Ti West’s latest movie took him out of the horror genre into Tom Ford’s backyard.
After making his mark in the indie horror genre, West decided to tackle the most traditional of cinematic American genres, the Western. Starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta, “In a Valley of Violence” is a revenge tale influenced by the aesthetics of Spaghetti Westerns. West wrote the script with Hawke in mind for the leading role. “I pitched him the idea, and he sort of dug it,” West recalls. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna go write the script, and I’ll send it to you. If you don’t like it, don’t worry about it, we’ll never talk about it again. But if you do like it, let’s make this.'”
Hawke jumped on board and West found a secondary leading actor in John Travolta, who plays a mustachioed town marshal. “Travolta got the script and liked it, and wanted to meet and have dinner,” West said. “It was a supersurreal evening, he was such a wonderfully nice, smart, great guy, who totally got the script on every level. He got the humor of the script — all of it,” he continued. “I think John Travolta likes character roles, and this is one that he can kind of disappear into.”
The cast also includes James Ransone, and Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan as bickering sisters, who add a dose of feminism to an otherwise male-heavy genre.
In the movie, which opened Friday, Hawke’s character is Paul, a loner ex-soldier who wanders into a dusty, deteriorating mining town on his way to Mexico. There, he encounters a local gang, led by the son of the town’s marshal. Much of the plot line is driven by a sense of cabin fever and machismo within the town. “Hopefully you see the characters act in certain ways, and you can relate to it — that’s the goal, and even with the violence in this movie,” West said. “I think all these people are really desperate for something better, and they’re all making pretty poor choices in how to go about it.”
The film’s most central character, however, doesn’t have any lines. When Paul’s loyal sidekick, Jumpy the dog, is killed by the marshal’s son in the middle of the night, Paul abandons his reserve for violence and returns to the town to exact revenge. West noted that his decision to use the (impressively trained) dog as a catalyst for action instead of, say, a romantic interest, is partly due to the oversaturation of violence in film.
“As audiences, we’re so desensitized to violence,” West explained. “However, the threat of the dog in this movie makes everyone incredibly uncomfortable,” he continued. “When you see something happen to an animal, it kind of wakes you back up to ‘Oh, this is actually awful.'”
The Western and horror genres are both tethered to violence, although West noted that his approach is not to use violence as a cinematic device for shock value alone, but is instead an exploration of “how violence affects people and how they deal with it.”
“Everyone is in way over their heads and they don’t handle the situation like they would in a movie at all, they handle it like dips–ts in real life,” he explained of the characters in his film. “That was always the interesting idea to me, finding this weird clumsy sense of realism in a very archetypal situation.” Also, “because it’s a revenge movie, suspense plays a part in it,” he explained. “I think I’m most interested in suspense more than anything else.”
And where does Tom Ford come into the picture? “In a Valley of Violence” built out an existing Western film set located on the Cerro Pelon Ranch in New Mexico, which is owned by the designer-movie director. “Basically there are about three Western sets in the country that are left over from other movies,” West explained. “They kind of get cannibalized — another movie will come in and knock down buildings and put up a new church or whatever. They’re going through various stages of disarray.”
This particular set has been used previously for films such as “Silverado,” “Wild Wild West” and “3:10 to Yuma.” In the vein of traditional cinema, West also chose to shoot using 35 millimeter film. “I just had this feeling that if we had shot it on video, the very first frame would look like either a reenactment or like the behind-the-scenes of a movie, not a real movie,” West explained. “I’ve shot all my movies on film for the most part, and I’ll try to keep doing it as long as it’s around.”
Or for as long as he’s around making movies. West has a few other projects in the works, including a horror TV series, a sci-fi film, a Sixties “hippie” story and an old-fashioned horror movie. “We’ll see! Those things or it could be none of those things,” West said, knocking on a wooden table. “You have to [have a lot of projects in the works] because most of them will evaporate into thin air.”