Eli Roth interview: “we had the ‘Potter Police’ on set”

The veteran horror director chats to us about the decision to make his first family movie, The House With A Clock In Its Walls...

When you think of Hostel director Eli Roth, it’s hard to equate the image with that of a family-friendly fantasy film starring Jack Black. But that’s exactly what we’re getting with the new adaptation of The House With A Clock In Its Walls, with which Roth aims to create a new horror gateway film for kids.

We spoke to him about his influences, the death of PG horror, and what to do when you run out of grisly ways to kill your characters.

Starting with a question you’ll be getting all day – why a family film?

I’ve always wanted to do a kids’ movie, but it had to be my version of a kids’ movie. When I was growing up, my first scary experiences in a movie theatre were those fantastic early Amblin movies. Films like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Gremlins, Goonies – these were the films that really made you want to make movies. The first 20 minutes of E.T. are so scary, and none of those films pandered or talked down to kids.

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The kids were always really smart and the danger and the stakes were real. They got into real fights and they took the scares seriously. Time Bandits was a huge influence, and films like Labyrinth – very dark films that are close to the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Somewhere along the way, kids movies got very watered down and became sanitised. They’ve become either animation or PG-13 superhero films.

I wanted to make a movie that reminded people how great these films can be, and do a true, pure PG-rated movie for kids. Really make a gateway movie that gets kids into scary films. The violent films I saw as a kid were on VHS at a sleepover. You obviously can’t start a kid on Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’d traumatise them, but if you want your kid to get into scary movies this is the movie you take them to. To show them how fun it is to be scared.

You mentioned getting kids to the cinema – is that something that’s important to you?

Definitely. It’s fun to go see a movie with your parents when you’re a kid, it’s a good family activity. So you have to have a movie that parents aren’t going to be bored with. I look at my favourite directors – Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson – who started off with their gruesome horror movies before going onto Spider-Man and Lord Of The Rings. That’s the career trajectory I’d like to have.

It’s so much fun to be screaming in the theatre with a bunch of people. That collective, communal experience of screaming, laughing and having fun. There’s just nothing like it. The movie’s so bonkers and crazy that there’d be nothing like seeing it on the big screen.

After working on so many low-budget horror films earlier in your career, was it fun to be able to play around with the CGI in this?

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I loved it. It was a big challenge and very new for me, but I’m very practical-oriented and I like to build everything. We built the Griffin, and Chair. We built every one of the automatons. Once you’ve built something, see it in the physical space and photograph it, it becomes a lot easier for animators and CGI artists to make it look and feel real, tactile and authentic. We had a fantastic visual effects supervisor, who’s a real perfectionist and both of us really wanted everything to look and feel as organic as possible. I always say do it practically before it becomes impractical.

Obviously there are certain things… it’s a magic movie so things are going to be magical in it, but there’s not so much in the movie that it becomes unwieldy and you can’t have quality control. There’s a small enough amount that we could really go over every detail and make sure all the metal, leaves and light interaction looks perfect.

Were you familiar with the books before coming aboard the project?

I wasn’t, but I’m a collector of Edward Gorey’s artwork and I have a book cover from a different Gorey/John Bellairs collaboration called Johnny Dickson And The Hand Of The Necromancer. That’s been sitting in my house for years and I couldn’t believe that I had missed it. Once I started making the film a lot of other directors and actors told me that this was the book that got them into horror. I know that it certainly influenced Harry Potter. There are twelve books so, as soon as I read the script, I read the books and it’s completely my sensibility. I’m a fan now.

The film really reminded me of the Chris Columbus Harry Potter films, just in spirit, are there any contemporary kids horror or kids fantasy films that you were influenced by?

I love the Harry Potter movies and I love the books too. We had the ‘Potter Police’ on set with our producer Tracey who knows the books by heart. There were certain things written in these books that then showed up in Harry Potter, so we had to make sure that it could feel connected, but it didn’t feel like we were in a Potter world. It’s got to be its own universe.

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I was thinking about the fact that we had Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at a very interesting point in their careers. Jack to me is our generation’s Robin Williams where there’s that point where he can do Dead Poets Society and he’s getting Oscars, and then he can also do Mrs Doubtfire. Jack can do Jumanji or Bernie, and Cate has already won two Oscars. Now she’s started doing crazy fun roles like Thor: Ragnarok and you can see this playful side of her come out. She’s really, really funny.

I didn’t want to make a retro movie because it’s already set in the 50s and it was going to look and feel very contemporary, but I wanted to make a movie that was unapologetic, unafraid to go dark and scary, and that wasn’t afraid to alienate the audience for a minute. Some scenes are just for the parents and some scenes are just for the kids. Really give it heart, and make it emotional.

I don’t want to hit people over the head with a message, but I think there are a few really great ones in the movie like finding your family and embracing your weirdness. That’s what I was focusing on more than anything.

How did casting come about?

We went to Jack first and then once we had Jack we went to Cate. Then it was easy, as it was just filling in the rest. I was so, so thrilled to get Kyle MacLachlan because I’d been watching Twin Peaks: The Return, and was getting all of those different versions of Dale Cooper. He’s never done anything like this, with full zombie makeup. As soon as he put it on he started doing the Thriller dance.

You spoke about the film’s more emotional elements – was there ever a temptation to not include the story of Florence’s family?

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I guess you can say that this is my version of a Holocaust movie. If you’re setting the movie in 1955 and you want it to be real, you have to deal with it. There’s no version where you just ignore it, especially when the film is really about tragedy and how it affects people.

Some people move forwards and other people just want to move everything backwards. Everyone’s gone through their own tragedy and they’re all broken people. Jonathan, Florence and Lewis are all broken from what happened to their families. That gives you hope as a kid, when you see people come together like that.

You feel that hope and you see what happened to Isaac who was driven by bitterness and obsession because humans are so terrible they don’t deserve to live. It’s two different solutions to the same problem, which is the tragedy of life. Do you move forward or do you just wipe it all out?

So if you’re going to deal with that it has to be real, and when you’ve got someone like Cate Blanchett and you can have casual allusions that the kids aren’t going to pick up on… You don’t have to dwell on it, but it grounds her tragedy in a very real way.

You’re a very experienced horror director, but this is your first family-friendly gothic horror – how did you go about adapting your sensibilities to that realm?

In a lot of ways I’ve been restraining this side of myself. That Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton side. I wanted to do something in that visual world, and you couldn’t really do that in my other films because they were very reality-based, grounded horror films. So, stylistically and visually I got to create these incredible sequences. It wasn’t so much that I had to tone it down, but more like ‘my god I really have the resources to show what I can do and create something that looks spectacular and grand’.

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There’s no blood so instead of chopping off heads I chopped up pumpkins. I substituted squirting orange pumpkin goop for blood and it was just as fun.

Is this a permanent step for you or will the next film be R-Rated?

Nothing’s permanent, everything’s an evolution. What I’ve learned is not to think about what rating I want next, but what story I want to tell next. If this movie’s a hit and people like it then I would love to continue the series. It’s such an amazing experience working with Jack and Cate I’d love to do another one. I loved making a PG movie, and I found it just as creatively fulfilling.

The truth is I don’t know where else to cut. I’ve chopped up pretty much every body part and killed people in many beautiful, magnificent ways and I’m very proud of that, but to me now it’s all about the story. There are some ideas that I’m writing and other scripts that are being sent to me – I’m not overthinking it, I’m going to go with the flow.

In terms of sequels, there’s the limitation of having multiple child actors. They grow up – are you tied to continuing this story or might you just tell your own within the universe? Would you be happy doing this for the next ten years?

We have an idea for where we would go with the story, and it would be using the same cast for at least the next two. I don’t know if I’d want to do it for the next ten years, but for the next year I’m be thrilled to. It was the best time of the my life making this movie.

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Eli Roth, thank you very much.

The House With A Clock In Its Walls is in UK cinemas today.