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This year, audiences awaiting the return of Eli Roth find
an embarrassment of riches. On the directorial end, there’s both werewolf-in-a-steel town Netflix
original series HEMLOCK GROVE and his Amazonian cannibal odyssey, THE GREEN
INFERNO. The sometimes actor scripted and stars in Nicolas Lopez’s Chilean
earthquake picture AFTERSHOCK and most relevantly, has lent a guiding hand to
emerging talent, producing Ti West’s upcoming THE SACRAMENT and the sequel to one
of the more undervalued of recent American genre films, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II (out March 1st). It’s this tale of Southern
gothic that has Fango speaking to Roth about his own investment in continuing Nell Sweetzer's story, how audiences approach found footage, that which he's never seen before in a possession film and what his producing legacy aims to be.
FANGORIA: When did you feel continuing this story was right?
ELI ROTH: Obviously, when we came up with the title THE LAST
EXORCISM, we weren’t thinking about a sequel. The first one had a very dark
ending and was somewhat open-ended, which is what we liked about it. One of the
fun things about low budget filmmaking is that you can be much more unconventional
with your ending, you don’t have to satisfy the audience the way you do with a
big, Hollywood movie. We liked the ending—it certainly split audiences—but it had
everyone talking and thinking about it and discussing the movie and even
rewatching it, trying to figure out exactly what happened. When the film opened
at 20 million dollars, it was a wonderful surprise for us. It’s very difficult
to get any movie to do that, let alone an indie horror movie. When it opened at
that, the first thing we immediately started thinking was, “How are we going to
get to a sequel?” We said, “Alright, the
biggest problem we’re going to have is: What’s the title of the next movie?” We
certainly didn’t break any new ground with THE LAST EXORCISM PART II.
[Producer] Eric Newman and I were talking about story ideas and once we
decided to not go into documentary, it really freed us up creatively. We wanted
to be able to continue the story in a way that acknowledges the existence—we
wanted to create a film world where the first movie exists. The first movie isn’t
found footage, it’s a documentary that somebody has put together. It’s not like
someone found the videotape and popped it in. Somebody edited the movie and
scored it. So, we still like the idea that it was edited, but was it edited
together by Cotton? Was it the cult? Who put this thing together? And we like
it existing as a video that’s floating out there on the internet. It could be
this viral video that someone created, so even when people meet Nell, they know
her as the star of this video, but they still think it’s some kind of hoax.
They think it’s a cool video, which is I think what would happen. When crazy
videos get out online, people meet the people in real life and the first
question is, “Was that real?”
We also loved the idea of a creature being in love with a
girl. What would happen with something still inside of you, trying to possess
you and didn’t want to willfully take you, but wanted you to love it, wanted
you to embrace it? What would happen if you slowly came to that place? We also
wanted to write a showcase for Ashley Bell. Ashley is such a find and such a
superb actress and such a wonderful person. We wanted to write a piece that was
really tailored to her acting abilities. The first one was all about Patrick
Fabian and the character of Cotton Marcus. We really wanted to make this one
about Nell and explore the entire story from her point-of-view.
FANG: That idea of the first existing as a film is an interesting
turn. Most audiences have come to accept scoring and “keep filming” simply
because they know it’s a movie.
ROTH: Exactly. That was a big decision we made, creatively,
on the first one—to not try and pretend it was a real documentary. You have to
treat the audience as intelligent and say, “Okay, we all know it’s fake but to
enjoy the story, we’re going to accept this as a real documentary and that this
really exists.” People are fine to do that, they just want a good story. Every movie is that. THE AVENGERS is that. We
all know it’s fake, but let’s enjoy the story.
Once we just said, “Yes this is a movie, yes we directed it, yes this
person is fake, but we’ve created a documentary and it’s a terrific format for horror.”
We wanted to be able to acknowledge it and be able to embrace it, and
incorporate into the movie in a real diegetic way that made sense. Once we
cracked the idea that the movie, what everybody watched, that was released as
THE LAST EXORCISM exists in the world of the sequel as a viral video that
people have seen, you get a moment where the tourist stops her and recognizes
her and are completely star struck and want to take photos with her. She doesn’t
really remember what happened to her, but to her the video’s not a joke at all.
FANG: In the first, Nell seemed alone in that no one truly
understood her affliction. It seems this time around, that’s just amplified.
ROTH: That’s exactly
the entity’s point, “I’m the only one who understands you, and everyone turns
their back on you. Look at all these other people, you can’t trust any of them.”
It pushes everyone to this point of turning on her one way or the other. We like
that idea. I’ve never seen that angle before in a possession or an exorcism
movie. In a possession movie, someone gets possessed and they try to get it
out. We’ve had that experience, but what if you actually started to embrace the
thing that lives inside you and realize that you could do terrible things with
it. But, then you would do it to the people that were horrible to you. It
seemed like a really fun area to explore and with an actress of Ashley’s caliber,
you could really go into that territory.
FANG: So the decision to be more of a classical narrative
was already in place before director Ed Gass-Donnelly was brought on?
ROTH: Yeah, we had the script and then we brought on Ed and
Ed did his draft with Damien Chazzelle. Ed is just a fantastic director. We had
the idea and the tone of the movie in mind. We were looking at directors and
talking to different people and I think what made the first one work with
Daniel—by the way, Daniel Stamm is an amazing director—was the fact that he
approached it like a Lars Von Trier movie. You can certainly feel my influence
in there, but as far as the creepy, uncomfortable moments and the docu-style,
he really went for that. And he’s European, so he really went for the feel of
European art-house film, which I think people really didn’t expect; the film
had a real tasteful elegance to it.
So, we wanted to continue that with a different aesthetic
and treat it as a traditional narrative. I was so impressed with Ed
Gass-Donnelly’s film SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS. For us, the test is what can
someone do on no money. We need people that are going to be very clever and that
are going to make it look big and scary, that the movie will look beautiful and
elegant and be well crafted, but they aren’t going to need a lot of money to do
it. Some of that really goes to performance. Ed comes from the theater world,
his family’s in theater. We wanted someone that was really going to go for
performance, because if the acting didn’t work, we knew the movie wasn’t going
to work. He did a magnificent job. He really tried to go for the Polasnki end
of the spectrum.
FANG: What’s the line you draw for yourself when producing
and understanding both being a guiding hand and someone with a creative
interest and letting a director do their thing?
ROTH: You have to be a good, strong, supportive producer. I
was prepping HEMLOCK GROVE. Ed’s a director, he doesn’t need me on set. And
there’s a certain intimacy. What’s going to make the movie work is the intimacy
between Ashley and the director. That first movie was them in the farmhouse. There
were a lot of quiet, creepy, close scenes.
Sometimes, I feel like your presence can actually be a
hindrance, because you don’t want to put the actors or the director to feel
like there’s two directors on set. To support him as a producer, I’m really there
with him in the prep, the script development and casting and other ideas, but I
was watching all the dailies, talking to him as he was shooting. I thought
everything looked amazing. I could be most helpful in the editing room and that’s
where, when I was shooting HEMLOCK GROVE, we were both in Toronto. So, I could
really go into the editing room and help him when he needed to make it scarier
and certain things to tighten up. I could be there as a sounding board. I want
to be there to creatively support him and be his sounding board, but also stay
away and when I feel I really need to step in, or there’s a dispute amongst the
producers, that’s where I can. Ed and I really respect each other and we trust
each other, so I’m never going to force an opinion on him, but if I strongly
about something, he listens.
FANG: You seem focused, as a producer, on showcasing new
talent to a larger level of audience. Is
that part of the reason Daniel Stamm didn’t return; an attempt to introduce
ROTH: Well Daniel, at the time, was on a movie that M. Night
Shyamalan was producing. And then he was on another film for Dimension, so he
was busy developing those two. I knew that Daniel loves THE LAST EXORCISM, but
right after he got a much bigger movie, which was great. You want to be the one
that helped bring him to the attention of larger audiences and watch other
people catch on, but Daniel was already on to other projects and there’s other
people out there that either have done a film that was great and hasn’t gotten mainstream
attention that were really hungry for a job like this.
FANG: You’re doing such with Ti West, who’s certainly now
well known independents-wise, but THE SACRAMENT seems primed for a bigger
ROTH: Yeah, that’s the idea. The distribution world is
changing so fast, with all these movies. We’re very lucky. With LAST EXORCISM
and CBS Films has been fantastic giving it a huge release, which it deserves.
But now, even the indie world, with that Richard Gere movie, people are doing
VOD and limited releases. For me, I just want to work with filmmakers I like
and make movies that I think are great. I want to make a movie that people
watch five years from now.
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