X Director Ti West Wants You To Like The Victims In His New Slasher Movie [SXSW]

Ti West's "X" is a nasty little horror flick. And boy, it sure is a good time at the movies.

The director of "The House of the Devil," "The Innkeepers," and "The Sacrament" is back with another slow-burning tale of terror, where the tension builds and builds and builds until everything explodes with a geyser of gore and a trail of bodies. In this case, those bodies belong to a crew of filmmakers and actors hoping to shoot an adult film on an isolated farm in the Texas countryside in 1979. Things go smoothly until they don't, and the cast is forced to fight for their lives against adversaries whose motives are best left discovered by the viewer. But the results are grisly, darkly funny, and incredibly entertaining for horror fans willing to roll with West's trademark deliberate pacing (in the first half) and trademark relentlessness (in the back half).

I attended the SXSW premiere of "X," where the film played the sold-out audience like a fiddle: gasps, laughs, screams, etc. It's the complete package, and adventurous horror fans will especially enjoy it. A few days later, I was able to sit down with West over Zoom to talk about the movie, his inspirations, and an early drone shot that feels like a moment horror fans will be buzzing about once the film hits theaters.

'It's hard to get an audience to feel out of their element'

Congratulations on the film. The audience was packed, and seemed really into it.

Yeah. Were you at the South By Southwest screening?

I was. I feel like every moment was getting a reaction from the crowd.

That was the hope. That was the first time anyone had ever seen it. So I was pacing in the back because I finished the movie weeks ago. So I was just like, thank God. The whole movie was on the screen.

Was there a moment that played bigger than expected in terms of scares or laughs? There were a lot of screams and laughs.

It definitely is bigger than I expected. I mean, I would say thankfully, most things got the reactions I was hoping for, but when you put 300 people in there, it's a great course to it. I think without spoiling anything, there's a particular moment with [character name redacted for spoilers] at the very end and hearing everyone realize what was happening to him. As he fell over, I was, oh, everybody got it. There's a moment, and then you hear everybody get it. There was a great laugh and applause break for that. And that was pretty cool. And some of the things that happened to Jenna or Tay in this movie got a pretty raucous reaction. All in all, this movie's really meant to just be like a real good time at the movies. So I was really happy that everybody was laughing with it, screaming with it, that's the goal.

I think you put a certain level of trust in the audience with your filmmaking. You take your time and you let things simmer until things explode. How do you build that kind of trust with the audience, knowing that they will need to stick with you in order to understand the payoff?

Yeah. I mean... I don't know. Some people will and some people won't. More people will. For me, it's the only way I know how to make a movie and people always like slow burns and things like that. I think about how I watch movies and my love for movies and the way I look at movies when I watch them and what I need to get invested in the characters and the time and the place and the geography. And once I feel like I'm in the movie, then I can process whatever the movie's going to do. And so many times movies are in such a rush to get to whatever the big plot things are that I never really feel like I find a firm footing in a movie. So I think my taste is generally just to try to put people in this movie because movie's called "X," you have a pretty good idea going in to see it that not everyone's going to make.

And it's probably going to be pretty crazy. So that's going to happen, just like in... The movie's called "The House of the Devil" [one of West's earlier films]. Eventually, it's going to go down. And so I think like with "X," you know it's headed somewhere, but if I can help make you unsure of where it's going, then I think your enjoyment for the movie can just be so exponentially higher because everyone's really hip to horror movies now. So it's hard to get an audience to feel out of their element. And I think the best way to do that is to get them to relate to the movie.

'I wanted to make a movie about filmmaking'

I'm trying to dodge spoilers here, but the movie does a really fine job of burying the lead. When you gave the script out and people read it and realized what this movie's actually about, were there a lot of raised eyebrows?

The funny thing is, I'm sure a lot of that didn't get to me because people just wouldn't talk to me. I certainly think in this movie, like when it went out... The only people I sent it to was A24, so that was that. If they said, no, I don't think I would've made it. As far as casting, there were certain element of the movie that everyone was terrified I might be making. And then the movie that it actually was because someone gets a script and it's horror and porn and they think, why would you, how dare you send me something like this? And it's like, well, it's not what you think. But even sometimes people would read it and they would interpret it as a much like more nihilistic thing than it was.

Once you had conversations with people and if people liked the script, once we started talking about it, they got the sense of humor of it and they understood that this was like a fun movie, even though it's dark in the sense that it's like full of gore and murders. It really is a kind of weirdly optimistic spirited movie.

The movie's Texas setting is interesting, as the story feels like the state's culture war of taking stage in a most violent way possible. Was that all intentional with your choice to set it near Houston?

Yeah, that was definitely part of it, I mean, you could choose to put the movie anywhere. For me, it was about, in the '70s, horror and porn were two outsider genres you could make and be a filmmaker, but you didn't have to be part of Hollywood or anything like that. And to me, Texas made sense because there was a sort of entrepreneurial, like Americana spirit to it, and to the spirit of independent filmmaking. And then there's certainly the very vast difference between the cities and outside the cities. And it's not like that only in Texas, but it has a very particular charm and there's a particular fear that is associated with Texas. And then you have the Texas chainsaw thing looming over it, which I knew people would probably think, "Oh, I think I know what this movie is." And my hope is that it's like, you think that, but it's going to zig when you think it's going to zag and it's going to end up being something, not at all what you expect.

Going in, I thought, "Oh, is this Ti West doing Texas Chainsaw?" And the answer is ... not quite. And so I'm curious about the actual origin of this movie beyond that.

I wanted to make a movie about filmmaking and I didn't want to make a movie that took place in Hollywood. And I didn't want to make a movie about making a horror movie because that's too meta for my taste. And as I was saying, because adult movies, particularly in the '70s... Yes, they were porn, but you still had to film the rest of the movie then. And so it was like they were still movies, they just happened to have sex in them. And so to me, because of the sort of symbiotic relationship with between like horror and porn as these sort of outsider ne'er-do-well genres that went direct to consumers, it was a way for me to make a movie about filmmaking and get the audience to hopefully think about filmmaking. So when they were watching the movie I was making, they were maybe saying "ah, movies are cool and the craft of filmmaking is cool."

And I can see what they're doing with editing here because RJ [the director character in the film] was doing something in the movie and there's something similar happening in the movie I am doing. And that would just make people think about the craft of filmmaking as an extra level of hopeful. I don't know if appreciation is the right word, but just enjoyment, that you could walk out of this movie having a good time with it as a slasher movie, but also say "some of the moviemaking was cool" and then you may hopefully go "moviemaking is cool." I like movies that do that. Because I feel like I have a real reverence for the craft of cinema. And I think there's less of that culturally than there used to be.

'I just really wanted the movie to be charming'

Was making the director of the movie within the movie as the least put-together character a joke about filmmakers, or a joke about you?

It probably has a little bit of everything. I think mostly, what I wanted to do, what I wanted from RJ, I wanted it to be funny because making movies is sort of a ridiculous thing to do. If you look at the scenes he's shooting and whatever eroticism they have, and then when you see him making it, it's like the least erotic thing ever. That to me is a great insight into filmmaking because people often ask me "was it scary when you were making the movie?" And the answer is of course not. But in fairness to most people who are not on movies, how would you know? But it's a very common question. And so in the same way, I wanted to ... I don't know, break the fourth wall in that way and let the audience see what it's like to make something that a certain style that making it doesn't feel the same way seeing it feels.

But I also wanted RJ to be... I didn't want him to be like an idiot and I didn't want him to be a spoof of a filmmaker, I wanted it to be that the ceiling of the movie he's making, [this porn movie] can only be so good, but he is aiming for that ceiling. And he genuinely has seen "Breathless" and he does want to try to do this to get noticed. He's not necessarily wrong, he just is new to it. I feel like that's relatable to just not just filmmakers, but to anyone, like you have an opportunity to do something, it's not the ideal opportunity, but you try to make the best of it so that you can go on to be seen for who you want to be.

I think a lot of that nuance applies to the rest of characters. This is one of the more likable casts of victims I've seen in a bit. You feel terrible when they start to die.

Slasher movies often have uninteresting, unlikable characters who are just there for you to see their demise. And I wanted to put together an ensemble of people that you felt like were really friends and that you liked. So that way, you were nervous for their demise and you also would be like "There's no way so-and-so can die because they're too big of a part of this movie!" That to me lets the second half of the movie succeed because you're nervous that so-and-so is going to die versus just waiting for them to go through some sort of chopping block situation.

And I just really wanted the movie to be charming. I wanted you just be like, "I really like these people in this movie and I'm bummed that it's turning into this darker story and we're going to lose some of them, but I'm also excited about that." And that was really the goal — just to try to endear you to everything in the movie.

I want to ask about my favorite shot: a very high overhead shot of a woman swimming and an alligator coming in the view. It's simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. And it's like the world's darkest Far Side cartoon.

The origin of the shot is not particularly... There's not great story behind that other than that's just how I saw it being like. I didn't think of it like a Far Side thing, but that is the right way to describe it, where it's like, in one frame, you kind of get,it. It's very rich in what it is. And so I was just trying to think of "What would be a way to really show what this is in a very rich way that could make you nervous, make you scared, make you laugh, make you, I don't know, aesthetically pleased by it and whatnot?" And somehow we ended up with a drone 60 feet in the air, and that's how we did it.

"X" hits theaters on March 18, 2022.