Interview: Eli Roth Talks About The Horror Experience And The Last Exorcism
Eli Roth isnít just a director who makes horror films. Rather, he is a student of the horror genre with an encyclopedic knowledge. Since breaking out with Cabin Fever in 2002 and Hostel in 2005, he has used the medium to express both his passion and his vision. But does he still get scared?
While promoting The Last Exorcism, I got the chance to sit down with the director one-on-one and talk about the law of diminishing returns as it applies to horror, whether its possible to become desensitized to film and what it was like working with nascent director Daniel Stamm on the project.
Itís well established that you are a huge fan of the horror genre, so Iím wondering if youíre still scared by horror films?
Yeah! Definitely, I love it when I get scared. I got a DVD of Paranormal Activity when I was in Berlin for the Inglourious Basterds and someone said, ďYouíve got to see this!Ē An I watched it and it freaked me out and I was sleeping with the lights on. And I gave it to Quentin [Tarantino] and asked him, ďWhat did you think?Ē And he said, ďI slept with the lights on!Ē I just get that charge, I love that. When I see a movie that can freak me out today, when I was a kid, I just love it. Itís exciting to me that I can still get scared by movies like.
Do you still get scared by movies that scared you when you were a kid?
The one negative to horror is that itís always law of diminishing returns. When you go in the funhouse, the ride is never scary the second time. You will never have that pure experience as when you first watch it. Which is why I think itís terrible if people want to read the script, you should really wait until after the movieís out before you hunt down the script or what not. Youíre denying yourself the pleasure of experiencing it for the first time. Thatís the purest scare you will ever have. And so what happens is, over the years, if you look at the end of the decade there will often be a ďTen Scariest Movies of the Decade.Ē Almost always the scariest ones have come out in the last year, because people go back and they watch something from 2001 and they go, ďOh, it wasnít that scary,Ē but theyíre not judging by how scared you were by the first time you saw it.
A comedy can actually get funnier and funnier. Even though you know the joke, you enjoy it so much, itís the facial expression, you laugh. The laugh doesnít wear off. It could be with you for thirty years. I will still watch The Three Stooges and laugh every time. But horror films, itís the only genre that is never as potent as the very first time you see it. But thatís why you have to make a movie with other levels and other layers. And so when you go watch it again, you show it to your friends, youíre watching them get scared, but youíre seeing the craftsmanship, the different levels, youíre seeing the subtext, all the ideas that went into it. And thatís what makes horror films, at least for me, the movies you can watch over and over and over again.
No, no. I think that with a bad movie you can, when somethingís not clever, and when somethingís poorly done, thatís when you get desensitized. Thatís being bored. When thereís a story and you donít know where itís going and youíre interested in the characters, then youíre watching it to see what happens next. Itís as simple as that. Itís just that when a lot of people make horror films donít bother trying. They figure itís a horror film, the only things that matter are the scares and the trailer moments, and thatís bullshit. It matters to me! And thatís why with The Last Exorcism we wanted a film that was truly a character piece and a psychological thriller. It isnít about the scares. If you talk to [director] Daniel Stamm, his favorite director is Lars von Trier. And he approached it, not like a European art film, but as a von Trier movie, like he was making The Idiots. Itís all about the performance and thatís what I think makes the film great and stand out from others. People come out of it and think and go, ďOh, I didnít think you could have acting that good in a horror film.Ē You treat it like a drama, it just happens to be a horrific story.
What do you think the documentary-style filmmaking adds to the film?
Well, I think it all depends on the story. I thought that Cloverfield was a brilliant version of a Godzilla movie done with first person, Paranormal Activity is a haunted house film reinvented from that point of view, and I think itís perfect for this particularly story where weíre embracing it. You canít use it as a gimmick, because audiences wonít go see it because of that. But I think when the filmmaker, like Daniel, really understands how effective it can be and how to make the most of it, then you can have something terrifying, going back to Blair Witch and Cannibal Holocaust and a very underseen film called Punishment Park by Peter Watkins from 1971, which was in fact so powerful and so effective that the government banned it from being shown, there would be riots. Very anti-Vietnam film. It was amazing, people thought it was real.
The fun is when that fourth wall is removed and people donít have the safety of makeup effects and the safety of knowing that itís a movie, even though we know itís a movie, itís pretend. You really do get caught up in the realism and it feels like itís really happening. So when Nell finally goes into her other state, you think, ďOh my God. Either his is what it really looks like when someoneís possessed or this girl is having a true psychotic break.Ē But either way this reverend canít handle it, he needs to get her to get her to stop or the father is going to shoot her. And thatís where the tension now lies, itís not even about whether sheís possessed or not. Itís about getting her to stop. So I thought that Daniel did such a great job developing the characters before the shit hits the fan, so when it does we know where everyone stands on everything.
Do you think youíd direct one of your own films in that style?
Well it depends on the script. I certainly would. I love it and itís fun. But it all depends on the story. What I loved about this was, you donít set out and say, ďI want to make a docu-style film.Ē It was [producer] Eric Newmanís conception of doing a docu-style film of an exorcism that goes terribly wrong. And when he said that I was like, ďOh my God, thatís a great idea!Ē So itís not like we had any great burning desire to do it in this format, itís just so clever and smart and if really, really done right, could be very effective film on a low-budget where you just need great actors, you donít need stars.
Originally it was Huck [Botko] and Andrew [Gurland], the writers, that were set to direct and then their film The Virginity Hit got greenlit, which is terrific comedy from Sony, also in the same style. I loved their movie Mail Order Wife, which is also this movie people should seek out, itís wonderfully demented. And we saw Danielís film, A Necessary Death, and thought, ďMy God, he really gets it.Ē But I also connected with Daniel in that we both went to film school, and Daniel had spent three years making a movie for $2,000 that he shot on weekends. You just have such instant respect for someone whoís that dedicated and A Necessary Death, even though it just made the festival circuit, was so creepy and so well done, the acting was so good, nobody in the movie feels like they are acting at all. And I thought thatís what we need - someone who truly understands the performance and isnít out to make a horror movie, but just to tell a horrific story. And when I spoke to him on the film and I asked him how he was approaching it, he says that his favorite director is Lars von Trier. And he had seen The Exorcist movies so he didnít want to take from any of those films, and because thereís possession thereís obviously crossover. I just loved his whole approach, just telling a story about these characters.
How closely did you work with him on the film and did you impart some of your experience?
Oh, absolutely. Iím there to give him the financial resources, but also as a creative resource. We really grilled it in the casting, because the whole movie was resting on these two characters and whoever he chose, we liked them, but I wanted him to really defend them, and explain why and why is this person better than that one. And he would say, ďNo, it has to be this, it has to be that,Ē and I had to feel that he was fully on-board, which he was. Once he started shooting it, the shoot turned out while I was in Cannes and actually pre-selling territory, so Daniel shot a one-minute teaser, it was sent to me in France, and I could take that and show that to a bunch of foreign buyers and then call him and the end of the day like, ďWe just sold Spain, we just sold South KoreaÖĒ even before the movie started he was like, ďOh my gosh.Ē I almost wanted to stop telling him how much or how well the teaser was selling because heís now thinking about, ďOh my God, my movieís going to be released in theaters in this country and Australia and New Zealand,Ē but I let him go.
We really gave him freedom to shoot the movie the way he wanted on set and, it just so happened that I was in Cannes with Basterds when they started, and by the time I wrapped up everything he was about halfway or two-thirds through the shoot, and I thought I could come to New Orleans for the second half, the tail end of this, but they had such an intimate vibe on set and I was watching all of the dailies online, everyday Iíd watch the dailies, and I could make notes and suggestions. He was doing such an amazing job I said the best thing I could do was stay out of his way. And then I let him cut until he found the movie and then I would go in and make suggestions but then, kind of around September I got really involved in the editing room with him sitting down side-by side really as a director. He could turn to me and say something about this scene isnít working 100%, it was there in the writing, it was there in the performance, something in the editing is a bit off. And having cut a torture scene in Hostel fifty times before it was scary or effective, I could say, ďI know exactly what youíre doing, trust me, Iíve been down this road ten times. Try this, this, this, this,Ē and heís like, ďOh yeah! Thatís exactly what I wanted! I get it!Ē I was saying, ďThis scene isnít working because three scenes earlier youíre giving away whatís happening,Ē and heíd say, ďOh my God, I never thought of that.Ē
I could be a fresh, outside point of view that he trusted and then we kind of wrote new scenes and did a night of re-shoots, just to help. We could see what was working, we needed to strengthen what were the strongest elements of the film, and I was there for that, which we shot in California. But my job was to stay away when was necessarily, and also to be there for him when was necessary. Also, to know that this could be done in the amount of time that we had, we were working on a low budget so when we say we have seven days to mix, directors get three weeks. And Iíd say, no, no, no, I had seven days on Cabin Fever, donít worry, we can do it and hereís how. Having been through that low-budget process with him was really helpful for him to go, ďOkay, yeah. If he likes this we can do it, letís do it,Ē and I could help guide him through and he did a magnificent job.
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