|Writer-director Eli Roth directs Arie Verveen on the North
Carolina set of Cabin Fever. Photo by: Gabriel Roth.
For years, Eli Roth, the 31-year old writer-director
of Cabin Fever, wondered if the horror genre had a place
in the world of independent cinema-or any cinema for that matter.
It took six years for Roth to raise the financing for Cabin
Fever, a film he shot in the grainy backwoods of North Carolina
in 2001 for “way less than a million dollars.”
For Roth, a former protégé of David Lynch,
it was more than a little ironic when the same studios who passed
on Cabin Fever years
earlier were engaged in a heated bidding war when the film debuted
at the Toronto Film Festival in September of 2002. “They would
say the same stupid things over and over again,” he recalls. “They
didn’t like the fact that there was no killer like Jason or Freddy
in the film, and they didn’t think that anyone would want to see
a ’70s-type horror film. They all thought it was going to be some
made-for-cable piece of trash. To be in Toronto and see all of
these companies bidding on my film was really strange and wonderful.”
Indeed, most of the buzz and excitement generated in 2002 at Toronto
surrounded Cabin Fever, which eventually sold to Lions Gate
for a staggering $3.5 million- along with the promise of a wide
theatrical release and an additional $15 million in advertising
The plot of Cabin Fever is disarmingly simple: five college
friends take a trip to an isolated cabin in the woods for a weekend
of beer and sex. When one of the friends becomes infected by the
titular virus, chaos and panic sets in as the friends start to
turn on each other. Roth feels that a simple approach is best when
trying to make an entertaining horror film.
“People say that Cabin Fever‘s a tribute to ’70s horror
films, and I think that’s because horror films today take themselves
too seriously. The key for me was to make Cabin Fever funny
and scary. I also wanted to pay tribute to the old classics without
the audience being totally conscious of it and without me getting
David Grove (MM): One of the interesting things about Cabin
Fever is that there’s no villain. The flesh-eating virus is
Eli Roth (ER): Yeah, I think the actors
found that interesting, as well. There’s no monster that you can see like Freddy or Jason. It’s
the virus and the virus causes the flesh to eat itself so, in a
way, the flesh is the villain. It’s the characters that become
the monsters in the film.
In a typical zombie film, you’d have the girl get infected by
the virus and then she turns into a zombie and starts killing her
friends, right? We’ve all seen that. So what I did was to make
the actions and behavior of the characters, in essence, the monster
in the film. When Jordan Ladd’s character get the virus, her friends
turn on her. They lock her up in a shed, almost abandon her, and
it’s kind of shocking. It’s all about them and their actions.
MM: You had some firsthand experience
with a flesh-eating virus, didn’t you?
ER: Yes, I did. A few years ago, in
a past life, I was working on a farm in Iceland with a bunch
or horses when I got
this horrible infection all over my face. I was terrified and I
didn’t know what to do. I tried shaving my face, which was really
disgusting because the flesh would just peel off. It didn’t hurt
because the skin was, basically, dead.
I went to a doctor who gave me some medicine
and then I started reading about viruses and discovering how
real the phenomena is.
Actually, it’s funny because one of the guys on our crew, John
Neff, had come down with a similar virus, which he got in a hospital
during some routine surgery. He had to be put in intensive care
and he almost died. He told me how accurate the stuff in the film
MM: Prior to making Cabin Fever, you wrote and
directed some animated films. How did that prepare you for making
your first theatrical feature?
ER: I was in my early twenties when me and my writing partner,
Randy Pearlstein, were going around trying to pitch Cabin Fever.
I could see that it wasn’t going to happen overnight. I had to
work my way up the ladder.
I was able to get financing for an animated show, which was called Chowdaheads, and
then I got financing for a stop-motion project called Rotten
Fruit, both of which were great experiences because I was making
something that I could show people. More importantly, I could show
people in the industry that I could raise money and then come up
with a finished product. I’d also won a Student Academy Award in
1995 for my thesis film, which was called Restaurant Dogs,
so I had some contacts.
MM: One of those contacts was David Lynch. How important
was he in terms of getting Cabin Fever made?
ER: David’s support was invaluable.
I met David when I was still at NYU and I was hired by him to
do research for a Broadway
project that David wanted to do. I did that for five or six years.
I then moved to Los Angeles and worked on David’s
official Website. I told him that I was having a hard time raising
financing for Cabin
Fever, and he agreed to lend his name to the film. Once David
was attached as an executive producer, everything changed in terms
of getting actors to appear in the film and in terms of the industry’s
perception of the film. With David attached, people thought the
project was classy, not schlock. Actually, when I asked David for
his support, we were in Cannes and I was trying to raise money
to do another animated project. From that point on, the financing
slowly came together.
MM: David Lynch receives a “special thanks” credit in
the film. Why isn’t he credited as an executive producer on the
ER: It got too much publicity and we
both agreed that it wouldn’t be good for the film if he was too closely associated
with it. He wanted it to be my film and he didn’t want people to
look at it as a David Lynch film in any way and the expectations
that would’ve created. He just wanted to help me get the film made,
MM: You also worked for Howard Stern
and that’s when
you wrote a lot of the script for Cabin Fever, isn’t it?
ER: Yeah, Howard was filming Private Parts at
the time and it was my job to wake him up when it was time for
to go to work, which meant I had to wake him up real early in the
morning. That meant I couldn’t ever sleep and it was during those
graveyard shifts that I worked on the spine of the Cabin Fever script.
It was strange, but the environment seemed to work for me in terms
MM: What was the toughest part of filming?
ER: The financing was a daily concern
because we were always running out of money and that was really
stressful. One of our
investors dropped out at the last minute and I’d have to call people
and beg for money. I would shoot for 15 hours straight and then
I’d have to get on the phone, in North Carolina, and beg for money.
Then we’d get enough money to shoot for a couple of more days and
it would just keep going and going.
My father invested money in the film so it was very satisfying
to me when the film sold and I was able to give my father a return
on his investment.
MM: The influences of The Evil Dead and The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre are very prevalent in the film.
ER: Rider Strong, the star of the film, saw The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre and then he called me up and said, ‘That’s
the same shot you used in the film.’ He was talking about a swing-shot
in the film with one of the girls that’s directly inspired by
a similar shot in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Those two
films were obviously big inspirations for me and I also tried
to pay homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is
a film I really love, and, of course, George Romero’s Dawn
of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead.
MM: The film very much has a ’70s feel to it. What’s
the difference between the horror films from that era and the
horror films of today?
ER: I think the main thing is the editing
of the films, because the old films really felt like documentaries
and that kind
of grainy approach is a lot more scary and real. There’s too much
editing in today’s horror films and too much lighting and the films
are just too slick. I also think that the acting in today’s horror
films is pretty bad.
I think another important thing about ’70s
horror films, which I was very conscious of when making Cabin Fever, is the
music. Everyone remembers the music from the old films, whereas
today they use nothing but rock. I paid tribute to Last House
on the Left, another classic horror film from the ’70s, by
using the songs from that film which were composed by David Hess,
the star of the film. I spoke to David and asked his permission
and he loved the idea of it because you never hear that music in
horror films anymore. The music works really well in the film and
I think, even more than the references, it lets the fans know what
I’m all about-that I really have a deep understanding of the history
of the genre.
MM: Cabin Fever is free from all
moral constraints in that it’s full of gore and sex, cheerfully so, like a badge of
freedom. Was that another tribute to the classic horror films
from the ’70s?
ER: Well, I didn’t necessarily want to make a really gory
film because a film doesn’t have to be gory to be really scary. The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance, wasn’t that gory in
terms of what you see on-screen, but the atmosphere was really
powerful. In addition to the films from the ’70s, I grew up with
the horror films and the teenage sex comedies of the early 1980s:
films like The Burning, The Last American Virgin and My
Bloody Valentine. Those films had lots of nudity and that’s
what I wanted in my film, just in terms of not wanting to be formulaic.
I wanted to show the audience everything I could. It goes back
to the idea of the film being funny and scary. Some people think
it’s more funny than scary and vice versa.
MM: Now you’re in a position of power. You’ve got a
Hollywood agent and you’ve signed several deals at Hollywood
studios. What’s next for you and, as a lifelong genre fan, do
you feel like you’re in control of your own destiny?
ER: It’s all been a wonderful dream and I’ve now been given
lots of wonderful opportunities. I’m working on a film called The
Box with Richard Kelly from Donnie Darko, and we’ve
gotten along great because we both have really sick minds. It’s
based on a story by the great Richard Matheson that I love a lot.
I’ve also been a huge Stephen King fan all of my life and I’ve
been given a chance to write and direct a project called 1408 which
was a short story of Stephen’s. Besides that, I’ve still got about
10 other horror films I want to make.