Thanks to some distribution migraines, American moviegoers are getting two Eli Roth movies in the space of a few weeks — which are also the first two features he’s directed himself since “Hostel Part II” back in 2007. “The Green Inferno,” just released after first hitting festivals two years ago, is his cannibal movie, while the new “Knock Knock” is something comparatively nicer: a mere psychological thriller. Roth’s real-life wife, Lorenza Izzo, stars in both, in the latter as one of two young women (the other played by Ana de Armas) tormenting a middle-aged dad (Keanu Reeves), who’s home alone when they show up. Both Roth and Izzo came to New York to talk about things not always associated with his horror films: his wanting to evolve into an actor’s director, honesty in relationships and an old Czech New Wave film that he’s crazy about.
It is strange talking about two films instead of one. Though I think there’s some overlap between the two.
Eli Roth: I think of “The Green Inferno” as my farewell to horror. I don’t know where I could go from there. It’s the last of my travel trilogy. But it’s different from “Hostel.” There they want to have sex. In “The Green Inferno” they want to protest to save the Amazon. But really it’s because they want to be recognized for saving the Amazon. I “Knock Knock” it’s about the dangers that happen when you don’t leave your own home — when trouble comes to you and you invite it into your own house.
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“Knock Knock” is especially focused on the performances. At times it’s like a play.
Roth: They’re the first movies I directed post-“Inglourious Basterds.” I really learned so much from Quentin while working as an actor. I wanted to show I was an actor’s director. In my previous films I wanted the gore and the kills to be spectacular, and they often overshadow the performances of the actors. But I think the acting is what makes those things work. Heather Matarazzo’s performance in “Hostel II” — that’s why that scene is effective. In “The Green Inferno” I wanted to make a film that looked different from my other films. It’s really a jungle adventure. In the video store you could put it on the horror shelf, but it also belongs with “Apocalypto” and Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” and “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” — as well as, obviously, Umberto Lenzi and Rugero Deodato films, like “Cannibal Holocaust.” But then “Knock Knock,” after all the blood in “The Green Inferno,” I really wanted to make a very controlled film that was tense but without a drop of blood. [Ed. For the record, there’s a tiny amount of blood in it.] It was about the performances. It was really a showcase for Keanu Reeves and what incredible range he has. He goes from being a nice dad to a feral animal, growling and snarling by the end. And I really wanted to write a role for Lorenza, and for Ana de Armas.
Lorenza Izzo: I think he is an actor’s director. It’s easy to say that and a lot of people say that, but I say that in the sense that he doesn’t feel like he’s above me. He’s constantly on my level, especially when we were in the Peruvian jungle, which is really scary. But you feel like you have a leader and a teammate who will know where you are when you’re lost.
Lorenza and Ana’s characters are essentially always acting. It’s hard to find the real them.
Roth: You never know what the truth is. There are so many truths going on. We talked about how everything she says is a manipulation. Everything she says to him has to have a layer of phoniness so she can achieve certain objectives. When she’s in the mirror, putting on makeup, that’s the only time she doesn’t have to act for him.
Izzo: She’s acting on top of acting on top of acting. She has several different masks. She puts on whichever one she needs, like if she needs to use sexuality to get what she wants. But I also thought of her as a real person, a very troubled girl. It was important for her to be a grounded human being. Well all do that. We all have masks for different people and different parts of society, especially with men. It sends a strong message about what these girls have to in society.
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Some of your films are about people who are essentially innocent but unwittingly put themselves in harm’s way, but at least in a sense are begging for it. It’s not always obvious what Keanu’s character does to deserve his fate, but he’s not a just a good guy.
Roth: He’s a guy who has two kids, a wife, his own business. He’s successful, he lives in a gated community. He’s safe; his home is a castle. But if you go back and look at it, he’s someone who has put himself second to everyone else. He puts his wife before his career. He wants to have sex and she doesn’t. Instead of confronting her about it he does a monster voice. It’s Father’s Day, but it’s all about her, her gallery show. They had plans to go to the beach, but he has to work. Instead of canceling it they go without him. And it all causes frustration. All these things he thinks are cool — his records, his long hair, his architecture — they were cool 20 years ago. And here comes these two girls saying, “We love your records, we love your hair.” They treat him as a sexual being. And he’s like, “You know what? F— it. I’m going to f—ing do this.”
At the same time, he doesn’t handle the morning after very well.
Roth: We talked about that moment in the kitchen when he comes in and they’re acting like raccoons, food everywhere. And the first thing he says is, “I thought you left.” That’s the moment where they think, “Game on.” Because if he had gone in and said, “I can’t believe that happened, but you know what? I have problems in my relationship and I’m going to talk to my wife about it” — the probably wouldn’t have done that to him, because he was being honest. But because he tries to discard them like toilet paper and pretend it didn’t happen… Look at Ashley Madison — 37.1 million people are paying for that because they’re unhappy in a relationship. Instead of confronting that, they pay to have an affair. I’m not judging. But if you’re in a relationship and there are problems and you don’t vocalize them, it’s going to come out in your behavior. If you are unhappy it will come out.
Still, the film allows the viewer to decide if he deserves it or not, or somewhere in between.
Izzo: Whoever you blame says a lot about you. If you say, “Oh, I think it’s the wife’s fault,” that’s revealing. They’re such honest characters. They’re not overexplaining anything.
Roth: I write characters who are honest. I always cry bulls— in movies when every character’s likable. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe characters who never say anything offensive or use language that isn’t politically correct. People don’t talk that way.
Its take on millenials is also agnostic. It’s not a takedown of scary young people, even if it could be read the way by some.
Izzo: This generation is now way more advanced because of technology. They’re way more aware of the world. So their actions are stronger and they want everything. They’re also smarter. We’re dealing with people who were a lot smarter than we were. It’s real. My sister is younger and she has all these tricks about social media. It’s scary.
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There’s a part at the end where one of the characters vandalizes an object in the house, writing in graffiti, “Art is not real.” That’s a good way to taunt your detractors.
Roth: Art is art, but is art the value itself or the value we place on it? I’ve been in a position like that. With “Hostel,” in France, Cahiers du Cinema puts it as one of the best American films of the decade. And in America the New York Times lists it as pornographic art. So which is it? I love the idea of saying that all art doesn’t exist and it’s all bullshit.
This is a bit of a shot-in-the-dark because it’s a little obscure, but here goes: Halfway through “Knock Knock” I realized it was a lot like “Daisies,” this old Czech New Wave film that’s also about two girls who delight in destroying the bourgeois life.
Roth: I love “Daisies.” I didn’t see it till after. After I saw it I thought it was a spiritual sister to “Knock Knock.” It’s such a masterpiece. I want to show a double bill of it and “Knock Knock.” I wish I had seen it before I made this, because the art direction in that film is amazing. That film is what my next film will look like. And the characters — they’re tired of the world they think it’s all bulls—. That’s what the film is about.
Both the protagonists in “Daisies” and here are also quite destructive to art.
Roth: I substituted chopping of body parts in “Hostel” for sawing off the head of a statue. That was more painful, because chopping off a body part is an effect. But when you destroy a statue — watching [the characters] destroy it, it’s legitimately shocking. My mother’s a painter, so stabbing a painting with a knife would be like stabbing you through the heart. Even smashing that statue, you can’t believe you did that. You’re not supposed to do that. It’s about the destruction of art, but in the end they’re saying it’s all bulls—. All the paintings, everything, it’s all bulls—. Art does not exist — not for them.