CLICK ABOVE FOR PHOTOS FROM THE SET OF THE INNKEEPERS
Outside the Yankee Pedlar Inn in northern Connecticut, the sun is setting, but inside the century-old hotel a grandfather clock ticks away the graveyard shift. Above a dormant fireplace, the eyes of a mounted deer look out on the spacious lobby, almost comically resigned to its surroundings. A grand piano sits in the corner. Framed black-and-white portraits of deceased tenants and old newspaper articles ("Kennedy Murdered!") hang on the walls. There's a cozy forebodingness in the lobby's silence and layout, as if the surrounding objects might simultaneously levitate and partake in a tenebrous dance. And moreover, in the center of the room, next to a sidetable crowded in Schlitz empties, there lies a body under a white sheet.
Down a nearby hallway, the approaching voice of a young man booms "Show yourself, spirit!" The covered body remains still under the light of a chandelier. Again, louder. "I said, show yourself spirit!" And this time, the body rises, lurching its arms forward and emitting a feminine "Woooo! Grooohhooo!" Except, rather than succumbing to terror, the man begins to laugh at his assailant, who has tripped and fallen over a pillow. As it turns out, we are observing two innkeepers in a drunken bout of freak-each-other-out. Of the nine or so crew members standing nearby, one yells "Cut," as actress Sara Paxton proceeds to remove the bed sheet and rub her backside.
This is the future of the American horror film, stylishly envisioned by 29-year-old writer-director Ti West, best known for last year's delectable scarefest The House of the Devil. His latest, entitled appropriately enough The Innkeepers, is not only shooting on location at the storied haunted hotel where the story is set, the entire cast and crew is living, eating, and sleeping here for the duration. West personally invited Interview to experience what this was like. Order several Bushmills from the hotel bar, wander the hotel's creaky halls and shadowy rooms, and spend the night, wide awake.
After watching several takes of the above scene, we had to ask, "Dude, seen anything?" West half-smiled. Two years ago, his producers originally booked rooms at the Yankee Pedlar for West and his crew for the production of The House of the Devil, shot several miles away. "They told us, 'We found a hotel, it's [reasonably priced] and pretty cool,'" says West. "But when I checked in, having known nothing about it, I immediately thought, 'This fucking place is weird.' I remember everyone in the crew being surprised too, rolling their eyes. [laughs] They thought we were staying at, like, a Best Western. Because that's usually what it's like. And it tends to suck. A lot of us generally felt the hotel was creepy. After a few nights, I started talking with the staff here and that's when I heard about the ghost stories. I don't believe in ghosts, but weird shit did happen." (PHOTO: PAT HEALY, TI WEST)
Enough so, West says, that he was inspired to start a script during the stay about two employees who may or may not be experiencing a paranormal encounter on the eve of the inn's closure. "Since we've returned, lights have turned off and on by themselves in my room. My phone rang and no one was on the line, which the hotel staff says happens all the time. There are nights when I wake up in my room and it feels like somebody is in there." Yeah, we tease, and this makes for kooky press. "Yeah, but when I'm on other movies or I'm at home, it's never like this. Then again, I'm working 12-to-15 hour days, so it's hard to say. Ask around, though. Almost everyone [in tbe cast and crew] is having really fucked up nightmares and vivid dreams. Let me know if you guys do. It's a strange place."
Throughout the two-day visit, we never experience blanketed chills or a melting corpse in the bathroom mirror, but there is amusement in deciphering which aspects of the hotel's admitted eeriness are attributed to age, and which are the work of production designer Jade Healy. (We find out a week later, for instance, that the bookcase was constructed for the lobby scenes. "I wanted to create an austere look for the hotel, a more somber mood," says Healy. "I think Ti specializes in a sense of timelessness and that sets him apart [for horror]. That's what I strive for, and why we click.") "It's kind of like summer camp in a party house," says Paxton, who plays Claire, a slackerish employee and one of the two main characters. "I've had really bad dreams here though, and I keep waking up at 3 a.m. sitting straight up," she says while on a break, with a certain seriousness. "And at night my bathroom door has flown open and smacked against the wall, even though all the windows were closed. The weirdest thing is that a stranger Tweeted me and told me not to stay on the third floor. But of course that's where my room is. I decided not to ask him why."
Expectations and anticipation for The Innkeepers are already running high ahead of its release in early 2011, spurred by positive word of mouth from The House of the Devil. Since its premiere at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, Devil has continued to gain notices from older critics, who typically shun and bemoan the genre, and 20-something moviegoers fed up with Hollywood's endless bottom-feeder horror retreads. The film's subtle '80s period detail was free of irony and swoon-worthy (a comely babysitter in high-waisted jeans, a scuffed Walkman, a shimmy to The Fixx), but it was West's composition, Hitchcockian silhouettes and suspense posited in the patient paranoia of Tenant-era Polanski, that signaled real promise.
With The Innkeepers, West is primarily working again in a labyrinthine indoor setting that compliments his classic, minimalist aesthetic and indie budget, but he says the similarities end there. For one, it's not a period piece. "The movie is set in modern day, and it's about a hotel that's going out of business," says West. "So there exists a conflict between the old and crafty versus the new. It's very much the opposite of The House of the Devil because there are computers and a tech element. I shot [Devil] using 16mm [film] to make it look period. Here I'm using 35mm. It's still a classic narrative ghost story, but it's more character driven. Whereas before I focused on [a single babysitter], I think people will watch this movie repeatedly not to see how the story unfolds, but because they like the main characters." West also emphasized the mystery and comedy angle, which he feels makes his latest more commercial. "There's more banter and humor and more gags, but I also feel it's scarier. I was watching dailies the other day with [West's frequent cinematographer Eliot Rockett], and neither of us could find a proper comparison."
Later, we spoke to Pat Healy, a character actor (Magnolia, Ghost World) who has recently become a buzzing Hollywood screenwriter (Gangland, In Treatment): "I play Luke [the other innkeeper]. He fashions himself a computer whiz and an expert on ghosts...Luke runs this half-assed website about the hotel's hauntings, but he doesn't have enthusiasm for it until Sara's character comes along. She's sincerely interested, and Luke sort of has feelings for her. There's a charming unrequited love thing, like a Pretty in Pink."
He added: "My character is actually loosely based around a nightshift employee, also named Luke, and another guy. They said they've seen plates in the lobby fly off the walls. I don't ask a lot of questions, because these stories tend to unravel. [laughs] As you've seen, there's not much to do in town, so [cast members] don't go out much and tensions can get a bit frayed. After a while, the hotel gets under your skin. I think Ti might have expected that. He's exploring a psychological line. And the way he has filmed it, really the way he's editing it, you're going to be a participant. People are going to be freaked out."
After he finishes editing The Innkeepers, West is keeping his options open and may consider helming a studio project. His previous brush with the Hollywood system is of the cautionary mold, resulting in a movie he requested his name be taken off of (Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever). And there was a brief attachment to a studio project with a much bigger budget (The Haunting of Georgia). "We'll see," says West. "I'd like to do another $40 million project, that would be cool, but I'd want to do it my way. I hope to make a creepy space sci-fi movie soon. I guess Moon could be a recent reference point, but Alfonso Cuaron is making a film called Gravity [with Robert Downey, Jr.] that might pwn me. And I think [my project] might evaporate because of Gravity. I have another movie about hookers that I've been trying to make for a while. It's a road trip, these hookers on the run, sort of a Thelma & Louise vibe, and I have another film that's a weird romantic comedy. But those are harder to get made, because you need more money for them. With horror movies, there's always an audience."
There have also been loose talks between West and Rough House Pictures, the ambitious and irreverent company founded by Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green (The Foot Fist Way, Pineapple Express). When I was down in Puerto Rico recently to visit the set of their HBO series, Eastbound & Down, those guys confirmed as much. Healy shared that he has a script parked at Rough House as well, entitled Buffalo Groove. "I know with House of the Devil, some big people within the industry took note of what Ti did," says Healy. "I think this one could put him over the top more than a little bit."
The Innkeepers will be released early next year.