Infamous horror director Eli Roth, a trailblazer in his own right, already has a highly publicised (at least around these parts) relationship with Iceland – he says the idea for his highly successful directorial début, the now classic Cabin Fever, came to him during a summer stay at farm Ingólfshvoll (near Selfoss) in 1991. He has since returned many times and even went as far as creating an Icelandic character (played by the charismatic Eyþór Guðjónsson) for his mainstream breakthrough Hostel. Last month saw him return to shoot footage for Hostel’s sequel. When the Grapevine met up with him, he was excitedly telling one of his colleagues about Hostel being chosen the top ‘scary moment’ movie of all time (the runner-up was A Clockwork Orange). We enter mid-conversation:
…well, it’s certainly an honour to even be considered for the same category as Stanley Kubrick, unless it’s the category of deceased directors, maybe.
/// Yeah, congratulations on that. I actually considered Hostel to be more nerve-racking than actually scary…
– Yeah, some people say it’s the most disgusting thing they’ve ever seen and others were actually disappointed that it wasn’t disgusting enough. I think it’s directly related to your taste and what you are looking for. For instance, people were being told that The Exorcism of Emily Rose was the scariest movie ever, but then came out feeling indifferent to it – how a movie affects you directly pertains to how you’re set up for it beforehand, especially a scary movie. If the marketing claims that it’s a really scary movie, then maybe no one’s gonna really be scared by it. I wish everybody could go see Hostel without knowing a thing about it or having any expectations.
/// I actually did that. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Cabin Fever, even though my friends were really enthusiastic about it.
– Yeah… I mean… Tarantino and Peter Jackson loved it, so it doesn’t really matter…
/// That’s true. But why the fuck movies? Why aren’t you a rock star?
– Well, I think if you watch my animated short films, Rotten Fruit, on the Cabin Fever DVD, where I write and sing all the music, the question will answer itself. I am a terrible singer. I love to rock out and I’m really into rock music, but I enjoy listening to it more than making it. I think you can still live like a rock star without being one.
/// Well, it’s maybe a nonsense question, but you do seem to approach filmmaking in a much more punk rock way than many of your peers.
– No, I think it’s a very good question. I’ve always felt a synergy between my favourite movies and my favourite punk rock. The movies of the of the late 70s and early 80s reflect in the music, around the time when the punk rock scene was getting started in England with the Sex Pistols and then eventually migrates to Southern California in the early 80s, with bands like The Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, The Misfits… the entire Repo Man soundtrack, really… there’s a connection. What I love about punk rock – and the horror movies from that time – is that they don’t give a fuck. They’re shunned by mainstream society, don’t expect radio play, there’s no compromising to do and thus no rules. There is a feeling and attitude in the best punk rock that’s also inherent in the best low-budget movies. Someone once described Cabin Fever as a ‘splatterpunk’ move, which is a good way of talking about it. I love the freedom, attitude and energy of the best punk rock; those elements are also evident in my favourite horror films.
/// An uncompromising attitude and freedom that perhaps follows from not being entirely dependent on the mainstream market and its standards?
– Absolutely! And I think the irony is, with the success of both of my films, that I am making movies for a very specific audience… I just had no idea of how wide that audience really was. I don’t think Nirvana were making albums that were meant to go on every shelf at Wal-Mart, for instance, they were just three guys in a garage expressing these feelings they had and then it unexpectedly got caught up in a greater tide. I’m friends with the guys that made Saw, also a very low-budget movie, and we share the feeling that we’re just basically making the movies we’d like to see. Our attitude is that they’re not for everybody. The problem with movies nowadays is that everything gets watered down because they’re supposed to appeal to the widest audience possible; thus, people take out anything remotely offensive. The horror movies we love, movies like Cannibal Holocaust and the like, they offend people. They’re shocking. The goal is not necessarily to shock and offend, rather to make a movie that’s not afraid of how it’ll be perceived.
/// If we stick to the punk rock analogy: when you came out with Cabin Fever, no one in the mainstream was really doing that type of gory, bleak movie, much the same as when Nirvana came out with their take on pop-punk. Immediately after Nirvana’s success, however, you got a lot of Stone Temple Pilot-like bands – are there any STP-like directors on your trail?
– There are plenty, although I won’t name any names. I think the cream rises to the top, 15 years later, it’s still Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but at the time there were all these other bands around following their lead that no one remembers by now. It’s more of a marathon than a race, you have to be careful, like Quentin, to not be THE director of a certain moment that’s soon gone. You want to have a long-term, diversified career that increases in respect as the years go by.
/// Defining the moment, instead of chasing it?
– Yeah. And we have both types out there, though I won’t name any names. When I was doing Cabin Fever, the one dude out there doing the violence and nudity thing to my knowledge was Rob Zombie. I was completely blown away by The Devil’s Rejects, I think it’s a masterpiece on par with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rob was clearly not trying to make a movie that appealed to everyone. After Cabin Fever, I was offered a lot of films that I just turned down. I don’t want to be making Dukes of Hazzard or House of Wax. It happened again after Hostel, I got offered movies like Die Hard 4, and they’re also remaking The Hulk again… I was suddenly being offered these hundred million dollar movies that I really have no interest in even seeing. I’d much rather see a continuation of Hostel, with Icelandic characters, foreign languages without subtitles. The goal is ultimately to make better films and constantly improve on what you do, but there are guys I see who I know won’t last. They’re all smoke and mirrors, more interested in making money, getting attention and being a cool director than the things that really matter.
/// Carrying on with the analogy, then. Making art that you don’t expect the public to buy into gives you a lot of freedom, but when it catches on and you’re operating on a professional level you face all these expectations. You’re suddenly defining a moment and there are all these people making money off what you do. Many get tainted by the resulting pressure, have you faced similar situations since your breakthrough?
– That’s a good question. When all this money is all of the sudden being generated, you’re suddenly an industry, creating jobs for hundreds of people indirectly involved with the movie making process, designing DVD covers or whatnot. For Hostel 2, it’s weird to be under the microscope suddenly and face all these expectations, but it’s also good. Honestly, no one will put more pressure on me than myself. I have such high expectations, and I also don’t want to disappoint the fans or Quentin or the studio. I wouldn’t want to be the guy who goes to see Hostel 2 and gets let down.
///So your emphasis is on pleasing yourself, and if someone happens to like it, that’s a fortunate coincidence?
– Not at all. There are directors that make movies for indulgence, but I’m not of that variety. When I say I make movies for myself, that means I’m making them for me as a member of the audience, not me the director. I could be a lot more self-indulgent, but I try and think as a member of the audience. That means keeping the running time tight, I am very conscious about the opening credits, because I know people are at that time entering the theatre, talking and turning off their cell phones, shit like that. Things I like myself, as an audience member. There are certain times, shooting a shot that’s incredible but you know is going to slow down the movie, I go: ‘Cut it! Forget it man, this shot’s a jerkoff’. We’re telling a story, not masturbating, that’s the most important thing.
///Also in line with the punk aesthetics, throwing out the long jackoff guitar solos…
– Yeah, it’s three chords, really fast. Like the Circle Jerks’ album Group Sex. The CD is 14 minutes, 16 songs. That’s what I listen to, it’s on the running mix on my iPod.
///Could you tell us a bit about Hostel 2?
– It continues where the first one left off, literally in the following scene. We learn more about the organisation, how it works, we’re going to see girls go through the experience and also examine the point of view of the clients, how they get involved, etc. The difference is that the last one began in a fun manner and then your legs are pulled from under you, right when Eyþór disappears. This one is going to start directly in a dark place – everyone knows the other trick by now and we’re going to go against the expectations. Saw 2 and The Devil’s Rejects really got me in the way they went in directions I could never have predicted. I want to constantly make better and scarier movies, and that means going against expectations. And if Slovakians got upset about the last one, they’re really going to be by the sequel. We actually talk about how beautiful the country is, but all the beautiful scenes are actually filmed in Iceland. We’re putting that in the credits.
/// Are you intentionally trying to piss them off?
– No, no, it’s just funny. Also, Slovakia’s former minister of culture stars in the movie and they’re all going to be furious when they see he’s in there. But the movie is a great excuse to come to Europe and Iceland and have someone pay for it. I first came here 15 years ago and I just love the country so much. I came back last year when Hostel premiered at the film festival and I brought Quentin and he loved it, so we came back for New Year’s and it was a circus. Now we’re shooting at the Blue Lagoon, Laugar World Class, the farm Ingólfshvoll, where I lived 15 years ago. We were there today, actually, I keep a horse there and I just rode it…
It’s really been incredible and it’s all possible because of people like Icelandair, Nordica, True North, everyone made really great deals with us that enabled us to come here, which is important because we’re not James Bond or Batman or whatever. Hostel is a small-budget affair, doing a big-budget sequel wouldn’t have felt right. Part of the fun is things you couldn’t do on a big-budget affair, if we had a hundred million dollars we couldn’t cast lesser-known actors and push the envelope in terms of story and violence. We can be more creative. Also, the companies know us and what I am about, I want to make Iceland look beautiful and that’s the main reason we came here. I’m honoured to be here and I understand how important the Blue Lagoon is to Iceland and I’ll make it look beautiful, if a little creepy. I won’t spill any blood I promise. Maybe some outside it, but none right in the lagoon.
/// Thank you.
– I actually have an idea for a horror film I want to shoot entirely in Iceland. It’ll be called Culture Night. I was here for the last one, and I’m basically going to get a camera and walk up and down Laugavegur… No, not killing anyone, just documenting the insanity. I think that will shock and horrify people more than anything in the Hostel movies. The stuff I saw there… I saw a little kid drinking beer, 10 or 11 years old, he couldn’t finish it so his dad, a guy in a suit, took it, finished it, smashed the bottle and off they walked. You have a situation where all the kids who can drink are stuffed into bars, while the ones who can’t are all cramped on Laugavegur and it’s just a zoo. I can’t explain what I saw there, but I had a great time as an outsider, observing that stuff. I am not easily shocked, but I think that would make a great horror movie.
/// One last question: in your filmmaking, are you at all concerned with making a moral point?
– The short answer is yes. But I don’t want to make people feel like they have to look for that in my films. I do have strong opinions on human behaviour, which I think are reflected in my films. Cabin Fever could be construed as making a point about the way people treat each other, while Hostel is really about the sick side of human nature and I believe it really taps into something. There was actually a thing in Art Forum magazine a while back, where they deconstructed the whole film and saw it as a comment on American attitudes towards overseas, and their arrogance. I really think Americans think they can buy and sell everything, and in Hostel, they get bought and sold. If your money has no effect, you yourself become a commodity, and I think that terrifies people, especially Americans. A lot of people will never see my movies, but I really put a tremendous amount of thought into everything I do. I still hate movies like Crash, which was the worst piece of shit ever, movies that try to stuff the message down your throat and act all preachy. I rather like the stuff that sneaks up on you, like Dawn of the Dead, where George A. Romero is making comments on the rise of consumer culture – when people are dead, they’re still going to go to the mall – same as with Invasion of the Body Snatchers being about the fear of communism. You don’t realise it at first, but it stays with you and if you think about it, you can grasp a message or a thought of sorts.
Those kind of movies are my favourite, and I want to make movies like that. If you’re a teenager on a date, your date’s going to hold your hand and you’re going to be screaming, you can watch it at a sleepover with your friends. But if you want to, you can also watch it on an analytical level, and then it’s a deconstruction of one person’s view of American society and world culture at large. It’s all there for you.