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Q&A: Eli Roth on Venturing Into “THE GREEN INFERNO,” Part One

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THE GREEN INFERNO’s Eli Roth is the horror fan’s horror director. From the moment his debut feature CABIN FEVER took off, he made it clear that he wasn’t just using the genre as an easy way to draw attention to himself; he genuinely wanted to be a part of what came to be christened “The Splat Pack.”

A decade later, he is exactly that, in a big bad way. HOSTEL was one of the few true new iconic fear franchises of the 2000s; watch any documentary on screen terror made over the last 10 years, and you’ll likely see his smiling talking head digging deep for geeky trivia; and like John Carpenter and Wes Craven before him, he used his name recognition as a producer to launch films like THE LAST EXORCISM, AFTERSHOCK and THE SACRAMENT, as well as the Netflix series HEMLOCK GROVE. And yet, he went several years without helming a feature after 2007’s HOSTEL: PART II.

That directing drought came to an end with THE GREEN INFERNO, opening September 25 as the launch of a new distribution initiative by BH Tilt (a division of the ubiquitous Blumhouse Productions), Universal and High Top Releasing, after being unceremoniously dropped by Open Road Films last year. Roth, a filmmaker all too happy to separate mainstream genre audiences from their lunches, is back, and he has brought the long-lost cannibal genre with him. GREEN INFERNO (reviewed here) follows a gang of well-intentioned, but not particularly bright or politically minded, student activists to a distant jungle for a protest against deforestation. Unfortunately, the local tribes they claim to care about can’t distinguish the youths from the construction workers threatening their land, and decide to fight back by having them over for dinner.

The easiest way to start picking Roth’s brain about his flesheating flick is to delve back into his own horror-loving youth and ask about his discovery of the original Italian cannibal classics by the likes of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi. At a time when the Blu-ray of Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST can easily be purchased as a Christmas gift on-line, it’s easy to forget a time not so long ago when you had to dig deep to find the film. And it was one of the few notorious hidden horror gems that didn’t just live up to grim expectations if you could find a copy, it easily surpassed them. “The movie everyone saw as a kid was [Lenzi’s] CANNIBAL FEROX, but we didn’t know that’s what it was; it was called MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY and came in a giant VHS box,” Roth gleefully recalls. “I didn’t know about CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST until I was 19 and found a Japanese laserdisc, and thought, ‘What the hell is this movie?’ ” In other words, it was love at first sight.

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“It completely blew my mind, and I was so impressed by the film on so many levels,” Roth continues, admitting to one of the more common misconceptions of Deodato’s cult classic, which led the latter straight into the Italian court system. “I thought it was real. I mean, I knew it had to be fake…but I thought they really killed people. So of course, that started my obsession with CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. I read everything I could find about it. I got really into Deodato and saw his other films like LAST CANNIBAL WORLD [a.k.a. THE LAST SURVIVOR and JUNGLE HOLOCAUST]. I eventually met him, and thought he was a wonderful guy. He did a terrific cameo in HOSTEL: PART II, playing a cannibal.

“But if you look at his career, who he studied under and who his mentors were, it explains how HOLOCAUST turned out the way it did. He learned directing under the master of Italian neorealism, Roberto Rossellini, on ROME, OPEN CITY, which is a very violent film. And he also worked under Sergio Corbucci, who was Quentin Tarantino’s big influence on DJANGO UNCHAINED. If you look at the violence and the politics in Corbucci’s films, they’re so ahead of their time and groundbreaking. Deodato really took that Rossellini/Corbucci approach to making movies. [CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST] is the first true found-footage movie, and it was such an incredible device. It’s a masterpiece.”

That longstanding love of Deodato and his grisly legacy bubbled in Roth’s head until he eventually decided to make a cannibal movie of his own—and one just as searing, nasty, political and intelligent as its central influence. THE GREEN INFERNO is a film made by someone who understands the subtext and social significance of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST as much as its nauseatingly visceral impact. Yet the spark for Roth’s film came from a differently high-minded place. “A few years ago, I had the idea: What if cannibals got the munchies?” he laughs. “I had this idea of being trapped by cannibals, and because you’re in the Amazon you’ve got amazing weed, and you get the cannibals high, but then they get the munchies. That idea really started me writing THE GREEN INFERNO.

“There hasn’t been a cannibal movie in so long,” he adds, “but there’s a real reason to do one now because everywhere has been discovered. I got an e-mail recently that was a petition to save uncontacted tribes in Peru. Countries like that want to make a mark on the world economic market, and the way they can get rich is by selling the minerals in the ground, but the cost is disrupting the lives of these people who have been undisturbed for centuries. So this story is already happening.”

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One of the key elements in the great cannibal movies involves the Westernized protagonists coming to the undiscovered settings looking to exploit them—and in the ironic-punishment logic of so many great genre works, they end up deserving the mealtime exploitation they receive. It’s a staple not lost on Roth, and one he has given a contemporary twist. “There’s this new form of activism that I call ‘slacktivism,’ which is very lazy,” he explains. “It’s people who react to everything, just retweeting hashtags all day long. It’s not because they care about a cause—it might interest them and they might have empathy toward it—but they aren’t interested in giving up anything in their lives to help that cause. These people are very sanctimonious about tweeting celebrities claiming they’re trying to save the world, but you can’t really save the world by pushing buttons.” Sounds like just the group of people to put on an Amazonian dinner menu, doesn’t it?

With a script (co-written by frequent Chilean cohort Guillermo Amoedo) offering a contemporary spin on the subgenre in hand, Roth set out for a junglebound Peruvian location shoot on which he willingly accepted physical danger as part of the production. The guerrilla filmmaking techniques he employed on THE GREEN INFERNO were derived from one of the movie’s major influences. “If you’re going to make a movie in the Amazon, you can’t help but think of Werner Herzog,” Roth says. “Where we shot is close to where he filmed AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD. There’s a spirit of a director going off into the wild to make a movie that has been completely lost. I feel that directing has gotten very safe. People are doing it in studios in front of greenscreens, and that’s OK. You can get brilliant films that way, like GRAVITY and AVATAR, but I wanted to make a movie that felt like we had gone into distant, untouched land. I wanted to create a film that looked and felt dangerous, so that audiences would watch it and wonder how the hell these people made it.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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Phil Brown
Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).
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