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5 Bloody Good Lessons On Creating Intensity, From The Twisted Mind Of Eli Roth

The horror maestro behind the very disturbing new film The Green Inferno talks about how intensity is what gets pulses pounding.

5 Bloody Good Lessons On Creating Intensity, From The Twisted Mind Of Eli Roth
[Photos: Eduardo Moreno, courtesy of Sobras International Pictures]

Something bad is going to happen. You know it’s coming—this is what you signed up for—you just don’t know how bad it’s going to be, or when it’s going to happen. Then it does happen, and it’s even more horrifying than you’d been bracing for . . . and it’s going to happen again and again.

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This is what an Eli Roth movie feels like—filmmaking as endurance test.

Eli Roth

“I remember when I was a kid and I saw a horror movie, it was a dare to try and make it through to the end. Like, can you even take it?” Roth says. “I feel like there isn’t this type of movie anymore.”

There is now. The Green Inferno, Roth’s latest disasterpiece, is an experience. That’s the only way to describe it. While unspeakably awful things happen to the characters in the movie—a group of student activists who meet-not-cute with an Amazonian cannibal tribe—viewers themselves go through something too. Shuddering. Shortness of breath. The sinking feeling that everything is not going to be okay. It’s the kind of movie you have to actively try not to think about for days later, lest you relive whatever it was you went through.

So what is it about Eli Roth’s movies that makes them so pulse-poundingly visceral? It’s the sheer intensity. When things go foul in The Green Inferno, which is out in theaters on September 25, the audience can’t help but squirm–mostly because the man behind the curtain has kept them in a state of carefully orchestrated agitation the rest of the time. Roth’s next film, Knock Knock, opening October 9, offers a similar intensity, even though it’s a psychological erotic thriller, rather than a straight-up horror movie. Although Roth admits that Knock Knock is more indicative of the direction he’s heading toward in the future, Co.Create caught up with the director to talk about crafting Green Inferno’s intensity–the kind his audiences eat up.

Let The Finished Product Reflect The Creation Conditions

Sometimes the way a movie, or any piece of art, is made can’t help but shine through in the art itself.

“I wanted to make a movie where you feel like the people that made the movie were crazy,” he says, citing Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as an influence. “We were going into the jungle with a camera and a machete and coming out with a movie. I wanted the viewer to feel the intensity of making the experience. We took a film crew farther into the Amazon than anyone had taken a movie before. All the villagers participated in the making of the film, and it was dangerous. Every day was five hours of traveling, you’re battling the bugs, the snakes, the tarantulas, the weather. There were many, many, many near misses. Thank God we made it out of there okay.”

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The Calm Matters As Much As The Storm

Eli Roth’s movies unfold in such a way that viewers are never sure exactly when the hammer is going to swing. By the time it does, though, they’re usually so deeply involved in the story and characters that they’re affected by what happens to them.

“It’s all about character and performance,” he says. “When you’re going on an adventure with these kids, you have to care about them and be invested in the story—even if you don’t necessarily like them or agree with them. My job as the director and the writer is to write honest characters. I’m not there to judge them. And I really learned that from [collaborator] Quentin [Tarantino]. Quentin’s like, ‘I’m not there to impose my morality on these characters. If these characters are racist, then they’re racist, if that’s the language they use, that’s the language they use. They have to be real.’ And that’s what life is. There are some people you’re friends with and there’s other people you have to put up with, but that’s what life is. So when I’m writing characters and I’m telling a story, I’m in no rush to get to the horror.

With Green Inferno, Hostel, Cabin Fever—the travel trilogy–we want to see these kids’s world. We want to see why we’re telling their story, why are we interested in them, what’s fun about them, do you want to root for them to die, do you want to see who’s gonna live? It’s getting them and it’s making the audience wait because the longer you make the audience wait, they know something awful is coming and if you give it to them right away, you’re letting the air out of the tires.”

Misdirection Is a Direction

Not only should the audience be waiting for hell to break loose, they should be suspended in an entirely different context–to further highlight the distance of where things are going to end up.

“I believe in giving people something that disarms them,” Roth says. “People fought the first 45 minutes of Hostel because I shot it like a sex comedy. It was colorful, it was fun, it was shot with steadicam. And then after Oli disappears, we start to drain the color away in every scene. It starts off like Last American Virgin, and by the end of the movie you’re in Eraserhead or Schindler’s List, in this ashen world where it’s handheld cameras. With Green Inferno, we start off and it looks like You’ve Got Mail or Spider-Man. It’s fall in New York and you have Zabars and Cornet Pizza and yellow taxicabs–and by the end you’re in some horrible, horrible documentary where it’s out of focus, it’s completely jittery,and you feel as disoriented as the characters do, and that’s very, very intentional.”

There’s a Time To Starve Your Audience, And a Time To Feed Them

Big gross-out moments are what Eli Roth has become known for, even though observant viewers will notice these moments are actually carefully spread out throughout his films.

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“Gore is an ingredient. It’s not what makes a movie scary,” Roth says. “A movie is like a pizza. You decide, do you like the thin crust, or do you like a brick oven? How do you like your sauce? How much olive oil? Then you add toppings on, and that’s your gore. Adding more of it doesn’t mean that the pizza’s gonna be better. If you add too much, it dominates the whole flavor of the pizza and you miss everything else and suddenly it’s not that good. Because you wanted a pizza, you didn’t want just that one topping. Too much gore overpowers the rest of the movie and it actually becomes boring. Maybe there’s a word for that: goring.

There’s a time when you starve the audience and there’s a time where you really give it to them. What that does is it creates this sense of dread and anticipation for, ‘Oh my God, if this is so bad now, I don’t even want to see what’s coming next.’ That’s what I learned in Hostel. The scariest part was the guy looking at the table, choosing the tools he was going to use for torture. And that’s what I had to drag out the longest. I wish I even had more footage of it, because by the time you get to the killing, the audience is covering their eyes. If you’ve really done your job as a director, setting up a terrifying scene, nobody should be watching the screen when it happens.”

Make The Red Meat Really, Really Red And Meaty

You can get a lot of mileage by delaying big gross-out set pieces in a horror movie, to keep audiences disoriented, but if it’s that kind of movie, you have to really deliver when the time comes. Eli Roth did exactly that in Green Inferno, and hints that he may not need to even do it again.

“When it comes to [one particularly gruesome scene in Green Inferno], that’s what people are paying for, so you block a lot of time for it,” he says. “I really think through it, too. I read about rituals, tribal rituals, of what people do to invaders, and I thought, what is the most horrible thing that can happen to the [person] that least deserves it? It’s the most horrible death. You just can’t imagine. It just goes on and on and on and on. I didn’t storyboard it. There was no monitor. I was the one operating a camera—we were running and gunning. We knew the moments we needed and I really, really wanted to make sure that I had the other characters’s reactions for every moment. I made sure that we could really, really take our time and get it right. And we talked a lot about [the character’s] squeal. It’s awful, this guttural death squeal that was so dark and horrible—an awful, awful noise. So, yeah, there are some scenes like that with this movie, but Green Inferno really is my mic drop. I don’t know where else to go from there.”

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