Eli Roth

In the second part of the two interviews I was invited to take part in for the promotion of The Last Exorcism, I met the film’s producer, Eli Roth. Writer, director and sometime actor, Roth is laid back (both figuratively and quite literally), sharply dressed and surprisingly handsome in person. As opposed to director Daniel Stamm’s enthusiastic joy for talking about his movie, Roth is more reserved, although clearly in his element – the filmmaker evidently knows not only how to direct a scene but also an interview. He feeds us information at his own pace, casually displays his encyclopaedic knowledge of horror and sets himself up nicely for some witty jokes. Roth was a compelling orator, as is hopefully evident below.

I was watching your Carson Daly interview this morning and in that you were saying that the reason you produced as well as directed your first couple of films was because you wanted total creative control. This is the second film you’ve produced that was directed by someone else…

(Interrupting) I would say it’s the first, 2001 Maniacs was just me stepping in at the last minute. I have a producer title on it but that was just a mess where I wound up with a producer credit on it because we had to take it over half way through. This is my first true production.

In that sense, what is your creative input as a producer so that it’s not your identity, it’s not the director’s identity, it’s some sort of fusion of the two?

First and foremost, it’s definitely Daniel Stamm’s film, his voice and his identity. Part of the fun of producing is you embrace that and you back it one hundred per cent. On Hostel I had three directors as executive producers, BoazYakin, Scott Spiegel and Quentin Tarantino and all of them had an incredible creative input, as did my other producing partners, Mike Fleiss and Chris Briggs. Your producers should be your sounding board. They’re not just there to say, ‘you have five minutes to get the shot’, when you have a producer who’s a director, the director – Daniel Stamm – knows where I’m coming from because I’ve been there before. I certainly had a creative input in the script and in the story. I’m brought on board because people want to hear my ideas to make it as scary as possible, or as smart as possible. My opinion is wanted when I come on as a producer. But I also wanted Daniel to know that this is his film and I’m not here to tell him [how to do it], I’m here to support him. During the shoot, I was at the Cannes Film Festival preselling the territories for the movie and we had Inglourious Basterds and Daniel was doing such a great job, I didn’t want to show up on set and interrupt the intimacy and the vibe he was getting on set. It was so good, I knew I’d change all that if I showed up. I really stayed out of his way. But then there was a point in the editing room and there were certain scenes he’d shot that weren’t one hundred per cent there and I could go and be really helpful and effective, in the same way Quentin was with me, just to help build tension, maximise the scares, maximise the humour.

What are your biggest horror influences as a director?

There are many. It changes; as a kid, Sam Raimi and The Exorcist were huge influences. The Exorcist traumatised me as a kid; I thought how could you ever make a movie scarier than The Exorcist? I always wanted to be involved in a possession film and then I read the script and I thought ‘my God, it’s brilliant, you don’t make something scarier than The Exorcist, don’t even try’, but do something that’s great in its own right. I began thinking about vampires and what started with Dracula and now today is Twilight and True Blood and The Vampire Diaries and just how rich the subject matter is and how possession is such a modern subject. It’s something that’s truly, really fascinating to me and the whole approach of doing it in the documentary style worked for this subject. Obviously I’m a big fan ofCloverfield and Paranormal Activity, but going back even further, before Blair Witch, you’ve got Cannibal Holocaustand probably the best film of them all, which is Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park which is just gripping and riveting, it’s a drama, it’s not even a horror film but it’s terrifying. You’d swear it was real if you didn’t know there were actors in it. So I thought the [Last Exorcism’s] script was so good and Daniel did such a great job. The subject matter is so rich and I thought it was due for an update.

You mentioned The Exorcist then; when that film came out it was met with a lot of controversy from the moral majority, are you expecting The Last Exorcism to be received similarly?

No. In fact, The Exorcist was embraced by the Catholic Church. The Pope came out very publically supporting The Exorcist. People had never seen anything like it so they were traumatised when they were watching it but that was the best sales boost the church ever had because the people came out believing in the devil and therefore being more religious. What I felt was smart about the script was that it comes at a point where Cotton [Marcus, the protagonist and non-believing, phony exorcism performing priest] is confessing. He’s come to this on his own. Seeing what happened with the other boy that suffered in an exorcism, he feels terrible about what he’s done and he’s going to atone for his sins by making this confessional. Confession for your sins is very much part of Christianity and the film starts as very much a confessional session. But he very quickly wins you over and is very human and ultimately the film has a very deep, underlying message of faith. Don’t mess with forces that are bigger than you. That whole ending ceremony, not to give it away too much, has nothing to do with Nell and everything to do with Cotton. Cotton is doing this kind of Elmer Gantry routine, shaking the bed; he’s taking clichés from The Exorcist and using it to take people’s money. Well in the same way the townspeople are taking clichés from all these different cults to draw him into the fire, because at no point does Cotton ever believe she’s possessed. He can’t, because he doesn’t believe in God and therefore he doesn’t believe in the devil – of course until it’s too late. The whole film is his faith being continually tested and him failing. We’ve shown it to very deeply religious groups in Texas and people loved it. They were very surprised by how fairly their point of view is represented. If people who are deeply religious think they’re going to be made fun of, they’re not. The film does not take a position, it shows both sides fairly, so if you are coming from it from the scientific point of view, you agree with Cotton, you go, ‘yeah, that girl’s crazy’. If you’re deeply religious you’re watching Louis, the father, saying, ‘yes, that’s right, the Bible does say that. I agree with him, she is possessed, don’t be fooled by this.’ Of course in the end, the story unfolds, but it’s really about letting those sides clash and not taking one position or the other.

So why do you think exorcism scares the crap out of people?

People are terrified of ‘is the devil real? Is God real?’ Everyone has their own personal relationship with religion, even if it’s complete atheism. Even if you don’t believe in anything, everyone’s grown up with a certain type of religion so you think about this stuff. And the fact is, exorcism is done in every religion and is very real. There was an exorcist on set; he was the brother of one of the drivers. He was technically advising, but it was such a normal occurrence. It was so every day. He talked about it like he went to the bank. He was always doing exorcisms. You go on YouTube and you can see mass exorcisms in the mega churches, this is a very real thing. I think that people are terrified by the idea of possession and that the devil is real. Seventy-five years ago, evil had a very real face. You could say, ‘this is evil, this is evil, if we kill these three people…’ It’s like cutting the head off the hydra. Well today there is no face like that. It’s different things, it’s terrorism, it’s Wall Street. Even people in churches and schools, murderers, there’s just a feeling of evil and that’s why the devil becomes a focal point for all that evil.

As a Jewish filmmaker, presumably you’ve come to The Exorcist from a different perspective from people with a Christian faith. Is there a different kind of fascination for you with Christian mythology?

It’s interesting. It wasn’t to do with being Jewish – I don’t think of myself as a Jewish filmmaker, I just think of myself as a filmmaker – my father was a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst, a professor at Harvard, the medical school. So I approached it from a psychiatric point of view, The Exorcist, and it traumatised me. I said, ‘can this really happen? This possession? Can it really happen?’ I was six and my dad said, ‘no don’t worry about it, we’re Jewish. We can’t get possessed. We don’t believe in that’. I was like ‘I do! I believe this is real.’ I thought I’d be the first test case, that I’d be the first Jewish kid to be possessed by the devil, and believe me there are many that would argue that I was. But it always fascinated me because it was something that wasn’t taught to me and I thought, ‘well if they’re not teaching this then maybe this is real’. Maybe it was something they didn’t want me to know about. As a kid I had real fantasies about that.

Not to belittle any of your previous work, but it’s refreshing to see that The Last Exorcism is a relatively gore-free, PG-13 movie. Was it interesting working on a film that is suitable for all ages but still scares the crap out of you?

It’s very satisfying. It was really cool to have done it by pushing the envelope of violence, to be involved in a film that scares people in their forties and thirteen year olds. It was fun to take that challenge; we did not make it to be PG-13, we set out with no rating, we just happened to get back to it. We gave Daniel the freedom to do whatever he wanted. Lionsgate, when they bought the movie, said if the rating’s board want us to cut the best parts, we’ll go R with it, that’s no problem. What was great was that they saw this was a religious family, so there wouldn’t be swearing, there’s no sex and there’s really not a call for gore, it’s not about that. It’s really, truly a psychological thriller. It’s been couched and sold as a horror film, but it’s really about this girl who might be crazy or might be possessed, so it’s fun watching people go in thinking they’re not going to get scared then coming out freaked out. People forget that Jaws was rated PG.

So do you have a particular movie that’ scary to you?

It changes from time to time. You know how it is, you get your favourite movie, it’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen, but the haunted house is never as scary the second time around. The stuff that terrified you will never be as terrifying. Horror movies lose their potency, which is why you’ve got to have layers in them so in repeat viewings you can find new things. So what scared you is never going to scare you when you watch it again. When you get those best of the decade lists, they’re always of films that came out in the last year, because the film that came out ten year ago, you’ve seen it thirty times by now, so how could it be scary? The one you saw recently really freaked you out because you haven’t seen it enough times. But Jesus, I saw this one horror movie and it disturbed me so much. I couldn’t sleep, I was getting nauseous. It was this film called Valentine’s Day with Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, oh god, I can’t even… It was terrifying, it was really traumatic!

You mentioned Lionsgate were happy to go with an R rating, was there any footage you ended up cutting out that might be on the DVD?

No, all the stuff that was cut was the right stuff to cut. It wasn’t that any of it was bad, it just didn’t progress the story. Once you get to the point, it felt like, the stuff that we cut – we can lose that, we get it by now, let’s just lose it and get onto the next bit. So I know Daniel’s looking for those moments because he knows where they are, he did thirty, forty takes of the footage, but there is no one magic scene, no, ‘oh, if only we hadn’t cut that scene’.

It’s interesting seeing an exorcism taking place in a rural community, it feels very much like theflipside to the original Exorcist, which is set in a highbrow city where everyone believes in science. Here, you’re taking a huckster into a religious community – it’s almost asking for trouble, was that an aspect of the film you found fascinating?

What was fascinating to me was that the reverend is the one that doesn’t believe in any of this. He just can’t see the other side at all. He’s so convinced he’s smarter than these people and he’s got it all figured out, he just can’t believe any of the stuff he’s doing. And Louis, the father, he’s so faithful that he could never believe that the reverend would lie to him and that’s what gets him into trouble. And it’s not just Cotton, it’s Pastor Manley that he lets into his house, which also leads to problems. What was fascinating to me was to watch a story about a reverend who maybe doesn’t believe in God, he tiptoes around the subject when anyone mentions it and you realise that he doesn’t. The fun of the movie is watching him have his faith tested and watching fail at every single test, because he never, ever believes.

Daniel talked about going on location in New Orleans, a part of the world that may have felt like it was abandoned by God. Was that an addition frisson while making the movie?

Yeah, it feels like it’s stopped in time. You could see the water line from Katrina in the plantation house we were in when the place was flooded. It was really interesting, them driving to the set everyday – you feel it, there’s a different air there. Voodoo is part of the culture there so everyone was thinking there was something strange and spiritual going on in New Orleans. There’s something specific to that place. I loved going into that world. It’s such a great, smart setting for the story. I’ve been in the deep South, when we were shooting Cabin Fever and the people would look at me like, ‘oh, there’s the Jew’. They’re very nice people, they’re good, God-fearing, Christian, churchgoing type folk, but they would not let their kids read Harry Potter; because that’s not the Bible. And they also have guns. It’s a really weird thing: they have guns and they have the Bible. And some of them are in the KKK. It’s really weird. They have all these they set for themselves to be good people and good Christians and then all these things they do which are completely insane. So I love the rural American setting of Cabin Fever and The Last Exorcism, but I also love that Cotton thinks he can just charm all of them with his charisma while he’s laughing at people involved in the cults. He’ making fun of them, they’re a joke and he basically doesn’t realise he’s become the subject of this documentary in a way that he never intended.

There seems to be cultural influences from all over the place in this film, what with Daniel’s Germanic background and the final sequences which seem to be influenced by 1970s British horror films, things like To the Devil a Daughter and all those Hammer adaptations. Was that something you guys were thinking of?

I love Daniel for his European perspective because having a European go into that culture; I mean Daniel’s so smart and observant anyway, and he’s hitchhiked across America so he knew the country intimately. And he was a peace worker in Ireland so he’s seen two sides of a culture totally unwilling to see the other’s point of view. He’s very observant and I loved his outsider opinion. There were things that he would notice that I would just take for granted, that he was able to capture. He has such an observant eye. I loved having his point of view. But Daniel’s favourite director is Lars Von Trier and he approached this like he was making The Idiots.  That’s what I loved about it, it’s like we’re not making a horror film, we’re telling a story that’s horrific. And even though it isn’t a European art film, he really approached it as a character piece. And at the end when things go completely haywire, he’s still kind of maintaining, even despite what happens, the authenticity of the documentary style. I believe that the cult, if Cotton and the cameras weren’t there, wouldn’t be doing any of that, everything with the baby, it’s all just show, to keep the cameras rolling and he doesn’t believe until the fire comes up and then he finds God, but of course it’s easy to find God when the devil’s right in front of you; that’s not true faith. If none of them were wearing robes Cotton would be calling the police, but because it’s so outlandish, he’s hypnotised like a moth drawn to the flame, he can’t help himself, all because he still thinks he’s smarter than them. And he still doesn’t believe in God, therefore he doesn’t believe in the devil, he thinks they’re all a bunch of fucking crazy townspeople, just like in the beginning and that’s when he realises, ‘oh fuck’. The whole crew realises it, they thought they were smarter than everyone. They realise it’s their destiny, those drawings, and the whole film becomes about literally outrunning your destiny.

Even though it’s a much a spectacle as his exorcisms?

That’s exactly what it is, he uses the clichés of 70s exorcism movies, to take people’s money and the townspeople are also using the clichés from all those movies. They’re like, ‘all right, he wants to see a cult? We’ll show him a cult. You want to see the devil? I’ll do that. We’ll fucking paint symbols all over your house, wear a red robe, have a pentagram and we know that you’re stupid enough to keep filming us and you won’t call the police or get help because you think we’re a bunch of crazy people and you think you’re better than us. Watch what happens.’ He’s like, ‘oh fuck. Maybe I should have believed’.   He finds God, but God’s like, ‘yeah, where were you five minutes ago? You had all the clues and you failed every time.’

Can you talk about your upcoming projects, anything about Thanksgiving?

Sure, my friend Jeff Rendell has been working on the script whilst I’ve been doing the press and as soon as I’m done with this, I can go sit down and write. I really need to finish my scripts; I’ve just been so busy in The Last Exorcism land, which believe me is a good place to be, but I’m ready to go back to writing.

I hear you’re working with Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland on…

Funhouse, we’re doing the Funhouse remake, they’re writing that right now. They’re great. They’re such funny guys I’m really excited.

Will we be seeing more of you acting after your cameo in Piranha 3D?

(With irony) Really, I didn’t think I could top my SAG Award winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, but then Alex Aja [director] invited me to come on set and hose down tits on Piranha 3D and I said what time do you need me? And having seen my performance in that film, I think there’s certain things you do that really are just sacrifices for art and for the betterment of cinema. And unless it’s a film I think is that much of a charitable contribution to the world, where you feel like you’re just contributing to the betterment of mankind, I probably wouldn’t do it…  Unless it involves hosing down tits. Then I would do it.

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