Recently, Hollywood has turned to the horror flick to rejuvenate flagging ticket sales. While the glut of guts has led to a lot of remakes and knockoffs, a few young filmmakers have risen to the challenge of fashioning fresh fare. Eli Roth is one such box-office reanimator. Spawning the hits Cabin Fever and Hostel, the Boston-born director splices social commentary into his gore while mischievously tinkering with genre convention. TVGuide.com invited Roth to discuss Hostel (out on DVD today) and share his thoughts about being tapped to direct the big-screen version of Stephen King's Cell.
TVGuide.com: Hostel is a harrowing tale of American college students abducted while backpacking in Europe. Did you ever do the backpacking thing?
Eli Roth: Well, I was an exchange student in France while I was in high school, and during that time I did some backpacking. But my producer, Chris Briggs, was the one who actually mentioned it as a movie idea. After Cabin Fever came out, Chris and his partner Mike Fleiss were like, "How would you like to do a movie set in the backpacking world?" I thought that was a great idea. I love how transient that world is. Then suddenly I saw this website for some place in Thailand where you could pay $10,000 to walk into a room and shoot someone in the head.
TVGuide.com: What, were you Googling when you came across that?
Roth: Actually, Harry Knowles from Ain't It Cool News showed it to me. It was like a murder vacation. We talked about it and we didn't know if it was just some bulls--- somebody made up, but I thought, "It doesn't matter if this is real. What matters is that somebody conceptualized this." They realized there's probably some rich guy out there who's so bored and numb that he would want to kill somebody just to know what it feels like. That struck me as very real.
TVGuide.com: A town outside the Slovakian capital of Bratislava is the setting for Hostel's carnage. Any worries about whether your film would impact tourism?
Roth: You know Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn't stop anyone from going to Texas. The truth of the matter is that most Americans don't even know that Slovakia exists. Most of the people I told that I was going to shoot in Prague said, "Uh-oh, Czechoslovakia. Better bring toilet paper." I was like, "It hasn't been Czechoslovakia for 15 years. It's two countries now." Nobody knows that. I think something like 12 percent of Americans have a passport. We played on that American ignorance of other countries in the movie.
TVGuide.com: Did you think the fall of communism made it more plausible that a Slovakian town would embrace the torture/murder industry?
Roth: Who were the first people who went in when communism fell? The Mafia, organized crime. In any postcommunist society, drugs, hookers and the worst parts of humanity flourish. Once communism falls, the dollar comes in. People get bought and sold. The characters in Hostel get caught up in that.
TVGuide.com: In Hostel, characters are taken out by both car and train at high speeds. Did you consider using any other vehicles to end lives in the movie?
Roth: We had a Stanley Steamer and a moped, but those just weren't as exciting. Everybody loves a good car-hit scene in a movie. It's fun to watch bad guys get run over.
TVGuide.com: Quentin Tarantino, who has had a few famous torture scenes in the movies he's directed, executive-produced the film. Did you go to him for any advice?
Roth: Sure. While we were writing Hostel, Quentin advised that what's going to make the movie work is if it feels real. So we went through the script and anything that felt like it could only happen in a movie, we took out.
TVGuide.com: You've said that getting an audience member to puke is like getting a standing ovation. A little bit of my dinner came up in my mouth while watching Hostel, but I swallowed it. Does that count?
Roth: Yeah, it does. A little upchuck and reswallow is pretty good. That's a near-standing ovation, like three and a half stars.
TVGuide.com: You recently signed on to direct the movie version of Stephen King's Cell. What appeals to you about that story?
Roth: I love zombie movies and I love horror movies that have some level of social commentary in them. When you read that book, you feel that Stephen King has been driven crazy by people on cell phones. I think it's such a smart contemporary idea to have everyone on cell phones turn into psychotic serial killers. I've always wanted to do an apocalypse movie, a zombie movie and a Stephen King movie.
TVGuide.com: So you're a fan of his work?
Roth: Oh, yeah. Stephen King is my favorite writer. So many great directors, be it [Stanley] Kubrick or [Brian] De Palma or George Romero, have adapted his work. To have the opportunity to do it was so unexpected. I'm really psyched.
TVGuide.com: You mentioned Stanley Kubrick. He and Stephen King had a famous falling out over The Shining because his film was vastly different than the novel. Would you feel comfortable making alterations to the source material if necessary?
Roth: That was 25 years ago. I think Stephen King is probably in a different place now. I think he really likes me and trusts me. Everybody has told me to just go make the best movie and that if I have to change things, Stephen will be cool with it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have done it. I don't want to upset Stephen King I want to make him proud but I've got to have the freedom to change things if I'm going to make the movie.