet out but not that far away because there’s still violence in it, and then I think the next thing will be even father removed. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll be inspired to do a horror again, I don’t know. But seven horror movies in seven years is quite a bit of horror.
The Sacrament is in cinemas now. You can pre-order the DVD for £15.99 at Amazon.co.uk.