Excerpt from the forthcoming book “All the Gory Details” by Eli Roth. Not for reprint without author’s permission. Republishing excerpts on websites is fine. Photogallery from Eli Roth’s decade here.
The nineties, while fun and wild at times, were spent in film school, then working on various film sets from 5:30 in the morning until 11:00 at night getting coffee or standing out in the freezing cold asking drug addicts in Tompkins Square Park to kindly keep their voice down. In short, they sucked, by 1999 I had moved to Los Angeles and finally got my first directing break, co-writing, directing, producing and voicing a series of animated shorts with my friend Noah Belson called “Chowdaheads.” The shorts were to air on WCW Wrestling’s #1 rated show “Monday Nitro,” but the weekend before they were scheduled to air the CEO got fired, and the shorts were put on hold. I had put every waking minute of my life into these shorts, and now they were just sitting on a shelf because of a regime change. I was told to “sit tight” and “hang in there,” but by the end of 1999 it was clear nothing was going to happen with them. It was time to move on.
Then, in January of 2000, the phone rang. On the other end was an unmistakable Midwestern twang I instantly recognized.
“Eli, man? David Lynch. How ya doin’, bud?”
I knew David from a research project I had done for him years ago when I was working for a theater producer in New York City. I had written to David after I moved to Los Angeles, but had never heard back from him. I knew he was busy with his new TV pilot, “Mulholland Drive,” but that was about it. I had sent him a holiday card just to keep in touch, and much to my surprise, he called. David wanted to talk to me about his new website, DavidLynch.com, and asked if I’d help him organize some ideas. I went over to his house and had a “cup of Joe” and we chatted about the Internet. David told me about his frustrations with the television networks, and how he wanted to film ideas for the Internet because it gave him total freedom. He was also going to charge for his ideas, which was very revolutionary at the time. People were not used to paying anything outside what they paid their service provider, but he argued that unless he charged he’d go bankrupt, and if the fans were getting good material they’d be okay with a monthly fee that was basically the price of one lunch. David began spouting out these ideas, and I just started writing them down.
And that’s how it began. Suddenly, I was producing shorts with him for DavidLynch.com. We had a blast. I was so nervous, but with David you could do no wrong. He was so nice and encouraging about everything, and he loved the “happy accident.” David taught me to focus on what’s in front of the lens, not to fixate on what’s in your head, for if you’re too trapped in your own head you might miss something magical that’s right there under your nose. David wanted to shoot a music video for his band Blue Bob, for the song “Thank you, Judge” (which is available on Davidlynch.com) We found a house in the valley and courtroom to film in, and he cast Naomi Watts as the ex-wife who gets everything. The day before shooting, David threw out that I was going to play Naomi’s cheesy new boyfriend, which we all agreed was perfect typecasting. So for the final shot, I put on a suit and sunglasses and held a cheap box of chocolates in one arm and Naomi in the other, smiling and waving to the camera.
There are endless stories about working with David, and I got to sit with him and transfer “Eraserhead” onto hi-def, which was a treat. David doesn’t do director’s commentaries, but I got to listen to him tell a few stories here and there, so it was like having a private commentary. One day Marlon Brando came over to discuss filming a “tea party” in drag, but that never materialized. It was as surreal as you could imagine, and after we said we wished we had filmed just that encounter since it was just so bizarre to watch Brando drink Snapple, eat a tomato, and talk about how he must have “very real breasts” for the segment. I just listened and absorbed everything I could. I spent about four months with David filming these various shorts, all the while taking time to go to meetings with Noah at various networks to try and resurrect “Chowdaheads” as a half hour animated series. The whole show was done in our Boston accents, so we were pitching it as “King of the Hill” but set in Massachusetts.
The closest we came was at MTV in February 2000, but were ultimately told that they were no longer doing animated shows. We couldn’t understand – “Beavis and Butthead” was such a huge hit and we felt like we had the next one, but they said they were now only doing this new thing called “reality” programming. Animation, at least for them, was dead. But thankfully there was this new craze flush with cash: the Internet. Our agents set us up at a new site called Z.com that had millions of dollars from Wall Street investors. The CEO loved “Chowdaheads” and wanted to continue it as a web series, but Noah and I said we would let them have it if they made our other show first – a stop-motion series called “The Rotten Fruit.”
“The Rotten Fruit” was a “Davey and Goliath”-type idea that Noah and I dreamed up about a band of foul mouthed British hooligan fruit that looked cute and adorable but did horrible, violent, deviant things. The idea was so bizarre that we actually went to World Art Supply and built the characters out of clay, then made a shoebox diorama to set them up in. We drove around the diorama in the back of my 1984 Saab to meetings, often bringing execs out to the parking lot where we’d dance around the figures and do the voices. This seemed really, really funny to us. Amazingly, Z.com went for it, and gave us $40,000 to make a pilot. This enabled me to hire additional animators and builders (I was one of the main animators even though I hadn’t done stop motion since I was twelve) and spend money on cameras and a killer sound mix. It was my biggest directing job to date, and in April of 2000 I spent 3 weeks in my friend Roy’s garage animating the pilot episode with an animator I had worked with on “Chowdaheads” named David Candelaria. “Chowadheads” was supposed to air on TNT, so we even though it never aired we had to tone it way down from the original idea, which was a series called “Massholes.” The internet brought us new freedom, the freedom to use any word we wanted. Or so we thought.
Over the decade I kept a fairly detailed journal, so in an effort to not romanticize things or rewrite history, here are a few excepts of my life over the last ten years. I removed or changed the names of studio execs I fought with and girls I dated to spare them the embarrassment.
Journal Entry: June 23rd, 2000.
I could fucking kill Jane (*our Z.com exec). No fucking sense of humor. They want to tone down our show. It’s too much for their “little network.” They can’t “take chances” like that. What’s the answer: bring in the lawyers? Try to convince her? No. I can’t understand it – she’s mad because an orange uses the word ‘cunt.’ And he’s not even calling a girl a cunt, he’s using it in the British sense of the word, calling male cherries ‘cunts.’ I don’t want to concede on anything. I’ll lie to her face and then shoot two versions. It’s the only way I can live with myself. It’s bullshit. This is the show. We did not misrepresent ourselves. We told them what we were doing, they read the script, we all agreed on it, and now they’re afraid of offending people? It’s the fucking internet!!?!
I condeded. I took out the word “cunt” and replaced it with the word “Goggin,” which I told them was a British slang term. It wasn’t, it’s the name of the English teacher Noah and I had in 9th grade. So there. I showed them. But the show was so popular that I got money to do ten episodes, and in July I set up Snake Pit Animation Studios with my friend Roy Wood, who had gotten money from a site called Honkworm.com also to do stop motion. We’d share resources and equipment and would have it for a year and could also shoot our side projects if we wanted. Roy bought a baby anaconda, which we would take out and play with on occasion. People would come over and ask why we were called Snake Pit, and we’d show them. It was a fun place to work. I could work for 15 hours doing one animation shot, I really got into it. I’d even sleep at the studio a lot, working all night. I just got so into the world of the characters I didn’t really want to do anything else.
Journal Entry: August 12, 2000
The Fangoria convention today was a disaster. It was cool to hear Rick Baker and William Friedkin talk, and I liked seeing Linda Blair with Friedkin. But overall it was just a waste of money. Save the Hitler Pez.
Jane (*the Z.com exec) is out of control. She tries to take control of our show and impose her own views. “Take it out, that stuff’s never funny.” She delivers notes through an assistant because she’s scared to tell us directly, probably because I argue every point into the ground. And why is her opinion more valuable than ours combined? They don’t think it works, we do – so who’s right? Why can’t they trust us? Isn’t that what they hired us for in the first place? They’re not morally objecting to it, so what’s the problem? The problem is everyone wants to put their paws in our ricebowl. And they’re giving us money so they want to feel like their opinion matters more than ours. So frustrating.
At the Fangoria convention Rick Baker said he spent every waking hour of every day trying to perfect his craft. I’m insane not to do the same. He started when he was ten. I have to be the same way.
By October, 2000, Z.com was bankrupt. Everything David Lynch predicted came true: all these entertainment sites that gave it away for free went belly up. (Davidlynch.com, meanwhile, is still in business.) Z.com called me begging for the computers back, cameras, anything, but I told them that we had signed contracts with the animators for 10 episodes and I was going to pay them for that, even if we were only going to make 7. We all knew this was coming, as our lunchtime activity was going on fuckedcompany.com and seeing which dot coms had turned into dot bombs. We knew Z.com was up there because they were spending so much money and still weren’t charging people to visit the site. So we all kind of prepared for it mentally, and when it hit I had already pre-paid my crew members for the next few episodes so that the money was already spent and they had two months of security to find their next gig. By October the show was done, and I now had this great work space paid through the following July.
Noah and I decided that we should use the studio as a place to write since we were both living in small apartments, so we met there every day and at the advice of our agents wrote a T.V. pilot called “Teenagents.” It was kind of like “Jump Street,” with young looking cops who go undercover busting teenage criminals, except they’re really irresponsible and cross the line and hook up with the high school kids. We thought it was funny, but once again people felt it was “too weird.” (I still want to shoot that one day…)
Right around the time the show finished, Evan Astrowsky, a producer friend from film school who I had done “Chowdaheads” with, came to me and said it was time to get serious and make “Cabin Fever.” He was right. I had written the script five years earlier and it had been sent everywhere for years and years, to no avail. No one wanted to make it. But Evan read it and thought it was really funny and that I shouldn’t give up on it. He had just produced a movie for a million dollars and knew some people with money, so we decided to go for it.
The best way to jump start “Cabin Fever,” Evan said, was to hold casting sessions, even though we had no money. If we acted like we had money, we’d get it. Evan was friendly with a casting director named Ayo Davis, and with her partner Joe Adams they put out in the acting breakdowns that we were casting a new low budget horror film called “Cabin Fever.” Amazingly, people responded. So we started setting up auditions and putting them on tape, telling them we were going to start shooting “in the springtime.” Snake Pit Animation Studios became the “Cabin Fever” casting office. Actors would show up and have to sit in the waiting room with a bunch of animators from Roy’s show and a baby anaconda. We figured it was good litmus test, if they stayed around to audition, they’d be able to make it through the shoot.
Instant Message conversation with a girlfriend in New York: November 20th, 2000
Eli: So of course the girls I was obsessed with didn’t show up: Tracy Lords and Nicole Eggert. I was so pissed!And Carmen Electra passed. I mean, she was totally wrong but I wanted to meet her. I suppose it’s for the best.
Bunny: Nicole Eggert…what’s she from?
Eli: Charles… In…
Bunny: OH, of course!!
Eli: The girl from Big Brother came in.
Bunny: the one everyone hated?: the personal trainer…
Eli: I don’t know. I never watched it.
Bunny: what did you think?
Eli: She was really good. Very natural. And sweet.
Bunny: i see…i cannot believe you’re actually casting..so exciting
Eli: Yeah. When we are fully financed and in production it will be more exciting, but it’s good to meet people. Get the ball rolling.
Eli: I like having all these actors read my script and act the lines. It brings it to life.
Camryn Manheim, my friend Kevin Hench and I pitched a movie to producer Bill Mechanic called “The Extra,” to star Camryn as a demented extra who becomes obsessed with a movie star. It was my first professional pitch that actually sold, and for the first time in my life I had enough money to buy a new car. Or at least a used car. (Which I still drive and Mindy Kaling makes fun of.) On January 28th, Kevin and I were commenced, and we started writing. I had occasional “Cabin Fever” casting sessions at the studio, but Evan and I were at the point where agents were asking us if we were going to make offers and we didn’t have the money, so now we had to say that we were looking to shoot “in the summer.” In the meantime, we had partnered with producer Lauren Moews who had produced a number of small budget films and had an excellent track record. Lauren also knew a lot of random people with money, so we began taking meetings with anyone who showed interest. Lauren suggested we bring on a very experienced sales agent named Susan Jackson as our executive producer. Susan had tremendous experience distributing smaller movies and selling bigger ones to studios, and wanted to get in at the producing stage, so it was a natural fit. This opened us up to all the companies Susan had relationships with, and we set up meetings with all of them. Everyone said no. I just kept writing with Kevin, pushing forward.
Journal Entry: April 17th, 2001
No money yet for “Cabin Fever” but we keep meeting with people. I split my days between writing, casting, and taking meetings with anyone Lauren and Susan know who has money. It’s a big song and dance routine, but I feel confident we’ll get it. Susan wants us to go to Cannes, she said the market there is a good place to find money.
I went to the Cannes film festival with Evan and Susan with a suitcase full of scripts and “Cabin Fever” investment packets while Lauren worked on investors stateside. Cannes has both the festival and the film market, which run simultaneously. It was my first time at a film marketplace, and it was an eye-opening experience. I could not believe the sheer volume of movies with stars that were made that never got distributed in the U.S. The market is where you sell movies to all the different countries, and people often sell territories just at the script stage. We took meetings with many international companies, and Susan walked us around the market floor and introduced us to people at booths, and set appointments. We met with some U.S. distributors, like the guys from Lionsgate, pitching them the script, and showing them a “Rotten Fruit” episode as an example of my directing. Thankfully there was a story about “The Extra” in the May issue of French Premiere magazine, so when people asked who I was I could just open the magazine and they believed I was a hot writer. It was a lot of smoke and mirrors. People seemed to like me, but not enough to put money into the film – it was too bizarre for them. “There’s no killer we can put on the box” was a big concern. Coincidentally, David Lynch was there with “Mulholland Drive,” and I attended my first red carpet premiere at the Palais. I was lucky enough to be seated with David and his crew to witness the roaring standing ovation, and even stayed through the last night to watch David accept best director honors at the closing night ceremony.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Lauren had convinced producer Sam Froelich to invest in “Cabin Fever” and to come on as a producer, provided we shoot it using his production facilities in North Carolina. So in August, on my own dime, I flew to North Carolina with Lauren and started prepping. Now, mind you, we did not have the money, but somehow we felt like we had momentum. Sam was going to put in the first $125,000 and the last $125,000, and we had to act like we were going to start production, so we went scouting. We found every location and interviewed a lot of crew members. Now, we didn’t tell anyone we had no money, we’d just kind of look at each other every night and say “is this going to work?” Lauren had family in North Carolina and her cousin Mark put us up in his house so we could save on hotels. We basically scouted the whole shoot and said we’d be back in a few weeks to start production. All we needed to do now was find the other $1,250,000 and we’d be golden.
September 7th, 2001 – Journal Entry
I used to dread the weekends, because I knew that there was no chance of “Cabin Fever” moving further along. No chance of me getting a directing job. The work week stopped, and that was pretty much all I lived for. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when Lauren visits The Dentists in Wisconsin and attempts to pry $500,000 out of them, and then another $500,000 from The Banker. I don’t understand what went sour with (company I cannot name). Was their tactic all along just to fuck us? They said they could get us the money, they just couldn’t get it to us until December. Well guys, sad to say that doesn’t help our cause any. We’re not going into production in January. We’re shooting now. Or are we?
This whole producorial game is exiting, but exhausting. I don’t quite know what I’m getting myself into, and my guess is if I had a better idea I might not be doing it. Are we completely humiliating ourselves, professionally? No. Unless we don’t make the film, then we’re fucked.
I drove home tonight and just got so angry and crazy I was driving like an asshole. I’m going to leave town to shoot my movie with $250,000 in a bank account and we need $1.5 million. That’s not smart, but hopefully we’ll be able to transfuse it along while we’re shooting. I have worked every single day since the scouting trip in North Carolina. It never ends. And this traffic ticket is the last fucking thing I need. Ready to kill….
Before I left for North Carolina, I called David Lynch to ask him what was the best piece of advice he had for any director. He repeated his mantra, “Keep your eye on the donut, not the hole.” The donut, David explained, is the movie. The hole is all the other bullshit – the backstabbing, the drama, the agents, the negotiations, all the stuff that pollute your creativity, and if you’re not careful you can get sucked right into it. “The only thing that matters is the information recorded on those 24 square frames per second. That’s the donut. Keep your eye on the donut, not the hole.” It turned out to be the best advice anyone ever gave me. In fact, we all used it as a mantra to get us through the shoot.
As it turns out, we did start shooting, but we never did get the money we needed. The Dentists never came through with the $500,000 they promised, and in fact told us at the last minute they would only do it if we cast one of the Dentist’s 19 year old daughter. That was three days before principal photography. So Sam Froelich wound up putting in $500,000, up front, which was never his original plan, he just did it on blind faith it would all work out. It was a nightmare. One week we even gave the crew their paychecks after the banks closed and then spent the entire night on the phone calling anyone we knew for money, so that we could have it wired by the time they went to cash them the next morning. The boys from the Union drove down from New York City and even though we were not breaking any rules and were in a right-to-work state, they threatened crew members in their motel rooms in the middle of the night (that is not an exaggeration, this is what they did) and on day 12 the movie was kaput. My father, who has pretty much worked every day of his life since he was 8 years old, put a huge chunk of his retirement money, ultimately totaling $110,000, into the movie so we could shoot out our North Carolina locations. The movie was not complete, but we shot 22 days and limped back to Los Angeles, still in need of another $700,000 to finish. Not only had I spent all the money I had in my bank account, I was about $10,000 in on my credit cards, and if I lost my father’s retirement money he’d be working into his 80s. I was happy we got most of the film shot, but we had no money to edit.
A producer/editor friend, George Folsey, helped us work a deal at Big Time Editing facilities where we could cut for a deferred fee and points in the movie, and his son Ryan came on to edit the film. We all agreed that we’d do whatever we had to in order to pay Ryan, he was the only crew member who’d get any money, because we had to get the movie cut in order to raise the rest of the money. We often took turns not paying rent so we could pay him, and each time would incur the wrath of our landlord threatening to throw us out of our apartments. Meanwhile, we kept looking for money, cobbling together the film a little at a time, and then showing it to investors. I literally had to show a 3/4 completed film, with cards describing the missing scenes, and ask them for the money to finish. However, once they knew they had us by the balls they’d ask for everything in return, and their money became too expensive. It was a very, very stressful time, and all the producers developed stress-related health problems in one form or another. Also, it should be noted, that no distributors had seen the film. We were making the film with no safety net. We might never see a penny back, and Sam I later found out had put his house up to put in the rest of the money. It was a nightmare, and I felt the growing pressure that not only were people potentially going to lose their money on this film, their lives would be ruined in the process.
Journal Entry: 12-2-2001 Sunday night.
Things are getting tight. Thank God Dad came through with $50,000. I mean, it just seems unreal. I can’t believe he actually did that. What happens if I lose it? I can’t – not an option. So with Sam’s money we may have $100,000 in the bank tomorrow. I just have to keep editing and hunting down money.
So Bill Mechanic put “The Extra” into turnaround. He said he wasn’t sure what the tone should be. That’s kind of frustrating, but what can you do.
Journal Entry: Friday, December 21st, 2001
I didn’t hook up at all in North Carolina. Feast or famine, I guess. Girls look at me, but I rarely do something about it. Am I too picky? I spend a lot of time alone. I don’t see my friends very often. I’m having a difficult time reintegrating back into to society. Or maybe I just use directing as an excuse to be a recluse. I’m in the editing room 7 days a week. When I’m not there it’s all I think about. We need that money to finish. I think I’m going to get it, but first I have to figure out how to keep paying my $725/month rent and edit at the same time. I feel bad charging groceries to Mom and Dad. I’m almost 30 and I’m broke and charging groceries to my parents. Who’d want to date that?
Journal Entry: December 26th, 2001.
Last night I had a dream that I was in my apartment and it was a Saturday night. I was going to go out and somehow Ben Affleck wanted to take me to some party with some friends of his. I knew he arrived outside, along with his buddies, and I was somehow futzing around my apartment, taking too long to leave. Like leaving the T.V. on and turning on and off certain lights. I didn’t want the place to look unoccupied for some reason. As I was leaving I walked past some other buildings (it was my apartment, but the layout was like my friend Glenn’s) and there was some girl on the roof of another apartment. She was very pretty. She said if I wanted to come by and bring my friends- she was having a party. I wondered if she knew who I was hanging out with that evening. So when I got to the street there were about 15-20 people there, hanging out, milling around, getting ready to go out or go to Christmas parties. Some guy, a nerdy guy, said that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were just here looking for me, but they left. Then the guy said “well, you must have their cell phone, right?” But I didn’t. I was frustrated I had taken so long getting out of my apartment.
And that was my dream. Is it something about waiting until I’m 30 before I hit success? I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. I went to a Christmas party the other night and I saw a lot of actors and actresses I knew. They were all beginning to do other things, as if they were resigned to the fact they’re not going to make it as actors. One’s writing, one’s making scarves full time to support herself, one’s doing something uncreative… And I thought “fuck, this is scary.” Acting seems like the only profession where you become less valuable the older you get and the more experience you have. It’s like there’s an expiration date on you and you’re constantly ticking towards it. These girls were so beautiful and talented 10 years ago when we were all in college, and now they’re past their peak. I mean, they’re not 20 anymore. They’re not even 25. They’re 30 or 31 and they haven’t hit it. And then if they act for another ten years, what will they have if they hit 40 and they haven’t made it? What skills will they have? I still have a long way to go, but I’m much closer than I have ever been. But not there yet. I’m emailing this dream to the expert. (*My Dad*)
Email From: “Sheldon Roth MD”
To: “Eli Roth”
Date: Wed, 26 Dec 2001 20:54:30 -0500
The dream means that you are your own man! You are not going to run with a crowd, following someone else’s success. There are temptations around you, outside your doors, easy accesses and hanging onto other coat-tails. You will make your own success, although you have access to others. You did not want your apartment to look unoccupied….that represents you, your brain, your achievements, your creativity….it is occupied. A woman awaits on a rooftop, but she appears to be too attracted to imagined attachments of yours to Damon and Affleck, therefore she is also ruled out. You want a woman who is attracted for other reasons, and you do not wish to marry early ( like Glenn….)….you will attain your success in your time in your own way, on your own time schedule. You are not an actor, time works only in your favor, bringing experience, judgement, and freedom from the impulsive temptations of youth. Indeed, you probably will be 30 when success reaches you this coming April, the film will be shot, financed (maybe), edited and ready to roll. I did not finish my psychiatric training until I was 30, so, it sounds good to me.
By March 2002 we had found two investment groups to potentially fund the rest of the money, each would put in $350,000. One group was called Black Sky, the other was Deerpath, but it would take a lot of work to finally close the deal. However, we had run over budget and had to find ways to cut costs and eliminate our salaries while at the same time convincing them this was a good investment. The whole thing was being held together by duct tape and chewing gum.
Journal Entry: April 4th, 2002. A late, late Thursday night.
This morning I learned we have no money to finish the movie, and no units to sell. Well, not enough of either, anyway. Sacrifices will be made. Fucking sucks. There goes my summer paycheck.
Today the other producers went nuts, and I got dragged into the middle. All I know is we need money wired into a bank account. Screaming. Almost crying. Everyone was furious. It was awful.
Black Sky came through with their $350,000 and we were able to shoot the 2 and a half days we needed to complete principal photography.
Journal Entry: April 14th, 2002. Actually, the 15th at 2:37 in the morning.
I’ve finally done it. Wrapped my first feature. This is something I’ve waited for my whole life, and I’ve done it by 30. Just under the wire, eh? We got 87 setups this weekend. 87. I can’t even believe it. 668 shots total in 24 and a half days. I’m so happy right now.
Deerpath, however, took a little more convincing. It was on the sound mixing stage when we were expecting a wire transfer that they called to say they needed more time to think about it. The mixer was literally looking at us, saying “are we starting?” and we said “We need the money NOW.” It turns out they were showing the completed cut on video to one of the investor’s 12 year old son. He turned to his dad and said “This is better than ‘American Pie’.” And that was it, they wired the money. Literally my career, my whole life’s work, was in the hands of a 12 year old. And thankfully, he loved it.
We got into the Toronto Film Festival, and every single show of “Cabin Fever” sold out. The line for the critics’ screening went out the door, down the hall, to the escalator, and two extra shows are added, both of which sell out completely. Lionsgate won the film in a 7-studio bidding war, paying $3.5 million, but more importantly committing $12 million to release the film. This guarantees we’ll be out in 2,000 theaters – their biggest release to date. The same people I had met in Cannes a year earlier who had passed on the script were now the ones fighting tooth and nail for it. I still tease them about this to this day.
All of a sudden my phone’s ringing off the hook. Everyone wants to meet me, so I book up my day with endless breakfasts, lunches, dinners, drinks – and suddenly there’s a pile of scripts on my desk. I actually read the scripts all the way through before passing on them, and soon I start reading 30 pages, and then eventually if it didn’t grab me in 5 pages I’d chuck it. I went in to meet on big movies, none of which I got, and set up a few movies around town by pitching my own ideas. These films never got made for one reason or another, and I soon learned why it takes forever to get a movie made in Hollywood. No one seemed to be able to make any kind of decision. Everyone had notes and wanted another draft. It was just like z.com all over again, except now I had to be polite and really find a way to make their ideas work. Soon the scripts became unrecognizable, and I was secretly happy when they went away. But at least I was in the game.
Journal Entry: October 20th, 2002
One year ago I was about to start rehearsals for “Cabin Fever” without a safety net. And now I’m flying around to Toronto, Texas, Spain, where the film is celebrated. People LOVED the movie at Harry’s Dusk Till Dawn fest. (*Harry Knowles from aintitcoolnews.com*) , We watched the movie in an abandoned mental asylum overlooking a prison, and before the show (Alamo Drafthouse owner) Tim League and I handed out cups of lemonade. It was perfect. At the Sitges Film Festival in spain, I met Guillermo Del Toro, Roger Avary, Lucky McKee, Matthew Bright, Alex de la Iglesia, we just had the best time hanging out watching movies and talking about everything. There’s a whole world of genre festivals out there that I never knew existed. We need something like Sitges in the states. We won Best Special Effects and I gave the trophy to the guys at K.N.B. effects. The movie would not be the same without them. Now I’m invited to go to all these festivals around the world to just go watch movies, get taken to fancy dinners, and party all night with other filmmakers. It’s unreal.
And while I was away these festivals is when Lionsgate began testing the movie. “Cabin Fever” scored a 19. That’s 19 out of 100. It was the single lowest score ever for a Lionsgate film. Suffice to say they were nervous. I took their suggestions about what to cut about as well as I took Z.com’s notes, so they started re-cutting the film without me. Looking back I now know I could have handled it better, I was being a petulant child about it, but I had fought for so long to get the film made and had seen the movie work with audiences around the globe, and I felt they were putting way to much credence into some stupid questionnaire. They even tried to get me to cut the blood and the language, saying that R rated horror was dead, and that PG-13 would reach a wider audiences. This was the popular myth at the time, in fact, my whole mission was to that fans wanted R rated horror and were tired of PG-13 bloodless, sexless horror. I couldn’t believe I had come this far only to watch everything slowly slip away because I couldn’t control my mouth.
Journal Entry: March 12th, 2003
I don’t know at what point I lost interest in fighting. Maybe it was after I yelled and nobody yelled back at me, but calmly pointed out exactly how I had let myself waltz into the precarious position I am in right now. I stared at the table and felt like I was getting a sore throat. I looked at my eyes this morning in the mirror and could hardly see any brown, they were just so red. Two bloodshot sockets with a black dot in the center. I sat there with my agents while they explained exactly why I should take it in the ass. I felt like telling them to go fuck themselves, that they were out of their minds, but I knew deep down they were right. What could I do? If I throw a tantrum and go into terrorist mode against the studio I’ll never work again. It’s ludicrous. I feel like I’m back at Z.com, except this is on a worldwide scale. So fucking frustrating.
I sat there at Doughboys restaurant after the meeting, just gutted. I felt sick. My thoat was dry, my hair a long mess, and I’m unshaven. I have rave reviews coming in from festivals and fansites around the world and the studio’s re-cutting my film because of some stupid idiot in a focus group. My right knee aches – bad. When I sleep I hear voices – loud voices. Like suddenly the room’s filled with a cocktail party. These voices are so distinct it’s scary. And sometimes they don’t want me to listen. One guy said I wasn’t dressed appropriately, not in a tux, and smacked his hands over my ears, cupped. That hurt. Then I went back to sleep and he clapped in front of my face again, waking me up. Have I always been this crazy?
By June 2003 we had more or less settled the cut, but more importantly, Quentin Tarantino saw the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival and loved it. Quentin invited me to his house to watch movies, and we watched “War of the Gargantuas.” It was one of those nights I had always dreamed of, just sitting there talking movies with him. Then he showed me some scenes from “Kill Bill” and gave me some of the best advice yet: “go everywhere, tour the world, do as much press as possible, make yourself a star by showing off your knowledge of horror. Let everyone know you’re here to bring back blood into horror movies. You are the guy horror’s been waiting for – you can revive the genre. You can do it.” It was fucking inspiring, and that night I went home and e-mailed every foreign distributor to book me on any flight they could and that I would go anywhere to do any press they wanted. Quentin also gave me some great advice on how to deal with the studio and finalizing the edit of the film, which helped tremendously. I knew from that point forward the only person I could listen to was Quentin, he was the only one who had been in my shoes and he just wanted to see me succeed because he saw I started the way he did, fighting his way in with an independent film. Not since David Lynch had anyone given me such generous advice. I felt empowered.
July 11, 2003
So it’s 9:00 on a Friday night and I’m in Soho, London. I did press all day for CABIN FEVER, which is all I’ve ever dreamed of. I did interviews for Hot Dog, Total film magazine, GQ, Dazed and Confused, I-D, Maxim, Empire, among others. It’s a lot of fun doing press, telling stories about the shoot. The journalists are all lamenting the death of horror, and they’re really listening to me when I talk about why horror films died. Everyone’s ready for blood to make a comeback.
July 28th, 2003.
Wow. Okay, where to begin, I don’t even know. Peter Jackson saw “Cabin Fever” and he loved it. Loved it. Not only that, he’s giving me a quote for the poster. Fran Walsh suggested it, like Stephen King did for “Evil Dead.” I mean, I just can’t believe it. I went there not knowing what to expect and just had the best time with them. They’re so cool, so down to middle Earth, and just so sweet. Peter Jackson loves “Reanimator”, “Evil Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead”. He says that’s his favorite film, he thinks. And he’s never met Romero. Peter and Richard Taylor went nuts during the film. They were so happy. They loved it, the fingering, the leg shaving – the nudity. Peter said he couldn’t believe someone made a Cabin movie. That a movie like this was coming out of America – home of the homogenized, boring, studio dumbed-down horror movie – was just astounding. And of course it’s all coming from the independent scene. We talked about David Lynch and “Mulholland Drive.” And ate lamb. How cool is that? They toured me all around WETA, I met all the artists. It was like I was dreaming the whole experience. I even saw the Feebles themselves!
Peter Jackson. Quentin Tarantino. Don Coscarelli. Scott Spiegel. John Landis. These people all love the movie. This is all I’ve ever dreamed of. But the quote, I mean… I still can’t believe it.
On September 12th, 2003, “Cabin Fever” opened #3 at the box office to $8.6 million dollars. It went on to make $23 million at the domestic box office, Lionsgate’s highest grossing film of 2003, and a total of $35 million dollars worldwide. The negative cost was $1.5 million, making it one of the most profitable independent films in years.
Journal Entry: September 14th, 2003
Today was a pretty monumental day for me. I sat there, at Mann’s Chinese, just staring at the Marquis that read “Cabin Fever.” I had always read about George Lucas sitting at Hamburger Hamlet across the street watching people line up for “Star Wars” opening weekend, and now I was doing the same with my own film. The people at the table behind me were talking about it, the people next to me were talking about it. I had a great time hanging out with the projectionist at Mann’s Chinese. She showed me Sid Grauman’s private balcony. Five seats, just for him. Your view is completely unobstructed. It’s incredible. And that’s where I sat, enjoying the film, as if I were in control of the whole theater. Making them jump where I wanted them to jump, and laugh where I wanted them to laugh. And people complain there isn’t enough gore. What more do they want?
After a year and a half of taking meetings, setting up projects that never got off the ground, I said fuckit, and with Quentin’s encouragement, wrote “Hostel” in ten days. I was going out of my mind, because I had “cooled off” and the directing offers had stopped coming in. People were starting to see me as a one trick pony and I knew I had to make another film to prove I was not a fluke. Plus I was running out of money. I felt like I was back where I was before “Cabin Fever.” I was being offered terrible scripts to direct but felt like I hadn’t clawed my way to where I was only to sell out and jump on a studio job I didn’t really care about.
I met producer Dan Frisch in December, 2004. Dan was an American producer based in Prague, and told me about the advantages of shooting there. I told him I’d love to check it out, and he said “just get on a plane.” So that day I booked a ticket, and spent my own money going there to scout locations and do research. I spent two weeks in Prague, and then flew to Iceland to convince my friend Eythor to act in the movie. Eythor had no previous acting experience, but he was one of the funniest, most charismatic people I had ever met, and I had written the role for him. I knew he wouldn’t do it at first, so I set up casting sessions in Iceland and started meeting actors as backups. Once he learned other actors wanted the part he jumped in and said that no one could play the part but him. All I had to do now was find the money. The journal picks up on my way back from Iceland. I still did not have funding for the film, but was confident I could get it, and even more confident I could make the film for $3 million dollars.
Journal Entry: January 4th, 2005
To say this flight is a zoo would be a massive understatement. I must be sitting in the family section because there are kids EVERYWHERE. It’s fine, whatever, I didn’t need sleep anyway.
It is 2005. I have been in Los Angeles for six years now. That’s a long fucking time. I am not married. I have a directing career, but the bigger budget projects take forever to get going. The only way to make movies is to do them at a low budget until you have a few hits under your belt and people are throwing money at you. I am very upset I’m not in preproduction on a film right now.
There are kids everywhere. This looks like a frickin’ jungle gym. Even in the row behind me – both sides – there are kids. Do they put them all together on purpose? No wonder there was an open seat.
My mind is schizophrenic. I need to be singularly minded and focused and get HOSTEL underway and off the ground. People are depending on me for it. My reputation is depending on it. Fuck, we have to get this money NOW so we can start prepping the film.
Quentin Tarantino loves the idea of me making HOSTEL. He thinks that there are these other movies out now getting all this praise, and I’ll show them how it’s done. I have to shoot an NC-17 film with no compromises. Something relentless and unforgettable.
I shot “Hostel” in the spring of 2005 in Prague for $3.8 million dollars. I cut it over the summer, and in August did 2 days of reshoots for a new ending, after the original ending left test audiences confused and somewhat unsatisfied. I initially fought the whole process, but it was Quentin who said “Well Eli, have you ever considered the possibility that a better ending exists?” I said no. “Maybe you should. Think about it.” Once Quentin said that it kind of gave me permission to open my mind, and ultimately I went with what the studio suggested, and really liked it. I had a great time filming it, and audiences went berserk when they saw it. The movie finally got the reaction I wanted. I was a little better at going through the testing process this time, and was able to get what I wanted from the studio while giving them what they wanted at the same time. The film was released in January 2005 and opened #1 taking in almost $20 million dollars. The film went on to be a #1 hit around the world and ultimately made $80 million dollars at the box office worldwide. I had finally arrived. “Hostel” was a runaway hit, completely unexpected, and extremely profitable for Sony and Lionsgate, who released the film together. The only question was what to do next.
Journal Entry: January 19th, 2006. Two weeks after Hostel’s opening weekend.
My house is a mess, kind of like the house in “The Grudge.”
I’m 33 years old and I haven’t written a book or recorded an album, despite the fact I have music playing in my head at all times and talk to myself constantly.
But the good news is I get to do what I love. I just don’t know what to do now. What about “Hostel 2?” Maybe should just write or produce that one. Fuck, I dunno. How can I make it without my friends who I killed off in the first one? I guess it’s like going to college, in that you have to make new friends and grow up.
In a strange way I feel paralyzed. And what am I afraid of? Failing? What happened when I shot that new ending? Some people didn’t like it but most people loved it. And you like it, too. I was scared of doing it, but I did it, and I had a fun time. So maybe it’ll be the same way with a sequel.
I can’t get my weight below 178 pounds. I feel like a whale.
I have no energy. I’m exhausted.
I can’t get motivated to do anything. Even returning e-mails is a chore. People get so angry with me so quickly if I don’t write or call them back right away, yet everyone’s calling me. I can’t keep up. People are sending me the nastiest e-mails, like I’ve betrayed them, left them behind. Not successful people, they’re happy for me, but the ones who haven’t made it yet, it’s like they want to poison my moment. I feel like I start every e-mail with an apology. Why? I can’t babysit these people’s feelings anymore.
And I want to get to that place where I’m happy but it’s hard to come back off the high of being number one. Everything’s a letdown after you’ve been on top.
I feel like I have more of a temper than I care to admit. Maybe a part of me enjoys being difficult, almost as a way of rebelling from having to be polite to everyone all the time.
I need to be more like Robert Rodriguez. I have to jump right into a sequel and be productive. I’ll never have a body of work if I sit around talking about making movies. I need to stop overthinking this. I need to shut out and focus. But this is all I do, all the time. I need to find the balance but I can’t seem to be happy unless I’m all consumed with a film. This is only going to get worse.
Spring 2006. I spent most of the time doing press in different countries with “Hostel.” I went to England, Argentina, Spain, France, Brazil, Mexico, Prague, and finally finished the tour in Germany.
Journal Entry: April 8th, 2006. Saturday in Germany.
I never realized what full on first class travel was like until I started touring with “Hostel.” I had no idea this even existed, but at the airports they have this “V.I.P.” service. No lines. At all. Someone meets you at your car, takes your passport, escorts you past everybody, and takes care of everything for you. They walk you from the ticket counter through security, to the first class lounge. But at the airport in Frankfurt they even had something I never knew about that was beyond the First Class lounge. I had a V.I.P. suite. A woman met me when I got off my connecting flight, and took me in a Jaguar across the tarmac to some private entrance. I felt like the president. She took me into this suite, which was basically a hotel room without a bed. I had wireless internet, my own food, my own bathroom with a shower. It was ridiculous. I actually didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay there and just keep using stuff. The woman even went and changed my money for me. She then took me in the car, and escorted me onto the plane, right to my seat. It was ridiculous. The only downside is now I know this exists, and if I ever fly on my own I’d be too cheap to pay for it. But I’ve just made a lot of money for Sony, so it’s nice when they spend it back on me.
The only thing that fucking sucks about Lufthansa is the food. They do all this bullshit with putting a rose in your chair and bringing you face towels every fifteen minutes, but then when you order an entrée, they’re out of it. On the flight over, which is 11 hours, they had some horrible fish, chicken, or some awful pasta as a choice for dinner. I asked for the chicken. They were out of it. I mean, there are probably 12 people in first class. How the fuck can they be out of chicken? So I asked for the pasta, and it was disgusting. And I was fucking hungry the whole flight. So now on the way back I asked to sit up front so they’d take my dinner order first. Some lady just came up to me and started giving this song and dance about how they were out of chicken. Excuse me? Sony probably paid $5,000 for this seat. How the fuck can you be out of chicken? I don’t want to eat some shitty halibut or German catfish or whatever the fuck it is. And it’s not like I can pass on eating because we still have 9 fucking hours to go on this flight. They put you in a private car and shuttle you around, which is totally unnecessary, but when it comes to, oh, EATING, they fuck it up. So this woman “from the kitchen” comes up to me and asks me if I could order something else, because she thought they had 4 chickens but they only have 3. Now of all the people who ordered chicken, why the fuck do you think she asked me? How does that happen? Because I’m the only one in first class that doesn’t look like a 52 year old stock broker? Because I’m the only one in sweatpants and a Nike running shirt? Because she thinks I’m some kid and not some businessman? I said “this happened to me on the way over to Germany” and she said “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll ask someone else.” Goddman fucking right you will. Or you’ll get a fucking face full of cat fish.
I was clearly burned out from doing press. I was not allowed to get angry – ever – and found myself becoming enraged over nonsense and odd times. The journal entry above illustrates that. I’d be polite, polite, polite, but then snap at the craziest thing, but never out loud, always to myself, in my head, in my journal. I was just exhausted, and felt alienated from a lot of people who felt I was ignoring them. But I was doing all the press myself, and it was my moment and I had to make the most of it, but soon they revealed who they really were. A lot of people turned out to not really be my friends, just people who wanted my attention, and when they didn’t have it, they got vicious.
On April 19th, the day after my DVD came out, I sat down to finish “Hostel Part II.” I didn’t want to deal with any relationship issues in my life, I just wanted to get back to work, lest I get paralyzed by the fear of not being able to ever repeat the success of “Hostel.” I spent the next month writing, and by July I we were prepping, and scouting and then casting in August. I used the same team from before, and it felt like I was making “Part 2” as opposed to another film since I had only done press between the two films. This time the budget was a little more substantial, but still low, at $10 million.
I did, however, take a week out of my preproduction to fly to Texas to act in “Death Proof.” It was difficult to abandon the production for a week, but I made it conditional at the beginning that somewhere in prep I was going to disappear to Texas for a week and would not be reachable, so we were able to work around my absence. On “Death Proof” we shot nights at the Texas Chili Parlor, and we had a great time, but I was pretty exhausted through most of it. The bar scene was taking longer than anyone thought, but because I was only there for 5 days they had to shoot my stuff out, and we picked up the pace and shot most of my lines in one or two takes. Quentin was happy I was there, we had a lot of fun, and I got to improv some lines making fun of Kurt Russell. One take Kurt threw a bowl of nachos at me, pretending to be pissed, and I just yelled “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, ‘The Thing”s my favorite movie, this is painful for me to make fun of you!” It was a good time. I’d return to my hotel room at 9:00 in the morning and have a skype call with Prague until about 11, then I’d sleep, and wake up at 6 PM to get ready to go to set. I flew back to Prague, and two days later was due to start shooting. I was already wiped out before photography on “Hostel Part II” began.
Journal Entry: September 10th, 2006.
Here I am the night before starting principal photography on my third film. Milan’s (*my D.P.*) looking at camera tests, costume tests, all that. I’m looking over the scene. He’s dreaming of camera moves. I’m dreaming of moments, performance. All the girls are great, I just hope they don’t have melt downs during shooting, although I’m sure at some point they will. Day One does seem daunting. So many days to shoot. So many nights. I enjoyed the hell out of the last one, and my mission tonight is to forget everything that’s happened in the past, block it all out, keep my eye on the film I’m making right now.
The shoot was very tough. I can’t explain why, it was just hard. Locations fell through, things went over budget so other things had to get cut, nothing worked easily. We wrapped in late November, and somehow,I found the energy to shoot my ‘Grindhouse’ trailer ‘Thanksgiving’ in two days. That turned out to be the most fun part of the whole shoot. We were laughing so hard, it felt like we were screwing around in film school doing naughty things with the camera. It was great to end the trip on that note, and got me hungry to shoot something new. I was starting to get tired of filming scenes of people screaming in dungeons chained to chairs. But I was happy with the footage, I felt like I’d made my best film to date. I had so much to do when I got back, both to get “Hostel Part II” finished and “Thanksgiving” cut, I was in the editing room seven days a week, cutting from 9:30 in the morning until about 1:30 in the morning. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I just wanted to edit. Everyone was counting on me. It had to work. It had to. I had caused all of this, I had to deliver.
Journal Entry: January 24th, 2007
At a certain point you stop getting phone calls and emails. One month your voicemail’s full and you’re getting close to 200 e-mails a day. Then suddenly, you wake up, and you realize that no one’s called you. It’s not like it happens overnight, it’s a gradual change. You gradually shut out all your friends until they stop contacting you. They assume they’re bothering you, or they don’t find you as fun to be around. You’re moody, irritable, you seem aloof, like your problems and pressures are so much bigger than theirs. No matter what you do, you’re a dick. Everything you do is magnified by a thousand. If you get mad, you’re a tyrant. If you share a story about shooting, you’re self-centered. You can’t win. I’m exhausted yet now I need sleeping pills to shut off my brain. Not much matters except getting the film done.
“Grindhouse” opened and for the first time, Tarantino and Rodriguez have a commercial failure. The premiere was amazing – the film brought the house down. I loved the movie, I was so proud to be a part of it. We were all stunned when we saw that it only made $11 million opening weekend. This movie had cost nearly $70 million dollars. It was a disaster. I tried to console Quentin as best I could, but really what could you say? Nobody went to see it. We still went to Cannes that May, and once again I got to walk the red carpet at the Palais, even though I was tangentially involved in the film. I had a cameo in “Death Proof”, but I was also there to do press for “Hostel Part II” which was opening in a few weeks. I was able to convince Sony to send me to Cannes to get all my European press done at the festival, and from there I went to Germany and did more press, before returning to the U.S.
In late May, 2007, I got a terrifying wake up call. The one copy of “Hostel Part II” I had given to Lionsgate was on the internet, complete with the name of the person I had given it to burned right there onto the copy. I mean, there was no question where it came from, but the big question was how. What I got were mainly thin excuses, nobody really was telling me what happened, and the one who suffered the most was me. By the time the film was released they had tracked nearly 2 million downloads. I went on MTV talking about how piracy was going to kill the film industry, and people used it as an opportunity to say I was “whining.” I had just spent over a year of my life working on this film and due to carelessness people were stealing it. As if it was their right. “Hostel Part II” opened to less than half of what the first one did opening weekend. They also released this film opposite summer blockbusters like “Pirates of the Carribean 3” and “Shrek 4”, and “Ocean’s 13,” which I was very much against. I said we’d get drowned out by summer blockbusters, and we did. The final box office tally was $35 million worldwide, and the film only cost $10 million so we were still very much in profits before the DVD came out, but it was not what we had hoped for. People said I was “blaming piracy,” but I knew it did not help. Plus the people who pirate are high school and college kids, which is the audience I make movies for. The whole thing was a fucking debacle.
I was over it. People started jumping all over me, I suddenly became the focal point for all the backlash against violence in movies. Any movie that came out, no matter how shitty, if it was violent, I was mentioned in the article. I had set myself up for all this by putting myself out there as someone who unabashedly loved gory movies, but this was the first time I experienced an overwhelming amount of negative press. The film had its supporters, and only recently has the film been revisited and praised (Entertainment Weekly recently listed “Hostel Part II” in their Best 20 horror films of the last 20 years). But at the time there was nothing I could do but just ride it out. I needed a break anyway.
I dropped every project I was developing. I needed to reconnect with my friends, my family, myself. I realized that in 20 years I had never stopped. Ever. I had never taken a vacation. I had no concept of what to do with free time. People would often ask me in interviews what I liked to do in my spare time, and that was the only question that stumped me. I realized I didn’t know what else to do. I had all this success that I had never let myself enjoy it. I was tired of arguing with everyone all the time, always fighting about the script, posters, the trailers, the cut, my ideas, the ending – all that. I took a break.
Sometime in early 2008, Quentin hinted that he heard my voice in his head when he was writing his character The Bear Jew for “Inglourious Basterds.” I was flattered, but I didn’t think too much of it, because who knew how the character would ultimately wind up. But I realized that he might actually ask me to be in his film, so I’d better start getting in shape just in case. I also formed a new company with my friend Eric Newman, a producer who I’d been wanting to work with since we met on the “Dawn of the Dead” remake. We named the company Arcade, because that’s where we liked to hang out when we were eleven years old. We started looking for scripts to produce, and I also started working out a new idea I was forming, a science fiction film. Something big and fun, with lots of mass destruction.
Journal Entry: June 27th, 2008
Do I write because I’m lonely, or am I lonely because I write?
Saturday night around dinnertime it usually hits me: I will be spending the evening by myself, watching a movie, noodling around at the computer, searching for some creative inspiration. While others are going out to dinner and the movies with their wives and girlfriends, I’m by myself, wandering around my house, in circles, burying myself deeper in music and books. I watched “The Man Who Fell To Earth” tonight, and found myself identifying with David Bowie’s alien more and more.
Writing a movie’s fucking hard. So many ideas, so many ways to go with a story, how do you know what’s right? It’s difficult to concentrate when Quentin keeps hinting that he’s almost done with the script and that he’s still hearing my voice as Donowitz…
July, 2008. I finally got the call to go off to war and beat Nazis to death with a baseball bat. Quentin took me to dinner the night before he left for Berlin and casually dropped it that I needed to really create a 360 degree character, and that this was going to be much more complex than “Death Proof.” I still didn’t know if I had the part. I told him I wasn’t going to do the work until I knew had the part, and he said “Oh you got the part – so listen, Donny’s got to be a 360 degree character, you have to know him like you know your best friend…” And that was it. I told Quentin that this time I wanted to get more than one take, and he agreed that was fair. I knew that my life was going to change forever from doing this. Quentin was presenting me with an opportunity to completely reinvent myself. I was not just going to be the “horror guy.” I had to push myself out of my comfort zone into an area I knew existed that I had never thoroughly mined. I never had a reason to. But now I did, and in order to do the role justice I had to drop everything and focus 100% on become The Bear Jew.
I began a rigorous training program that included lifting weights 7 days a week. My trainer, Ravi, put me on a strict eating schedule, eating high protein meals eight times a day. I wanted to put on serious muscle, and knew I’d have to maintain it through the entire shoot. I went back to Boston and researched the character and fine-tuned my accent, which I already had from growing up. I told Quentin that if he needed any help shooting inserts or completing scenes I was there for him, and he said that he’d never done that before on any of his films, but he’d keep it in his mind. Then in early September he called me and said “Get on a plane, you’re shooting ‘Nation’s Pride’.”
I arrived about a month ahead of the other Basterds so I could figure out what I was going to shoot. There were a few lines of dialogue that Quentin was going to film, and the long close up of Zoller that Shoshanna would see through the booth, but other than that he just needed guys firing guns. I came up with all sorts of bits with a growing pile of bodies, throwing people off towers, and a baby carriage sequence. Quentin loved it, and we both realized that what we had done in Grindhouse had been a warm up for this, both as an actor and as a guest director. The shoot was incredible, and by November we had done my beating scene, and I dove into ‘Nation’s Pride’. We flew my brother Gabriel to Berlin and he worked the 2nd camera, as he did on “Hostel Part II” and even going back to the David Lynch video “Thank You, Judge.” Gabe and I got Quentin nearly 200 shots in 3 days. I cut the film while Quentin shot La Louisianne, and by Christmas had it finished. We spent Christmas in Paris and then New Year’s in Berlin at a party at director Tom Tykwer’s house. It was an amazing cap to an exhausting six months, but we weren’t finished yet.
It’s hard to believe, even now, that all of this happened in 2009. It seems unreal, yet we were pushing ourselves so hard and moving so fast I think that the only way to do it is to just somehow blindly believe it can be done and make it work. We wrapped “Basterds” in the middle of February, and by May we were in Cannes.
This was the Cannes Film Festival I had been dreaming about. I arrived and saw a 3 story poster that said “Eli Roth is a Basterd,” right in between Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger, on the side of the Carlton Hotel. I said that I was going to pay for the best suite in the hotel, and they put me in the Bertolucci suite, with a balcony right next to my poster. I could go out there in my bathrobe and wave to people as they put it together that I was the Basterd on the poster. It was too much fun.
I arrived several days early to take meetings at the marketplace. Eric Newman, producer Marc Abraham and I had a horror film called “Cotton” ready to film, and we had been pre-selling territories based on the script and my name. StudioCanal, the company that had financed and released “Mulholland Drive” all those years ago, was selling the film, so I met with distributors, all of whom saw the giant three story banner of me on the Carlton Hotel. We sold territories for double our estimates. People were very, very excited about the film. All those meetings I had years ago were paying off. I had been the market and knew what to expect, and knew exactly who the distributors were because I had traveled to their countries to do press when they released “Cabin Fever.” For example, the company that bought “Cabin Fever” for Italy bought “Cotton” for Italy. Quentin’s advice from years earlier was still paying off – go everywhere, meet everyone, do as much press as you can.
Finally, we had the “Basterds” premiere at the Palais. The screams were deafening. I had never experienced anything like it. Not “Mulholland Drive,” not “Death Proof,” nothing came close to this. There I was on the red carpet with this magnificent cast, and I was one of the stars. This was my moment, and I was ready for it. We all had the best time that night. It was like a scene out of a movie – a dream on top of a fantasy wrapped in a mirage. I slept for maybe an hour and then had more press all the next day. I went to the Hotel Du Cap the next night for the Amfar benefit that night on an hour’s sleep in two days. I thought about how all those years ago in 2001 I could barely get in there, and now I was on the red carpet posing for photos. We auctioned a screening of “Basterds” and a dinner, and we raised $87,000 for AIDS research. The cast “elected” me to be the spokesperson, and after Harvey Weinstein put a bat in my hands I went right into Bear Jew mode and told them to “open their fucking wallets or I was gonna crack their fuckin’ skulls in.” It worked! I stayed through the end of the festival, and watched Christoph Waltz take the Palme for best actor, sitting nearly in the same seat where I saw David Lynch take the Best Director prize eight years earlier.
The rest of the summer I spent writing, working on “Cotton,” and doing press, holding down the fort at Comic-Con while Quentin and the rest of the international cast held premieres in Berlin and London. Opening weekend the film was a triumph: we opened at $38 million dollars, and to date the film has made over $300 million worlwide. It’s Quentin’s biggest hit, and his most critically acclaimed since “Pulp Fiction.” I felt like it was a rebuilding year for both of us, and his putting me in the film opened up a whole new world of fans who are now discovering my films for the first time. Thanks to “Basterds” “Cabin Fever” is getting a director’s cut release on Blu Ray in February. And on December 15th, the “Basterds” DVD came out, with my complete cut of “Nation’s Pride.”
I somehow started the decade alongside Naomi Watts in front of the camera for David Lynch and ended it alongside Brad Pitt for Quentin Tarantino. I never planed on being in front of the camera, but they knew I could do it and that was the push I needed. David and Quentin have been the two most wonderful friends and mentors, and get me to do things I never would done in a million years without their encouragement. If there’s one thing I learned this decade it’s that every artist needs a mentor, someone to give that kick in the ass or light a fire under you when you’re hesitating. Someone you believe in and really respect who just simply says: You can do it. You’ll be great. I believe in you.
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