Eli Roth, Keanu Reeves 'Knock Knock' Interview
by Adam Rathe
Director Eli Roth’s sexy new thriller, “Knock Knock,” turns a married man’s dark fantasy into his worst nightmare. Keanu Reeves stars as the family man who falls into temptation and Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas as the seductresses who wreak havoc upon his life. When a devoted husband and father is left home alone for the weekend, two stranded young women unexpectedly knock on his door for help. What starts out as a kind gesture results in a dangerous seduction and a deadly game of cat and mouse.
At the film’s recent press day, Roth and Reeves talked about the struggle to get the movie made, the ingenious way producer Colleen Camp and Roth looked for financing and their star at the 2014 Oscars, how Cassian Elwes read the script the next morning and got it to Reeves, what it was about the script and Roth’s vision for the film that convinced Reeves to sign on, what Reeves enjoyed most about his role and playing the victim, how the film is a cautionary tale in the age of social media, Roth’s design team and the films and filmmakers that inspired Knock Knock’s compelling visual style, and plans for a possible sequel entitled “Who’s There.”
Check it all out in the interview below:
QUESTION: Keanu, when you were offered this project, did you ever have any trepidation about working with someone who has such a hardcore reputation for horror films?
KEANU REEVES: I don’t think I was the first choice for the role, but I’m really glad it came my way. When I heard that Eli Roth was interested in me for a role, I was really excited about that idea. In terms of the films that he had done in the past, that, if anything, made it more cool. In terms of his art and what he’s doing and what’s in that, it’s really interesting and entertaining. So, I was really excited about reading the script. And then, reading the script was so fantastic. Then, hearing Eli when he communicated his vision for the piece, I was really excited about that. Everything that I had hoped and thought of when Eli spoke about it in terms of his hopes and ambitions for the project had been realized. It doesn’t happen all the time that you go into something, and then you’re watching it on a screen, and you’re like, “Thank you!” When it works out, that’s cool.
Q: Eli, what were you thinking when you guys were mapping this character out in terms of actors? Was Keanu always the first choice?
ELI ROTH: When Nicolas Lopez’s partner, Miguel Asensio, read the script, he said, “This has to be Keanu.” I just think none of us thought it was realistic. Literally, from the beginning, from the first draft of the script, it was Keanu. It’s weird how you do that, but we thought, “He’s not going to come to Chile. C’mon!” That’s why I love Colleen. She’s such a terrific producer. Nicolas and I rented the house and we put down a $50K down payment of our own money. We call it a faith-based system. We just assume and we have faith that the movie is going to get made. We wrote the script in December and in January we put down the deposit. We said, “Okay, we have 10 weeks to get the movie financed, prepped and shooting. Go!” Literally, this family is moving out for a month and we’ve paid the money. So I go to Colleen and she like, “What?! Why’d you rent the house?!” I’m like, “I can feel it! It’s the clock, it’s the clock!”
There we were. It was the Oscars of 2014, and Colleen was like, “We need to get started! We’ve got to start! What do we need?” Colleen badgered Paramount and David O. Russell from American Hustle. She got favors. She got us two tickets to the Oscars. Colleen and I went, and we just went around looking for money and our stars at the Oscars. She said, “C’mon, they got us into the Vanity Fair Party!” We bulldozed our way into the Oscars, bulldozed our way around the parties. We were like, “We’re with David O. Russell!” We didn’t have tickets, but David’s team got us in. It happened, and we got in, and we saw Cassian Elwes. He’s like, “What are you doing?” and I said, “Actually, we need money for a script.” He said, “Can you send it to me?” and I did it from my phone. He said, “I’ll read it tonight.” I said, “Okay.” He called me the next morning at 9:30. He was like, “It’s fucking amazing. When do you guys need to start?” I go, “We need to start prep in 10 days.” “Eli, are you fucking crazy?” Then he said, “I’ve done two movies with Keanu Reeves.” I go, “Can you get it to him?” So, he called him, and told me, “Keanu actually has a window of six weeks.” I was like, “I just need him for four weeks.” We wound up getting it to Keanu. Then, I remember being in Chile and Keanu came in a week and a half before.
As we were about to shoot, we just had Lorenza, no money, no cast, and it all came together. It’s one of those miracles. It all fucking came together at the last minute, but it was totally Colleen punching her way and breaking through into the Oscars and getting Cassian. I remember Lorenza looking at me and going, “Alright, I’m never going to argue with you again.” Because she was like, “You guys are insane. What are you doing? I love you and I want to shoot it, but I don’t think this is going to happen, Eli.” And I’m like, “We’re doing it.” “Yeah well, that worked. I can’t believe it.”
When I first Skyped with Keanu, there was no question. Honestly, it’s no accident he’s been a movie star since the 1980’s. He’s so, so good! I was proud that this was the first movie where he played a dad, where we’re seeing the daddy is so nice and so vulnerable and with the kids. He was fantastic. I want him to get nominated. That’s my dream. I want to see that turning point and go, “Oh my God! We’ve never seen that.” Everyone loves him as the action star, but it is no accident he’s been the star of this many movies and worked with the level of directors that he has. I’m just honored to be a part of that. I’m really honored to have worked with everybody – Aaron, Colleen Lorenza, Ana, Nicolas. It was a very special experience.
Q: Keanu, what drew you to this role?
REEVES: It’s a great role. I liked the writing of the piece, the different tones that the film has – the comedy, the suspense, the thriller, the seduction. There are all of these really interesting chapters in it. Then, for the character, I really liked the family guy, the husband, the architect. Everything is perfect. But is it? And then, I liked how he never changes, like he’s unapologetic to the very end, even as it all comes crashing down on him. I liked his obstinateness to his righteousness. The movie doesn’t have that. The movie is kind of impartial, but he’s put under a magnifying glass. I think there are certain ways to look at the project and what is being looked at. There are so many layers to the piece. It was fun to be an archeologist and to dig them up and to play them.
Q: Eli, can you talk a little bit about the premise of this film? To me, it seems like it’s a cautionary tale. What do you think?
ROTH: I would say, for sure, it’s a cautionary tale. But it’s also in a way about when there’s problems in a relationship, if you don’t deal with it, it’s probably going to come out in your behavior one way or the other. Seemingly, on the surface, Evan has a very happy life, but you can see there’s a little frustration. The wife is not having sex and he uses the monster voice. It feels like he never directly addresses the problems in relationships. She gets really mad at him and he says, “Sorry, sorry.” Then, it’s Father’s Day and they still leave him. The house has her artwork everywhere and it’s all about her and the catalogue. He’s still there and she says to him, “Make sure the movers do this.” He’s just managing the house. So, there are frustrations. You could almost make the argument that these girls are created from this part of his id that just wanted to destroy whatever life happened.
Q: Keanu, do you like to play the role of the victim and did you find it exciting?
REEVES: The victim is fun in movies. Eli created a great situation of trust, and Lorenza, Ana, and I had such love for the material. We rehearsed in the house for a week. We really got to know each other, and know our perspectives on the roles, and really what were the limits, and where was the fun. In the film, there’s a seduction, yes. What does that look like? Then, there’s also comedy, there’s thriller, and there’s some really emotional scenes. It was great to get a chance to work together and to flesh the project out. It was such great material that I think we all had fun doing that.
Q: When you were reading the script, what did you think about the behavior of the women?
REEVES: What did I think of their behavior? I thought they were really smart. It’s because of the context of the fact that they’d done it before. And then, what roles were they deciding to play with each other? And what were they deciding to represent themselves as? And then, how that had nothing to do with who they really were. But it was who they were and are, because they were choosing to play those roles. I thought it was just really smart and funny and emotional, because there’s also behind the whole thing what’s true and not true. And the only thing that’s really true is that we had that night.
ROTH: Again, in confronting a relationship, we talk about the morning after when he walks in and he sees them, and they’re like two raccoons that have gotten into the kitchen and there’s just food everywhere. In a crazy way, it was like a weird wake-up call. If he had come out and said, “Jesus, I can’t believe I did that. There are real issues in my marriage and I’m going to talk to my wife. Can I make you guys breakfast?”, they probably wouldn’t have done that. But, the first thing he says is, “I thought you guys left.” He wanted them gone. They’re like toilet paper. He wants them flushed away. He wants a clean house. He literally wants to clean the house of everything. As soon as he comes in and the first thing he says is, “I though you guys left,“ it’s like okay, game on, so everything. What’s scary to me is the cannibal. It’s like the woman said, “You’re in the shark’s backyard. You’re gonna get ate. You show up at the cannibal’s house, they’re gonna eat you. The cannibal is the cannibal. They’re going to eat you. That’s what they do.” But, what’s scary is when you bring it upon yourself. It’s like they say, you have to invite the vampire into your house. With Keanu, every step of the way, it’s his decision and it’s his actions that have the direct consequence for their actions.
Q: How many takes did you have to do with the free pizza rant? Was it something that you had to get worked up for?
REEVES: Yeah, it was a really exciting moment to do that scene. We shot it twice, because the first time I guess I wasn’t up for the task, and then we got to work on it. Because we got to play the scene, we got to learn something from that. Then, I got back to the hotel and I was crying, and I called Eli, and I said, “Please, can I do this scene again?” There was a long pause on the phone, and being the great person and director that he is, he went, “Okay!” So, we could shoot it again.
ROTH: I mean, he was hugging me while he was crying. It wasn’t on the phone. Shooting nights was very difficult on all the cast. We were having lunch at 2:30 in the morning. I just want to say what an honor it was to work with everyone. They were such troopers. But there is a point when it hits 6:00 in the morning and he literally had no voice. He was out of gas. I was like, “This is your moment. This is your Oscar clip.” This is that moment where he finally breaks and voices with the audience and is thinking, “How the fuck did this happen?” It’s total helplessness. I remember we came in fresh the next day and it was just beautiful to watch.
Q: As a veteran actor, do you get more amped up sharing scenes with gorgeous, beautiful new actors such as Lorenza and Ana as opposed to Al Pacino?
REEVES: They’re so opposite. An example would be with “The Green Inferno.” You can’t even compare them, but they do have something in common. With Pacino, it’s so extraordinary because I’ve looked up to him as an actor. So, to get to act with one of your heroes is very special. That being said, working with Pacino has this same thing as working with Ana and Lorenza, which is that you’re there to tell the story. Everything about who you are and your craft and your creativity goes into that. So that’s cool. Also, just jumping into this film with Ana and Lorenza, it was great to meet them. Everybody just loved the project and we enjoyed each other’s company. It was fun.
Q: Eli, I’m a huge fan of your work. In this movie, you dismember art. How’s that more effective than you dismembering bodies in the previous movies?
ROTH: I’m glad you picked up on that. My other films are certainly known for the viscera and the gore. In this, we substituted chopping off Aaron Burns’ head in “The Green Inferno” for sawing off the heads of the statues. In a crazy way, I found it more disturbing. My mother is an artist, and we grew up with her artwork all over the house. We had to be very careful. You didn’t want to bump into a painting. You didn’t want to scratch anything. We found some amazing artists in Chile to create this work. I remember even when we were shooting it with the girls, there was an element of that. When you’re doing a kill scene in a movie, you really want to get it right and make it look great. But when they were really destroying the art, obviously everyone was in character and we went for it, but there was a feeling of, “Oh my God, we really are destroying these objects.” But then, of course, they spray paint “Art does not exist,” which is the very question of “What is art?” Is it the object that’s artistic or the value placed on it. I know with my films, to one person, they can be complete garbage. To another person, they’re a work of art. So, what is art?
Q: Were there any obstacles during the directing of the film?
ROTH: The main obstacle in shooting was the time constraint. Our idea was doing it down and dirty and fast and trying to shoot it in 22 or 24 days, which is crazy. It’s the kind of thing where there were so many more scenes, where it was like, “Jesus! We have an hour and a half to shoot this! Really?” That’s like heavy, heavy, dialogue and intense. Everything looks beautiful, but you were in a tight space sometimes. You just couldn’t move the camera, or one of the actors was constricted. But, we really got in there and rehearsed, and everybody had their game face on. Once we added water and glass and light, the reflections were a nightmare, but it was worth it, the struggle of the movie, of getting it there and everyone pushing themselves. We all were crazy by the end of the movie, and in the movie, you’re going crazy. There was one obstacle where the woman who owned the house was an interior decorator. She showed up the day we had all the destruction, even though I told her that was a really bad idea. The house looked nice by the end of it, after we left, but that was a big obstacle.
Q: What were the keys for you in shooting this movie in a visually arresting style in such an enclosed space?
ROTH: I watched Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction.” I watched when Peter Traynor shot “Death Game” and Jack Fisk did his production design. We watched Roman Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden,” which is a beautiful looking film. We tried to find movies that were contained and confined, that didn’t feel claustrophobic, where you weren’t trapped. I remember in “Cabin Fever,” when we were in the cabin, we always used depth and window light. We found the location and there were so many different layers. I like the house being a character. I like the house being a metaphor for the marriage and the different levels, the different layers, the façades, the things you destroy underneath, and the U-shape of it. The way the house was laid out. I mean, “Green Inferno” starts off looking like “Spider-Man” or “You’ve Got Mail,” and then it becomes this disturbing documentary where everything is handheld, shaky, and out of focus. This had to have that stylish look from start to finish. I wanted to show that I could do those Hitchcockian, early Paul Verhoeven “Turkish Delight” and “The 4th Man,” that Jan de Bont cinematography that he had. I love those movies that look beautiful and feel rich and lush where you can really give the actors a great frame. And that’s also our DP Antonio Quercia, our Production Designer Marichi Palacios, our Costume Designer Elisa Hormazabal. They’re an amazing team. And then, you get the actors that are so into it. I like setting up the frame where you can just really make it about them and their performance. If you’re watching, there are always so many different layers going on, deep, deep in the background and it’s about really filling the frame with that detail.
Q: Eli, your movies seem to push the boundaries of what humans are capable of in a way. Can you talk about what this movie means in terms of getting into the psychological side of horror instead of just the dismemberment, viscera and gore?
ROTH: It’s interesting. I think that at this point in my career there’s no way to divorce myself from horror. I can only transition and make different kinds of movies because I’m so strongly associated with it. The hope is that people watch it as its own contained film, not necessarily as the fifth chapter in some sort of long form horror series. To me, this really is a drama, a thriller, a sexual thriller. If you put it in the category of horror, it gives the audience the wrong experience. I’m not criticizing that. I can completely understand why people would think that. I don’t want people to think it’s a horror movie with no blood. It really follows the conventions of the sexual thriller. For me, it was fun to get into the psychology of those characters and to write them from the point of view that nobody is wrong and everyone fully believes in what they’re doing. That’s always scary to me when someone does something because they so truly believe in what they’re doing. There’s either a larger cause for it, or they believe they’re right, or they justify it in their own head. That’s what I think is interesting and dangerous and exciting. It’s the idea that Keanu’s character, Evan, knows it’s wrong, but he’s justified it in his head. The girls know what they’re doing is wrong, but they’ve justified it in their head. What happens when those two worlds meet? And then, Nicolas and I looked at social media. We looked at the Ashley Madison hack revealing 37 million people paying to cheat on their spouses. I’m not judging them, but I’m saying there’s something broken in their relationship. There’s something that they’re missing. Instead of confronting it, they pay money. And now, with technology, all their credit cards, email addresses, and all their sexual fantasies are detailed on the internet forever. That’s the world we live in. Even this morning, someone was saying there’s a new Yelp for people where people can rate you and there’s no way to change it.
Q: Your past movies – “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel,” “Hostel 2” or “The Green Inferno” – have had characters journeying to the far reaches of the earth for new experiences. But this one is different in that it takes place in a man’s home which ends up getting invaded through his own fault. Did that present any new challenges for you as a writer when you were putting the script together?
ROTH: No. I mean, I liked the idea. Obviously, I was very interested, probably because of where I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts with that kind of overprotected, over sheltered, over privileged, over educated, upper middle class kid that yearns for that life experience. In “Cabin Fever,” they want that irresponsible partying and drugs. In “Hostel,” they want sex that they think they can’t find. In “Green Inferno,” they want validation through this kind of vanity activism. They want Twitter followers and it all comes horribly back to bite them in the ass literally in “Green Inferno.” But with this one, now that I’m 43 and we’re making a home, it’s about what happens when you let that force into your life. Suddenly, you’re like, “Oh my God, there’s a crazy person in my house. What have I done?” You realize that because you’re smart, that’s actually what makes you vulnerable. You think, “Well I know how to handle this situation, because I’m a smart person and look how well I’ve done so far.” And you drop your guard. Then, maybe there’s some situation where someone is in your home for whatever reason and you realize, “Oh my God, this person could take my stuff. Now they know my alarm codes. They could really unravel me. And they can do it in such a short amount of time.” And then, you add the social media aspect. We were also interested in the generational differences in sexuality and how someone in their forties sees it. A lot of my friends that married in their twenties are now divorced, and they’ll say, “What’s it like? Girls in their teens and twenties must be so much crazier because of internet pornography.” There’s this “grass is always greener” mentality. Look at the way teenagers sexualize themselves on Instagram for Likes and Follows. We were looking at some of the people on the cast and crew whose younger sisters are 15 or 16. And then, you’re looking at their friends, and you can’t tell in your forties. I mean, I wouldn’t know if that girl was 16 or 26. So, it’s playing on that, on the differences in sexuality by generation and how that all is [now so public]. Now nothing is private anymore and it was about that idea. When we were writing it, we just thought about all of the things that are modern fears. With “Cabin Fever,” I wrote it when I was 22. I wrote “Hostel” when I was 32. I wrote “Knock, Knock” when I was 41. They’re very much written reflecting the fears at that age.
Q: Seduction scenes are always awkward, but on top of that, you guys are a couple. Was the seduction scene awkward for you?
ROTH: (joking) Well, Keanu and I were a couple at the time. We were pretty open. It wasn’t weird at all. We obviously wanted the scene to be great. I think the scene would have been awkward with different scene partners. Because they’re such great actors and everyone is friends and close, they all wanted it to look good. We all watched the scene. There was a point where we shot it, cut it, edited it, and watched it with the cast, and everyone is like, “The sex scene could have been better.” We went back and we shot inserts of body parts and photo doubles, and it turned out awesome. I was like, “Oh, that’s how I’ll do it in the future.” There’s no shame in that. It wound up being great. We were all there to make a great scene. But yeah, it’s weird.
Q: Ana and Lorenza’s characters were so strong. I would enjoy seeing more of them in another film. They indicated that they had done this before, they did it to Keanu’s character, and it seems likely they’re going to do it again. It’d be so great if there was a sequel called “Knocked on the Wrong Door.”
ROTH: Well, we talked about doing a movie called “Who’s there?” And that would be that. We actually shot a tag where he found them in another house, and they’ve switched characters, and they’re doing it to something else. In the movie, in watching the editing, I thought there was nothing worse than when he liked the photo. That, for me, was the end of the film and we were starting another movie. We certainly talked about it. I loved the characters. I really cannot say enough amazing things about Ana and Lorenza. We really wanted them to have real depth and be real characters, not caricatures, or not just psychopaths. We offer a little bit of a hint into what abuse they’ve faced in their past, which they had no choice in. They’re feeling that everything is bullshit, that all men are basically animals. It doesn’t matter if they have a ring on their finger, or the kids in private school, or the photos on the wall. If you show up with free pizza, they’re going to take it because that’s what men are. And all this art? It’s all bullshit. It’s just masturbatory nonsense, which is how I feel sometimes during Academy season. It makes me feel that way.
But truthfully, the reason to do it would be to work with both of them again, because I think that what makes the movie work is the dynamic of the three actors and the way that they work so well. In fact, when we met Ana, Colleen had met her first and told me, “I’ve just met the most amazing girl. You’ve just got to meet her.” Ana was going to get on a flight later, so Lorenza and I went and sat down with her, and Ana didn’t even audition. We just knew that she’d be amazing. What I love about them is that I got to work with the cast, and everybody is making the most of every single moment in the movie, like when Ana comes in and she’s looking around, and there’s an extra beat, and Keanu is holding his uncomfortable smile and gulping a few times. It was such a pleasure to work with this cast. As a director, all you have to do is set up the camera and yell “action” and “cut.”