Show me an artist who has a distinct vision and I'll fall in line like a soldier every time.
The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Sacrament—Ti West has a special pedigree in the horror trenches. With his new film In a Valley of Violence, the filmmaker changes course with a bare-bones throwback to a big bowl of Spaghetti Western. West’s distinctive ability to cleverly pivot genres and subvert tropes from unexpected angles gives his work its unmistakable flavor.
Ethan Hawke is Paul, a lone wanderer cutting a path through a near-destitute mining outpost of Denton, Texas, towards Mexico with his loyal canine Abbie (Jumpy the dog). Not long after rolling into a dusty saloon, he runs afoul of a passel of miscreants led by local ruffian Gilly (James Ransone)—a dickwad of the highest order—who just can’t help himself. Pestered to the point of violence, Paul triggers a chain reaction that ultimately puts the gloomy drifter on a revenge quest on the whole settlement, including its hard-nosed marshal Clyde (John Travolta). In a Valley of Violence is a studious disciple of a time-tested oater, stripping its gunslinger plot down to the most essential pillars with peripheral surprises in tow: Abrupt humor, blood-gushing punctuations of violence, and a sharp Morricone-indebted score. West’s bag of tricks expectedly runs deep, and it’s thrilling to watch the guy expand his scope and tighten his authorial grip on genre filmmaking.
To take us inside In a Valley of Violence for the latest edition of This Course is Ransone. The objective of this ongoing series of food and talk is to keep things transparent. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance over coffee at Café Standard in the East Village, where we discuss a myriad of things, including the actor’s early years, words to live by, and West’s retrofitted Western.
In a Valley of Violence opens in select theaters on October 21.
I finally got around to seeing the movie last night, so it’s fresh in my mind.
Did you watch it by yourself?
I did. On my laptop…
That sucks! If you watch it in the theater, a lot more people laugh. It’s a weird movie because people wonder, “Is it serious? Am I allowed to laugh?” The tone shifts and it’s idiosyncratic.
Also, it’s beautifully shot on 35mm and the score opens up so much of that world.
Yeah, Jeff Grace [the film's composer] is really good.
A lot of male actors want to do a Western at some point. It’s a common answer to that lazy question, “What is your dream role?” Did you grow up playing cowboys and indians?
[Laughs] I’m not like that. I just wanted to work with Ti [West]. We’ve been friends for a while. We’ve known each other for a long time, so that’s really why I wanted to do it.
How did you guys first meet?
Ti and I met on a general meeting at Cafe Mogador, here in the city. I hadn’t even seen The House of the Devil. He told me how he took his name off Cabin Fever 2 because they took his cut away from him. He was in his 20s and I was like, “Wow!” That’s a ballsy move and I want to work with people who have a specific vision. Whether people like it or dislike it doesn’t matter to me as long as it’s very specific. He was the sort of person I would entrust myself with because he knows what he’s doing. It’s like, “We’re going to take your movie away from you if you don’t cut it the way we want it,” and he’s like, “Then take my name off of it.” People in Hollywood don’t like that and you get a bad reputation for doing it. That doesn’t make it right, though. It just means that the filmmaker didn’t do what the system wanted them to do. I’ll always side with the filmmaker over the system. Even if I find that they’re in the wrong sometimes—not Ti specifically—I’ll always side with the artist over the system. It’s a vow that I took a long time ago and I have no intention of going back. It doesn’t make me right, or make them wanting to make money wrong. It’s just my position. Show me an artist who has a distinct vision and I’ll fall in line like a soldier every time.
He wrote this part for you, didn’t he?
Yeah, he did. But I don’t like horses. People really love them and I just think they’re moody and crazy animals. So I’m like, “No, thanks. I’m good. I’m good with a car.”
When Ti gave you the material, what was your first impression of Gilly and the overall text?
I just thought it would be fun to play a bad guy. My first reaction is always that it’s more fun to do that than play the good guy. Then after I’m done, I’m always like, “Did I just sort of do the same thing that I always do?” I guess that’s sort of what goes through my mind. I think Ti tried to write to my strengths, seeing what he saw me do on The Wire. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but at a certain point, it can get boring, you know what I mean? It gets boring.
You want the variety.
Right, and so does everybody else. I don’t care what it is, but I’m not saying I would like to play Thor or something like that. I just want something that’s outside of the repetition.
You also like to play up the comedy. You’ve said this numerous times in past interviews.
That’s the part of it I really like. I’m kind of naturally a ridiculous person so it comes easy to me.
In a Valley of Violence is Ti’s first stab at a Western, but his stamp is very much there. It’s quintessentially a Ti West film. The genre doesn’t seem to mar his vision much.
Well, there are funny moments in The House of the Devil, too. Lena Dunham is in The Innkeepers where she plays this coffee person who talks too much. I like that Ti shifts tones a lot, you know what I mean? It makes for unexpected moments. Then when you’re just on set performing, you can get into a more relaxed rhythm like, “Let’s see if this is going to be funny here.”
The writing is interesting because it’s so contemporary and nestled in a Western. There’s also a very specific cadence to Ti’s humor that comes through in the dialogue.
Karen Gillan came over to my house early on to rehearse the scene where she tells Gilly that she’s pregnant. She did it in the same way that she did it in the movie and I just couldn’t stop laughing in the middle of it. It’s like, “You guys are in the most intense situation in the entire world and your girlfriend brings something completely irrelevant to the dialogue.” Who doesn’t relate to that? Why are you having some spousal argument in the middle of the most insane situation? [Laughs]
There are slapstick moments, too, which was surprising to me. But it works. I’m thinking specifically about the scene where John Travolta gets caught in the crossfire.
Ti was like, “I don’t know if this is going to work…” There are a couple of those slapstick moments. Ti and I watched a bunch of movies together. I think the thing he really went for was The Shining. If you watch that movie, the performances are really good, but they’re also really ridiculous. If you were to take a scene out of context from The Shining, they’re insane and don’t make any sense in terms of naturalism. They’re really fascinating to watch, right? They’re captivating. It wasn’t necessarily something we were trying to replicate, but there’s something so off-putting about performing in that hyper-elevated, past the point of realism and absurdity into something else kind of way. I think that’s what I was always trying to go for. How do we push this so far outside the bounds of reality that the performance gets interesting?
You shot this in New Mexico for 22 days?
In Santa Fe, in 22 days. It was cool. Santa Fe is interesting. A lot of really grouchy, old people making bad art there—it’s really beautiful. Then there’s Taos, an awesome hippie town where Dennis Hopper lived, which is just north of that. Yeah, New Mexico is great.
The set was already there?
That was Tom Ford’s ranch. I don’t know if he owned it when we shot there, but he owned that ranch at a certain point. So that set was pre-built. I think it’s the same set from 3:10 to Yuma.
This movie is sort of theatrical, isn’t it? Everything is pared down. You have the desolate landscapes and the forgotten town of Denton is bare-bones. It’s like the stage almost.
You realize that you’re watching a movie. I think I get a little upset sometimes when I watch modern stuff where they’re trying to make it so real that it becomes boring. Look—not everything’s going to do that, but film and watching movies or even television is supposed to be an experience that alters your consciousness. It’s supposed to alter your state of consciousness, like taking LSD or taking mushrooms. So if that’s sort of what we’re supposed to go for, then why would anybody want to make something that feels real? What’s the point?
Tell me about working with Jumpy. What an extraordinary dog.
I’m more impressed by Jumpy’s relationship to his trainer and owner, Omar [von Muller].
They have a complete understanding of each other, right?
Yeah! These are two different species! That’s amazing. Yes, the dog is smart. Dolphins are really smart. But to watch this thing go back and forth between these two species is incredible. Omar was doing this thing where he would take change out of his wallet, make Jumpy smell it, put his hand over Jumpy’s eyes, throw the coins into a field, and have Jumpy go find it.
It’s been two years since you shot the film and it’s coming out now. Are you a patient person?
They wait just long enough that you don’t care anymore. [Laughs] I didn’t used to be patient, but I’m getting better at it. I think the waiting around is one of the more difficult things because a lot of it depends on whether the movie gods are smiling on you. Who knows if it’s ever going to be a success or a failure? Again, as much as these corporations try to make something succeed or fail, they don’t know. You put a certain amount of money into the advertising and so on and so forth to try and profit, but there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees with anything any of us do. The only time I should be excited is when I’m making it, like, “We got here and we get to make it.” Whatever comes out after that is just icing on the cake. Success or failure? It doesn’t matter.
We were originally supposed to meet to discuss Tangerine. That was such a great film.
Making movies can not be fun. It’s a really great job and it’s really easy, for any of us who get to make movies and should be so lucky. But it’s not always fun. Tangerine was actually really fun. Everyone was having a pretty good time on that. It’s not always like that, unfortunately.
Did you have fun making the Sinister movies?
Sinister was different than Sinister 2. On Sinister, I came in, said a bunch of dumb lines, and left. Sinister 2 was a bit different because we shot it in Chicago and it wasn’t easy. There were problems with that shoot and none of that was creative. It was just a hard shoot and cursed in a bunch of ways from the beginning. Our director got bit by a brown recluse [spider] and other bad things would happen. It’s not like I don’t think about that experience fondly, but it wasn’t an easy shoot.
I’m sure you’ve discussed this a lot, but was it difficult to shed Ziggy from The Wire? It seemed like people had a very visceral reaction to that character. A lot of vitriol.
There was a big delay. There was a six-year delay from when I shot it to when the show went into the Zeitgeist. Maybe I would’ve processed it differently had the reaction sort of followed when it initially aired. It was weird because six years of your life is a long time and people change. You have all new cells in your body! [Laughs] You’re a completely new person. People would be like, “Ziggy!” and I’d be like, “What?!” It was just weird. The way that Hollywood works is that, just because people were starting to pay attention to it then, it doesn’t mean I was going to get more roles. The only way it works is when you shoot it, it comes out, and it’s a big hit. Then you get some heat and more work. So I didn’t even get the benefit of more work after it. I think that’s kind of the hard thing to reconcile. If I’m going to put up with people yelling “Ziggy!” at me, I’d at least like to make some more money. The town had already moved on, you know?
I know you grew up in Baltimore. What were you like as a kid?
Sensitive. Baltimore is a weird place. When I was an adolescent, I was into the band Rush and playing Dungeons & Dragons. When I got to art school, I started taking a lot of acid and got turned onto punk music. That was a real Earth-shattering moment for me. I was like, “This makes a lot more sense for my ethos right now.” But, yeah, I was always like a sensitive kid.
Did you get a lot out of art school?
Art school and high school saved my life. It’s a more holistic approach to learning. It’s creative problem solving. It’s not like, learn these facts, memorize them, multiple choice, and pass and fail. You’re not judged for those things in art school. I needed that experience. Art and art school and the kids that I went to art school with that were damaged weirdos in some ways probably saved my life. I probably would’ve ended up killing myself with drugs, freaking out. I didn’t have an easy run when I was an adolescent. But no one does! Adolescence sucks. Adolescence is the worst.
You have a film called Mosaic on the horizon with Steven Soderbergh. This particular project seems to be shrouded in a lot of secrecy at the moment. It’s interactive?
I was supposed to not talk about that, but someone put that on my IMDB page. I don’t really want to talk about the project that much, but the way it works is that it’s a dimensional way of telling stories. It’s not a choose-your-own-adventure, but I think it’ll be really interesting to see how people interface with it. I think it’s a totally new way of telling stories. It’s completely new. I don’t know when that’s coming out. Steven just finished Logan Lucky with Channing [Tatum]. Aside from Ti—I think it’s just because Ti and I are friends—Steven is literally my most favorite person that I’ve worked with. I’ve never wanted another director to like me as a person more.
You’ve worked with some killer directors like Sean Baker, Spike Lee—three times with him—John Waters, Paul Haggis… How do you define your relationship to directors?
The common thread that I see amongst directors is that they’re not incredibly great communicators one-on-one. They’re trying to express what they’re feeling via moving images and stories. They have this innate need to express themselves, but they can’t do it via language and so do it via images. I find that’s, across the board, the common thread with a lot of the guys that I work with. It’s not that they’re bad communicators, but you can really hear what they’re saying more clearly as told in a visual language. I try not to think about my relationship in terms of them directing me as much as I try to think about, “What’s your vision and how can I best serve you to line up with whatever it is you’re trying to do?” That’s it. My opinions about the lens and all that shit doesn’t matter. I just have to believe that they already have their bases covered. They have thought about it more than I have so I’m like, “What more can I do here to help you?” The only time that I’m allowed to flex in terms of my opinions is if I’m doing theater. Everything else is, “Where do you want me to stand and how do you want me to say it? I’m here for you, dude.”
Do you have any desire to direct?
No, I don’t. But I started writing in the last couple of years. Ti and I might be making something together that I just wrote. That will be an interesting path for me because I’m writing stuff that I’m specifically not going to be in. I’m just writing to make it as a writer. I’ve had some pretty positive responses from a lot of people about it, which is gratifying because writing is an entirely different, scary, awful, and shitty process. It’s just you when you write. It’s all you. We’ll see how that goes.
What’s the project?
It’s a TV show that’s in the process of getting sold already. But I don’t know if it’s going to get made because, again, the movie gods have to smile on you to get anything made. It’s a lo-fi, sci-fi that takes place eight years in the future, about consciousness. A lot of it relates to the police state and post-traumatic stress. It’s pretty psychedelic. I tend to write a lot about politics and power.
What words do you live by these days? What really centers you?
“Do nothing.” Anytime I have an impulse to try and control, it’s wrong. I’m just a vehicle for awareness to express itself. I’m into meditation and altered states of consciousness. If you meditate for long enough, you can ask yourself, “Who’s having this experience?” You won’t find anything. You’ll find no me in there. And not like, “Do nothing. Be lazy.” It’s, “Stop thinking.”