Thanks to films like The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers and The Sacrament, when I hear Ti West’s name, I immediately think horror, but his latest film doesn’t really fit into the genre at all. In a Valley of Violence stars Ethan Hawke as Paul, a guy who’s just trying to get to Mexico with his horse and dog. During a pitstop in the near-empty town of Denton, Paul inadvertently becomes enemies with a hotheaded deputy (James Ransone), a rivalry that ultimately forces Paul to change course and seek revenge before moving on.
Shortly after a screening of In a Valley of Violence at SXSW, I got the chance to sit down with West to talk about his experience making the film. He discussed what sparked the desire to make a Western after The Sacrament, how he landed John Travolta for the role of The Marshal, shooting the movie on film, working with the canine star who nearly steals the film and much more. You can check it all out in the interview below and, in case you missed it, click here for my review of In a Valley of Violence.
Question: At what point did you decide you wanted to make a Western?
TI WEST: About two years ago. We had finished The Sacrament and it had been a really great experience. The Sacrament was this sort of found footage, new media kind of thing where we were emulating a lot of realism and emulating what another company does and all these things, and it just came out totally effectively great but after a year of doing that, it felt like I was getting away from traditional cinema. So I was like, ‘Well, the next movie I do, I want to do something with big wide shots, performance driven.’ Because The Sacrament was so much about, ‘Where do we put the camera where it seems real,’ and all these things, and it became more like a puzzle making that movie and it was awesome, but after that I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that again.’ I wanted to go and do the most traditionally cinematic thing I could do and for me the Western genre is the most historically American cinema traditional-type of filmmaking so I thought, ‘I love Westerns, maybe I can make one of those.’
The genre feels so underused now, too. The last one I loved was Bone Tomahawk, but there isn’t all that much beyond that in recent years.
WEST: There’s been a gap. Slow West was cool. Hateful Eight’s pretty great. That’s the other thing too, as a filmmaker it’s a pretty small club to be a part of. It didn’t used to be. It used to be the only movies that got made, but now they don’t make Westerns very often so, you know, credit to Jason Blum for doing it because we were really excited about the movie and it’s not the kind of movie that everybody would make. And it’s great to be here at SXSW and see people get the movie and to really appreciate it.
Was there anything that the audience reacted to that surprised you?
WEST: No. We played last night also. There’s a lot of gallows humor in the movie, and especially since people will probably come with a little bit of horror in mind because of the other movies I’ve made, it’s funny to hear them react uproariously to the humor because I feel like they get it more than other people because they’re like, kind of sick also. But to me it was always a movie about the way violence affected people and how people in this violent revenge Western movie were in over their heads when it actually started getting violent and how as real people they’d actually deal with it, because to me Westerns always have these really archetype characters that have a lot of bravado and are always prepared for everything and they can spin the gun perfectly and do all these things and I was like, even in real life people aren’t that groovy and so in this movie the bad guys, when the shit hits the fan, they’re just like, ‘Uh oh, we’re not capable of handling this.’
It’s a really fun touch, especially with John Travolta’s material. How’d you end up landing him?
WEST: Jason Blum sent me an email and said, ‘What do you think about John Travolta.’ I said, ‘No one’s ever sent me that question before! That sounds amazing!’ And he’s like, ‘Because he read the script and he loves it and he wants to have dinner,’ and I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ And he and I had dinner with John …
How do you even have dinner with John Travolta? I feel like I’d be so nervous I wouldn’t even eat.
WEST: When you meet John Travolta you understand because I sort of had the same feeling. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve gotta go try to convince him to do this movie. This is so much pressure.’ He’s the greatest guy. He’s the greatest. And he got the movie. Everything he would talk to me about in the script were all these idiosyncratic things and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe you get my movie this well.’ It was an unreal experience. Ethan [Hawke] and I, I had the same thing with him and was just like, ‘This is amazing.’ But yeah, that dinner with John Travolta, for me, I’ll always remember that.
How was it working with a new group this time around? I know you like to stick with a lot of the same people.
WEST: Crew-wise it’s basically the same people. Like the same two producers, Peter Phok, Jacob Jaffke, the same DP, the same AD. So we’re a pretty well oiled machine when it comes to just like the production of making a movie so we swapped in some celebrities this time, but everyone I wanted to be in this movie I got which is very rare that that happens and the other thing is that when you make a Western, people want to be in a Western. But it was awesome. To me, this movie is about the performances. It’s not about the plot. So when you see this movie, you’re like, ‘It had to be John Travolta. It had to be Ethan Hawke in that movie. It had to be James Ransone because no one could have done it the way that they do it.’ Karen Gillan, Taissa Farmiga the same thing where you’re just like, ‘Ah!’ They’re all the right people for it to be able to hit the notes the right way and so that to me is the big takeaway.
Normally I like to ask about the comedy and how you know it’s working while you’re shooting, but this isn’t comedy that only comes through after editing. This was something that was there on set. Like when James Ransone comes out of the bar, you cover it in a couple of shots and know it had to be working right then and there.
WEST: Yeah, and it sets it up where you’re just like, ‘Oh this guy’s a dipshit. I get it. I get where this is going.’ And then also what happens to him, it’s like he can’t leave it alone and the gist of the movie is once the violence starts, you can’t really stop it and it’s like if he had just not started the fight everything would have been fine, but now it’s all fucked up.
Is there anything you discovered about what you shot in the editing process that you didn’t expect?
WEST: No, not really. Every once in a while that happens, but on this movie I don’t think it happened too much. There were some moments that felt like, ‘Well, that seems a bit more violent than I remembered it being on set,’ or, ‘that seemed more effective,’ or maybe it’s a little bit funnier but I’m there and I’m keeping a close eye on things. It was the greatest production I’ve ever had. It went really smoothly making the movie.
Did you test screen the movie at all?
WEST: We did it once, yeah.
And what did you learn from that?
WEST: It’s an interesting experience as a filmmaker. It’s not my favorite thing, but it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be. It’s like a three part thing – you watch it with an audience and you feel it and there’s that, then they make all the cards and you take from that what you will, then they do a focus group. That’s the hardest one. That’s a little bit like, [covers his eyes], because it’s just hearing someone talk about your movie in a way that’s like talking about a product and gearing people towards certain conversations. I don’t know, that felt gross to me.
Did that process involve people who aren’t into horror or Westerns?
WEST: Yeah, they’re just people that get recruited on the street, so it’s this whole weird thing. But what you learn is if there’s a gaping – like if everyone had been like, ‘We don’t know who John Travolta’s character is,’ I would have been like, ‘Oh shit,’ but it wasn’t like that. This movie is a very taste-driven movie. For instance, the opening with the priest and the opening titles, if you’re not in after that, I don’t know if you’ll be in. But if you’re in after that, it’ll keep getting better for you as it goes on.
What about the production as a whole? Is this significantly bigger than your previous films?
WEST: It was a little bigger, but not significantly.
It looks bigger.
WEST: Thank you. We tried really hard.
And what’d you shoot it on?
WEST: 35mm. I’ve shot all of my movies but one on film. I’m used to it. People are getting a little spooked by it now. Every year we lose more and more people doing it, but for me making a Western, there was no other [option]. You had to. And for one reason because, I don’t know, it’s a historic genre and we should shoot on film, we could go on and on about why I think we should shoot on film on everything, but if we had shot this movie on digital I think that it would have looked like behind the scenes of a movie or a History Channel making of the movie. If that was the case, which I believe that it would have been, from the very first frame I would have been in a hole that I could never dig myself out of. And the visual element of the movie is a huge part of the film. It’s a Western. It’s a cinematic movie. It’s a very visual movie so it just had to be done.
So how would you sell this to someone who might be skeptical about jumping into a Horror Western?
WEST: I don’t think it’s a Horror Western. I just think of it as a Western.
You’re right. I guess I’m guilty of the issue myself, just instantly associating you with the genre.
WEST: Yeah, I know. That’s been the interesting thing with this is people come and say, ‘Is it secretly horror?’ I was like, ‘No. It’s just a Western. It’s violent, but it’s just a Western.’ So I would sell it as a Western. [Laughs] Yeah, that would be the best genre to market it as.
[SPOILER ALERT: The rest of this interview contains mild plot spoilers for In a Valley of Violence.]
I need to ask about the dog because I am very sensitive when it comes to animals. How do you decide what route to take with that?
WEST: Jumpy’s as charming of a dog that’s in any movie ever so the more we shot where Jumpy was charming, I was like, ‘This is gonna hit really hard,’ but it is ultimately something that happens [where] you can’t avoid it. I don’t know if tasteful is the right term, I wouldn’t say it’s tasteful, but it’s not there to be mean spirited. It’s there given what’s going on with the characters and it’s far more about the impact that it has on them than it is about fetishizing that violence. Maybe you close your eyes for a minute, but it’s like, we didn’t make it too gory or anything like that. But yeah, it’s a weird thing. Ultimately the reason the dog’s in the movie is because people care more about animals in movies than they do people.
I think that’s a very fair point. I fall into that category.
WEST: If it was just him and his buddy on the road and his buddy got killed, you’d be like, ‘Eh.’ But when it’s his dog – and that’s not even really what the movie’s about per se. There’s what happens in the movie and what the movie’s about, it’s not really about that. But, you know, he’s got PTSD from the Indian Wars and [the dog] is probably the only person he can talk to so if you watch the movie again, sometimes you have a moment where you’re like, ‘He just talks to a dog the whole movie. He’s a crazy person.’
And the craziest thing about that is that the dog acts. He gives something back!
WEST: It’s amazing. Ethan and I would talk about that all the time, like, ‘You’re acting with a dog and you’re both doing great performances.’ It’s unreal.
How does that work on set? Does the dog have a wrangler off to the side directing him for you?
WEST: He has a really great trainer named Omar who does do that sometimes, but Jumpy is so good you rarely need that. You put a mark down and you say, ‘Go to your mark,’ and he’ll just go and do it.
So Jumpy can take cues from you?
WEST: From anybody, yeah. It’s best from Omar. If you could put Omar nearby, it goes a little bit smoother, but he was a breeze. It was really easy.
Click here for more coverage of SXSW 2016.