Maker of 'The Last Exorcism', Eli Roth, talks budget movies and selling sex
He first made his name as director of low-budget horror flicks ‘Cabin Fever’ and the enormously successful ‘Hostel’ franchise, now the big influence of Eli Roth is behind other non-mainstream projects such as ‘The Last Exorcism’ – getting it straight to the top of the US charts
Having made 'The Last Exorcism' for under two million dollars, those behind the new horror flick were stunned at how well it was received in the States.
“We were able to pay for it before we even started shooting. And our marketing budget was only 20 million dollars, so if the movie had made 20 million in total that would have been a home run. To do that opening weekend was shocking, genuinely shocking," said producer Eli Roth.
"We always thought there was a wide audience for this, but to have a movie open really with a first time director [Daniel Stamm] with no track record and unknown stars is kind of unheard of. Especially when Tom Cruise’s last movie with Cameron Diaz didn’t even open at 20 million dollars - it’s crazy. So we are ecstatic and pleasantly surprised.”
The success of the film so far is undoubtedly in large part due to having Roth as a producer, who has taken a steep uphill journey to join the elite of the horror industry, as only eight years ago he was relatively unknown in the business.
Last weekend he made a guest appearance at FrightFest, with the film closing at the Empire Cinema in London and a final Q&A with the film’s charismatic protagonist Patrick Fabian.
“Someone asked if he could do the 'Banana Bread' sermon [from the film] and he did it! The place went crazy - he brought the house down. It was this wonderful, beautiful, inspired moment that made a great audience participation, ended the night in applause, it was really special.”
The film, 'The Last Exorcism' follows Cotton Marcus (Fabian), a fourth generation minister who’s lost his faith in God after hearing of the accidental suffocation of a child during an exorcism. He agrees to make a documentary to expose exorcism and the fraudulent business behind it.
“We made a very conscious choice to make this a documentary, not found footage. With ‘Cloverfield’ you feel like someone found the tape, they popped it in and that’s what we’re watching. This is edited and scored like it was ‘Grey Gardens’ or ‘The King of Kong’, there’s titles, there’s music. Somebody put this together. So I like the discussion of who put this together and what was their agenda?”
The film has been criticised for its ambiguous ending, but Roth is adamant it was the right choice:
“One of the nice things about making a movie low budget is that you can make it however you want. You can make bold choices. We knew the ending was going to split people. People either think it’s the greatest ending, or they actually feel it betrays the film and completely ruins their enjoyment of it. So it’s interesting to see the discussion that had emerged from it. To me I feel it makes complete sense, I think it’s absolutely the right ending.”
“A lot of audiences are used to being spoon-fed endings, where everything wraps up. I love movies that really make you think, and those that you want to watch it from a totally different point of view afterwards. Obviously, the film has very big issues here with God and the Devil and is this girl crazy...it is really about faith and testing Cotton's faith and he just continually failed at every turn."
"That’s the fun of making a movie at this budget level, that we don’t need anyone’s approval. We can make a bold choice and go with it.”
With big questions raised in about faith and religion in ‘The Last Exorcism’, the makers were concerned about the response from strictly religious types in the south:
“We watched it in the south with a deeply religious group and they loved it because the film really is a confessional. It’s Cotton starting from the point of wanting to confess for his sins and the purpose of the movie is to stop this from happening because he feels he’s doing the right thing. People really, really embraced it and that’s the fun. When you go to Louisiana you truly do feel you’re in another culture and it often feels like you’re in another country.”
The film culminates with a shocking scene that fans might’ve been expecting after the extreme violence shown in 'Hostel,' but this is more of a psychological thriller than an overt gore-fest. It’s interesting to find out whether an avid fan and dedicated director of horror believes there is a line to be drawn at the controversy that can be shown in film.
“I think that every story has its appropriate level of what to show. I think that in a film like ‘Blair Witch Project’ it’s all about what’s not seen and in ‘Hostel’ it’s very much what is seen. It’s like, can you take it? You’re in that chair, it’s an endurance test. It’s really up to the director’s judgement and I thought that Daniel Stamm did such a brilliant job of knowing exactly what to just capture."
"He didn’t want to make it too convenient for the camera. It had to maintain the authenticity that it was a documentary. The best stories are when you feel you’re in the hands of an unstable narrator and anyone can get killed at any minute.”
There have been rumours that Roth is to be involved in the third instalment of 'Hostel' but he reassures that these are strictly untrue:
“I have zero involvement with ‘Hostel 3’, believe nothing you read there. It’s an internet rumour. I left after ‘Hostel 2’ and thought there wouldn’t be anymore. I only found out they were making it. I have no idea what it’s about.”
The ‘Hostel’ films were criticised for their portrayal of severe brutality, but Roth defends a film’s right to depict violence. Films such as ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Faces of Death’, ‘I Spit on your Grave’ and ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ have all been banned in the UK at various points. But surely banning films is just pointless, because it exacerbates the intrigue?
“It’s absurd. No politician is ever going to take a stand and defend a horror because it looks like they’re endorsing the violence in the film. There is no violence in movies, only a representation of violence. I mean, how come there was murder before movies? Why don’t you go back to the witch trials where over a period of 250 years, 300,000 people were killed in Europe, tortured to death because the Bible said 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.'"
"Look how many people are killed today because of religion. Why don’t we just ban religion? Banning movies makes about as much sense as that. Why don’t you ban paintings and then ban books, then nobody would do anything wrong. I mean the Holocaust, was that because of a movie? It’s absurd.”
Roth has spoken in the past about horror as genre having a cathartic quality that is hard to find elsewhere:
“We all have fears in our lives that we bury. Am I gonna die alone? Is my partner who we think they are? Am I gonna find love? Am I gonna lose my job? Am I getting fat, am I getting old, am I gonna get hit by a car, am I getting sick? There’s no place we are allowed to be afraid in our society. You can’t be afraid at work, you can’t be afraid at home. Only during horror movies. It’s the only place in modern society that it’s culturally accepted and encouraged to be terrified. So it’s a great release to let all of these feelings out without feeling like a coward or without feeling shame.”
“And they’re the best date movie... because you look up at George Clooney and Brad Pitt and then they’re thinking that you're not them... In a horror movie they’re looking at the killer and grabbing onto you for dear life.”
Having started making films during his childhood, Roth went on to pay for his student films by working as an online sex operator for Penthouse magazine. Subscribers paid hourly to have web-based sex with Roth and his N.Y.U. friends, thinking they were Penthouse models…until they revealed themselves:
“My persona was this girl Tammy who was a slut in East Village who got gangbanged by ‘Guns ‘n’ Roses’ and ‘Poison’ and we went on and said 'We are men. We have penises and we’ve been fucking with you all along.' Their response was 'Shut up Tammy, tell me about your tits.' We couldn’t convince them - they refused to believe it. Men will believe anything.”
With awards for his acting role in ‘Inglorious Basterds’, a cameo as a wet T-Shirt competition judge in 'Piranha 3D,' and upcoming projects ‘Endangered Species’ and ‘Man with the Iron Fist’ - which see him venturing into new genres Sci-Fi and King-Fu, - it’s evident that Roth’s persistence to get his break has paid off. His passion for film drives his career and he’s worked undeniably hard to get into the industry, and as a result is willing to help other unknown talents break in. His penchant for horror seems to be unparalleled by many in the industry, and his success so far hasn’t driven him to exclusively stick to the big blockbusters that are all too common in Hollywood.
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