Director’s Notebook: Ti West on the Most Important Scene in ‘The Sacrament’

Director’s Notebook: Ti West on the Most Important Scene in ‘The Sacrament’

Aug 20, 2014

In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about the scenes that stood out most for them while making their movies. This month, we talk to Ti West about his latest horror, The Sacrament (on sale August 19, 2014).


Never one to shy away from a challenge, Ti West’s latest film, The Sacrament, is perhaps his most audacious endeavor yet as he goes down the mock-documentary rabbit hole to create a chilling first-person thriller that won’t leave you anytime soon.

Inspired by the horrific Jonestown Massacre in 1978 where over 900 people committed suicide while living in a religious community in Guyana under the leadership of Jim Jones, we follow Sam (AJ Bowen), a journalist from Vice, and his cameraman (Joe Swanberg) as they are granted access into Eden Parish, a “community” living off the grid in an undisclosed location. While filming and interviewing the members’s daily lives they don’t find much to be alarmed by, but following a public interview with the leader “Father” (Gene Jones), they quickly learn what they’ve observed is all a façade, leading to a bloody finale.

West’s slow-burn fashion builds to the scene of Sam interviewing Father in front of his disciples, according to West, the film’s essential moment. The scene was filled with high tension both on-screen and off as it consisted of a night shoot with 200 extras and around 12-pages worth of dialogue. For West, the scene would make or break how invested the audience would be in the story the rest of the way. Here he dissects the scene and his unconventional postproduction process.

 

Let’s see where the wheels fall off.”

“In the middle of the movie there’s a 10-minute interview scene, which generally is something to avoid. And the thing about that scene is it’s at night and we were a small film and when you’re shooting a night shoot that’s generally when people fall apart. You’re worried about making your days and the bond company worries about making your days, and that scene was 12-pages long, which is about, I don’t know, nine pages longer than anyone wants to shoot in a day. It also had 200 extras, and it was with an actor [Gene Jones] that I had basically just met and didn’t know. The entire movie hinges on this scene being good. So it was a lot to deal with. And setting up for that evening you have to understand the extras that we had, they don’t know what the movie is about, they are just like, “Oh, cool, we’re going to be in a movie!” That often goes the way of disaster, so it was very stressful leading up to that evening.

“I remember getting there and talking to the assistant director before we started and going, ‘There are too many moving parts here so basically let’s just do it and let’s see where the wheels fall off.’ Maybe they fall off two seconds in, maybe we get three minutes in, but when the wheels fall off we’ll stop, get that part down, and then we’ll do the next chunk. So we go to the extras, ‘Okay, this guy is going to come in, we want you to cheer, he’s going to sit up onstage, and you’re just going to hear what he’s going to say and react naturally.’ I assumed they would be terrible and we would have to stop and then realize, ‘Okay, these people in the front are good, these people over here are bad, let’s put them farther in the back.’ And the only way that made sense to figure out was to just shoot it and then we can assess all the problems.

“So it’s the first take, in walks Gene, everyone goes ape s**t, he sits down and gives this 17-minute, 12-page speech to AJ onstage without dropping a line and all of the extras reacted to what he was saying; because they were hearing it for the first time so they naturally reacted. He got up, they cheered, and they walked out. Sometimes the most difficult things turn out to be the easiest and this was the case. I didn’t give any direction to anyone other than the basic blocking and I sat back and thought, let’s see where the problems are, and there were no problems.

“It was this weird serendipitous thing. AJ and I say there was just a weird energy in the air that night. [These extras] didn’t know anything about this movie so this is also creepy in the sense that you’re putting 200 people in front of a guy who is compelling and they just start going with it. These was no irony in that, I don’t think they were going to join a cult, but everything he said made sense and for me as the writer and director that was my goal that this whole 10-minute scene in the middle of the movie with essentially the bad guy, everything he said needed to make sense and seem like the right thing to do, otherwise the whole movie would have felt contrived and it would be like why does anyone give a s**t?

“We did three takes of Gene and three takes of AJ and we were done and we finished early. So we did 12 pages in eight-and-a-half hours, which is unheard of. It’s a credit to Gene for being able to do a 12-minute monologue without dropping a line. I remember texting [producer] Eli Roth, who wasn’t there he was doing his Green Inferno movie, and I wrote ‘We shot the best thing in the movie tonight.’”

I would never want to edit a documentary-type movie again.”

“When I got to post I knew it was working and I knew it was good, it was just cutting it down from 17 minutes down to like nine to 10 minutes. And it wasn’t because I felt it had to be short it’s because it came down to what information is not essential. In the beginning it feels like everything is essential but then it’s like, ‘Well, it’s interesting to know where they got all the lumber [to build the camp], but if I don’t know I can follow this movie just fine.’ So as an editor you try to strip things away. Editing the scene wasn’t that hard, it was just finding the balance of Father back and forth with Sam and to build the suspense when Father flips it on him. The hardest part, and what I did last, were the moments when you cut to the audience and which audience member and when you go to someone’s close-up what it means and what you’re trying to say about it. It was a scene that you tweak a small amount of every single day for three months and then one day you go, ‘I could be doing this the rest of my life let’s just call it a day and hope for the best.’ I always knew Gene was good and the scene was good but with a fake documentary kind of movie it’s a can of worms. There are four million roads you can go down. I would never want to edit a documentary-type movie again because there are too many options, it’s never ending. It becomes, I found, a real burden doing that.”

 

I’m not really making the movies for an audience...”

“This is where I sound like a psychopath. I don’t watch my movies when they are done so I don’t know what people thought about the scene. When it premiered at Venice I started it, waved, went and got a drink, and came back when it was over. I’m not really making the movies for an audience, I’m making them for myself and if I can make them up to my own standards. I just hope that there will be audiences that like what I like. That being said, from sound mixing to color correction, to a friend coming over to my house, a handful of people had seen it in lesser forms and had been positive about it. So if two months ago David Lowery said that scene was really good it’s so much better now with the adding of sound, color correction, score. If a month ago Joe Swanberg came over and couldn’t watch his scenes but he says the scene with Gene is amazing, well that scene is so much better now so I trust their opinions and their opinions were based on a lesser version.

"I’m very compartmentalized in my post so it’s a lot rougher than most rough cuts directors show. I always have a weird time when showing people rough cuts, they get a little nervous because they will heard me say ‘action’ in the background, but I’m just too lazy to take it out yet. I tell them they just have to ignore that. It’s going to feel different when all the sound is in it. So early on you yourself get a feel of what’s goo and then you get some confirmation from somewhere else that it’s also good, then your hear from a general audience member once the film is final that it’s good. So for me I know that if it works in a s**ty form it’s going to work well in a refined form, that’s how I do it.”  

 

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