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Talking Cabin Fever with Eli Roth

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I had the opportunity to do an in-depth interview with horror film director, Eli Roth.

For those who have not seen Cabin Fever, can you tell us about the film?

Cabin Fever is about five friends who go on a trip in the middle of nowhere and through their own doing contract a flesh eating disease that literally eats through them in hours. It was made as an homage to those 80's kids-in-a-cabin splatter films like Evil Dead, but very much in the spirit of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing, and Dawn of the Dead. It's scary, but it's also funny and very weird. I set out to make a roller coaster ride you could watch while getting drunk with your friends, where you're laughing one minute, and screaming the next. And it also features my first acting appearance in one scene, which was only by accident because I replaced an actor at the last minute. It was because of this cameo that Quentin Tarantino put me in Death Proof and ultimately Inglourious Basterds, but this is what started that whole mess.

The Blu Ray is my original cut, the one that screened at the Toronto Film Festival and it has not been seen since 2002. I got into a bit of a pissing match with Lionsgate about the final cut of the film (which we joke and tease each other about now, it all seems so ridiculous in retrospect) but this is the first time my final cut has ever been released. I think it's a lot more fun, and scarier. Lionsgate was really supportive with this Blu Ray, and let me do a new transfer from the original negative, a new sound mix, and record a new audio commentary with the cast. I also put on a photo gallery of rare behind the scenes pictures, and two of my stop motion animation shorts called "The Rotten Fruit." I wanted Cabin Fever fans to really get their money's worth. The detail in the gore on Blu Ray is spectacular - you see every morsel of flesh dissolving. It's beautiful!

So, how did Cabin Fever come about?

I wrote Cabin Fever when I was 22 with my roommate Randy Pearlstein. We had gone through NYU film school, collaborating on all our films, and this was going to be a continuation of that. But as I learned very quickly, it's not so easy to get people to give you money to make a feature when all you have is a student film under your belt. I spent six years raising the money, going to every studio over and over, and they all passed repeatedly. Literally every studio, production company, and producer in existence passed on the film, until I partnered with independent producers Lauren Moews, Evan Astrowsky, and Sam Froelich, who really believed in it. We teamed up and raised $1.5 million dollars of private money and just went to North Carolina and shot it. We never fully had the money, though, we started with $50,000 and just figured we'd get the rest while we were shooting. The Union members from NYC drove down in the middle of our shoot and although we were doing nothing illegal they threatened crew members in their hotel rooms at night to "turn the film union" and took all our money. We limped back to Los Angeles with an incomplete film, raised the other $700,000 we needed, and got into the Toronto Film Festival in 2002. We were on the mixing stage when a group of investors was holding off on wiring in the final $350,000 so we could sound mix and negative cut. Turns out they were showing a VHS of our rough cut to one of the investor's 12 year old kid! He watched it and said "This is better than American Pie." Then they agreed to wire the money. The fate of the film came down to the taste of a 12 year old, if you can believe it. I still thank that kid to this day. The film was the last one to screen at Toronto - at midnight - out of 350 movies. 15 minutes into the film we had an 8-studio bidding war, and eventually sold it to Lionsgate for $3.5 million. The film went on to be their highest grossing film in 2003, and helped usher in a wave of R rated horror movies, which was the goal all along. The cast, crew, everyone just bet on the film and worked for a point in it, so we all shared in the success. Looking back it was insane what we did, but it all worked out and really launched my career.

What inspired you to take on this project?

I grew up wanting to make horror films - it was my dream since I was 8 years old. Literally. I have drawings from when I was that age of Alien and The Exorcist and pictures I drew of the crew filming those movies. At my Bar Mitzvah I was sawed in half with a chainsaw, and since I wasn't friends with enough girls to have a dance we watched the horror film Mother's Day. But by the time I was 18, in 1990, horror had died. The bad sequels killed it. Suddenly it was no longer about being scary, it was "how can we kill the kids this time?" Horror in the 70's had A-listers like Spielberg, Kubrick, Phillip Kaufman and Ridley Scott behind the camera, but by 1990 a horror movie was synonymous with cheesy straight-to-video. And by 2000 PG-13 had taken over with the ghost films, and there was this myth that people didn't want R rated movies, and that they wouldn't make more than $12 million at the box office. It was very hard to get people to take us seriously - other directors at film festivals made fun of me because it wasn't as "artsy" as their movies. I also knew that your first film has to make money in order to survive, and it just so happens the thing I love is low budget horror movies, which almost always turn a profit. All my favorite directors, from David Lynch to Sam Raimi to Peter Jackson, started making independent low budget horror films, and that was how I wanted to start as well. I had made a study of it, in horror, the scare's the star, and people don't care about the budget so long as the scare works. I love these movies, I can watch them endlessly and I see the creativity and artistic achievement in all of them. I wanted to make a film that 30 years later kids would still be watching at sleepovers. A good horror movie has the same vibe as good punk rock, in that anything can happen, and there's an element of danger to it. I wanted to make a film where people thought they knew what would happen from the first ten minutes and then twists every convention on its ear.

The story itself came from an incident that happened to me when I was working on a farm training horses in Selfoss, Iceland. I had to clean out a barn filled with old hay, and got this infection in my face. I began scratching my skin at night and looked at my hand and saw chunks of flesh under my fingernails. My face had scratch marks as if Freddy Kruger had visited me in a dream. The next day I attempted shaving, and literally shaved half my face off. I wasn't even really aware it was happening, it didn't hurt, it was just itchy and it felt great to scratch it so deeply, until I saw half my face was gone. I went to the emergency room and thank God they had an antibiotic for it or I would have been a walking corpse. I had gone out of my way to get as far from New York City as possible to escape for the summer and nearly lost my face because of it. It also struck me the power of bacteria - that you can be so healthy one day and your skin's dissolving hours later. When I was 12 I got a rare virus in my hip that randomly affects 1 in a million kids, and it paralyzed me for a month at the hips. I had to sit in bed and just read Fangoria magazine. Then when I was 17 I went to Russia and got a parasite from drinking milk called Ghiarrdia. It was a nightmare - it took over a year and a half to get rid of it. I had to drink this medication called Flagyl that burned my stomach but I had no choice otherwise I'd picture these things inside me eating me from the inside out. So add all of that up and you get the guy who made Cabin Fever. And my Dad's a doctor - I had top medical care my whole life, and still this stuff happened to me. I kind of became known as Mr. Freak Illness, so those who grew up with me really understood where this movie came from. It's a deeply personal film on many levels. But everyone's had that experience where they notice a spot on their hand or neck and say "What is that????" Until you know what it is, you imagine the worst. That's a very human thing to do, and that's one of the reasons I think people really connected with the film.

I was appalled (in a good way) by Hostel is Cabin Fever along the same lines?

Thank you! But no, Cabin Fever's more of a fun rollercoaster ride. Hostel was designed to be an endurance test: how much could you take? Can you make it to the end without throwing up or bolting from the cinema?? I wanted people warning others not to see Hostel, and I think the reputation of the film is far scarier than the movie actually is. Cabin Fever is a lot easier to watch. It's scary, for sure, and fun, but it was meant to balance out the humor and the horror. It's not a comedy by any stretch, and it definitely takes the situation seriously, but I wanted something closer to An American Werewolf in London and Evil Dead 2 in tone. It gets gory, though, and I was lucky enough to have K.N.B. effects do spectacular make up for me. Hostel was my 2nd film, and I wanted to show that I could be do straight horror, which is why for the first 45 minutes nothing scary happens, which makes the dark turn that much more shocking and disturbing. Cabin Fever is similar to Hostel in that it's about kids taking one last wild trip where they can behave irresponsibly before they have to grow up and enter the real world. Hostel 2 is about the same thing as well. I really honestly thought I was making completely different films when I made all of them, but now that I have perspective I realized I'm kind of making the same thing over and over no matter how hard I try not to. I guess you can't escape the things you're obsessed with. But Cabin Fever was shot in 24 days, mostly using daylight hours. It was a crazy shoot. On Hostel I got to do more than 2 takes, which was nice, but part of what makes Cabin Fever fun is the randomness of things that occur. I was just trying everything out. It's almost experimental in a way. Also on Cabin Fever I was very clearly homaging certain films and doing shots that would be a tip of the hat to the fans and the directors. On Hostel I went out of my way to go on instinct and just go with my gut, not trying to take shots from other movies, but to rely on feeling. I do think my D.P. Scott Kevan did a fabulous job, though, as well as my production designer Franco Carbone. Both have gone on to shoot and design big movies, and it's incredible to see what they did with no money in 24 days. It doesn't look or feel low budget at all, they're spectacularly talented.

How long have you been in the business?

Since I was 18 years old, although I was a student then, but I was working on film sets from the time I was 18 after class and on weekends. Part of the reason I went to NYU was so that I could work on movie sets. I worked every night, every weekend, every holiday, and almost every summer, on movies. I never went away for Spring Break, I worked. I couldn't get enough of it.

Do you remember your first job?

I do - it was on a film called Black and White that Boris Frumin, who later was my NYU professor, was directing. He was taking a sabbatical to make this film, and needed production assistants. I met a woman in the elevator who was looking for P.A.s in the art department. Having no idea what that was, I said "I like art. I'll do it." Well, cut to, me driving a cube truck through New York City, moving sofas from 108th street down to the lower east side, set dressing. I remember very clearly I had to get a blue label gun. I biked up to 23rd street, almost getting killed because I had no idea how to bike in New York, and got a red gun, but the label tape was blue. I remember this girl Julia looking at me and saying "Is this blue?" and I said "The label's blue." She just rolled her eyes. I said "Don't ask the colorblind guy to art direct." Luckily she laughed, but I really thought I was going to get fired. I remember I got along really, really well with the assistant director, her name was Dede Gardner. She's now Brad Pitt's producing partner. So I saw her in Cannes, at the Basterds premiere, and we were just laughing. She remembered me at 18, running up and down the stairs with couches, and being on set and just so excited to be around a movie camera. But it just goes to show - there's no such thing as a small job. Any set you're on is a possibility, and if you make a good impression, people will remember you and it could pay off years later in ways you can't imagine.

How has the industry changed for good/bad since you began?

The industry's contracted, but I think it's a good thing. Although I've gotten my films distributed by major distributors, I made all my films independently. No one assigned me these films. I had an idea, I wrote it, I put together a business plan, raised the money with the right partners, made the film, and then did the publicity. Start to finish I controlled the project, and created a niche for myself. I had made a living doing budgets and schedules and worked my way up the ladder starting from getting coffee, so I know what every job on the set entails and I can tell what's needed and what's a waste. Ten years ago studios had many executives to oversee projects, and it was all paid for because they made so much money from DVDs. Now that the DVD market has dropped to 1/10th of what it was even a few years ago, the people who really were not necessary are out of a job. The studios trimmed the fat, and those who survived are the ones with real knowledge and skills. It's a shakeout, and the ones who are left are the ones who really know how to make movies. It's tougher, competition is more fierce, which forces you to stay sharp and push yourself. Ten years ago people were making crazy money selling scripts, but all that's evaporated now. It's still possible, but a lot of that money's gone. Even the Cabin Fever distribution we got is absurd by today's standards, people just aren't buying movies for what they used to since they can't count on that DVD revenue. It's difficult to break in, but if you're talented and driven and pursue it relentlessly, you can do it. People are always looking for new talent, but that starts with the script. Those with the writing talent are the ones who will survive, because ultimately you can take a pen and a piece of paper and create something. I often tell people I was dead broke at age 30, but was spending all my money on rent so I could write, and then spent my money just trying to live so I could make Cabin Fever. But even while I was editing I needed my parents to help me with my $725 rent. Now I get to pay their rent, so it all worked out.

If someone wants to approach you to direct something, what is the best way to reach you?

I only direct projects I write, but I'm producing several projects. People can always reach me through my agent at Creative Artists Agency. A lot of people don't like to do that, but you have to use the agency as a filter to see who's for real and who's not, and they can sniff that out pretty quickly. Fans can write me directly on myspace and twitter, I'm the one running those pages. But that's only for fun, all business stuff goes through C.A.A.

What advice do you have for aspiring directors?

Get as much practical experience as possible before you make your film. Even Quentin Tarantino worked as a production assistant on movies, and spent 2 years on an unfinished feature before making Reservoir Dogs. You wouldn't just join the NBA because you understand basketball, and you wouldn't just show up at a hospital and start operating because you watched ER, but people think because they see movies they know how to direct. Directing's very much a babysitting job. I got better directing experience working those summers as a camp counselor at Meadowbrook Day Camp in Weston, Mass, when I was a teenager than I did at film school. But you have to work on sets to understand the business. It's also a great way to watch others make mistakes, and to see what happens when a director's organized with a plan, and when one has no idea what they're doing. You see how it ripples down through every department in your crew. And remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. I didn't have my first movie in theaters until I was 31, and that's early. I'd also say move to a city that makes movies, like Los Angeles or New York, but preferably L.A. You need a lot of people to make a film, and a whole other team of people to release it. You are giving yourself the best fighting chance possible of making it by living here, otherwise you're out of the loop. I was in New York City for a long time and never got anything going, and within 4 months of moving to Los Angeles I had funding for my first animated project, a series of shorts called "Chowdaheads." Unless you're rich, of course, then you can just rent a camera and shoot something and show it at a festival.

What is your next project?

I'm writing a sci fi movie called Endangered Species that I will direct. As a producer I'm partnering with Strike Entertainment to produce The Man with the Iron Fists which RZA from Wu Tang's directing and starring in, as well as an alien invasion film with Paricipant and Summit called Invasion. And we just produced a horror film with StudioCanal called Cotton. Suffice to say I got my hands full. Which is never a bad thing.

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Jeff Rivera is an entertainment reporter who blogs about young Hollywood celebrities . He is also the author of the novel, Forever My Lady(Grand Central Publishing). For more celebrity interviews, visit: www.JeffRivera.com