Writer-director Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) trades in his Ghostbuster gear for religious fanaticism in his latest film, The Sacrament. Produced by horror icon Eli Roth, The Sacrament sends two journalists -- played by frequent Ti West collaborators AJ Bowen (You’re Next) and Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) -- to a rural cult just outside the United States as they document one man’s (Kentucker Audley, V/H/S) search for his estranged sister (Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color).
Prior to The Sacrament’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, we were able to have a quick chat with Ti West about cults, his regular collaborations with other genre filmmakers, and Jonestown.
SJ: How does it feel to be a member of the horror equivalent of a Christopher Guest troupe? You've worked with Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen many times before. Can you explain your regular collaborations with the Swanberg, Bowen and Adam Wingard?
Ti West: Perhaps you could call us a cult? It's funny; I actually explained to someone recently that the style of The Sacrament is a little bit like a horror Christopher Guest film.
As far as the collaboration goes, I think when you come up doing everything yourself, you just want to be surrounded by talented people who have the film’s best interest in mind. We can trust each other and we can all offer our own unique sensibilities to each other's projects. But nobody is trying to hijack the movie for their own benefit. For instance, in The Sacrament, Joe, AJ, Amy, Kate [Lyn Sheil], and Kentucer are all there to be in my movie, and to help make it as good as they can. They all understand what I am going for and believe in that, as opposed to having their own agenda. When you have those types of relationships, you then develop shorthand communication, and the process becomes very simple and efficient. I think we make great movies together, and also enjoy each others company. Makes it well worth it.
SJ: Are we right to assume that "Father", the leader of the cult in The Sacrament, was inspired by Jim Jones, who led hundreds to a mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978?
TW: He was a prototype for the kind of cult leader I was after. I updated many of his ideologies -- as well as changed a lot of the dynamics between him and his followers to sort of form my own new cult -- but there are numerous instances, references to Jim Jones, as well as as other famous cults, cult leaders in the film as well. I tried to encapsulate a lot of historical familiarities to give the audience something to latch on to and think about.
SJ: There have been quite a few cult themed films in recent years, like Martha Marcy May Marlene, Kill List and even The Master. Were there any films that influenced you while directing?
TW: Not directly. I like all those films though. Basically, if there was any specific influence, it was Jonestown. I have always been deeply fascinated with the People's Temple and what happened in Guyana. I didn't want to tell that story exactly, but I wanted to use that story as a reference point because I think it is misunderstood by too many people. I also feel like a lot of what led people to Guyana in the 1970s is still relevant today.
SJ: How did you approach the topic of religious fanaticism within the confines of genre filmmaking?
TW: Honestly, I never considered the confines. That may be why some people are hesitant to label the film a tradition horror film and lean on the psychological thriller angle. To me, what is most important is a film that shows a cult as something more than mindless zombies. I want the audience to relate to the members of the community -- not be afraid of them. That is what makes the film horrific. These people don't deserve what happens to them.
SJ: Several of your movies involve people being terrorized in a rural or unfamiliar setting. Why does this kind of scenario appeal to you?
TW: I think it likely has to do with existentialism. When you are in a rural or unknown place you quickly realize how small you are in the world. You realize that your safety is mostly up to you, and that responsibility can be overwhelming for a lot of people. There is nobody to call if you need help. You are forced to confront your fears, whether they are physical or psychological.
SJ: Eli Roth (also at the Festival for The Green Inferno) is one of The Sacrament's producers. How did that come about?
TW: Eli was looking to produce a new film with Eric Newman; They had just done The Last Exorcism. We have been friends for nearly ten years, and I randomly told him about this idea I had. He loved it and was adamant he could get it financed quickly. Turns out he was right. He brought the film to Worldview, and next thing I knew we were shooting. He has been a strong supporter of mine over the years and, as a producer, he was an ideal collaborator. He really helped create an environment where I could make my film the way I wanted and have all the resources and protection to do so. It's very exciting to be finally premiering the movie with him. I think it is fun for both of us to have a movie we are proud of that also subverts expectations of what people are used to seeing from us individually.
SJ: What films are you looking forward to watching at the Festival this year?
TW: The Double is one I really don't want to leave here without seeing.
Ti West's The Sacrament stars AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg, and premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival within the Vanguard programme. Further information about the film can be found on the Festival website.