Q&A: Actor AJ Bowen on Ti West’s Religious-Cult Chiller “THE SACRAMENT”
If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’re aware of THE SACRAMENT, the latest from THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and THE INNKEEPERS writer/director Ti West, which has been traveling the festival circuit for nearly a year now. It has just become available on VOD and hits theaters June 6 from Magnet Releasing, and we’ve got a chat with one of its stars.
West’s best film so far (see our review here) is not quite a horror film, drama, thriller or found-footage movie; it’s all of those genres combined, with excellent pacing that builds to a crescendo of dread. Based loosely on the 1978 tragedy that took place in Jonestown, Guyana, THE SACRAMENT (on which Eli Roth was one of the producers) starts out innocently enough, as a documentary team from Vice Media, including a young man trying to track down his sister, heads to an undisclosed foreign country to film the reclusive religious community of Eden Parish; they eventually discover it’s frightening territory indeed. West conducts a terrific cast, led by Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kentucker Audley, Gene Jones (as Eden Parish’s leader) and horror stalwart AJ Bowen, who sat down with FANGORIA to discuss the film.
FANGORIA: Why tell a Jonestown-inspired story now? Is it because society has become too much to deal with in terms of consumerism, technology and overwork, and people want escape—even to a fringe society?
AJ BOWEN: A fringe society is another option. Even members of that kind of community are very normalized and mainstream within that small sphere of influence. Finding a place where they identify a safety zone, where they belong and feel less lonely… The fallout from that, in a bigger-picture sense, is something that interests me. In this digital age, it’s easy to control what you see. You can control who you follow on Twitter; you don’t control who follows you, so that’s what you see. It’s not necessarily an accurate view of either what you are or the outside world.
It’s the same thing with how we get our media. What interested [him and West] about Vice is that it’s a conduit of nonjudgmental information. It’s not left or right; it’s just trying to present information without judgment—so that ends up being something that’s not trusted. That’s what the purpose of journalism originally was supposed to be. Those are concepts that are interesting to discuss—the potential fallout concerning social media.
FANG: How did Eli Roth become involved?
BOWEN: Ti and Eli have been friends for 10 years. Ti pitched THE SACRAMENT to Eli, and Eli said he could get it made immediately. A few days later, it began happening in May of last year. By September, production started. Ti had knocked out a draft within a week or two, then gave it a few polishes. Initially, the idea was that the dialogue was less important; it could be done with the basic ideas, and not worrying about what we’d be saying specifically. But we were down in Georgia fairly early, and every evening, we’d have conversations about what we were eventually going to shoot. Through that process of refining the script, we began doing lots of improv—particularly Kentucker Audley, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz—but after we began, there was almost none. Case in point: My big scene with Gene—it was 12 pages and 17 minutes long—is verbatim. Every piece of grammar was from Ti’s script.
There was a lot of care taken with it. The process was truncated—knowing you were going to do it, figuring it out and being there. We needed to get everything finished before November. If [filming] didn’t happen before then, we were done. See you next summer!
FANG: At the Fantastic Fest premiere, you mentioned that the original script had a darker ending.
BOWEN: There was an ending with a helicopter crash that killed everyone. It would have ended up making the film way grim; it was just too much.
FANG: The film is styled as a documentary. Did the actors—including yourself—shoot any of the actual footage?
BOWEN: Ti shot 80-90 percent of it, but when there was no room for him to hide, Joe shot the rest. The most stressful things I’ve ever done on a movie—all two times—was touch the camera. Joe’s one of those actors who’s also a filmmaker.
FANG: What do you say to those fans and sales agents who say that found footage is dead?
BOWEN: I always said I’d never do one of those films—and I still don’t think I did. THE SACRAMENT is not just found footage, but put together well. But it’s not really for me to decide. There are some structural answers within the product that resolve that for me. We spent a lot of time with lighting and trying to give nuance—and in typical found footage, that’s often not the case.
FANG: You’ve been in so many genre films since THE SIGNAL several years ago; what attracts you to horror in particular?
BOWEN: It was a happy accident. While growing up, that was the thing that turned me on. THE SIGNAL was made with people I went to college with; some of them, I’ve known for 27 years. That’s how it started, and horror directors and I began finding each other at festivals or in LA, and started hanging out. We went to the same kind of movies that weren’t just horror films; there was such a weird niche for some of us. It was genre, but we didn’t always know what to classify it as. We care a lot about it, and in the bigger sense, we also care a lot about cinema. It makes logical sense. There are exploitable elements to doing genre work; it’s something we’re comfortable with, something we know well.
FANG: Would you say it gives you an opportunity to explore a wide range of emotions?
BOWEN: Selfishly, as an actor, I’ve gotten to play way better characters in genre than if I was trying to get roles in the studio system. And I’ve found a network of better filmmakers. I’ve worked almost a decade, and been permanently altered by that process. The thing that matters legitimately is story—and whether or not we’re going to make a good movie. I don’t know how to turn my brain on to be concerned with the silly things I’d have to be concerned about inside the studio system. After going through that for a certain number of years, I thought, maybe the stories are the most important thing—and as Ti has said, “As long as we keep making them, maybe they’ll catch up to us.”
FANG: What’s next for you?
BOWEN: I just want Ti to keep making films I can star in! But I also wrote a script with my writing partner that I want to direct this summer. And I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I’d like to be in another movie.