It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to interview Eli Roth, the young writer-director of “Cabin Fever.” His enthusiasm and volubility are such that a single question will start him off on a long, high-speed response that trails off only when he begins to realize he’s gotten far off the subject. Prodding is definitely not necessary.
The NYU film school graduate’s live-action short picture “Restaurant Dogs” was a 1995 award winner there, and he’s since gone on to work in various capacities with the likes of David Lynch and Howard Stern, as well as co-creating an animated series for the WWE’s televised “Nitro” wrestling program. But he’s always loved the classic horror pictures of the 1970s and 1980s, and it’s their spirit he’s tried to recapture in “Cabin Fever,” a combination of shocks, gore, laughs and even some commentary on how people deal with being terrified of unexplained illness.
“I hope the movie is as scary to watch as it was to make,” the lanky, spike-haired Roth said in a recent Dallas interview, detailing the repeated injuries to the eye of one of the stars (Joey Kern) and trouble with union reps who tried to close down the North Carolina shoot. But financing was the major problem. “One of our major investors dropped out two days before shooting; he was going to put in a third of the budget,” Roth recalled, saying that the fellow was worried about investing in a movie about a virus when news about real diseases was spreading. “He also said, ‘You’ve got to cast my daughter.’” The project was saved only when Roth maxed out his credit cards and friends and relatives chipped in–his physician-father even tapped into his retirement account.
Even after shooting was done, money problems continued. “We had the movie finished, but we still needed money for the sound mix, so we had to show it to these investors who showed it to their kids, and the kids were like, ‘This is better than “American Pie,”’ so basically you work for years and years and your fate is up to a twelve-year old kid and whether he likes your movie or not. It’s crazy.”
It all worked out, though. “Then we got into the Toronto Film Festival, and we were the last movie on,” Roth remembered. Luckily “Harry Knowles writes on Ain’t It Cool News, ‘Don’t leave Toronto without seeing “Cabin Fever.” There was this jam-packed press screening, and I was, like, swamped by distributors. There was a twenty-four hour bidding war…Lions Gate came up with less up-front money, but they’re guaranteeing they’ll spend twelve million in print and advertising, and it will get a wide theatrical release. That was the most important thing. They’re going to make it count.”
Making “Cabin Fever,” difficult as it was, was already the end of a ten-year gestation process: Roth wrote the script shortly after finishing film school, but worked for a decade on movie sets before arranging to make it. But he’s certain the wait was worth it. “Thank God it took ten years to get this movie made,” he said. “I think this movie would have been a disaster had I made it at 22. Thank God I made it when I did, when I was ready to. By not getting the money [sooner], I had to work on sets and make my living as a production assistant. There I was out of film school…wrapping cable. I just learned how to behave on a set. I built up endurance, I built up tolerance. I knew how a set was run. You can’t replace that practical, on-set experience.” It paid off, too: Roth said that he and his crew averaged an astonishing 35-36 set-ups a day, with 42 the one-day record.
Now that the release date was upon him, Roth was pleased with the push the studio was putting behind the movie. “Right now is a weird time for horror, because any film that’s a horror movie isn’t sold as a horror movie. It’s sold as a thriller,” he said. The words were just the beginning of a long historical tirade, ranging from the A-list horror movies of the 1970s through the present. “‘Silence of the Lambs’ comes along, and they’re like, ‘Don’t call it a horror movie, because horror movies are so in the crapper.’ They’re like, ‘Let’s call it a thriller.’ And they win every Oscar, deservedly so. But then all of a sudden it’s like thrillers are for smart people and horror movies are moron movies. And horror movies don’t have to have good actors. They don’t look at the structure of the movie, it’s like, well now we’ll just call it a thriller. ‘Misery’–that’s not a horror movie, it’s a psychological thriller… ‘The Sixth Sense’ comes along, and it’s the best horror movie in years, but no, it’s a psychological thriller. I go, like, really? That’s actually a term a marketing person made up. There was no such thing as a psychological–or supernatural, I’m sorry–thriller. In 1992, there were horror movies, but nobody wants to call [them] that anymore because they don’t want to align themselves with ‘Valentine’ and ‘I Still Know What You Did Last Summer’ and all that other crap. Now, ‘28 Days Later’ comes out, one of the best horror movies of the summer, and they’re like, no, it’s a viral thriller. That’s what they call it!” After going on in this vein for a while, Roth pulls up. “I totally forgot what your question was, but I do have a point to this,” he says. “I’m really happy that Lions Gate is selling [’Cabin Fever’] as a horror film, because they did that with ‘House of 1,000 Corpses,’ and they were unapologetic about it. They were like, ‘This is our movie, and your parents are going to hate it, and f— you, who cares?’ Kids came out in droves to see it. So I am thrilled with the way Lions Gate is selling the film, especially with the constraints they’ve been put under. The problem is this: you can’t do anything good in the trailer anymore. The MPAA controls everything. You can’t have a drop of blood on your poster. You can’t have a nosebleed in your trailer. My movie is blood, guts, nudity and swearing, [but] we can’t show the stuff we want in the trailers.”
Roth is also concerned about another aspect of the hype on his picture–uncertainty about whether it’s a straight horror movie or a comedy. “I think with ‘Cabin Fever,’ it’s going to be a lot funnier than people expect, but it’s not a comedy. It’s much more like ‘An American Werewolf in London,’ where the characters always take the situation seriously, but the situation is never a joke. The humor is used as a valve to release the tension…I think that if you tell people it’s a horror comedy, there are negative associations.” He thinks that the fact that some people are using the term for his movie is “more a reflection of the marketing of the film than the intention of the filmmaker. Marketing is a dangerous thing. When people are told this director worked with David Lynch, they expect ‘Mulholland Drive’ and they hate the movie, because they’re watching it and all they’re thinking is, ‘This isn’t Lynchian.’ Then if they’re told, ‘This is purely scary,’ they’re thinking, ‘This isn’t scary, this is funny–am I supposed to be scared?’ If they’re told…this is just full, fall-through-the-wall roller-coaster fun, and you’re going to be scared, and you’re going to be laughing, they’re going to love it. My intention was to entertain. I just want people to be invested in the characters–I want people to get their money’s worth and be entertained from the time the lights go down to when the credits come on.”
Fans of horror flicks will also enjoy catching the references to loads of earlier movies in Roth’s picture. “I love with directors, when you can see what movies they love,” he said. “When I’m watching a movie, [that] makes me feel like I’m in the hands of someone who cares. I think that as long as you’re putting your own original twist on it, as long as you’re not just replicating what [other] people do–I just love watching movies when it doesn’t take you out of the movie so it’s distracting, [and] it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, they took that device,’ but it’s like, ‘Oh, that is so cool, they love that movie, too’–then I really enjoy that film.”
Roth will be making more horror movies–he’s working on an adaptation of a Richard Matheson story in collaboration with “Donnie Darko” creator Richard Kelly, and has joined other horror filmmakers in a company “called Raw Nerve, to make really violent, half-a-million or a million or two million dollar horror movies that studios would be too afraid to make. It’s like, taboo, yeah, bring it on! The more disturbing, the better!” But he also wants to revive the old teen sex comedies of the past. “I’m writing and directing a teen comedy for Universal now. I love early eighties sex comedies like ‘The Last American Virgin’ and ‘Porky’s.’ I want to make a movie with real tits and with bush and with real breasts and lots of nudity and with no silicone (there’s no silicone in ‘Cabin Fever,’ despite what people think)—with girls who look like normal girls. The problem is, I have a terrible weakness for ‘Zapped!’ I will see anything with Scott Baio and Willie Aames. I have this horrible addiction to ‘Charles in Charge.’ Any movie with a fat guy-cool guy-nerd is my favorite combination of movie…Ultimately, I’d really like to do teen comedies, horror movies–and an Olson twins movie. The problem is, after I do the Olsen twins movie, I’m going to have to die, because where do you go from there? I really don’t know where I could go from there.”