On May 20th, I was lucky enough to attend a press conference for Ti West’s brilliant film, The Sacrament. (You can read my glowing review here if you want a little more background on this creepy cult thriller!) The conference was held at the Magic Castle. For those who have not been to (or heard of) the Magic Castle, let me paint you a little portrait.
The Magic Castle is a beautiful estate that sits perched on top of a hill overlooking the heart of Hollywood. Normally, it’s invite-only and you have to know a member or performing magician to get inside to visit for an evening. As soon as you go inside, there is a dim little lobby where you pay your cover fee and they determine whether or not your outfit is abides by their super-strict dress code. When you are ready to enter, you have to say the “magic words” to a bookcase that slides open to reveal the inside of the Castle. The Castle itself is a labyrinthine, sprawling manor that holds different bars and theaters, and you get to meander around the whole Castle staring at all the cool artifacts adorning the brocade-clad walls and seeing various magicians perform. It’s extremely Twilight Zone-y and it’s just such a badass place, so I was stoked to get inside the Castle again.
We were seated in the Parlour of Prestidigitation, one of the many small theaters in the Castle. I was the youngest person in the room by quite a bit— I’m 23, I’m still a baby!— so I was already a bit intimidated, because for no one else in this room was it their first rodeo. Ti West walked into the room with the cast of The Sacrament: Gene Jones (Father), A.J. Bowen (Sam), Joe Swanberg (Jake), Kentucker Audley (Patrick), and Amy Seimetz (Caroline.) They all took turns fielding questions about The Sacrament. It was fascinating to hear such incredible people talk about a film that I absolutely loved. I was particularly intrigued by Ti’s explanation of the infamous Jonestown massacre as homicide instead of suicide; he explained it so eloquently that I don’t want to paraphrase his remarks:
I think there’s a misconception about Jonestown being a mass-suicide, it was more of a mass-murder. I think whether they you’re forced to drink it or whether you’ve given yourself over to this environment and you live there with your family and your friends and you’re seeing people die around you and that’s enough to push you over the edge… or you feel like everything’s going to be taken away from you and you feel so desperate that there’s just no other option… or, simply– what, are you going to be the one person that just says “no thanks!” and then walks out in 1978 in the jungle and tries to find a plane, tries to get back to the United States, has no money, homeless, everyone you know is dead– it’s not really an option. I think a lot of the story that people tell about what happened in Jonestown has been reduced to “drink the Kool Aid” and that’s a very weird pop culture slogan that people are distanced from what it actually means. I’ve always been very fascinated with what happened the last 48 hours in Jonestown, and hopefully this movie, while it’s an allusion to Jonestown… what’s so scary about what happened there, how it wasn’t really a choice and that there weren’t really crazy religious fanatics that I think people reduce them to… to me, that is an important part of a movie like this, to put up the provocative images, confront it, in real-life, scary terms.
I was really looking forward to hearing Gene Jones discuss his approach to acting. He was masterful as Father: engaging, charismatic, but evil– the perfect cult leader. He explained:
What I tried to do was be a guy who was so nice that you would follow him, and you would leave your family and leave your country and go with this guy… I wanted to show you someone that was evil but not mean.
I would love to sit down just have lunch with Gene someday because he is just as captivating and charismatic in real life when he speaks (although I’m willing to guess that he’s at least 99% less evil.) You listen to that man when he speaks, not because he’s demanding it from you, but because you want to hear him… which clearly bled over into his performance in the film. Ti explained that when they shot Father’s “interview” scene, Gene nailed it in a single take — and the reactions of the extras are their genuine reactions to Gene’s command of the room. He didn’t drop a single line and breezed through 12 pages of dialogue on the very first try, which is no small feat.
The actors also discussed what it was like to get inside their characters’ minds; Amy Seimetz, who played one of Father’s followers, incisively pointed out that no one gets involved with a cult thinking that they are joining a cult— they join a group that they believe in and are brainwashed slowly. She explained:
[Cult members] desperately want to believe in something bigger than them, and there’s a fine line between actually believing and desperately wanting to believe. So, with Caroline at the beginning, there’s a lot of putting up a front that ‘I do really believe in this’, but also genuinely believing in it, because it has helped her build a life outside of the rough life that she was living before of drug addiction, etc. I don’t think that when she got involved with Father, that she’s thinking “I’m going to massacre people” or create a horrible situation.
I could say so much more but it’s just too tough to try to condense 30 minutes of a brilliant Q&A into just a few paragraphs! They all answered each question thoughtfully and carefully, looking each person in the eye, which definitely made me feel like they were genuinely excited about (and proud of) this project. I took a few film classes in college but they were all critical studies courses, so the actual process of filmmaking is still kind of magical and mystifying to me (and yes, I know how cheesy that sounds, but it’s true!) I was totally captivated the whole time.
After the press conference was over, a few of the members of the press started talking with the cast and Ti, so I decided to join them. I have to tell you, I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me. I’m a very social person, super-outgoing, not shy at all; I’m totally a “people person” and I have no trouble whatsoever talking to people I don’t know well. But put me in front of someone I respect and admire, and suddenly it’s like my vocal cords have been ripped out of my throat. Insta-mute.
I was exceptionally nervous to meet Ti and the cast. When I was at USC, I wrote my Senior Honors Thesis, which was titled “What the Hell to Expect When You’re Expecting: An Examination of Demonic Pregnancies in Horror Literature and Film.” I focused on one of Ti West’s films, The House of the Devil, for one of my chapters. I’m starting graduate school in the fall and I was also awarded a teaching fellowship partially due to my arguments about Ti’s film in my thesis. (Sidenote: my editor Chad, our fair captain of the good ship Legless, knew that I wrote about HOTD and was a huge fan of Ti’s work, so he went above and beyond to make sure he got me into this press conference. Best editor ever, thanks Chad!!) So, I could have said anything along the lines of “Hey, I owe you a hell of a lot because I’m literally getting paid to go to grad school in no small part because you made an amazing film that I had so much fun discussing in my thesis.” But did I say anything eloquent?! Memorable?! Intelligent?! Nooooooope. I shyly introduced myself, shook Ti’s hand while trying not to swoon, and had the cast sign my posters. I did muster up the nerve to briefly thank Ti and A.J. (who starred in HOTD) for helping me get my BA vis-à-vis my thesis, which I explained in super vague terms. A.J. very sweetly asked me what my name was and shook my hand. I thanked everyone for signing my posters before leaving, because I sure as shit didn’t have the courage to ask for a picture. I wouldn’t have even asked for them to sign my poster but the other attendees did, so I thought it would be okay. Hey, was my first press conference, I didn’t know what proper protocol was! I’m sure I blushed like all hell the whole time but it was so unbelievably cool.
If anyone who was involved with this press conference is reading this– THANK YOU! Seriously, thank you. It was an absolute pleasure!
If you’re reading this and you haven’t yet seen The Sacrament, what the hell are you waiting for?! GO WATCH IT RIGHT NOW! You can get it On Demand now or see it in select theaters.
p.s. I nabbed this sick “I Believe in Eden Parish” shirt on the way out of the conference and it’s actually the coziest shirt I own, I love it! Also, my signed poster looks pretty awesome above my bar, right?!
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