Q&A: Hostel helmer Eli Roth

Having savoured the sweet scent of success with his first movie, slice-up shocker Cabin Fever, director Eli Roth faced a dilemma suffered by up-and-coming helmers all over Hollywood – take the money and run or go from the gut.

After a chat with his buddy, the large jawed king of hip, Quentin Tarantino, Roth decided to turn his back on several lucrative studio offers and go for the latter. The result was backpacking torture flick Hostel and an $80 million box office booty. When Total Film caught up with the energetic lenser, it was clear he had more in common with his guru QT than just a love for film… Jeez this guy can yak!

So tell us how Hostel came about…
It came out of a conversation with Harry Knowles, the guy from aintitcool.com.
I was shut down on Cabin Fever and needed money to finish the movie. We were talking about horrible and sick things we’d seen on the internet and he told me about this website, in Thailand, where for ten thousand dollars you could shoot someone in the head. He sent me a link and it wasn’t like some flash site, it was a simple page and it looked real and we thought ‘Okay, is this real? Or did somebody just make this up?’ But we thought, ‘look at human history, look at what people do to each other – they used to stone each other for entertainment.’ I wouldn’t put anything past people. Someone would do this, I bet you. There is some sick fuck that is so numb that they want to know what it feels like to kill somebody. I thought it would be a great subject to do a documentary on but I thought, ‘do I want these people knowing where I live?’ If it’s real, they’ve got my address and if it’s fake, they’ve probably run off with my credit card!

So you ran straight to the typewriter and wrote Hostel?
No, I just filed away until producers Chris Briggs and Mike Fleiss, who did the Texas Chainsaw remake, said to me ‘we have a title for a movie,’ and the title was Hostel, with this idea about backpackers but no clue what the story would be. So the whole idea just sat there dormant for about a year until one day I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s not about an evil hostel, that’s just how they lure people in. It’s about sick people who pay to kill other people.’ The hostel is just the net for them.

Okay, so then you ran to the typewriter and wrote Hostel?
No, I was actually on the verge of development on several studio movies and I think I turned down something like Dukes Of Hazzard and I called up Quentin Tarantino. I felt like I was about to ruin my career. It was a moment when all these projects were available to me and I was saying no because I couldn’t get my fucking dick hard for them. So Quentin told me to think about some original ideas. He asked me what I had and I told him about this idea Hostel. He went off on one: ‘that is the sickest idea for a horror movie, you’ve got to make that, I would see that in a heartbeat. Fuck all this other shit, make this your next movie and make it low budget so you can have as much violence as you want.’ I made the point that on opening weekend I might get burned if it’s too violent and Quentin said ‘fuck it, worry about that in 30 years time when kids are still renting it at a sleepover.’ So after that, I burned out the script in two weeks and he said it was one of the best scripts he’d ever read.

Quentin is a producer on the movie. How much help was he during development?
Let me tell you, he’s been the greatest because, when Quentin was doing all this, never once did he insinuate that he wanted anything but to help me. He wasn’t doing it to get in on the project or anything. It was just pure cinema altruism – he just wants a better movie out there on the screens. He gave me some amazing advice, told me the parts where it felt too much like a movie and it needed to be more real. He said, ‘Okay, you and me are in that chair being tortured, what happens? What do we say?’ So we talked through different scenarios. We had to bullshit proof it; make it feel fucking real.

He’s not bothered about some young gun nipping in and stealing his crown then?
Oh fuck no, not at all. His advice is coming from a pure place. There are so few directors that are like that. Directors are so fucking competitive and they want other people’s movies to fail but he’s one of the only people I know who’s not a hater; he doesn’t care if other people get attention because he just loves movies. He’s a lover of cinema but he’s also an incredible person. You read stuff about him being this egomaniac and it’s just not true and you hear it from people who’ve never met him. He’s one of the most genuine, nicest people I’ve ever met. He still enjoys just sitting and watching movies. So many people in this industry are just jaded and bitter. He likes movies for what they are; he doesn’t care about the box office - he’s just ‘hey, come over and watch my print of Zombie.’ He loves it, he loves sharing it and gets everyone excited. But he still hasn’t watched the DVD of The Wicker Man I’ve lent him twice.

Lazy bugger. So is this special treatment reserved for you?
No, he’s like it with anyone who he feels has the same ideals. For example, I told Quentin about Shaun Of The Dead and I hooked him up with a print, so when Shaun director Edgar Wright came to town, I set up dinner for the three of us to go out and now they’re great friends. He really is the godfather of that kind of new, hip cinema and he’s happy to pass that on to anyone. He and Robert Rodriguez remember what it was like to be the new guys and they think it’s cool that they have those experiences to pass on, giving advice to people like myself and Edgar. Quentin lives close by, so he’s always inviting me over to watch movies, which is a great education.

Hostel isn’t some glossy teen horror is it? There’s much more to it than pretty girls and shiny knives…
It’s a weird, subversive, political drama disguised as a horror film in a strange way. When you watch it again, you might notice that the whole brothel sequence in Amsterdam and the torture house sequence – they’re the same place. These guys kind of become the hookers, the tables get turned on them. I purposefully started it off all colourful and bright so everybody felt safe. I wanted people to feel like they were on the trip with the guys. Then, as it gets worse, the colour slowly drains away until in the end you’re in this grey, ash, bloody nightmare of a world. The camera work in the beginning is all steady and safe but by the end it’s all hand-held and more claustrophobic and I wanted people to think maybe they’d make the same decisions the characters make. I wanted them to think ‘yeah, I’d fuck those hookers’ or ‘yeah, I’d go with those girls to the spa.’ Then when they’re in the chair I hope they’re thinking ‘okay, maybe it was wrong to think I could buy and sell someone just because they’re from Eastern Europe and I’ve got some money.’ I wanted people to feel like they were in another country, where they couldn’t speak the language and there’s no subtitles; nothing’s explained and you’re with someone you don’t really know that well – all the security blankets are taken away.

It’s made even more petrifying by the fact that the evil is so real. It could happen…
Oh it’s so real. All you have to do is look at what’s going on in the Middle East, US soldiers torturing people for fun, for entertainment and taking photos of it. It’s something that is littered throughout human history. People torture other people for control, for kicks. There’s a case in the US at the moment where US soldiers have gone into an Iraqi village and killed some parents in front of their child and then raped the 14 year-old daughter, cut her up and mutilated her body. This is the fucking US Army today and this is what people are doing. It’s a minority but it’s happening. There is some sick part of us that has the need to control and do these things to another person. I think Straw Dogs showed it best, that anybody under the right circumstances can be pushed into becoming ultra-violent. But the fact that someone would willingly do it for kicks is something else.

You touched upon how the American kids in this movie are almost as bad as the torturers…
This is the thing - I see these torturers as the end of the trajectory that our guys started out on. The guys torturing the kids are basically the backpackers 25 years from now. It’s all about moving on to the next level, getting your kicks from something more and more extreme. Look at what’s happening with pornography – it used to be porn stars, then it was amateurs, now this whole thing about tricking girls is coming in where girls are being offered citizenship in the US for sex on websites but afterwards they’re like ‘get outta here bitch,’ You know it’s fake but people are getting off on the idea of some immigrant getting treated like that and it’s not about the sex, it’s about the power. So where’s it going to go after that? People are always looking for the next level and they’re never satisfied with what they have. They become desensitised with one extreme after another and you have to wonder where it’s leading to.

You shot entirely on location in Prague. How did the Czech Republic treat you?
I could spend my life shooting in Prague - the crews were awesome and the most dangerous part of shooting there is that you might stay out all night in the great bars. I got strep-throat three times during prep and I decided that was it, no more going out while we were shooting or I was going to die. Not only would I have not finished this film, I would have expired, God would have pulled the plug on me. We were the first American studio-released movie that used an all-Czech crew - they usually bring in their own people - so we got to work with people who’d never been in those kind of positions on American films before. My director of photography, this was the first movie he’d shot, although Terry Gilliam used him on his second unit for Brothers Grimm and he’s amazing. I said, ‘if he’s good enough for Terry Gilliam, he’s good enough for me.’

It must have been a huge kick for the local talent…
The local actors were great, they would normally have one line that might get dubbed by an American actor and now they get to be the bad guys. These guys are theatre actors and they are just fantastic actors. So it was so much fun to find people like that and then for them to have starring roles in a movie that opened number 1 in America, it’s just such a buzz.

Lastly - should people eat before or after watching Hostel?
Oh man, that’s fucking tough. It’ll definitely get to you either way. I guess you really shouldn’t watch it before dinner unless you’re on a diet.

Total Film had a lasagne just before the screening…
Oh good God, I’m surprised you didn’t see an encore presentation.

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.