Making over 100 short films before graduating high school and paying for his collegiate efforts by working as a part-time cyber-sex operator, Eli Roth is and has always been a man devoted to his art.
And that art has since taken a variety of eclectic forms: Roth has acted, worked in stop-motion animation, created his own haunted house in Las Vegas, and authored an award-winning PSA on animal rights. But most notable of his achievements, of course, are his directorial successes. The “Frank Sinatra of the Splat Pack” (so dubbed by fellow director and friend, Quentin Tarantino) has directed some of the most visceral horror movies in recent years, including Cabin Fever, Hostel, and Hostel: Part II. He also took a critically acclaimed turn in front of the camera, co-starring with Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Most recently, Roth has changed hats to producer, producing five projects in the last year alone. In 2009 Roth gave us the following hard-earned wisdom.
Although I’ve only directed three features (and a bunch of short films, including a fake trailer and a fake Nazi propaganda film), I have worked in one capacity or another on nearly 150 different film productions. Even when I was the guy getting coffee or standing on the street in zero-degree weather, asking homeless crack addicts to please keep their voices down, I was always learning.
By the time I stepped onto the set of my debut feature, Cabin Fever, at age 28, I had 10 years of production experience. I knew how to run a set. More importantly, I knew how to run the set of a low-budget, indie film.
All three of my films, though widely distributed, were made independently for a total combined budget of $16 million. So my golden rules are for moviemakers who cannot afford to shoot more than 24 or 40 days, or do more than one or two takes; they’re for moviemakers who have to shoot every day as if it’s their last ever, because if they don’t make their day, the whole film will fall apart.
1. Get as much on-set production experience as possible before directing. If you want to be a doctor, you don’t just buy some surgical tools, show up at the hospital and ask who needs surgery. Yet most movie fans think that because they know movies they can direct. Boy, are they in for a surprise.
Coming up with shots is easy. It’s how you make the scene work when your actor’s in a bad mood or the neighboring building won’t stop construction—that’s directing. And the only way you can know how chaotic it can be is by working on sets.
Work in any capacity you can and make yourself indispensable. You will see every mistake in the book, and you’ll learn as much from the bad experiences as the good ones. You’ll see what happens when a director doesn’t have a clue about what he or she’s doing or what happens when he or she gets focused on one idea that clearly isn’t working. You’ll see what’s possible to accomplish in a day and you’ll see how one small error in set dressing can bring the entire production to a halt.
Making movies is so much more than coming up with shots. You are running an army and the only way to understand how to best run that army is by working your way up through the ranks. And yes, even Quentin Tarantino worked as a production assistant and shot an unfinished feature before he made Reservoir Dogs. You won’t spend the rest of your life getting coffee if you’re good, and you never know how those experiences will pay off on your own films years later.
When Joey Kern got glass blown in his eye on the set of Cabin Fever, we had an ambulance on standby, an on-set medic, a photo double ready and a whole other list of shots to get that didn’t include him so that we could film while I figured out how to rewrite the story around his injury. That kind of preparation for worst-case scenarios can only come from on-set experience.
2. Keep your eye on the donut, not the hole. This is a golden rule David Lynch taught me; it was his one piece of advice for me before I made Cabin Fever. I tell it to all my actors and crew members and we use it as a mantra during the shoot.
David told me, “Eli, man, the only thing that matters to the audience is the information recorded in front of those 24 little frames per second. That’s the donut. All the other bullshit—the drama, the backstabbing—that’s the hole. And if you’re not careful, you can get sucked in. Your job is to keep your eye on what matters.”
When the union came to North Carolina and illegally threatened our Cabin Fever crew members until they signed union cards, which then sapped all our money halfway into our shoot, we raised more money and kept going. Actors will fight, they’ll sleep with each other, their agents will drive you crazy, and, if you’re not strong, you can easily get sucked into all of that stuff that never winds up on the screen. Your job as director is to not just stay focused on the end product, but to continually motivate everyone to do their best by keeping them focused on the end product, too. And it works. All my cast members still repeat it to me in David Lynch’s Midwestern twang: “Eye on the donut, not the hole.”
3. Hire really attractive stand-ins. Crew members are horny. They get frustrated that it’s not the 1980s anymore and that there are sexual harassment laws that prevent them from hitting on every girl at work. But movie sets are still kind of fair game, a place where people can openly flirt. But crew members often won’t hook up or have a “locationship” because they work with each other again and again. That’s where the stand-ins come in.
The stands-ins are crew, but they’re not necessarily there every day. And if they’re the ones standing there for 45 minutes while the crew sets up the shot, everyone wants to look cool. People may say this is sexist, but it’s very basic human psychology: When you have pretty girls on set, the boys behave. Period. You’d think it would whip them into a frenzy, but it’s the opposite. When there are no girls on set, that’s when they’re at their worst.
On Cabin Fever we had two attractive actresses and it became a real problem. (We were in the woods with 30 guys and two girls.) After the first week, we hired a bunch of female production assistants and the boys calmed down (we didn’t have money for stand-ins).
On Hostel and Hostel: Part II, I made sure that I had beautiful stand-ins and the crew loved it. They were always so happy; they just wanted to take a moment to look cool and feel like girls were still interested in them. They’ve learned not to go after cast members because they’ll get in trouble with the producers or a jealous director (ahem), so the stand-ins keep them happy. A smile from a pretty girl goes a long, long, long way.
4. Have an equal balance of guys and girls. Sorry, it does matter. Film sets are a close replication of overnight camp: You’re there for eight weeks, you live together, eat together and do activities together. It’s not school, but you still have to be there. And at the end, you all say you’re best friends and that you’ll stay in touch forever, but then you don’t ever talk to each other until the next film.
It’s so similar that you’ve got to build your crew like a co-ed camp. It makes everyone happier to come to work if there are more possibilities for hookups.
Now, I wouldn’t pick your key crew members this way—go with the best DP, production designer, costume designer, editor, etc. But get a good balance of attractive, friendly assistants for the various departments. Even if they’re not so good at their jobs, somehow their presence gets others to work harder. It’s kind of a tradeoff. I am not advocating hiring bimbos or himbos, but think of your crew like a dinner party guest list: You’ll want something for everyone. People work a lot harder when they are happy to be at work.
5. Attach a shot list to the sides. Every morning people get the sides and they read through what we’re shooting. But I always attach an extra sheet with a typed list of shots.
I have my coverage shots and then my “Time-Permitting” shots. It’s usually about 25 to 35 shots—an ambitious list—but not so overwhelming that people think it’s not doable. And as the day goes on, the crew members start to cross off their shots. Then they see how much they’ve gotten done by lunch (and you can see which shots you can combine, what’s necessary and what’s extra).
You can tweak stuff, but when crew members see they only have four or five shots left, they move faster. They see that you have a focused plan and they feel even more involved in the process, which gets the best out of people.
6. Have good catering. The crew will revolt if the food is terrible. A well-fed crew is a happy crew. Also, make sure craft services has healthy food. You can fill it up with junk food, but I usually set up two tables—one healthy and one filled with crap. That way your actors and your grips are happy.
7. Ready, Aim, FIRE. Do not be afraid to fire crew members or actors. I have fired a major crew member on every film I have made, and it was always the right thing to do. You have to be very careful and confident that this person is not doing his or her job, but you are running an army and you need the troops to respect your authority. When they tested me on Cabin Fever, I fired half my grip and electric department and promoted a best boy I liked to gaffer. Those who stayed were amazing for the second half of the shoot and all the other crew members snapped to.
On Hostel, I fired my costume designer (who was a friend of mine) and everyone else worked their asses off because they saw that no one was immune if they were not going to do their jobs. It’s never fun, but if someone’s really wrong, not doing their job or not respecting your authority, get rid of them immediately.
8. “Thank You.” Learn those words in whatever language you are shooting and use them at the end of the day. They go a long, long way. You’re paying people (or not) to do a job, so it should be expected of them to do it well. But it’s very important to let them know you appreciate it, too.
At the end of the day, what creative people want most of all is to feel valued; to feel that their input on your project made a difference and that you appreciate it. Thank them and tell them what a great job they did, how audiences are going to love it because of what they added to it. I thanked every crew member on Hostel in Czech and Slovak, and then learned how to say “good morning,” “enjoy your lunch” and “cut!” They had never experienced an American director who didn’t treat them like “the locals” and they really went the extra mile for me.
I was a PA on many films and I always remember who was nice and who wasn’t. I remember how hard I worked for the ones who said “thank you.”
The same behavior goes for screaming: If you’re going to have a temper tantrum, you better pick your moments. The crew will put up with it once or twice, but then they’ll become immune. You will not gain their respect by screaming at them, you will gain it through your ability to execute a well-organized plan and communicate your appreciation for their hard work. Screamers just get ignored and crews work slower to piss them off once the yelling becomes funny, which usually happens on day two.
9. Rock out between set-ups. Quentin does this on his sets and I started doing it on Hostel. Have some really good music ready between set-ups and rock out to it with the crew. They’ll get the shot set up faster. It’s amazing how much a crew can get done in one AC/DC song.
10. The easiest rule to forget: Have fun. From the time I was a kid wanting to work on sets my parents always told me, “Enjoy the journey.” When you’re standing out in the freezing rain yelling “roll” and “cut” for 16 hours and getting paid $90 a day, it’s kind of hard to have a good time. But if you can find joy in those moments and in the fact that you’re actively pursuing your dream, then you’ll really enjoy it.
Directing is a very, very stressful job; the entire world changes for you. Everyone treats you differently because now you’re suddenly “in charge.” The stress and loneliness can destroy you,but you’ve got to learn to enjoy it, no matter how bad things get—no matter what happens—and still retain that inner joy of being a kid, living your dream.
You have to have fun or what’s the point? And sometimes you need to be reminded of that. So go out for crew drinks. Laugh and share playback on the monitor with everyone when you’ve filmed a great kill. And do that extra take for fun, even though you know you’ve got the shot, just for the love of making movies. Directing can be the greatest job in the world, but only if you let it. MM
Don’t forget to visit us next week for more movie knowledge! Previous Wisdom Wednesdays have shared the expertise of Danny Boyle, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Zack Snyder, Gus Van Sant, Neil Jordan, and John Waters.
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