Director Ti West has built an oeuvre of intimate dread around meticulous pacing and tight scripting. Look no further than previous features House of the Devil (2009), The Innkeepers (2011) and The Sacrament (2013) to see a cinephile channeling the VHS esoterica of countless sleepovers into indie gold. (Appropriately, West cites Peter Jackson’s DIY ode to schlock, Bad Taste, as a watershed inspiration.)
Like fellow lo-fi filmmakers Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett and Jason Eisener, West recently found himself with a larger budget and a bigger cast. In a Valley of Violence, currently in theaters and on-demand, still retains West’s obsessive eye for mounting tension and anti-blockbuster twists, but it’s also his most accessible, brash effort to date. The brutal Neo-Western stars Ethan Hawke as Paul, a drifter with a scene-stealing pooch (Jumpy) who wanders through the titular valley. A series of conflicts erupt around a corrupt lawman (James Ransone) and his more level-headed U.S. Marshal father (John Travolta) before colliding into a visceral climax. Meanwhile, Taissa Farmiga further upends formula by playing a teenage pistol, Mary-Anne, attempting to leave her austere home.
The film is a considered, honed contribution to the Western tradition, and a precedent for West’s ascension from watercooler horror to larger indie stages. West exchanged some emails with Paste, detailing his reasons for swapping genres, feminism in Westerns and his writing process.
Paste Magazine: I could see your short in The ABCs of Death as well as your last feature, The Sacrament, shifting toward realism, but I never expected a Western. What attracts you to the genre? How did you want to innovate within it, if at all?
Ti West: After The Sacrament, my exploration of realism in horror had come to an end. It was something I was really interested in trying, and once it was done I didn’t want to repeat myself. I wanted to move to something traditionally cinematic and larger than life.
For me, the Western was the ideal genre. As a filmmaker, it is a bit of a dream to get to do a Western, and I wanted to see if I could pull it off. I was interested in setting up familiar archetypes and then when they are confronted with violence, they stop acting like archetypes and start acting like normal people. That was the thematic genesis of the project.
In a Valley of Violence captures large, sweeping vistas as opposed to the more claustrophobic sets of your former movies (The Sacrament excluded). Was there a learning curve to capturing the openness of the West?
West: Each movie is different, and therefore so is the approach. Any film you make pretty much has to be part of your DNA before you roll cameras, so whether it’s confined to an interior location or on top of a cliff overlooking an incredible Southwestern vista, it’s the same process from behind the lens. That having been said, it was nice to get outside on this one.
Paste: In most of your films, I feel like there’s a fatalism at work. Your protagonists peel back the layers of a mystery until they reach this unavoidable doom. Do you think of that climax first and then work backwards? What’s your writing process?
West: I start with an idea. It’s typically that basic. Then I slowly add to the idea until it is large enough to become a film.
When it comes to filmmaking, I am much more interested in the art, or the craft of cinema than I am with plot. So I usually have a pretty simple idea and then build a more interesting movie experience around it. I think movies generally operate on two levels: what happens in the movie and what the movie is about. I am generally more interested in the second part—the subtext.
Paste: Save sleeping and travel, the majority of your films take place in real time, especially when the suspense mounts. How do you approach film rhythm and editing? Even thinking back to the House of the Devil car scene, there’s a very deliberate method to the moments you let linger.
West: Time and space, and geography, are very interesting to me in movies. I love to be able to put the audience in a scene and have them know where everything is (even if it’s outside of the frame). Once you establish a clear geography you can play with suspense a lot more, which is kinda my thing I suppose.
Paste: After the movie wrapped, I couldn’t help but think that while Paul is obviously the protagonist, this was equally Mary-Anne’s story. Without giving too much away, there’s a tangible sense of feminism in her arc. Is this a commentary on female roles in Westerns? Something else? Because she gets shit done.
West: It’s always important to me to write proactive female characters. This is a genre that typically doesn’t highlight woman very often, and I felt Mary-Anne’s story was just as relevant to the overall theme of the film, and it needed to be treated as such. Taissa Farmiga is such a talented actress that it didn’t take much from me for her to really shine and bring the character to life.
Paste: How many takes did you need to get Jumpy the dog to wrap herself in a blanket? In general: How awesome is Jumpy and which actors were the most distracted by her?
West: Maybe two or three takes tops. Jumpy is a pro, and perhaps the most talented dog on planet earth. I feel incredibly fortunate to have gotten to spend time with both Jumpy and Omar Von Muller (Jumpy’s trainer). It was amazing to witness. I highly recommend everyone go on a Youtube bender of Jumpy videos.
Paste: You have a horror TV series in the works as well as an LSD hippie movie. Any updates on these? You’ve spent a lot of time in horror—what facets of it attract you that you haven’t addressed yet? Are there any other genres you’d like to tackle in your career?
West: I have several projects that are all moving forward. I’m not sure which I will do first just yet. I’m going to get a few nights sleep after Valley is released and then tackle it all head on. I plan to make movies in just about every genre. Maybe even horror again at some point…