Toronto: Mike Fleming Q&A’s Eli Roth On His Quest To Be Horror’s Walt Disney

What can I say, I have always gotten a kick out of Eli Roth. Even though I’ve only really seen him onscreen bashing Nazi brains with a baseball bat in Inglourious Basterds. I don’t have the aversion that my colleague Nikki Finke does for what she calls Roth’s “torture porn” offerings, because I never had the stomach to watch Cabin Fever or the two Hostel films. In the first place I grew up in an era of the original Night Of The Living Dead and Halloween, when it was enough to stalk promiscuous kids without harvesting their organs for profit. Regardless, Roth killed it at Toronto last week; before he even premiered the film he starred in and produced, Aftershock, he made a $2 million deal against gross and a guaranteed wide release for that film and another, Clown, about a dad who subs for a missing clown at his kid’s birthday party, can’t shed the clown white and slowly becomes a homicidal maniac. He’ll make a lot of money, as he always seems to, particularly because Aftershock only cost $2 million to make. But even more interesting is Roth’s grand plan to turn his flair for scare into a real empire.

DEADLINE: You made arguably the biggest deal at Toronto. Why did you sell it before it premiered?
ROTH: Anytime you make a movie the goal is a wide theatrical release, with the right distributor. Now that Lionsgate and Summit merged, there’s an opportunity for Dimension to make a move and become the horror powerhouse they were in the 90s and Bob told me, I want you to do what Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino did with us. Well, I’d made the Thanksgiving trailer for Grindhouse, and I developed the Stephen King novel Cell but I’d never done a movie with Dimension. On Cabin Fever, I offered it to Bob and then had to rush to sell it to Lionsgate before they found out Bob passed. When I first wrote Hostel, Bob said no, and when Screen Gems freaked and said they wouldn’t release it, I showed Bob the cut again. He said it was too violent, that he wouldn’t feel good putting it out into the world. Then it opened at $20 million and did $80 million on a $3 million negative cost. Those were the days when you could sell a lot of DVDs and we just hit the jackpot. Bob and Harvey apologized.

DEADLINE: Only in horror do you gross 25 times your budget.
ROTH: Even Hostel 2, which is Nikki’s favorite movie, I bought my parents a house with that one. We should all fail so well.

DEADLINE: Nikki wrote that you’d vowed to her, no more torture porn films.
ROTH: That was her promise, and she tried to trap me in it. I said I don’t make torture porn, I make scary movies. Back to Bob, The Last Exorcism, did over $20 million on a $1.5 million budget, and Dimension could have had that too. I told Bob, at a certain point you’re going to have to consider that I know how to make movies at a price that work, and I get out there and sell them. Let’s just do this. I showed him five minutes of Aftershock, and he loved the script for Clown. I said if I’m giving you this before anyone else sees it, you gotta go big. And he did.

DEADLINE: Toronto is the place that started your career, isn’t it?
ROTH: Back in 2002, I came here with Cabin Fever. Nobody cared about Midnight Madness then, until it became the biggest sale of that festival, to Lionsgate, and it became their top grosser and the stock went from $1.98 to $6 a share. It did $22 million domestic and $30 million overall, but it did like $50 million or $60 million on DVD.

DEADLINE: Did that make you independently wealthy?
ROTH: No. It was great for Lionsgate, but I split that movie with so many people, just to get it made, that where I thought I’d get $1 million, instead I got a check for $200,000. The investors said audit, but instead I sat down and wrote Hostel, which cost $3.8 million to make. Because I was getting studio offers to direct, we were able to leverage Cabin Fever’s DVD sales to get a bank loan and we invested $5 million in the movie, knowing we’d make money even if it went straight to video. Then Screen Gems wasn’t going to release it, Lionsgate picked it up, Quentin came aboard and it opened at $20 million, which was unheard of at the time. Nobody thought it would go mainstream but when it did, the deal I had made me independently wealthy. Then, Hostel 2 had a negative cost of $10 million, and it did $30 million worldwide and so on my third film, I had first dollar gross and final cut and once again, the DVD sales were crazy. They had the right to make Hostel 3 and I got a taste of that. On The Last Exorcism, I took no salary, only upside, and that went well. Instead of auditing, your best leverage is another movie. I saw this Woody Allen documentary and it changed my thinking. People get caught up in their ouvre, but you look at Woody and he never stops creating. Some hot, some miss, and then you get Midnight in Paris. Creative writing and shooting are muscles that atrophy. But when you work them, you become a self-generator who can branch out. Like with the haunted house, the Goretorium.

DEADLINE: What is a Goretorium?
ROTH: It’s a year-round haunted house in Vegas, like a Cirque du Soleil version of the haunted mazes that are at places like Knotts Berry Farm for the 18 days before Halloween. It’s basically people saying boo, chopping up bodies, there are corpses flying out at you. I wanted a city that was conducive to a year round place and so we put the Goretorium right on Las Vegas Blvd, right on the strip. I’ve seen when they had a Hostel maze, they charged $180 to get in, and they got 2000 people an hour going through six mazes. People waited two and a half hours to get in. We’re opening in two weeks. If we get 2000 people a day, we’re good. And we rented the space for 30 years. We will be open all year and we’re going to go all night, too. People can come out of the casinos at 3am and say, let’s go do the haunted house. This is going to be the scariest hi-tech haunted house in the world, with people dropping from bungees. Downstairs, there’s a lounge and a bar, and a half-girl there with an illusion where there is blood coming out and when you get a drink it looks like you’re drinking her blood. There’s a bar with zombie cages, a chapel where people can get married. There will be zombie weddings, haunted weddings. You may now slit the bride’s throat. We got our license to have a chapel. We’ve already been contacted about Mall of America, New York City, Tokyo, London. If this thing works, you can do it in 24 hour cities.

DEADLINE: Who’s backing you?
ROTH: Robert Frey, and we found a bunch of Israeli investors who said, ah, Bear Jew, you shot Hitler! Sure, we’ll invest!

DEADLINE: Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi started in splatter horror and we saw where they went. Where are you going with all this?
ROTH: If you look at Peter Jackson, he used all the money from The Frighteners to build a studio in New Zealand. I found this great opportunity we’re calling Chilewood, a chance to build a studio you own and make all your movies there. It’s in Chile, where we made Aftershock basically because the director, Nicolas Lopez, wanted to. Chile was the best double for America that I’d seen, other than Canada. The architecture, signage, the roads, the way the people look, it’s like you’re in suburban America. I’m directing The Green Inferno there. We have basically an airport hangar we converted. We took some money from the Aftershock budget and with each movie, more and more gets built. What I want to do is bring down a decent sized movie, $15 million to $20 million; put half a million dollars in and you can fix it up into a really nice studio down there. We want to do what Dino De Laurentiis did in North Carolina. We have all the equipment, post-production, all that is available. We can own it and shoot all our films there, or let somebody else own it and be partners. Nicolas shot Que Pena Tu Boda in 11 days, and it made more than Social Network down there and the kids didn’t know the difference. There’s a joy in watching The Master in 70 mm, but kids want to see a good story and don’t care what it’s shot on. And two weeks later it’s on everybody’s iPad anyway.

DEADLINE: Sounds like you aren’t outgrowing horror, like Jackson and Raimi did.
ROTH: As a kid, my idols were Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, and I get into crazy races with myself. Raimi was 21 when he made movies and when I didn’t get Cabin Fever made that fast I thought I’d failed. I remind myself that Ridley Scott was around my age now, when his first movie came out. With the technology here, I am in a unique position with horror, and I still love it. I want to take it to a PT Barnum, Walt Disney level that no one has ever done before. I’ve had offers for Marvel movies that almost happened after Hostel. It seems exciting to do coming book movies, but you serve so many masters that no matter what you do, you’re making the best version of somebody else’s movie. In Man With The Iron Fists, RZA and I wrote this kung fu movie with magic weapons, like a mystical Star Wars in another universe. He gets Russell Crowe, we get Quentin Tarantino, RZA brings in Lucy Liu and Kanye West. We did the whole movie all in for $16 million, everybody took a bit pay cut and if it hits, we all win. And we did it because it just felt cool.

DEADLINE: If all this isn’t enough, you are doing an original series for Netflix. Steve Van Zandt followed The Sopranos with the Netflix series Lillyhammer. It seemed to disappear, or is there a hidden following?
ROTH: Yes there is. Lillyhammer was a cheap acquisition for Netflix and they used it as a test case. When Eric Newman and I sat down with them, they told us that Starz spent $15 million outdoor advertising Spartacus. And 10% or 8% of the people that saw the billboards watched the show. People who watched Gladiator on Netflix, were sent a message as soon as it was over that if you liked Gladiator, you’ll like Spartacus, and it was a 97% crossover rate. Lillyhammer was advertised in a non traditional way with flash ads that pop up on your computer. That series helped them figure out how to take and original series and cross promote it, but it didn’t start out a Netflix series, it was an acquisition. Whereas Hemlock Grove, which is for Twilight kids when they grow up, is a huge investment for them. They have 30 million subscribers and will use all different ways to promote to them. We’re shooting episode five, and they will release all of them at once, which is really cool.

DEADLINE: This is pretty good stuff for a kid who came out of NYU and broke in as a PA on Gotham movie shoots. What was that like?
ROTH: Great experiences. At 23 and right out of school, I started getting coffee for people, but I became the guy who was there at 5 in the morning at Tompkins Square Park and when they said, hey Eli, shut those crack addicts up, I’d go over and charm them. I’d go up to construction crews on Fifth Avenue and say, guys, would you mind holding up for a bit so we can get this shot? I learned to interface with everybody, I was this unassuming sweet guy from the suburbs who was polite and able to handle personalities. On Meet Joe Black, when Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt are crossing the street, I was able to stop 1000 Japanese tourists from crossing the street. They could put my anywhere and know I’d take charge in a polite way. I got on Howard Stern’s Private Parts. They built Howard an apartment in Silvercup Studios and I stayed outside all night, and wrote Cabin Fever. Then I’m in a van with Gary Dell’abate and four strippers and I wound up playing Gary’s cameraman in the movie. One day, we had to do reshoots and I’m there with Gary, and Howard’s Wack Packers Nicole Bass the bodybuilder, Elephant Boy and Crackhead Bob. And the scene is Gary and a naked girl and a donkey on the steps of the Met, with Gary trying to convince the girl to do something with the donkey, with me filming it. And all I hear is the director, Betty Thomas, saying, “I want less Eli, less Eli! Get him out of the shot!” And Howard would talk about me all the time on the radio, which was the coolest thing ever.

DEADLINE: It can’t have been all glamour. What was the most demoralizing experience?
ROTH: Getting fired off Meet Joe Black. I’d helped a friend, Chris Surgent, get the job as second AD and they asked me if I wanted to be a stand-in. That’s a great job because you make $200 a day instead of $100 as PA, and you qualify for health benefits quicker. I’m standing in for Jake Weber, who is taller than me. The DP says, don’t worry, just wear boots. The first shot is a close up walk and talk between Jake and Anthony Hopkins, so height matters. So they say, can you walk taller? I do, and I look like this Jurassic Park velociraptor. Martin Brest walks by and says to the first AD, that kid is one untalented stand-in. Fire him.” So Chris, my friend who I helped get his job comes over and says, Martin Brest has fired you because he said you’re an untalented stand-in. That’s like saying you’re an untalented piece of furniture. Chris gave me the job of turning the air conditioner on and off. You turn it on, you turn it off. I couldn’t take it and quit after one day.

DEADLINE: How did that training help when you became a director?
ROTH: I was a really good PA who would work seven days a week, and if the producer Fred Zollo called me at 3 AM, telling me his friends were coming in and needed theater tickets, I was up at 7:30, making calls, emails and paging. I made sure they got tickets. My goal was to make myself indispensable, where they couldn’t function without me. If you complain, if you’re a pain in the ass, you don’t get anywhere. The big problem now with young people is they are what I call Generation iPhone. Everyone is so used to getting movies, music, information instantly, whereas we had to wait to hear a song on the radio. They expect their careers to happen just as instantly. “I love movies, I want to be a director, I have a camera, I’m making a movie.” All those years on a set taught me patience and discipline. I learned what the pace of a set should be. I watched as Martin Brest did 50 or 60 takes, and how it just killed the crew. I could see how it was when a director was prepared, and how the crew responded when a director was a screamer. So when I made Cabin Fever, I knew what to do. When there was a fight with the crew, when the union tried to shut us down, I knew how to handle it. When an actor got glass in his eye and the producer took him to the hospital, I knew how to run the set and keep moving. It’s possible to just pick up a camera and make a good movie, but more often it’s like someone saying, I’ve watched ER, I’m buying the tools and doing surgery.

DEADLINE: Genre filmmakers get marginalized. Is there legitimacy you crave?
ROTH: No, I could not care less. I just want to entertain and scare audiences. It was never my goal to win a Thalberg, I wanted to be on the cover of Fangoria. What is important to me is that people know I respect the business of making movies. When you’re responsible to your budget, get out and promote them, and when your movies make a profit for the studios, that is all the respect you need. You can win all kinds of awards, but if your movie doesn’t make a dime, and you’re a prick and don’t do press, nobody’s going to respect you. And you might not get another shot. Every distributor knows they will see me at every festival. International distributors know I do all the TV shows. I’m learning Italian, French, Spanish and I can do press in those languages. Look, I have my SAG Award for Best Ensemble for Inglourious Basterds, and I know Christoph Waltz got that for all of us but I’ll still take it. But when you make horror movies and they’re effective, you know they are going to upset people. When Nikki gave me all the grief over Hostel 2, I know she probably never saw it, but just that it affected her was a compliment. The opening weekend of Hostel, when people were running out, projectile vomiting on the walls, and then filming it and posting on Ain’t It Cool News, that’s my Thalberg. If kids are watching my movies at sleepovers 20 years from now, if people are still fighting over whether my movies are good, of if they suck, that’s all I want.

DEADLINE: My daughter wanted to tour Eastern Europe this summer with some girlfriends and when she mentioned they’d stay in hostels, I said no. Do you realize you’ve done for hostel tourism what Marathon Man did for dentistry?
ROTH: Well, I apologized to the tourist board of Slovakia and offered to do a commercial for free, but they said no thanks. When we made Aftershock in Chile, we literally demolished all kinds of things and the safety rules were very different and they called me the nervous Gringo, Senor Safety. We shot in a cemetery that was destroyed by the actual earthquake. I’m on the ground, crawling around and the crypts were cracked open and there were bones and dust. I said, set dressing did this right? They said, well…no. “I’m lying in other people’s bones?” They said, yeah, it looks good, let’s shoot. We were constantly apologizing to skeletons we came across. I feel like I’m going country to country, wearing out my welcome. On The Green Inferno, the movie I’m directing now, I went on a scout deep in the Peruvian Amazon. It’s on the river Aguirre – named after the film because the only other person to film near there was Werner Herzog 40 years ago on Aguirre, Wrath Of God. We were an hour by boat from the nearest town when I saw a village on the edge of the river. We pulled in and these kids came out, surprised and curious. It’s a village with no electricity, no running water, nothing but straw roof huts with hammocks. We talked to the villagers and I asked my Peruvian producer if we could film there and he said “Well, first we need to explain to them what a movie is.” Many of them had never left the village. They didn’t want money, what they need is a boat so they can get to the town if there’s an emergency. So we’re going to film there in exchange for a boat, medical supplies, school supplies, and sports equipment for the kids. It will literally change their lives. They were so nice. I showed the kids what an iPhone was and took videos and the kids loved it. Next week our producer is going there to set up a screen and show them what a movie is! The only question now is, should we show Cabin Fever or Hostel?

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