In a little over 10 years, Ti West has become a formidable director in the independent film world. With a body of work ranging from The Roost and House of the Devil to fake documentary thrillers like The Sacrament (based on the Jonestown Massacre of 1978), West crafts unsettling suspense and unforgettable payoffs.
His newest film, In A Valley of Violence, stars Ethan Hawke as Paul, a man with a mysterious past — and a loyal dog named Abbie — who wanders into a saloon in Denton, Texas, only to embarrass the sheriff’s son Gilly (played by James Ransone of HBO’s The Wire).
The sheriff (portrayed by John Travolta in a transformative role that rivals that of Tom Cruise in Collateral) sends Paul on his way before more trouble can be made. Gilly and his group of henchman chase after Paul and kill Abbie, leading to Paul’s mental and moral deterioration that can only be satisfied by an act of revenge.
Shot on 35mm film in the desert of Sante Fe, New Mexico during the beginning of monsoon season, the movie looks like nothing like West has made before.
West will bring In A Valley of Violence (Blumhouse Productions/Focus World) to Sidewalk Film Festival on Friday, August 26. Recently, West about switching genres, the power of a musical score and multi-faceted character development.
Weld: You’ve done mainly horror movies in the past. Why the change to Westerns?
Ti West: It wasn’t such a clear path as that. The Sacrament focused on realism and new media, and I wanted to make something that was traditionally cinematic. To me, the most cinematic American film genre is the Western, and I’ve always loved Westerns. I had an idea to make one, and I wanted to see how far I could get with it. That led me to talking with Jason Blum who pointed me to Ethan [Hawke], who I was a fan of.
Weld: Ethan was involved in the writing process of the film. Can you elaborate on that?
West: I went to New York while Ethan was doing a play, Macbeth. I told him that I was going to write the script for the movie while he was doing the play for three weeks. I told him that at the end of that three weeks, if he didn’t like what I wrote, we would never talk about it again. However, if he did like it, I told him that we needed to do the movie. Fortunately for me, he liked it, and off we went.
Weld: What are some of your favorite Westerns?
West: Growing up, it was Dollars trilogy with Clint Eastwood by Sergio Leone and other Eastwood films. It was just something common in the house that was sort of ingrained in me. That was such a cool genre. It’s something that you always want to be part of as a filmmaker, but you may never get the opportunity because they don’t make as many anymore. I was fortunate to take a stab at it.
Weld: These movies often use a damsel in distress-type scenario, but you put your own spin on it by having the death of Ethan Hawke’s dog as the basis of the revenge plot.
West: A lot of my friends right now are getting dogs instead of having kids. They’re very close to their dogs, and they take them everywhere. There are a lot more dogs in restaurants, grocery stores and airports than ever before. It’s almost like they have a dog as an accessory.
Also, Ethan’s character has a sort of PTSD from his time in the war, and dogs are usually a major help to combat that. As people, dogs are man’s best friend and companions. It’s really all Ethan’s character has left. It’s also interesting because audiences seem to be more reactionary to scary situations with animals than with people. No one seems to care if you mow down 150 people in a movie because we’re so desensitized to it. But if you threaten a dog, the whole theater tenses up. It’s just something interesting I discovered.
Weld: Because of his want for revenge, Ethan’s character develops a darker demeanor throughout the course of the film. Could you talk about the decision for that transformation?
West: I wanted to make a revenge Western with archetypes that you were familiar with, but once they get involved in the revenge plot, we realize there’s something more going on. In Westerns specifically, a lot of the characters have this bravado and are able to handle situations with such ease. I wanted to see the bravado characters come apart once they’re actually really threatened.
For the first half of the movie, we’re with Ethan and he’s the protagonist. By the second half, we’re still with him, but we see how the revenge is affecting the people he’s trying to kill. Even though we want him to win and kill everybody, we get to see how the situation really affects the characters as human beings. It was an interesting dynamic to explore since it’s not typically in Westerns. The characters in this movie, when everything goes crazy, react as normal people instead of movie characters.
Weld: You’ve screened the film a few times this year. Are there any characters that you’re surprised the audience get attached to?
West: It’s very much a protagonist’s movie because we’re with Ethan the entire time, but it’s the element of the ensemble that have a Robert Altman-esque vibe to it. I think all of the characters in the movie have their own story. It’s gone as I’ve expected, which is great.
I think a lot of people are surprised by the humor in the movie, which ultimately reveals how many people have a dark sense of humor. I think the movie was meant to be twisted and funny, but it’s been great to see how warmly that’s been received.
Weld: Westerns are known for their soundtrack as much as their visuals. How were you able to use music to enhance the film?
West: Jeff Grace has composed music for almost all my movies, and he’s an amazing talent. We wanted to have something iconic that felt like it would elevate the movie to something grand. We wanted something cinematic and old-fashioned movies have big, bombastic soundtracks, particularly Westerns. It was a big challenge for Jeff to come up with something to enhance the movie musically, and I think he nailed it. The opening credits is a testament to that.
Weld: How was it working with such legends as John Travolta and Ethan Hawke?
West: Ethan and John were amazing; they were such fun and talented people. It’s really surreal to take your dialogue and perform it in ways that make it so much better than you could have ever expected. That was a dream, and they were both such great people and consummate professionals. It was a blast. Everyone got along, which was a major bonus.
Weld: Larry Fesseden appears in the film as well as some of your earlier movies. What was it like directing someone who has been such a mentor to you?
West: Larry is the reason I have a career because he financed my first movie. He’s also a great actor in his own right, and he’s perfect for Westerns. When the movie got off the ground and I knew there was a fun bad guy part, I knew he’d perfect for that role.
Weld: You’re coming to a film festival that will have a lot of aspiring filmmakers. Any advice you would give them?
West: I think all you can really say is go out and make your movie. Otherwise, it won’t get made. A lot of people talk about making movies, but very few people actually make them. You just have to rely on your own self-determination. Stop talking about it and go do it.
In A Valley of Violence will be the opening night film for Sidewalk Film Festival on Friday, August 26, starting at 8 p.m. The movie will be shown at the Alabama Theatre and a block party will follow the sold-out screening. For more information, visit sidewalkfest.com. For those who miss the screening, In A Valley of Violence opens theatrically October 21.