Interview: Why 'In A Valley Of Violence' Director Ti West Loves Opening Title Sequences

Director Ti West tries his hand at a new genre with In a Valley of the Violence. The director of The House of the DevilThe Innkeepers, and The Sacrament has made a Western with attitude and plenty of personality. The revenge tale stars Ethan Hawke as Paul, a dangerous and tortured loner seeking revenge. He'll stop at nothing to get his hands on his dog's killers, Gilly (James Ransone) and his gang.

Paul's motivation couldn't be cleaner or more to the point. In a Valley of Violence is a blast of simplicity. This isn't a movie that wastes any time, as West's story builds towards a bloody, darkly funny finale that puts John Travolta to great use as a hilariously sympathetic antagonist. West, who typically makes audiences squirm, has crafted his most crowd-pleasing film to date.

The writer-director recently spoke with us about Jeff Grace's score, Ethan Hawke and John Travolta's performances, Neal Jonas' striking opening credits, and his love for opening title sequences. Below, read our Ti West interview.

When Paul is talking to his dog Abby, those are the kind of scenes that easily could've been dull if you didn't have an actor who can hold your attention on their own. I know you wrote In a Valley of Violence with Ethan Hawke in mind. What made you first think of him for the role?

I've just always been a fan. I think he has a really interesting sensibility. I've always liked everything he's done. Making a Western, I just thought, Who would be good for this? Then I pictured him. I knew he knew [producer] Jason Blum, so maybe Jason would be into it and could set it up, which he did. I went to New York to pitch the film to Ethan, and he dug it.

To your point about his scenes with Jumpy, it was very surreal. The scene with the campfire, which is one long take of him acting with the dog, that's not in movies, you know what I mean? Jumpy is just in there acting with him. Even before that one long take they're sitting up and there are over-the-shoulder shots of Jumpy, and they're talking like it's a person. I haven't seen that in movies. From an actor's standpoint, what an odd, bizarre thing to commit to a performance sincerely where you're not doing a monologue, and you're also not with someone to talk to. To act with each other is really fascinating, and it was a pleasure for both of us to explore that, to transcend the day-to-day acting and directing.

The film reveals more information about Paul as the story goes along. When you started writing the script, did you have an entirely clear visual of the character or did you discover new ideas about him during the writing process? 

A little bit of both. I knew who he was and what the story was. As you write, put them in rooms, and have them start talking, you kind of figure out more things about the characters. When I pitched it to Ethan I was talking about this guy who has PTSD and all of this other stuff. I knew the gist of it and where it was going, but yeah, the esoteric details start to come out as you write it.

In a Valley of Violence has strong character introductions. How did you want to establish Paul and the tone of the movie? 

For me, people often use the term slow-burn. Personally, I like to settle into movies, and that's why I like long title sequences. I like the slow-burn first half of movies because I like to really sink in and feel out who everybody is and where everybody is. Once you have a comfortable sense, whenever the movie goes to where it's going to, I'm sort of invested and intrigued. For me, this was a very character-driven and performance-driven movie. I just thought this was a case of we're going to introduce everybody in ways that define who they are. You need to know at least who you think these people are. For me, it was about setting up archetypes you're familiar with and when faced with violence, they don't act like archetypes. You had to get a sense of who they were for that to work.

With the Marshall, it's funny just seeing two adversaries completely understanding where each other are coming from. That's not what you expect from a villainous archetype. 

Right. Yeah, this movie has a big, dark sense of humor, but with the Marshall character, that was the thing: he's seen more violence than anyone else in this town. He knows it's not worth it, but he knows he has to do what he's gotta do. I think that's an interesting dynamic, and John Travolta always got that. He really embraced those idiosyncratic details about the character; he's so fun to watch.

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Especially the scene where he tries to comfort one of Gilly's men. What do you recall most about shooting that scene and, just in general, your collaboration with John Travolta? 

Since I wrote the movie, he was always very interested in the ideas you had while writing it. Like, he'll ask, "Did you have an idea in mind for how this was going to play out, how this would sound, or how this would be?" You'll say like, "Nah, do your thing," but if you do have something specific in mind, he wants to know about it, and he wants to try it.

That was a scene specifically based on timing. We talked about it. I remember saying to John, "This is what I'm thinking, but by no means do we have to do it this way." In my head, he ad-libbed the Larry line, which is hysterical, but I wanted the moment of him saying, "Get away from the goddamn window." It was a whole thing. He'd go, "Oh, let me show it to you." He'd do it and embrace playing with that.

He sees how you're going to cut it and manipulate it. That's the most fun actor to work with because they're completely in character and dedicated to making it authentic, but they also are aware someone is making the movie. Travolta wants to know what I'm planning in these scenes because then he can be better for it. That's why he's been around for so long. That's why he's so good at it: he can see all these things at the exact same time. That was a real joy to do that scene.

It's hard for me to watch my own movies playing if they're at a festival, but I'll always try to poke my head in during that scene. 100% of the time it's a tremendous reaction and a big applause. I love it. I think Tommy Nohilly is so fantastic in that scene. I think it's a lot of what the movie is about. Even the scene that follows with Ethan and John is just funny to me, seeing them be honest people, not archetypes. That was something fun to explore in the Western.

Was it a relatively straightforward process planning out the logistics of that final shootout or was it difficult?

It was simple because I kind of had planned it that way. I used to think it was just low-budget movies, but now I think it's big-budget movies that... Because everybody is so ADD and everybody is trying to move the plot so fast, there's very little sense of geography in movies anymore. I think that's a disservice to the movie. When you know where everybody is, it creates suspense and a larger scale for the movie.

It's important to let everybody understand where people are at in the movie, in the sense of the landscape. You need people to invest in this world, so you need to give a sense of who, what, and where things are. We worked very hard at that, particularly because it's a Western. Iconography-wise, geography is a big part of the genre. I want you to know where everybody is, but when you don't, it makes you nervous. That also puts you in the mindset of the characters who don't know where the people are. We worked hard at it, but it was so in the DNA of the movie, that it wasn't hard, per se.

I have to ask about Jeff Grace's score. What sort of mood did you both want the music to help create? 

The first conversation we had was about how this movie needed a bold identity, and the score needs to be a part of it. Anyone who sees this movie needs to talk about the music. It has to be a part of the conversation, so this was really a time to shine, go big, and really make something iconic. I really think he went above and beyond. When he first sent me the theme, which is in the opening titles, I immediately could visualize the opening titles. To me, when you watch a Hitchcock movie and as soon as the Bernard Hermann score comes in, you're aware. You know it's there. The music is larger than life; it's a part of the movie's identity. Jeff and I wanted a part of the music to bit its identity.

Plus, based on the opening scene and the opening credits, you'll immediately know whether it's your kind of movie.

Yeah, that was the thing. When you sit down you're either in or you're not. If you're in, then you kind of get a primer for the experience. That's why I love title sequences: as a director, I can prime you for the type of headspace you should be in to best appreciate what's going to follow. If you're not into the opening scene or the opening credits of this movie, I don't know if I'll win you over. I might, and I'll try real hard. If you're charmed by the opening scene and the opening credits, then the chances are the movie is going to work for you.

Do you have any particular favorite opening title credits sequences?

There must be so many, but I'm trying to think of one I've seen recently. Who's had good titles recently? Well, certainly the Hitchcock and the Saul Bass stuff comes to mind. Recently, it's not really a great art as much anymore. People don't really focus on it as much. I think Alex Ross Perry had some pretty cool ones recently. Queen of Earth had some pretty cool titles. When a movie does have a great title sequence, I always get excited, but there hasn't been as many of those recently. I think Neal has made the best title sequence of the year, and I will still stand by that. If nothing else, this movie should be recognized for that.

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In a Valley of Violence opens in theaters and is available on VOD on October 21st.