Not only is Eli Roth bracingly goodlooking, but he's hella fun. Generously responsive to interest in his latest film Hostel, Part 2, it's difficult to get a question in edgewise; but—at a recent roundtable at San Francisco's Clift Hotel—we did our best. Participating in the roundtable along with myself were Omar Moore of Popcornreel.com, Peter Sciretta of /Film, and Peter Canavese of Grouchoreviews.com. This transcript is neither for the spoiler-wary nor the profanity-wary. While savoring Roth's ebullience, I kept thinking it would be fun to watch him and Guillermo del Toro have a go.
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Roth: I never thought I would do a sequel. Hostel was the one-off movie between movies for me. I'm like, wow, while I'm waiting for my studio film to get greenlit, I'll do this little $3-$4 million [movie]. Maybe no one will pay attention. Maybe they'll come in on a few theaters. Then when it did what it did, I was like, "Fuck! If I'm going to do a sequel, I've got to do it right now and I've got to fuckin' make people feel the way I felt when I came out of Aliens and Road Warrior, when I went, "Holy fuck! They took that shit to the next level. Not only did they top it; it is so much better. It stands on its own. It's a great companion piece. It was exactly what I wanted but it was also totally new and totally different."
It was so satisfying to hear everyone reacting [at the premiere screening] the way I wanted people to react. I got a lot of the [Eli makes the sound of sucking in his breath]. And even when she spills the drink on Roger and he's like, "Goodnight, Beth" people would, "Oooooooooh" [anxiously]. I was like, "Yeah!" Because they paid attention. I really wanted to make it oddly subtle in some ways, like when they're picking out the tools. The bidding montage was so fun watching people go, "What the fuck?" and then it cuts to the woman on the horse and people were like, "No fuckin' way! That is fucked up!" Then when the guy [in the audience] went, "Bitch, please!"
I remember the first screening of Hostel, watching people go fuckin' nuts when they ran over the girls and cut off their fingers, and [with Hostel 2, I was thinking] how can I whip the crowd into that frenzy and give them that adrenalin rush that they want and take them to that dark place of absolute horror and then exhilaration at the end? I needed to have that ending! Look, my competition is fuckin' Pirates 3, Shrek 3, Spidey 3, it's like how are you going to compete with these other movies? It's like I needed the fuckin' ending that people are going to go, "I don't care who's in it. I don't care how big a movie star is. I don't give a fuck what special effects extravaganza you have. Nothing is going to top the end of this movie." I mean, after Spiderman 3, that movie ended and I heard people going, "That sucked." Their kids were going, "That sucked." It's so depressing because I love Raimi; but, you could smell that there were like, "We need more toys." You could fuckin' sniff it out and smell it. With Return of the King you were like, "Aaaah", fuckin' Peter Jackson just got better and better and better. It was awesome. It was so fulfilling. But you can smell when they just want to sell shit. I was like, "I've gotta do a sequel where people come out saying, "I don't care who's in this movie. Nothing's going to top the ending of Hostel, Part 2." It's going to fuckin' bring the house down. I should shut up and let you guys ask questions. I'm sorry. Stop me.
Popcorn Reel: This is the thing that really amazed me—because I didn't see the first—you really pushed the envelope with the R rating. You jumped off the Grand Canyon and landed on the postage stamp of that envelope. No safety net at all here and I applaud you for really pushing it like that. My question is: the MPAA, they're an unusual group, aren't they? How'd you manage to get the scene with Lorna past them?
Roth: Thank you. The Lorna scene was tough. The truth of the matter is, the ratings board are a lot cooler than people think. I thought that documentary [This Film Is Not Yet Rated] was really terrible and completely did not show my experience with them. I said to them, "Look, guys, it's Hostel, Part 2, it's not Happy Feet 2. No one is going to accidentally walk into this film and the people that are there are specifically going back for more of what they liked about the first one." They go, "Well, Eli, we got the most complaints from any movie in years from Hostel." I said, "Guys, here's my question: what else are people going to complain about? I am the movie to complain about because no other movie is going to do this stuff that I'm doing and that's why people like my films." They said, "Well, that's true." And I said, "It's not like they're going to complain about Happy Feet." And they go, "Actually, we did get complaints about Happy Feet." It just goes to show that people will complain about anything. I said, "Guys, let's face it, of course if they're going to complain about Hostel, they're going to complain about Hostel 2 by the very nature of what it is; but, the fans shouldn't be punished for that. People are going to be accurately warned of what they're coming into. I'm not making a secret of what this is. I'm not pretending it's something else. The people that are there are there specifically for this experience" and I was like, "Guys, those are my movie stars. I'm competing with Oceans Thirteen. I don't have George Clooney. I don't have Brad Pitt. I don't have Matt Damon. I have those kills. And if I don't have that, the fans will be pissed and then I'll get strung up." And they said, "You know what? We understand that but let's find the balance. We have a job to do too." I said, "Well, you tell me. What do you think is going too far?" They said, "Well, in this scene we feel that this goes a little bit too much." I said, "Okay, well let me take a look at it." And I go back and I go this, this, this. Maybe we go back and forth. And I said, "Look guys, ultimately I don't want the scene to lose its power. If the scene isn't emotional, then it's just a stupid kill scene. Then it is gratuitous. Then it is just bloody." I was like, "The scene with Heather Matarazzo, what makes that scene horrifying is the look on her face when she's screaming. And that's not graphic violence. That is a performance. Don't punish Heather."
Heather did this movie for that scene. She wanted to. She said, "I want to show everybody what I'm capable of." And she went from being that character that's the nerdy character to there she is, vulnerable, upside down, naked, screaming, begging. Heather took the movie because of that scene. She wanted to do it. Heather was like, "I'm so excited. You want to see me naked!" I'm like, "Heather, I love you! I've got a crush on you!" and she's like, "You mean you're going to cast me as a straight girl and give me a romance with a guy? That's a first!" And I'm like, "Yeaaaah." And she's like, "No one's done that." I'm like, "Heather, you're an amazing actress. I don't think anyone really cares whether you're gay or straight. They love you and they want to see you do a great performance. People weren't thinking of that when you're in the character. It's irrelevant." She's like, "No director since I've come out has ever cast me as a straight person." I'm like, "Heather, I'm casting you because you're a great actor. Not because of who you are or any of that."
And I said to the ratings board, "This is not worse than Apocalypto. Look at Passion of the Christ, there's a lengthy torture scene. City of God. There's intense movies out there and the audience needs something that's not going to be safe. There is an audience for this and let's protect it." And they did. Whereas in Germany they're like, "Take that out. Take that out." In Japan with Hostel 1, they said, "This isn't going into theaters. You have an American buring a Japanese girl's face with a blow torch. Sorry. No argument. No discussion. No appeal. No nothing. Not going in theaters." Ukraine: Not going in theaters. Singapore: Not going in theaters, not even coming out on video. My point of view is that there are other countries where there's not even a negotiation, not even a discussion, it's a government censor board and that's it. While here it's like they'll talk to you and they'll listen and you go back and forth and back and forth and it's a great system. The alternative is we get fuckin' Jesse Helms deciding what goes in and out of movies. I'd rather have a board of people who do this every day that work with filmmakers than some lawmaker that wants to look like they're protecting the community and says, "Take that out." And I understand it because they're reflecting the parents of America. So, yeah, look at the violence on 24. The stuff I did in Hostel was shocking and now it's on 24. People accept it. Look what happens when Janet Jackson shows her nipple. Order in the court! Congress is meeting. They are reflecting America and people go crazy when there's sexual stuff.
I talked about the difference between sadistic violence and revenge violence. I talked about doing realistic violence—like with the kids in the woods being shown off camera, which I know would be upsetting and tough to stomach—versus stylized violence, like the Lorna scene [where] we went full operatic theatrical with that. Because I know that if I had shot that like I shot the Derek Richardson torture, no one would enjoy it; it's too painful. But in order for this scene to work, it's got to be someone acting out this Elizabeth bathery and this is the high roller suite and this is going to be the most stylized, we're going for fuckin' opera. This is operatic. We are fully going for it in the style and the canon. It's horrifying, but I purposely didn't do that and photograph that like a realistic scene, like the kids in the woods, which feels like I wanted to go for something that felt truthfully like an Italian neorealist film from the late 40's, early 50's. That's the mood I wanted in that scene. I explained to them, "Look how I approach every scene." When I knew it was violence with a child, I shot it off camera. Guys in the movie are getting it as bad as girls if not worse and—when there is a scene with a girl—I filmed it in an operatic, cinematic kind of way so at least you're aware it's a scene from a movie. [The ratings board] recognized that and they defended that. They said, "You know what? Eli didn't just randomly approach these scenes; he really thought about it. Let's give him a break."
The Evening Class: Well, respectful of what you've said about Heather, as a gay guy I've got to say her casting was impeccable. Though you say it was not important whether she is a lesbian or not, you did create a lesbian tableau.
Roth: Ooooooh yeah.
The Evening Class: And that pays homage to a longstanding tradition of queer horror. I have to extend personal thanks for that.
Roth: Thank you. There is that odd relationship [between Beth and Axelle that is] one of the parallels [with Hostel] between Derek Richardson and that business man where Derek Richardson has this moment where the guy puts his hand on his knee and Derek reacts and the guy later says, "Look, I understand [why] you reacted. I was like you." I remember being at NYU and there was this guy who had talked about how he was a recovering homosexual. He was in our film class. We were like, "What are you fuckin' talking about, dude?" He's like, "I'm going to do a seminar on recovering homosexuals." So he does a seminar in Greenwich Village and everybody went like, "We gotta see this." This kid Alan, we were friends, I said, "Alan, I don't think it works that way, dude." He was writing scripts where every script was about a guy named Albert who maybe thinks he's gay but then finds Jesus who cures him. [Alan]was like this fascinating dude. There were these guys that came [to the seminar] and they were like, "I was once afflicted with homo-sin-ualilty and I found Jesus and found the correct path" and you're just like, "Whooooaaa!" Later I found out that one of the [recovering Christian homosexuals] had actually stabbed a guy in a bar. I was like, "You poor guys. Go out and have sex; you'll be so much happier." That's what [inspired] that strange relationship [in Hostel] with those characters.
[In Hostel, Part 2] I thought, "Okay, we're going to parallel the girl and, clearly, this woman with Heather. I was like, "Heather, I'm going to give you a great scene and it's going to be this beautiful woman who looks like an opera diva in a bathroom. This is gonna be the scene your fans are going to love. You're going to have a sex scene to end all [sex scenes]." Heather totally went for it. I heard you could only have someone upside down for 30 seconds and Heather took yoga every day until she finally got to where she was upside down for eight minutes at a time. We could only film in three-minute increments, but she was like, "Anything you want, honey. What do you need?" She was in on the casting of the woman, like "I want her." Heather's my girl. I love her. I was like, "Heather, I know people still say the term weiner dog. I know they killed weiner dog in Todd Solondz's film, but we're killing her for real this time." [Welcome to the Dollhouse] was a career-defining moment but [Hostel 2] is going to define the next level of your career. And God bless Heather Matarrazo; she's such a wonderful soul and such a great girl and a great person. She was so there for me. All the girls were terrific but I was so honored to work with [Heather]; I would work with her again in a heartbeat. Just a great person.
Groucho Reviews: One of the things I liked about this sequel is that—instead of panning over—it zooms out. You see more of this world.
Roth: The point of view changes from the storytelling.
Groucho Reviews: How did you develop that stragegy? Do you have in mind a third film?
Roth: No, there's no Hostel 3. I liked Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Kill Bill, Vol. 2. And I'll tell you why. I fuckin' hate Godfather 3. I wish Spiderman 3 did not exist. I'm still angry there is a Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. I hate it when there's a shitty third movie. I really hate it. 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, Hostel, Part 1 and Hostel, Part 2, that's it. I'm not thinking about it. I'm moving on. I love it as it is as a Part 1 and a Part 2. I'm sure if the film does well the subject will come up but I will put my foot down and 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. "Yeah, let's fuckin' fuck that girl in the club. Let's go get those hookers in Amsterdam." He's talking about Slovakia and I heard all these guys in the audience going, "Yeah, do it!" [Hostel] was about people who don't have enough. Nothing's ever enough. They always want a little bit more. The American girls aren't enough, so they go for European girls. The European club girls aren't enough, so they get the hooker; they want 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 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 because Jay Hernandez and the guys, they want one more. They want a better story. He's like, "This is the shit we're going to think about." Nothing is enough for anyone and they get fucked and they get tortured and they wind up as the very thing they were making fun of. That's why she said, "You're fuckin' my bitch. You thought you could buy and sell me? Well, I just literally bought and sold your ass." I wanted people making decisions with the characters, going, "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 an American—I have superiority and power. Maybe it was wrong to judge another culture and think that I could buy and sell another person. Maybe I feel fuckin' stupid and I'm now left in a foreign country with no subtitles with a guy who I don't really know." They don't really know Jay Hernandez. You 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. Now you're there and he's lost and I wanted people to feel like they got the fuckin' rug yanked out 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; the psycho switch of the protagonist and the abrupt tonal switch.
Well, I can't do that again. If we're going to do Part 2, we're going to take up where we 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, the American business man, explains. 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 what's going on. We can now objectively watch the girls fall into the traps with the sense of dread, "Don't do it. Don't do it." In the same way, driving to the factory—which is really my favorite scene now, that and Rick Hoffman, in the first one—when they're driving and she goes, "Do you want more gum?" He goes, "No" and she goes, "Too bad for you" and the audience has just seen his fuckin' buddy get tortured and they're going, "You fuckin' idiot." He's like, "I want to go. I want to go." Even the girls tell him not to go. When he's in the pub, he's like, "I want to go. Take me there." The girls are like, "Sit down, dude, have a drink, c'mon." We know it's because they're not ready and they're cleaning up the rooms; the hotel suite isn't ready yet. But he's like, "No. Take me there. Take me there now" and you're like, "You fuckin' idiot." That's what I wanted with these girls. I wanted to make the girls smarter than the guys and I wanted them to make decisions that people could watch objectively. We'll watch Jay's story. We'll watch the girls' story and let's get into the psychology of these guys. People love that scene with Rick Hoffman, where he's like, "How do you do it? Do you do it fast? Or do it slow?" People have said, "I want to see a whole movie of that guy." Well, me too. I thought, "What if I remake Hostel from his point of view entirely? Literally up to when Jay Hernandez shoots him?" Well, I couldn't do that because we know what happens; but, let's so that psychology, let's see these guys in their home lives and how does the bidding work? What happens when they get there? Let's go [with] them through the minutiae.
And now, okay yeah, the first one was so low budget; we had a little bit more on this one but not much. The average budget is $80 million. 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; the tattoo parlor and how it works. It was so great to watch the audience with those guys and sharing with them and feeling for them and feeling like, "Oh man, I want people to feel bad for the guys. Don't do it. Don't do it." That sense of dread. It was really great to feel that.
Cross-published at Twitch.