Eli Roth Interview: Possessed by Fear

After Cabin Fever and the Hostel movies, Eli Roth has firmly established himself as one of the major players in contemporary horror. He’s also an actor who has appeared in everything from 2001 Maniacs to Inglourious Basterds, as well as a producer. It’s in his capacity as producer that Eli Roth is in London to promote the fun mockumentary horror The Last Exorcism. “You shouldn’t mess with forces bigger than your own understanding,” he tells Matt McAllister.

WARNING: This interview contains spoilers about The Last Exorcism!

What made you want to become involved with The Last Exorcism?

Studio Canal said they would finance the movie if I got involved. Initially the writers [Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko] were attached to direct, and I loved the movie Mail Order Wife that they had done. I read it and thought it was one of the smartest, most compelling scripts I had read. Every time I thought I had it figured out, a new twist came along! I always wanted to get involved in a possession film, an exorcism film. It’s such a rich subject matter. Of course, you think, “How can you ever top The Exorcist?” You can’t top The Exorcist, don’t even try, but you can tell a different story in this space; just make it completely original and totally different.

I started thinking about vampires – it started with Dracula and Nosferatu and today it’s Twilight and True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. And look at zombies. Then there was Dawn of the Dead which [producers] Eric [Newman] and Mark [Abraham] produced, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, The Walking Dead… Possession is something that’s so relevant and still very modern. It’s very much part of culture. I thought it’s time to do an updated version of the subject.

This film’s already been a huge success in America…

I remember when I made Cabin Fever for $1.5m dollars. At the end of its run in the US it made $22.5m, and that was considered a smash. And we reached that with the opening weekend [of The Last Exorcism]! It shows how strong the appetite is for this type of movie. People just want good, smart entertainment.

This movie is at the opposite end of the spectrum than Inception. There are no big effects, it’s a very small film. I think some people were expecting it to be much more of an Exorcism-style horror film; but it’s really more of a psychological thriller, where it’s the clash between science and religion, with the reverend taking the position of science, that she’s crazy, and the father taking the position of faith. And we watch these two sides duke it out.

It’s been amazing to see the responses. Part of the fun of doing it for under $2m is you can take a position on the ending we took and say, “This is where the story ends”, and leave it open ended. You can see people are split on it. They’re either 100% with it and think, “Oh my god that’s incredible!”, and re-think the whole movie. Or people go, “Whoa, the movie just switched round for me, what the fuck just happened?” and feel totally betrayed by it. We know we took a chance in taking by doing it. But overall people who like intellectual type of films have been sparking off lots of really great discussions.

You acted as a producer on this. Was it ever frustrating to take more of a backseat role or was it interesting to watch how another director did things?

I wouldn’t do it if it was frustrating for me to not to be at the helm. As a producer I have more ideas in my head than I’ll ever know what to do with or I’ll ever be able to make. But I want to start building my career as a producer, so that I can help other directors who certainly deserve it like Daniel Stamm, or new cast members like Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell.

The great thing about financing the movie on me is that we can cast whoever we want, hire a director who doesn’t have a track record. But people who deserve it and who are so worthy. The pleasure is in seeing people like Daniel bring the script into life, being there like Quentin [Tarantino] was for me on Hostel as my executive producer, though I was more hands-on than Quentin was.

I stayed out of the way during shooting because I didn’t want to be a presence on set as it was such a tiny, intimate set, and I didn’t want to throw off their vibe… But in the editing room I helped cut scenes over and over to get it scary; I could just find shortcuts and tricks to help Daniel when he needed it.

Do you think The Last Exorcism says anything about faith?

I think when you’re making a film, you’re not really conscious about that stuff. But looking back people are like, “Look at the clash between science and religion!” And that’s really America. 42% of Americans believe in the Devil and Creationism, and the other half think that’s it ridiculous, and that there were dinosaurs. Neither side will bend to one degree, and it leads to everyone’s downfall.

One person said it’s like the Republicans and Democrats in America; they both want what’s best. Both the father and Cotton want to help the girl, and they’re both coming at it from complete opposite ends. And the film does not take a side, it really presents both sides fairly. We’ve seen people who are atheists who see the movie and they’re like, “Yeah, she’s crazy,” and people who are deeply faithful say the father’s right, and agree with everything else he says.

Of course, at the end you kind of realise that the final ceremony is all about Cotton, it has nothing to do with Nell… I think the whole film actually has an underlying message of faith; that you shouldn’t mess with forces bigger than your own understanding.

The Last Exorcism is surprisingly funny, and humour also plays a large part in the Hostel films and Cabin Fever. Do you think horror and humour are intrinsically linked?

In life there’s horror and there’s humour. You’re at a funeral and people laugh. It seems like a great way of creating tension and getting people to care about characters. There’s a difference between humour and a film turning into a comedy. When it’s a comedy, the characters are making a joke of the situation, and I think that’s when horror films get into trouble.

In The Last Exorcism, you can feel the audience fighting it at first, waiting for it to be scary. And then [Cotton] does the banana bread speech, and he just wins you over. And Patrick [Fabian] is so funny – it’s so enjoyable. Because we know it’s a confessional and the Sweetzer family would ultimately see the footage he’s showing, it allows us to enjoy him taking their money, we don’t feel guilty… That’s the reason he’s doing it, it’s coming from this good place of wanting to do the right thing.

That’s part of the fun, taking people on this journey – where they think it’s one thing and by the time things really start to go bad when Nell turns up at the motel and Caleb’s face is cut, we know these people! And when we’re in the barn for the second exorcism and she starts twitching and going into her altered state, it’s terrifying. You’re thinking either she is possessed or she’s having a true psychotic break. But now it doesn’t even matter, it’s all about Nell, because Louis is going to shoot her… It’s about [Cotton] slowly losing control, and almost becoming the subject of his own movie in a way he never expected.

Why do you think young girls are usually the subject of exorcism films?

When a girl gets possessed it’s terrifying. Seeing a girl who’s very unsexualised, in the way that Nell is, this virgin, behaving sexually – it’s disturbing, out of character. If you saw a 15-year-old boy suddenly acting that way, you’d be like, “He’s not possessed, he’s just being an asshole teenager…”

The pregnancy is a very big plot point, leading you to believe there’s incest going on; that there’s a cover-up and she’s having this break because she’s so ashamed of what’s happening. So it had to be a girl, that’s what made it so interesting and appealing. But if you think about it the only reason we think of girls is because The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose are the only two [exorcism] movies that worked.

Why do you think the mockumentary-style horror has been so popular over the last few years?

Well, I think it’s only going to work if the filmmakers understand it and embrace it and do it effectively. I mean, we hate the term ‘mockumentary’, but there really is no better term…

I thought Cloverfield was a fantastic updated version of Godzilla, and Paranormal Activity is a great modern version of the haunted house movie. But I think there is a subtle difference… Found footage is really like you found a camera, you took it the tape and pressed play, that’s it. We wanted to do a documentary where you’re watching Grey Gardens or Brother’s Keeper or King of Kong or American Movie. It’s scored, there are titles, it’s edited… We wanted people to think, “Who cut this together? Was it the cult who did it? Was it God to get you to believe in him by believing in the Devil? Or is this Cotton’s greatest trick?” We like starting that discussion at the end of the film.

When it’s done effectively you can have films like Punishment Park, which I think is the best of all of them, or Cannibal Holocaust. It’s only going to be as effective as the storytelling. I don’t think people go to see it because of the style, but because it’s scary and a well told story.

Do you think the film could inspire a spin-off TV show looking into exorcisms?

We had a real exorcist on set, he was the brother of one of our drivers. He would talk about it like it was going to the bank, like it was nothing, doing an exorcism. I mean, it’s real. Everything they say in the movie is true, about how there were 25 sanctioned exorcists a few years ago and now it’s over 300, and the Pope did in 2009, when we were financing this, give a speech about an exorcism academy.

So it’s such a rich subject matter, like vampires, that I definitely think it could spark a TV show… I’d only do that kind of thing if I thought we had a great idea – but it’s something we’re talking about.

Could you give us an update on a few of your upcoming projects. Firstly, the sci-fi film Endangered Species…

That one’s in the writing stage. When Lionsgate bought [The Last Exorcism], the deal was I would carry all the publicity, so I’ve just been full-time involved in that. As soon as it’s over I’ll get back to the writing stage. It’s totally original!

How about The Man with the Iron Fist…

We’re scouting locations in the middle of September in China, I’m really excited about that. I wrote the screenplay with RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan and he’s directing and starring in it. It’s a spaghetti western/kung-fu movie. It’s really like its own universe, it’s totally fucking out there… If you hear his albums, it’s like a movie version of that!

Then there’s the feature version of your Grindhouse trailer, Thanksgiving?

I’m writing it with my friend Jeff Rendel who stars in the trailer. Jeff has been working on the script while I’ve been doing this; in my dream world I want to finish Endangered Species and then finish Thanksgiving. The problem is, already in the first 12 pages we have 38 kills – we realised that’s a bit ridiculous, and we’re going to have to tone it down a little bit…

You’ve said that people used to bombard you with questions over the “messages” of your movies, and you told them that you just wanted to entertain people. Has that changed at all, or is your primary goal still to entertain?

The primary goal from start to finish is always to entertain. Because why go and see a movie if you’re not entertained? I hate it when a message is forced down your throat and you’re forced to get something. That said, I love it when there’s this whole other level that maybe you didn’t realise was there. The thing about horror movies is the haunted house is never as scary the second time round, so what gives the film its staying power is if you reward people for watching it a second time. Suddenly they see new things that they haven’t seen before. I love it when you’re a kid and you think Dawn of the Dead is all about gore and zombies, and then later you realise there’s all this stuff underneath.

A lot of that comes out after the fact. You don’t set out to make a political movie, you set out to make a scary, entertaining movie. I thought Cabin Fever, Hostel and Hostel II were wildly different films. Then I realised all the films are about a group of friends who go on a trip and something horrible happens [when they are] out of their element. Certain things are scary to me! It’s like with The Simpsons, where the kids are watching it for one thing and the adults think it’s brilliant satire… With The Last Exorcism you could be 13 or 45 and get different things out of it.

If you could possess one living person who would it be and what would you get them to do?

I’d possess Harold Ramis and get him to remake Caddyshack II.

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