Interview: Eli Roth

We chat to the Hostel director about The Last Exorcism and finding new voices in horror.

The Last Exorcism struck a chord with audiences, grossing close to $60 million worldwide, well over 30 times its budget, which itself was already covered by the pre-sales. We ask him why he believes the horror flick connected with moviegoers. “I think that it was the timing,” he says. “People were ready. We were kind of on the heels of the first Paranormal Activity, because there hadn’t been another docu-style horror film. We actually shot our movie before Paranormal came out. It was all edited by December, so I think timing-wise the marketplace was ready for it. But I think that people weren’t expecting to see such strong performances in a horror film. People generally have low expectations for actors in horror, and I’ve always had very high expectations because I think from the greatest performances ever – if you go back to Linda Blair in The Exorcist, of course Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Alien – many of my favourite horror movies have truly iconic performances.” Indeed, the relatively little-known but excellent Patrick Fabian, in a star-making performance as cynical exorcist Reverend Cotton Marcus, fronts The Last Exorcism with real gusto, a perfect match for the documentary format of the movie.

“You know, I think [people] were so caught up in the documentary and drama of it, they really responded to the film,” he continues. “But I think the subject of the film, exorcism and religion, is such a hot button subject in America. America is a very polarised country – there’s two Americas. Half the country believes in the devil and creationism, and the other half believes in evolution and science or another type of faith. But the film, what I think people liked, was that it showed both sides very fairly and never took a position one way or another. It let the conflict naturally play itself out. And it twisted and turned. People are expecting the exorcist to turn up in the movie and have all the answers. In this one, it starts at the beginning and the guy goes, ‘It’s all nonsense, I don’t believe any of it’. He’s using the film as a confessional. I think people like the idea that this reverend, who didn’t believe in any of this and felt terribly about it, trying to repent for his sins but going about it the wrong way, and not really realising what he’s getting himself into.”

The producer role turned out to be a good fit for Roth, who enjoys collaborating with other directors, both in the projects he helms and those he oversees. “Filmmaking is a collaborative medium. If you don’t want to collaborate with anyone, be a painter – with directing Hostel, as much as it’s my film and I’m in control, I have great creative producers with me. Boaz Yakin had as many good ideas as Quentin Tarantino did about the script. Part of the trick as a director is that good producers always bring the best out of you and challenge you in the right ways. They don’t let you slide on anything – that’s what I could do with Daniel. If there was something where the logic didn’t quite work 100 per cent, if something was a little bit off, I could really say, ‘No, let’s get this right’. Eric Newman and Marc Abraham, the other producers did the same thing. It’s fun – I’m not there to impose my ideas, but I do have a certain amount of experience.
“I could see where he was using too much music in the editing, where he was trying to force the scare and give away the scare two scenes earlier. In the same way, Tarantino could come in and look at my cut of Hostel and in two edits take out seven minutes. ‘He’s like, you should cut here and here, and take out this seven minutes.’ I went, ‘What? No way!’ And he said just try it, and he was right. So that’s the fun of having a producer who’s also a director.”

Part of what drew Roth towards The Last Exorcism was that he saw some of his own sensibilities within the script, written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland – that is, it has the grounded and recognisable scares of Hostel or Cabin Fever. “I think that part of the fun of the movie is that it’s not found footage – it’s not Cloverfield where they found the camera, put on the tape and this is what they’re watching. It’s edited, it’s scored like a documentary, and I want people to think, ‘Who put this together and why?’ And part of the fun of it is the crew loses control of the subject matter until they themselves become the subject of the film in a way they never expected.