Eli Roth, a filmmaker best known for spilling blood and guts on screen, was glowing as he introduced his new movie, Knock Knock, before a sold out audience at the Sundance Film Festival. (Knock Knock was a hot ticket, I couldn’t even get one until the last second and I had an interview scheduled with Roth for the next day.)
It’s certainly a new direction for the 42-year-old director. Roth refuses to admit that he is seeking respect, and I believe his answer, but he’s certainly seeking something, because Knock Knock is unlike his other films. There is only one on-screen death and the film is almost entirely gore-free. In other words: Roth won’t admit that he cares about critics – and maybe he doesn’t – but I’m not sure that’s entirely true.
Keanu Reeves plays Evan, an honestly nice man with a wife and two kids. On a rainy night while his family is away, two young women show up at his door asking for directions. The two women, after many protests, seduce Evan, then use his transgressions to make his life a nightmare.
I met with Roth in Park City to discuss this new direction and why it’s coming now. Roth is always candid and likes to give long answers to seemingly simple questions that then seem more complicated after he answers them (He once sent me drawings he did as a kid in response to a question about how Star Wars had influenced him). Roth also discusses one of his favorite movies – the Burt-Reynolds-as-a-racecar-driver bomb Stroker Ace – and why its awfulness makes it a modern classic and how he came very close to owning the Stroker Ace’s not-famous-at-all jacket.
It seems to mean a lot to you to have a movie at Sundance.
It’s a very big thing … and I wanted to show a different level of filmmaking for me. So when I’m introducing a movie, I felt like this is a big moment in my career.
It’s interesting that you’re conscious of that, or at least admitting that.
No, I’m very aware. You know, you try not to put too much importance on the moment, but I’m aware that it’s a very important moment. I can feel the shift in my perception as a director, just from being accepted to Sundance … and not that my other movies weren’t smart. I mean, people can say whatever they want about them. But I do feel that being here puts you in a different class of filmmaker. And whether you want to admit that or not, that’s what the perception is – and if that’s what the perception, then that’s the reality of it. And I generally follow my own compass, my own instincts. And with Knock Knock, I really felt connected to the story – and I had so much of my own personal experience and life experience that I wanted to put into the film.
How? I can’t imagine you’ve been kidnapped by two women.
No, but everyone’s had the experience where you’ve let someone into your life that becomes a threat to whatever ecosystem you’ve built. Everything. And everything that you built, you – it makes you realize the fragility of your world, of your relationships, of your friends, of your family. And you go, “Oh, my God, this person is crazy. They’re destroying my life.” Then you stop and think, “What’s wrong with me? Why did I let that person in?”
But Knock Knock’s not like Saw, where we find out later that Keanu’s character, Evan, is a pretty bad guy and he deserves what’s coming to him. He made a mistake, but it’s not like he went out searching for it.
People are supposed to feel whatever they want. There’s no “supposed to.” I want the audience to understand everyone’s point of view. I want the audience to understand why Evan’s doing this … so these girls show up, and he’s like, “You know what? I am hot. I am good-looking. I do look good. And they’re right. And they want to fuck me. And my wife doesn’t want to, so you know what? Fuck her. I’m going to have sex with these girls.”
Only one person dies in this movie. This isn’t an Eli Roth gory movie. This is very different, and it sounds like that was the intent.
Well, I can’t keep repeating myself. You want to grow and your ideas change. And now that I’m married, and Lorenza and I were engaged when we made this, these are the things that we think about. Like, are you there? Is this person your best friend? What’s going to happen in 10 years? Will there be slow little underlying hostilities that are never addressed that slowly build up and then come out in horrible ways you don’t even notice? And I’ve looked at patterns of that in my own relationship where you’re in an argument – you’re in a fight about some completely different issue – and you’re like, “Fuck it, I’m staying out until four in the morning and I’m not going to check in.”
As a director, how important is respect to you? Based on what you’re saying, that seems to be a goal with this movie.
I certainly wouldn’t make a movie, like Cabin Fever, Green Inferno – those aren’t movies you do for respect. They’re respected by the fans. But this is me saying, “This is who I am and this is what I love and take it or leave it.” And it’s always been that way. What I’m talking about is not respect. This feeling that everything you create, to another person, it just doesn’t matter at all. It means absolutely nothing. It’s completely worthless. You know, one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. You know, you’re writing, you’re a writer. And you think you’re very thoughtful with your writing, and very careful and very smart about how you do it. Then someone else could go, “This guy’s a fucking idiot.” Click. And destroy it. And that’s like kind of a terrifying thought that no matter how good you are and no matter what you do, to another person, you’re completely worthless.
Do bad reviews hurt you? As you said, if someone dismisses one of your movies as garbage.
No, no, no. I get what you’re saying. They don’t. I mean, you can’t make movies like I make and expect that the universe will love. They’re just not those types of movies.
Then what is it? You insinuated it hurts when someone will just dismiss you outright and say, “That’s garbage.”
What I’m saying is that – not a review. A review is a public humilation in some way and you have to have thick skin for that. And you have to go, “Well, that person didn’t like it.”
So public acceptance?
No. It’s the idea that all we create and all we do ultimately doesn’t matter – that it’s all just going to wind up in a closet somewhere. It’s just like, all the stuff you do, everything you put in your life and your soul.
But that’s not been the case for you’re a lot of your work.
No, it’s nice, and I feel very lucky. But my movies have always been very low on the Rotten Tomatoes meter – either like the worst reviews or they’re very down the middle. But over time – for me, time is the ultimate critic – and over time, the movies persevere. And people are still arguing about whether Hostel is good or not. I did something right. I guess, deep down, I really want my mother’s artwork to be recognized … and there’s something that’s deeply painful, to watch my mother turn out this amazing artwork, and because she’s a 75-year-old woman, have the art world not think it’s sexy or care. And then if she was a 25-year-old kid and she would have the same painting, I think it would be different … So, for me, that’s a terrifying idea, of creating all these things and then, what happens next? It’s not the bad reviews. It’s that.
During your intro, you mentioned Stroker Ace because Colleen Camp is in Knock Knock. I did not expect to hear Stroker Ace referenced at Sundance.
I always recommend Stroker Ace in every Q&A. I think there should be a law at Sundance, you should mention Stroker Ace.
I haven’t seen it since I was a little kid. I’m afraid to watch it now, because I’m sure I won’t like it.
No, you’ll love it.
No, I’ll say, “Boy, Burt Reynolds really should have done Terms of Endearment.”
You will love it because the astounding terribleness of it will make you love it so much more. And the fact that Burt Reynolds agreed to do a movie where he’s in a chicken suit? I tried to get the Stroker Ace jacket at the Burt Reynolds auction. It went for $15,000. The Smokey and the Bandit jacket went for $35,000. I wanted the Stroker Ace jacket so bad. It’s one of my favorite movies. I’ve seen it so many times. I love it.
He met Loni Anderson on that movie.
It crossed over from being terrible to awesome. Burt’s mustache, the satin jacket. You can’t beat it.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.