Interview: Eli Roth Talks Inglourious Basterds, Going Method to Play The Bear Jew, Nazi Atrocities, and Quentin Tarantino’s Place in History
Posted on Friday, August 21st, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
The old saying goes that the greatest gift a man of considerable resources can give a friend is immortality. After basking in the intoxicating, cocksure beauty that is Inglourious Basterds, it’s clear that Quentin Tarantino has done this for his pal, the horror director Eli Roth, by casting him as Jewish-American soldier Sgt. Donny Donowitz. Proudly nicknamed The Bear Jew by his fellow Basterds, Donowitz’s preferred method of Nazi disposal involves an American baseball bat accented with the names of Jewish survivors and supporters. Minding spoilers, Donowitz is largely responsible for the most unanimous, violent act of revenge fantasy for an entire Jewish people. It’s a helluva role to have on any filmography, one sure to become storied with time; and now it’s forever on Roth’s, right above “alleged torture-porn purveyor and creator of the Hostel franchise.”
I candidly admit that, until I saw Basterds, my skepticism per Roth’s creative influence and impact on Tarantino—one of modern cinema’s most important directors—was significant. He previously appeared in Death Proof, and that film remains the sole Tarantino effort that I am not awed by. (Nor do I plan to revisit it.) But all of my worries dissipated in a flash as The Bear Jew’s extreme tendencies exploded on screen. By film’s end, I looked at Roth as the maniacal, hilarious, and occasionally madcap id of Tarantino; so surprising and original were Donowitz’s brutal war-time acts and his lighthearted attempt at going incognito. Off-camera on Basterds, Roth’s duties included helming a film within the film, a Nazi propaganda picture entitled Nation’s Pride. And as Roth discusses below, as a Jew he consulted QT on Jewish culture, history and codas before and during production.
After speaking with him, I feel as if Roth has become a defacto consigliere of sorts to Tarantino. And as I transcribed the chat, I began to see a correlation between the tone of Roth’s answers and the radical tonal shifts in the film. So much of Basterds bubbles with a unique and complex equation for comedy, but the subject matter is amongst the darkest in human history. Tarantino has created a very funny and graphic film about the Holocaust, but not the event proper as documented in annual text books and Hollywood Oscar-bait.
Instead, Tarantino has literally searched, demystified, and destroyed the nutty, terrifying source behind this historic genocide that haunts all of us to this day. In tackling such untamed madness using his own cinematic brand of craze, Tarantino has created the first film of its kind to make me cheer for rivers of Nazi blood and laugh at their backfiring meglomania. But that’s not all: during Basterds‘ bug-fuck ending—a taut lesson in disorientation—as an audience we collectively trip into the vivid, hot evil that was the Third Reich. The Basterd soaking up much of the hatred and heat in these scenes and returning it double-fold? His eyes and firearms ablaze: one Sgt. Donny Donowitz. Roth, the motherfuckin’ Bear Jew, called us from Manhattan to discuss what that was like…
Eli Roth: Hey, is this Hunter?
Hunter Stephenson: Hey Eli, how are you? I see you’re calling from The Standard. How are you liking that?
Eli Roth: Meh. I’m not really. It’s too tiny.
I thought it was larger than the one in Miami…
Eli Roth: Meh. [pauses then laughs]
[laughs] Congratulations on being the Bear Jew and being one of the Jews who gives Hitler his just desserts. That has to be pretty surreal…
Eli Roth: It’s very surreal. And it’s quite an honor. The entire experience was very surreal and amazing…
So, I’ve seen the film, and I really liked it. I’d compare it to a fine wine with Nazi scalps floating in it…
Eli Roth: I would say that it’s a very complex bottle of wine. And as it opens up and breathes, more and more ideas are revealed. I’ve seen the film eight times, and the movie is dense and so different from what people think it’s going to be. It’s a lot funnier. I do think it’s [Quentin Tarantino's] masterpiece. I feel like he could not have made this movie if he had not made all of his other films. He’s really taken all of the best elements of his other movies and combined them into one.
Yeah. There are so many genres and emotions hitting the palette that it definitely welcomes several viewings. I saw that you even described one scene as being similar to the Marx Brothers or Duck Soup, and I agree. And shortly thereafter, a scene inside the theater almost has the bite of a horror film. It reminded me of Demons 2 [Ed note. - The movie I was referring to here is actually Demons aka Demoni].
Eli Roth: Yeah. I feel like a lot of people, you know, feel Quentin makes pastiches of other movies. But I have gotten to see firsthand what an organic director he is. And of course, any director is going to be influenced by other films, no matter who you are. And Quentin is open about the films that he loves. But I really feel that this movie comes from Quentin’s soul, and I think what we’re seeing now, like, the opening scene, I feel like that is the best scene he’s ever written. But then there’s another scene, and you can say that’s the best scene he’s ever written. And then another. Until you’re like, this could be the best piece he’s ever written. And each chapter, I told Quentin, I feel he’s hit the level in his writing of a Tennessee Williams or an Arthur Miller. He’s transcended screenwriting; certainly, acting classes are going to be performing these scenes for the next one hundred years.
He’s fond of dividing his structure into chapters, like literature. And I do feel that Inglourious Basterds benefits the most from this. Each chapter leaves a lot to chew on. It’s a five course meal, and each one has a lot to offer. Another classy metaphor. [laughs]
Eli Roth: But I’m so glad you feel that way, because it’s almost impossible to explain the complexity of the film and the tonal changes in a 30-second TV spot. Of course, they’re going with the strongest card, Brad Pitt, and the Basterds, but the Basterds are obviously a very small part of it. This is really Shosanna‘s film (actress Mélanie Laurent). And I think it’s really great that girls love it for that. They’re trying to change the marketing campaign a little bit to show that this is a movie that girls will love, and that it’s not two-and-a-half hours of violence. It’s its own thing. I watch it and I think: he’s got the tension from Reservoir Dogs, and the humor and style from Pulp Fiction, and the characters of Jackie Brown, and the action of Kill Bill. And the adrenaline. And the horror of Death Proof. And I could never have made Nation’s Pride without making three prior films and doing the Thanksgiving trailer. Or given the performance I did. I feel like he’s made one of the ballsiest American movies ever…
Yeah. Especially for what’s being released by Hollywood in 2009…
Eli Roth: Exactly. Especially for a director in his position. I mean, name another director who’s made great films, classic films that are in the National Film Archive and all that, who take risks like this. They don’t do it.
The sets and cinematography in this movie are some of the best I’ve seen in a while. And when your character is introduced, when Donny comes out of the cave [Eli says “Yeah.”] and the Basterds are standing in the ditch, a ravine, maybe this is off-base: But the brick arches of the caves, they reminded me of ovens. And I interpreted the scene as, your character is coming out of a fucking oven to bash this Nazi’s head in. It’s nightmarish. And there are mounds of wet dirt and leaves all over that look like ash. I’m not sure if that’s how it was intended by Tarantino…
Eli Roth: No, definitely. And even the theater at the end can be interpreted in the context of the Holocaust. [Redacted: Ending discussed in detail]. There’s a lot of that. The purpose of Donny coming out of the cave like that…he wants to fucking terrify this guy so that the story spreads throughout their army. So, the Basterds certainly make it theatrical and there is that [Holocaust] context. But Quentin and I talked about this: the context and the subtext. And Quentin said, the subtext is always there, just focus on the context. But I said to Quentin, “Do you realize that Shosanna kills more soldiers than [Fredrick] Zoller? And Quentin goes, “Wow. That’s a great parallel.” We talked about the parallels between Shosanna and Zoller. And I go, “Yeah, Zoller kills 300 soldiers, and she outdoes him.”
And my mother watched the movie, and she pointed out that Zoller carves the swastika when he’s alone in the tower. And he’s carving it as if he’s an amazing artist. [laughs] And my mom, she points out that’s what I was doing [almost subconsciously, when directing a similar scene in Nation’s Pride], because Donny carves them as well, but into Nazis’ foreheads. And I didn’t realize that. But I was so in tune with the material. And there’s another scene, where a soldier is pointing at a map and a yellow leaf falls on [actor] Gideon Burkhard’s chest. And someone else pointed out that it’s “down to the yellow leaf that mimics the Star of David on that soldier.” And Quentin kept that, and he kept it for a reason.
And there’s a lot of stuff that he consciously did, but some stuff that comes from, just creative instincts. But I thought that too, like: “Jesus, it looks like Donny’s coming out of a brick oven!” And the dirt does look like ash, I agree. I remember when I was making Hostel 2, people were going around putting ash on girls’ foreheads, and they thought it was so cute, but then they realize it’s ashes from humans. It’s sort of like that. [laughs]
If we can return to the female theme of this movie. I mean, Tarantino is returning to the theme of a lone female seeking revenge, similar to what we saw in Kill Bill. And I love that in Inglourious, the scene with Shosanna running [at the start] is very emotional: I feel like these feelings for females partially come about from [Tarantino] being raised by a single mom. These images are very metaphorical and symbolic of women getting away from incredibly mean and powerful men and their hypocrisy in real life…
Eli Roth: Yeah, and fighting back and destroying them. And what we’re seeing now, when you bring this up, is that people are going to go back and reexamine his earlier work after they see Inglourious Basterds. But Quentin writes the best roles for women and men, and what’s great is that he only casts people who are perfect for the part. I mean, Christoph Waltz as [Nazi Colonel Hans] Landa…
That performance is definitely going down in the books and deserves an Oscar. And it’s great that the casting seems like such a left field choice stateside. No one in America really knew who Waltz was before this…
Eli Roth: Yeah. German theatre for 30 years. And every major actor in Hollywood wanted that role, but Quentin said no, he didn’t want to compromise the integrity of his film on any level. And by making the film a fictionalized work, he also makes the film so much more accessible I feel. There is always the aspect of making a so-called historical work “historically accurate,” even though apparently Germans spoke English during the Holocaust in most movies. You’re always looking at history through a window, as an outsider, but when you create a work of fiction, the movie becomes a part of you and your experience. You’re much more connected to it.
You guys are pals, and I wanted to ask if Quentin discussed the evolution of the project from one that would star action-heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger and his regulars like Michael Madsen, to the end result?
Eli Roth: [defensive] That was all bullshit. That was all Internet rumor. That was never true. That was never going to happen. It’s like high school gossip. He never said that. It’s bullshit.
Alright. I do recall him mentioning some of those names personally years ago, possibly on Ain’t It Cool, but…
Eli Roth: Nope. It’s bullshit.
Okay. [laughs] Well, it seems like the idea of the Basterds being a Jew Crew was one that people didn’t necessarily expect. After hearing about the project for years and expecting guys like I mentioned, it was a surprise to see during production that many of the Basterds were not very threatening physically…
Eli Roth: Yeah. That’s what makes it so great. Instead of casting a bunch of strong guys, he cast me as the strong guy and then he cast my Hebrew school class. [laughs] That’s the fun, seeing these guys terrorize Hitler. They’re passing for French peasants, and the psychological warfare they’re engaging in is so effective that it gets back to Hitler and [Nazi higher-ups]. But they don’t look the part, you wouldn’t peg these guys to be the ones to do that.
Do you think we’re seeing many of the Basterds, many of them are still impressionable, quickly becoming men in the film? Possibly vicious men? The after-effects of committing such violence, the psychological repercussions of committing this violence alongside their personal connection to it. And all the scalping. Was that discussed between you, Quentin, and Brad Pitt?
Eli Roth: Yeah. I mean, I talked to them both about how Jews, we had no choice. The Nazis were wiping us off the planet. And when Quentin was writing this, I almost became like his Jewish technical adviser [laughs]. He’d call me up and ask hypothetical questions like: “Would a Jew give absolution to a Nazi if it met ending the war?” And I’d say, “Jews don’t give absolution. That’s a Catholic concept. We collect interest. We get mad about stuff from 7,000 years ago.” And we’re more mad today than when stuff happened all those years ago. And I said to Quentin, I said that you have to realize that all this really started with Martin Luther, with his paper, “The Jews and Their Lies,” which was published in 1542. Luther said burn their synagogues, the Jews are agents of the devil, everything out of their mouths is a lie. I mean, this was taught in churches for over 400 hundred years. So, finally when Hitler was legally elected, he just applied science to it.
People were more than ready to go along with it. This was people all over Europe, millions of people, who turned on and turned over the Jews. This wasn’t just Hitler and a couple of bad guys: it was 60 million people. So, I said to Quentin [pause], “They had to be stopped. They had to be killed.” And these people, these so-called normal people, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, they were taking children and burning them alive and shooting them in the head and putting them in ovens. And turning their bodies into furniture. And then they’d go make drinks right next to the firing range. It’s inconceivable. And it was so-called normal people.
[pause] In retrospect it sounds like the grisliest fairy tale imaginable, but it really happened. Along with slavery, it’s the fucking worst thing people could do to one another…
Eli Roth: And once you’ve been the victim of that, you have no choice but to fight to the death. And I grew up wondering, “Why didn’t they fight back?” But it all happened in stages, and slowly, and no one really knew what was going on. And no one really knew about the camps until after the war. And you really had no choice but to grow up early in those days. Of course, now grown men act like children into their 40s. [laughs] But back then, you had to grow up, because you were going to war and chances were you were going to be killed. And Quentin had a line that Aldo Raine [Brad Pitt] says, that goes [something like], “The British are fighting like this is a game.” There was another group. [Ed note: "The Americans are fighting this like it's fun."] And then, “And the Jewish are fighting a Holy War.”
One scene in the script that I thought was one of the best, and that really resonated with me, is the scene with Donny back home before the war having his bat signed by elder Jews in Boston. And one of the elders was played in the film by Cloris Leachman. That entire scene got cut. What is your take on that? Did you feel it wasn’t effective?
Eli Roth: It’s a beautiful scene. And it’s an incredibly effective scene. I think it humanized Donny a bit more, and shows that he was just a sweet kid from the neighborhood. And he’s fighting for those who can’t fight and those who were in the camps. He really feels like a Jewish warrior, and this bat is his sword. And the scene turned out great. Everyone was crying as we were shooting it. And all of Donny’s flashbacks that we filmed are played very sweet and subtle. It’s a totally different side of the character. And Quentin, I think Quentin, loved my introduction [in the film] so much…that scene [with Leachman] came right before I exited the cave. Or I come out of the cave, and then it was going to go immediately into my back story. And Quentin, he really loved how the scene with the cave worked with the [Ennio] Morricone music. You know, you have to look at the bigger piece, and Quentin said that if he does the prequel, now he has three scenes for the prequel. We’ll see Donny getting the bat and all of that. He’s not going to put it on the DVD. He’s going to hold them in case we do the prequel. And the scenes are cut. And they’re fabulous. I know the pain of cutting your favorite scenes, but I wouldn’t touch the film as is.
I do feel like, for audience members who aren’t Jewish though, that it might have resonated and enriched the experience of what these guys are fighting for as characters. Obviously, we all know what is driving them from a historical aspect. But it would show that Donny is…once you see the faces of the elder people back home, that’s why he’s into the bloodsport.
Eli Roth: Well, I think Quentin could get that either way. And this is definitely one of those philosophical and film discussions that people will have, about whether those scenes should have been included. And Quentin said, “You have Brad Pitt and Hitler introducing you! You’re never going to have a better introduction.” [laughs] I looked at it as Brad Pitt in True Romance, or Christopher Walken‘s character in True Romance or Pulp Fiction: one of these guys who just comes in and blows it off the screen. And you’re waiting for this guy to come back for more juicy moments, but they’re out.
I think this might be one of the ballsier accomplishments of the screenplay and film. We meet many of these characters without much exposition, they’re complete strangers to us. And so much has to be conveyed in the dialogue and mannerisms in their first scenes. By the end of a scene or the first chapters, you have a decent idea of what makes a certain character tick. It takes a little adjusting at first though. But it’s a creative decision that…I think it will be a talking point in the years to come…
Eli Roth: The way he pulls it off, is that all of the characters have a back story, but a lot of this is never shown. But it does exist. There are scenes of Donny cutting hair, and I trained to cut hair. Producer Pilar Savone, her father owns a salon, Humberto’s, in Beverly Hills, and I trained with Humberto. He showed me how to cut. [laughs] And that got…cut too. But the first thing we did in Berlin before we did rehearsals, Quentin said to each of us: “Who ARE YOU?!!” And you had to talk about your characters, and I must have talked for an hour about Donny. And we had to go on and on and on. And I went to Boston to do research, and I put on 40 pounds of muscle. But lifting the weights was easy, and I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. I knew that you had to look into Donny’s eyes and see that pain and anguish. It had to be very real.
Your eyes in this movie, I did notice that. They’re pitch black, and there is so much menace and hurt there. I mean, those weren’t contacts…
Eli Roth: [laughs] No, those weren’t contacts. Those were my eyes. [laughs] But I had to look at this guy and I look into them and feel murderous rage. He just wants to beat every single Nazi to death. And it’s hard for me to express in words, how much this upsets me, about what was done. I mean, my grandparents got out of Poland, and Austria, and Russia, and all of their relatives who didn’t were murdered in the Holocaust. So, you really have to stir all of that up, and make it feel like all of that happened 10 minutes ago, and work yourself into a frenzy. And when I shot Nation’s Pride, I really needed to make my brain think about something else afterward, because it was draining.
Right. It’s almost unhealthy. But did you go method on set?
Eli Roth: I totally went method. And I realized, thinking about this stuff all the time, that’s why these [method] actors are nuts. I mean, I didn’t go method like, “What is this strange man with a microphone doing in my face?” [laughs] But when I was on set, we only talked in character, and off-set, I talked as Donny a lot as well. And Brad was certainly in character the entire time, and we’d joke about lunch, coffee, joke on Quentin, and we’d do it as Donny and Aldo. And Quentin loved it. He was like, “I’ve had these guys in my mind for 10 years, and now I get to hang out with them.” And it gives you permission, especially for Brad, to behave a certain way, and we’d say the most disgusting stuff. It would just fly out. And during the vet scene, I remember going on a 20-minute rant as Donny about why we needed to keep shooting that day. And Quentin was like, “That’s exactly what Donny would say!” I was like, “This is what it’s about!” and “This is what we’re here for!” as Donny.
The scene where you guys are improvising as Italians, and you’re playing Margheritti, what was the influence for that? You look like a comedic Count Dracula. [laughs]
Eli Roth: [laughs] I mean, I’m wearing that 1920s costume, tuxedo. You know, that’s interesting, because Donny is so bloodthirsty, that your interpretation was Dracula. That’s a fantastic association. Like, Donny is some sort of Bela Lugosi. [laughs] My influence for the Italian, the little gesture I do with my hand, that comes from a friend of mine who went to Rome. A guy I went to high school with, 35, he’s Greek, a metal head, plays hockey, he went to Rome. And he came back and thought that it was much cooler to be Italian, so he started doing Italian affectations, and he’d go to the Olive Garden and correct waiters who said “bruschetta” wrong. [laughs] And every time he’d do this hand gesture. And Italians do that all the time. That’s what they do. I had an Italian girlfriend who did that all the time when she was arguing, but she would do it much faster.
So, I figured if Donny wanted to be Italian, he’d just be imitating the Italians from Boston. But then you see that Omar Ulmer is just imitating Donny and you realize it’s the blind leading the blind, and you realize how ridiculous their plan is. And you think there’s no way they can pull it off. My dad said that once Aldo is gone and Donny takes control in the theater, my dad said that it looked like two gorillas were running around. [laughs] [laughs] And I thought that was accurate. I wanted it to seem like Donny is just an animal let loose on the Nazis with a machine gun.
Before we end the interview: Did you keep the bat…at least one of them [laughs]?
Eli Roth: I have one bat. Yeah, there were several [laughs] and I demolished most of them.
And who kept what was left of Hitler?
Eli Roth: Nobody. [gets serious] It wasn’t like that. I stomped on it. There wasn’t anything left.
Roth confirmed in our interview that Endangered Species, described as a PG-13 sci-fi destruction movie a la Cloverfield, remains slated as his next film: “However, that would have been my exact answer a year ago and then I got called into war. [laughs] I plan to do it next, and shoot Thanksgiving back-to-back. But I can’t really start anything until I’m done with publicity for Inglourious Basterds.” Per Thanksgiving, I told Roth that the idea of a killer Pilgrim is strangely terrifying and asked if Native Americans would be appearing in the movie. Roth laughed big and said,”I grew up in Massachusetts, so believe me, if there is one holiday that I find terrifying on so many levels…I can’t say more about that right now [regarding Native Americans]. [laughs]”
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila[at]gmail.com and on Twitter.