In the last few years, there’s been a fantastic Renaissance in the Western genre with all sorts of new and more experienced filmmakers tackling the most American movie genre there is. With a name like “Ti West,” it was probably only a matter of time before the director of The Innkeepers and House of the Devil would try his hand at a Western.
The results are In A Valley of Violence, West’s gritty take on the “lone drifter comes to small town” Western subgenre. It stars Ethan Hawke as that drifter, who arrives in the ghost town of Denton and immediately falls afoul of Gilly (James Ransone from Tangerine), son of the town’s leader, Marshall, played by John Travolta. When Gilly and his men ambush Hawke’s character outside of town and commit a despicable act, it forces Hawke to return to Denton with his sole motivation being vengeance.
Hawke is as good as he was in the recent The Magnificent Seven and Travolta is always fantastic, but what leaves the most lasting impression will probably be Ransone’s performance as a loathsome bad guy, who actually makes you laugh with how poorly he fares sometimes at trying to be bad.
LRM sat down with West and Ransone—close friends with similar sensibilities in movies -- for a lively interview where we got seriously into the nitty-gritty of cinema and how it pertains to the Western genre. You can read that interview after the trailer.
LRM: I’ve seen this movie now three times.
Ti West: Wow. I appreciate the dedication.
LRM: I saw it at a press screening and then I was in Montreal for Fantasia Fest and saw it again there. That was the best screening, because it was with a real audience.
West: Yeah, it’s good you got to see it with an audience, because I think people underestimate how much this movie plays well with an audience.
LRM: I totally agree and especially the humor, which when you first see it, seems very out there….
James Ransone: Yeah, you don’t know whether you’re allowed to let yourself laugh if you’re watching it alone.
LRM: Right, especially because of the big turn with Jumpy the dog and how dark that is, but then it’s still funny after that.
Ransone: In some ways, it’s a bizarre thing, because in theater, and in New York, you’ll see it a lot in theater, where you have previews, right? You could be having previews, which means the play hasn’t opened yet, and you can go and watch it and the whole audience can be laughing consistently through previews. But then if you get Ben Brantley or Isherwood (theater critics) and they come and say, “What a serious play” when they write the review, you’ll get no more laughs through the rest of your run, because the reviewer has dictated to you what the experience is.
LRM: That’s funny, since the first time I saw the movie it was like that: a grim press screening where no one laughed. Let’s talk about the decision to make a Western. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but you’ve done so many horror films, and it’s not just taking on another genre but it seems like a much bigger movie than your other ones.
West: It’s a little bigger, it’s not that much bigger — a couple more bucks. I had made a movie called The Sacrament that was all about realism, that was all about trying to make a fake documentary using a real news brand, using a real tragedy, trying to make violence not escapism, confronting a realistic, tragic violence. I had done that, and that was about two years of doing that where you get burnt out on focusing on technical elements and focusing on realism. I felt like I had accomplished that. So I wanted to make something that I didn’t care about realism at all. I wanted to make something that was traditionally cinematic, which is the kind of movies I love the most. For me, the most traditionally cinematic American genre is the Western. People are still dying in it, so it’s not like I suddenly want to make a romantic comedy and no one wants to invest in it. There’s a little bit of a throughline, so I thought maybe let me kick around some ideas and see if I can come up with something.
I had an idea and I was a fan of Ethan Hawke’s, so I went to New York and met him and pitched him the idea, and he was interested in the idea, so I said, “Okay, let me go write the script and when I’m done I’ll send it to you. If you don’t like it don’t worry about it, but if you do like it, let’s make this thing.” And he said, “Cool.” He went back to his business, I went back to mine and wrote the script, sent it to him, and the next day he wrote me and said, “You did it.” He had a relationship with Jason Blum from The Purge and Sinister, and we all got together and thought that maybe we could make this movie, then John Travolta got the script and loved it and wanted to do it, which was very surreal — having dinner with John Travolta — and then the movie at that point was just sort of on a roll and it all came together very quickly.
LRM: So you have Ethan Hawke and John Travolta and then you have this guy here stealing the movie from both of them. Gilly is just such a great character….
Ransone: Oh, thanks.
LRM: I’m not sure how much you talked about him before filming this…
Ransone: We’d been pretty close for a while, and he wrote that specifically with me in mind. Him and I still talk every day, just as friends. We’re kindred spirits in a way, and I think trying to do the same thing in different mediums. What was interesting about me playing Gilly, aside from what I can just tell you in an interview and when you’re allowed to expand your horizons about what you think about creatively. Him and I spent a lot of time watching a bunch of old movies together, and the one thing that we kept circling around to was The Shining. So that movie as a scary as a whole and it’s this really unnerving experience, but if you just take scenes out of the movie, just life them and watch the scenes out of context, they’re completely ridiculous. They’re totally insane, right? It transcends this level of performance that you’re not used to seeing, so Ti and I watched that 17-minute about the making of The Shining that Kubrick’s daughter made. She was interviewing Nicholson and Shelley Duval after the fact, and Nicholson said something really interesting, which was why Kubrick did so many takes. It was to get you past the point of self, to push you into this new dimension, and that’s why Nicholson said he was always more likely to trust Kubrick’s instincts than he would his own is because when you’re an actor all you’re trying to do is make it feel real, right? What Nicholson would say after a take was, “Stanley, that felt pretty real,” and Stanley would say, “Yeah, it did. It just wasn’t very interesting.”
It was this completely earth-shattering moment for me that I was giving an experience with Ti, and it’s not to do Nicholson in The Shining or it’s not to do Kubrick, but it’s to go okay, I’m unimpeded by trying to make it real, because it’s not real. What can I do to make this interesting, do you know what I mean? That was 100% everything that I was trying to do. That was all.
LRM: I remember you playing a scumbag in “Tangerine” but I didn’t even recognize or realize it was you at first.
Ransone: Oh, thanks, man. Thank you.
LRM: I remember with “The Innkeepers” you ended up writing it very fast, so was it the same case with this or did you have to think about it more?
West: No, it was quick because Ethan, when I met him, was doing Macbeth in Lincoln Center, and I was like, “When do you wrap?” and he told me three weeks, so I was like, “The night you wrap, I will send you the script,” so I went home frantically and wrote it in three weeks.
LRM: That’s still pretty fast.
West: It is, but it’s just because I like to have a really self-hating deadline because I find every part of filmmaking to be pretty traumatic, and I think a lot of writers also find writing pretty traumatic in that it’s just a grueling experience at times. The idea of it is really romantic and exciting but then actually doing it, it’s hard…
LRM: Oh, I fully understand, especially the “self-hating deadline”…
West: To me, it’s a way that.. because I know I can do it. I know that if I have a deadline and if I didn’t send the script to Ethan Hawke, what an asshole I would be. I will get it done, and knowing that I will get it done on that date, means that I’m more likely to spend more time, more energy and have a really excited focus on doing it. That’s always helpful for me, because it gives me a goal, cause I like progress. Progress keeps me motivated, so if I have a goal where I think, “All I have to do is get Ethan Hawke a good script and we can make a Western, so I better go get a good script or else I’ll let myself down,” and I’m not going to do that.
LRM: You have all these Western archetypes in the movie, but when they interact, they do so in a completely different way…
LRM: So in the beginning, you have Ethan Hawke who is kind of a lone drifter we’ve seen before and you have the drunken Irish priest, but when they interact, it goes in a different direction than we expect. And that’s the case in the whole movie. Can you talk about how you decided on the different characters such as Gilly or some of the women’s roles?
West: That was absolutely the sort of goal with the film, which was to set up all these archetypes we’re familiar with… because the movie, to me, is about violence. It’s about how violence affects people. It’s not really about the plot. The plot is just the reason the movie exists. It’s about the esoteric details of the movie and ideally the subtext beneath these interesting performances. But for me, it was to set up all these archetypes we’re familiar with, particularly in a genre where the archetypes are almost always set in stone. The guys can always spin the gun perfectly and shoot someone off a rooftop perfectly, but I wanted to see if you set up the guy that says he can spin the perfectly, and then when it’s finally time to do it, sucks at it. Or the person that’s like, “I’ll beat up anybody!” but then when he finally tries to fight someone who doesn’t have that attitude, he just crumbles.
To me, what’s interesting is seeing how those people react, to see that Travolta is the only one who has any true experience with violence, who is like, “Yo. We shouldn’t do this, because I know what this leads to. It’s not worth it.” As an audience, we have a really fetishized escapism view of violence in films, and we have a very uncomfortable experience with violence in real life. What an odd thing, because they seem to be more connected than they are, and we have completely different experiences. I wanted to see a bunch of characters that are basically begging for the movie to do what it does, and then when the movie does what it does, are in way over their heads and wish that it had never happened.
LRM: That's interesting, because Quentin Tarantino has made a couple Westerns lately and he still gets lambasted for the violence in his movies.
West: I don’t know why. He’s just a whipping boy for whatever reason. I just think because Reservoir Dogs was such a tour de force beginning for a filmmaker that had, at the time, a scene that was just so graphically violent for people to handle, with the ear, that he has forever known to a certain part of the press as that’s what he does. I think it’s unfair, but he’s also doing quite well so you can only feel so bad about him. I think there’s an element of every movie he makes where they look to find something about the violence, which I think is unfair and is a weird thing. I think it stems from when he arrived on the scene, it was for something really violent so I think people connected that to him.
LRM: And you literally say right in the title “This movie is about violence,” and the movie ends up being violent but not as violent as some might expect.
West: Right. There’s a few pretty grim moments in the movie, but yeah, to me, it was always about how the people react to the violence.
LRM: You’re doing a Western on a fairly low budget but I assume you had to build the town of Denton or did you find a place that was already built to use it? How do you make a Western without it getting very expensive?
West: Yeah, we found a set that had been built from several different movies that keeps getting cannibalized into lots of different movies, so whenever I see a Western, I’m always like, “Hey, they did one day at our place,” because you notice the building. We sort of went in — and it’s a much bigger location — and we just picked the one street, because I needed just one street, and I wrote the script to keep it on budget is that the town is dying and there’s very few people left. We went in and we boarded everything up and made it this dusty closed-down town. We built the saloon and we built the interior of the hotel and things like that but a lot of the structures were already there. We would not have been able to afford that, so we found a way — like every movie does — to cannibalize a set but to make it our own. I’ve seen it pop up in something else where it looks like ours did, so it’s really fascinating. “Oh, I know what that building is, but they added a thing on the top and they moved it around and painted the whole thing red. Weird.” But I think there’s a kind of charming… I like the sort of backlot cinematic look to all that stuff.
There’s an artifice to this movie that you’re aware of. This movie is very much a performance in itself. I think the performances you can look at as great performances, the camera direction is a performance, the music is a performance, the titles are a performance. That was sort of the goal, was to make something that… to me, that’s cinema. That’s the craft, that’s the art of it all. When you sit down and watch a Hitchcock movie, you’re very aware there’s a director, you’re very aware there’s an actor, because it’s a giant movie star in a larger than life role with generally a fake set-up where the camera does things that are so obvious to let you know that there’s a director there. The music, every time Bernard Hermann’s music comes in, you’re very aware of that, so the whole thing has an artifice to it, but that, to me, is the craft. It’s the art of filmmaking and it’s what I love about cinema. I like to go there and see this thing that people made.
There’s a current trend now where audiences don’t want that. They want to almost be completely distracted from the fact it’s a movie, and everything is about plot and realism and reflecting on how you would act in the situation to make it seem more authentic to you. It’s hiding all of the craft, all of the art, all of the cinema and that’s frustrating.
Ransone: And you’re also not just doing that in human interest stories, like everything we see as romantic comedies, but you’re starting to see that in genres where it doesn’t matter. Suicide Squad or the big comic book movies, you’re in a universe where you’re trying to match this realism against this impossible universe.
West: What drives me nuts with the comic book movies is when you hear people describe them, “You know what’s cool about that one? It was so grounded.” And you’re like, “Grounded? What are you talking about?” It’s Batman! How is it grounded? I don’t mean that to knock Batman. I mean that to knock the way in which we’re….
Ransone: Making movies.
West: And culturally, the way in which our cinematic IQ has changed. It’s subjective, but for me, it’s changed in a way that’s frustrating because I’m happy to sit and watch The Maltese Falcon and go, “Cool.” Look at this performance as a whole, not just acting, just the whole thing. It’s cinema, but we don’t really look at it as cinema. We look at it more as content now, more than we look at it as cinema and as a filmmaker that is something that keeps you up at night.
LRM: But even you look at a biodrama like “Sully”… that’s a real movie about a real story that happened, but you can’t get away from the fact that it’s Tom Hanks. I’m glad you mentioned music, because with this you’re working with a lot of the same crew as your other movies, including Jeff Grace, who really knocked one out of the park with his score. The music is perfect. Is this you and your crew watching a lot of movies to figure out what works?
West: You know, I think Jeff did an amazing job, and really, he did it all himself, which is a massive undertaking, but I remember our early conversations. I was like, “The music has to be a part of the conversation in this movie.” So if somebody likes this movie, when they say why they like it, one of the things they have to say is about the music. It’s so much a part of the identity of the movie, that it can’t shake it, not just because that’s traditional for Westerns or specifically the “Dollars” trilogy, but because that’s, again, the performance of cinema to me, and so I wanted an opening title sequence that had such a bombastic score that was exciting in its own right, that you felt like “Whoa.” You’ve watched the opening of this movie and you’re either in or out. Hopefully, you watch it and go, “Wherever this is going, I’m down, because so much has just hit me… “ So much personality from the people that made this movie, like the human beings that made this movie, is on display here. I think to make the movie larger than life and to give the movie an identity with the music is something that is important with all movies. I think people underestimate how important that is.
Ransone: Yeah, it’s cool that there’s a theme that you can remember. You can actually remember the melody of the theme, and that goes back to an older cinematic IQ about what you were talking about before. It’s even like John Williams. The last time I remember people having that, in terms of a big motion picture that hit the zeitgeist was Inception. Not my favorite of (Nolan’s) movies but people will remember the (does impression of the music) and when you embed something that’s precognitive into a visual experience, it will always elevate it. Again, I think that’s something that’s been missing from this idea of, “Are we making films? Are we making content?” I can’t remember the theme of any movie that I watched in the last six years, and I think that’s actually why people like Stranger Things, because you have that crazy… it’s telegraphing to the audience exactly what they’re going to watch as that credit sequence comes up, whether it be based in nostalgia, it doesn’t matter, but at least you’re having an immersive experience. Do you know what I mean? On some level — and I think about this often — it’s that we’re a storytelling species and the reason we tell stories is to have an altered state of consciousness, so if we’re not heading towards that, then I don’t see the point in making it.
LRM: Any idea what you want to do next since this one has been done for some time? You’ve been doing some TV lately, so what’s next for you? Is Hollywood coming to you saying “Hey, we can get this guy who makes movies for $5 million…”
West: No, because no one wants to make movies for $5 million. They want to make a movie that makes a billion dollars.
LRM: But they end up spending $150 million and with you, maybe they can make the same movie for $100 million.
Ransone: It’s never enough.
West: No, I got a bunch of things, they all seem very promising. I have a science fiction film, I have a 1960s LSD hippie film, I have a TV series that I created myself that we sold recently, so things are good. I don’t have anything to totally announce right at the moment because either all these things are about to happen tomorrow or just completely evaporate into thin air, as is the movie business. I feel like… what are we coming up to? 2017? I feel like I’ll totally be shooting something in 2017.
LRM: I liked when you were doing a movie a year.
West: That’s what I want to do. I know this is a long gap for me. That’s why I started doing TV, just to get out there and keep directing, because you don’t want to get soft.