Screw objectivity. Eli Roth is awesome. He’s almost singlehandedly responsible for reinvigorating the horror genre back in 2002 with Cabin Fever. Yes, his directorial debut was an entertaining, low-budget, gore and boobiefest. More importantly though, Cabin Fever was wickedly successful and let Hollywood studios know it was okay to make R-rated horror films again. Not one to fall victim to a sophomore slump, his follow-up was one of the most memorable and controversial films of our time: Hostel. Love it or hate it, Hostel is extremely slick and driven by a brilliant concept. Brutal and uncompromising, it’s a film you can’t forget, even though a lot of people wish they could.
Taking an unpredictable next step in his career, Eli can be seen trying his hand at acting, starring alongside Brad Pitt in the new Quentin Tarantino WWII epic Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino (who produced Hostel and encouraged Eli to write it) brought him on as both an actor and as an unofficial “technical adviser” for all things Jewish in the script. He plays the part of Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, a baseball bat-wielding member of an elite Allied Jewish squad who operate behind enemy lines on a mission to kill as many Nazis as possible. I sat down with Eli to talk about killing Nazis, acting, horror movies and, most importantly, his personal sense of style.
Did you find beating Nazis with a baseball bat to be a satisfying experience?
Watching it now it’s an extremely satisfying experience. But shooting it was really tough. I put on 40 pounds of muscle and bulked up.
I believe it. I’ve seen you on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine.
Now I’ll be on the cover of Bear Monthly. I knew what was going to make the character connect with people was that look in his eye. You had to see this guy that was tormented and see that rage and know that he’s going to beat every Nazi to death that he comes across. To stir that up was really hard. It’s reliving the most painful moments of my life and bringing it all to the surface. At the end of the day, you just want to crawl in a hole and die.
What’s more enjoyable: torturing backpackers or beating Nazis with a baseball bat?
Torturing backpackers. No question. As you’re chopping up body parts, I just get happier and happier. You see it coming together and go, “Oh, the eye goo went perfect” and you can hear the audience screaming and throwing up.
Is it a spoiler to tell people that you shoot Hitler in the face with a machine gun?
Depends on what your definition of spoiler is. You can say that history is slightly altered in this fantastical version of what actually happened. But yeah, I give Hitler a bullet facial.
You went RoboCop on him!
I told Quentin, I wouldn’t just shoot Hitler. I would shoot him and then would stand over his face with a machine gun and unload bullets till I watched his head explode. That’s the only way I could be 100% certain that the motherfucker isn’t coming back.
You star alongside Brad Pitt. Has he seen Hostel?
Yes he has. He loved it.
Before the movie?
No. His makeup artist Jean was a big horror movie fan and knew who I was. Quentin and Jean were saying to Brad, “You need to see Eli’s movies.” He knew I was a director but he’d never seen them. He came in one day and said “Roth, you bastard. Goddamnit you sick motherfucker. I was alone last night. Angie left and the kids were gone and I was alone in this house. I put on Hostel and it freaked the shit out of me. It was really disturbing.”
Would it be fair to say you’ve never had lofty acting ambitions?
Yes. It’s also fair to say that I do love and enjoy acting. But I don’t like it more than directing. Directing is my passion. My life’s dream is to direct. I’ve always wanted to dive into a part the way Peter Sellers does or the way Robert De Niro does but I never had a reason to. I was never interested in writing parts for myself. Quentin gave me a reason to. I knew how to act and I knew how to direct actors…I’ve done plenty of acting. Talking to the studio heads and pretending you’re interested in their ideas. That’s acting. The director has to be the best actor on set a lot of the time… acting like you don’t want to kill people. For real, not on camera.
How do you pick your projects?
In a strange way your projects choose you. The ideas that I write are the ideas that don’t let you sleep at night. Cabin Fever. I didn’t go to sleep because I was going so crazy that I hadn’t made it yet. It was going “Don’t forget about me. Don’t forget about me.” Same thing with Hostel. You have an idea you’re in love with and it doesn’t let you sleep. Now that I’m in a position, financially, that I can do whatever I want I do a lot of things for the fun of it. Like writing the liner notes for [the obscure Italian horror movie] Cat in the Brain. Or doing a cameo at the wet t-shirt contest in Piranha 3-D. Even Inglourious Basterds. You’re not doing it for money, you’re doing it for the incredible experience.
Vampires seem to have overtaken torture movies as the popular horror genre. Thoughts?
Things go in cycles. I remember when Interview with the Vampire was the big movie. That took over and vampires were brooding and emotional. I remember angels took over for a while. City of Angels. Werewolves took over for a while. Powertools was a big one. Everything goes in cycles. I think the thing that’s important is to continually create and reinvent genres that keep audiences excited and going to the movies. Right now you have a whole wave of teenage girls that are so excited for Twilight and they’re gonna go see all three of these movies. But then, someone’s gonna come along with a violent and much darker vampire movie. Those girls are going to be 18/19/20 and they’re gonna want to see that. I think it’s great that it keeps the horror genre alive. It’s good for all of us.
Finally, this is for our fall fashion issue. I was hoping you could talk about your personal style a bit and maybe give a few tips?
Yes. Try to keep it simple. I like to look stylish because now I can afford nice clothes. I think people expect me to show up looking kind of like Marilyn Manson. They’re almost oddly confused and disappointed when I show up in Hugo Boss, Prada and Burberry.
Hugo Boss, Prada and Burberry: Are those your go-to lines?
Yeah, definitely. Prada’s a little slim. Calvin Klein looks good on me. There’s certain designers that work really well for me that use simple black colours. I’ve tried introducing blue. That’s been my new colour.
published september 2009 in ion magazine