Whether it’s satanic 1980s debauchery, the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, or a second honeymoon, Ti West always delivers a solid piece of cinema gold. His newest project, THE SACRAMENT, about a modern day cult, features one of Ti’s favorite leads and personal friends, AJ Bowen. I was lucky enough to chat with the duo about their new movie at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, where the film made its U.S. premiere. In the interview, we discussed screening the film in Texas, the influence of Jonestown, and AJ’s big reason for agreeing to a documentary-style movie.
Kalyn Corrigan: Well, first of all, I just wanted to congratulate you guys on a terrific film. Personally, Ti, I think it’s your best one yet.
Ti West: Thank you.
AJ Bowen: Thank you.
KC: I was wondering…Are y’all religious?
TW: I’m not.
AJB: I’m not.
AJB: No. I mean, I was raised that way, and I was when I was younger, but I guess maybe at about nineteen I went through the disassociation with that, you know, started sort of thinking through things, sometimes you fall in and fall out, and that’s where I’ve fallen, on an opposite side of how I was raised.
TW: I grew up Catholic, but I haven’t gone to church in [sighs] I couldn’t tell you.
AJB: I was like the three day a week kid.
TW: I had Sunday School, I was confirmed, I mean I did the whole thing.
AJB: Did you do the Tuesday night bible school, and then Wednesday night church?
TW: No, ’cause that’s like some southern shit.
AJB: (Laughs) I’m from Atlanta, Georgia.
KC: I’m from Texas.
AJB: Where are you from?
KC: Plano. Well, Dallas.
AJB: Oh, okay.
KC: Did your upbringing affect your opinion of this film?
AJB: Um, no. I guess one thing I didn’t anticipate, it kind of caught me off guard a little bit last night actually at the Q&A, I guess I didn’t think, I’m almost thirty-six, and so, I’m at an age where, I mean, I’ve gone through the whole gamete of stuff, where I was opposed to the concept of religion, and was vocally opposed, and vocally self-identified as an atheist. While certainly, my personal views haven’t necessarily changed, my eagerness to discuss in a potentially aggressive way has waned; I don’t feel that way anymore. Especially in terms of, you know, if something works for somebody, if it helps somebody get through their day, if it helps them have a sense of meaning, or especially, and one of the things we talked about in the movie is a sense of community. If you’re not hurting anybody then there can’t be anything negative about that. So, certainly there is an approach to having a lack of judgment about the concept of religion, so, no, honestly, it never even played in at all. It was instead more of a fascination with someone not having a religious belief that would be sort of, you know, the starting point for them to get into this place, but the decision to live off the grid, the decision to engage as something that would be viewed socially as a fringe culture, but what is naturally the most sensible, logical thing in the world for you with your community; with your band of outsiders. Exploring that was; it didn’t really cross that.
KC: Were y’all nervous about screening this film in Texas, which is known to be a very religious area?
TW: No, um, I think that you know, maybe if we show it potentially in San Francisco, there’s a possibility that there would be some people that have relationships with People’s Temple, not that everyone’s in it there, but that’s the most likely place. I’m not concerned about that, although I know that this is not necessarily the movie that people cater to. Just like, I mean does someone who’s affected by 9/11 really wanna see the 9/11 movies? No. Does it really have to do with that? No, but it’s a sensitive subject. So I think that might be a weird place to do it, but no, I don’t think so. I tried hard not to exploit what’s happening in the movie, and to me, the violence in the movie should be upsetting, the overall tone is like a tragic situation. And I don’t think the movie makes a strong judgment about, I mean, it doesn’t make a statement that’s like, “This is what religion’s like”. It’s more like, it’s showing it from all sides, and you can make up your own mind about it. We tried, I mean, we wanted to try to keep that as objective as we could, because it wash’t our agenda to make a movie that’s like “here’s my feelings about religion”, it’s more that I think cults are fascinating because it’s more complicated than people give it credit for, and I think that religion is the same way. I think that, what politics, socialism, what all these things are, all things that there are good sides, and there are bad sides, and I think the movie was trying to show all of that.
AJB: Yeah, and I think it’s a fair question to raise, or a fair issue to raise a discussion about, towing the line, where’s the line between an organized religion and something that sort of gets mixed up? And there’s something, somewhere, it ends up being unhealthy; something that society would view as a cult, you know? The part that surprises me is that there are questions about whether or not this is even technically a horror film, and that’s not really for us to decide, that’s a conversation that someone who’s seen the movie will have to answer. But, I know that if people find it terrifying, for me, it’s the most terrifying on a personal level, I’ve never been impacted viscerally by a movie that I’ve worked on, but I’ve seen the movie twice now, and both times it reaches a moment where it’s like “I can’t breathe too good, this is intense, I don’t feel great”. And I know that, because I was there, and these guys are my close friends, there was a lot of care taken into a sense of sincerity with that. So, when people feel like it’s terrifying, or people are troubled by it, or feel that it’s an aggressive film, I know that we did our job because that means we humanized those elements that often times, aren’t in the story. So I’m very comfortable with it.
TW: Yeah, also like, the movie’s not, like, religion plays a big part in the movie, but the movie’s not about religion being good, or not about religion being bad. It’s in the movie, but the movie’s not about “what is religion?”
AJB: Yeah, there’s almost no discussion about religion. There’s not a discussion at all, instead it’s more a conversation about community and home.
KC: I agree, but I did run into someone last night who was very offended. He was telling me that it was like, blasphemous.
AJB: Well, that’s okay.
KC: Yeah, I was like well, I guess it did it’s job, I mean, it’s supposed to affect you.
TW: Yeah, but that’s like, you know, that’s not something that I would be able to like convince them of. They’re obviously very passionate about how they feel. But, like, a sociopath manipulating people into murdering people should not have to do with religion. And, that person manipulating religion to do something dangerous should be universally thought of as bad. Just because religion’s really close to you, and hearing that it’s about religion, and walking the line between the good and the bad, and things like that, shouldn’t result in that. But, clearly there’s a bad guy doing bad things. Jim Jones, for instance, is a very religious person who did something terrible. And using religion to do something terrible doesn’t make religion terrible, it makes what he did terrible. So, I don’t really feel like that’s a totally fair statement. That being said, if people are going to take offense to things, what are you gonna do?
KC: So how much of Jim Jones did you put into [the character of] Father?
TW: I think socially, there’s a lot there, there’s a little nod, because I gave him the glasses and what not. But you know, I think that a lot of the themes and the issues from the ’60s and ’70s that brought people to People’s Temple, are still relevant today and so, I used Jonestown as the model to tell sort of a modern day story, but there are so many similarities that I thought made sense, and that’s why I used that particular cult as the model. A lot of the things that happen are similar to Jonestown, and a lot of the things that he talks about are similar to Jonestown, but that’s just as much as any other social, religious cult that talked about the same things. It’s about removing yourself from society and starting over again and having an experimental society, whether it’s through religion–it’s genuinely through religion in this situation–but it could be that, it could be through socialism, it could be whatever. It’s genuinely through religion in this situation, but it could be through that, it could be through socialism, it could be through whatever. It’s the idea of starting over. So the themes, I think, are relevant to any of these cults. But to me, Jonestown has always been the most fascinating because I felt that it’s so dense, and so misunderstood. Like how people are like, “drink the kool aid!” because it became pop culture, and so we think of it as pop culture, and so people think it’s just these mindless zombies that just kill themselves, and it’s far more complicated than that, and far more tragic than that. And I think that’s the way I always thought, when you’re making a horror movie that is not supernatural, to me, what’s scary is what leads this stuff to happen.
KC: Definitely. Were there any other events? Well, I guess you just kind of touched on that, but I thought of Warren Jeffs, too, when I saw the film, it reminded me of that, so I was wondering if that had any influence?
TW: Well, there’s all sorts of little nods that are interesting. There’s a little bit of a Waco vibe, but you know, Jonestown was really the model for it, and I was really just, sort of, making my own cult about what I think. If someone came and said what Father said, I feel like it would appeal to a lot of people. Not to say that all are convinced to join him, but I feel like most of the stuff that he says in the film is very reasonable, and the problem is that he’s being manipulative. But I think, for instance, in the big interview scene in the movie, it’s very hard to argue with anything he says in that, because everything he says makes sense. The reality of it is, how much of it is true? But, what he said is not…what he’s saying is positive, you know? Some people would want to join that. If you were desperate enough; if you didn’t have a strong hold on life and this person came and told you that you can do all the things he told you to do, why wouldn’t you try?
AJB: Yeah, and a central crux, in terms of a thesis, about that, is this guy we’re seeing sort of towards the end, and pretty far out there, but where the story is interesting, and what we’re interested in, are the people that have that initial conversation with just a gregarious, charismatic guy that made them feel safe, that made them feel listened to, I’ve met former presidents, and they have all of the same qualities; they make you feel like you’re the only person in the room, that ever existed, they’re only interested in what you have to say. It’s a powerful tool, especially for someone who is isolated or alone. So, the things that were sort of interesting about it, for us, are how people that are reasonable end up slowly chipping away at their sense of control and own personal sense of skepticism and reason. and how they can completely, through several steps; innocuous steps, find themselves in a position, in a reality that they can no longer control, nor can they really escape, because they gave up control of it, way before that actual moment. So that it’s not even a choice anymore, will you or won’t you do it? There really is no choice, you’ve made your choice, you made that already, way back then, now you’re just finally caught up to it.
KC: Well, AJ, I heard you say that you would never do a found footage, or handheld camera film–
AJB: I was waiting for that question! You’re the first one!
KC: Yeah? (Laughs)
AJB: Hold up, hold up, I’m gonna let you finish…
AJB: So…what’s the question?
KC: I was wondering, what made you change your mind?
AJB: Ti West.
TW: It’s not found footage, it’s a documentary.
AJB: To be perfectly honest, yeah. Because when you make a movie, and before our favorite distributor picked it up, Ti and I both had gone separately; our careers kind of going. So, it’s awesome to come back for, in my opinion, what’s my best movie that I’ve been in, and Ti’s best movie that he’s directed. To get to do that together, and to be back home, is amazing. Before you get to that stuff, knowing that by default the people that are involved represents a Ti West movie that AJ Bowen is in, you know that it’s getting sold as a horror film. We weren’t sure that that’s what it is, but that’s also not our job. And then you know that, oh, people are going to call it found footage, well, that’s fine, but there are a few things, for me, that make it impossible. I understand that that’s going to be a label that’s attached to it, but that’s really more of an aesthetics question. And I reached a point where I got so down on the concept of found footage, because to me, it always felt really reductive, and it came at a cost of the story, and of the meta-stories, so there was nothing there, and a movie often gets reduced to expositional elements and that doesn’t work for me because I like complications. I like there to be, best case scenario, like the person that you mentioned, having an issue with those things, that’s done with love. Like, that’s not an aggressive, “to hell with you” thing, that’s the point. That’s the ambition. So often times, found footage can get in the way of that for me, and I thought it would be good and educational for me to try to figure out a way to perform something that someone else is gonna identify with as found footage. I don’t, I think of it as a doc. Also, having an intimate awareness of Vice and what they do, that resolves all that as a concept, because it’s documentary filmmakers that are making the footage. We should change the name to “assembled footage”.
TW: (Laughs) Yeah.
AJB: But yeah, I knew that we were getting ready to make the movie a year ago when I was talking to a couple of guys for another film project, and I was like, “I bet the next one will be found footage movie”. But, I’m cool with it. Part of the putting yourself out there in the public sphere as a performer, or as a collaborator, as a story-teller, is that, if you’re lucky enough to get to do that, you’re going to also eventually say something that you can no longer follow through with. And that’s a good and healthy thing, you know?
KC: Is there any chance that you’ll be directing any films?
AJB: Yeah, I’m going to.
TW: Awful films.
AJB: (Laughs) Yeah, awful films. I’m going to make a Ti West and Joe Swanberg movie. (Laughs) Yeah, I’m going to direct. But also, to answer that question in a longer process to stress Matt out, um, there are two guys that I don’t need to see a script from, and two people I’ve worked with that I don’t need to see a script from, I’ll do it, I don’t need to know the characters, or what it is, we’ll figure that out, and Ti’s one of them, and the other one is Jacob Gentry, and the three of us are close friends.
KC: So you’d probably cast him in your film?
AJB: Well you know, the bigger issue for the found footage film, the first thing that Ti said to me, he was like, “major bummer, you gotta grow the beard”. I was like “Damn! Found footage beard movie? Okay.”
KC: You don’t like facial hair?
AJB: I do, I’m just tired of it, I want people to see my face.
KC: It’s a pretty face.
AJB: Thank you.
KC: You’re welcome.