In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill
“Two Girls Coming into your House and Unleashing Havoc”: Eli Roth on Knock Knock
Eli Roth’s Knock Knock is to Fatal Attraction what that film was to Play Misty For Me: an homage that expands upon its source and intersects with the zeitgeist in immensely entertaining, provocative ways. Like both Attraction and Misty, Knock Knock is a cautionary tale and a male fantasy turned nightmare: Keanu Reeves plays a husband and father who, when left alone on Father’s Day, answers the door to find two gorgeous young women (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) stranded in the rain and looking for help. He invites them in and eventually succumbs to their erotic overtures, quickly learning what a mistake he has made when the girls refuse to leave and initiate a series of sadistic games that make the family man’s predicament worse and worse with every passing hour.
Roth takes this elegantly simple premise (inspired not only by Fatal Attraction but also the obscure 1977 thriller Death Game) and milks it for all that it’s worth, combining wicked satire and suspense to investigate sex, gender, art, and family values in the age of Millennials and social networking. Roth’s strengths as a social satirist have largely been overlooked in films like Hostel and Hostel: Part II (for my money two of the most savage and trenchant – and sadly enduring – commentaries on contemporary American foreign policy) due to his equally powerful strengths as a horror director; his movies are so graphic and confrontational that some viewers and critics seem to have a hard time seeing past the blood to appreciate the incisive cultural analysis as well as the films’ ambitious approach to point of view. As the late Wes Craven once said, horror is the one genre where you’re punished for doing it too well, and Eli Roth is a case in point; the intentionally disturbing nature of much of his work has led to the lazy “torture porn” label that is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful. For — like his colleague Rob Zombie, an equally misunderstood horror auteur — Roth is precisely the opposite of what his critics accuse him of being. In an age of found footage and recycled remakes and reboots, he’s a true original, using suspense tropes thoughtfully and stylishly to reflect on the era in which he lives and the horror genre itself. He’s also one of the most underrated directors of actors in the business, and Knock Knock – Roth’s most minimalist film in the way that he strips it down to the essence of the characters and their situation – boasts three of the best performances of the year in the form of Reeves, Izzo, and de Armas’s work. Perhaps Knock Knock’s status as a more “mainstream” – though no less aggressive and outrageous – thriller will wipe the blood out of viewers’ eyes long enough for them to appreciate and recognize Roth for the modern master that he is. I spoke with him about his work just as both Knock Knock and Roth’s previous film, the equally arresting The Green Inferno, were set for release.
Filmmaker: I remember a year or two ago seeing a trailer for Death Game at Cinefamily and thinking, “Man, that would be a great idea for someone to update” – and then you did! Where and when did you first see Death Game, and how did it inform the script for Knock Knock?
Eli Roth: Colleen Camp is a dear friend, and she told me about it. She said, “I made a movie where I have a threesome with Sondra Locke and Seymour Cassel,” and I went, “What?!” It was a movie that wasn’t really released; it had kind of a drive-in release in the U.S., but there are only bootleg copies on DVD and pirated versions on YouTube. It’s a fairly rarely seen film. I watched it with Nicolas Lopez, and I thought, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” I loved the setup of two girls coming into your house and unleashing havoc, and that was a starting point for what the movie ultimately became: a psychosexual thriller along the lines of Polanski – not just what he did in the ’70s but even Death and the Maiden in the early ’90s – combined with Fatal Attraction.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you bring up Fatal Attraction, because for me the movie plays kind of like a riff on that film for the era of Facebook and Twitter.
Roth: Yeah, the idea was that in Fatal Attraction you could cheat on your wife and maybe she would find out about it, but in the age of social media the entire world can know what you did. Look at Ashley Madison! I also thought about Funny Games and Hard Candy, films where trouble comes into your own house. One thing I wanted to explore was the idea of how fragile everything in your home is – what can happen when you invite trouble into your home.
Filmmaker: It’s kind of the opposite of your previous films, where people get into trouble by leaving their homes.
Roth: Yeah, I call Cabin Fever, Hostel, and Green Inferno the “travel trilogy.”
Filmmaker: You had two screenwriting collaborators on Knock Knock, Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo, with whom you also wrote Aftershock and The Green Inferno. Tell me how that relationship works. Are you guys all in a room together, do you write an outline and hand it off and then go back and forth, do different people write different scenes…?
Roth: It goes so fast. I didn’t know how fast I could write until we started pushing ourselves, but what I realized is that whether you write a draft in ten days or ten weeks doesn’t really make a difference. Things are still going to change when you get together with the actors; things change when you get to the location. The way Nicolas and Guillermo and I work is by starting in Nicolas’s office, where the wall is one giant blackboard. We get chalk and write down every scene and break the structure; we look at the entire story and the characters and the ideas and draw little arrows between all of them. Now, for the first twenty minutes or so we’re usually just drawing dicks, but somewhere in there we get serious and start plotting the story; when we erase all the 7th grade graffiti we’ve drawn, suddenly the movie is there. Then we write down an outline and give it to Amoedo, who we call “the machine,” because he’s like a robot who doesn’t sleep. He comes back in four or five days with a ten-page outline that we rewrite together, and then we let Amoedo take that – again, because he doesn’t sleep – and in a week he’ll come back with a draft of the screenplay. Nico and I will then sit down and work on the dialogue, and the three of us will do more rewriting, and then the last thing we do is a table read with six or seven people we really trust. We workshop the script like you would a play, and we figure out what’s too long and what’s repeated and what’s not working. Once we’ve done that, we feel like we have a movie.
Filmmaker: This entire process takes how long?
Roth: About three weeks. People don’t understand how we can write that fast, but when you have good, smart, motivated collaborators you can get anything done. This idea that you need twelve weeks to write a screenplay is bullshit. You can write a screenplay in two weeks if you have a good team with you.
Filmmaker: I was wondering if you could talk about the opening act, before the girls come into the movie. I felt like you were laying some groundwork there to imply that there are problems in Keanu’s marriage and dissatisfactions in his life before the girls ever enter it – it isn’t just a case of this guy cheating on his wife out of nowhere.
Roth: Of course not, nobody behaves that way by accident. People don’t just do that if they’re completely satisfied in their relationship. You can say that there’s another part of it, which is this fantasy guys in their forties might have about girls in their twenties who grew up with internet pornography – the idea that they’re freer and more open sexually because of that. But the truth is, at the beginning of the movie Keanu and his wife aren’t having sex and he can’t confront her about it – when he tries to as a joke, she shuts him down. Early on we show you the whole house and the wife’s artwork just dominates it; Keanu’s character has basically surrendered his life and career to support his wife, and on Father’s Day his family leaves him because he has work to do. They don’t say, “This is your day, we’ll stay here and have dinner with you if you get a break from work” – they go to the beach! This is a guy who is unhappy in his relationship but is very good at convincing himself that he’s happy. He figures, “I’ve got the wife, I’ve got the kids, I’ve got this house that is my castle.” But his kids are making fun of his hair. No one in the house thinks he’s cool. When the girls show up, they’re almost like these two angels who show up and say, “Your long hair is cool, we love your records, you’re a sexual being.” We very carefully lay out this façade of a happy marriage, but the film is really about the things you do when you’re unhappy in a relationship but don’t acknowledge that you’re unhappy.
Filmmaker: In his mind, it’s a justification for cheating on his wife. These girls see him as he wants to be seen and she doesn’t.
Roth: Absolutely. He thinks, “Fuck this, I am hot, I am still a sexual being.” He figures he can do it and nobody will know, but he opens Pandora’s box. Then the next morning he walks into his kitchen and the girls are in there eating like animals, and the first thing out of his mouth is, “I thought you guys left.” He treats them like toilet paper. We talked about the fact that if Keanu had come out and said, “You know what? This whole experience has made me realize how unhappy I am in my marriage, and I just want to thank you both for that,” the girls might have just left. But it’s this façade they have to tear down. Again, look at Ashley Madison, where you have 37 million people paying money to cheat on their spouse. These are people who are unhappy and dissatisfied in their lives in some way, but they don’t want to disrupt the lives they’ve built. I’m not judging them, I’m just saying look at reality. Look at how people deal – or don’t deal – with unhappiness.
Filmmaker: You saying that you don’t judge them leads me to something I feel is both your greatest strength as a filmmaker and the thing that deeply troubles some viewers, which is your fairly sophisticated approach to point of view. In most of your films you’re constantly shifting the identification figure – here in Knock Knock there’s that moment in the kitchen where suddenly Keanu is an asshole and we start taking sides with the girls, and in The Green Inferno the violence committed by the natives is positively horrifying yet also morally justified from their point of view. I suppose the ultimate manifestation of this idea is in Hostel: Part II, where you have this kind of bifurcated structure that gives equal time to the victims and the killers. It’s almost like a demented version of Jean Renoir’s philosophy that “everyone has their reasons.” Do you consciously set out to honor the perspectives of all of your characters, or is that just kind of an intuitive thing?
Roth: I love what Tarantino does, where he never judges his characters. There’s this bullshit concept that you have to make every character likable; it results in movies where no one is real, because everybody’s trying so hard to be politically correct and not create a character who someone might not like. My job is to write characters who are honest, and some people will like them and some people won’t. But my feeling is that there is no such thing as evil – everybody is doing it from their point of view. In The Green Inferno, when Aaron Burns is squealing as he’s getting killed so horribly, it should be upsetting to the audience, but at the same time, you can understand why it’s happening. The bulldozers are at the edge of the village, they’re ripping up the trees; the natives see the kids in construction uniforms because they’ve infiltrated the construction site, so to them the activists are invaders and they’re going to treat them that way. They see themselves as under attack and they’re going to send a strong message to defend themselves. And in the end, the question with Justine is whether she was really there to save the village, or was she just there to trend on Twitter?
The girls in Knock Knock have had terrible things happen to them in their past – certainly some sort of abuse – and this is their way of proving to the world how shitty men are. Even if they have the ring on their finger and the family photos on the wall, they’re all the same – if you offer them the free pizza they’re going to take it. But then there’s also the “musical chairs” sequence early on, where I wanted the audience to see everything through Keanu’s eyes, and make the decisions with him. I love the idea that no one is a bad guy in their own mind. It probably comes from being Jewish and growing up hearing so much about the Nazis – you wonder how a whole country can get caught up in that. Once you lock into an ideology and commit to it, people are capable of anything.
Filmmaker: I want to follow up on what you said about the girls’ pasts, and their abuse, because that’s something that’s only very subtly implied in the movie. It isn’t stated or made explicit in any way. What kinds of conversations do you have with the actors about their pasts and motivations? Do you give them histories that aren’t in the script, or ask them to write their own?
Roth: Yes, whether or not we reveal it, that information is always very, very clear to us as filmmakers. I don’t like to overexplain it to the audience, but it makes its way into the DNA of the movie in the form of clues and hints that are there if you want to read into them. The actresses have to understand where the girls were yesterday, where they were two days ago or two years ago, how they met…this is something I learned from Quentin on Inglourious Basterds. At the first table read, Quentin said, “Put your scripts down,” and he went around asking us all questions about our characters. You had to have your backstory down – you had to be able to talk for hours about your character, and if you couldn’t he dropped you from the movie. There was one kid who wasn’t really prepared, and Quentin just cut him. That was it. You have to completely understand the history of the characters and how they relate to each other – even if you don’t say it, the audience has to trust that the filmmakers know it.
Filmmaker: The compositions and shot selection in the film are very subtle yet very effective – I feel like how you frame the characters is always telling us something about the relationships, in terms of when you frame them together, when you go in for singles, when Keanu is sharing the frame with one or both women. Do you always go into a film with a kind of visual strategy to get those ideas across?
Roth: Sure. On Cabin Fever, for example, whenever someone became infected we shot them in singles. The movie starts with group shots taken with wide-angle lenses, and then the lenses gradually become more claustrophobic and the color fades from bleach-bypassing, which we did photochemically. We drained the color on Hostel as well; when it starts off the use of color is similar to a sex comedy like The Last American Virgin or Porky’s, but by the end it looks like Eraserhead or Schindler’s List. For Green Inferno, I wanted the opening scenes in New York City to look like You’ve Got Mail – bright colors, Steadicam, lots of taxicabs – but then when they get to the village and people are grabbing them, there’s a complete loss of control. Sometimes characters are in and out of the frame, and it’s blurry and disorienting. For Knock Knock, I wanted the photography to be meticulous and stylish – it’s really about composing beautiful frames to showcase the actors. It was difficult, because we were essentially shooting in a glass box with rain coming down and ended up having all of these crazy reflections to deal with. Anywhere we put a light it gave us a hundred little spots. Luckily, my director of photography Antonio Quercia is a magician – he really did a brilliant job.
There’s a long Steadicam shot that we use three times; we do it at the beginning to show you that this is a real house and to present that illusion of the perfect family, then we do it again at night, and again at the end when there’s been total destruction. The point with all of the camerawork is to reveal character and to let the girls invade his space. When Keanu invites the vampire in, so to speak, the camera follows him to get the towels and then the frame leaves him to show that the girls are gone a moment before he realizes it. From that point on the camera is all about showing the girls invading his space and using the close-ups of Keanu to really show it through his eyes – holding on him as long as possible and then lighting the girls to look like little angels. Then we change that the next morning so they almost look like raccoons that have gotten into the kitchen, and there are other fun things like putting Lorenza in the triptych mirror where she’s putting on the wife’s makeup, invading her space while Keanu is tied up on the floor.
Filmmaker: I have to say, as a horror fan I always feel so relieved when I watch your movies, because so much attention is paid to lighting and composition. It’s like inhaling pure oxygen after being suffocated by the whole found footage aesthetic that has become dominant in the last few years.
Roth: I wanted Green Inferno to look beautiful – I wanted it to be like Apocalypse Now or Apocalypto – and I wanted Knock Knock to look like an Adrian Lyne thriller. Beautiful photography at the service of performances, because this is an actors’ film – it’s a kind of chess game between characters. Keanu is an incredible actor with incredible range who doesn’t get the credit he deserves; I wanted to showcase him and Lorenza and Ana de Armas in way that would send people out of the theatre saying, “I can’t wait to see what these actors do next, they’re amazing.” People sometimes discount performances in genre films, but I’d love to see Keanu go up for an Academy Award for this movie. I want Lorenza and Ana to go up for Independent Spirit Awards.
Filmmaker: I think the actors are well served by your use of the widescreen aspect ratio too, which both allows them to play off of each other in the frame and gives the movie a real elegance. It’s something I’ve loved about your films from the beginning – where did that adherence to the 2.35 aspect ratio come from?
Roth: I just love that frame. Obviously I’ve been influenced by John Carpenter and The Thing, but what it really comes down to is the fact that I make these movies inexpensively. Green Inferno and Knock Knock were five million dollars each, and they’re playing alongside movies that cost eighty or a hundred million dollars. So I have to use every trick I can, and when you shoot that way it just feels more cinematic on a gut level, provided you know how to fill the frame. When we’re in that house with Keanu, I don’t want it to feel claustrophobic – I want it to have depth and beauty. I never think to myself, “Oh, I’m making a horror movie, it doesn’t have to look good.” Even though these movies fall into genres, I think of them as dramas. Look at what Quentin does, or what James Cameron does: they elevate a genre to an art form and create memorable characters and performances that last twenty-five years or more. And that’s my goal – it’s not so much to get everyone awards, it’s to make a movie that people are still talking about twenty-five years from now.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.