The Last Exorcism Part II - Eli Roth interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ELI Roth talks about some of the ideology behind The Last Exorcism Part II and why its themes resonated with him and help to stir debate afterwards.
He also talks about his work as a producer and director, what motivates him, and why he likes to give most of his films a political message that will enable viewers to keep coming back to them to find more meaning in them.
Q. To me, it’s very clear that nothing supernatural at all happens in the first film [The Last Exorcism]. But this film makes that assertion confusing. Does it change the meaning of the first film? Will I have to re-evaluate the meaning of the first film?
Eli Roth: Absolutely. Nell was possessed. The only one speaking the truth was her father. And he’s 100% right that he should have killed her. Cotton [Marcus, Patrick Fabian] is a complete fraud. Everything happened… from the minute you meet Nell she’s putting on a show. The whole innocent act, everything. Her brother Caleb, he was at the party, he met Pastor Manley, he got involved with these people, he sacrificed… he sold out his sister because he turned against the church after the mother was taken. Both of them turned against the church after the mother was taken from them. They lost their way and the father couldn’t see it because he was too [much] in his own world. And he was too sheltered. He thought he had sheltered her [Nell] but he completely, completely… the father was right – the demon got in her. So, picking up from that point and the idea that Nell was possessed and that that whole ceremony at the end was actually a ceremony for Cotton… it wasn’t a ceremony for Nell. Everything he did was mocking the church and mocking religion at the beginning.
And in fact when he does that whole banana bread ceremony, when they’re chanting and he’s going towards them at the end, they’re actually chanting ‘banana bread’ backwards. That’s what they’re chanting. It’s all a joke. And the way he puts on a show as the exorcist, they’re putting on some kind of fake show with the cloaks. It’s all to get Cotton to keep going and to draw them in. And, of course, once the demon is revealed, then he believes in it, then he finds faith, but that’s not true faith – that’s just a reaction to what you’ve seen. True faith would be believing in God before he sees the demon. And he goes into the fire to fight it but he gets destroyed. So, faith versus science was the argument and what the first film was about.
Q. So, where does the sequel take us?
Eli Roth: Well, we were having trouble knowing where to go with the story but we loved the idea of following Nell and what would happen if she lives in a world where the first film exists but it exists as a viral video and she has absolutely no memory of what happened to her. She’s completely clueless to the fact that it’s online and she doesn’t even know what the Internet is. But she’s now, because she has no family… she’s told that someone has perpetrated a fraud on her and her whole family was killed – and that’s it. So, she’s in this home for troubled girls and slowly she’s trying to re-integrate as if none of this really happened, but then the girls find the video online and things start to happen, and this film is about her slowly coming to terms with what’s happening to her.
Q. It’s an interesting concept because the first film worked by using its found footage, documentary style. So, was it a conscious decision that you didn’t want to go with that same style for this movie?
Eli Roth: Yeah, the first one, as much as it’s found footage, it has been edited and scored and put together, so somebody put it together. So, what was their agenda? That was the thought – who put this thing together and why does it exist? So, the only way we could really justify doing that again was if another documentary crew went back to find out what happened and none of us wanted to see a film about that. We love Ashley Bell and we love that character and I was fascinated by the idea of ‘what if you were possessed, or there was something inside you that had this attachment to you, and you embraced it?’ What if that was the only thing you realised you could trust? That all your faith and everything else is what had turned its back on you and suddenly if you embraced this thing, then what did that lead to? And Ashley was the actress that could really pull that off, so that’s where we went with the story.
Q. How much of this came from Ed [Gass-Donnelly, the director]?
Eli Roth: A lot of it came from Ed. We Damien Chazelle [screenwriter] and I brought Ed in and told him where we wanted to go with the story. And he loved it. He loved the idea of Ashley being this innocent girl who had this thing happen to her and is slowly being haunted. And everything that she tries in her life just keeps unravelling in these very creepy ways. Daniel Stamm [director of the first film] loves Lars Von Trier, loves The Idiots… that’s like it for him. But Ed loves Roman Polanski and he was like: “This should be like Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining…” Like classical photography, slow movement, slow creeping build, tense atmosphere and very cinematic. He comes from a theatre background that is very, very performance-based. And I really liked his film Small Town Murder Songs. I loved the way it was shot. I thought it was really, really well done for a very low budget. He knew how to make the scene tense and interesting and scary. So, I really wanted this to feel like his film. I wanted him to come in and feel welcome to put his creative stamp on the movie and his ideas.
Q. Were you ever tempted to direct either of The Last Exorcism films? And how do you decide which films you’re going to direct and which you’re content just to produce?
Eli Roth: Well, generally the ones that I’m going to direct are the ones that I write, or if it’s my idea. Aftershock was a specific case where we wrote it to crossover [director] Nicolas Lopez to an English speaking audience. But I love producing when it’s a film or a story that I really like and care about and I can help bring another filmmaker out there into the world and give them their break. I’ll never forget what Quentin [Tarantino] did for me by coming on as ‘Quentin Tarantino presents…’ for Hostel and how that widened my audience beyond the Cabin Fever scope. And Ti West is such a great director. I loved The House of The Devil and The Sacrament and going back to The Roost. He brought his project The Sacrament to me.
I didn’t think I would do another found footage movie but he had an idea to do ‘guys from Vice Magazine do a Vice Travel Guide’ and one of the guy’s sister’s has kind of gone off into a cult, and he hears from her for the first time in a year, so they take cameras to go and film in this place and they realise that there’s a fully functioning society of people who have gone off the grid and are living there peaceful and harmonious. It all seems fun but then all of a sudden someone gives them a note, like a little kid, saying ‘get me out of here’ and they’re like: “What the fuck does that mean? Let’s just get out of here!” But then more people want to leave and it starts a mass suicide and these guys are trapped. I was like: “Fuck! That’s such a good idea! It’s so scary. It’s like a modern Jonestown found footage.” So, that’s a movie that Ti so had in his head and I knew I could use my clout to get it financed because other people are looking at how much The Innkeepers make, or other things? But I was like: “No, we’ve got to do this as ‘Eli Roth Presents…” And we got the money for it and it’s awesome. He’s editing now. So, there are movies that I want to see and movies that I want to make, and movies that I want to see I’ll produce and movies that I want to make are generally my own stories.
Q. With The Last Exorcism and Hemlock Grove in mind, do you like the idea of stretching a story out over a couple of films or a series?
Eli Roth: I love that idea. Netflix was kind of a confluence of events where it was the right time, the right book, the right project. People have been coming to me asking to do a horror series and I was like: “The thing that people love about television is they come back for the characters and the thing that makes horror work is that anybody can get killed at any minute. You have to feel like you’re in the hands of an unstable narrator.” So, the two inherently fight each other. I think Ryan Murphy did it brilliantly on American Horror Story, which is kill everybody and then bring them back as different people.
But I read Brian [McGreevy]’s book and I thought it was terrific. It was a really, really smart take on monster mythology and monsters, going back to the root mythology. It was really well researched, the stuff he knows. He went so deep in his research and based it on all the things that The Wolfman and Dracula were based on. He went right to the source. So, it was fun to see that and to make a werewolf transformation that’s horrible and painful and violent and not cute at all… like you’re being born and your skin rips apart and you eat your own placenta afterwards. I want to ruin it for Twilight fans. I want people to watch it and go: “Oh yeah, that’s what it would feel like if you were to transform into that.”
So, that’s why we have teeth breaking and eyes falling out. It was a great experience and what I liked about Brian is that he has three books lined up, so when we talked to Netflix we pitched them the whole series, so when the show becomes available you can get the entire series once it’s online. So, now if you want to watch House of Cards, you can watch it all the way through, and Hemlock Grove you can tell the story in a different way because you’re not worried about people coming back week after week. You can just wrap it up dramatically for that episode and move on. People can just digest them all.
Q. With Aftershock, it’s a very different kind of movie. Do you have in mind the kind of style or horror genre you want to do with each film?
Eli Roth: It is. I don’t know. I sort of have a story in my head and then shoot it and go with it. Even though horrible things happen in The Green Inferno, it’s really influenced by Werner Herzog and Terence Malick of The New World, and even Apocalypto and those types of movies. It has that adrenaline rush feeling like the last 20 minutes of Hostel just stretched out over a longer period. It’s very much about student activism and how I’ve seen so many students in the US just basically hitting the re-Tweet button and then feeling good about themselves. Occupy Wall Street and all that stuff… Free Pussy Riot… whatever the latest cause is, they want to latch onto it without really researching it. They don’t really know anything about it when you actually talk to them. I’m not saying that applies to everyone. But with a lot of people it’s like re-activism, they’re just doing it to feel better about themselves. They don’t really care.
So, here’s kids that get caught up in thinking that because they have phones and they can stream, and they’ve figured out how to do that, they can go and shut down construction and they do and it really works, but then their plane crashes and they get kidnapped by the very people they saved. And the kidnappers view them as food from the skies. It’s the idea that you shouldn’t really be messing in someone else’s business… that you can be this smart student but to someone else you’re just an invader and food.
Q. But it’s political, isn’t it. To me, your Hostel films are very political. I love them because they make me angry. So, when we look at some of the films you’ve produced… what is Last Exorcism about? And what’s Aftershock about in these terms?
Eli Roth: Well, I never want to analyse it too much. I mean I always in my own writing feel very strongly about certain things and certainly you can see… in The Green Inferno, which is obviously way to premature to properly be talking about it… but the main character, played by Lorenza Izzo, her father is played by Richard Burgi, from Hostel Part II, is a lawyer at the UN, who does everything by policy and everything by procedure, and he’s like: “You can’t just go into a country and run in with your phone and be a cowboy and change it overnight.” But she’s young and impatient and feels that this is the way things get done now.
She thinks because she has a phone and connectivity that she can stream it and Tweet it and blog it… it’s Joseph Kony 2012. It’s about how these people bought these fucking T-shirts and were saying “this is terrible, this is terrible”, but Joseph Kony didn’t give a fuck. Do you think those Tweets made a fucking bit of difference? The government of Uganda was like: “We know! We’re looking for him. We got it!” You can make all the YouTube videos you want, but it doesn’t fucking mean anything… and it’s actually not the way to get things done. It doesn’t matter. And I think that a lot of people have this fantasy that they can use their phone to fix everything and that’s what happens to these kids – they think that and they get their asses handed to them.
Aftershock, to me, was very much about the collapse of society… the total breakdown of society within minutes, which I found fascinating. I’ve heard that we are nine meals from anarchy. If you don’t get nine meals in a row you start killing your neighbour for food. And I believe it. You see it happening in Hurricane Sandy. It hit New York and within hours people are Tweeting photos of themselves looting. It’s like #looting. They’re making a joke out of it. And thousands of kids are doing that. So, it’s like a very thin veneer that everyone plays this role in society, and what happens when society is literally shaken to the ground and suddenly you come out and there is no help and there are no rules and people are doing whatever the fuck they want. What does that do to people and how would you behave when you’re trying to get up the hill and you have to wait in line… but your friend is dying and you have to cut the line and people want to fucking kill you for cutting the line because you’re putting their lives in danger by doing so. So, all that kind of stuff.
Each scene was about moral choices. It’s really, you’re there and you walk by a building and you hear a crying baby, so do you run in and get it and the building collapses, so now you’re dead. So, what do you do? What is the moral decision that you make? And the more people that we talked to about the earthquake [in Chile in 2010] and what happened to them, like Lorenza’s friend whose hands got cut off and they’re there in the bar – it was like, do you help the friend find their hands or do you get the fuck out of there because it’s collapsing. What do you do? What can you live with? What’s acceptable for you? Everyone has their own line. In the case of the real-life earthquake, it really did hit at 3.3am on a Saturday when everyone was partying – so, you’re supposed to be at a club for fun and then it just becomes a death trap.
Q. Is The Last Exorcism 2 set in New Orleans? And did you shoot there?
Eli Roth: Yeah. We shot the whole film in New Orleans.
Q. So, are you commenting on anything there?
Eli Roth: Well, that question’s more for Ed but we loved having New Orleans as a backdrop. We loved the ghosts of what that city has… what it is, what it was. And setting it in the Mardi Gras, which has this strange power of sadness over it since Katrina. It’s still there and it still goes on but somehow this idea of going to New Orleans for decadence isn’t the same as it was. You can’t go there and not think about Katrina or feel it… or feel that these poor people are still devastated by it. So, it’s an interesting place and we loved shooting there. The people were wonderful and the crews were great, so it was a pleasure to go back. But the first one was really that religion versus science and faith and this is still very much a film about faith and what do you embrace and what do you do when that faith betrays you?
Q. Do you ever get tempted to go back to any of your favourite horror films when you were younger and potentially remake them?
Eli Roth: Well, it’s interesting. There’s nothing that ever really struck me. I wouldn’t touch The Shining. I wouldn’t touch Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But I read the script for Dawn of the Dead and I wanted to do that. If it’s a film that’s like a Holy Grail movie for me, then I wouldn’t do it. But I also feel that now there is enough time… I wouldn’t remake The Exorcist because I think it would be silly to try. But I wouldn’t be surprised if someone did. I think as long as it’s a great story… I mean I was totally against the Evil Dead remake and then I saw a trailer and I was like: “That looks awesome!” So, obviously Fede Alvarez was really excited to do it… and that’s what you want is a director that’s really, really, really excited to do something. I’m now attached to Harker with Russell Crowe… the Dracula story. But that’s been done a number of times but I read the script by Lee Shipman and Brian McGreevy and thought it was terrific. We had a long discussion about the purpose of the movie and why is this movie relevant? And I had a very specific argument and idea and thesis and agenda and Warner Bros were like: “That’s the movie!”
Q. Is there much in the way of a full Thanksgiving movie?
Eli Roth: Yes there is. The Clown writers, the guys who make Clown, are working on it. So yes, there will be a Thanksgiving. Every movie that I do… certain things are obviously pointless fun that are wonderful. But for movies that I direct, I always want to have a very specific reason for doing it. I love those horror films where they have a political agenda. All my favourite movies have that because the haunted house is never as scary the second time through. So, when you can create a movie that has that… like what Hostel has, or The Last Exorcism, or any of these movies… that you can watch it again and watch it for different reasons, and get different things out of it… I mean The Shining is a classic example. If you watch the Room 237 documentary you realise just how rich that film is. And so I try to put all of that into my films, in order to give people a reason to watch them again.
Q. How aware are you that the lessons learned by people in your films are often learnt by young people?
Eli Roth: For sure. I always feel like I try to write a different movie and no matter what it always ends up being about kids who go on a trip and something awful happens. I think that there’s something about college age people where… if someone is too young, like an 11-year-old, it’s too painful to watch them go through a thing like that. It’s too much. I’m not saying it can’t be done but you wouldn’t want to see them in Hostel. College kids are not quite adults but they can still behave stupidly like teenagers. You don’t want someone that does stupid decision because then you’ll lose sympathy for them. So, if your main characters are really dumb you go: “Oh come on! Now I hope you get killed!” But if someone’s in college and is behaving like an idiot, you’re more inclined to go: “I get it, they’re in college, we all did that!” It’s at an age where they’re young enough to behave stupid but old enough that it’s OK to kill them and the audience will go with you.