‘Thanksgiving’ Director Eli Roth on Creative Kills and His Surprisingly Chummy Relationship With the Ratings Board

Eli Roth is back. And he’s here for “Thanksgiving.”

For the past decade, Roth has nimbly moved through different genres – erotic thriller (“Knock Knock”), revenge movie (“Death Wish”), family fantasy (“The House with a Clock in Its Walls”), nature documentary (“Fin”) and big budget video game adaptation (next year’s “Borderlands”). But now he’s back with a down-and-dirty horror movie, this time centered around one of the happiest time of year.

In “Thanksgiving,” adapted from a fake trailer that Roth had made for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” project, a superstore’s super sale leads to tragedy. A year later a masked man in a pilgrim costume, known as John Carver, starts taking out the townspeople involved in the tragedy, one by one. And, yes, the kills are just as creative and stomach-churning as you’d expect from the man behind “Hostel,” “Cabin Fever” and “The Green Inferno.”

TheWrap spoke to Roth about what it was like resurrecting his fake trailer concept for an actual movie, what films he made the cast and crew watch to prepare, his relationship with the ratings board and whether or not he’s already thinking about the sequel.

Why do “Thanksgiving” now?

Well, obviously I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, where in Massachusetts, Thanksgiving was the biggest deal. It’s the biggest holiday –there’s two different Pilgrim recreation villages. You do school plays about it. There’s the Thanksgiving parade. And every year Jeff Randell, my best friend, and I were just waiting for that Thanksgiving slasher film because every other holiday had a horror movie.

It was “Black Christmas,” “Halloween,” “My Bloody Valentine,” “April Fool’s Day,” “Mother’s Day,” “Father’s Day” in “Creepshow,” “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” But it was just this void in November. And to us it was the most obvious one. We were thinking of all these ideas of what “Thanksgiving” the horror movie would be, and all the different ways you could kill people – roasting a human turkey and someone dressed as a turkey in the parade get their head chopped off and run around like a turkey with their head chopped off. All of the different things.

And so when “Grindhouse” came, Quentin and Robert asked if I wanted to do a fake trailer. We had all the kills ready and it turned out exactly what we wanted. It was so fun and so satisfying. We thought, Well, we’re good. We don’t need to make the movie.

But then over the years, the fans would keep bothering me and it completely worked, their shaming and badgering me and reposting the trailer, but we just didn’t have the story. I didn’t know what that movie was because the trailer was a joke, it was just a bunch of scenes strung together from a fake movie from 1980.

It wasn’t until we saw those Black Friday trampling, the videos, there were tons of them. Every year you’re seeing viral videos, still seeing them of the superstores having these sales. And I thought, That’s it. That’s the beginning. Because all these movies need that inciting incident and then a certain amount of time later is people getting killed off and who is the one doing the killing? That’s what you got to figure out but it’s connected to that original incident. Once we saw that we not only had an incident, we had a theme, which is the consumerism and commercialism of Christmas bleeding over into this holiday about being thankful, that’s where I thought we have something really interesting for a horror film.

Did you ever think about setting it in the 1980s or doing any of the affectations that “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” had?

No, because that’s part of “Grindhouse.” “Grindhouse” is an experience of watching “Planet Terror,” watching the fake trailers and then watching “Death Proof.” That’s the experience. It works in the context of Grindhouse. My feeling is if you take it out of “Grindhouse,” the joke gets old after three minutes, and the intention was never to make a joke. When I saw “Mute Witness” in the cinema, I was blown away and I said, “That’s what I want to do.”

When I saw “Scream,” I said, “Oh my God, this is a reinvention of the slasher film.” That’s something I’ve always wanted to do is bring a new slasher into the slasher canon. So the intention was never to make a joke. “Grindhouse” was an opportunity and we had the time of our lives and I love it, but the intention was always to make a real slasher film, albeit a slightly ridiculous one.

What are your favorite slasher movies or the movies you think people should watch before watching “Thanksgiving?”

Well, there’s the holiday slashers like “My Bloody Valentine,” which is a great one. “Mute Witness” is a very overlooked slasher film that’s really, really fantastic. “Sleepaway Camp” is one of my favorite slasher movies with one of the best endings ever in a movie. Juan Piquer Simón’s “Pieces” from 1982. It’s like pure garbage junk food. It is like a sugar rush of a horror movie.

And Joseph Zito’s “The Prowler.” I love “The Prowler.” Also “Happy Birthday to Me.” “Happy Birthday to Me” was a big influence on “Thanksgiving.” And if you want to watch a non-slasher that’s a Massachusetts set vibe horror film, watch Fulci’s “House by the Cemetery.”

There’s other movies though.

For the diner, I showed Milan Chadima, our cinematographer, we watched “Five Easy Pieces.” I wanted it to look like the diner in “Five Easy Pieces.” We watched “Diva,” the Beineix French film. Every minor character. There’s no minor characters in that movie. Every character is so cool and so interesting. It’s such a fantastic universe. I think it’s the beginning of modern cinema. I think “Diva” is a masterpiece. We watched “Toby Dammit” by Fellini, this acid trip of a horror film that he made that’s on Criterion finally. It’s such a beautiful, surreal, trippy film.

I had the cast, they said, “What moves should I watch?” I had the actors watch “Sorcerer.” I wanted them to have a frame of reference for what you can put yourself through. The girls, I had them all watch “Betty Blue.” I said, Béatrice Dalle was 21 when she made that movie. What’s your excuse?” That’s what I’m looking for. You’re 22 and this is what she was doing at 21. So those movies kind of break their brains open in a different direction.

And I had Nell Verlaque, our lead, watch “Mute Witness.” I go, “Look at this incredible Russian actor’s performance. She’s amazing. The whole movie’s in her eyes and you can tell what she’s thinking. And she’s so smart and she’s always a step of the head of the killers and then they’re a step ahead of her. It’s this incredible cat and mouse in the first 45 minutes of that film.” These are the movies that I was like, I have a very high bar for these films, and if I’m going to throw my hat in the ring, it better damn well be a classic.

Did you have a checklist of things you wanted to do in this movie?

Of course.

Were there also things that you wanted to stay away from?

Yeah, I mean, look, I wanted to start with a POV shot of a house and the identifying title of where you are and what the date is. I love that. I said, “I want the audience to know we’re in a slasher movie. This is the language of a slasher film.”

But starting with “Halloween,” starting with “Black Christmas,” starting with that opening shot of De Palma’s “Blow Out” when he’s doing a fake one of these movies. “The Prowler,” the way they start with a title, even “Pieces,” it’s a locked off shot, but it says the location and the year. “Prom Night,” all of these films. I wanted the POV shot of the slasher movie of the house.

I wanted to do a gag with a mirror that I hadn’t seen done before. And I wanted kind of set up and twist where you think you’re going to kill one way and we kill someone a completely other way. I wanted the jump scares. I wanted the final girl running through the hall. I wanted the teenage girl alone in her house going, “Dad, dad,” slowly walking out so you know something’s going to jump out and you’re waiting for it. Having fun with all the cliches, but really the language of a slasher movie, saying that this is the vocabulary of this type of horror film and we’re going to do it great, but now we’re going to add something new to it.

What was your favorite gore gag?

They’re practical. We had Adrian Moreau and Kathy C. Adrian and Kathy are incredible. They’re an amazing, amazing couple and I love them and they care so much about making sure the gore is great. And Steve Newburn also worked with us out of Toronto, who is really fantastic.

But the way they make those heads and those body parts. They’re so real to the naked eye, you can’t believe it. Whenever you’re doing a big gag with blood and tubes, I get so nervous about pulling it off because if it doesn’t come out right, you can’t do it again. It’s a six-hour reset to clean up all that blood. But we went for it, practically, and some of them are very elaborate and require puppeteering and Soho effects would help us with little paint outs and painting out wires and comping in a car or things like that or sign extensions. But we tried to do all the kills practical.

A little cheap one, the corn holder in the ear, I just reversed the footage. It’s something I would’ve done when I was 10 years old. I thought, “Well, how can he jam it in her ear?” I said, “Well, what if we do it in reverse?” But then Jenna Warren, the actress, she has to act in reverse. If she’s shocked and then it goes in her ear and she screams, she has to go to shock. It’s like going from a scream face to a shock face while the corn gets pulled out and the crew is looking at you because we’re going into overtime and I’m not getting it, and I’m adjusting the killer’s gloves because the way he’s got to hold the corn, it’s not right to see the smiley face. And everyone’s looking at me going, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “Trust me, it’s going to work. It’s going to work. It’s going to work.” Finally, by the seventh time we shot it and then we played it in reverse and everybody jumped and I was like, “Okay, we got the corn in the ears.” But something like that is so low tech, it’s so cheap and you just feel like you’re cheating. It’s the most satisfying thing in the world.

Did you have any battles with the ratings board?

No. I love the MPA. I have a great relationship with them and they really understand what I do and I show them the movie and we have a really good discussion about what areas I go, “Okay, I want an R. Tell me what areas, where do you think I need to pull back to get it?” And they go, “Well, this area’s a little much. This area’s a little much.” I go, “Let me take a look at it.” And in two or three times we had our R, no problem.

Two or three times is something right?

Not really. That’s nothing. There’s no battles. It’s all discussions. And they’re great. It is just a sort of a matter of opinion and taste sometimes. I think it was nine or 10 times on “Hostile: Part II,” but it was never a battle. I was just going, “This is what I think.” They go, “Well, we don’t think it’s there yet.” I go, “Let me try again. What do you think?” “Not there yet.” All right, let me try again. What do you think? And then we just discuss it and I go, “Well, what do you think is making it NC 17?” And then we talk about it and we just have very reasonable, pleasant conversations.

There’s no fighting whatsoever. I think that’s the mistake filmmakers make. It’s because I’ve seen the other side of it. When you’re in England, there’s a censor board appointed by the government and they make a decision, you’re not allowed to talk to them. In New Zealand, it’s one person. And when he cuts the whole bathtub scene out of “Hostile: Part II,” there’s no discussing it. Even for an 18 rating. And they’re doing it to get elected. They’re going, “Look at me. I’m protecting society.”

And that’s why we protect the MPA because they are not the government. It is to keep the government out of our movies. They talk to you like you’re an artist and you talk to them like they’re a collaborator. And I’m thankful that we have the MPA. I’ve been to every system around the world. There is no better system than the MPA and filmmakers should be thanking their lucky stars that we have a system like that.

But there isn’t an unrated cut you’ve squirreled away for home video?

No. I mean, you can always add more gore, but it doesn’t make it better. It’s like, think of it like a Thanksgiving dinner. You have the best dinner of your life. It was so tasty. And then you get seconds, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so full.” But then there’s that one piece of pie. You just have another one and now you want to throw up.

You’ve had too much of an ingredient and you go, “I can’t even look at the food. It’s making me sick.” I don’t want that. I want people hungry all the way through dessert going, “That was so great. What’s the next course? Oh man, that was delicious. Give me another one.”

And then they come out and they go, “That was the best meal I’ve ever had.” You gave them the right balance all the way through. And that’s what I think makes the movie great. That’s what I think makes it a classic. There’s no, “Oh, it’s got to be unrated to show that there’s more violence.” I don’t think it necessarily makes it better.

But speaking of a second helping, the door is open for a sequel. I mean, that is a trope in and of itself of the slasher genres.

Of course, I would love to continue making “Thanksgiving” movies, but the truth is, it’s in the audience’s hands. We don’t know what Thanksgiving’s going to become. That’s what’s exciting about it. But a movie like this is going to come along maybe once every 10, 15 years.

You’re not going to see another new franchise like this. A horror movie is most scary when you see it first. You’ll never have that experience again. It’s like a bottle of cologne. You open it and smell it. It’s most potent when you first open it, but every time you open it loses a little of that potency. That’s a horror movie. Now, other things come to the surface. The subtext, the acting, the photography, the blood stains your eyes the first time, but the original intent, that scare, you’ll never get it again the way you get it the first time. And the circumstances matter.

If everybody goes out to the theaters and they see “Thanksgiving,” they’re going to have a memory that they will take with them for the rest of their lives. It’s like seeing a great live sporting event where I saw Kobe score 56 points one night and everyone goes, “We were there,” that night where we suddenly realized we were watching Kobe Bryant just defy gravity. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I’m a hardcore Celtics fan, and even I was on my feet cheering. It’s one of those things like when you go see the movie in the cinema, you’ll never have that experience anywhere again. And that’s what I want to give to people. And if they do it, then I’ll do more.

“Thanksgiving” is coming out in theaters and will have a special 35mm run at the recently re-opened Vista. Can you talk about the cinematic experience of horror?

It’s everything. Look, I saw a lot of films on VHS and I saw movies at the theater. There’s nothing like seeing it in the theater. When Jeff and I saw a “Silent Night, Deadly Night” when we were kids, and that headless body comes sliding down the hill with a head rolling next to it, I never screamed so loud. The audience was going absolutely insane.

We saw “Grindhouse” opening night and it brought the house down. We thought it was going to be the biggest hit in the world. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s like going to see a concert. You can’t watch a replay of it. You have to be there. And that’s what horror movies are. They are that concert that you can’t replicate that experience of seeing it with a crowd, watching people scream.

It is meant to be a collective experience. It is a hundred times scarier. It’s the most fun you can have on a date, with a group of friends. And I want to create a new tradition for families to go see a horror movie on Thanksgiving. As a kid, November 1st was the saddest day of the year because scary movies were over. It was just family movies and Christmas movies the rest of the year. And I’m Jewish so Christmas movies don’t matter to me. I had no interest. I was just waiting until January or February when the horror movies would start again.

“Thanksgiving” opens Friday exclusively in theaters.

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