Sundance 2015 Interview: Eli Roth on ‘Knock Knock’
by Fred Topel
Directors are very busy at Sundance. Not only are they hosting their screenings and Q&As but meeting with sales agents. So given that Eli Roth was only doing three interviews, I was thrilled to hear he personally chose me to talk to about his latest, Knock Knock which premiered as the first Midnight screening of Sundance 2015. Keanu Reeves plays Evan, a happily married father who answers the door for two lost girls (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas). He calls them an Uber and helps them dry their soaked clothes, but they seduce him, and the next morning begin a manipulative game to punish him for cheating on his family. I love this talk with Roth because we were able to discuss themes of the film with no real spoilers, so except for the assumption that there will be some violence in it, you’ll still go in fresh when it’s finally released.
CraveOnline: The last time we spoke was for a festival movie that played well, got bought by a great studio and still hasn’t come out. So do you have to be very careful who you sell Knock Knock to?
Eli Roth: It’s interesting. It was just a very strange, terrible circumstance that two companies got caught in. It wasn’t that we sold to the wrong person or that the wrong person sold the movie. It’s just there was a big change and some of the deals, there was a disagreement about whether those deals should carry over. So it was internal conflict in a company. We just got caught up in the fallout of a corporate thing that happened. It’s like when one company buys another company and certain projects get put on hold. So everyone’s trying to work it out. The thing is that everybody loves the movie, everyone at Open Road, everyone at Worldview. We’re all trying to champion the film but it’s just hard because it’s a slow process and everybody wants to find a fair way to resolve it, and we’re very close.
Does that complicate your plans for The Green Inferno 2 which you announced at your Toronto premiere?
Yeah, for sure. That was the first thing put on hold was Green Inferno 2 so that’s the way it goes. You’ve just got to keep moving forward. That’s the good thing. Me and Nicolas, Miguel and Guillermo, our whole team, we have a lot of ideas and we never stop. So if one is in neutral and is not moving forward, we jump on another one.
It seems like one of the things you’re saying in Knock Knock is we all may be vulnerable to temptation. Does it mean we all have to be more vigilant? I’ve even been pressured to do things I don’t believe in nonsexually.
Well, everyone gets tempted by something that they know deep down is wrong. The questions is what do you do if you know you can get away with it, or you really think you can get away with it. Even in Hostel, looking at it now I can see it’s a similar thing of would you do this to someone if you thought you could get away with it? If you thought you were going to get caught, you’d never do it, but if you thought you could do it with no repercussions for your behavior, would you do it or not? Everyone has their own internal moral compass for that, and it’s really not about doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing. It’s really about the fragility.
What terrifies me is the fragility of our relationships, that you really could spend 15 years married to someone and build your life and this one little act where you slip up, and we’re human and it happens to all of us. Everyone has had that moment where you’re in a store and you know you could take something and you know you wouldn’t get caught. Do you do it? And do you feel bad if you do it? And do you do it again or do you do it once? It’s part of being human, so that’s what interested me.
That and the theme that art does not exist. They’re going to the house of an artist, destroying the artwork. That idea, what is art? Does art exist or is it just someone else’s creation? Does it have a value because it inherently has a value or does it have a value because someone else puts a value on it, and what is the value of that? What are you saying with that? That to me is a fascinating idea. To someone, Knock Knock could be an amazing thought-provoking film and to someone else it could be a cheap exploitation movie that’s a waste of your time. So there’s certain things that we hold so valuable in our life that to others are garbage. It’s terrifying.
I didn’t even think of that. You just made me think that’s what I deal with in my work. I’m trying to tell people my writing is worth something and this is what they should pay, and some people would rather get people to do it for free.
Yeah, it relates to everybody. Everyone has something in their lives that they create, that they do, that this is who I am. This is my painting. This is my writing. This is my woodworking. These are my cars. To someone else, they could just come in and just trash it. Here we are in this lounge, the Acura lounge and there’s their logo. It’s Acura, this is their car. To someone else, why would you ever drive an Acura? For me, there’s something about art that truly has a subjective, strange value. That’s the value of family. How much do you value your family and how really fragile is your world? Can it really be shattered that easily. That, I think, is a terrifying idea.
Is it more than just “if you wouldn’t get caught?” I believe Evan was never thinking about cheating, and we all have values that we think we’d follow, but it’s different when you’re there.
It’s the free pizza theory. When I was writing this with Nicolas, we have a theory that no one would ever say no to a free pizza. If you’re at your door and you’re hungry, at 3 in the morning if a free pizza shows up, do you take the pizza? That’s the real question. Evan’ a nice guy. He doesn’t go looking for it. It comes to him but he offers the tissue. He lets them in. He gets in the bathroom. He does all these things that are on the surface.
At the beginning, there’s little hints. They’re not having sex. The whole house is dominated by the wife. He’s kind of relegated to the corner. He’s the architect and he’s designed a world that he has this wife and her art has slowly taken over everything and she runs the show. She’s still taking the kids to the beach on Father’s Day because they had a beach trip planned. She’s not saying, “Well, let’s cancel the whole thing if you have work, honey. We’ll be here for you.” She’s still leaving. There’s underlying hostility at the wife that he buries under this false sense of happiness.
The kids are making fun of his hair. They’re going, “Why don’t you cut your hair?” That’s his identity. That’s the ultimate emasculation when the girl’s do cut his hair. I wanted to almost use chopping off hair and destroying statues as a metaphor for the way I chopped off heads and body parts in my other movies. If you think about what I did to people in Hostel and what the girls do to the artwork, they’re very similar.
You’re a newly married man, so do you accept a little bit of culpability that you might be vulnerable to a tempting situation yourself?
Obviously I’m recently married and I feel that I’m very happy being married and we’re very happy in a committed marriage. And we discussed that. Obviously in the making of the movie we talked about that. Is this going to be us in 15 years? Lorenza’s really my muse. She’s my inspiration. I want to write great parts for her. In Green Inferno she’s out in the jungle reacting to all these incredible external circumstances. We went into the Amazon and we were dealing with the bugs and the heat and five hours of travel through the jungle just to get your shots.
This is you’re sitting in a chair and you’re talking to people. I thought her range was really, really magnificent, not just within the performance but from one to the other. But we talk about that and we both give each other such support. She’s my best friend and we do everything together. Neither of us would ever want to do anything to screw it up, but we always say people are human and stuff happens. We can’t say what we’re going to be like in 10 years. We can only promise to try and work together.
I think being humble and not so superior and judgmental to say “I’d never do that” helps you make the right decisions.
You can never judge anyone who does that because you’re not in their situation. It’s like if you see a guy hit a girl in the street, you would tackle that guy and kill him. But if that girl had just stabbed that guy’s children and chopped their heads off, you’d go, “Oh yeah, I didn’t realize the context.” I’m not saying that’s the best example, but what I’ve learned, and I say I constantly feel like I know nothing and I’m always relearning, is you can never judge anyone’s situation. You can only judge your own situation. I just try to judge myself and follow my own moral compass.
On the metaphor for chopping off body parts, did you want to deal with a sexual manipulation that’s not physical violence?
Yeah, I wanted to make a film that was more psychological. I love the early Paul Verhoeven films and Polanski films, Peter Traynor, but I wanted to do something that was like a psychological chess game where they’re playing musical chairs. He lets them in but then they go a step further to his face. Then he lets them in and they go further. They’re always one step ahead of him invading his space, looking around, checking the iPad, singing. They’re thinking in a way that he would never think because he would never think to do that to someone, but I didn’t want for the movie to be about physical violence.
They’re toying with him. They’re a cat and he’s a mouse. He thinks that he’s the lion in this situation but he’s really not. It’s so fun to watch Keanu Reeves, who we’re so used to seeing save the world, get flummoxed by these two girls. They’re almost like the Cat in the Hat. They’re like Thing 1 and Thing 2. It’s like a strange version of The Cat in the Hat. When they’re running around and jumping on furniture going, “Get out of my house, get out of my house, get out of my house.” He doesn’t know what else to do. He constantly thinks he has it figured out because he’s smart and he’s the adult and these girls are just 10 steps ahead of him.
Is another lesson that our first impressions can be wildly wrong?
For sure. You look back now, you can see the signs. When the girls come in, they’re like, “Oh, sorry, we don’t want to mess up your house.” They take off their shoes. They do all these things on the surface that seem like they’re being respectful of his house, and that’s all to lure him in as part of the honeytrap. I felt that if the next morning, Evan had walked in and said, “That was amazing. Oh, I’d love some pancakes,” the girls would have laughed and left. But, because he came in and said, “I thought you guys left.” That’s the first thing he says. They go, “It’s on.” They keep giving him moments and he wants to be rid of them. He wants all evidence destroyed.
Even in Hostel, with the hookers, and I’m not trying to compare it to hustle, they’re are almost disposable. Evan just wants the situation to be gone. He wants to clean it from his house. He wants to shower it off like it never happened. And the girls are like, “No, no, no, no, no. You don’t get to do that to us. There’s a price for the pizza and you’re going to pay it.”
Have we gotten to a point in cinema where things like Facebook and Uber are tools, not problems like a cell phone used to be?
Yeah, you have to certainly clear it with Uber and Facebook and there are certain ways you can use it, and iChat and things like that. They’re generally great about it but there’s a fine line of certain things you can’t do about replicating certain graphics. I like using them as plot points. I like it when it’s organic. On “Hemlock Grove” my big thing was they have to talk with iPhones because I don’t believe that they’re actual teenagers in high school if they don’t have them. I just don’t. There are certain weird things. I can believe that’s a seven foot girl with electricity. I can believe he’s a werewolf. I can believe he’s a vampire but I can’t believe they wouldn’t use an iPhone.
So I’m sitting there with the audience and they’re like, “You can’t get a cab. Why wouldn’t he have an Uber?” So that’s not a problem as in well, there’s no Ubers. No, it just takes 45 minutes so they know that’s the clock that we have. We have 45 minutes to lure this guy in. So I like using technology. Even Hostel was actually the first mainstream movie that used texting as a plot point, with the texting with Oli disappearing. I remember that, people going, “Oh, wow.” At the time with Hostel that was the first movie that did that so people thought it was forward thinking. You look back now and it’s like of course, why wouldn’t you have that in there? That’s how people behave.
It’s interesting to be at Sundance now because I feel like no movie showing here will ever not be seen again. It will at least come out on VOD somewhere. David Cross’s film from last year, he’s releasing it on bitTorrent now! When you started, it was probably you either sold to a studio or you were gone. Now you work with Netflix and you have The Crypt, so is it a good thing that we’re in a time where everything will get seen somewhere?
It’s great. I think all the modes of distribution are changing. I think things are moving forward. Everything’s moving mobile. You’re still going to have the theatrical experience but it’s great that there is VOD and Netflix and Amazon, all these ways for people to really experience movies. That’s what it’s all about. It used to be this wall between hoping a distributor picked up your movie and put it on videotape and for you to get a DVD deal was a big deal. Now, you can get anything. It’s really amazing that someone can make The Babadook and IFC puts it out or we did The Stranger in Chile which IFC Midnight’s releasing. That’s kind of a smaller, more quiet, dark, creepy film but that movie definitely have an audience. There can be an audience of people that absolutely love The Stranger because it’s their type of movie, but you can really target those people so they can get it and enjoy it.
With The Crypt, Jack Davis my partner and I are moving forward doing things and there’s so much content that’s going mobile and we’re partnering. Certain things I can’t say yet but we’re about to do a re-launch that’s going to blow people’s minds the way we’re doing shows, but for me it’s all about having an idea, writing and producing it and getting it out to people. That’s what’s most important.
What’s your next movie after Knock Knock sells?
I don’t know. I wrote the script for Hyde with David O. Russell and we’re putting financing together for that but I also have another script that we wrote, Nicolas Lopez and I, for Nicolas to direct called I’m Not Crazy which I would produce. If that goes first, we’re trying to figure out the order of everything but as far as directing goes, I’d like to do The Hive next but I’ve actually been sent a whole bunch of projects to consider as a director so I might jump on one of those.
Season three of “Hemlock?”
Yeah, they’re almost done shooting. We just wrapped “South of Hell” with Mena Suvari and Blumhouse. I directed the pilot for it. It’s on We TV. We’re they’re only scripted show.
When are we going to see on “South of Hell?”
They’re talking about Spring but don’t hold me to that.