Eli Roth is a director with boundless energy, energy visible in his scaringly debut film, Cabin Fever. But while a lover of horror and gore, this unique presence in staid Hollywood also wants to bring back sex in the teen comedy. Paul Fischer spoke to the irreverent director.
Question: So what is it about horror, as a genre, that appealed to you as a filmmaker?
Answer: Well, first of all, in terms of story telling, the different things you can do. You can go wild. I mean there’s no boundary in what you can do. I mean, you, in horror movies you have to establish the rules but, you know, if you watch a movie like Evil Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Dead Alive, I mean, the camera work, the lights, the colours, the sounds are such, there’s such energy. You can be so creative. You can do anything and in the genre like, and the beauty of that is that, it’s like if you’re making a period drama, and a car drives by, the whole movie is ruined. The people are taken out of it. But in horror movies every film maker starts making movies on low budgets, that if you make it on a low budget and it looks grainy it actually adds to the effect of making a movie scarier; you can experiment with sounds, lighting. I mean, there are so many things you can do in a horror film.
Question: And how do you make horror film remake?
Answer: Well, I think that, you know, making it unique is, is the most difficult part now because everybody’s seen everything. So, you know, what you have to, I think that what people, the unfortunate mistake that people make, is they try to make it unique by like overdoing it with camerawork and really fast editing and trying to make MTV editing and instead of thinking about the idea, you know, it’s the ideas in the core of what is scary that’s going to make a movie unique. You know, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is such a scary movie, um, and it really was reflecting you know the fear of what was going on at the time. You know, you know that’s why 20 days later it’s successful. It’s really tapping into a fear that currently was going on in the population and, you know, whereas you look at a forgettable film like 13 Ghosts or Ghost Ship, they kind of blend into one because there’s nothing really that scary about the idea. So I think in making it unique, you know, it’s the idea itself that has to be unique.
Question: But so many horror films are about teenagers and they deal with, deal with adolescence. So are you tapping into the fears of adolescence in society or are you tapping into what mainstream cinema requires you to deliver?
Answer: Well, I can only tap into what’s scary for me. I think that if you make a movie that’s honest and truthful with what truthfully reflects your own interests, then that’s what’s going to make it scary. I think that there’s definitely something about adolescence where they have this optimism and they’re at an age where they’re adults but they still act like stupid kids. So that when you put them in a situation where there’s danger, like if you had a bunch of 30-year-olds in Cabin Fever, there would be no conflict because they resolve the problem rationally. But there’s something about that adolescent mind where they do think that they’re adults and they want to act like adults, but they still act impulsive and irrationally and I think that that’s one of the reasons you get so many things with teenagers and that, “cause they can do stupid things and you go oh, it’s a teenager that they’re acting that way, and I think that everybody can relate to that. You know, teenagers certainly relate to it and older people go yeah, you know what, I was just like that or I had a friend who was just like that.
Question: When you write a script like this, do you base any of these characters on your own?
Answer: Everyone is based on me. Like everything in this movie happened to me. Like in this movie when I was 12-years-old, I got a virus in my head that paralysed me for six weeks and I couldn’t walk and I basically sit in my bed reading and watching Elvira, and just thinking that I might never walk again. And then when I was a teenager, like 16 or 17, I went to Russia and I got a parasite from drinking the water which was in me for probably five months after I had mononucleosis and I would be there in my bed drinking this medicine that felt like poison, my stomach was on fire and all I could think about was an army that invaded my body that was eating me, that was eating my flesh and if I didn’t kill it first, it was going to kill me. Then when I was 19, I went to Iceland and I was working on a farm and I got this bacteria in my face and I started shaving my face and literally taking chunks of my face off because the skin was dead. Then, when I was 22, I woke up one morning and I feel down and my legs were completely rotted out, like all infected, sort of like cracked and it turns that I had psoriasis. And I went to the doctor, and he said it’s not contagious but your body’s freaking out, figuring out, how to deal with it. It’s genetic, there’s nothing you can do and so, I just thought that my God, there is this feeling that we are not at the top of the food chain, it’s virus and bacteria, we’re not, we don’t own our bodies, we’re basically renting space and that at any time, my dad’s a doctor so I’ve always had access to the best medical care but at any time, I would have been wiped out. Like if I didn’t have good medical care.
And I thought what if you’re a bunch of kids and then I read about this flesh eating strep. This bacteria that really can get people in ten hours and it’s transmitted through the water. And I thought this is like Evil Dead I was watching Evil Dead. My dreams were like Evil Dead. And I thought, you know, this is it and that really scared the hell out of me that you’re with your friend, you’re stuck in some location and you need to help them. You want to help them. But you don’t want to get near them because you might have to kill them and they might kill you and you’re not killing them, you’re killing the thing that’s inside them with your body. Like, I was really terrified with possession movies and the body being taken over by something else. So, I think that, you know, everybody had something. Everybody had an illness where you wake up and you go what the fuck is this? There’s that moment where you think am I going to die, is this it, is my leg always going to look this way, is that always going to be in my eye, am I going to be deformed? Like it’s a real fear that sort of happens to everyone. It’s about what sort of where, you know, where I, it’s from the base of that fear where I started to craft the story.
Question: Who do you think are your influences as a horror director?
Answer: Well as a horror director, definitely Sam Raimi, Toby Hooper, George Romero, John Carpenter, Peter Jackson, David Lynch[ Erazerhead really disturbed me. John Carpenter’s The Thing
Question: There are some very gruesome scenes in Cabin Fever, a sequence in a bathtub comes to mind. Do you enjoy the fact that people just shut their eyes during stuff like that?
Answer: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s the ultimate compliment. I mean we had a woman from Cosmopolitan magazine in England pass out during the screening and that’s the highest compliment we can get. That leg shaving scene is really much more done with sound, but people will always remember something that’s more disgusting than it actually was if it was done right. I remember thinking God, you know we had 20 minutes to do the makeup for that. It was like a six-hour makeup sessions so we were getting 40 set ups a day. Between 30 and 40 cameras, it was full of blood and everything. It was a nightmare so, but we were shooting that camera with everything we got. I could make this grosser, I could make this grosser. And I then when I watched it with an audience, everyone was watching it through the crack of their fingers and no one was looking up at the screen and they were all grossed out and screaming. I think, you know, if you’ve really done your job as a horror director, nobody should be looking at the movie, because they would be looking at the inside of their finger. So I think it’s great. The fact that people couldn’t watch it means that they were involved in the story, that they really were like getting a reaction and feeling something, they were really kind of freaked out by it.
Question: Where do you go from here?
Answer: In terms of my career?
Answer: Well, um, I have a whole bunch of things going on. On the low budget horror end, I’ve formed a company with Scott Spiegel who co-wrote Evil Dead 2 and Boaz Yakin, who directed Remember the Titans and Uptown Girls. I am a partner with Green Street Films out of New York to create Raw Nerves and we’re going to have a fund to make three, low-budget, very violent horror movies a year. We already have directors like Lefty McKee, Rich Kelly, Tobe Hooper, already interested in making movies for us, because where we’re going to be able to say, here’s a million dollars and 18 days, go nuts, and with no restrictions. You know, I think a lot of these horror filmmakers really want to make that NC-17 or very hard, or really, really violent, disturbing film that no studio would ever make, but this is going to be the company to make that movie. I’m also writing a movie with Rich Kelly called The Box, and I went to see Johnny Darko while I was cutting Cabin Fever, and I was so blown away by it; and Rich loves Cabin Fever, so we’re, we’re writing a movie, and that’s going to be much more like a psychological horror film, much more at The Ring end of the spectrum. Then I’m doing another movie for Lions Gate, which will be about a $20,000,000.00 horror move called Drawn, that’s much more on the scale of like The Shining or The Exorcist, a lot of, more visual effects. And I’m writing a teen comedy for Universal.
Question: How do you, how do you, how did you get a teen comedy out of all of this?
Answer: Because, as much as I love horror movies, second to horror movies, I am obsessed with early 80’s sex comedies.
Question: Which ones?
Answer: Last American Virgin is one of the greatest films ever made. I can watch Porky’s over and over and over. I think Porky’s is a masterpiece, but I also love movies like Zapped, Joystick, Hot Dog the Motion Picture, like anything with Scott Baio. I will go see anything with a monkey, I will go see it. I love, like, I mean Fast Times was great, but it’s not really, I mean, that’s in a different league, but I love early 80’s, like Screwballs, like anything with a fat guy, a cool guy and a nerd, I’l go see. My favourite movies are Boaz Davidson’s films, like the Lemon Popsicle films.
I saw Lemon Popsicles 3, Hot Bubble Gum, and it just blew me away, like I will go see Lemon Popsicles 4, Up Your Anchor, Lemon Popsicles 6, Private Popsicles, Lemon Popsicles 1, Lemon Popsicles 2. I have seen them all. They’re so hard to find, like, I love those movies so much, and then he made like 15 of them, and he came over the America and made Last American Virgin, which is like the best gags from all the Lemon Popsicle films.
Question: Where does a good Jewish boy get all this stuff from?
Answer: God only knows. I mean, how the hell do, it’s like, my parents were, you know, like, I was sawed in half with a chain saw at my Bar Mitzvah, and my cake, my Bar Mitzvah cake was a director’s slate with blood splattered on it. And this was when I was 12, like my parents grew up in New York, and my, and always had appreciation of the theatre and film, and my dad’s a psychoanalyst; my mom’s an artist; and my, my dad always just saw it as like special effects for movies, like he never felt there was anything wrong with us watching it. It was like the whole family would sit around and watch Pieces and Basket Case and Caligula. Like, we knew that it was a movie, like we weren’t, we knew that it wasn’t real, and as I was older, as I got older, I got really interested in special effects, and I just loved growing up in those late 70’s or early 80’s movies. It just struck a chord with me, because I was the only kid allowed to see R-rated movies. I was the kid that saw Stripes when no one else was allowed to see it. I was the kid that saw The Exorcist when I was 6. And it was so cool, like, you know what? It started when I was, when I was 8 years old, I remember there was no cable TV, there was no VCR, and the movies that I really wanted to see, like Gates of Hell or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, never went to television. You’ve look at the ad in the paper, and someone’s older brother had seen it, and they described scenes from it, and you were like, I gotta see it, I gotta see it! But you could never get to the movies to see it, and then it was gone. And then you’ve look at pictures from it, but it’s like your imagination’s open, just looking from these TV ads, you’ve think, God, what is it like? What is it that’s in these movies that’s so bad, that’s so forbidden, that you can’t even see it because they’re not on television. And then, of course, when cable came, I just saturated myself with every single movie, but I was the kid, when I was 10 years old, my friends, I drove them crazy, because after the movie, I would sit and read every credit out of respect for the filmmakers, and always wait to see if there was a tag after the credits.
Question: What’s the teen comedy?
Answer: The teen comedy is called “scavenger Hunt.” I’m writing and directing for Universal and I want to bring back real kids and bush. That’s what’s gonna come back. We’ve gotta bring bush back to movies. If you watch those early 80’s movies, it’s like watching a National Geographic video. It’s amazing. And movies, like the Cheerleaders, the great Cheerleaders that just came out on DVD bush everywhere. There was bush everywhere.
Question: You have no argument from me.
Answer: I just want real tits and bush. That’s gonna be the early 80’s movies.