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Why pretend? This director loves gore for gore's sake

Eli Roth freely admits he has no interest in imparting messages. With 'Cabin Fever,' the goal is to entertain -- and frighten.

June 13, 2003|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Friday the 13th. Midnight. There probably couldn't be a more appropriate time for the L.A. premiere of the new horror film "Cabin Fever," screening in the Independent Feature Project/Los Angeles Film Festival. The feature debut from director and co-writer Eli Roth is a willful, knowing throwback to the sex-and-gore films of the late 1970s and early '80s, leavened with a dose of "Evil Dead"-style humor.

Causing a stir on the festival circuit since its first unspooling at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, the movie, about a group of kids stricken by a flesh-eating virus while vacationing in a remote cabin in the woods, is scheduled to open in theaters in September. Deliberately crude, Roth's film is a sharp stick in the eye to the neutered, PG-13 horror films that have left fans of gore somewhat bloodthirsty in recent years.

Raised in Boston, Roth attended New York University's undergraduate film program, and after graduation worked most any film job he could get, from production assistant to line producer to stand-in. He finished the first draft of "Cabin Fever" in 1995 and began the years-long struggle to finance the picture, during which time he also moved to Los Angeles.

Between bites of a chicken sandwich late one recent afternoon, Roth, 31, recounted with great detail when he first caught, as it were, the movie bug.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie photo -- A photograph accompanying a Friday Calendar article on "Cabin Fever" director Eli Roth was incorrectly credited to Artisan Entertainment. Lions Gate Films should have been credited.

"When I was 6, we took a trip to Florida and the hotel had pay cable," he recalls. "People forget what a big deal that was once. If you missed a movie in theaters, that was it, you might never see it, especially something like 'Mother's Day' or 'Screamers,' which would never show on regular TV. So I wanted to watch 'The Killer Bees,' a good '70s horror movie, and my dad was like, 'There's this other move I think you might like better called "The Exorcist." ' Two hours later I was just traumatized."

It wasn't long before young Eli had found his path. "When I was 8, my dad took me to see 'Alien,' and I remember after that I said I want to be a producer. My dad says, 'Well the producer has to raise the money for the movie.' I was like, well, what does the director get to do? Well, the director gets to spend the money and tell everybody what to do. I want to be a director."

If only it were so simple, as Roth, who also receives a producing credit on "Cabin Fever," performed both roles in the name of bringing his first feature to the screen.

Continuing in a rapid-fire, nearly stream-of-consciousness style, Roth forges ahead without stopping, detailing his life through the movies.

" 'Alien' was the first movie I puked at. I barfed everywhere. It became this thing where every time I'd see a horror movie, explosive vomit erupted. I'd even be so nervous about it, I'd puke before the movie. Once I got over it, I'd rent anything that was the ultimate in super, ultra-violent horror.

"At my bar mitzvah luncheon, I was sawed in half with a chainsaw. I wasn't friends with any girls, so we couldn't have a dance, and my mother thought maybe we should get a magician to entertain all the kids. I said only if I could be sawed in half. My bar mitzvah cake was a director's slate with blood splattered on it."

The speed and precision with which Roth recounts his personal history is at once, strangely inspiring and disconcerting, perhaps the ultimate revenge of the nerd. "This has been the plan forever. All I've ever wanted was to be on the cover of Fangoria magazine, that was the most important thing in the world, and next month that's going to happen. All I have to do is take Christie Brinkley and Heather Thomas to the premiere and I've hit the trifecta. I could retire."

In truth, Roth is just getting started. Proudly noting that "Cabin Fever" has already tripled its investment before a single theater ticket has been sold, he seems equally savvy at deal-making and directing. He's sold a pitch to Universal, is undertaking a collaboration with "Donnie Darko" writer-director Richard Kelly and has announced a joint production venture called Raw Nerve. An alliance with a small consortium of other writers and directors, including Scott Spiegel, Boaz Yakin, and David J. Schow, the company will fund low-budget horror movies.

Raw Nerve is inspired in part by Roth's frustration at seeing projects by himself and like-minded director pals such as Lucky McKee and Don Coscarelli shunned by the risk-averse, kid-friendly mind-set behind much current film funding and distribution.

"There's a wave of executives who don't really get these movies," he explains.

"I sent 'Cabin Fever' everywhere for six years," he continues. "Changed it, resubmitted it, everything. The comments were this is disgusting, you need a killer, it needs to be more ironic, it's too gross. After that first screening in Toronto, these same people were all fighting for the movie."

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