Director Ti West has built a loyal fan base over the last decade by making unique horror movies like “The House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers” that appeal to horror fanatics while challenging them with unconventional stories that delve into internal fears, rather than going for over-the-top gore.
With his latest movie “In a Valley of Violence” (opening Friday), West veers further from his horror roots. The Western follows a man (Ethan Hawke) who arrives in a town and instantly becomes a threat to the local marshal (John Travolta) and his annoying son (James Ransone of “The Wire”). There are certainly thrills (and blood) but the movie also shows West’s comedic talent and ability to work with a bigger production (the movie was produced by Blumhouse Productions, which is behind the “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity” franchises) and bigger stars.
Business Insider sat down with West, Hawke, and Ransone in New York City to talk about the movie, their awe of Travolta, and the scene-stealing talents of the dog in the movie. And the three also got candid about the challenges that come when you want to make art in an industry that is concerned only with box-office grosses.
Jason Guerrasio: Was this story something you wrote recently or was it on the shelf for a while?
Ti West: No, your first part was correct. I had made “The Sacrament,” which was a movie heavily steeped in realism and it was about confronting unpleasant violence using a real brand and a documentary style and a real tragedy. And that was great, but by the end I was burnt on that and wanted to do something traditionally cinematic. For me the most traditionally cinematic genre is the Western. And I thought it’s not so far removed, because there is violence in it, that it would be a relatively reasonable step. I had been talking to [Blumhouse head] Jason Blum for years about movies and I had mentioned it to him and I also mentioned that I was a fan of Ethan’s and he said, “Go to New York and talk to Ethan about it.” I went and Ethan was doing “Macbeth” at Lincoln Center and I pitched him the idea for the movie and he kind of dug it. He gave me the date of when the play was ending and I said I’ll send you a script and if you don’t like it we don’t have to talk about it, but if you do let’s try to get it made. And I think it was the day after you wrapped, you read it on the plane and you were like, “This is cool.”
Ethan Hawke: We met in December and we were on set in June. There was no script in December when we met — that has never happened in my life.
Guerrasio: Ti works quickly.
Hawke: It was unbelievable. It went from concept to reality incredibly fast. And people can work quick, but there’s a confluence of things that went right. I have met tons of people who wrote a script in a week, but for it to get made…
West: I got a stack of them if you want to read them. [Laughs]
Hawke: Just the idea that all the dominoes kept falling to that we actually got to go into production was awesome.
Guerrasio: With Blum, did you have to pitch it with a horror angle to sell him, since that’s what you’re known for?
West: I think for Jason the idea of doing a Western was a little outside of the box. He said go talk to Ethan first.
Hawke: Because Jason and I had a conversation, the way Jason explained it to me anyway, he was talking to Ti, he wanted to make a Western, and I said the same thing and Jason was like, “F–k, you guys should get together.” So we didn’t have to sell it.
I was pushing Jason to expand his idea of what a genre film was because a lot of people think horror is just the genre but Roger Corman exploited all the genres to great effect and I was encouraging Jason, why isn’t he doing creature features? Spaghetti Westerns? Crazy sci-fi?
James Ransone: It’s weird because when you think about it, it’s only been a recent phenomenon where it’s this compartmentalisation of genres being so specific. “The Exorcist” is a horror movie, but that was one of the most beloved movies, they didn’t think of it as just a horror —
Hawke: “The Shining.”
Ransone: “Rosemary’s Baby” is a horror movie. It’s not trying to define the Western as being something different, it’s just there used to be movies that had a certain thing and now it’s sort of, “Well, our shop doesn’t do that.”
Hawke: People are so into branding.
Guerrasio: It all comes down to how it can be marketed, and if the company doesn’t know how to pull it off, it’s not worth their time.
Hawke: And it’s true, perception creates reality, right? It is very difficult to sell a Western overseas. It’s hard to make your money back.
Guerrasio: Was this before you did “Magnificent Seven,” Ethan?
Hawke: This was before. It’s just coincidental that these came out when they did. It turned out I was on a horse for two years.
Guerrasio: James, what did you like about your character, Gilly? What made you get on board?
Ransone: I don’t really like anything about Gilly. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: But it has to be fun to play a bad guy.
Ransone: Yeah. Ti wrote to the strengths I think in playing some tragic clown character that is pretty easy for me to do. It was just Ti and I had met many years ago and we were looking for something to do for a while and then I think he wrote the character with me in mind hoping that I would be so lucky to do it.
Guerrasio: When did Travolta sign on?
West: Ethan went on vacation, wrote me a nice note that he loved the script, Jason said he was in, and then very soon after Jason sent me an email that said, “What about John Travolta as the marshal?” Which was a very inspired kind of out-of-nowhere idea. We hadn’t gotten really too far, and I was just like yeah, and before I even finished saying that he was like, “Good news, he already read the script and loves it and wants to meet.” And so Jason and I went and had this surreal, incredible dinner with John Travolta and he embraced the project —
West: I mean, it was a very odd experience to sit down with John Travolta and have him so eloquently be so excited and so specific about what he loved about the movie, the character, him as a character actor, what the movie’s subtext was saying. It was just like, “How could it be anyone other than him?”
Hawke: It was outside his wheelhouse, independent cinema is not something he does often, though he’s done a few to great acclaim, but —
Guerrasio: He’s not as active in it as you are.
Hawke: Yeah. You know, doing movies without trailers and going down and dirty, it was kind of a surprise to all of us that he was all in and he understood it completely. And it was a great role Ti wrote him and he was smart enough to know that.
Ransone: And it’s not the ’90s. You used to get 40 days for a movie this big, and we had half the amount of that time.
Hawke: You start to wonder what they did with all that time?
West: It does sound crazy. People ask if you had enough time, and you go no, maybe one more day would have been good, but if we had another week —
Hawke: What would we have done? And technology has changed, you can work so much faster, lighting is so much less an issue.
Guerrasio: But you gave yourself a potential problem, you wrote in a part for a dog. Ti, did you panic a little before production started? Because if you didn’t get the right one that could have held you up.
West: There was a moment when I was like, wow, Ethan and Travolta want to do this movie and then I was like, “Oh no, the dog!” If I can’t find the dog what are we going to do? And I literally Googled “talented dogs” and the first thing that came up was this YouTube video about Jumpy.
Hawke: He’s like the Justin Bieber of dogs.
West: It’s true. And I remember being like, “I wonder where this dog is?” I’m thinking in Florida or something, no, the Valley [in Los Angeles]. So we tracked down the trainer, Omar Von Muller, he’s a nice guy. I took him out to lunch and I met Jumpy. And in the course of that I learned that Omar trained Uggy, the dog in “The Artist,” which gave me a great deal of confidence. Uggy was actually on our set the whole time hanging out. But we go to this park and Jumpy is there and Omar showed me what Jumpy could do and the world came to halt. I mean, forget the tricks, which are insane and we could talk for days about that, but you literally put a mark down, like for any actor, and Omar would say, “Jumpy, go to your mark,” and he put his paw on the mark and would stay there until you say cut. And not one out of ten times, every time.
Ransone: I’ve never met a human actor who has done that, by the way. [Laughs]
West: So we just figured out how to incorporate him more into the film. There’s a point, and I think we joked about this on set, we were doing over-the-shoulder shots with the dog and I was just like this is so strange: Ethan and Jumpy were seriously acting together.
Hawke: It was really cool. It was so remarkable that things in another movie that would be outlandish became commonplace in this movie. There’s a shot in the movie where Jumpy is leading the horse, he’s got the reins of the horse and pulling it, but the audience is so used to Jumpy doing amazing things at that point that they are like, “Of course he would do that!”
Guerrasio: James, was it intimidating at all to work alongside Travolta? Most of your scenes are with him. Did you two have to break the ice before working?
Ransone: I have been a journeyman actor for 15 years and I have been lucky enough to work with Ethan — this is our third thing to be on together — but my experiences with other movie stars have not been that great and then you get one of the biggest movie stars in the entire world. I was like, “This is going to be terrible.” So in some ways to galvanize myself for that I was trying to keep as much distance between us as possible, but I ended up feeling like an arsehole because truth be told he was one of the most gracious and sweet actors that I’ve worked with. And I don’t say that with lip service, he’s amazing —
Hawke: He’s a warm person.
Ransone: I was like, “You’re just a really sweet dude.” He would talk about flying. I mean, this is a person that has been famous since he was 17, so you don’t know what you’re going to get, but after meeting him I was like, this is a really solid dude. And he’s so insanely meticulous about every choice that he’s making about his character from the costume, the subtext of the lines, and that’s inspiring for an actor. You see the bad habits you have.
Guerrasio: Speaking of meticulous, people including myself are always fascinated by the Travolta facial hair choices in his roles. Did you guys talk about what he wanted to do for this movie?
West: We talked about it. He’s very interested in the period, so we talked about that for a while. He’s got this great quote, in all his movies he wants to be “watchable,” and it’s such a simple but brilliantly articulate thing, and with him being a movie star he’s like, “That’s all great, but as long as its watchable.”
Hawke: The choice can be true, but if it isn’t watchable who cares?
West: Exactly. I think it was cool where he was playing a character that was very much his age and the authoritative, older, wiser character in the movie, but it was great to see John Travolta with an older, grey vibe.
Hawke: It’s hard for guys who have been world famous for as long as he’s been —
Guerrasio: And a sex symbol.
Hawke: Look, he was one of the first male sex symbols of his era, so to let yourself change and evolve is really tough and he’s realising he’s evolving into having to play characters, like what he did on the O.J. show to this. The people who have a long career evolve.
Guerrasio: Has that been the same for you? You tell yourself you can’t play a certain role anymore?
Hawke: I haven’t had a relationship with the audience the way that he does. Like Harrison Ford, I remember when he did this great Kathryn Bigelow submarine movie.
Guerrasio: “K-19: The Widowmaker.”
Hawke: You can tell he did a lot of work, he did a pretty good Russian accent. But the audience has no desire to see Harrison Ford in that. He could be Daniel Day-Lewis great with that accent, but he’s still Harrison Ford to us and he has a relationship with the audience that is more powerful than that relationship to that character. So I have never had that and for those who have that, it’s a great resource and a great burden. Vincent D’Onofrio can change in every movie. People don’t know it’s the same dude. My dad’s like, “That’s the same guy that was in ‘Daredevil’?”
Guerrasio: And what he does in “The Magnificent Seven,” you do a double take.
Hawke: Yeah, what the f–k? But he’s an old-school actor and that’s different than a genuine first ballot hall of fame movie star.
Guerrasio: Ti, you were working in a larger machine with Blumhouse compared to your previous films. Did you like it?
West: I mean there wasn’t much of a machine to it. It just felt the same as making any other movie. I’m in my sort of bubble with it with the same group of people, from the ADs to the ACs down, that’s what helps get these smaller movies to look a little bit more expensive than they are. But it was a good experience. It didn’t feel like a grind, it didn’t feel hard or confusing, it really felt like we were in the right place at the right time. I would be in Santa Fe and look at Ethan on a horse with Jumpy next to him and Travolta. It was like, how did we get here? That’s not always how it is.
Hawke: I’ve spent my life trying to be in that position. Where you can work from a place of gratitude.
Guerrasio: Ti, the way I see things progressing for you, the next logical step is the superhero movies. Does that interest you?
West: I’m not anti-it — it’s just not really in my wheelhouse. My goal is what Ethan just said, to be at another place having another experience like that. It’s one thing making these independent films that yes, it’s a career, but it’s also a bit of a lifestyle. We all moved to Santa Fe for a while and had this experience we take with our life. I think there’s a part of that where you’re making a movie that’s two years at best, that’s the fastest it’s going to go, that’s a big commitment, and you need to be able to believe in it and you need to believe in it enough to sit in front of you now being enthusiastically talking about it. Maybe there’s a version of a superhero movie where that happens, but typically it’s got to be something that you’re excited about when you do it and you’re excited years later.
Guerrasio: Do the superhero movies ever excite you enough that you’d want to be in one, Ethan?
Hawke: If somebody had passion and an idea behind their superhero movie I would consider it. I had no desire to make a horror movie and then I met Scott Derrikson (“Sinister”) and he had a very clear idea of the horror movie he wanted to make and he had a really cool character for me to play and so I didn’t feel like I was making a “horror” movie, I thought I was working with a filmmaker who had an idea and it was a character that was perfect for me at that time. I was just turning 40 and playing a guy who felt he was more famous before, I could really sink my teeth into that. If somebody came at me with “The Pink Panther” and I related to it like that I could imagine doing it. I’m not working my life to get to do it. The thing that’s great for me to do “Magnificent Seven” is to get to be in a movie that plays at the mall that I get to be an actor in. It’s a victory for me because I’m not in a cape. I wanted to be a dramatic actor when I was a kid, so to be a dramatic actor in a movie that plays at the multiplex, if I don’t do that every few years, I don’t get to do this movie. It’s a giant balancing act. So to do it in a way that doesn’t offend me is always the goal.
Ransone: Here’s the deal —
Guerrasio: And you would be a great villain in a superhero movie, by the way, James.
Ransone: I have been up for like five different incarnations of Marvel things, going through all the auditions and then it’s gone. It happened five times in a row to me this year.
Guerrasio: Some of the bigger characters?
Ransone: Yeah, some of the bigger characters on the TV shows and a couple of the smaller villains in the movies. Here’s the thing with what it’s like to be working and being an artist. We’re all freelance, there’s no place we have to show up, if we don’t audition or hustle we don’t work. And that provides a continuum of fear throughout the longevity of our careers. It’s like “What’s the next one going to be?” and the sexy thing about the commercialism in that you get this false consciousness of a breath of ok, I’m going to be ok for a minute.
Guerrasio: Those movies, you’re likely set for a few years.
Ransone: That’s what makes those roles so attractive.
Hawke: If you can make people money you basically have a hall pass for three years. You’re at the party for three years.
Ransone: My experience is if I’ve always made the decisions that were based on my creative gut, they are always more fulfilling. And I have gotten a few paydays, and I cannot tell you what cashing those checks felt like, but I can tell you how rich the depths of my experiences were on the times when I felt I was operating at full potential creatively. And those are much more important experiences.
Hawke: I mean, I’ll remember my whole life you doing that monologue on Main Street challenging me to fight that’s in this movie. It was so fun, it’s why you want to be an actor.
Ransone: So with the comic-book thing, it provides something that feels safe that is inherently not. That’s the weird part about the whole thing.
Hawke: I didn’t know I had to be on this treadmill going so fast forever or else I’m perceived as a loser.
Ransone: I would venture to guess that even Travolta to this day still doesn’t feel safe. I don’t think he’s like, “Got it, this is fine now. The money is going to keep coming in.” He’s like, what do I have to do to preserve whatever I did to be here?
Hawke: I got to work with Jack Lemmon when I was 18 and he was probably in his 70s and somebody asked him, “Why do you work so much?” and he said, “I’m convinced every job is the last one,” and people laugh but I really think he was right.
Ransone: If you could hang with Tom Cruise long enough, I bet if you got down to that place —
Hawke: What makes him go to the gym every morning.
Ransone: Yeah, because it could all go away at some point. This “Jack Reacher” movie may be the last thing.
West: And then there’s this thought that if your movie doesn’t make a billion dollars, it’s a failure. It’s no longer a movie, it’s just content.
Ransone: And it would be false for me to say that capital isn’t a reflection of the quality or success of a movie, but it can’t be the only metric and that’s where we are now.
Hawke: We are in a funny place where literally in my lifetime I’ve watched the rules completely change. When I was a kid, you had no idea how much money a movie made. And then you started to find out how much a movie made at the box office, they would put it in USA Today or something, and that would be interesting. I never saw it as a competition. Then came the internet and the metric of reviews, and it’s America making everything into a competition.
West: Jason, you and I have talked about this before, and I said that I can give you all the reasons why it’s good to be transparent, however I can also tell you why the weekend box-office stats and the ranking on Rotten Tomatoes has made everything worse because it has turned movies into sports. And I love sports, but it’s a different thing.
Hawke: I love sports, too, but I want one thing in my life where there is room for opinion. In sports, you either got a touchdown or you didn’t.
Ransone: And what’s even more terrifying is when you crack the nut on how things get made, they are so concerned about that final number that they don’t actually want to do it cheaper or in a different way and that’s what scares me is you’re jumping in place. Couldn’t we take less and take some creative risks? “Absolutely not because the bar is up here.”
West: It’s not a time when someone makes $10 million on a movie and goes, “Someone had a good day,” it’s “Hm, could have done better.” Billion is the number now.
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