It's been fun to watch Eli Roth transition over the years from upstart film geek (and BNAT regular) to established horror director to Bear Jew to producer. He's taken a kid-in-a-candy-store approach to the movie industry, trying out as many roles as possible, while never sacrificing the gore-soaked sensibility that put him on the map (as evidenced by the recent opening of his "Goretorium" at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas). Roth is doing precisely what he's always wanted to do, and he's going to keep at it with the same tenacity until someone shuts him down or throws him in jail for obscenity.
As producer and co-writer of THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, Roth has stepped outside of the horror genre to help his friend RZA realize the martial arts epic of his dreams. It's a labor of love for RZA ("the kung-fu STAR WARS"), and it probably would've been impossible without the involvement of Roth, producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman, and the "presented by" seal of approval from Quentin Tarantino. The result is a film informed by every genre and filmmaking aesthetic known to man, a barrage of cinema from two men who've been devouring movies since the Carter administration. You'll see obvious references to FIVE DEADLY VENOMS and ENTER THE DRAGON, but you might miss the unlikely influence of LOLA MONTES and BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE. Nothing was off limits for Roth and RZA.
In the below interview, Roth discusses the snowbound genesis of the project, the degree to which he was able to assist RZA on set without being intrusive, and how he feels about his own return to directing after five years. Here's Donny!
Mr. Beaks: I love that this movie would've never happened had you not gotten snowed in at the airport with RZA.
Eli Roth: Yeah, I think it was a snowstorm that brought this movie into existence. Actually it was my mother's mushroom soup. We were snowed in in Boston, and we thought we'd be stuck at the airport for hours, even overnight. So I said, "My parents live in Boston. Let's just go to my parents' house." So we got in a cab in the snowstorm, and went to my parents house, and my mom had dinner ready. She didn't even know we were stopping by. I was like, "Mom, I'm coming over for dinner, and I'm bringing the RZA." So she had mushroom soup, angel hair pasta, and my dad had a nice bottle of wine. It was great. We just popped in. And I said, "RZA, my dad was from Brownsville." Brownsville is a very rough part of Brooklyn, and it turns out that RZA and my dad grew up blocks from each other. Different generations, obviously, but both had made it out, and knew how difficult that was. So there was this instant respect between the two of them. Then the flight was back on, and we had to race back to the airport. And we sat down in the airplane laughing. And as the airplane took off, I turned to RZA and said, "You've been hanging out with Quentin. What do you really want to do?" And he told me the whole story of THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. We talked about different ways he could finance it. This was right before HOSTEL opened in January of 2006. He told me the whole story, and I thought, "God, if I'm ever in a position, I'd love to help him out with this movie."
After [HOSTEL: PART II], I wanted to take a break because I'd gone back-to-back for years without stopping, and I wanted to start producing stuff. I was talking to [producer] Eric Newman, and I said, "You know, RZA has this kung fu movie." He'd been talking to other producers, and they were all telling him to do it for $2 million, don't do it period, and make it in the modern world. But part of the fun was that this was a fantasy movie. We love STAR WARS, and he wanted to make kung fu STAR WARS. Something that's its own universe. Now you tell people it's kung fu AVENGERS. But this is its own world, where there's people with different powers: there's a guy with a suit that fires blades, Brass Body can turn his skin to brass, and there's Bronze Lion and Gold Lion. He had a world. We spent probably a year-and-a-half or two years writing the script, and most of that was done creating the world, specifying "Who are the Gemini Killers? Where does their weapon come from? Where do they live? What do they do? How do they dress? How do they fight?" You've really got to get these details down. It was also my way of testing how he'd be as a director, because you need to explain these ideas to people. I knew he was going to have to explain it to a production designer, a costume designer and an actor. "How are they going to move in these clothes? Where do they go? What do they eat? How do they live? What is their relationship to the Dragon Inn?" It was really a process of not just creating a world, but making sure that he was prepared to explain this to a crew, because that's the only way it's going to get translated. Then we finished the script, went into Universal with Marc Abraham and Eric Newman, and they said, "This is insane, but we love it. If you can do it at a price, we'll do it." We brought in Quentin to present it, RZA got Russell Crowe, and we did the entire movie all-in for $15 million as a labor of love.
Beaks: It was inevitable that RZA would one day make a kung fu movie. The Wu Tang Clan albums, both group and solo, are so cinematic.
Roth: That was the idea, that it would be cinematic. We didn't want to make a grindhouse movie, we didn't want to make a throwback movie, and we didn't want to make a rap video. I wanted people to see it as a beautifully designed, opulent production, and an exciting, fun fantasy movie that, even if you took the fights out, you were still watching a great story. That's been the nicest surprise: people come out of the movie and say, "Wow! That was actually a real movie. We didn't expect it to look that good. We knew it would be good, but we didn't realize that there were going to be real performances." That's a testament to RZA. We said, "If we're going to spend all this time on it, we want it to be a great movie."
Beaks: I think people expect something along the lines of SHOGUN ASSASSIN, but instead they get a sort of hyper-violent ZU.
Roth: Also, we didn't want to make a movie that was just for supergeeks. RZA is a fanatic. He can watch these movies for hours. But I get very bored watching the same movie go on too long, or if the fight is too repetitive. I talked about "fight fatigue". I said, "We can't make a movie where fights go on and on and on." Look at Broadway musicals. Every song in the musical advances the story; if it doesn't advance the story, it's cut from the musical. The fights have to serve the same purpose. If we're watching a fight, there has to be a new dynamic by the end. We have to learn something about the characters. It has to move the story forward. Also, we can't see the same fight twice. We've got to show something new. That was part of the challenge: coming up with new fights, new characters and new ways of doing it so that it wouldn't feel repetitive.
Beaks: Were there particular films you could look to for inspiration in this regard?
Roth: We looked at everything. FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, SHOGUN ASSASSIN, HOUSE OF TRAPS... we have a nice ENTER THE DRAGON reference. But we also watched GYPSY. There were all kinds of things that got in there. We watched BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE at Quentin's house. We looked at a long take with all the dialogue; it's a fourteen-minute take. We watched the dynamics of that scene. I also saw LOLA MONTES with Quentin, and I said, "RZA, we've got to watch this Max Ophuls film. Look at the opulence. Look at the detail. We should have the brothel look like this world." We pulled from everything. We're cinephiles, so we watched all types of movies. There's even a detour back to the world of slavery, where the movie changes and you're almost in a different movie. We wanted that to be very stylized, for it not to go on too long, but long enough that you get the point and really understand the characters when you go back to them.
Beaks: And that's so important. Usually, when guys come on to do a studio version of this type of film, they only look at the top movies from the genre and maybe an obscure title or two. It's all genre-specific. I think the movies you guys make really pop because you're drawing from a much deeper well.
Roth: You're telling a story, and you want to pull from different pieces. That's what RZA did with his albums. He didn't just use a beat. He created things, he played things backwards, he took lines of dialogue from kung fu movies, record scratches... all kinds of stuff. He was really experimenting with sound, and creating a world through sound. We wanted it to feel like its own thing; we didn't want it to feel like a pastiche. So when you cut that opening fight to "Shame on a Nigga", it just felt right. You hear Ol' Dirty Bastard screaming, and watch people getting punched and guys jumping around and killing each other, you can't help but smile. It's just so fun. And it sets the table for what kind of movie you're in for, which is something different and wild, that's not going to play by any rules except for its own.
Beaks: As a first-time director, how was the learning curve for RZA on set?
Roth: It was a fast learning curve. It was intense. We had fifty-one days of second unit, and second unit was a crew of 120 people. And often there was a third unit off doing fights. RZA had his hands full from day one, but he had twenty-one days of prep. He prepped as much as he could mentally and physically, but it was a lot for him. We had a good team of producers: Marc Abraham and Eric Newman were over there, and I was over there. If there was a scene that needed to be done, and he couldn't be in two places at once, I could always grab a camera and go get it for him. That's what you do as a producer. And if he had to act, I could be there to supervise his acting while he's making sure the whole scene got done. But you sink or swim. At the end of the first week, I remember we went out to the club and went crazy and cut loose. It was January 1st, zero degrees, we're in Hengdian, China, and I'd been shooting guys riding horses and going up and down staircases and into caves just to make sure we got the footage. And RZA said, "This is the hardest job I've ever done." Basically, everything he'd ever done had been preparing for this moment. He'd been listening to "Rocket Man" over and over. He said, "That's how I feel. I feel like I'm in outer space by myself." And I said, "Directing is the single loneliest job. No one tells you how isolated it is. It's just you, and you're in your own world. It's very hard. Very few people can handle it."
Beaks: As a producer who's directed, how do you strike that balance between providing assistance and hanging back?
Roth: Well, I only want to do it with people I like and trust as a director, like Nicolas Lopez on AFTERSHOCK. I want to be there, but I also know that, as a director, you need good producers around you. You're thinking up so many different ideas, and you have your own inner compass, but sometimes you need a second opinion. "Am I crazy?" And that's why you need producers who will never lie to you. RZA was really depending on me to show him what to do and how to run it. I prepared him as much as I could, but I was only there to help him if he needed it. I remember the first week, Cory Yuen had to train the fight team. He said, "If we don't spend three weeks training these guys, the fights aren't going to be ready." But we also had eight days of second unit stuff of, like, Bronze Lion walking into the palace, doors opening - all stuff that was visual and required acting, but no dialogue. It was all storyboarded very clearly, but you needed a director there. And I said, "Dude, screw it, let me do it. I'll help you out." And he trusted that I knew what he wanted because we'd written the script together. So it's not my directing; it's his directing. He just can't physically be there because he's off in another location. That's the kind of thing I could do for him. And sometimes he just needed someone to go to dinner with him so he had someone to vent to.
Beaks: Was there one sequence in particular that proved difficult?
Roth: The ending fight between him and Brass Body was really hard. It was the end of the shoot, everyone was tired - and RZA is a very generous director and actor, and he let every actor do their fight. The fights were amazing. But the fight that he hadn't focused on was the Brass Body fight; he knew what we wanted, but we were figuring stuff out as we were going. The crew was tired, and he was like, "Fuck it. I'm gonna whup ass." (Laughs) He looked at me and said, "I'm gonna go angry nigga on this one. Just throw those motherfuckers at me." Without rehearsing or anything, twenty guys ran at him and he just started swinging his fists. We were watching it at the monitor, and I was like, "Dude, this is the best. Honestly, you couldn't have planned anything better than this." And he said, "I didn't!" The guys who ran at him were so good; they could adjust to whatever he did. But they basically just made up the fight during the take, and it turned out to be one of the most exciting moments in the film.
Beaks: You're getting back into directing, which is nice to see. Was there any particular reason you took such a long break from directing?
Roth: I feel like I haven't stopped. I know it looks like I've taken time off, but I went right from HOSTEL 2 to writing IRON FISTS and then INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, which I wanted to fully commit to. And then promoting THE LAST EXORCISM, and helping Daniel [Stamm] finish that film. And then I went off to China with RZA. I said, "I can't miss this. I want to be there to help him make the best movie possible." Then we wrote AFTERSHOCK, and went off to Chile. I've had this wonderful life adventure that's taken me from one country to another, and I've had an amazing experience and learned so much along the way with each one. I knew that I would get back to directing eventually. I wasn't worried about that. I just wanted to wait until I really missed it, and I'm at the place now.
Directing is a very hard job. It's very isolating, and you're constantly making decisions and telling "No" to people. It's a hard spot to be in. You have to be a politician. So I wanted to take a break from it, and learn as much as I could from writing and producing and acting, and approach it as more of an adult, as a seasoned professional. Directing is a completely different experience after having produced and written the other movies. It's just a new level of confidence and focus. Things are much easier. They're still hard, but I don't feel that anxiousness and stress that I felt five years ago.
Beaks: Visually, are we going to see a different Eli?
Roth: I can't predict what we're going to see visually. I hope so. That's the plan.
THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is currently in theaters.