Ti West’s “Dead & Lonely” (2009)

With the advent of his career occurring squarely in the middle of the social media age, director Ti West created opportunities for himself by befriending and collaborating with like-minded contemporaries, much like the Film Brat generation had done decades before.  The SXSW success of his earlier films THE ROOST (2005) and TRIGGER MAN (2007) led to burgeoning relationships with tastemakers within the Mumblecore movement—most notably Joe Swanberg.  Their friendship paved the way for West using Swanberg’s muse, Greta Gerwig, to great effect in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), but it also opened doors and granted access to some of Swanberg’s executive friends at IFC.  In a bid to build buzz for the imminent release of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, West decided to collaborate with IFC on a short web series called DEAD & LONELY (2009).

Released daily during the week leading up to Halloween that year, the series split its story over five separate episodes- “DATE OR DIE”, “MAKING CONTACT”, “SECOND THOUGHTS”, THE DATE PART 1”, and “THE DATE PART 2”.  One narrative spans the episodes, telling the story of a lonely, nerdy guy (Justin Rice), who invites a strange girl named Lee (Paige Stark) that he met on the dating site dateordie.net to his home, only to find that he’s just invited a bloodthirsty vampire intent on sucking his blood.  Each big story beat is spaced out so that each episode ends with a little cliffhanger that leads directly into the next story beat.

West’s collaborators on DEAD & LONELY are some of the biggest names in Mumblecore cinema.  Swanberg himself serves on the crew, as well as David Lowery, an editor/director in his own right that would later go on to great success at the 2013 Sundance film festival with his feature AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS.  Justin Rice, of the band Bishop Allen, rose to indie prominence when he starred in MUTAL APPRECTIATION (2005), directed by the founding father of Mumblecore, Andrew Bujalski.  In DEAD & LONELY, Rice doesn’t stray too far from the awkward, nerdy character he usually plays, which is basically just a fictionalized version of himself.  Paige Stark plays Lee, the predatory vampire.  She’s expectedly eerie in her behavior, but she doesn’t quite pull of the sultry sex appeal that West aims to imbue her character with.  Swanberg also provides his voice as an unhelpful friend over the phone, as does Lena Dunham of TINY FURNITURE (2010) fame in the role of Justin’s ex-girlfriend.  West even gives himself a little cameo in the form of a profile photo on Date or Die’s website.

IFC may have produced DEAD & LONELY, but it certainly looks like the burden of funding was shouldered by West.  The web series was shot (probably by West himself) on a prosumer DV camera like the kind Mumblecore director Aaron Katz shot his early features DANCE PARTY USA (2006) and QUIET CITY (2007) on.  West throws a black matte over the image in post to approximate a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the camerawork seems mostly made as up the filmmakers went along.  By this, I mean that West composes his shots mainly in extreme close-ups and unmotivated rack zooms— all aesthetic hallmarks of the Mumblecore movement.  By appropriating the lo-fi video look of his contemporaries, West shows he is very much a filmmaker of his generation.  Even the film’s location, a dumpy apartment in LA’s Silverlake neighborhood—a hipster mecca and my former (and hopefully future) stomping grounds—reinforces the cultural trappings of this particular indie movement.

West’s regular sound designer Graham Reznick pulls double duty, doing both the mix and the score.  He creates a pulsing ambient soundscape, with drums that pump like the rhythm of a heartbeat.  The score buzzes under the entirety of the episodes, propelling the story along and sustaining dread where it might otherwise be lost.

The lo-fi look is part of West’s aesthetic, but it doesn’t have the same old-fashioned patina that usually comes with shooting on film.  Instead, the digital video format creates something at once both new and disposable, and West is forced to appropriate the style of Mumblecore while applying horror genre conceits to it.  The result is almost a casual, indifferent horror—not truly horrifying but darkly quirky and detached.  As West’s first foray into the peculiar, nebulous format of the web series, it generated a healthy amount of buzz on blogs but didn’t make much of a splash beyond that.  It was a great way to introduce West to audiences who might otherwise be familiar with him, but the final product probably needed to be of a higher quality to lure people into investing their time in his feature work.  West’s career growth here lies instead on the social side of things, as he strengthened his bonds with the Mumblecore crowd, and used their influence to realize his next round of works in inspiring new dimensions.

Credits:

Produced by: John Norris, Ti West

Production Team: Ti West, David Lowery, Joe Swanberg

Music by: Graham Reznick