Cult Horror Director Ti West On Making A Western And Working With The World's Greatest Dog
Ti West is known for making audiences squirm with cult horror movies like House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Sacrament, so some fans might be surprised at the auteur's newest film: an old-school Western starring John Travolta, Ethan Hawke, and an internet-famous dog named Jumpy. In A Valley Of Violence, a period revenge saga about a mysterious drifter in a one-saloon town, is out on Friday. West, who wrote, directed and edited the film, will appear for a Q&A Saturday (along with actors Toby Huss and Jumpy the dog) at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
We spoke to Ti about his departure from horror, Westerns as a genre, and how he found the world's greatest dog.
LAist: Can you tell me a little bit about how you went from being so rooted in horror to making a Western?
Ti West: So, I'd made a movie called The Sacrament that was all about realism—it was like a fake documentary pretending to be real. It was using a real news brand and a real tragedy, and the whole point of that movie was to shift horror from escapism to tragic realism and make a confrontational movie. If you spend two years doing that, by the time it's over you're just so bummed about after making such a gnarly movie that I wanted to make something that wasn't realistic at all. I wanted to make something that was totally traditionally cinematic. For me, the most traditionally cinematic American genre is the Western. I'm a big fan of Westerns so I thought transitioning from [The Sacrament] I wanted to go big or home and try and make a Western.
Jumpy the dog and Ethan Hawke in 'In a Valley of Violence' (Photo by Lewis Jacobs, courtesy of Focus World)
Do you have a favorite American Western?
Either The Wild Bunch, or High Plains Drifter. High Plains Drifter is really great.
I know this movie is very much centered on revenge. Have you ever sought out revenge on anyone? Was there personal inspiration?
No. But I think really what the movie is about—revenge is a big part of the plot—but the movie is really about violence, and how violence affects people. That's something I'm really fascinated with. In this movie, there's a lot of Western archetypes that we're familiar with, and when they finally get confronted with the revenge and the violence in the movie we find out that they are in way over their heads. They stop acting like the archetypes and they start acting like regular people. And then the movie really has a lot of dark gallows humor in it. You start to see people that are pretending to be one thing get exposed as not being that thing. What's interesting to me is once you expose people for not being the person they say they are, whose actually underneath it. That's what the movie is really about, and how violence affects people and what brings it out in them.
Where does Jumpy the dog fit in? How did you find him?
So, I wrote a movie where a dog is a main character and they always say you should never work with kids or animals. As soon as I finished writing the movie I thought uh oh. The first thing I did was Google "talented dogs." And the very first result that came up was a video of Jumpy that was a YouTube compilation of all these incredible things that he could do. I thought 'I have to find this dog.' And it turned out that this dog lives in the Valley. I called his trainer Omar and took him out to lunch. At lunch I learned that Omar had trained the dog Uggie from the movie The Artist. After lunch we went to a park and I met Jumpy. I'd say you can count on one hand how many dogs on planet Earth can do what this dog does—But I think that's probably too generous. He may be the only dog on planet Earth that can do this. He can do a million tricks and a million things that will wow you, but on a more basic level you can put a mark down, like you would do for any actor, and say 'Jumpy, go to your mark.' And he goes to his mark and puts his paws down and sits there until you say cut. And not like once every ten tries; it's ten out of ten.
How many of your actors can do that?
So, this is kind of odd, but one of the three sentences (i.e. 1/3 of the entry) about your life on Wikipedia is a description of a fall 2001 Teen People article that does not appear to exist online. Was there anything momentous about this article that you can share with us? RIP Teen People.
I mean, I feel like if you didn't see it at the time, I don't want to bring it back up. That was a special time and if you missed it, well, some things need to be left in the past. Less history, more mystery. You know what I mean? That's a really weird Wikipedia entry.
"In a Valley of Violence" is out now in limited release. The film is currently playing at the ArcLight Santa Monica and TCL Chinese 6 Theatres in Los Angeles, the Village East in New York City, and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in San Francisco.