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Eli Roth’s 2002 film Cabin Fever announced him as the rare horror director conversant with the genre’s past, but eager to push it into the future. Roth followed his low-budget debut with 2005’s Hostel and 2007’s Hostel: Part II, two films so graphic that the gore tended to attract all the attention, overshadowing the filmmaking craft and political barbs beneath the blood. Since giving himself a funny part in Cabin Fever, Roth hasn’t been afraid to appear onscreen, either in his own films or in those by his friend Quentin Tarantino. He had a sizable supporting role in Tarantino’s Grindhouse segment Death Proof—for which Roth also provided a trailer for the faux-film Thanksgiving—and he takes an even bigger part in the new Inglourious Basterds, as Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, a Jewish-American soldier famed for beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat. Roth also directed Basterds’ film-within-a-film Nation’s Pride, an eerily accurate recreation of a Nazi propaganda film that plays a key role in the movie. Roth recently spoke to The A.V. Club about political messages in film, pretending to be a killer, and the Hannah Montana/Inglourious Basterds connection.
The A.V. Club: You’ve put killers onscreen plenty of times. This is the first time you’ve played one. How do you get in the mind of The Bear Jew?
Eli Roth: Well, it was very difficult. The first thing I did was… You know, I’m from Boston, and in Boston, you are born with a baseball bat in your hand. And actually, most of the bats in Massachusetts are used off the field instead of on the field, and we all had baseball bats in our cars in high school, so it was easy to think of those guys, and using a bat that way came very natural to me. But you know… When I’m filming a kill scene [as a director], I just get happier and happier as we chop up body parts. Like when we cut the eye out and the eye goo runs perfectly, I’m so happy, because I know the movie’s going to work. Because I know that those are the scenes people are… In Hostel, those are the scenes people are paying to see, so it’s like once you’ve got those scenes filmed and shot, you just breathe easier, because the whole movie is building up to those moments.
Well, when I was filming the death scene [in Inglourious Basterds], and I’m killing somebody, I had to work myself up. First I put on 40 pounds of muscle for the part, because I wanted to look physically imposing. I never really considered the onscreen cameos I’d done before—none of that was really acting. This is the first time. I knew how to act and had studied acting and enjoyed it, but I’d never pushed myself to really perform as an actor, and create a role, and have the whole character’s backstory. But I knew that no matter what I did, no matter how much muscle I put on, what would really sell it was the look in this guy’s eyes. You had to look at his face and in his eyes and feel that violence and this pure, murderous rage, that he wants to beat every Nazi to death, and he has to look like a killer. And in order to do that, you have to really, really work yourself up into such a state that you feel like you’re capable of doing that, and you have to dredge up the most painful memories of your life, and the most horribly upsetting things, and bring them to the surface as if it happened 10 minutes ago.
You have to keep yourself in that state, and there are certain tricks you can do to do that, one of which is playing music, but I was back there in that cave… We shot for six days, we shot the whole sequence, but for three or four of those days, I was just back there, just hitting a punching bag and doing pull-ups and working myself up into this frenzy, thinking about those painful experiences in my life. And on the fifth day, I finally came out and just walloped the guy, just let him have it, but I had no idea how exhausting it was, doing that. Because at the end of the day, even though you know the scene you’re shooting is pretend, the stuff you’re thinking of is very real. And after you’re done shooting, you just want to crawl into a hole and die, you feel so terrible. So when it was over with, I was finally happy, but each day, I’d wake up knowing I had to push myself.
Imagine trying to relive your worst break-up, your worst fight, the most painful death of a loved one, and just really relive it step by step, and bring it up and apply it to the scene you’re in. I was listening to music to kind of pump myself up and get psyched up, like I was listening to Iron Maiden and Misfits and Dead Kennedys, and it was like my ‘80s Massachusetts parking-lot heavy metal and Guns N’ Roses. And then my girlfriend, as a joke, put Hannah Montana on my iPod mix, and she was in California, and I knew I wasn’t going to see her for six months. We were basically split up. And I just started getting really, really upset. And at first I was laughing, I was like, “What is this? Oh my God.” I couldn’t believe she’d done that. And then I really started missing her, and really started thinking about, “Well, God, what if…” Then I was, like, kind of dancing around to the music, thinking, “Oh my God, am I actually getting into this?” And then what if Brad Pitt caught me listening to Hannah Montana? It’d be like, “What the hell are you doing back there?” And then what if Quentin knew I was listening to Hannah Montana? How would I explain that away? And I just went psycho. And that was the song that would take me to my psycho place.
So when I was beating the guy, I started thinking, “What if I was Hannah Montana?” And Quentin’s like, “Eli, you ready?” I’m like, “Oh yeah. Yes, yes sir.” [Laughs.] And little do they know that that’s why I look so insane, is I’m torturing myself with thoughts of, “How could I actually pull off being a high-school student and a pop star at night as Hannah Montana?”
AVC: It’s a tough life.
ER: Yeah, it’s a very tough life. But these are the things you’re considering. But it’s the strangest things. You think you’d be thinking about, “Oh, I have to kill this guy, I’m Jewish, all the people died in the Holocaust,” and you certainly are, but somehow it’s like, you’re thinking about that girl you miss, and what if you never saw her again, and what if she died, and you just go crazy.
AVC: The character clearly takes pleasure in killing. What makes him different from a Hostel customer?
ER: He’s not taking pleasure in killing. He’s fighting evil on behalf of those who can’t fight. He knows he’s the biggest and strongest one in the bunch, and he wants to terrorize them. But he’s doing it to stop evil. He doesn’t enjoy the fact that he has to do this. He wants to do it, and he wants to stop them, but he’s not someone who would do that to anyone other than the Nazis. He’s not a bully. He’s a good guy, and he’s been pushed to this, war has turned him into this animal. Because he can’t take it that all these Jews are being murdered, and no one’s doing anything about it. It took a long time for the U.S. to get involved in the war, and it drove him crazy that Jews were being exterminated, and no one was fighting it. And it was all over Europe, and he wants to go there and beat every Nazi to death.
That’s why he gets to be… We shot scenes of him in Boston cutting hair, he’s a barber, talking about how he doesn’t want to go to the Philippines and fight the Japanese. He wants to go to Germany and kill the Nazis. And he buys this bat, and he gets every Jew in his neighborhood to sign it with the name of someone they’re worried about, and he’s fighting on their behalf. He’s fighting on behalf of the little old ladies who can’t get over there and fight. So he feels this burden, he feels like he’s this Jewish warrior fighting on behalf of those who can’t fight, and fighting for those who were killed. But he’s a Boston guy, so he certainly knows how to fight, and he’s like an animal, and he wants to make it as violent and painful as possible, not just to entertain the troops, but also to terrorize. He wants to strike fear in the hearts of the Nazis, and it gets all the way back to Hitler. And it was funny, because Quentin said, “Hitler’s going to be ranting, and you’re going to expect this huge 400-pound guy to come out, and then it’s Eli.” And I said, “So are you using me to illustrate how effective the Basterds are at psychological warfare?” And he said, “Yes, exactly.”
AVC: You directed Nation’s Pride, right?
ER: Yes. I told Quentin, “Look, dude, if I’m going to be there for six months, there are entire storylines that don’t involve me, I want to help you make Cannes. If you need stuff shot, just give me a camera. I’ll do it free and uncredited.” And he said, “Let me think about that, because I’ve never done that before.” And like a week later, he called me, said, “Get your ass on a plane. You’re going to Berlin. You’re shooting Nation’s Pride. I need you here right now.” And so I knew, after having done the Grindhouse trailer, that I could make it look like a feature in two days. He said, “Maybe I’ll give you three days and eight soldiers.” I said, “Give me two days and a second camera and fly my brother Gabriel out here, and he’ll be my second-unit director, and I will give you a battle sequence.” And in two days, I got him 140 camera setups.
He told me he had three written in the script, and thought maybe I’d hit eight or 10. He said, “I just need a few shots of guys firing.” I threw people off buildings, threw them down the stairs, all the shots of the swastikas. I said, “I’m going to give you a real propaganda movie.” And that was my thank-you to Quentin for giving me this incredible opportunity. I wanted to create another character for him that was like a character in the scene, and he was so happy, he gave me a third day in the tower with Daniel Brühl. He was just like, “I can’t even deal with this, you’re doing such a magnificent job, this is all yours.” And I edited the film while he was shooting the tavern sequence, and by Christmas, I had a five-and-a-half-minute battle film with 200 shots for him.
He had Nation’s Pride in his head. There were three shots that he did, but the other 197 shots were done by me. And he said, “Now I can visualize and choreograph where each moment’s going to happen.” And he watched it over and over and said, “Okay, when Marcel locks the door, that’s when he’s carving the swastika, and he walks around here…” The whole thing’s going to be on the DVD. But it was the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything, doing both of those at once. It was just draining.
AVC: It could pass for something from the era. What did you study when you were making it?
ER: Well, we watched Nazi propaganda films so Quentin would know, he was like, “You guys gotta know what you’re up against,” and then showed films like The Eternal Jew and other movies. And I’d seen the Leni Riefenstahl films, but it was a combination. I wanted it to look like the Riefenstahl films, I also wanted… even though it wasn’t quite accurate to the period, we did a little Battleship Potemkin with the baby carriage in slow motion, an American uses a baby as a shield. And then I love that scene in Dr. Strangelove where Sterling Hayden is in his office on the army base and the army guys are shooting at him, there’s some of that handheld camera work. And because of the 1:33 aspect ratio, it made me think of some of the Kirk Douglas shots in Paths Of Glory, so I didn’t necessarily take everything from the Nazi propaganda films, but the style of acting, for sure, I did, and the things that happen within the story are right out of those movies.
AVC: What did your background in horror allow you to bring to making that movie?
ER: Quentin knew I wasn’t going to hold back, and I’m never going to play it safe. And then I didn’t want to make a politically correct propaganda film. This is about the glory of the swastika. And it was perfect that he had the Jewish guy do it, because I knew that the more authentic the movie was, the more ridiculous it would make Hitler and Goebbels look. So I was saying, “More swastikas, more swastikas.”
He knows I am… Look, there’s nothing worse that can be said about me that wasn’t already said after all three of my films. I’ve been called every name in the book. And people said, “How could you do this? It’s so offensive.” I always saw film as art—I never saw it as real violence, just representations of violence. My mother’s a painter, she’s an artist, so it’s not real to me. And I think it’s like that for most people. But Quentin knew I wasn’t going to play it safe and that I was going to push it as far as I could, and that I wasn’t afraid… I was saying, “More swastikas, more swastikas,” and the Germans would say, “How can you do this? Do you know how illegal this is?” I said, “Come on. Not only does this have to hang with Inglourious Basterds, this has to impress the Führer. Hitler’s going to see it. More swastikas.” And he knew that I would push the crew and that I would push it right up to the edge, where I wasn’t being gratuitous, I was not afraid to make something that was authentic to the period, because I knew that it was only going to be seen in context as a character in a scene.
However, that said, the first time we showed it to the audience with 300 extras, when they started screaming “Heil Hitler” and “Kill the Jews,” my stomach turned. I know they were in character and we were filming a scene from a movie, but there was a moment where I looked at Quentin and I said, “What have I done?” He just kind of shrugged and went, “Yeah.” And look, I mean, we were all friends, and after a few days, we got… You know they’re acting, but I said to Quentin, “I think that this movie is going to start the Fourth Reich, and the Nazi party’s going to make me their Sarah Palin.” You never think you’re going to… Why would you ever make a movie like that? But then I thought, “You know what? I would have been a great Nazi propaganda filmmaker.”
AVC: What a horrible realization.
ER: It’s a sad… And by the way, Quentin told me there were Jews that they made [participate in filmmaking], and after those were finished, they killed them and everyone on the crew. Quentin has a movie, he said, called “Hitler Builds A Town For The Jews,” and Jews were there to film it, with all this food to show how great the Jews were being treated. And they used these prisoners, and of course they weren’t allowed to touch the food, and after the movie was finished, all of them were killed. So, you know, we joked about that, but it was actually sick and true.
AVC: When you make a propaganda film, you have a message you’re trying to get across. Did it make you think about how your own films send messages?
ER: Oh, there’s always a political agenda underneath the surface there. But I don’t want people to feel like they’re forced to get a message. I want people to be entertained. And I think the best films, the best works of art, are ones that capture your imagination and slowly lead you in. The ones I hate are films like Atonement, which I find so boring and preachy, or Michael Clayton, I couldn’t stand. I just thought it was like, suddenly the police in New Jersey don’t need bodies when someone’s dead in a car? Oh, really? There’s no body necessary to make them think someone’s dead? And people use devices from first grade, like, “I have a hidden tape recorder, and I just recorded everything you said.” Movies like that, that are so forcing the message down your throat, I can’t stand.
I like movies like Mother’s Day, where you watch it, and you’ve liked it for years as a horror movie, then Guillermo del Toro and I get in a long discussion about the political subtext, about the mass commercialization, and how this is the overflow of pop culture, this is the sewer. All the waste of all the stuff from television, that’s kind of the sewer, is overflowing, and that’s who these characters are. And then you watch it again, and it holds up under that theory. And Dawn Of The Dead is about how we’re just a country cannibalizing itself, turning into one shopping mall, and everyone at the mall is just brain-dead, wandering around. And then talk to these filmmakers, that’s exactly how they felt.
With Hostel, what’s happened now is, I’m getting sent research papers from all over the world. Professors are teaching it, and people are writing theses based on those films, talking about the Iraq War, and Americans going into foreign countries and taking over, and capitalism gone awry, and the worst parts of human nature coming out. All these different things that people read into the films that are all there, very strong anti-Bush sentiments that went into making those films. It’s great. I like it when people get it the second or third time, when someone else points it out to them. They don’t realize it’s been there all along. Those are my favorite movies.