Best known for his slow burn horror movies House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, writer-director Ti West ventures into the Wild West for his new film, In a Valley of Violence.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Westerns – it’s one of my favourite genres,” Ti West tells STACK. “I think as a filmmaker, it’s a uniquely cinematic genre and in the back of my head it was certainly one thing I wanted to do one day.”
In a Valley of Violence is a very traditional Western, in which a mysterious drifter (played by Ethan Hawke) is driven to exact vengeance upon the misfits of a small town following the murder of his beloved companion. With its quirky tone, black humour and oddball characters, the film is reminiscent of The Quick and the Dead, although West cites Spaghetti Westerns as a major influence.
“I’m a big Sam Raimi fan of course, and that movie is great, but I think directly I was affected by the Dollars Trilogy. High Plains Drifter and The Wild Bunch are in there as well,” he says. “There’s an absurdist nature to the Dollars Trilogy, a lot of absurdity to the filmmaking, and to me that’s cinema, when you can explore those things and go with the characters. To make a film too serious, in this case, it becomes a lesser movie and I’m not interested in preaching to anybody.”
West’s films have always been astutely cast, from character actors like Tom Noonan and Gene Jones in House of the Devil and The Sacrament, respectively, to Ethan Hawke and John Travolta in In a Valley of Violence.
“Casting is 85 per cent of directing, I think,” he offers. “Editing is the other ten and the last five is what I do. If you can cast the right people, you just take it from there. In the case of In a Valley of Violence, I wrote it with Ethan Hawke in mind because I’d met him and pitched him the idea. If we hadn’t got him, it may not have happened.”
In a Valley of Violence was Hawke’s second appearance in a cowboy hat for 2016, following The Magnificent Seven remake. But for Travolta, whose career spans four decades, it’s surprisingly his very first Western.
“When I met him he said he’d always wanted to do a Western,” recalls West. “He’d been looking for one and said that this was the first one that he’d wanted to do, which for me was a really cool experience. [The character] was there on the page but he Travolta-ed it and made it so much more engaging. It was surreal to watch him, to be honest.”
[Mild spoiler ahead] Revenge is a familiar trope of the genre and the catalyst for Hawke’s vengeance is the murder of his dog, which West agrees is something of a cardinal sin in a movie.
“I think we’re pretty desensitised to violence in movies; the most commercial films have entire cities destroyed and millions of people are killed and nobody thinks anything of it. But if you even threaten a dog or any kind of animal, the whole theatre turns.
“This movie is about how violence affects people, so I needed an act to really have a visceral feeling, and I knew that would do it.”
While his horror films have given him a reputation for favouring slow burn narratives, West says this isn’t the case with In a Valley of Violence.
“It’s a decent amount of time before the dog thing happens, but right from the very first frame it’s a Western. I always kind of joke that it can’t be slow burn because from the moment it starts, there’s the horse, there’s the hat, there’s everything, so we’re already in.
“I always feel like you have to spend time in a movie to care about the movie,” he adds. “By the time the plot kicks in, you’re invested in not just the characters and the story, but the aesthetic of the film and the tone. I don’t always feel the second half of movies work that well, so I always try and get you into that world in the first half.”