After the success of his vividly entertaining horror romp “Cabin Fever”, Eli Roth was looking to go climb further up the stepladder of witty horror.
“After Cabin Fever came out I got offered numerous studio films to direct, mostly horror films and comedies, but even some dramas. I was amazed at the range of films I had to choose from. Only there was one problem: none of them excited me”, admits the filmmaker, who cut his directing teeth on TV’s Chowdaheads. “They were mostly formulaic, boring, safe studio films that anyone could direct”.
When stuck for inspiration, press the doorbell of one of cinemas most imaginative filmmakers.
“I was talking with Quentin [Tarantino] about what I should do next, and he said that I should write, produce and direct my own thing.
That idea ended up “Hostel”, a film that came to him during a conversation with Internet guru Harry Knowles.
“We were talking about disturbing things we’d found on the Internet. We were talking specifically about that guy who set up a hunting website where you could shoot lions over the Internet through a computer-controlled gun. (The FBI eventually shut him down.) Harry showed me a site where you could go to Thailand and for $10,000 walk into a room and shoot an anonymous person in the head. The site claimed they willingly volunteered for this, and that part of the money went to their family. We talked about whether or not it was real and then I realized that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not, what matters is that someone conceived of this place and built a website about it. Someone was tuned into the fact that there are people in this world for whom money means nothing anymore, drugs have no effect anymore, and they get no charge from sex with hookers or going to strip clubs. They’re numb to their existence and are looking for that forbidden stimulation”, he explains.
Roth went to his good friend Tarantino (“Tarantino is a big fan of Cabin Fever and was really cool to invite me to his house to watch movies after he saw my film. We struck up a friendship where we’d hang out and watch movies, and he’s one of the few people I can turn to for honest advice about how to handle my career) to run by an idea to him.
“After Cabin Fever I had a meeting with Mike Fleiss, who produced the Chainsaw remake, and his friend Chris Briggs, who he produces projects with. Chris had an idea to make a horror film set in the world of backpacking, but he had no idea what the story was. I loved the setting and had lived in Europe and done backpacking, and the idea just percolated for a while. Then one day, it hit me: this film was about that website where you could go to Thailand and kill someone”, says Roth.
“I saw a direct connection between people like this and guys who go to Amsterdam to go to the red light district and get hookers and do European drugs. They’re looking for that taboo thing you can’t do in the states. Nothing’s enough for these guys. The guys at the beginning of the movie are like these businessmen looking for stimulation, only 20 years earlier. I wrote the film to start in Amsterdam, and these guys get lured to Slovakia by these photos of beautiful naked girls. Nothing’s ever enough for them, they always want more, and it all comes back to bite them in the ass.
Tarantino loved the idea.
“I told Quentin the idea for Hostel and he was like “that’s the sickest fucking idea I’ve ever heard – you HAVE to write this!” He said “Eli, this could be your Miike film. This is it.” And right then at that moment I knew I’d found my 2nd film. I drove home, unplugged my phone, and started writing. I burned out the script pretty quickly. I was possessed”.
Getting the film financed was reasonably easy, says Roth, “Because I kept the cost under $5 million”.
“They know they can make that back on DVD in a worst case scenario with my name on it. That’s how they look at things. Right now I am getting offered a lot of films in the $40 million dollar range, and if Hostel is a hit, then I’ll be on one of those lists of directors for big budget movies. However, I’ve gotten used to making films on my own. I’ve made 2 movies that I wrote, produced and directed, and was extensively involved in the marketing and publicity. It’s how I like to do it. It really feels like it’s the idea I had in my head, unfiltered or watered down. Hopefully it works. But sink or swim, it’s what I had in my head. If it works, it’ll give me the leverage to do my bigger budget ideas. The dream is to have a situation like Quentin or Robert Rodriguez or Peter Jackson or George Lucas, where you can make huge budget genre films but still have total control over the product from its inception through its release.
Originally, says Roth, the “plan was to make it with my horror company, Raw Nerve, which I have with Boaz Yakin and Scott Spiegel. I showed them the script and they loved it, and had excellent suggestions. Boaz wrote and directed Fresh and Remember the Titans and Scotty co-wrote Evil Dead 2, so I had two superb writers giving notes. I showed the script to Quentin, who loved it and said he wanted to make it a “Quentin Tarantino Presents.” Eventually Quentin came on as an Exec Producer along with Boaz and Scotty. Those guys have known each other forever. In fact, Scotty introduced Quentin to his producer Lawrence Bender years ago and helped Quentin get Reservoir Dogs going. They’re all old friends so it was a natural fit. I wanted to make this movie for $3 million dollars, but Sony came in and said they would buy it for $4 million, and distribute the film worldwide. They were terrific. The head of Screen Gems (the division of Sony), Clint Culpepper, saw the film and gave me a lot more money so we could record the score with a 75 piece orchestra in Prague, and to do a huge sound mix with oscar winning mixer Bob Beemer. It was amazing, and I am really grateful to Clint for his belief in this film. This little movie was mixing on the same stage where they mixed Spider Man, and now has a massive worldwide advertising campaign.
“A year ago, I was sick of waiting around for one of my studio movies to be green lit. I needed to make another film, but I had been resisting doing another low budget horror film.
Saw re-ignited my enthusiasm for making low budget movies. All the producers, we all said to ourselves that we’d rather make Hostel for under $5 million than do it for $15 million at a studio, because that way we can have total control and make it as sick and fucked up as we want to. We didn’t have anyone telling us “oh no, you can’t do that, that’s too sick.” Our only limit was we had to do it for an R rating. And everything we shot made it into the film, so the real difficulty was making it unrated… Once Sony saw the dailies they realized it was far more violent than anything they’d ever made, so they did a very smart thing by partnering with Lion’s Gate to release the movie in the U.S. I got to work with Tim Palen again, who did the Cabin Fever marketing. Tim’s and I have very similar sensibilities, and I think he’s an incredible artist and marketing genius. He did the whole Saw and Saw 2 campaign. The fingers were his posters. It really could not have worked out more perfectly”.
Roth got to handpick his cast and says it couldn’t have worked out better – he got exactly whom he wanted for the main roles.
“I will always cast the people I think are the best actors for the roles, whether they are stars or not. We had casting sessions in Los Angeles, and Derek Richardson came in and auditioned. I knew he was in Dumb and Dumberer, but had no idea how much of a genius this guy is. He’s really funny in a neurotic kind of way, but he’s also very likeable and sweet, and he gave an terrific performance.
Then, “My casting director Kelly Wagner had a dream that we cast Jay Hernandez in Hostel, so we sent his agent the script. I was a fan of Jay Hernandez, so I was really psyched when he read the script and said he wanted to do it. We sat down and talked for about an hour. I didn’t even audition him, I knew he’d be perfect.
“I wrote the role of Oli, the Icelander, for my friend Eythor, who I met in Iceland 2 years ago when I went there with Cabin Fever. He’s one of the funniest, craziest (in a good way), most charismatic people I’ve ever met, and we had so much fun filming together. The first test audiences went crazy for him. He’s a natural.
“We cast everyone else out of Prague. I got to work with incredible Czech actors like Jan Vlasak, who mostly does theater, but is the top Shakespearean actor in the country. Barbara Nedeljakova, who plays Natalya, came in on an audition, and out of 400 girls who read nobody came close to her. It was like a young Monica Belucci walking into the room. She has that other worldly beauty of those great European movie stars I love like Maria Schneider or Emanuelle Beart. And she’s an incredible actress. When she read the scenes where she goes ice cold she was terrifying”, he says.
Right-away Roth knew he wanted to make the film outside of America.
“I was getting sick of Los Angeles, of everyone trying to angle you for something. I was just at a point where I needed a break. You hear about it happening but I had never experience it until after Cabin Fever was a hit. Then it’s like everyone you meet is trying to get something from you. I got burned by a few people who I thought were very close to me. Another reason was cost. It’s less expensive to shoot in Prague. Prague is an incredible city and I had always wanted to live there, so I wrote a film set there. Plus the unions in the U.S. make it impossible for people to make a lower budget movie. They shut me down on Cabin Fever and took most all of our profits, so it was my way of saying fuck you, you’re never getting another dime from me. I think unions can be great, and if you’re making a studio movie, the studio is paying for it, and they budget films at union rates. But when you’re making a low budget movie every nickel and dime has to go towards the film. They shut me down on Cabin Fever by threatening crew members one by one in their hotel rooms at night. I’m serious. We were not breaking any laws, we were in a right to work state paying very fair rates and treating the crew extremely well, and they shut us down and extorted us. It was a nightmare. I had no interest in dealing with that mess again”.
Roth is rapt with the end product and says “Cabin Fever is a Disney film compared to Hostel”.
Don’t get him wrong though, “it’s not all gore from the start – Hostel is a slow burn horror film. The real bloodbath is in the 3rd act. Tonally, it’s very different from Cabin Fever. It’s not weird and goofy the way Cabin Fever is. It starts off fun, but once things start to go wrong, the humour kind of ends. There are moments that are so sick you laugh and moments to break the tension, but it just gets darker and darker and more horrific as it goes on. But don’t expect blood from minute one. But once it starts to flow it doesn’t stop.”