Eli Roth has become one of the most known names in horror over the last few years, after making his name with the innovative Cabin Fever and become the sultan of shock with the gruesome Hostel movies.
Now he’s turned his gaze to the world of TV though, with Roth the mastermind behind the latest big budget production from Netflix, the dark and creepy Hemlock Grove.
We were amongst the throng who grilled him and his star Landon Liberion about their horrifying venture.
Eli, this is the first thing that you've directed that you didn’t also write. How was that experience for you?
It was a great experience. I knew that - it’s also my first time working in television, and I was very interested and excited by the challenge of seeing how I've - you know, how I responded to the material, and if I felt the same way as I did about - as I did with something that I wrote, and I absolutely did.
I mean, I wouldn’t have done it unless I really, really loved the material.
I think Brian McGreevy wrote a superb novel and I - it was exciting for me to get to create a world. I read the novel and it really reminded me of some sort of monstrous Twin Peaks. It was very much about the death of old - you know, the old steel town America and what rose from the ashes. This biotech world.
I like the way that Brian McGreevy went to the root mythology of every monster. He really researched umpiers, which is the root mythology of where vampires come from, and vargulfs, where werewolves come from. He understood what Mary Shelly based her writing on. He understood what Bram Stoker based his writing on. And it was - he was writing at that root level and really weaving it into a terrific fun mystery.
I had a fantastic cast to work with in Landon, Bill Skarsgard, and Famke Janssen, and everybody else; it was a terrific experience. I would certainly do it again, but only if it’s something that I really felt passionate about.
The conflict that I always came up against was that one was that I'd never get to do it with the level of intensity or violence that I wanted. But what makes horror great is that you kill characters at any time. And what makes television work is that you have characters that come back week after week.
But watching you know recent television like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire really showed me how you can have you know, something that plays much more like a long movie rather than a week after week television series.
Do you think that working with Netflix freed you up and was able to let you be a little more extreme with what you're going for?
Well with Netflix, they adhere to the same ratings of their movies, so I knew that going in I wasn’t going to have incredible graphic violence, but it also wasn’t completely necessary in a lot of the scenes.
We knew right off the bat what we were signing up for. What was exciting was the idea that every episode comes on at once. That you don’t have to worry about getting the audience back the next week and making sure there’s a cliffhanger. That really affected the way we could tell the story.
What was fun was we didn’t have to worry about necessarily setting everything up right away because we knew the people were going to be digesting it in block. I mean, someone might watch the whole thing in one day, which is fine. It’s up to them. But, it really freed us creatively.
That’s right, I agree with everything you just said. The thing that I definitely miss about this compared to shooting a regular series is that, when you're reading the scripts, you're not kind of vamping up for each commercial break as well. It’s like each episode flowed exactly the way it needed to flow onto the next one.
It’s that it was very liberating to just treat the material almost like a very, very long play as well. So that was pretty cool.
With shows like the Walking Dead and Hannibal, and American Horror Story out there now doing really well, how do you account for this recent renaissance in television horror shows?
Well, I think that it’s a combination of things. One, I think the audience is ready for it. People love horror and they’re used to watching it. They see it in the theatres but they’re enjoying these types of stories played out over a long format.
Shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones have really done stories in a very adult way where this is violence and sexuality. Audiences in the home have gotten a lot more permissive about what they’ll allow and what they want to see. And certainly with cable television, you can really see that. You know, the violence can be pushed much further.
But I also think there’s terrific, terrific writing. You know, Ryan Murphy and all the guys that do Walking Dead, they’re superb writers. So what you're seeing now is a lot of great writers are taking the horror genre and infusing terrific, dramatic storytelling and letting it play out over a long season, as opposed to a 90 minute format where the whole story has to be wrapped up in a short space of time.
And audiences just love it. They love going back week after week for that weekly fix of it.
I think in a strange way, this is going to sound crazy I think but this is what I've noticed. A lot of people have kids and they love going out to horror movies, but with kids they can’t really get out to the movies a lot and it’s actually a lot easier to watch this sort of stuff at home when you have kids.
I think the audience has grown up with the genre. When I was a kid and we were in the ‘80s we liked violent movies. You know, all my friends have kids now. They can’t get out to the movies, so most people are watching their entertainment at home.
Does doing this in a longer form, rather than just a movie give you just more time to explore character and story?
Like Eli and everyone has sort of been saying, it was like shooting a very long, 13-hour movie. What was really cool shooting the season of Hemlock Grove is that we got to explore each character from the book more in-depth you know, than what the book says about the character. So each character sort of has more energy and more life to it and more back story, and you learn more about each and every character throughout each episode.
And, shooting it that way was awesome because it’s such a great ensemble cast. It’s such a huge cast and each character has so much to bring to the story. So I thought that part of it was really cool.
For me what was interesting was when you're making a television show, it’s really very much about the story and the arc of the show and not about any one particular episode or any one director.
I enjoyed it. We had a terrific team with Deran Sarafian and the other directors we worked with and certainly with Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman and Mark Verheiden overseeing it creatively all throughout.
It was interesting that you could direct something, your episode, but then later by Episode 7, you realized that something’s not clear because you didn’t set it up properly in Episode 2, so you go back and add it in. You're really making this collaborative effort.
The trick is to maintain one tone and one creative voice, but of course things evolve and things change and you discover new things as you get shooting and going, “Oh, I wish we had done that in Episode 1.”
And because the show hasn’t aired yet, you can actually go back and change something from Episode 1 because you realize that it’s going to help something later in Episode 11. So that was exciting. Whereas in television, if you do a show, you know you film it, it’s on the air in three weeks. So by the time you end your season, everything’s aired already.
We really were able to go back and kind of make minor repairs and change things and make alterations to stuff in the earlier episodes. It was a really fun way of making the show.