'In a Valley of Violence' Director Ti West Explains What's Boring About Movies That are Too Realistic

'In a Valley of Violence' Director Ti West Explains What's Boring About Movies That are Too Realistic

Oct 19, 2016

In a Valley of Violence Ethan Hawke

[Since In A Valley of Violence is in theaters and on VOD this weekend, we're re-running our interview with writer-director Ti West from its SXSW premiere.]

Ti West is seen as a horror guy. That's just what happens when you make movies like The Roost, The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil. Even his 2013 movie The Sacrament, about a team of journalists probing a cult, often gets called a horror movie even though that's not strictly the case. So you might think that his new movie, In a Valley of Violence, is a horror movie. It's not.

In a Valley of Violence, starring Ethan Hawke as a drifter who crosses some unsavory figures in a small town run by a reluctant marshal (John Travolta), is a western through and through. That said, one of the things that makes it such a smart movie is the way it takes a few key tropes of the genre and twists them around. It's kind of like deconstructing what makes so many westerns work and reassembling the key pieces in a way people aren't quite expecting. The violence is certainly a given - it's in the title after all - but people may be surprised to find out just how funny and creative the movie is.

We recently sat down with writer-director Ti West after the film's world premiere at the SXSW to talk about how he pulled off the magnificent blend that is In a Valley of Violence.

 

On subverting normal western characters:

"This movie, to me, is about a bunch of people in a violent movie who are totally not equipped to be in this violent movie. Traditionally what you see in westerns everybody is so full of ego and bravado and every character is grizzled and full of grit. I wanted to make a movie about people who act that way but when the shit hits the fan they go, 'This is too much for me!' That's relatable. That's humanistic. The way violence effects people was my spin on the movie. You're with Ethan, but he's not really a hero. He's our main character, but he's not a great guy but you're with him. 

"So when you get to the second half of the movie you're still with him but he's also sort of the bad guy, but you see the guys you already hate and you start to understand how they really are. Complicating that dynamic, making it a bit denser is what excited me. I like it when movie characters have to deal with a real life scenario, and in westerns they never do. Everyone has their agenda, everyone has this idea of how to better themselves. It's like a town of misfits and I wanted to show how they use each other and how it doesn't work out. Everyone has their own storyline going on so that you don't really know where it's going. You think 'How is this going to fit in?' so that when it does finally come back around you better realize how everyone fits in."

 

On twisting expectations:

"With everything, there's always what the movie is about under the surface. There's some religion, there's some PTSD, there's some nihilism in the movie for sure, but I wanted the priest and that conversation before the title sequence because you're either in or you're out. You realize the kind of people, the kind of town, the music. With the priest you get the idea that this is a dude who is full of shit, and everything that he is pretending to be about is not really what he's about. And that sets the tone for everybody else. 

"When you get to town, the guy who talks tough? He's not really that tough. Karen [Gillan] is using her guy because she thinks he can give her a better life. Taissa [Farmiga] sees Ethan and is like, 'Oooh, maybe he can take me out of town' and Ethan's like 'I'm not taking you!' It's all of these archetypes that we're all familiar with and then not having them act like their archetypes.

"You and I have seen a lot of movies. We know the tropes and all of those things. So they're twisted in a way just so that people like us can look at it and realize that it's doing something different, that people aren't acting exactly like you'd expect them to."

 

On how he decides what movie(s) to make next:

"I think about so many movies I want to make that would be really hard to make. I'm a practical person so the movie I think I can get made is the one I put to the front of the line. I'm in this to make movies, and as many as I can. I'd always wanted to make a western, because, dude, it's a f—king western. After The Sacrament, which was sort of one foot in and one foot out of horror, after making so many horror movies in a row I didn't want to repeat myself. The Sacrament is all about realism and finding clever ways of making the camera seem like it could really be there. It was a new media thing, not traditional cinema, and I was stoked on it at the time but when it was done, I was like 'I want to shoot a big, widescreen, wide shot, performance-driven, cinematic movie, so what's the most cinematic genre? Hmm, maybe now might be the time to make a western.'

"And I opened my mouth about it once at a film festival and then it came out I was making a western. I wasn't even sure it would happen, but credit to Jason Blum, he made it happen. I'd been talking to him for years about doing something but we never quite found the right project. I'm a big fan of Ethan Hawke's and I knew they had a relationship, so I went to him with this idea. Blum told me to pitch it to Ethan. I did, he liked it. He was working on a play at the time so I asked him 'What day are you done with the play?' He told me and I said, 'Cool, I'm going to go write the script and send it to you that night. If you don't like it, cool, but if you do, let's make this movie.' And, again, credit to Jason Blum. A lot of people talk about making movies. Jason Blum actually makes movies.

"I went home, I frantically wrote the script, sent it to him, he read it, he liked it, we made the movie. That really is how it all went down, and that's the way you want it to go."

In a Valley of Violence John Travolta

On the greatness that is John Travolta:

"Total credit to Jason Blum. He sent me an email saying, 'What do you think about John Travolta?,' and I just didn't even know what to say. I didn't even think that was possible, but then Jason said 'Travolta read the script, he loves it, he wants to have dinner with us.' And he was incredible. Incredible. He's so smart. He got everything about this movie, everything about the character. It's everything you could wish for, not even as a director, but as a writer, Travolta was totally in my head on this. That's certainly one of the most famous people I've ever met, but he was totally amazing. Working with him on set was really easy, really collaborative, really fun. I can't say enough good things about him. I cannot say enough good things about him. And his performance is so good in it. I can't wait for people to discover it because I don't think people are going to see it coming.

 

On never using a temp score for his movies:

"When I was talking to [composer] Jeff [Grace] about it, I said I wanted it big, bombastic and score-driven. I wanted score that's under the dialogue. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is score during that whole movie, but that's something a lot of movies don't do now as much. The movies that I do love, though, do that even though it is harder to do. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and the right people, but start to finish it was always supposed to be – this is such a semantics thing – but it was always supposed to be cinema.

"A lot of that is because people temp it with different music and then the person who does the score is just tasked with recreating the temp. I don't use temp music. Any time someone sees the first cut of one of my movies they have a panic attack because it's so dry. Especially with this movie. People freak and you have to say, 'Wait, just wait.' And when they do hear it, they go 'Oh, okay, I get it.'

"For me I believe in it and the people I work with, but if I had temped this with Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it would have had to sound like Good, the Bad and the Ugly and I didn't want that. I wanted Jeff to be able to come up with his own thing. I've done that on all of my films. I've never temped anything, and it drives people crazy, but at the end we have a score that's different and works on its own. You have to be brave about it.

 

On shooting on film in a digital age:

"People got spooked for a second but they calmed down. I wouldn't have made the movie. For one, I do just think film is better and blahblahblah, but putting that aside, a western needs a certain look for the period. I felt if we had shot this digital it would have looked like the behind-the-scenes of a western or a History Channel re-enactment. From the very first frame I would be in a deficit that I could never climb out of because it is the most cinematic genre. If I'm making a movie that's set in an office cubicles, I'd like to shoot film but I can get past it. But on a movie like this, digital was out.

"Plus the thing digital struggles with the most is very bright, outdoor light, which we obviously had a lot of. It's not that hard to shoot on film. It's not that expensive. It's not that bad, but people get spooked by it. But I've shot movies for way less than this on film, so we also just know how to do it."

 

On when the movie makes its turn:

"I always had it as this weird, expressionistic flashback moment of the movie where we get a glimpse of something we know but getting to see it from this expressionistic perspective makes it more impactful. Because the movie's not about that moment, it's not about what happened to him, it's about how it impacted him.

"It's also the marker where the movie turns, so it was also about trying to give it an interesting visual dynamic and give Graham [Reznick] some room to play sound wise so that when it's over it's like 'We're in movie B now, let's see where this thing goes.' And I don't think it goes where people are expecting it to go."

 

In a Valley of Violence posterOn the value of test screening a movie:

"Test screenings are very interesting because there's the experience of watching it with them and feeling it with them and then there are the note cards and the focus group. As a filmmaker, the focus group is a really difficult thing. It's a really weird way to think about movies. It went well for us, but it's still a hard thing.

"As a filmmaker, you can sit and watch it with people and you can feel when it's working and you can feel when it's losing people. It's hard to describe, but you can just feel it. I'd be thinking 'Hopefully they laugh here,' and they'd laugh. 'Hopefuly they gasp here,' and they gasped. After the test screening we tweaked maybe a minute. It's a very studio, very commercial way of approaching things, but after doing it, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. But it went okay, so maybe that's why. If it hadn't, that probably wouldn't be the case.

"Personally, relying on that would be scary, but doing test screenings just to feel it out is good. You want the movie to provoke a response, so it's reassuring when it gets one."

 

On not wanting to do a typical genre throwback movie:

"This is going to sound harsh, but they feel like Funny or Die sketches. They feel like impressions of movies and I just check out. As someone who has a good knowledge of movies, once it starts to feel like that, it's like the movie is talking down to you. It loses me. There's great shots, fun moments, but I lose the reverence for a movie if it seems like the filmmakers don't have a genuine reverence.

"For example, in my slow burn horror movies, if you're in, you're in. And with this, after that priest scene, if you're in, you're in. It's only going to get better."

 

On how he hopes people remember In a Valley of Violence:

"My hope is it's the kind of movie that, when people talk about it they don't talk about the plot, they talk about that one weird, esoteric detail that stood out to them, or that one funny line. That's the zone I was in. I was trying to make a movie with those moments because, again, that's traditional cinema to me. Like in Raiders of the Lost Ark when he shoots the swordsman, it has very little to do with the movie but there's nothing better than that.

"People are zeroing in on the performances. I wanted to just set the stage for people to perform. Everyone is so obsessed with realism in movies and that's boring. People are obsessed with plot and realism, but nobody watches Jaws again to see if they get the shark. You watch it to hear 'Black, like a dolls eyes.'

"To me there's this trend in movie where everything is about plot and everything is about trying to make it seem real, and to me what's great about westerns, what's great about cinema, is that it's a heightened reality. They don't need to be real. I like movies that are outrageous. I like movies that feel a comment on something, that feel like they're doing things that only cinema can do. Movies are a visual art. If all you want to do is tell a story, just go make a radio play.

"I know it's an older way of doing things, but I hope with this movie, and the movies that inspired it like Raiders of the Lost Ark, people can realize that the movies they love are a little zany, that they're not at all realistic. They feel heightened, but they're inspired. They're charming.

"Romancing the Stone always comes into my head. That's a ridiculous movie, but you don't think about it being ridiculous while you're watching it. You go with it because you're in good hands, and that's the case with [In a Valley of Violence]. There are absurdist elements of it, but you are in good hands. Ethan Hawke does an amazing job with it. Travolta does an amazing job. James Ransone does an amazing job. Karen Gillan, Taissa Farmiga, I even got Larry Fessenden in it. Top to bottom, everyone does an amazing job."

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