Film School Alumni Advice: Knock Knock Director Eli Roth

When MovieMaker asked a range of successful indie filmmakers to participate in our Film School Roundtable article for our upcoming Summer issue, we received a wide range of insightful, hilarious, and diverse answers. We’re featuring some of our favorites on moviemaker.com over the next few weeks, leading up to the newsstand release on July 7.

The three questions we asked each alum: What did you do right in film school, what did you do wrong, and what advice would you have for 2015’s incoming class of budding auteurs? Like the cool upperclassmen whose brains you always wanted to pick, but were too shy to vocalize, we’re happy to step in as your moderator and fraternal big brother.

This week, Eli Roth (New York University, Class of 1994) shares his wisdom. The director’s latest feature, Knock Knock, starring Keanu Reeves, premiered at Sundance earlier this year and opens in theaters nationwide on June 26.


1. What did you do right when you were in film school?

Eli Roth (ER): I did internships throughout all four years. I never stopped working for free in the real world and when I graduated, I had a job. I didn’t know anyone in the film industry and whenever I heard about a job on a shoot, I’d volunteer to do it, and only occasionally, ask for lunch or subway money.

In film school, kids get stuck in this bubble where the professors tell them they’re geniuses. It’s fun to live in that world for four years, but once you’re out, you really don’t know the first thing about where to go or how to get your film seen. This was back in the ’90s and now, things are so much different with social media. But the same principle applies: film school is school; it’s not the real world. Doing internships prepares you for what it’s really like out there once they kick you out the door.

The other thing I did right was I worked all the different jobs on my friends’ films. The best way to learn is by getting hands-on experience. So, when I was a freshman, I’d work as a PA on a film by a junior or senior. They were often spending more money and renting equipment like a crab dolly (which seemed so exotic at the time), but I also learned I was an amazing dolly grip and got really good experience learning how to move a large heavy camera in a tight location. I also pushed myself to experiment with animation – something I never would have done outside of school because it’s too costly.

I found out that I could stay all night in a tiny room working on one shot. I was in a zen-like state of bliss. And it lead to my first paying directing jobs out of school. I made 16 animated short films before I made Cabin Fever and all that training came from film school.

Director Eli Roth on-set of Knock Knock with actor, Keanu Reeves.

Director Eli Roth on-set of Knock Knock with actor Keanu Reeves. Courtesy of Lionsgate

2. What did you do wrong when you were in film school?

ER: Back then, we had the idea that our classmates were our competition and looking back now, you see how stupid that is. It was a different time. It was 1990. So, people were coming out of the ’80s with this kill everyone attitude. Everyone behaved like an American psycho. And kids were blustering, trying to act like directors.

I was a bit of a goofball, even though I took my work seriously. But there were a lot of kids I didn’t make friends with for reasons I can’t even remember. The film world is a cold, unforgiving place where people will slice your throat to get to where you are and what helps you navigate that are real friends who have your back. In film school I wished there was more of an effort to band together and help each other outside because truthfully, a year after you graduate, when you see a familiar face on a production, they become a really good friend fast. The relationships I made in film school still last to this day. I just wish I had made more of them.

3. What’s the one best piece of advice you’d give to an incoming film student, so that they can make the most of their time at film school?

ER: Make mistakes. Film school is the best place to screw up. When you screw up in the film world, everyone who can finance your movie sees it. But when you screw up in a classroom, the worst thing that happens is you learn.

Remember: when professors tear your film apart, it’s because they care about you and see your potential. Be worried when your teacher has no reaction whatsoever. It’s not about getting a grade; it’s about learning, growing, experimenting, and failing in a safe environment. My professors hated my thesis film, Restaurant Dogs, and almost didn’t pass me because of it (watch the film below). But then, I entered that same movie in the student Academy Awards and won my division. My film then played at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. So, one teacher’s Ed Wood is another judge’s Tarantino.

Knock Knock made its premiere at Sundance in January and opens in theaters on June 26.

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