Q&A: “KNOCK KNOCK”! Who’s There? Director Eli Roth, on Keanu, “Free Pizza” and More
by Michael Gingold
Leaving the gore of HOSTEL and THE GREEN INFERNO behind, Eli Roth ups the eroticism in his new thriller KNOCK KNOCK, with Keanu Reeves as his latest onscreen victim. The filmmaker sat down with FANGORIA to talk about the film, its cast and a monologue that bids to become a cult classic.
In KNOCK KNOCK, which Roth scripted with Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo, and debuts in theaters and on-demand this Friday from Lionsgate Premiere, Reeves plays Evan Webber, a family man left alone in his luxurious suburban house on a rainy night while his wife and children are on vacation. Two sexy young women, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s frequent star and now his real-life wife) and Bel (Ana de Armas) turn up at his door, at first claiming to seek help but then seducing him into a steamy three-way. The following morning, they suddenly turn on Evan, subjecting him to a series of physical and mental tortures. The film is a semi-official remake of 1977’s DEATH GAME, whose producers Peter S. Traynor (who also directed) and Larry Spiegel and stars Colleen Camp and Sondra Locke are all credited producers on KNOCK KNOCK. It’s also part of a change in direction in Roth’s genre career, which next sees him helming the big-ticket giant-shark movie MEG.
FANGORIA: KNOCK KNOCK is an interesting departure from your previous horror films, which were about people venturing into foreign territory and being threatened by the locals. Here, the threat comes into a man’s own home. Was that a conscious change in focus?
ELI ROTH: It just sort of happened naturally. I guess the “travel trilogy,” you could call it, of CABIN FEVER, HOSTEL and THE GREEN INFERNO, is exactly that; they’re about the dangers you face when you go outside your comfort zone. But I really liked the idea of inviting trouble into your own house, when it’s not forced on you and you make the decision to open Pandora’s box—what are the ramifications of that? And that was certainly inspired when we watched Peter Traynor’s DEATH GAME, which is a very rarely seen movie that Colleen Camp [who also appears in KNOCK KNOCK] told me about. I loved the idea of doing something more contained, and that basically had one drop of blood—like when Peter Jackson went from DEAD ALIVE to HEAVENLY CREATURES.
I feel like GREEN INFERNO was my mic drop; I don’t know how much more blood I can spill in a movie than in that one, and I wanted to do something that wasn’t a horror movie so much as an erotic thriller. I love the old films of Paul Verhoeven and Roman Polanski—even Polanski’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN was a big influence—as well as Michael Haneke, David Slade’s HARD CANDY and the kind of psychosexual thriller that Adrian Lyne did so well with FATAL ATTRACTION. The goal was to make a movie that felt like FATAL ATTRACTION for millenials.
FANG: DEATH GAME isn’t credited by title in KNOCK KNOCK, but you have its two producers and lead actresses credited as producers on your film. How did that come together?
ROTH: That happened because we found everyone who was involved with DEATH GAME, and the way it all fell out legally, that was just the simplest and easiest way to credit it—where everybody could be part of the movie, and we could still acknowledge the debt to DEATH GAME. That’s the reason Anthony Overman and Michael Ronald Ross, who wrote the screenplay for DEATH GAME, are credited with the story, because I loved that basic setup, but it’s obviously a very different movie, with different characters and different themes.
FANG: How did you and your co-writers approach updating those themes?
ROTH: There’s a real generational difference today between the way people in their 40s think and the way teenagers think, and what they use social media for. It’s the idea that nothing you do is private anymore, even the things you do in your own home. In the day of FATAL ATTRACTION, maybe your wife found out, maybe your family found out, but now, the whole world can find out. Everything you do can be broadcast, and that’s a terrifying idea.
FANG: Keanu’s “free pizza” monologue while the girls have him tied up is one of the film’s highlights. How much did you direct him in that scene? Did you just give him the words and let him go, or did you only have him go so far with his delivery?
ROTH: We kept joking and telling Keanu, “This is your Oscar clip, no pressure!” That monologue Nicolás and Guillermo and I wrote basically expresses the whole theory of the movie—that if free pizza showed up at 2 in the morning, every guy would take it. When we were rehearsing it, Keanu just started riffing, and we were laughing so hard we were crying, and were like, “That’s what we want.” We wrote down everything he was saying, and rewrote the monologue for him.
We were filming nights, and it was a very, very tough shoot. This wound up actually being as hard as GREEN INFERNO, just in different ways. Because we were essentially shooting in a glass box, any way we lit it, anywhere we wanted to put the camera, there were reflections everywhere. And the house was so beautiful, I wanted layers and depth; I didn’t want you to feel like you were in a house, I wanted it to look big and beautiful and cinematic. Anyway, when we got to that scene, it was 5 in the morning, and Keanu was just out of gas. So we said, “Let’s stop, because this is too important; let’s start again tomorrow night.”
So Keanu rested, and he came in at 7:30 the next night. That scene was the first one up, and he just nailed it; he was amazing. We were watching, and just couldn’t believe it. That’s the kind of guy Keanu is; he just gives you everything he has until he’s out of gas, and people really don’t give him the credit he deserves as an actor. They’re not necessarily kind to him about his performances, but when you look at the range of what he’s done… I mean, there’s the action-hero Keanu in THE MATRIX and POINT BREAK and JOHN WICK, but then there’s the comedic Keanu in BILL & TED, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, DANGEROUS LIAISONS… He’s done so much that it’s no accident he’s been a star for so long. And when you see him in that scene, he’s angry and vulnerable, and just giving everything.
I feel like we’re just seeing the beginning of the Keanu-ssance right now, where he’s starting to do the dad roles, and it’s fun to watch a guy who you’re used to seeing save the whole planet get led around by these two girls who are constantly one step ahead of him. We were joking that KNOCK KNOCK is actually a version of THE CAT IN THE HAT, with Thing One and Thing Two running around being crazy, and he can’t control them. He thinks he’s smarter than they are, he thinks that because he’s an adult, he knows better. But there’s that moment when he realizes that these girls could just wreak havoc on his safety, and all the things he has built up to protect himself.
FANG: You were engaged to Lorenza Izzo while making the film; did that affect the process at all?
ROTH: It’s interesting—Lorenza and I have a great working relationship, obviously. I feel like I’ve never worked with an actor who gives that much, and who wants to improve and grow and change. She is truly an amazing actor, especially when you realize she’s acting in her second language. And when we get on set, we’re director and actor, and that’s the relationship. She knows I’m going to push her, and I know she’s always going to give me everything she has. Everybody looks to us to set the tone; they realize that there’s no playing favorites. She’s there to do her job and to nail it, and I want her to nail it, and everybody else has to keep up with us. And when you have actors like Keanu and Ana, it’s easy.
There’s that concern—“Is he going to play favorites, is he going to give her special attention?”—and no, nobody gets special attention. We’re all there with one common goal, and we’re very clear about that in rehearsals: Whatever our relationship is off set, as soon as we get to set, it’s all business. That’s good for both of us; she’s there to focus on creating a strong character and arc, and I’m there to focus on making the film and helping her succeed, the same as I would for Keanu and Ana and the other actors. Everybody knows that, so they know they have to show up with their game faces on.
That’s stuff I learned from Quentin Tarantino. GREEN INFERNO and KNOCK KNOCK were the two movies I made post-INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and that really changed the way I write characters and the way I approach actors. Before those movies, I felt I could do great setpieces, but after BASTERDS, I really feel these two films show that I’m an actor’s director.