Catching Up With... Eli Roth
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In 2001, Eli Roth and a group of friends set out into the North Carolina wilderness to make his feature-length debut, a grisly, gory, weird, and occasionally hilarious horror movie called Cabin Fever. Starring Rider Strong and Jordan Ladd, it defiantly boasted its R rating, indulged gratuitous guts and nudity, and established Roth as a formidable and original voice in the genre.
However, as confidently bloody and bizarre as the movie was, it didn’t keep Lions Gate from re-editing Roth’s festival cut to a more manageable running time and a faster pace. Roth was not happy, but finally made peace with the studio. Since then, he has made two films, Hostel and Hostel Part 2, that have been unfairly labeled “torture porn”—presumably because they do show torture, although Roth gives meaning and impact to such grim goings-on. The first was an enormous hit, the second a box-office flop despite sharpening and deepening its story.
During the 2000s, Roth also became a recognizable face in front of the camera as well as behind it. He first cast himself, somewhat reluctantly, in Cabin Fever as a backwoods burnout named Grim, and he played a decapitated head in Hostel Part 2. But his first major role was in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, part of the Grindhouse film. Last year, he co-starred in Inglourious Basterds, playing the bat-wielding avenger Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, a role that has won him legions of new fans.
Now Roth is coming full circle with a long-awaited director’s cut of Cabin Fever, which hits Blu-Ray this month. Paste caught up with Roth to talk about the old cut, the new cut, the state of horror, and the joys of awards season.
Paste: What inspired this director’s cut at this particular time?
Eli Roth: The release of Inglourious Basterds was what got it moving. This was something that had been promised to be ever since the studio recut the movie for theatrical release. They bought the film at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival after an eight-studio bidding war, and I just assumed that that was it, this is what’s going in theaters. And then they started testing and recutting it, and I was very much against this. I thought the film played great. I didn’t see any benefit to what they were doing. I fought it tooth and nail, and ultimately the theatrical version was the compromise that we reached. But it was a nightmare for me, and part of the way they appeased me was by saying, “Don’t worry we’ll do a director’s-cut DVD.” But then there were regime changes there, and the people who had promised me that had left. It got to the point where I thought, “Okay, maybe for the tenth anniversary I’ll be able to argue for it,” but then the success of Inglourious Basterds, all of a sudden I had a whole new fan base, mainly of teenagers who were nine, ten, eleven years old when my first film came out. And they all started going back and watching my films, and Cabin Fever was my first acting appearance. And Lions Gate said, “Now’s the time we can get this pushed through.” I have a great relationship with Lions Gate. We’re all friends and we always laugh about the edits of the movie now. They let me do a new transfer from the original negative and remix the sound to 7.1, and we did an new audio commentary and put on a new photo gallery. And this is it. We’re only doing it for Blu-Ray. I wanted this to be the definitive cut of the movie—the version of the movie that people will watch on big high-definition televisions. And it looks spectacular. I’m so happy.
Paste: This cut is only getting a Blu-Ray release?
Roth: There’s no DVD of this version. I actually got an award at the HollyShorts Film Festival in August, right when we were doing press for Basterds. And I ran the one print that I have of my director’s cut, because all the others were chopped up in the testing process. The print played beautifully. It brought the house down. And I just couldn’t believe they had cut the stuff they had cut. There are scares, there’s violence, and there’s a lot of fun character moments. I think with a horror movie, you’re only really terrified by it once. The only drawback to horror films is that they lose their potency with every viewing. You’re never going to be as scared in the haunted house as you were the first time you went through. The second time, it’s about watching your friends get scared and seeing and enjoying the monsters, but that first time, when you don’t know what’s happened, that’s the scariest experience you’ll ever have with the film. I knew what would make it last over time was the characters, and those moments, and the weird dialogue. And that was a lot of the stuff that they cut. So it actually opened up some questions that were never answered in the film, and the ending was really choppy. So finally people can really enjoy the film the way it was meant to be seen.
Paste: What does Blu-Ray technology allow you as a filmmaker to do that DVDs don’t?
Roth: I remember when we originally transferred the movie, I said, “God it looks so beautiful.” The guy who did the transfer said, “Well, enjoy it, because you’re the only one who’s ever going to see it this way. This is a $20K high-definition monitor.” This was in 2002, and I said, “When are these TVs going to be available for homes?” And he said not for years. But look, here we are, eight years later. The TVs are there. You can enjoy it the way I first enjoyed it in the telecine room. Here’s a great thing about the technology of Blu-Ray: I put on these short films, The Rotten Fruit. I put on two new episodes. One of the audio channels did not get transferred. It was a mistake. I watched it on the final Blu-Ray, and half the sound is missing. My heart broke, because what’s animation without sound? It’s boring. There are no jokes, there’s no dialogue—they’re gone. There’s nothing. And so I called Lions Gate and asked what do we do? And they said, “Don’t worry about it. Get us the audio, and we’ll upload it to the website and have it for ”http://www.whatisbdlive.com/“>BD Live.” So now, instead of stopping the run and manufacturing new discs, we’re going to put the audio on BD Live, and fans will be able to play it and watch it with all the sound. And that’s the genius of this technology. The disc becomes your computer. It gets a software update, and you can add things to it after it’s already been manufactured.
Paste: How involved were you with recutting the film in 2002?
Roth: I was very involved. This is what happened: Lions Gate said, “We would like to take some time out of the movie.” And I said, “You guys are fucking crazy, the movie is perfect. This is what you bought. You’re out of your mind.” And they said, “We would like to take some time out of the movie.” And I said, “You’re ruining my movie.” And then they said, “We would like to take some time out of the movie, and you’re welcome to join us.” So we started cutting the movie. I look back now and laugh. And look, we’re all friends and we joke about it now. We all bonded and made Hostel together a couple of years later. We’ve all gotten over it. I reacted in the worst way I could possibly react, and I would tell any young director that if the studio wants to take time out of your movie, you work with them. You sit down and make it a collaborative effort. There is no such thing as final cut. The distributor has final cut. The audience has final cut. Final cut is this myth. So what you want to do is make a movie that works the best possible way for everyone. It’s very tricky waters to navigate. Eventually we got into a dual testing system, where I said, “Let’s test my version and your version and see which scores higher.” That’s terrifying to do that. You never want to have to do that. Ultimately, I said, “If you guys want to do a version at this length, fine. But let me control where you cut it.” And I went in and cut it, and there was still stuff that they recut that I was very unhappy about. But then Quentin Tarantino saw it and he loved it. And Peter Jackson saw it. The version that I couldn’t stand, they saw it and went crazy for it. So I thought, “Life’s not so bad, people are responding.” I realized that I was nitpicking over minutia. But then when I watched the movie again recently, I thought, I was correct to fight for these things. I was right and they were wrong.