Quantcast Eli Roth 'Are You Going?' interview

Writer/Director
Eli Roth!!!
Icons Of Fright fans are in for a treat! We are proud to present a reprint of a never before published interview with Eli Roth conducted by Christopher P. Garetano for 'Are You Going?' magazine Issue #6. Chris put the completion of that issue on hold to complete his first full length documentary 'Horror Business'. This is a rare interview with Eli Roth PRIOR to the release of Cabin Fever. We're looking forward to catching up with Eli when 'Hostel' drops, but for now, kick back and read this Are You Going?/FRIGHT exclusive interview with writer/director Eli Roth!!! - by Christopher P. Garetano - reprinted 12/05

Please tell us a little about Eli Roth and your film history?

I grew up in Newton, Mass, just outside of Boston. I saw 'The Exorcist' when I was six years old, and from that point on I was pretty obsessed with horror. I got sawed in half with a chainsaw at my Bar-Mitzvah reception, and at night instead of having a dance we watched 'Mother's Day'. I pretty much spent all my time either renting the most disgusting horror films I could find, or chopping up my brothers with household tools in VHS and Super-8 home movies. They were great sports about it, and my parents were incredibly supportive. I told them at age 10 that I wanted to be a director, and they were like "go for it." My father's a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst and a professor at the Harvard Medical School, and my mother's an artist, but we grew up in our household with an appreciation for film. The whole family would sit around on Saturday nights watching films like 'Pieces' and 'Basket Case'. We all loved the terrible ones as much as the classics.

When I was 16 I found out about N.Y.U. film school, and pretty much made it my life's mission to go there. I was lucky enough to get in their early, and had a great four years making films. It's certainly not necessary to go to film school if you want to be a director, but I got a chance to try out a lot of techniques, including optical printing, title design, and stop motion animation, which I truly love. My brothers and I used to make stop motion super-8 films when we were kids, but it was mostly films of the He-Man action figures gang-banging Princess Leia, things like that.

After N.Y.U. I lived in New York City working in film production. I worked on probably close to 150 movies, doing everything from assistant editor to assistant to the director, assistant to the producer, production assistant, and A.D. I would do absolutely anything on any movie, even for no pay. I started this my first week at N.Y.U., and by the time I was 20, during my junior year, I was running Fred Zollo's office. Fred was an interesting, eclectic New York based producer who at the time was shooting 'Quiz Show', was in pre-production on 'The Paper', and had produced 'Mississippi Burning'. He also produced a number of Broadway and off-Broadway plays, including works by such playwrights as David Mamet, Eric Bogosian, David Rabe, and Tony Kushner. That was where I first met David Lynch.

How was it working with David Lynch?

David Lynch is probably the nicest guy I've ever met in the film business. My father took me to see 'Blue Velvet' when I was 14 years old. That film was one of those seminole movies, along with 'Porky's', 'The Shining' and 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' that changed the way I look at movies. I had never seen such incredible, bizarre detail in a film before. When I first saw 'Eraserhead' it blew me away - I could barely speak. I just simply couldn't understand how someone could have a mind that would create something like that.

One day Fred Zollo said to me "David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti need some research done, are you interested?" Lynch and Badalamenti were developing a project for Broadway, and needed some factual information about the subject matter. I couldn't believe it - just talking to David Lynch, it was more surreal than anything I'd seen in his films. So I put together a team of 7 researchers, and we used all our college facilities to get as much information as we could for him. Because we quickly realized we couldn't say the name Lynch around other NYU film kids without the entire room stopping, we started referring to him as "Mr. X." Everything became about Mr. X, and the information we collected we called "The X Files." And this was before the television show! David loved it. I remember in the middle of shooting my senior thesis film, 'Restaurant Dogs', I had to go have lunch with Fred Zollo, David Lynch, and Angelo Badalamenti, because David was in town. We went to Sardi's on 44th street, which is a classic New York theater producer's restaurant. Just sitting there with these three guys, I couldn't even speak I was so giddy. And the best part was they served us these tiny chickens, so I could make 'Eraserhead' references, which David appreciated.

I quit working for Zollo in 1995 so I could write the first draft of 'Cabin Fever'. However, I never lost touch with David, and continued doing research for him. When 'Mulholland Drive' went into production, David got money for me from the production to fund a trip to the Library of Congress, to do a full, comprehensive research project. It was massive, I spent months putting together what was essentially a PhD thesis. (David has requested that the subject matter remain secret until the project is written, but it took a lot of digging to find what he wanted. )

David was so impressed with what I'd done, that he called me in 1999 to work on his internet project, Davidlynch.com. He said "Eli, man, we're goin' on the net! It's gonna be swingin'." By this time I had moved to Los Angeles, so I would go over to his house and we'd just start talking ideas. He had about 2,000 ideas he wanted to shoot, and I'd help coordinate and produce them. At the time he was doing the site with Neal Edelstein, who was a producer on 'Mulholland Drive' and went on to produce 'The Ring'.  We had a blast. I'd go over there and David would say "Come on, let's go" and we'd grab a camera and go shoot stuff. (You can see the shorts on Davidlynch.com. If you watch carefully in the music video for his band Blue Bob, you'll see me playing Naomi Watts' cheesy new boyfriend.) I also helped David put his movies onto DVD, which was really cool. And as you may know David doesn't do audio commentaries, so just sitting next to him during "Eraserhead," I got to hear my own director's commentary straight from the source. But you have to be careful what you ask him about - if you ask him the meaning of anything he just gives you this stare that can be really, really scary.

When I got 'Cabin Fever' going, David was totally supportive. He gave me artistic advice, and vouched for me when people wanted to know if I was a decent guy or if I was going to make a straight to video piece of crap. After the shoot, he met my leading ladies Jordan Ladd and Cerina Vincent and within a week was shooting projects with them for his site. He's a great, great, great guy and probably one of the funniest people I have ever met. The most difficult part about working for David is that he can sit and tell stories all day and you never get anything done because you're laughing so hard. I gave him a "Very Special Thanks" in Cabin Fever.

How did the story for Cabin Fever come about and what was it about the story that inspired you to make the film?

The initial idea for 'Cabin Fever' came about while I was working on a horse farm in Iceland when I was 19 years old. I had been cleaning out a barn filled with 20-year old hay, and got a skin infection in my face. I woke up in the middle of the night scratching my cheek, thinking I had a mosquito bite. I looked at my hand and saw chunks of skin and gobs of blood. (It was like something out of 'Poltergeist' or 'Scanners' - that bad.)

The next morning I attempted to shave, and, literally, shaved half my face off. The strangest part was that not only did it not hurt - it actually satisfied some strange itch underneath my skin. I went to see a dermatologist, who, judging by the horrified and puzzled look on her face, had never seen anything like this before. She gave me some steroid creme and, luckily, it cleared up. (I am to this day obsessed with skin care products as a result of this.) Shortly thereafter, I found an article about a flesh eating virus that devours you entirely in less than 24 hours. If it's not caught early on, the only way to stop it was by dismembering yourself. I was 20 years old at the time, and began to outline what would later become the first draft of 'Cabin Fever'.

It was my dream to make a movie like 'The Evil Dead' where best friends are turned into flesh eating monsters, and they have to dismember each other or they will become the monster. I thought the flesh eating itself was a great twist, and the kids could become the monsters simply by the horrendous way they treated each other in times of crisis. I wrote the film playing on my own personal fears of getting sick, and how I deal with the question "Can you take me to the doctor?" I'd love to think I'm the type of person who would give someone a ride, but if someone's really too sick to drive then I don't want them in my car. It's that very dilemma that drove the script, and every character deals with it differently. I think people will be shocked at some of the things these kids do, but it's never so far out of reach that they wouldn't consider doing the same things themselves. There's something very primal about the survival instinct of wanting to get rid of the infected ones, yet intellectually and emotionally it's too disturbing to think about because we will all have to confront it one day.

'Evil Dead' was also inspirational for practical reasons, in that it was shot for under $500,000, in one location in the woods. All I ever wanted to do growing up was to make balls-out horror movies, and by the time I was out of film school, it felt like it was a lost art form. All my favorite directors had either "moved on" or they just sucked. Horror had turned to shit - nothing was good, and even straight to video movies were made with little to no imagination. Occasionally a film will come out of nowhere that I'd enjoy like 'Mute Witness', but for the most part, American horror films in the mid-90's was a dead genre. I knew if I wanted to be a director, my first film had to make money. And horror films always make money. People are amazingly forgiving with horror films, just so long as they're scared. I wanted to do what I know, and I knew horror better than any other genre, except for maybe 80's sex comedies. However, I found it was a nightmare trying to get people to give me money for the film. Investors were scared that I had only done student films, and even though my NYU thesis film was a student academy award winner in 1995, people still weren't comfortable investing in a horror film. So I went to work on productions, meeting whoever I could, always making more contacts and learning more about how to run a set.

The initial spirit of 'Cabin Fever' was to grab a camera, go in the woods, and try to make the craziest, most disgusting movie we could. Thank God it took me seven years to make, because the film I made at age 29 was much better than the one I would have made at age 23.

It seems like Cabin Fever is a "pure" horror film. How have studios been reacting to screenings of Cabin Fever?

I would definitely say that 'Cabin Fever' is a "pure" horror film, in that it is structurally written and shot with classic genre conventions of horror. The key is to set the film in a familiar world, then twist it around and fuck with people's expectations of what they think is going to happen. There's definitely humor in the film, but the humor is used to release tension, to endear the characters to the audience, and so people will let their guard down before a big scare. The situation never becomes a joke, and nobody's making annoying, self-referential ironic comments.

The reaction to the film from both the fans and the studios has been astounding. It's one of those things where I just say to myself "I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!" but can't ever say it out loud because I'll look like a dickhead. Every single studio and production company passed on 'Cabin Fever'. All of them. I re-submitted this movie to Dimension films probably 5 times. These same people were fighting over it in a bidding war at the 2002 Toronto film festival. It was insane.

I didn't set out to make the greatest movie ever in the history of horror, I just wanted to make the kind of movie that I miss watching. I'm still very much a 15 year old at heart. I spent every dime I have on this film, and it took me years to make it simply because nobody would listen to me. These idiot executives at film companies would say "Nobody wants 70's or 80's horror. They want irony. They want jokes." It drove me insane.
 
Every time a horror movie would come out I'd see it opening day and just be so upset they used quick-cutting, flashy camera work, and had blaring "alterna-music" during the supposedly scary scenes. It's like these people had never seen 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre'. Nobody was concentrating on mood or atmosphere or making the film look dark and grainy. And then when a film like 'Valentine' bombs, executives would tell me "See? Horror's dead!" And I'd say "No, shitty movies are dead. If you make a decent horror film, fans will respond." So to have the horror fans get it and really enjoy it is the greatest compliment of all. Now the same executives who didn't get the script all love it.

When I showed the rough cut to the guys at K.N.B. effects, they turned to me and said "This is the best horror film of the last 15 years, possibly since 'Evil Dead 2'." I was thrilled, but a little scared. I mean, these guys worked on 'Evil Dead 2', and they were already comparing my film to it. I think in a way the worst thing you can do is overhype the movie and build up false expectations, but at the same time I've very flattered by the compliments. I think if people have expectations of going to the movies and having a fun time, being grossed out, laughing, and getting scared, then their expectations will be met.

It took me six years to find a team of producers who supported my vision and helped me raise the money and produce the film. They are amazing and I could not have done it without them. We NEVER had the money we needed to shoot this film. One of our investors pulled out 3 days before shooting, and so we had to raise money as we were shooting. Then these fuckers from the union in NYC drove down 12 hours to North Carolina where we were shooting and threatened the crew and extorted us for all our money.

We had to shut down and go back to Los Angeles, where we had a borrowed editing system, and edited a trailer that we used to raise the money we needed. It took months, but we got it together, and finally completed the shooting in April of 2002. Then we finished cutting and did the sound work over the summer of 2002. We literally took the movie from the lab and got on a plane to Toronto, completely broke, way over budget, and exhausted from having worked every single day, nights and weekends included, for the last year and a half.

At the press and industry screening in Toronto, I was in shock. The line went out of the theater, and down the hallway of the multiplex, and out into the mall, back to the escalator. There were probably 200 people who couldn't get in, so they added another screening. And then another. And then another. These were the buyers and critics, not even the public yet! I just looked around, amazed. It somehow was the movie that everyone had been waiting to see, since there were so few commercial movies for sale last year. When the lights went down people were applauding for the credits. These are jaded film buyers, who had been watching movies for 12 hours a day, for 10 days straight. If they don't like a movie they leave after 5 minutes, and they're already clapping. 15 minutes into the movie people were getting up. I soon realized they were talking to our sales agent outside, bidding on the movie. By the time the lights went up at the end we had 7 offers from major studios. People were going nuts during the screening, jumping and screaming and applauding. I couldn't believe it. It felt like I was hallucinating. Every single person who had passed on the movie in the script stage was now fighting for it in a bidding war.

The reaction from Hollywood has been great. People see the movie and go "That reminds me of the movies from the 70's and 80's. How come nobody's done a movie like this?" I think straight horror's going to make a comeback. 'Jeepers Creepers' and 'The Ring' have a lot to do with that. The challenge now is the PG-13 rating, which everyone is obsessed with because 'The Ring' did so well.

Who was your Director of Photography? What format was Cabin Fever shot on, and what was you inspiration for the overall look of the film?


My director of photographer is a D.P. named Scott Kevan. I met him through my producer Lauren Moews, who had made seven films with Scott. I saw a film he shot called 'Briar Patch', and was stunned at how beautiful it looked. Scott's a very, very, very smart, talented guy who went to A.F.I. and has a natural gift for lighting and camera movement. We very clearly from the start stated that we wanted to make a film that looked and felt like a 70's horror movie. We would watch 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' before shooting certain scenes, and 'House by the Cemetery' when shooting the interiors. I wanted grain, zooms, and natural lighting. We even went so far as to watch films like 'Valentine' to see what not to do.

So many horror films are overlit - they look like music videos and aren't scary at all. We didn't want the film to look cheap, we wanted it to look well-crafted, but not slick and polished. I felt so comfortable working with Scott that I could just let him take over the setup of the shot, so I could concentrate on getting the performances from the actors. Sometimes he'd just say "I got something, I think you're gonna like it," and I'd just sit back and let him surprise me. It was a great collaboration.

George Folsey, Jr. was the one who suggested I shoot Super 35, or Widescreen as most people know it. George was John Landis' partner for many years, and he had edited 'Animal House', and had produced and edited 'The Blues Brothers', 'American Werewolf in London' and 'Trading Places', among others. George was kind of our editing godfather on the film, and his son Ryan did a fantastic job editing the movie. From the beginning, we wanted the film to look bigger budget than it was, and that's one of those low budget filmmaking tricks, that, if done right, can really elevate the level of your picture. My producer Lauren Moews was very supportive of the idea everything we do help make the film look like a "theatrical" movie, and found the money to shoot Widescreen. It turns out it was not much more than our original budget, and it really gives the film a much bigger, more cinematic feel. I wanted long, wide shots so we'd really feel the isolation of these kids in the woods. All the Fulci and Carpenter films are shot widescreen, so I knew we were doing the right thing. It was the best decision we ever made. Scott said that after shooting Widescreen he never wants to go back to 1:85.

With the release of films like Cabin Fever, House of 1000 Corpses, and even remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of The Dead, and Willard Do you feel that the so called "pure" horror films will return to movie theaters?


That all depends on the audience. If people come out and support 'Cabin Fever' and these other films, then more straight horror films will get made. The industry is watching my film very, very carefully, because it came out of nowhere, it was made totally independently for 1/100th what most films cost, and it has no stars. It's a throwback to a different era of horror, one that's not self-referential or a joke. If it does well it will enable a lot of other filmmakers to get their projects going.

The studios will produce whatever's making money that weekend. I hope pure horror returns, but it's up to the filmmakers and the fans. We have to deliver the goods, and the fans have to come out opening weekend to support it. Opening weekend is everything - it determines whether the studio will support your film or not. I recently saw 'Final Destination 2' and loved it. If that film does well, it will really help get more hard R films made.

How long was the Cabin Fever shoot and what was your preparation time?


We shot 'Cabin Fever' in 24 days, and prepped the film in little over a month. It was pretty insane, kind of like a suicide mission. My D.P. had never gotten more than 14 setups in a day, and our first day we did 27. We were averaging between 25-40 camera setups per day, and that was with short daylight hours and tons of make up effects and blood. However, it took me so long to get the film made, that over the years I had storyboarded the film and gone over it so clearly in my mind that I knew exactly what I wanted. My D.P. Scott and I would storyboard and shot list every scene, and it really, really helped. I went to North Carolina with my produer Lauren Moews and Sam Froelich, and pre-scouted locations in August, and then returned in September to do the full prep of the film. It all came together at the last minute.

I had one week of rehearsals with the actors. That was probably the most valuable thing I did. I told them "this is low budget, we're shooting daylight, and we've got to nail every scene when we shoot it. You're gonna get 2, maybe 3 takes maximum, so if you have a question let's work it out now." We read through the script and re-wrote the dialogue to tailor it closer to each actor's personality. The cast was so great and prepared that by the time we walked on set they all knew their lines could nail it in a take or two.

What advice do you have for filmmakers that are trying to break into the movie business?

You have to have relentless perseverance. You cannot quit, no matter what. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it's true. It took me seven and a half years to make 'Cabin Fever', but I did it, and now people take me seriously as a filmmaker. Write a commercial movie for your first film or you'll have difficulty ever working again. I know so many people who made "personal" films right off the bat, and they blew hundreds of thousands of dollars and lost every dime they had. These "personal" movies sit on a shelf. Make a genre film. Make a film about what you know and what you love. And don't be in such a rush. Things usually happen for a particular reason, and while everyone gets frustrated, make sure you learn from all your experiences because you will need them one day. And don't kid yourself - you should move to Los Angeles. I tried for years to get things going in New York City, and in four years in L.A. made 20 short films and a feature. All the money's out here, and I wish I had come out here sooner.

What's next for Eli Roth?

I am collaborating with Richard Kelly on a project, which I'm very excited about. I saw 'Donnie Darko' while I was editing my film and was blown away. Then Richard and his partner Sean McKittrick came to a screening of 'Cabin Fever', and loved it so much they asked me to direct a project for them. I can't say very much about it, but it's going to be really, really dark and fucked up. Rich and I will write it, Rich and Sean will produce it, and I'll direct it. The three of us will have complete creative control. It should really fuck people up.

I'm also adapting a Stephen King short story, which is pretty much the culmination of every directing dream I've ever had. It's going to be a straight horror film, and I will write and direct it. I'm also working on several other horror projects that I'm writing with other people, as well as some crazy hard R 80's style sex comedies. That's the genre I want to help revive next.

Please give us some words of wisdom.

I would say that anyone who has serious ambitions of making it in the film business should work on as many film sets as they can before ever shooting their own film. I worked for over 10 years on film sets before I shot 'Cabin Fever', doing everything from being a set production assistant to assistant editor to assistant to the director, producer - you name it, I've done it. People seem to be in such a rush to get out there and make their movie right away. The truth of the matter is, I'm glad it took me 7 and a half years to get 'Cabin Fever' made.

I thought I knew it all at age 22, but beyond student films I had no idea how a set was really run. I worked on so many sets in so many capacities, that when tragedy struck on my set I knew how to handle it. Problem solving was second nature. And because I had budgeted and scheduled movies for a living in New York, I knew what was a realistic amount I could shoot in a day. Think about it: if you were going to be a professional basketball player, would you want to just join a championship NBA team? No fucking way. Would you want to be a doctor without having gone to medical school or done any internships? It's unthinkable. And yet, everyone and their mother thinks they can just step on a movie set and direct a picture. You may know a lot about movies, but making movies is much, much more than that. You have to know how to handle people, because you're really the general of a small army. And if you inspire faith in the troops and they feel there is competent leadership at the healm, you'll work wonders. But if they feel you have no idea what you're doing and you deal with problems irrationally, the movie will ultimately suffer. Especially if you are working on a low budget. My experience working as a babysitter and camp counselor was more helpful than my experience in film school.

As of right now, I am the only person in my entire graduating class at N.Y.U. film school who has written, produced and directed a motion picture that will be seen in a wide theatrical release. That is no accident: I just never gave up, and never listened to the people who tried to convince me that nobody wants to see horror.



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