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The House of the Devil: Ti West and Jocelin Donahue

Horror cult fave Ti West brings us an homage to '80s horror, complete with Satanic rituals, unanswered phones, a big empty house, and newcomer Jocelin Donahue. Happy Hallow-scream!

The House of the Devil

Note: These interviews with director Ti West and star Jocelin Donahue were originally published as Faces of the Festival during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Since The House of the Devil is getting a theatrical release this week, we thought we'd repost just in time for Halloween.

Writer/director Ti West is a wunderkind—at 28, he already an impressive IMDB resume. Set to premiere at Tribeca, The House of the Devil is West’s third feature. The film is a sincere homage to ’80s horror fare, with classic elements including mysterious Satanic rituals, a big empty house in the woods, and unanswered landlines whose analog rings chill audiences to the bone.

West used to live in New York, but he moved to LA a few years ago. When we connected on the phone, he was in town with his non-’80s cellphone, and he explained, “Wait just a minute. I am just crossing Delancey, and it will get quieter in a minute.”

Tribeca Film: What makes The House of the Devil a Tribeca Must-See?

Ti West: To the best of my knowledge, The House of the Devil is the only real, serious, straight-up horror movie in the Festival, which makes this the most must-see element. Horror fans can’t go wrong there. Aside from that, I like it a lot. And I have really good taste, so I’m sure others will definitely feel the same.

Tribeca: What’s the craziest thing that happened while making the film?

TW: Oddly enough, everything broke during the shoot—the camera broke four times, the generator broke four times. We were filming in a big house—isolated out in the woods of rural Connecticut—and one day, the camera broke, and then the generator broke, and then the tree that is directly next to the house got struck by lightning. It happened all at once, and it happened to be the day after we filmed the most Satanic scene, so it was a running joke that I was screwed making the movie. 

Tribeca: What are your hopes/fears/wishes regarding Tribeca?

TW: I know that the distributor hopes that it sells for a whole lot of money to someone else, so I hope that too. I also hope that the screenings sell out, the film gets some good reviews, and it helps everyone’s careers. Some of the people who worked on the film did me some pretty big favors, so I want to see them benefit too. 

The House of the Devil: Tom Noonan

Let’s talk about your cast for a bit. Can you tell us about the star, Jocelin Donahue?

TW: Jocelin was the only person who was actually cast in the movie. She came in to read on the first round, and I kept calling her back and back. I was pretty sure I was going to cast her, but I needed to make sure. She was really dedicated, and it just worked.

I had known Tom [Noonan] since my first film, The Roost. It was funny—when I was developing the film, he was always on my mind, but then he heard about it and called me, so it really was meant to be. Tom’s great, and I like working with people I like. Making a movie is traumatizing, so it’s good to have people you like around.

Tribeca: What about that wonderfully creepy actress who plays Noonan’s wife?

TW: Mary Woronov—she is one of my all-time favorite actresses. She was one of Warhol’s original Factory girls, and she was a big star in the Roger Corman era—she’s probably best known for playing the principal in Rock 'n' Roll High School—but she doesn’t really act anymore. She paints and writes books instead. I tried to get her to come in for Cabin [Cabin Fever 2, a project West left due to creative differences], but she turned me down. But when I was casting House of the Devil, I called her agent again, and I think he and I had exhausted our relationship so much the last time that he just wanted to get rid of me, so he said, “Ugh, just call her.” I did, and she invited me over, and we just hit it off. She said, “I’d love to do it.” For me, that’s really a life checklist thing—being able to pull that off was satisfying.

The House of the Devil: Greta Gerwig

Tribeca: What about mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig? Were you friends with her already?

TW: I had met Joe Swanberg when I did The Roost and he did Kissing on the Mouth, and we always kept in touch. When he was doing Hannah Takes the Stairs, I was pretty good friends with him, so I met Greta when she was becoming “Greta.” I just called her when I was casting this movie. I think I did make her come in and read, so no one could come after me. I am certain she is going to take off and leave us all in the dust. So, the answer is yes, we’ve been friends for a few years. It was just time for us to do “our” movie.

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead)—who would you want it to be?

Kubrick. Is that the stock answer?

Tribeca: It’s not stock. What’s your favorite film?

TW: Back to the Future is probably one of the best movies of all time. Yeah, I feel comfortable saying that. But that just popped into my head—I have a lot of favorite movies.

Tribeca: Oh, I actually meant a Kubrick film, but…

TW:  Oh, The Shining. I guess I can relate to it because it was also filmed in a big, empty house.

Tribeca: What piece of art (film/book/music/what-have-you) do you recommend to your friends?

TW: That R Kelly video for Same Girl with Usher. Have you seen it? It kind of blows your mind. The song is about the two of them dating the same girl, singing back and forth as if they are on the phone. They are singing in the classic R Kelly style. It’s amazing.

Tribeca: What’s next for you?

TW: I am about to start another project—not a feature, something else, but I can’t talk about it now. After that, I’ll move on to another feature, as long as I can find the money, which is few and far between these days.

In Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a flat-out horror film made in a classic ‘80s style, first-time lead actress Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, an unwitting college student in rural Connecticut. In her simple quest to make some money so she can move off campus, Samantha takes a babysitting job that starts out weird and devolves from there. It’s a good old-fashioned scary movie, with ringing (and unanswered) phones, Satanic rituals, a creepy old house, and a lunar eclipse. Tribeca talked with Donahue as she prepared to head east for TFF 2009.

Tribeca Film: What makes The House of the Devil a Tribeca Must-See?

Jocelin Donahue: The House of the Devil is an ’80s homage, so it sounds crazy to say it’s very original. But it is. It’s very sincere, but it has modern elements. It’s set all in one day and one night, and it has the rhythm of everyday life. Samantha’s experience of that one day quickly turns into a psychedelic experience.

Tribeca: What’s the craziest thing that happened while making the film?

JD: Shooting in a really isolated house in the middle of nowhere gave it the ultimate creep factor. That was really trippy for me. In my experience, the basement scene was the most extreme, as it was very visceral and violent—up to that point, there’s not any violence in the film, but all this tension has built up.

Tribeca: What are your hopes/fears/wishes regarding Tribeca?

JD: For me, it’s cool to be premiering in New York because I went to NYU. [She was a sociology/history major.] And Ti also went to school in New York. I live in LA now, but I know New Yorkers are the most discerning group of film watchers, so hopefully they will give it their seal of approval. That would mean a lot to me.

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead)—who would you want it to be?

JD: At this point in my life, I would go with Wes Anderson. I think his films are super interesting—visually, culturally, and in terms of modern storytelling.

Tribeca: What piece of art (film/book/music/what-have-you) do you recommend to your friends?

Don DeLillo is my favorite writer—the way he writes about New York and intellectual intrigue and the way he weaves stories together are pretty amazing. My favorite of his novels is The Names. Set in Greece, it’s about a man who’s living with his ex-wife and his son when he gets involved in a ritualistic murder. It’s about language, nomads, and international mystery.

Tribeca: So this is your first lead role. How did you get the part?

JD: Well, I had lots of callbacks. Eventually, Ti and I got to know each other in the meetings, and we talked a lot about what it would take, including the emotional and physical commitment—there were three weeks straight of 13-hour night shoots. It turned out that Ti and I had a lot of synchronicity: we had worked with some of the same people—for example, I made The Burrowers with J.T. Petty, another period piece horror movie—and I also grew up in Connecticut. We ended up shooting 45 minutes from where I grew up in the ’80s.

Tribeca: Good. Let’s talk about the ’80s. What do you remember about that decade?

JD: Basically, I would have been babysat by my character, so I remember Fraggle Rock and the Smurfs. But I do remember the tone of these ’80s horror movies, so I know House of the Devil is sincere, and authentically ’80s. I tried to get into character by not using my cell phone, and I tried not to use my iPod. [Smiles.]

Tribeca: Wow—a whole new form of Method acting!

JD: Well, I’m probably exaggerating… Another thing is that I remember seeing all the talk shows about Satanic rituals—on Sally Jesse Raphael, Donahue—people with extreme cases of paranoia about Satanic cults. 

Tribeca: Fascinating! What did you learn?

JD: I watched a bunch of Geraldo and Sally Jesse: clips of people with repressed memories. This kind of stuff was forcefed to the public—there was no proof, but hundreds of reported cases. I think this was one of the first times that the media made something out of nothing, and now that happens a lot. They took advantage of the suggestible TV audience.

House of the Devil

Tribeca: Tell us about your trajectory. How did you go from a liberal arts degree to a lead role?

JD: In New York I started working in fashion as a stylist’s assistant—I was on the other side of the camera. A couple of photographers asked me to be in editorials, and so I started modeling. When I got to LA, I used my portfolio for commercial agents, and in the first year I boked a pilot for Comedy Central. I know it sounds like a Hollywood cliché, but I realize I am really lucky.

I have been working commercially since then, mostly on student films. I don’t have any other projects lined up for now—it’s kind of a weird time in Hollywood. [Laughs.] I might have to retire after my first lead role.

The House of the Devil opens this Friday (October 30) at Village East Cinema.

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