The writer/director/producer and all round horror mogul talks about his role in bringing The Last Exorcism to the big screen.
Eli Roth smashed his way onto the horror scene in 2002 with his debut feature Cabin Fever, which took the Toronto Film Festival by storm the same year. Since then he's not strayed far from the fore of horror cinema, pioneering torture porn with Hostels I and II before landing as lead role in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds as Sgt Donny Donowitz. In town for annual ghoul gathering FrightFest this week, we caught up with Roth to discuss his latest project, The Last Exorcism, which he takes a producer credit for.
LWLies: This is your first time at FrightFest, is that right?
Roth: Yeah, all my films have played at FrightFest before but I’ve never been here, so I always made these apology videos where I’d be on screen saying ‘I’m so sorry I can’t be there’. But last night was my first time and it was pretty incredible; I mean nearly 2000 people at the Empire – completely sold out – was pretty special.
FrightFest has soared in popularity since Cabin Fever screened there – it’s like the genre festival has finally landed over here. Is it like that in the States, or do you find smaller genre festivals are fighting a losing battle for crowds?
No I think it’s happening in the States too – they’ve been doing it in Spain and Brussels for years but things like FantasticFest have grown in importance over the years. And it’s terrific because genre films are generally so shit on at the major festivals, or they’re relegated to the midnight slot, or whatever. But that’s all changed now.
How much do you feel like Cabin Fever contributed to that?
Well, I remember in Toronto in 2002 we were worried about attendance for the film but it turned out to be so overwhelming that studios were literally fighting over it. It was the film that made people wake up and it was by far the highest grossing movie at the festival. There was a definite turning point after that because now when you go to a lot of festivals the Midnight Madness film will be the first thing to sell out. That’s the difference and it’s amazing to be thought of as having influenced that.
It’s interesting that that side of the filmmaking process, the commercial success, has defined your career, because you’ve managed to stick by low-budget filmmaking…
Yeah, that’s always been a big thing for me. Why make a $20 million movie when you can make a still make a lot of money off a $2 million dollar movie? What’s interesting is that I made a movie for $1.5 million, and here I am eight years later and we made Last Exorcism for $1.8 million. So I’m still kind of sticking with that because it works – we just took over $20 million opening weekend. So it just shows how hungry that audience is.
Is making low-budget horror commercially successful as easy as it looks?
Look, I mean you have to know what the audience wants…
You’ve always seemed one step ahead of the game in that respect…
Right, but you’ve got to have the ability to back it up as well. Daniel Stamm knows his shit and that shows when you look at Last Exorcism.
It’s interesting that the film is slightly ambiguous as to whether it’s a found footage or faux-documentary genre film. Can you shed some light on that?
First of all there’s a subtle difference between the two and the key thing about this movie is that it’s edited. It’s made to look like a documentary. What’s great is that the ending leaves you asking ‘Well how am I watching this footage now?’ So it’s not really found footage, but it asks the audience to question how made the documentary and what their agenda was.
Why do you think faux-doc and found footage have become so popular again?
Because it’s the cheapest way to do it. If you’re doing a documentary and you embrace that style anybody with a camera shooting can do it. It’s the simplicity that’s the beauty of it and that’s what makes audiences so hungry for it. [Oran] Peli showed it with Paranormal Activity, and granted his film is incredibly smart and uses some brilliant timing techniques, but it’s essentially a film that could have been made by anyone at any time. There’s something in that that’s quite romantic for an audience, I think. But the style really goes back to the director Peter Watkins who did it in 1971 with Punishment Park. That film was so incendiary that the US government banned it because they were worried there would be riots after the film. When you eliminate that fourth wall it really opens up a lot of possibilities for a filmmaker to tell a story and really affect an audience. Now everyone has their iPhones and it’s just become a more accepted, familiar style.
You seem quite excited by the notion that the film was banned. Is that something that has been consciously prominent in your career?
Fuck yeah! When Charles Walker, the MP, was trying to ban Hostel before even having seen it that’s when I knew I had done it: I’d made the movie the government was trying to ban without having seen it. Obviously I still wanted the movie to be released, but having that controversy behind you is like free marketing.
Bad press is good press?
Absolutely. It’s the most satisfying feeling in the world to take over the box office with a movie that cost nothing and that people have gotten so passionate about. Either for or against. At the end of the day you can’t make a movie like Hostel and expect to please everybody.
Do you prefer working in that kind of climate; where the buck stops with you and you have to take full responsibility if people are offended?
Yeah, I mean with the second Hostel I could have used a really big budget and gone the studio route but I didn’t want to lose that ownership or control. I will always take full ownership and the studios are happy for that because it’s less risk for them. I always looked at myself not really as an artist, but more like a provocateur – not in a von Trier kind of way, but in the sense that I love the controversy; I love that I pushed people’s buttons. What’s great about Last Exorcism is it shuts down those people who wanted to attack me because of the gore. They can’t do that with this type of horror so it’s challenging those people and audiences on a completely new level.
It’s scaring them just as much, but on different levels in a different way…
What scares you?
I’m scared that I’ll die before I get to make all the films I want to make.
If you could make one last film before you died, what would it be?
A science fiction film for sure. That’s not to say that’s going to be my next film, but I love science fiction, and I haven’t really explored it.