Coming off of The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil, you'd probably expect Ti West's The Sacrament to be another horror movie. It's not. Oh, there's plenty of horrifying things in it, but it's not a horror movie in the same vein as his other works.
The Sacrament stars AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg as two reporters for Vice (yes, the real media company) who travel to an isolated commune to document what's happened to the sister (Amy Seimetz) of their friend (Kentucker Audley). Once there, they find that she and many, many others like her have become enraptured with the teachings of a mysterious figure known only as Father (Gene Jones).
You may suspect what territory it goes into next, and that's because West's film is directly inspired by the infamous Jonestown Massacre. This isn't just some cheap re-creation of the event, though. The Sacrament is a dense, superbly acted, deeply upsetting look at how seemingly ordinary people could so plausibly find themselves living in a cult, and how one figure can command so much power over the people who follow his every word.
We spoke to Ti West and AJ Bowen last September at the film's U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest, and now that The Sacrament is available on VOD everywhere, we're able to share our chat where both explain what inspired them to make such a complex, ambitious film.
Movies.com: Had you always planned on using a real media company like Vice as your main characters for this story?
Ti West: It didn't have to be Vice, but it was always my goal to do that. Thankfully it worked out, because it's not really a found-footage movie, it's more of a documentary and using them and their sort of travelogue documentary model let us make this using a certain esthetic that's different from other found-footage movies that try do something like "Oh, this tape was found in a bunch of dirt and edited together by a stranger." This let us make the movie as if it were shot and edited by people who do that for a living, which brought a level of video journalism to the movie, which brought another level of realism that was the reason behind it all.
Movies.com: What's the process like for you to be playing a character who is himself putting on another, on-screen character for the movie he's making? How do you control those layers?
AJ Bowen: The way that we worked together was to basically plot it out. You have your game plan, and for us we had three transitions that were important to show. There's this guy who has an on-camera persona, and we wanted to see that soften when he's talking to people. So one's a frontman, a host, basically. The other is an interviewer who is gregarious with people. And the other one is when all of that falls away, so it's acting in reverse order. There's a heightened awareness of the camera for when he's on, and then we get into the movie stuff where it's just Sam losing that awareness of camera and no longer looking at it. It took a little bit of adjustment because you're so used to only giving one kind of a performance, but I had Ti there to say, "Okay, this one is a little bit more like..."
Movies.com: Does this format open you up to try things you couldn't do in a more traditional, blocked-off style?
West: Sort of. It would have been a very different movie if I'd made it about the people making the documentary and you never saw it from their perspective.
Movies.com: Did you ever think about doing that?
West: I don't think we could have afforded to do that. That would have opened a tremendous can of worms, though maybe I would have liked to do that since this kind of stemmed from me wishing I could do an eight-part Jonestown miniseries on HBO or something like that with Leonardo DiCaprio, just this ridiculous project that could never happen. But also video journalism is how we'd hear about something like this today, so it made sense for this movie.
In Jonestown, what set it off was people from NBC being there, and they were filming the night before it happened, and they were filming it as they were being shot at and ultimately when the camera man was killed. So there is essentially this found-footage element of the real event, and that's really insightful to how most people learned about what happened in Guyana. There's a very heavy media element to the real story that it only made more sense to do it this way. It added an extra layer of realism you could take with you when you left.
Movies.com: One of the most interesting things about the movie is how you deromanticize the idea of cults and mass suicide. You show that it's more complicated than this stereotypical image of a flock of people staring at a guy standing on a pedestal, drinking something, and then calmly falling over in cinematic unison, and that's not what happens.
West: That's exactly the reason why I made the movie. I think that's what people think of when they think of "drinking the Kool-Aid." They think of Jonestown and just picture mindless zombies killing themselves, and that's bulls**t. It's not fair, and it's far more dense than that. What I wanted to show was this three-dimensional aspect of the cult. It's like a line AJ has in the movie where he says, "I can see why I don't want to live here, but I can understand why they do." My whole thing is when you watch the movie, and see people talking about why they're there, and you hear Father's speech you can think, "I don't disagree with anything he's said. I don't want to live there, but it makes sense that some people would be here." That's what makes it so tragic.
Also, in Jonestown, not everyone quietly drank the Kool-aid. It was more of a mass murder than it was a mass suicide, and I think that's something people don't talk about.
Bowen: The most impactful shot of the movie, for me – and there are a lot in that third act – is when you see a character walking through the aftermath... you can feel it seize up the entire audience. It even gets me. I was like, "whoa, whoa, whoa" and I was there. It does deglamorize it. Something I didn't anticipate was people questioning if that was in poor taste. I guess you can debate if it's too soon, but what that really means is it made them feel something and think about something that's uncomfortable, and I'm fine with that. It's handled with care, and the reason anyone would feel that way is because they felt something about the scenario they haven't before.
West: If the movie was exploitive, it would be the romanticized version you were talking about. It'd be heightening it in a way to make it appealing to people. The way we did it was to be confronting. All the violence in the movie should be unpleasant. What happens in the movie should be tragic and upsetting. It's not a movie for applause breaks. You don't walk out going, "Oh, that was so cool." That's not what we were going for and that'd be a terrible reaction to have. We were trying really hard to present it in a very confronting way so we could show this is real horror.
Movies.com: What was the genesis of this project and when did Eli Roth get involved?
West: I was at his birthday and we were just talking. He was telling me about Hemlock Grove and I was thinking about maybe doing an episode of that if I wanted to get into TV, and he said "We're going to try to do another movie, do you have any ideas?" and I was like, "Well, actually, I do have one thing. I don't know if it's your thing, though it's in the Last Exorcism ballpark."
I pitched it to him and showed him some Vice things and he was like, "Whoa, we can get this thing going right away." And I don't know that I totally believed him, but the next thing I know we're on the phone with WorldView who is like "We're ready to do this movie." And that was in May and I was on the ground in George to start shooting in September, so it did come together very quickly.
I'd always wanted to do something about Jonestown, and the reality was that maybe some day I'd get a chance but it would take a long time and I don't want to wait until I'm 60 to do that, so I thought let's do my version of these types of movies.
Movies.com: Where did you guys film? Did you build it all or did you find a summer camp to take over?
West: Savannah, Georgia, and we built everything. It's literally someone's backyard in Georgia, and we just built everything in it.
Bowen: It was amazing to see. We were trying to wait to see the whole camp until the characters did on camera, but eventually we had to go out and figure out some things, and getting out there and seeing that world was stunning. It was such an added benefit of getting to see the totality of what Ti was doing. We flew over it many times in a helicopter with the doors off, and seeing all that stuff was nuts. It was nuts! I can't detach from that.
West: One of the weirdest things is that when you finish a movie, you generally strike a set and it goes away. This one was really surreal because we built all this, we got 200 extras to basically live there, and now it's all in dumpster. They wanted to keep a lot of the houses and structures, but couldn't because they'd have to pay taxes on them.
Bowen: They were functional. They weren't faked out. There were beds and power and everything. It was a big undertaking.
The Sacrament is now available on VOD on Amazon, iTunes, cable and other providers. It will be in select theaters starting June 6, 2014.
Read our last (and massive) interview with Ti West here.
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