A departure from their normal genre, director Ti West (House of the Devil) and producer Jason Blum took a dive into the Wild West with their new film In a Valley of Violence. During SXSW, I sat down with the two low-budget horror masterminds and discussed their latest movie, their passion for genre film, and the impressive power of John Travolta.
What made you both decide to move forward with a Western, especially since at this moment in time it’s not necessarily the most popular genre?
Ti West: Jason and I have been talking about movies for a long time, and there was never quite the right one. It seemed like such a long shot, but I was such a fan of Ethan [Hawke] and they have done movies together before and they are friends, so I wanted to bring this one to them first.
The highest compliment I can give anybody is that Jason makes movies. There are a lot of people who talk about making movies who don’t make movies. And he really does, and he makes a lot of movies. It’s amazing. So I wrote it, went and pitched it to Ethan—Jason set that up—and Ethan dug it. After I wrote the script, I told them, “If you guys like it, we’ll make it, and if you don’t, we won’t.” Credit to you [Jason] for doing it, because it’s a wild movie and it’s violent, so it’s not far outside our reach.
Jason Blum: There’s a little horror in there.
Ti West: Also as filmmakers, the Western is a historic, cool thing to be a part of once in your life.
Jason Blum: Ethan did Sinister and The Purge, and he always talked about doing a Blumhouse trilogy. Sinister was horror, The Purge was sci-fi, and he said the third one should be a Western. That was years ago. So we had been looking for a Western to do together and I sent him about three or four different scripts over the years, which he didn’t connect with. When Ti pitched this I thought it was great, so I set them up and he finally said, “Yes.” So he and I had always wanted to do a Western together to complete that trilogy, which only exists in our minds. No one else would see it that way, but that was our plan and Ti made it happen.
Ti West: It was Jason’s idea about [John] Travolta. I still remember that email—“What do you think about John Travolta?” I remember being hesitant to write back, because I didn’t know what I thought about him. I thought he was great, but I never imagined… and when I wrote back Jason said, “Well, good news! He read it and liked it. Can you have dinner with him?” It was truly an inspiring choice. It was a really surreal moment.
Speaking of John Travolta, he was very funny in the film. The humor in Valley is a bit of a departure for both of you as well. The film feels more like a black comedy Western than a horror Western.
Ti West: Valley is a very violent revenge movie, but it’s about these characters that are ill-equipped to handle it. In a traditional Western there’s always the bravado, and it’s almost like they’re winking that they know they’re in a Western—“Look how good I can spin my gun.” In real life, when the bad guy kills somebody, or they’re bad guy friend gets killed, they’re upset, too, which is not typical in Westerns.
One of my favorite moments is when Tubby [Tommy Nohilly] says, “I didn’t know it was going to be like this!” This is a lot to take. That’s the thing you rarely get to see in these violent movies, and that’s the stuff that connects with people. So a great example with Travolta is when he and Tubby are in the doorway, and I originally wanted the two on both sides of the door. Travolta suggested, “I think it would be good if I hid behind him.” I thought it was genius. What a great idea, kind of like a “you go first” scenario. That’s what people do. So there is that element of dark humor when you see violence happening and people being ill-equipped to deal with it. It also helps you understand why violence happens.
Both of you are entrepreneurs when it comes to making low-budget films. Do you feel you have more creative freedoms when there isn’t as much money at stake?
Ti West: That’s the appeal for me. You get to actually make your movie. As a filmmaker, that’s the dream. That’s why you get up in the morning, to be able to do that. You feel constrained sometimes, but if the movie makes sense in the budget realm, then it isn’t hard. I never really felt like we couldn’t afford something, I just would hope it wouldn’t rain. That’s when things get expensive. If it doesn’t rain, you just point the camera at actors, they say their lines, and everything goes okay. You [Jason] have made a shitload more movies than I have on this budget level.
Jason Blum: When you raise the budget, you make creative compromises. The higher the budget goes, the more cuts in your movie happen. When people talk about how movies are watered down, that’s a direct reflection of money and budget. The less money you spend; the more risks you can take. That doesn’t mean it will be successful, but at least you can try different stuff. The higher your budget is, the less you can do that.
Ti West: It depends on what you’re doing. The bigger the movie is, the more agendas everybody has. It becomes more of a job for everyone, but on these small movies, you’re making them because you want to make them. You’re there because you want to do it. When you make a small movie, the one thing you have is that everyone is unified. That’s what you need. You want everybody to want to be there and be a part of the project. If you can cultivate that, everyone works hard for it. We get incredibly talented people that are otherwise far beyond our price range, but they want to be there. That’s how you pull it off.
Jason Blum: Yeah, John Travolta worked for $10,000.
Jason Blum: No. It’s very cool. It might have even been less since he worked for scale, and he only worked one to two weeks on the project.
Ti West: It was a good deal.
I’m really interested in the set. Did you have to build any of it for the film?
Jason Blum: Was the set from Wild Wild West?
Ti West: You’re right and wrong that it was. That set burned down and was rebuilt. Most of what we used was from 3:10 to Yuma, but there are a couple sets from West still there. So I looked online, saw them, and wrote the scripts for them. If we hadn’t gotten that set, the movie would have gone up in flames before it started.
Right, you couldn’t build an entire town.
Ti West: Exactly. I knew we could make it if the town was falling apart and everyone was leaving. We could pull it off by boarding things up. So we went there and redid all the interiors, repainted some of the exteriors, and boarded everything up. We were doing more than we thought we were going to do—that always happens—but it was pre-existing.
It’s funny, because I notice different sets in different movies. There are four or five Western town sets in the country. I’m always like, “Oh, that’s the Deadwood one—that’s in L.A. That’s the set from A Million Ways to Die in the West.” So I see them. What’s interesting about directing is when you see it, you’re like, “Wow, they shot in the same town as us,” but you’d never know because where they put a camera is totally different than where I did. So it’s interesting when you see that. I was conscious of that, though, so it became its own thing.
Let’s talk about the preacher [played by Burn Gorman]. He’s much more of an outsider than Ethan Hawke’s character. What made you decide to write him in?
Ti West: I always liked having this outlining character connecting the audience back to the film, because the tone shifts halfway through. While you’re with these characters the entire time, Hawke’s character in particular has a very large tonal shift. I wanted there to be one independent character that spoke for the audience and set the tone of the movie.
Between meeting him for the first time and the end credits, you’re either in or you’re out. You see the kind of movie this is and you see the kinds of people you’re dealing with. Plus, he’s a priest who’s drinking, talking about women, and he’s religious when he needs to be. That’s symbolic of all the people in the movie. Everyone’s trying to make the best of their situation in the crazy old West.
Outside of John Travolta and Ethan Hawke, how did you go about casting this film and did you write any character specifically for an actor?
Ti West: James Ransone had done a few movies for Jason and he would always ask me, “When are we going to do a movie?” I wrote the character of Gilly with him in mind because he has a perfect ability to do this bravado thing and then switch to being a total dipshit. He has such a good ability to play the fool in that regard. We [Jason and Ti] both were fans of Taissa [Farmiga], and we met with her and she got it.
The cool thing about making a Western is that people want to be in them. You rarely get the opportunity. This was one of those times when we had people aggressively wanting to be in this. With horror movies you are always trying to convince them. People in horror are always worried it’s going to be this schlocky thing, and you’re always trying to convince them that it’s not. With Westerns, people immediately react with, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do one,” in the same way we talked about always wanting to make one.
Jason Blum: Which is weird, because they’re just as violent.
Now that you’re both branching out of horror, what other genres are you interested in exploring?
Jason Blum: I’ve always been interested in a low-budget action movie. Inherently that makes no sense, because action is expensive. They kind of did it in End of Watch.
There’s The Raid: Redemption.
Jason Blum: Right, The Raid did it. That’s true, too. But I’ve always been interested in that. I’d like to do more thrillers—we’ve been doing more of those lately. I’d like to do a $5 million romantic comedy. There was one that we almost just did, but you could do that in a mainstream way. There are a million $5 million Sundance comedies, but to get a wide release for a romantic comedy that you did for a low-budget would be hard. You need actors. It’s something I’ve thought about for many years, but I’ve never been able to pull it off.
Ti West: It’s not really that prohibitive if people like the project. There’s nothing stopping you from making movies. You can always make and try different things.