Look, I’m not one to brag, but I’ve hugged A.J. Bowen. Of course tens of thousands of people could make the same claim, but how many of them managed this feat shortly after giving his latest film a C+ review grade at last year’s Fantastic Fest? Any fear I had falling into his arms melted away when I realized he bore no ill will my way and instead was a funny, smart and personable guy. It probably helped that he knew my opinion carries little to no weight, but still.
I guess what I’m saying is I’m now one degree away from hugging Amy Seimetz, and that’s not too shabby.
Anyway, The Sacrament. Writer/director Ti West has made several feature films now, and while his love of genre and intentionally methodical pacing has remained steady across most of them he’s made a noticeable shift with his newest one away from the supernatural and into the evils of the real world. The result is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s an entertaining and tense-enough watch where the parts are somewhat better than the whole. The film is newly released to Blu-ray this week, and one of the disc’s special features is a fun and informative commentary track featuring West, Bowen and Seimetz.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for The Sacrament.
The Sacrament (2014)
Commentators: Ti West (writer/director), A.J. Bowen (actor), Amy Seimetz (actor)
1. West cut roughly 30 minutes from the film consisting mostly of expositional scenes and information that felt important and interesting but could easily be picked up by attentive viewers. So if you can’t figure out where the cult members got the wood they used to build their shacks then that’s on you.
2. The majority of the film was shot right outside Savannah GA in a rural area made to look like a nameless Central/South American jungle.
3. Early scenes showing Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Kentucker Audley traveling from New York City to their jungle locale were actually shot guerrilla style by giving the men cameras and flying them from Savannah to Atlanta to JFK and then back again. They basically filmed pick-up shots along the way. Bowen says the biggest concern was that their backpacks were actually just filled with junk to make them look full leading him to worry that a security checkpoint could flag them for suspicious behavior.
4. West, Bowen and Swanberg were taking a helicopter ride hoping to get some ocean footage when the pilots decided to land the aircraft because some kind of warning light was flashing. The pilots were discussing the issue during the flight, unaware that the three men in back could hear them over the headsets. They landed, spoke to some experts who also didn’t recognize the light and then unanimously decided to chance flying back to their home base. “Cool people eat it in helicopters,” said Bowen. “This is fine.”
5. West recalls how weird it was directing his cast to occasionally glance directly into the camera lens. “There was a rhythm we all had to get into,” says Seimetz. “Once we got into it you really learned how to use the glances to create tension.” Bowen adds that they’re “built-in breathing moments… that gave the subtext that you’re normally trying to throw in there without saying anything.”
6. All three commentators praise the film’s numerous extras to the point that West says “it’s unfair to call them extras because so much of the tone of the movie is based on these amazing background performers.” Bowen also points out that many of the extras were committed “to not like us” because in character they’re supposed to not trust these intruders. Seimetz meanwhile recalls finishing a scene after multiple takes only to hear an extra say “Oh thank god, she finally got it.”
7. Kate Lyn Sheil is not Australian. For the record, I knew this already, but apparently some reviews/comments on the film mentioned that “the Australian girl was good.”
8. They shot on a Canon C300. I include this only because it appears to interest so many of you.
9. Very little of the dialogue is improvised, but one scene that is features Swanberg waxing on in character about his concerns of the situation they’re all in.
10. West and Bowen laugh at (and with) Seimetz’s “T-Rex hands” in the scene where her character tells the guys that their interview request has been approved. “It kills me,” says West.
11. “There are so many long takes in this movie,” says West. “What I generally like in films is not a lot of editing.” No one who’s seen House of the Devil of The Innkeepers would disagree with this.
12. The big sit-down interview between Bowen’s character and Father (Gene Jones) was expected to be a troubling shoot for various reasons. West decided to do a first take with the understanding that problems would arise — Jones forgetting dialogue, crowd extras behaving poorly, etc — and they would revise as necessary, but that ended up being unnecessary. That first take, essentially the practice take, played straight through without a problem. Jones delivered twelve minutes of dialogue without an error, and the crowd — who hadn’t read the script — behaved and acted just as that kind of crowd would before their “savior.”
13. Per West, Jones’ take on Father was to play him as “an evil man who wasn’t mean.” He goes on to say that while that seems subtle “but it’s everything, because if the cult members are just movie villains then no one would believe that anyone would join.”
14. The longest gaps in the commentary occur during Gene Jones’ scenes. “We’re doing it again,” says Seimetz. “We just want to watch him perform.”
15. Bowen recalls the scene immediately after the interview as being “a pain in the ass.” He told Swanberg as they were walking away post-interview “Joe I fucked that up man, I fucked the movie up. We just had a really good scene and I fucked the whole movie up with my stupid face and my shitty acting.” Swanberg replied correctly with “It’s okay man, it will be all right.” Because seriously, this is some of Bowen’s best work. Same stupid face though.
16. The party with the gospel singers was the first time Bowen recalls not wanting a scene to end. “I was like, ‘are you sure we don’t need to shoot more?'”
17. Someone tried to sell Rocket the goat to Bowen for $20. “Good deal,” says West. “Goats are cheap. We found that out on this movie.” Honestly I would have thought he already knew that after House of the Devil.
18. West points out the single shot scene that begins after the little girl hands the note to Bowen’s character. All three recall the difficulty and multiple takes required to nail it even though it’s not a shot that calls attention to itself as a “one-er.” Seimetz takes credit/blame for a few flubs, but Bowen points out that several of the reasons for multiple takes were due to technical cues.
19. Apparently you can put an ice cube in your mouth to avoid having visible breath while shooting in cold temperatures. Movie magic!
20. “We never really thought of it as found footage,” says West. “It’s like semantics to start talking about this.” He’s right of course, and he’s correct to point out that this is more of a faux-documentary and therefore not liable for the typical found footage complaints. What he doesn’t mention though is that regardless of what it’s called the film still breaks its own rules on more than one occasion regarding the POVs. The opening walk into the village, for example, is shot on one camera yet repeatedly cuts mid-sentence to different cast members. Pick-up shots are one thing that could have been added in back at Vice HQ, but it’s impossible for a single camera to catch all that it does during this walk.
21. Bowen and Seimetz point out that the fact that the documentary was edited/crafted by the survivors makes for more tension and hints at a “moral grey area” in that they’re possibly exploiting the situation. In addition to being funny because the real Vice would love to have captured something like this, the idea is actually a pretty interesting angle. I always saw the film as being less tense knowing that these guys escape. Basically it was less suspenseful because I know they get out and complete their doc.
22. West hints at the great depths of his movie knowledge by referencing Stay Tuned with John Ritter. No one talks about that movie.
23. Seimetz broke, or at least injured, her hand in the scene where she rushes the camera to stop her brother from filming. It’s pretty much West’s fault as he had told her to go “full Costanza” during the scene.
24. Producer Eli Roth’s one note to West after viewing a rough cut was that he wanted to see “someone being forced to drink it [the poison].” West was able to do a re-shoot in Brooklyn to film a close-up of a woman being forced to drink some of the Kool-Aid.
25. Bowen improves his street cred (with me anyway) by mentioning Robert Cormier’s brilliant novel The Chocolate War while commenting on Jones’ performance in his final scenes. In particular, Bowen discussed with Jones a scene from the book that thematically mirrors the moment where Father sees what he has wrought, the dozens of dead people on the ground, and realizes too late the effect of his decision.
26. West actually thanks the MPAA for the R-rating despite the scene where the mother slices her daughter’s throat before getting shot in the head. It’s not graphic as far as what it shows, but he’s right that the context is important.
27. A stretch of the commentary — several minutes where Swanberg’s character is walking through and filming the carnage — sees the trio distracting themselves from what’s onscreen with talk about movie tricks and drawings made by one of the crew. “We’re trying to lighten the mood,” Seimetz says. “This is so dark.”
28. West was inspired by a real-life suicide when it came to the effects for Father’s self-inflicted headshot. He says the infamous video of Budd Dwyer killing himself and the “faucet [of blood] running out of his nose” led them to duplicate it here. This of course led me to google the video he referenced as I had never seen it. So thanks for that Mr. West. Thanks for that.
29. The scene where Bowen pulls Sheil’s dead body over him as a shield was planned so that her head would land directly over his. “What Ti failed to mention to me,” Bowen says “was that he had filled her mouth with that shit.” The shit in question is a drool-like concoction that West hoped would add to the scene.
30. The original ending featured Bowen and Swanberg reaching the helicopter and taking off only to have the pilot say “We must follow Father’s orders” before crashing the chopper and killing everyone aboard. Bowen views that ending as the equivalent of cutting to black and then putting giant block letters onscreen saying “Fuck You.”
Best in Commentary
- Seimetz: “That’s the helicopter that I didn’t get to go in.”
- West: “There’s a good shot of a goat coming up that I’m a fan of. It’s like Terrence Malick goat shot coming up. The Tree of Life goat.”
- Bowen, to Seimetz: “Are we ever going to talk about your Dances With Wolves shirt?”
The Sacrament is an okay film punctuated with moments of greatness, but the commentary track is far more consistent in its entertainment/informational value. All three participants offer fun or interesting anecdotes, but more than that their love of film and the people involved in this one in particular can be felt through their voices and words. The trio are also friends in real life which helps immensely in creating a smooth commentary experience.