Checking in with 'Innkeepers' director Ti West, star Sara Paxton


Ghosts are scary, but not as scary as the growing awareness that you're expected to do more with your life beyond just working the desk at the local haunted hotel. So naturally, the best way to distract yourself from your personal crisis is to hunt for ghosts.

That's the setup for the new horror movie The Innkeepers, directed by Ti West and starring Sara Paxton which hits theaters on Feb. 3 and is already available On Demand. Although West has previously dealt with Satanic worshippers in the lauded horror movie The House of the Devil, and Paxton has battled creatures of the deep in Shark Night 3D, they agree the general malaise that sets in during the 20s is more unsettling than monsters - but that ghosts are still freaking creepy.

The film, shot and set at the supposedly legitimately haunted Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Conn., follows desk clerks Claire (Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) who decide to seek proof of the hotel's ghosts in the final days before it closes for good. In between goofing off, drinking on the job, and harassing a spiritualist hotel guest (Kelly McGillis), the pair play with an oversized audio recorder to capture EVP evidence - which works out a little too well for Claire. The film is scary with its patience; West isn't above toying with his audience and takes his time with the jumps, but when he does unleash the scares on his character, the result is a scary fun flick that's like Clerks meets The Shining.

Paranormal Pop Culture recently checked in with West and Paxton in New York City, where they revealed exactly how personal The Innkeepers is for both of them, both for normal and paranormal reasons. In fact, while both claim to be skeptics about ghosts, they also are viewers of ghost hunting shows and are eager to join a television crew for an investigation - and even want a reading from one particular famous psychic.

Read the complete interview after the jump.

PARANORMAL POP CULTURE: The movie is as much about Luke and Claire having this mundane job as it is a ghost story, so what are your past mundane jobs?

Ti West, courtesy Magnolia Pictures
TI WEST: I've had them all and that's why it was a huge part of the reason for making the movie. I’m qualified to direct movies or be like a busboy. I don't have any career skills or talents or trades or anything. So I worked very hard at having that all on the page. What’s it’s like to be at a minimum wage job, and sort of stuck there? And it may not be digging ditches, but in your own world, it's your own bourgeois problem. It's those own little worlds you create with your work friends, not your real friends and things like that. So I've been like a busboy, or a cook. I've mowed lawns, I've sold shoes, I've worked at a video store - I've done all those things. I did it for like 10 years. So I'm in no hurry to go back. But I wanted to make a movie about the charmingness of it all.

SARA PAXTON: I've never had a real job *laughs*

TW: Have you met anyone whose worked?

SP: *laughs* Yeah. I can really relate to the Claire character. Just because I haven't had real job, you know what I mean, I get her. I mean, I've felt like that.

TW: Struggled?

SP: Yeah, I mean I've felt like that - not to that extent where I'm in a dead-end job, but we've all sort of been there, like, "Uh, now what?! What next? Where am I going with this?"

TW: I think everyone has their own weird, existential crisis about, like, "Should I be caring more this than I do?" I don't know, but like in the movie, it's sort of like "What do you do?" "I work in a hotel." "But what do you really do?" "I work in a hotel, is there something wrong with that?” I never thought about it. I was just going along with my life, feeling good … sometime in your 20s, you start to get introspective and neurotic.

SP: Youth crisis.

TW: And I think it's weird, like this personal anxiety. So that's what I tried to put in this movie because I went through all that stuff. Like I said, “Not good enough to just be having this job.” “What's wrong with this job? Maybe nothing, but now I feel weird about it.”

PPC: So that part is very relatable, but ghosts? Have you also gone through that?

TW: In a way. I think what I wanted is, I wanted to do just a very traditional, old-fashioned ghost story, like an 1800s kind-of ghost story - but with these modern nerves in it because I thought it would be interesting to see how they would react in a ghost story versus the people in the 1800s of this period. Now, the actual hotel is a real place. When we made our previous film House of the Devil, we lived there. We make a Satanic horror movie, but some weird stuff would happen back at the hotel.

PPC: Such as?

TW: Everyone in the cast and crew thought it was haunted. The staff thought it was haunted. One of the guys who was there had a ghost hunting website about it; the whole town thinks it's haunted. The building is this amazing 1800s historic building with bad 1970s renovations on top of it. Like, there's 20-somethings working at the front desk. It's this really weird place. So it was a very personal movie, and we went back to the same exact place and filmed there. I'm a skeptic, I don't believe in ghosts, but as close as I'll ever come is doing two tours at the Yankee Pedlar Inn.

PPC: What is something unexplained that you experienced at the Yankee Pedlar?

TW: Well, I mean, certainly doors opened and closed by themselves, lights turned off and on by themselves, my phone would ring and no one would be on the other line - which is something they say happens all the time. I can tell you the vibe just feels weird. We are staying at the Ace Hotel now, and I don't feel weird at all. But at the Pedlar, something's just off. You have very vivid weird dreams - I don't know what that's about, it could just be weather.

I'm a skeptic, so while I don't know what any of that stuff was, I don't necessarily jump to ghosts as the number one option. But the other thing that was weird was the room in the movie that's the most haunted room, the Honeymoon suite. I only picked it because it was on the third floor at the end of the hallway and big enough to do a dolly shot. I was like, "That'll work, we'll use that one." And then after we wrapped the movie, I found out that that's the most haunted room in the hotel, in real life. I don't know if it means it's haunted, but what a weird thing to go through, you know? But Sara had ghost things happen.

Paxton conducting an EVP session
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
SP: I don't know if they were ghost things. It was the same stuff: my door would just violently fly open when I'd be sitting in my bed watching TV. It would just burst open. And I was like, "yeah, hmmm, it's the wind" but my windows were closed. Just weird stuff like that.

PPC: So do you believe, or don't believe?

SP: Well, I mean, there's definitely a creepy vibe. I am a baby, so I would kind of get scared, but I don't know. I've never seen ghosts up close and personal, so …

PPC: You’re shooting a haunted hotel movie in a haunted hotel, so do you think that influences your imagination when you lay your head down on the pillow at night?

SP: Just being there, period, was weird. From even before we started shooting, which was like one day, I just walked in there and it was weird. Even the town is just off. Everything is just …

TW: It's a strange place.

SP: It was a really weird place, yeah.

PPC: Luke is an amateur ghost hunter, so do you watch any of those shows?

TW: I've seen a lot of them, yes. I'm fascinated by them. They’re pretty popular shows, but they fail every episode. These are the absolute experts, no one is better at finding ghosts than them, and they haven't found any ghosts. So in a way, I feel like they're almost counter-productively proving that there is no such thing as ghosts. Yet they keep getting more seasons despite not finding ghosts. I find that to be kind of amazing.

And also, I just think it would be funny if they did encounter a ghost, then all the expertise would go out the window, and they'd be like, "Ahh! Let's get the f--- out of here!" That's a big thing in the movie. They [Luke and Claire] are fronting like they know more about something than they do, and when your covers are pulled, that's really how you reacted? So I think it would be funny to watch an episode of those ghost hunter shows and just watch them lose their mind when a ghost shows up.

PPC: Have you gotten feedback from people within that ghost hunting community?

TW: I would love to talk to them, to experts about all this. It is fascinating to me. I don't believe in ghosts, but that doesn't mean they aren't real. It isn't that I don't want to believe in them, but when I see a ghost, I'll believe in a ghost. Until then to say this is recording is like a door opening is like, “I don't know what made this exact noise, but I'm not sure it was a ghost.” [But] that doesn't mean there's not a ghost.

PPC: Sara, has anybody reached out to you that's like, "I'm a ghost hunter and I think when you do this, you should …”

SP: No! I wish they would.

PPC: Really?

SP: Yeah, in fact one: The one on Travel Channel [Ghost Adventures]. The guy's like, [in a masculine voice] "come here, ghosts! Come out, come out! Stop being so scared!" He taunts the ghosts, but I wouldn't do it like that.

TW: I like Chip Coffey.

SP: Yes!

TW: I'd like to do an interview with Chip Coffey. That'd be fun.

SP: I want to have a reading with Chip Coffey. I want to pay him money. He's the most entertaining person-

TW: I would love to talk to Chip. I mean, the funny thing is I make fun of those shows, but I'm also totally legitimately intrigued by them. But I do think it's funny because I do think it's counter-productive but I would just love to talk to people about it, to really find out what keeps it going, you know what I mean? Obviously there’s the intrigue. The interest is obviously something very important to them.

Kelly McGillis as a medium in 'The Innkeepers,'
courtesy Magnolia Pictures
One of the ghost characters [in the movie] is based on an experience I had with someone. I'd never want to believe in spiritual healing, or any of that stuff too, but the closest I ever came was with someone with a pendulum talking to me about stuff that kind of came true. I was like, I just intrinsically don't believe in this, but that was pretty spot on and it freaked me out a little bit. And that's what Kelly McGillis' [medium] character is based on. It was like the kind of stuff that happens to Sara and Kelly in the movie. That happened to me at the Pedlar in real life. That's why I think Chip Coffey would be interesting. A friend of mine had a reading with him for her birthday and he said some stuff that kind of came true, so I'm fascinated by it.

PPC: Where the movie succeeds is that a lot of people outwardly may be a skeptic, but there's the old saying "there's no atheists in fox holes,” so maybe there are no skeptics in a haunted house. Was that something you were intentionally trying to tap into?

TW: Absolutely and I think it was important for me to have two very clear viewpoints you can take away from the movie … You can make a very strong case for the movie that there are no ghosts and it's all in your head. Or you can have the believer’s approach and be like, “the stuff that the characters in this movie were saying was real and it wasn't avoidable and this is something that is real” … I like it if people see the movie and when they drive home, they're in the car, and they're thinking about it - and that makes it worth making a movie, to take it beyond just an escapism experience.

PPC: Instead of using modern ghost hunting equipment like nightvision cameras, your characters go old school with this giant audio recorder. What was the decision behind that?

TW: Well, for one, those Paranormal Activity movies have got this sort of nightvision thing. I felt like to do that was just so “that” and I didn't want to go and tread on that territory. I also found I wanted to do something with EVP because I think it's more compelling for me and I've never seen that in a movie where you kind of go into the character's point-of-view from an audio point-of-view. I thought that was interesting and just scarier to me. Like, what you don't see, but what you hear. If you're hearing something, but you don't see it, that to me is scary, and that's more like believable as a ghost. It is like this idea that electricity is just always here. We didn't know it until we discovered it. That to me is interesting about the EVP part of things. I also liked that Luke’s camera is broken and he doesn't have money to fix it, you know?

PPC: Talk more about the website Luke creates in the movie

TW: I always liked the idea like he means it about his [Pedlar Inn ghost] website, but his website is not very good. He is mediocrely talented at doing what he's doing, and I'm always charmed by that - someone who's not really that good, but it's the best he can do. And that's what I feel about the movie, is that the camera is broken - I've got this microphone and this old-ass thing. Like, we're doing the best with what we've got!

PPC: Sara, as an actor, is it better to work with that low-tech, big microphone or would you have liked to play around with the …

SP: Yeah, I know. I felt like dorky or something when I was holding this big, chunky thing, walking around with the mic. It just worked. I instantly felt like nerdy. It would be a little weird if it was like, black ops night vision goggles.

PPC: Have friends or strangers started coming up and telling you their ghost stories yet?

TW: In town they did. People always try to tell their Yankee Pedlar stories while we're in town.

SP: [Local] paramedics told me a lot and said so many people died there at the Yankee Pedlar. They told me all their little ghost stories.

TW: I mean I'm so fascinated by it I spent two years making a movie about it. [Ghost stories] are interesting to me because and something a lot of people are fascinated by because it does relate to everybody - because we'll all die and we all know people who died. And so unlike maybe other horror themes, it's very personal for everybody. It also seems to be the most believable, and so it's just like there's this quest. Like if we just get a little bit more proof, then we could relax about it. It's interesting that it's been so hard.

PPC: Sara, was this the kind of role you had to do any research for? Did you look into this world at all?

SP: No, I mean, I'd already watched all those ghost hunting shows. I was already a fan of those, and I didn't do any research into ghost hunting or whatever. As for the character, I could really relate to Claire.

TW: I did a lot of that stuff. I think that was in there. I mean, technically, I probably know very little. I think I know a little bit about EVP and things like that, but I don't know if I know a lot about some of the denser equipment and the way it works. But I hopefully did enough so that it's not too cringeworthy for people who are incredibly interested in it. Ultimately, this movie really isn't about that. It is about these characters, so it seems like it’s a movie about ghost hunting, but that's kind of secondary. So that's why I backed off on a lot of the extra technology and all the specifics about it. Because had I gone that route, then it really is just a ghost hunting movie, which is not really what it's about. It is kind of about being stuck in a place in life and things like that.

PPC: Is there a good ghost hunting movie out there, in your opinion?

Paxton and Pat Healy interviewing ghosts
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
TW: I think there is a good “just ghost hunting” movie to be made, but I also remember in Poltergeist like a really good scene with the expert. (Anytime an expert comes into a movie is always really satisfying for me because they know what they're doing and they seem so confident about it.) But in Poltergeist, they get the experts to come, and they're in over their heads. When an expert is in over their head, we're all screwed. And so that's a little bit what happens to Luke. He knows everything, then you realize he's scared and it's like, “but he's the guy! He knows the most in this whole movie and if he's gone, we're screwed now.” And I think that's an interesting dynamic.

PPC: What about scary movies? Are there any great scary movies that you kind of go back to maybe each Halloween or-

SP: The Exorcist scared the shit out of me and I'm still traumatized. I'm Jewish, and I still sleep with a rosary next to my nightstand because of The Exorcist. I'm scared; can't do it. I don't f--- around with that shit.

TW: I agree, The Exorcist is scary. I think The Shining is scary. I think The Changeling with George C. Scott is one of the best ghost movies. And recently I saw one which was kind of strange called Lake Mungo, which is a ghost movie. It is great. It is this found footage-ish documentary-type movie and I highly recommend it. Not a lot of people have seen it, which is a shame. It is about a family whose daughter goes missing, and they find out she's dead, and they think that she might be haunting them. They sort of set up stuff to try and find out if they can get proof of it, and then they do, but it ends up not being what they think it is – which, of course, makes you think of some other ghost film, but it's not. There are all these weird twists that happen in it, and it's really well made … It actually creeped me out. And movies don't do that to me anymore. So I was watching it like on Netflix and instantly was like, what's happening? It actually affected me.

PPC: Sara, there's a scene right at the beginning of the movie where your character is with Luke and we're doing something pretty mundane, and he pranks you with a good jump. Do you think it kind of sets this tone that “we're gonna play with you a little bit”?

SP: That was real. It scared the shit out of me.

TW: Yeah, I wouldn't show it to her until we did the take.

PPC: And to put the word out there right now, if Ghost Adventures is looking for a celebrity investigator, are you going to go on?

TW: It was brought up. I got asked to do a Pedlar episode with me for one of those shows, and I'm like, I would love to do it. I don't know what's going to happen, but I am 100 percent all in.

SP: Oh yeah, I'm in. Can I be your sidekick?

TW: Yeah! I'd love to do it. I was so excited when they asked, because I was like "dude, absolutely!" But the Pedlar's in foreclosure, so there's not a lot of time left. But I, yeah, I'm all for it.