Eli Roth interview

Eli Roth has never thought of himself as a horror director, so the Hostel and Cabin Fever director’s first PG-rated and kids-friendly movie, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, isn’t that surprising of a choice for the filmmaker. As Roth sees it, his previous movies led him to directing Amblin’s adaptation of John Bellairs‘ novel, published in 1973. This is exactly the sort of lavish and old school spectacle he’s always dreamed about making.

While obviously tamer, The House with a Clock in Its Walls has the director’s dark, sometimes slapstick sense of humor as well as sequences that scream horror. Whether with a rotting corpse, evil pumpkins, or a hideous creature in the woods at night, Roth gives younger viewers enough credit to have fun with the scares. In addition to paying respect to his audience, the director told us about working with producer Steven Spielberg, his love of Amblin and Gremlins, influences and references, and showing the almighty Cate Blanchett firing a laser gun/magical umbrella.

Besides making a PG movie geared towards children, what opportunities did this movie give you to try new things as a director?

I got to have the resources, a studio, and I got to really let my imagination go wild. With Death Wish it was a same DP, Rogier Stoffers, and we were looking at films like A History of Violence and Sicario, but this one we can look at Time BanditsMouse Hunt, and  horror film The House That Screamed and do something that was much more Gremlins.

Guillermo Del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton end of the spectrum… The directors that I grew up admiring were Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and James Cameron. So many of those directors started out making horror movies and then moved to these fantastic, PG movies and PG-13 films and you could see all of their humor and their sensibility in those movies, but they’re making them for kids. I really thought about those movies that impacted me when I was 10 and 11 years old and if I think of the violent horror movies, those were all sleepover experiences.

Friday the 13th, all those films I saw in VHS. The movies that I saw in the theaters, that was E.T., Raiders, Poltergeist, Gremlins, Goonies, films like Time Bandits, The Dark Crystal, Dragon Slayer, Beetlejuice, and Labyrinth. These were seminal filmgoing experiences for me. They’re all much closer to the Grimm’s Fairytales end of the spectrum. Those are the films that made me want to make movies.

They’re almost like gateway movies for kids. They’re a little bit scary, but they’re not too scary they’re gonna traumatize you, but they give you the fun of being scared. Those Amblin films were an event when you were a kid. It was a real pleasure and honor to get to make a movie for that label that meant so much to me as a kid and to have the blessing of Steven Spielberg and his support.

I would have a wild idea like, what if the automatons attack and he’d go “Okay, great,” and I’d go, “What if a topiary griffin [Lion] poops leaves and then he poops it on the chair and then the chair gets mad.” I could go to that Monty Python level of absurdity and they went “Yeah, okay great.”

It’s almost like there was no one to tell me no if we could keep it all within the budget. We were able to keep the budget tight and efficient, but they really let me go crazy during the magic montage and the pumpkin attack. I said to Spielberg, “I had this idea, what if they leave the house and all the pumpkins turn evil and they vomit on them? That could be hilarious.” Spielberg goes “No, that’s actually a really scary scene, you should do that. Don’t play for laughs ’cause you could have some laughs with it, but make that scary, make them real.” I thought, “Alright.” If Spielberg’s telling me to make it scary, I’m gonna make it scary.”

the house with a clock in its walls early buzz

You see a lot of movies copy and paste the Amblin style rather than really embodying it. Working with Spielberg, in what other ways did you want to capture the spirit of an Amblin movie?

Well, Steven said to me at the end, “You’ve really done something that’s wholly original and stands on its own and isn’t mocking or imitating something before it.” I looked at all those movies and really thought about what made them special. What makes them special is they treat the kids like adults, and they’re a little bit naughty, and a little bit dangerous, and they do things that you go “Is that okay to do in a kid’s movie?”

We’ll never replicate the spirit of those 80’s Amblin movies, but we can make a movie in that tradition for today’s audience. I thought I wanna be scary in a way I never could before. Jack Black told me that when he made School of Rock, because he couldn’t use R-rated language, it opened up another side of his brain that forced him to be funny in other ways. That’s what happened with me once you put the clamp on the blood, like no blood, no chopping, then, well, what if we chop up pumpkins? I looked at the stop-motion film Street Of Crocodiles. That’s one of those movies that I watch and I wanna live inside that movie. I thought what if we have this Street of Crocodiles thing, these automatons coming to life.

The automatons are big tradition in magic and magicians, and I thought what if there were these creepy old things you keep expecting them to come to life and then just when you don’t expect it, they come to life and attack in a very creepy weird scene and the pumpkins and the whole clock sequence. Coming up with a spectacular finale, I’ve never shot anything with so many literal moving parts anywhere you put the camera. They were all real. We got to build it. I built that room and all the gears. We were all standing on these saw blades.

We had to have Owen on a harness ’cause he couldn’t fall because it was 10-feet off the ground and a dangerous set but also you could feel that energy. Adrian Monroe built this fantastic animatronic baby. I had seem what he did on Mother; he did the effects on Death Wish. I really have had this Terry Gilliam, Monty Python, Tim Burton, Del Toro sensibility inside me that you don’t necessarily get to express in the straight up horror movies. This was really the film for that. I wanted to make a movie that Spielberg would love.

The movie pays respect to kids in a lot of ways with the scares, but you don’t rush through story and don’t end every dramatic scene with a joke. Now having made a movie for kids, do you think studios don’t give kids enough credit as viewers? 

100%. I do. Not to go back to my conversation with Spielberg, but he said “This is a very confident piece of directing.” I think about those films that took their time and wasn’t worried about losing the audience and didn’t have this insecurity that if I don’t have some big joke or big gag, we’re gonna lose kids. You gotta give them more credit than that. You can take them on a dark turn and you can leave the comedy for a dramatic scene, like the scene in the bedroom with Jack and Cate.

It’s real. Part of it is when you rip the family apart, you really rip them apart and they have to all come back together, and it’s so much more earned when you do that. Cate said to me she loved the movie so much and said, “You’ve really got the insanity and fun and mischief of Gremlins, the heart of E.T., the photography of Barry Lyndon at times, and then at some point turns to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” I was like, “You’re right. I’m not conscious of it but I that was all there.” The drama has to be treated real and the comedy can be used for relief but when Issac comes out of the grave, you have to feel like he’s going to kill everybody. It’s not a joke, it’s very serious.

That’s what I loved about those movies like Time Bandits and Gremlins. The gremlins will kill you. If you don’t knife them, if you don’t put them in a blender, if you don’t put them in the microwave, they will kill you. That scene with the mother, these things are vicious and dangerous, they’re like rabid raccoons in your house. That’s what I loved about those movies. The gremlins were fun, but they’ll hot wire your wheelchair to go out the window and then applaud it.

I think that’s what I wanted, a movie that was patient and took it’s time and had the confidence that kids would stick with it and be with it for the message. There’s several messages. The theme of obviously finding your family. Some people wanna move forward in the face of tragedy and some people wanna wipe everything out to never experience love so that you don’t have to feel pain. Also this feeling that all the things we think make us outsiders, they’re actually our strengths. Your weirdness is the source of your super power once you own it.

I got a kick out of Cate Blanchett using an umbrella as a laser gun to kill pumpkins. It’s quite an image. 

I remember saying to Cate Blanchett, “I’m sure you got this direction all the time on the set of Carol, but just smash the invisible pumpkin with your head and try to avoid the goo. Now your umbrella can shoot a phaser and blow up pumpkins.” She’s like “Yeah, okay, great.”

[Laughs] That reminded me of her taking out a whole army in Thor: Ragnarock, and just delivering on that fun you want out of seeing Cate Blanchett in a fantasy movie. 

Cate is so funny. Nobody knows what a goofball Cate is. Everyone thinks there is a serious Cate Blanchett, but she loved Evil Dead. She grew up on horror movies and she’s incredibly funny. Obviously, she’s like our Meryl Streep. There’s only one Cate Blanchett in the world. There’s maybe three actors in her class, but she’s never shown this side of her.

She’s a mom and she’s hilarious and she’s so down to Earth and so cool. People I think know that about her and are starting to see that playful side where you see Ocean’s 8, Thor: Ragnarok, but in this movie, she’s also giving that Academy Award winning performance but you can tell she’s having so much fun doing it.

I’ve never had a cast like this and I had the time of my life working with everyone. If the movie works, there’s 12 books in the series, we might jump into doing another one.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls Trailer

[Spoiler Alert]

Another weird, funny and sort of terrifying image is Jack Black as a baby. What can you tell me about that scene’s inception and pulling off that visual effect?

I saw the baby that [Makeup effects artist] Adrien Morot made for Mother! I held that thing, it was so real. I thought “What if you put Jack Black’s head on a baby?” We said “Well, is it adult brain or baby brain?” We said, “No, it’s gotta be baby brain ’cause adult brain you can have him get out of it, he’d be advising you on what to do.”

How could things possibly go worse? There are magic booby traps, but he’s got some protection, but it backfires. It’s a faith-based system, so guys trust me I can’t explain it but I have this image in my head, and I think it’s gonna work. Once we did it everyone was obsessed with the baby, and it’s such an uncomfortable image and so unsettling, but the way he treats it it’s like watching him talk to his uncle but his uncle’s also a baby. You know, it’s a Jack Black baby specifically, that’s what makes it funny.

Adrien Morot is a genius, and then Louis Morin was our visual effects advisor able to do some CG enhancements, the eyes a little bit and do the crawling baby ’cause you couldn’t fully physically crawl but you held that thing in your arms. That was a real baby. It was weird in person as it is in the movie. It’s a weird uncomfortable image.

That’s one of those things you just wanna- kinda like Weird Science, that thing that Chuck gets turned into it’s like “Hey dude!” You remember these things and in Time Bandits when the Supreme Evil turns him into a pig and he runs up, I was really uncomfortable when the guy gets turned into a pig. You remember that stuff so clearly. Things getting turned into other things, I wanted to see it and I wanted it to look as real and weird as possible.

[Spoiler Over]

The black and white photography is very well done. Did you shoot those scenes digitally or use old film stock? 

Rogier Stoffers is such a magnificent Director of Photography. He shot School of Rock and we talked about it and kind of shot it in a particular way. We shot with the Alexa, but we shot in a particular way and timed it to be black and white. Then digitally we were really able to look at the flicker. We talked about shooting on old stock, but you can do it digitally. Someone like Lou Morin who did Sicario and Arrival, and he did not do Blade Runner 2049, but he’s Villeneuve’s effects supervisor.

We really looked at old Nickelodeon footage and said let’s mimic this perfectly, but if you have too much flicker, you can’t really follow the story. If you put up one too many filters, you’re putting up a wall between the audience, and the whole idea is to draw everyone into it.

Steven said to me, “How can you visualize this?” I thought I would love to see what they’re talking about, so I said okay “We’ll have modern Nickelodeon. It’s like a magic Nickelodeon.” Then he puts in this beautiful organ that [composer] Nathan Barr has found and spent four years of storing. The music we did on the 1928 Orletzer Silent Theater Organ. Calling it an organ is a disservice, it’s 1,163 pipes and it takes up four rooms and it does 20 different instruments. They used to have these in every movie theater and then sound came in and they all got thrown out. Maybe 10 of them exist and this one was stored at Fox for years and it scored The Sound of MusicPatton, Star Trek: the Motion Picture, and Empire of the Sun. It’s been boxed up for 25 years, and Nate bought it and has spent four years restoring it.

It just timed out that we had this movie to do so he’s playing – it has this beautiful old world sound, we did the whole end credits with a sweep to this organ. There’s just nothing that sounds like it. That’s what I loved about this story was it gave us and [production designer] John Hutman and I a chance to be so expressionistic in a way I really couldn’t in my other films. I love that black and white photography, the Nickelodeon. Also, the way we used the telescope as a projector when Issac’s telling a story, any time you could show the visual it’s so much more interesting to see.

You’ve mentioned a lot of the films and directors that inspired you, and you’ve said there are a few nods to your other movies. Are there many direct references in the movie?

No. My influences are there period because it’s me doing it and the film is very much reflective of my personality. But no, I didn’t want it to be a guessing game of like “Oh that’s from Hostile, that’s from Cabin Fever.” There’s little things here and there and some are more obvious than others, but there’s some stuff that I don’t even realize. Your subconscious comes out when you’re making a movie. You kind of go in on intuition.

Making movies is a strange thing. You have a script, you have a design in plan, but really, it’s a blank canvas. It’s like a blank movie that’s writing itself that you have to play in your head. What informs that? What makes you see that film? I don’t know, it’s obsessions, ideas, things from your past. I might watch the movie five years from now and go “Wow, that’s a reference…” and I didn’t even realize it.

Do you look at your whole body of work as a good representation of where you were at in your life and career? 

Always. Cabin Fever is a film about me being 22 ’cause I wrote it when I was 22. Hostile is me at 32. Knock Knock is a film about the fears of marriage. I was engaged when I made that, and it’s a fear of commitment and marriage. Death Wish is a fear of crime. They’re all things you connect to and this is this feeling of finding your family, embracing your weirdness, wanting to fit in, being enough, that’s who you are, all these themes. My brothers and I are very close, and my nieces and everybody wants to see my movies ’cause they know I make movies but they can’t see any of them, and I thought I need to explain to my family, the younger generation, this is what I do. This is one they can finally see.

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The House with a Clock in Its Walls is now in theaters.

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