DOWN FOR CLOWN: ELI ROTH TALKS HIS LATEST PRODUCTION, CLOWN
It's just after midnight, I'm tied to a chair in Eli Roth's basement, and I'm about to die. Had I listened to my friends, I might not be in this situation. They'd heard the rumors and were more than eager to share them with me in hushed whispers over our free-trade soy lattes and organic quinoa wraps: That he was a woman-hating blood-freak, a mindless gorehound so wrapped up in his own lust for violence that I'd be lucky to escape his abode with my limbs intact and none of me consumed. After all, what other sort of mind could produce Hostel, Cabin Fever, and The Green Inferno? Hands trembling, a single tear rolling down her cheek, Starshine removed a jade pendant from around her neck and placed it in my hand. “It’s energy will protect you,” she whispered softly before kissing me on the cheek and running off sobbing. Darius hung his head. “You don’t have to do this,” he told me. “Just run. Just run the other way.”
Yet, as a journalist, I felt it my duty to keep the appointment. To walk into the lion’s den. To fear no evil. Jade pendant around my neck, tape recorder in hand, I walked up the winding pathway towards Roth’s Malibu gothic mansion and used the dragon’s head door knocker. I was surprised when a sweaty, twitching man in overalls answered the door, assuring me in a raspy whisper that he was Mr. Roth’s assistant and would guide me to the antechamber, where we would partake of absinthe and I could conduct my interview. Assured that things were progressing well, I was walking down the long, black corridor towards a room with an iron maiden when I felt something strike me from behind…
Now here I am, my hands in diamond knots, as a masked and musclebound figure slowly advances on me with some sort of gardening implement, my last vision of the world some moldy and bloodstained ceiling, the same sad and desperate visage that's probably escorted so many other poor souls off the mortal coil.
This is all bullshit, of course.
What isn't bullshit is that Eli Roth is perhaps the most maligned, misunderstood, and underappreciated horror filmmaker of his generation. His movies are only 'misogynistic torture porn' if assessed with the shallowest and pedantic of interpretations. Any deeper reading of his body of work reveals films that are startlingly different from the popular stereotype: Roth's movies are thoughtful and deep, possessing a mordant wit that undercuts contemporary social issues with a bitingly misanthropic worldview worthy of Jonathan Swift with a chainsaw. Look past the hate-baiting critics and professional reactionaries, and you'll find films that are intelligent, socially aware, and, yes, even feminist.
In addition to Roth's directorial efforts, he's also slowly making a name for himself as a sort of modern-day Roger Corman, finding and developing new genre talent through his production of a number of films over the past several years., Roth's latest production, Clown (out June 17th in limited theatrical release) pays homage to Scandinavian fairy tales with the story of Kent McCoy (Andy Powers), a doting dad who unknowingly dons a demonic clown costume to perform at his son's birthday party. Once he's put the suit on, though, it proves impossible to remove, and McCoy finds himself possessed by an ancient demon with a thirst for children's blood. As McCoy slowly loses his mind, his wife Meg (Laura Allen) partners with Herbert Karlsson (Peter Stormare), the brother of the suit's last victim, in an effort to free her husband.
Roth's demeanor betrays the intelligence of his films: Articulate and thoughtful, he sounds more suited to the politician's podium than the director's chair… but for all the talk of clown demons. We talked Clown, in addition to Roth's other endeavors in and out of horror-- and I most certainly did not end up tied to any chair.
Preston Fassel: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me this afternoon.
Eli Roth: My pleasure. I’m always happy to talk Clown.
PF: Let’s talk Clown then. How did you get involved with the project?
ER: Clown first started six years ago around Halloween, when this fake trailer appeared online for a movie called Clown. It looked like a real movie. It was cut to look like the Hostel trailer, and it said I directed it. This was pre-social media, so you couldn’t really dispel a myth that quickly, and everyone started calling me and emailing me and going, “Your new movie looks amazing!” And it was fake! And the trailer went viral and everyone was talking about my new movie. So I tracked down the creator, John Watts, and I called him and told him how much I loved it. And he said “Thank you for not suing me.” And I said, “This is Hollywood, John. Let’s wait until we make money, and then we can talk about suing each other. There’s no point now.” Then I asked him, “Have you ever actually thought about doing this as a real movie?” And he said, “Yeah, my co-writer and I, Chris Fort, we’ve joked about this for years, it’s our pet movie. But we thought this would be sort of a backhanded way to get your attention.” So I said, “You got it. Let’s turn it into a film.” And we spent about a year working on the script, and a terrific company named Vertebra Films financed it—they also financed Aftershock—and I said, if we can do this movie on a low budget, for around a million dollars, then I can get you the money and give you total control, and let’s go make a new classic.
PF: What was it about the story that appealed to you?
ER: We worked really hard on creating a real mythology. We said, whatever this demon is, we need to know the rules, they have to be air tight, and we can’t break them. And John and Chris came up with this fantastic mythology that clown comes from “cloyne” and it has to eat five children, each one for the months of winter, and whoever puts it on can’t take it off unless you eat children. And we knew it was going to polarize audiences, not being the most popular choice, bit it felt very true to the mythology of fairy tales. We looked at Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Hansel and Gretel, where children are baked alive and eaten by witches, and it felt very much in line with those mythologies. And also there’s something very terrifying about an evil clown and a child that isn’t as scary as an evil clown and an adult. Sometimes children are so trusting of clowns, and clowns make us laugh, and we love clowns. But clowns can also be John Wayne Gacy, if you meet the wrong clown. And now there’s the whole Juggalo subculture of clowns. Clowns have taken on a whole new life. People are dressing up as clowns and hanging out at gas stations in Portland! So we really wanted to have something original, create a new monster. But if you look at John’s music videos and commercials, he’s so incredibly imaginative, and Chris is so smart, I just knew they were gonna do something special. And now John is directing Spider Man!
PF: A lot of critics and audiences—and maybe they’re reading too much into it—have interpreted the movie as an allegory for a self-loathing pedophile’s struggles with his condition, and ultimately giving in to those desires. Was that something any of you considered during the writing process, or is that just a case of people seeing what they want to see in a work of art?
ER: When we wrote the movie, the film that was the biggest influence for John was David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and that transformation of Seth Brundle where you’re watching him disintegrate, and you love him, and you feel terrible for him, but eventually Geena Davis becomes the main character. That’s the journey that Clown takes. We’re really lucky to have Andy Powers, who gives such an incredible performance. He’s so sympathetic. You just know this is a guy who really loves his kid, and all of this stuff stems from someone just wanting to do the right thing for their child. That’s what makes it so painful. So we really tried to keep it grounded and think through every possibility of what you would do if this happened to you. What step would you take? What would an encounter at the hospital be like, what would happen when you go to work? Would you put makeup over the clown makeup? What would happen when your feet start to grow? I allowed [John and Chris] to go as dark as they wanted, and they have such fantastic imaginations. The whole thing was to keep it a very real, grounded movie. In essence, it’s a drama about a man who’s turning into a monster, and no matter how hard he fights it, the monster’s taking over.
PF: You’re becoming almost as well-known as a producer of other people’s horror films and a discoverer of new talent as you are a writer/director. Is there one role you prefer over the other?
ER: Yeah, directing. This is one of a number of projects I started a couple of years ago that are now finishing up and getting released… I love producing, and it’s great when… There’s a writer—Damien Chazelle who wrote The Last Exorcism 2, and he used that money to make the short film of Whiplash… Or finding Daniel Stamm for Last Exorcism… and Ana de Armas from Knock Knock is on Blade Runner, my wife Lorenza is now on AMC’s Feed the Beast… It’s great when you can help people out at a certain point in their career and watch them, and you know their talent, and they go on to do amazing things. That said, I really now am trying to focus more on directing and doing bigger movies, which move at a much slower pace than a lower-budget, independent horror film. They take longer to put together. I love producing, but really my passion is directing… and Shark Week.
PF: (moronic laughter)
ER: Shark Week. Shark After Dark. (pause) Which I’m hosting. June 26th. I just went diving with sharks for the Discovery Channel and it was truly life changing.
PF: Oh, wow. Great whites, what sort?
ER: I met two tiger sharks that were breathtaking… But I dove with blacktip sharks, silvertip sharks, Gray Reef sharks, lemon sharks, and then the tiger shark.
ER: And stingrays. (pause) And I met a manta ray.
PF: You said that you got on board with Clown due to the fake trailer, but, that’s a pretty unique circumstance. What attracts you to most of the other films you produce? Is there a common thread?
ER: Anytime you’re making a movie, that’s a movie you want to see. Whether it’s The Last Exorcism or The Man with the Iron Fist, you just want to make that movie. When we cast Dave Batista, everyone said, “But he’s a wrestler!” But we knew he’d be amazing. And then he went on to do Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s great when you find someone like you who has that same passion, that same fire, and you can help give them a leg up. And you do it. It’s paying it forward. Sometimes the movies are huge hits and sometimes, like The Sacrament—which is a great movie—it takes time to find an audience. You can’t control the outcome. All you can do is go out and make the best movie you can. So ultimately all I do is go out and help make movies I want to exist in the world.
PF: Anything you’d like to add?