/Film Interview: Eli Roth, Producer Of 'The Last Exorcism Part 2'

With so many horror sequels and demon possession films released year after year, a demon possession horror sequel doesn't sound like the freshest idea. That's where Eli Roth comes in.

A noted writer and director in his own right (and an actor, too), Roth produced the upcoming The Last Exorcism Part 2, a sequel to the surprise 2010 hit film, with those pitfalls in mind. He's well aware the film has a mountain to climb. It's a possession film, and a horror sequel. It has to live up to expectations bolstered by an original movie that made over $40 million and had an ending so memorable, the sequel was all but predetermined. The task then became working off the promise of that ending and avoiding the stigmas of its genre.

After the release of the trailer for The Last Exorcism Part 2 in January, we spoke to Roth about the problems with sequels, how this movie attempts to transcend them as well as a bunch of his upcoming projects: the Netflix show Hemlock Grove, his next movie The Green Inferno and more. Check it out below.

/Film: So I watched the trailer for THE LAST EXORCISM PART II and at the end of the first film it leaves things very open for a sequel. But the trailer doesn't feel like the sequel that the original film is setting up. So is this the sequel we thought we were going to see? With a demon baby and a satanic cult run amok? Or have you guys sort of flipped that?

Roth: Well, originally when we made the first film, we spent three years writing that script and really getting it right and I think it's just an amazing script and Daniel Stamm directed a terrific film. Part of the fun with making it for a million and a half dollars is you can leave it with an open ending or have an ending where you don't exactly know the details of what happened. We wanted an ending that people would be discussing and that's what audiences certainly did. But when the movie made twenty million dollars on opening weekend, which was a complete shock... I mean it was a wonderful shock. It really shows how interested people are in the subject matter. Everyone started asking about a sequel and we thought... I said, " I have a great title. We could call it THE DEVIL INSIDE" and then of course they are like "Yeah... Yeah, we will think of something." Then of course another movie of that title came out, but we said, "What we don't want to do is rush a sequel. We don't want to just quickly get one into production."

I figured if anything, over time more people would see the movie and that's what happened. A lot of people saw it in theaters and now they're watching it on NetFlix and people really like it. The last one came out in 2010, so here we are in 2013... We spent two years working on the script before we shot it and we thought through every single storyline we could and the breakthrough really came through when we thought, "Let's abandon the documentary format. What if the first one was more of a viral video that's floating around on YouTube and people are just clicking on it." We could at least have Nell have no memory of what happened to her and there's this group that's perpetrating this trick on her with this thing that she doesn't know, but her family members have been killed in this fire and she has no memory of what happened and she's sort of brought to this halfway home for troubled girls and she starts to figure out what this thing is, but that other people have seen the video and some people recognize her on the street, like "You're the girl from that thing! Bend your back" and she doesn't even know what they are talking about and when other girls in the house see it, they're like "Get her out of here, she's got a demon in her." And slowly her world starts to fall apart. So there were a lot of different angles that you go through, but Ashley Bell... she's such a good actor and you love the idea of what would happen to you if you went through this and you're seeing it from her perspective in following her story?

We notice that they show the clip on YouTube in the trailer, but I wasn't sure how exactly you were going to make the transition from found footage to narrative. Did you guys try to keep with the found footage approach for a while before you realized abandoning it was a good idea?

We were never married to one thing or the other. The first movie was a found footage movie like "What if we were doing a documentary on exorcism and you think they are faking it? Then it all just goes completely wrong?" Then you realize you're in this psychological situation where "Is this girl having a mental breakdown or can she really be possessed?" This guy has absolutely no ability to deal with it, nor is he equipped to deal with it. It was a discussion about religion and that's what I thought was so interesting. He thought he had it figured out and it turns out he was wrong, but now that we have answered the question... You know something supernatural happened to her and you want to go further with that.

You dabbled in the supernatural with the first one and now you have to extend it in a smart way. Damien Chazelle is a terrific writer and Ed Gass-Donnelly wrote a film that's kind of big in the indie word called SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS and it was really well photographed and very intelligently made and really subtle. He was so excited about the subject matter and really wanted to approach it almost as a Polanksi movie in the way that Daniel, the director on the first film, approached it like Lars Von Trier, who is his favorite director. We thought that Daniel would be working with M. Night Shyamalan pretty soon and we thought "This is absolutely the right approach" and I think he did a really, really good job.

And you touched upon this a little bit there and I guess with the whole viral video thing, but lately, we see many demon possession movies. I think last year there were at least two or three of them. What do you have to do to say, "This is not your typical exorcism movie. This is different, even though it is a sequel?"

I mean all I can do is... People trust me and they trust my name on a movie and my brand. But you know with CABIN FEVER people said "We've seen so many cabin in the woods movies, how is yours different?" With HOSTEL people said "We've seen slasher films. How is this going to be different? You just make it different. You come at it with a different personality, a different point of view of how you tell the story and what story you are telling. I had never seen the movie where instead of a character taking over, you're watching somebody embrace what is happening to them and realizing that it's not so bad. Obviously you want to do all sorts of creepy things and you're thinking of the writing that you want it to be original and fresh and fun, but there's a reason none of these other movies have my name on it. I mean they might be terrific, but... PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is a haunted house movie... It's essentially POLTERGEIST shot with security cameras. It's scary and they keep coming up with new ways to do it. All you have to do is really spend the time thinking it through and be familiar with the other movies that are out there and just make a great movie and do it well. Then you don't even have to worry about the other films.

Another trailer that just happened to come out around this same time is [your Netflix show] HEMLOCK GROVE. It's almost impossible to figure out what's going on. How do you describe the show when people ask you about it?

It's an incredible... it's funny the two trailers came out within 24 hours of each other and have such a phenomenal response from the fans. HEMLOCK GROVE I'm really, really proud of. We wanted to make a very creepy supernatural horror story based on crime TV horror and CBS is an incredible partner... It's just a wonderful coincidence they came out within 24 hours of each other, but that will probably be out in April and there will be plenty of time for press on that one.

Did working for Netflix change how you guys decided to tell that story at all? Now it's almost like people are getting a ten hour movie at once as opposed to ten little episodes?

People don't watch movies that opening weekend... That's the nice thing about NetFlix is if you watch that trailer, like for THE LAST EXOCRISM... if you haven't seen the first movie, you can clip on Netflix and watch it and you have it right there instantly. We wanted to make a series like BOARDWALK EMPIRE into something that was more supernatural and creepy with a TWIN PEAKS feel to it in a small town murder mystery, but you don't know what killed this girl. I think it's just the way people are watching television now, they are binge watching. You see an episode you like and you immediately want to watch the next episode and when all 13 are available it's easier.

And generally violence in movies can be more explicit than violence on TV. Even with cable there just feels like there's a different level there. Where does Netflix play into that? Can you guys be as violent as you would be in CABIN FEVER or HOSTEL? Or do you curve it back and think more on a TV state of mind?

Well you know with the original LAST EXORCISM, the whole idea was to get away from violence and I wanted to make a different style movie that didn't really require a lot of violence. With a PG-13 movie, they're more restrictive about the violence than in an R. If you do an R rated movie, it can be much more graphic, but with a PG-13 it's much more restrictive — and understandably so — so it's a fun challenge to make a movie that really, really freaks people out without being graphic and the second one, that's the world we set up in the first one, so it would be unnatural to go graphically violent. But  you really want to have the scares like they had in THE RING or THE GRUDGE and CLOVERFIELD and that was a big discussion we had. "How do we satisfy those moments of doing it, but also not make it too graphic and alienate your core audience from the first one?"

I'm here with my friend Nicolas Lopez in Chile who directed AFTERSHOCK and produced THE GREEN INFERNO. His sister, one of her favorite movies is THE LAST EXORCISM. To her and her girlfriends, that's the scariest movie they've seen and love it. That's what we wanted to do with the sequel. People really related to Ashley Bell and she's just such a superb actress. She got a Spirit Award with the first one and she gives a wonderful performance in the second one.

You mention THE GREEN INFERNO. Are you done with that? What's the status on that? When can people start seeing stuff from that?

I literally wrapped production the day before Christmas. We were shooting deep in the Amazon in a village with absolutely no electricity or running water with people who had never seen a movie before. It was four hours of travel to the village every day on dirt roads... There's rockslides and getting up the Amazon... There were tarantulas, snakes, and animals running through shots. It was insane, but the footage looks spectacular. We shot in the areas that nobody has ever filmed before. We got special permission form the government to shoot there and it looks spectacular. I'm literally on my third day of editing and I'm very excited about it.

So if you're out there shooting GREEN INFERNO and they are in post-production on THE LAST EXORCISM 2, how the heck are you balancing your days? Or even just on a normal day now? Besides that, you're developing other movies, producing other TV shows... How do you keep it all in balance?

It's just a coincidence that everything kind of hit at once. I didn't plan it out that way. I thought "I will do this one, and this one, and this one" and for whatever reason everything shoots at once, but I'm actually very involved in writing and it actually turned out that Ed Gas-Donnelly was cutting in Toronto while I was on production on HEMLOCK GROVE, so I could actually, after I shot my pilot episode, while Ed was cutting it at night, I could go sit down with Ed where he was cutting LAST EXORCISM 2 and then there I was prepping stuff in Los Angeles and working on stuff for Goretorium, which is a whole other haunted house thing as well, where I was really, really involved in the final stages of the edit. I was able to look at the picture pretty close to get it locked before everybody sort of knew.

It was actually pretty good to know "I'm escaping to the Amazon with absolutely no phone, no internet, no nothing. I'm literally... basically I'll get a one bar signal at some point, but I'm in the jungle, literally." So not being able to contact me forced everybody to lock in their visions before I left, but yeah it's tricky. The nice thing is the time difference. I'm five hours ahead, so I can get my schedule done and then... I'm just working 24 hours, but... (Laughs) It's feast or famine. I think the key word is to learn to streamline a little bit and try not to tackle everything at once. If you're doing a television pilot, a music video, or doing a feature... It's been a very exciting year, but I'm going to try to keep my focus on directing.