After assisting David Lynch on his website films, Eli Roth carved out a powerful niche in screen horror with the independently produced Cabin Fever. The resulting, low-budget Hostel confounded Hollywood by converting a $4.8 million budget into a $78. 5 million worldwide gross. Before moving on to pet project Trailer Trash (a Grindhouse-esque collection of faux trailers) and an adaptation of Stephen King's novel Cell, Roth came to San Francisco to put Hostel Part II, for the first time, in front of an audience. When I met with Roth the next morning at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Roth began by filibustering about his premiere public screening.
ER: I never thought I would do a sequel. Hostel was the one-off movie between movies for me. I was like, "While I'm waiting for my studio film to get greenlit, I'll do this little, four-million, three-million dollar—" No one will pay attention; maybe it'll come in at a few theatres. And then when it did what it did, I was like, "Fuck, if I'm going to do a sequel, I got to do it right now, and I got to fucking—I've got to make people feel the way I felt when I came out of Aliens. And Road Warrior. And when I went, "Holy fuck!" They took that shit to the next level. Like "J" just fuckin'—not only did they top it, it is so much better, it stands on its own, it's a great companion piece, and it just fuckin' was exactly what I wanted. But also totally new and totally different, and just it was so satisfying to hear everyone reacting the way I was hoping—people [would] react. It got a lot of like [sharp intake of breath, through gritted teeth]. And even when she spills the drink on Roger, and when he's like, "Good night, Beth." People went, "Oooohhhhhhhh!" I was like, "Yeaaaaaaaaah!" 'Cause they paid attention. And then I love—I really wanted to make it more oddly subtle in weird ways. Like when they're pickin' out the tools, and during that montage—the bidding montage was so fun, watching people being like, "What the—oh—Ohhaaaoh!. Once they kinda got it, they were like, "No." And then the woman on the horse—and people were like, "No fucking way! That is fucked up!" I was like, "Yeah!" When the guy [in the audience] goes, "Bitch, please!", I was like, "We got one of those, man." And it was just like—I just dreamed—'cause I remember the first screening of Hostel I watching people going fuckin' nuts when we ran over the girls and cutting the fingers. I was like, "How can I whip the crowd into that frenzy, and give them that adrenaline rush that they want and take them to that dark place of just like absolute horror, and then exhilaration at the end. And God, you need to have that ending. It's like, look, I mean my competition is fucking Pirates 3, Shrek 3, Spidey 3: it's like how are we going to compete with these other movies? It's like "I need the fucking ending that's going to—" People will go, "I don't care who's in it. I don't care how big your movie star is. I don't give a fuck what special effects extravaganza you have." Nothing will top the end of this movie. I mean, Spider-Man 3: people were just like—that movie ended, and I just heard people goin' "That sucked." There were kids goin' "That sucked." And it's so depressing, 'cause I love Raimi, but you could smell that they were like "We need more toys." You can fuckin' sniff it out; you can smell it. You want to fuckin'—in Return of the King, you were just like "Aaauhhh!" Fuckin' Peter Jackson—they just got better and better and better. And it was awesome, and it was like so fulfilling. But you can smell when they just want to sell shit. And I was like "I gotta do a sequel where people come out, go, 'I don't care who's in this movie. Nothing's gonna top the ending of Hostel Part II. It's gonna fuckin' bring the house down.' I should shut up and let you—have questions. I'm sorry—stop me—
G: One of the things that I really liked about this as a sequel is that instead of panning over, it zooms out. You see more of this world, of Elite Hunting—
ER: Yes, the point-of-view changes, from the storytelling.
G: I wanted just to ask you about how you developed that strategy, and do you have in mind a third film?
ER: No, there's no 3, there's no Hostel 3. I thought of like Kill Bill Volume 1 and Kill Bill Volume 2. And I'll tell you why: I fuckin' hate Godfather III. I wish Spider-Man 3 did not exist. I am still angry there is a Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. I hate it when there's a shitty third movie. I really hate it. And I want to see—if I have that Return of the King inspiration where I go, "Yeah, this would be better than the first two," then I would do it. Right now, there's Part I and Part II—that's it. I'm not thinkin' about it. I'm movin' on. I think the story—I love it as it is, as a Part I and a Part II. I'm sure if the film does well, the subject will come up, but I will put my foot down and fucking stomp and scream and do everything to prevent it unless I thought it was a better film. But to answer your question about the point-of-view, the first one was really this descent into hell, and we're with the guys. I wanted the audience making decisions with the characters, going, "Yeah, I'd—fuck it—okay, yeah, let's fuckin' fuck that girl in the club, or yeah, let's go get those hookers in Amsterdam," or he's talking about Slovakia? I heard guys in the audience going, "Yeah! Yeah! Do it!" And then when Jay Hernan—it's about people who don't have enough. Nothing's ever enough. They all want a little bit more. The American girls aren't enough, so they go for Europeans. European club girls aren't enough, so they get the hooker. They wanted the power of paying to do what you want to someone; that's not enough. They go to Slovakia for the Eastern European girls, and they get them, and [raising his voice] they fuck them. And it's still not enough. And their fuckin' friend disappears! And no one's holding a gun to their head! They could leave! And they don't. Beacuse Jay Hernandez and the guys want one more. They want a better story. He's like, "This is the shit we're gonna think about." Nothing is enough for anyone, and they get fucked and they get tortured and then they wind up as the very thing they were making fun of. That's what she says: "You're fuckin' my bitch. You thought you could buy and sell me? Well, I actually literally just bought and sold your ass." And they're in the chair, and I wanted people making the decisions with the characters, goin' "I'd do that. I'd do that. Maybe I shouldn't have done that. Maybe it was wrong to think that because I'm American I have superiority and power. Maybe it was wrong to judge another culture and think that I can buy and sell another person. Maybe I feel fuckin' stupid, and I am now left in a foreign country, with no subtitles, with a guy I don't really know. They don't really know Jay Hernandez, and they don't really like him at that point in the movie. He's kind of a dick. And you're stuck with him. And slowly he has to win the audience back. And now you're there and he's lost his friends—I wanted people to feel like they got the fuckin' rug yanked from under them; they don't know where they are, with this guy—what the fuck just happened? Who are these people? Everything's fuckin' creepy. That was the fun of that movie, was the Psycho switch of the protagonist and the abrupt tonal shift. Well, I can't do that again. If we're goin' to do Part II, we're goin' to continue the action left off. Now, we have the advantage, or the disadvantage, of knowing what's going on. We're not learning the surprise; we learned ultimately when Rick Hoffman explains it, the American businessman. And I said, "Okay, if we're going to go in, how do I make that work to the film's advantage?" I can't be with the girls, slowly learning about what's going on, 'cause then everyone will be like, "Okay, we know." We can now objectively watch the girls fall into traps, with a sense of dread, going, "Don't do it, don't do it." In the same way, driving to the factory with Jay Hernandez, which is my favorite scene now—really, that and the Rick Hoffman—in the first one, when they're driving, and she goes, "Do you want more gum?" And he goes, "No." And she goes, "Too bad for you." And the audience has just seen his fuckin' buddy get tortured, goin', "You fuckin' idiot!" And he's like "I want to go. I want to go." And even the girls tell him not to go! When he's in the pub, and he's like, "I want to go, Take me there," they're like, "Sit down, dude. Have a drink. C'mon,"—and we know it's 'cause they're not ready, they're cleaning up the rooms, the hotel suite isn't ready yet—but they're even tryin to—and he's like, "No! Take me there now." You're like "You fucking idiot." And that's what I want with these girls. I wanted to make the girls smarter than the guys, and I wanted them to make decisions that people can watch them objectively. We'll watch Jay's story. We'll watch the girls' story. And let's get into the psychology of these guys. You know, people loved that scene with Rick Hoffman, where he's like "How do you do—do you do fast or slow?" That's what I want to see more of. People would say, "I want to see a whole movie of that guy." And I'd go, "Me too. I do too." I'd say, "Well, what if I remade Hostel from his point-of-view entirely? Literally to the end when Jay Hernandez shoots him. Well, I couldn't do that. 'Cause we know what happens. But let's do that psychology. Let's see these guys in their home lives. And how does the bidding work? And what happens when they get there? Let's go through the minutiae. And now—okay, yeah, the first one was so low-budget. We had a little bit more on this one—not much, but it was like—the average budget is like 80 million, so we gotta—but now we can put our money into the next level of the factory. And see the bidding war and see the different people and expand the universe and really—the tattoo parlor and how it works. So great to see the audience with those guys and sharing with them and getting—and feeling for them. And feeling like "Ohhh man"—I want people to feel bad for the guys too, going, "Don't do it. Don't do it." That's that sense of dread; it was really great to feel that—
G: I want to ask a philosophical question about horror.
G: I understand the appeal of the scary movie, and the scary movie, and psychological horror, and suspense. But I'm a little at wit's end to describe the appeal of gore—
G: You know, like the Fangoria audience—the people who like, last night, applauded at the gruesome visuals. I wonder how you see the mindset.
ER: I think that people love a good story, and they love a great kill in a movie. And I think that we're in this weird, post-9/11 world where, if you think about it—y'know, I'm 35—but there are kids that were 10, 11, 12 years old when that happened that are now 16, 17, 18. They're growing up with "You're going to get blown up. Terror Alert Orange. Don't travel overseas. Every time you fly, X-ray your shoes, or someone will blow up the plane." That is what they're infused with. Plus the images coming back from the Iraq War, a never-ending war that—guess who's next on the firing line? That war is not over. There's no end in sight. And those kids are 17. If I was 17, I'd be fuckin' terrified. About like, "Oh, the draft might be comin' up. The draft—" These kids are seeing these images, and they're really fuckin' scared. And it is no accident they're flocking to these movies and screaming at the top of their lungs. I get letters, through MySpace, from soldiers in Iraq that tell me that Hostel is one of the most popular movies in the military base. And I wrote this guy—several guys—and I wrote, "Why the fuck would you watch Hostel after what you see in a day?" And they explained it to me. They go out in the field, and this guy told me about a day when they literally, during the day, went out and they saw someone with their face blown off . And then at night they watch Hostel, and they were screaming—they were terrified. And what they said was that when you're on a battlefield, they're not allowed to be afraid. You can't emotionally respond and go "Oahh!" You have to tactically respond like a machine. They are seeing these horrible images, and they are not allowed to show any fear. That is there job, and I think, kind of to a much lesser degree, that's the way we all are in society. We see these horrible images, but because of our place in society, we're not allowed to show fear. Well, these soldiers go back to the base, they still can't show any fear. When they put on Hostel, it says for the next ninety minutes, not only are you allowed to be scared; you're encouraged. It is socially acceptable for you to be terrified for this period of time. And they fuckin' let it all out. And they all get together and they scream. And they tell me that the soldiers are screaming when they watch Hostel. And they're terrified of it. And they're terrified to watch it, and then they go back on the battlefield and they see real violence. It's like any art form. You hear a song; it's like "That's how I'm feeling. And it helps you unlock that emotion that's inside. I think that, to a much lesser degree, I genuinely think that's what horror films do. It helps us deal with real-life violence. I think it's the same function that pro wrestling served. Where people are watching the story, and they're going, "Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!" When Owen Hart fell to his death and that stunt went wrong, the whole fuckin' theatre went silent. It was 27,000 people went dead silent. It was horrible. When the violence becomes real, we can't take it. But it's the theatricality, it's the story of it—that's what I think any art form does: if it's photography, if it's a story you read, if it's a piece of music, or if it's a film. It helps you deal with these emotions, and honestly, it's like—kids read fairy tales. Grimm's Fairy Tales are so violent. It's kids being burned in ovens, being eaten by monsters, and children hear it and they think, "Okay." They're thinking that stuff, so they feel like they're not crazy. They feel like they're not alone, for being scared of it. It makes you feel like you're normal. And I think in the movies, people are terrified of stuff. It's like [sharp intake of breath] "Okay, I'm not the only one fuckin' freaked out about this shit."
G: But for the guy—or the gal—who's not really scared but sort of gets giggling or enjoying a gore moment, is that because they're enjoying the craft of it?
ER: I don't—I—when people are laughing at funerals, they're not laughing at death. They're laughing 'cause they're uncomfortable. And that's what I see it. When people laugh in the gory moments, they know that's it fake and they're nervous and they're uncomfortable, and that's how it comes out. And that's okay. I don't think it means they enjoy it in real life. I don't think it means they're sick. And sometimes they're enjoying the magic trick, and sometimes they're enjoying the reality. But I think people are caught up in it emotionally. And I feel like it's like laughing at a funeral—
G: Is The Box a project that's indefinitely on hold?
ER: I'm never going to that; Richard's going to do that. That was a project that I was going to do with Richard Kelly from Donnie Darko. But Rich really wants to do it. And it was one of those things where I got so caught up in Hostel, and Rich had a great idea for it. I was originally going to direct it, but I'm really happy Rich is going to do it, 'cause he's going to do an amazing film out of it—I can't do more than one movie at a time, so there's just an order—Next is sleep. After that it's anyone's guess. Trailer Trash I'm too excited about. Trailer Trash and Cell. Trailer Trash is great because you can do it in like commercial shoots. I can do one here, I can do two or three of the fake trailers, and then go shoot Cell, and then go finish the other twenty later on. And there's always directors that want to do 'em, like Edgar Wright's going to do one. Even Jay Chandrasekhar wants to do one. You know, Robert Rodriguez is going to do one. All these big directors are like, "Ohh, I want to do one." Greg Nicotero wants to do a zombie one. He's like, "I want to do my zombie—" I'm like, "Cool, man." So I'm gonna—select friends are going to come in on it—Thank you so much.
[For Groucho's review of Hostel Part II, click here.]