Roobla speak with Eli Roth
On the eve of a big summer for Eli Roth, we here at Roobla were lucky enough to sit down around a table with the man himself and not only talk about The Last Exorcism Part II and Aftershock but get some fascinating insights into his next directorial project and screening Cannibal Holocaust to children! Intrigued, you should be… here’s what he had to say.
Roobla: So if we can make a start with The Last Exorcism Part II. What’s happened to Nel since the events of the last film?
Eli Roth: Well, a lot has happened to Nel . The movie actually picks up right on the same night of the first one, and then when Nel is found and we make the switch from the found footage documentary style into narrative. Right away the film starts in more traditional narrative style, with a shot of the camcorder on the ground and then it cuts to Nel, she has absolutely no memory of what has happened and no idea what happened to her. Six months later she is brought to a halfway home for girls. She knows that someone perpetrated a fraud on her. The reverend was there making this documentary and all she knows is that it went very wrong and her family was killed in a fire. So slowly what happens is you realise that the film of the first one exists in the world of the second one, as this viral video which the other girls in the house discover and of course they are not too pleased to have her as a housemate. All Nel is doing is trying to move on with her life, reintegrate and convince herself that this was all just a terrible thing that happened to her but slowly the reality of what it is starts to seep into all aspects of her life and ruin it.
MF: So what made you decide to do away with the found footage aspect?
ER: One of the nice things about doing a movie low budget was that we could be experimental, and as soon the original movie’s opening weekend put it at number one, everyone started asking let’s do a sequel. Whilst we were certainly open to it, we didn’t want to rush and just churn out a sequel. We wanted going to take our time with it and figure out the story. We kept thinking in the documentary format, it was always just going to be another documentary crew going there to Ivanwood to find out what happened and none of us really wanted to see a movie about that.
We love Ashley Bell and we love that character of Nel, she is such an amazing actress, with such incredible range, we thought with all the scenes of her in the mirror contorting her face, the freaky exorcist shit, that’s the stuff I love, that what I want to see. So what if we abandoned that [the documentary style], then we thought, what if the first film exists as this viral video that Nel isn’t aware of until she discovers it. And that was great because then you could have people going, ‘you’re that chick from the video, do that thing with your fingers, do the bending’. So the other characters in the movie are in the position of the audience.
But the first one was very much about whether or not this is really a psychological drama about a girl who might be possessed or might be crazy from some sort of trauma that she has experienced. And now that we have answered that question we can really have fun with it, the possession.
MF: You produced this and the original film, how is your approach different as a producer as to that of a director, are you still as hands on in the producer role, is it very much still an Eli Roth film?
ER: No, I definitely wanted it to be an Ed Gass-Donnelly film. If I wanted it to be my film I would have directed it myself and I want the directors to know that. I’m very involved with the script development and I’m watching all the dailies as they’re coming in and making notes and then I’ll look at the cuts and then if I think there needs to be more work then I’ll really get in there in the edit room. With Ed I really wanted him to take ownership, I wanted someone to be really really excited to do the movie and although I wasn’t going to direct it I wanted it to be a good movie. So we wanted to find a filmmaker out there that really wanted to prove themselves, sink their teeth into it and make a great film.
Whereas Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism)’s favourite filmmaker is Lars Von Trier, you can see The Idiots and all those films in there, that’s what he was going for with the first film. Ed Gass-Donnelly loves Roman Polanski and would obsessively watch Rosemary’s Baby (and Kubrick’s The Shining) and say this is the tone, this is the mood, this the kind of camera work I want, this is the framing, this is the pace, and I just thought that was great and I fully supported him. So while he was shooting the film, (it was kind of an intimate set, like the first one), I didn’t go on set because I didn’t want him to feel like I was directing over his shoulder or that I didn’t trust him and I didn’t want the actors to feel like there was two directors.
I just produced Ti West’s new movie The Sacrament and it was the same deal and this other film Clown that I produced where I trust these guys so much. I’m very much there in the prep, overseeing the casting, the locations and how they going to do it but when it comes down to actually making the film I’m pretty hands off because otherwise people feel like there are two directors on set.
MF: Did you have any history with Ed beforehand, how did he get involved in the project?
ER: We saw his movie, Small Town Murder Songs and thought it was really well done, that the acting was good and that he did it for no money. That’s what I was looking for, someone who could be smart and clever on a low budget, we didn’t need someone that was going to need to spend a lot of money because it’s not that type of story, and it’s not that type of film.
He comes from a theatre background and he is very performance and photography based, he really knew how to make it look good. Having very high standards for everything, he didn’t want anything to look cheap or weak. I wanted someone that was going to be obsessive about every detail and every shot, who is really proving their talent with the film and that’s what he did.
MF: Does Part II continue the slow build up of the scares, rather than jumping in and doing big set pieces?
ER: Well, we like that pace, I don’t think you can switch gears. But I also think that with the first one, you know that the first thirty minutes were so funny until she shows up at the motel and you’re like, “Oh my god what is this!” We knew we couldn’t do that again, so one of the things that Ed did really well is that the first twenty / twenty five minutes are very very creepy, effective and fun. If the last one ended at that point, that’s where we wanted to start the second one, in that the tone of it is scary and dark.
MF: Did you purposely avoid any clichés that are commonly associated with possession films?
ER: You know we had a big discussion about that, because Ed wanted levitation and I was very against it. And he is like no, no, no, don’t worry I know they levitate in The Exorcist but he had really a good idea and a good reason to do it, knew where to go with it and how to do it. So I was like OK, if he cares and he’s got something in his head that he is 1000% certain is going to work then I just have to trust him and if it doesn’t work then we can always cut it. But he did it, it was amazing and it worked so well in the story, that you think yeah you know what The Exorcist is forty years ago, it’s not really a cliché. It’s kind of cliché from that movie but at that point in our movie you are not even conscious of it. The way he used it and the way he did it in the context of the story was great.
MF: Do you see this turning into a franchise or are you going to wrap it up with this story?
ER: You know, I didn’t see the first one turning into a sequel and really, truthfully we are only focused on this one. We’re not thinking about a part three and it’s again the kind of thing where I am in a position now where I can make a lot of different films. And I’m only going to make it if it’s worthwhile, I wouldn’t do a third part just to have a one exist. We would really only do it if we had a story that we felt was worth telling.
MF: I guess it might need a new title as well Last Exorcism Part III could be stretching it a little?
ER: (Laughing) We were going to call this one Last Exorcism Part IV but settled for Part II, I guess it could be the Lastest Exorcism or the Lasting Exorcism. I remember the day after the first one opened, thinking we’ve got do Part II and we were going to call it The Devil Inside, that’s a good title, what’s the story!
MF: Can we expect more of the same Eli Roth ™ nastiness in the vein of the finger breaking scene in the original?
ER: Well, it wouldn’t be a film with my name on it without it. The nice thing with these movies is that they are a different type, it’s sort of a change, tonally, and it’s a bit of a shift [for me]. I mean you’re sadly not seeing people hacked apart with power tools but as much as I love that, it doesn’t fit every story. But yeah there are those freaky, creepy disturbing scenes for sure.
MF: You were here to talk about Aftershock as well, how is work on that going?
ER: Aftershock is going great, it’s been an incredible year, I had the best time collaborating with [the director] Nicolás López. I loved his movie, Promedio rojo, it’s so funny, all his films are on Netflix, they’re hilarious and I was saying when are you going to do an English language genre movie because I knew he loved the movies of Rodriguez, Tarantino and Cameron. And I thought that now after Last Exorcism Part II, I was in a position to help him cross over.
We sat down and intended to write a science fiction movie. Then he started telling me about what happened during the Chilean earthquake in 2010 and it was terrifying I mean he didn’t have to make up anything, it’s all stuff that really happened. The earthquake hit at 3:30am, the last weekend of summer, so everyone was out partying in the bars, everyone was drunk, a friend of our actress (Lorenza Izzo), the bar fell and chopped his hands off. And everyone was looking for the hands but the building was shaking so people were running and trampling and kicking the hands and then they got the hands, they tied them off and took them out.
Lorenza walked through a plate glass window and she was all cut up, there was no network, all the phones were out, so nobody knew where to go as they didn’t have Google maps on their phones and you couldn’t call the fire department or the police. The tsunami sirens went off, so everyone started freaking out and running up into the hills. Then they realised that the prisons had collapsed and every criminal was loose. The prisons were levelled so people were just smashing and looting, people had shotguns and there were suddenly helicopters in the air and marshal law had been declared. There was one town where they called off the tsunami warning because people were panicking so much, then two hours later it hit and 2,000 people we killed.
So we strung all these incidents together and we loved the idea that it would be terrifying. For example here we all are sitting around this table and everything’s fine, then the next thing you know, you’re looking for your hands! A friend of Nicolás’ told me a story about this girl who was out on a date, a first date with a guy and rocks fell and hit him on the head, leaving him paralysed from the neck down, she was sitting there and had to move him in the back seat and drive stick down the road. This was what everybody was going through, it was horrific and we realised there hadn’t really been an earthquake movie since Earthquake. Anything that had been done recently had been done with CG so we wanted to do something old school, do it practical and really break shit and drop things. Terrifying.
MF: So is it very different to your other work, is it more serious in tone?
ER: Yeah, it’s certainly a mixture of Nicolás’ sensibilities and my sensibilities, the rom-com beginning. With my character, we wrote a guy who was pretty much the opposite of the Bear Jew, he is not heroic at all. He is a guy recently divorced who is trying to reintegrate with going out and meeting girls. He realises he can’t talk to any of them, a total dork, always striking out! Then they meet these girls and they’re having fun and everything’s going great, then the earthquake hits. Suddenly you are with people who are strangers depending on each other for survival.
MF: How important was it to film on actual locations instead of using sets?
ER: We had to film on location first of all because of the budget but there were a lot of locations we scouted ourselves. There were so many places still destroyed from the earthquake, in the cemetery’s the tombs are broken open. You walk around them and there are bones sticking out the cracks. We shot a scene in the Santiago general cemetery where I’m on the ground and I’m looking around and it’s like wow the set dressing is great with all these skulls, and it’s like yeah “set dressing”.
So it was incredible to be there and even in the club that we filmed, where we dropped the ceiling, smashed it and crushed the speakers. They showed Nicolás the security footage [from the earthquake] and we based it on that. People were killed in the club that night and we saw it, so it was crazy. Even if you go on YouTube you can see videos of the Chilean earthquake. It’s horrific.
So filming on location, certainly in Valparaiso, was great. Valparaiso is one of the graffiti capitals of the world, artists from all over the world go there to spray paint. It’s amazing, the whole city is like a walking mural. So filming there was awesome.
MF: Had you always intended on acting in the film when you were writing it?
ER: (Laughing) No, we wrote it and it just so happened that there was room in my schedule, I wanted to be there and we thought, as producers, we can save money, save on an extra plane ticket.
MF: How do you balance the acting / directing / producing, obviously you are working on The Green Inferno at the moment so how does it all fit together?
ER: The nice thing was that I trust Nicolás, and Aftershock is his film, so I could be there as a creative producer and as an actor but talk about different stuff in the editing room. But it was nice just to be able to focus on the acting and not have to direct. I mean it sucks at the end of a day when you’re in character, every night I was covered head to toe in fake blood, sweat and dust. We called it MTV dust party. Get blasted head to toe with baby powder, we are coughing and it’s in our eyelashes and disgusting. But it looked so good.
But it was nice to get back to directing and that was on Hemlock Grove, directing the pilot, even though it was television it was more like a feature and Steven Poster (who shot Donnie Darko) shot the pilot with me, which was really cool. David Cronenberg’s editor Ron Sanders cut it with me, it was a really fun time.
And then I went off to do Green Inferno. Which was an incredible experience and I used the whole crew from Aftershock. Everybody and Lorenza Izzo, from Aftershock and the girl who gets it in Hemlock Grove, she was so great in the movie, just beautiful, big expressive eyes. And we needed a girl that would get eaten by a werewolf in the first episode that would really make you remember, someone you don’t want to see get eaten and killed. And then I wrote The Green Inferno for her and cast her as the lead and she is unbelievable, like Naomi Watts in The Ring, she’s amazing. I’m editing [The Green Inferno] now. Nicolás has been a great great creative collaborator and partner so it’s been a lot of fun and he certainly gets me off my ass! “Come on you lazy American” he says, “another movie, another movie!”
MF: So what can we expect from The Green Inferno?
The Green Inferno is a crazy experience, I wanted to write it and I wanted my return to directing to be a real statement. I want it to be worth the wait and I wanted to do something that would make this the film that I would be remembered for, that would obliterate the others. So we went, I found these locations in the Amazon that were unbelievable, I mean I went farther up the river than anyone had ever gone before to shoot. We went past where Werner Herzog shot Aguirre: The Wrath of God. It was awesome. So we were like Werner’s been there so we’re going further up. We were there for hours and it was just jungle on jungle. On the way back we realised that this little place is the last village, I saw grass huts and we pulled up and there was a little girl washing clothes on the beach.
So they came out of the houses and we realised that we have to explain to them what a movie actually is. They had no idea, they had never seen a movie. Not so bad until we realised they had never seen a television, so even conceptually they didn’t know what we were talking about. We had to slowly educate them on a what movie was. So we went and we looked around the village and it was the real deal. It really looks straight out of another time, like out of one of these cannibal movies. But it was also beautiful like a Herzog or Mallick film or even Apocalypto.
To even get there was five hours of travel every day. You would have to drive an hour on a dirt road, to the boat, up the river, into the jungle and then we brought coolers with ice and the kids have never seen ice, and they were like woah! It was mind-blowing to be in that place with people that have never left the village. So they’d never seen it before!
So we went full National Geographic with these natives, we brought a generator and a television and showed them Cannibal Holocaust. I thought the producer was going to show them E.T. or The Wizard of Oz but no we showed them Cannibal Holocaust! So five year old kids were sitting there watching Cannibal Holocaust, they had never seen a movie before and thought it was great. They all signed up to cannibals, we had the whole village dressed up. It was amazing!
MF: Did you introduce them to Coca Cola?
ER: They were crazy for Coca Cola, we actually had to hide our soda! By the end of the shoot, the kids were all playing around with fake heads and props, it was amazing. The weirdest, craziest thing was that they all knew how to use the iPads and iPhones, they would all take our phones and shoot pictures and videos, and we totally tampered with the social ecosystem of this village. We roofed all the houses though, we put metal roofs on all their homes. They all live in straw huts and although we could have paid them money they would have no way to have spent it. So we put metal on everyone’s house. And they were happy.
MF: Are the kids in The Green Inferno anything like the kids from Hostel?
ER: Ah yes, they are worse! They are amazing but we got them down to (whereas on Hostel, five was the youngest) we could have two and three year old kids. It was amazing, the kids were so funny and what I realised is that, first kids are great in movies, kids make it authentic. Plus we had pigs, chickens and boars stomping through the shot and shitting on set The kids were so damn funny and because they had never seen a camera before none of them were self conscious at all. They would do takes over and over again, these extras were in 110 degree heat in the sun, never even asking to go to the bathroom. You could just have them eating guts and fingers and they were so happy to, awesome. I miss those kids, by the end we had been there months so I knew everyone in the village on first name basis. And everyone was crying when we left so it was really sad.
MF: Would you go back and visit?
ER: Oh yeah. We have to, to do a premiere there or something like that would be great!
The Last Exorcism: Part II is in cinemas on the 7th June and Aftershock will be available to own on DVD from the 26th August.