After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat romantic ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land remindful of the Peoples Temple’s Jonestown. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, The Sacrament perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father (Gene Jones), the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Ti West at the London Film Festival in October 2013 and asked him about making realistic horror, the Jonestown Massacre and the Vice style of journalism.
Virginie Sélavy: With The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, you have developed an oblique approach to the horror genre. You continue with this here, although this time you dispense with supernatural elements altogether. Why were you interested in making a realistic horror film this time?
Ti West: Mostly because this is my sixth feature and all of them have had supernatural elements, so I wanted to do something that was strictly realistic. It’s more horrific than any other movie I’ve made but whether it’s technically a horror movie I don’t know. I just wanted to do something different from the light-hearted romantic comedy ghost story that was The Innkeepers.
Why did you decide to present the film as a Vice faux documentary, as opposed to just a faux documentary?
I thought incorporating a real brand would add to the realism of the movie. When you leave the theatre and you see that brand out in the world it brings you back to the film. I’m hoping that it’s a confrontational movie that people talk about and think about.
When Vice gave you permission to use their logo, did they know exactly what you were going to do? Did they put any conditions to its use?
Yes. In the original script the journalists died, and Vice didn’t want them to die, but I think it was a good idea to change that because it was too bleak anyway. In the original ending, the pilot of the helicopter didn’t get shot. The journalists got in, they made it out, but the pilot said ‘I got to do this for Father’ and crashed the helicopter, and that’s how it ended. But as we started shooting, and as it became less of a horror movie and more of a drama thriller, and because the social relevance started to resonate, because the violence that we’d filmed was very realistic and grim, the movie started to feel very heavy and bleak. And the idea of them escaping, then being killed, was too nihilistic. It wasn’t something that I wanted to say to the world. The tone of the movie was far more emotional and serious to have this cheesy ending, where it was like, and at the last second we got you with one more scare. It wasn’t about scares. It felt that while it was clever it didn’t add to what we were doing. So that, combined with the fact that Vice were saying, don’t kill us in the movie, were the reasons for changing the end.
Why did they not want to be killed in the film?
Just bad vibes. Also, in fairness to them, what they do is some of the most interesting, non-partisan video journalism right now. They go right at the heart of these places and they’re independent, they’re coming from their own Vice thing. They’re very smart, very educated and very prepared for what they do. So to have that ending to some degree would undercut what they do. People have this idea of them being hip, but they’re smarter than this. They don’t just show up in Egypt and pull a microphone. So I think it was a fair thing to do and ultimately it benefits the movie to not have them die.
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When Father blames them for the violence that follows their arrival it’s obviously quite disingenuous, but do you think that the journalists bear some responsibility in what happens?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t think that’s specifically Vice. Part of the reason why I wanted to make a movie where the characters were from journalism is that there are all those blurred lines about the role of the media in those situations. Now, of course, Father is a psychopath, so you can’t really take what he says as fact. However, it’s true that when you look at people who are embedded in situations like Iraq or Egypt, they have this idea that they have to document whatever is happening. When it’s in another country it’s easy to say it’s not my problem. When it’s something that nobody knows about except the people who are there, I don’t know if it’s your problem or not, but no one else is going to do anything. And I think that’s where there’s this blurred line of what your role is. That’s why the characters are journalists, and not just the brother or the friend of the girl who is in the cult.
There is a real sense of tragedy in the film in the way the events unfold and the characters evolve, not just the journalists but the girl and Father too. How important was that sense of tragedy to you?
It was very important to me that the violence in the movie not be fun in the typical midnight horror movie where everybody is clapping. I wanted it to be very tragic and upsetting when the violence happens. And I wanted everyone in the movie to have their own goal that was very genuine. This movie, as are cults in general, Jonestown specifically, shows a very tragic situation, and it’s more complex than people understand. I hope people leave this movie a little shell-shocked, and that when there is horror in the movie you feel it as a realistic thing as opposed to some sort of escapism.
The music seems to follow the same trajectory as the evolution of the Vice journalists: you go from the urban cool of The Knife’s ‘Hearbeats’ as they travel to the island at the beginning, to something much more unobtrusive, sombre and disquieting. What was your approach to the music?
Yes, everything in the movie was supposed to slowly start decaying as it went on. It was my first time working with that composer, Tyler Bates, and it was great. All my movies have been with different composers so with each one I’ve tried something new for the first time. What was hard was that in something that is documentary-style like this, the movie fights the music unless it’s exactly right. We were trying to get the music that you would put in a documentary, and that would be a little sentimental, wearing emotions on its sleeve. But the most complicated, and the most important thing, was that we both felt that when all the horrific stuff starts happening, instead of having scary music we wanted to have tragic music and really bring out the emotional situation, which was a lot harder than it sounds.
The story is very close to what happened with the Peoples Temple in Jonestown.
Yes, I used that as a model because in American history it’s become part of pop culture. People vaguely know about it, but when you find out more, it’s one of the more intriguing and tragic things to have happened in American history in the 20th century. I’ve always been fascinated by it. So I used that as a model because I felt a lot of issues that made people join Peoples Temple in the 60s and 70s are still relevant today. I didn’t want to make something that was based too much on religion like Heaven’s Gate, where people thought they were going to get on an alien spacecraft and go off. That’s too far-fetched and it makes people think ‘cult’ and ‘crazy people’ immediately. What’s interesting about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and what I tried to bring into this movie, is that they’re just regular people who have been misled and taken advantage of. And I think that’s what makes it all the more horrific and the more frightening.
Is it significant that a lot of the community members are black in the film?
To some degree yes. I wanted it to be a mixed group of people, half and half. This is also because I think that what Father is exploiting is issues with power and race, and people who feel disillusioned. And certainly in Peoples Temple’s Jonestown, the majority of the population was black. So it was keeping in line with that.
Gene Jones is amazing as Father. How did you find him?
I didn’t know who I was going to cast for this role and I was watching an episode of Louis CK’s show where Gene plays a pharmacist in one scene. It’s a very small scene but I thought that was the guy. The first scene we shot was the big interview scene. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We had 200 extras, it’s a 12-page dialogue scene, a massive undertaking. So I told him, let’s just try it, see what happens, then we’ll make a list of everything that goes wrong and we’ll make it right. Pretty much what’s in the movie is what happened on that first take. He came in, the crowd went crazy, he sat down, did a seventeen-minute take and didn’t drop one line. And all the reactions from the crowd – we didn’t tell them to do that, they just did it. It was one of those magical experiences where it all fell into place. It was also amazing to see all the extras react like that because they didn’t know what the movie was about. They were just there for that one scene, they didn’t know the whole story. But while it was great to see them all say ‘yes Father, yes Father’, on the other hand it was also terrifying because they were agreeing with everything he was saying. The idea of the movie was that everything he says should make sense. He’s not actually doing it but what he says sounds amazing. So they’re all responding in the way anyone would to a cult leader who’s promising them these great things. It was one of the most unique and exciting days I’ve ever had making movies.
What he says is mesmerising because you do find yourself agreeing with him despite knowing what he is.
Yes, and that’s one of the big theses of the movie. That’s what I wanted people to take away from the movie: these are not crazy cult people, these are people who were misled by someone who is very manipulative.
He is manipulative but you also get the impression that he may believe in what he says.
That’s questionable. He certainly acts like he does. The same thing with Jim Jones in real life and this movie is that they all commit mass suicide by drinking the Kool-Aid except him and it makes you wonder – was he a coward? Did he really believe they were all going to heaven or did he not? To me that’s’ really interesting, this guy who stands there telling them one thing and does another. There are enough elements in the movie to say that he does believe what he’s saying, and enough to say that he doesn’t. Like Jim Jones, he keeps himself separate from his entire congregation and we’ll never know why, it’s something that will always remain ambiguous. Those are the things that make the story very complicated, and ultimately tragic and horrifying.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy