This year’s Sundance Midnight section launches late tonight with the world premiere of Eli Roth’s latest, “Knock Knock
.” For the filmmaker, who got his start with the indie horror hit “Cabin Fever” in 2002, this surprisingly marks his first time with a film in Park City. The project also marks a change of pace for Roth, who up until this point has only directed torture porn-type horror. “Knock Knock” reportedly boasts its fair share of scares, but it’s also said to not fall in line with the graphic nature of his previous work.
“Knock Knock” centers on a happily married architect (Keanu Reeves) who appears to have it all. During a weekend alone, two beautiful young women show up on his doorstep, asking to wait for their taxi inside. After naively inviting them in, the night takes a disturbing turn when the women reveal their true intentions.
Indiewire spoke with Roth before Sundance got underway about “Knock Knock,” and the latest on his last film, “The Green Inferno,” which was pulled from its planned release last year.
Ready for your first Sundance?
I’m ready, man. I can’t wait. I’ve always wanted to go and I’ve never been asked to the dance before, so I’m really looking forward to it. It should be a really fun time. And I’m glad I waited to go with this movie in particular because it marks a transition in my career. It’s a different type of movie for me but one that will satisfy my fans in a way they wouldn’t expect. It’s also Keanu’s first time at Sundance, so it’s fun to lose my Sundance virginity with him.
I didn’t realize it was Keanu’s first time too.
Yeah, for both of us it’s the first movie we’ve ever had accepted into Sundance. And I think his performance is so amazing, it’s really, really, really going to surprise people. And I think people who love him for other reasons will see him in a whole new light once they see this. He’s just incredible.
“Knock Knock” seems to mark a big transition for you, from straight-up horror to a sexy, housebound thriller.
I really wanted to make a sexual thriller, a psycho-sexual thriller, something that was more in line with Adrian Lynne, like “Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct” or an old [Roman] Polanski film. I wanted an intense, slow-burn sexual thriller that builds and builds and spirals out of control. And of course, there’s humor in it. All of my films naturally have humor in them. But I wouldn’t say this is a comedy.
What caused this shift? “The Green Inferno” was a pretty brutal horror, kind of harkening back to your “Hostel” days. This sounds like a total about face.
Well, it’s interesting because to me I don’t see it as an about face, I see it as an evolution. “The Green Inferno,” that, for me, felt like the completion of my “travel trilogy.” “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel,” “The Green Inferno,” where people from a privileged middle class go into, in that case, the jungle to try and save the Amazon and end up doing more damage. It turns into a nightmare for them specifically because they’re so far from home. I wanted to show what happens when you let nature into your own house and how you can have this perfect, beautiful life, and if you let the wrong elements inside it can almost turn into “The Cat in the Hat.” It’s something that completely spirals out of your control.
The truth is that my tastes vary. I don’t like to repeat myself. I mean, directors are often accused of making the same films over and over and over, but as you grow your tastes change, other things influence you. And as much as the films of George Romero influenced me, I was also very influenced by David Lynch. And I love “Mulholland Drive” and “Eraserhead.” I love the pace of the David Lynch movies and I really just wanted to make something that looked and felt like the classic Hollywood thriller, something that was more Hitchcockian, something that was more Polanski. And that’s what I felt was right for the story and that’s how I saw it.
Keanu is experiencing an artistic and commercial comeback following the critical and box office success of “John Wick.” You couldn’t have cast him at a better time.
I definitely think that there’s a Keanu-sance happening. We had the McConnaisance. I’m so happy. When you think about it, there’s very few people that have been movie stars in four decades. Keanu has been a movie star since the ‘80s.
I knew he had just come off directing “Man of Tai Chi” and I had just made “The Man with the Iron Fists” in China so we had very similar taste in movies. I just really liked him and I thought he was perfect for the role.
I think it’s actually great in a strange way that the business shifted the way it did. Look at what happened with Matthew McConaughey. He suddenly stopped doing big romantic comedies and comes out with “Dallas Buyers Club” and “True Detective” and of course, that reignites his career, and in a strange way when someone in Keanu’s position isn’t getting those studio offers and is forced to go the independent route, it just pushes him to challenge himself and reinvent himself in ways he never would have if he was continuing to play just the same action hero.
Keanu does mark the biggest name talent that you’ve worked with as a filmmaker. Did that force you to change your approach?
It’s interesting because what was great preparation for me was acting alongside actors like Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and the cast of “Inglourious Basterds,” and really seeing how Quentin [Tarantino] approached them, how I approached acting in the scene with them and just trying to not treat them differently, but still trying to be respectful…
Big actors challenge you in the right way. The questions they’re asking are not crazy questions. They’re so smart and they really want to approach it from a real place.
I missed “Green Inferno” when it played in Toronto. Open Road Films was slated to open it last year, but that never materialized. What’s the latest?
As of right now, all systems are go for the theatrical release. Here’s the thing: everyone is working to resolve it. Open Road has been amazing through this entire process. I really love them, they’ve been great. Even with whatever situation World View is going through, everyone is working together to find the best, cleanest, most positive resolution and get the film out in the widest release possible. I think realistically it would be in the August to September range. We wanted to have an announcement at Sundance. Trust me, I check in with the lawyers every day. Everyone is working to resolve it as soon as possible and we have hope to have an announcement within the next couple of weeks for the definite theatrical plan for the film. Everyone’s been so supportive. It’s almost been like “Save ‘The Green Inferno,'” in the same way that the students in the film want to save the Amazon.
This delay must be a pretty devastating blow to you. I can’t recall any of your previous releases going through quite the struggle that this one has.
It seems that way, but I have. The first project I ever did was called “Chowdaheads” and I spent a year of my life making these animated shorts that I was so proud of and they were going to air on WCW Wrestling and the night before they were going to air the CEO got fired and they never aired them. Wrestling had 35 million viewers at the time, and this was in 1999, and my shorts were going to be right at the peak of the broadcast, and they never ran. And they said “Well, we’re gonna hold them and try to sell it” and they never did. So I’ve been through that process, where you make something and no one sees it.
And then with “Cabin Fever,” after Lionsgate bought it, it was the lowest-tested movie in Lionsgate history. It got a 19. Suddenly, they weren’t as confident about releasing it and we had to take it to festivals. So it took a full year, and then they released it. Then with “Hostel,” I had started making that movie with Sony. While I was shooting, someone saw how violent the movie was, sent it to Lionsgate, and partnered on the movie with Lionsgate without even telling me, so I was back at Lionsgate. Then Lionsgate and Sony saw the movie and said it was too violent to release theatrically and they were going straight to DVD with it. That’s when I brought in Quentin and said, “Please let’s do a test screening where the audience goes insane” and they say “Okay, if Quentin comes on we’ll put it in theaters.” So Quentin actually saved “Hostel.” And then it opened number one and everyone forgot that that happened. “Hostel II,” I spent a year of my life on that and they opened me in June against “Pirates of the Caribbean” 3 or 4.
So every movie’s a struggle in its own way, and with “Green Inferno,” I’m older, I’m wiser and I’ve been through it before and it’s frustrating. But here’s the thing, I believe in the movie so much. I think fans are going to love it. I think it’s an epic jungle adventure. We just got caught in a tricky situation and instead of sitting and complaining about it I went and made another movie and now “Knock, Knock” is even better. So in a crazy way, if “Green Inferno” had come out, I might not have made “Knock Knock.”
Looking forward to catching it in Park City.
Thanks; I can’t wait for you to see it. One of the hardest things is that I know I have a very specific reputation and Keanu has a very specific reputation and it is certainly up to us to rewrite those reputations.
What kind of a reputation do you think you have?
That anything I do, it’s automatically going to be gory or violent or something brutal, and that’s okay, I understand why that is. I mean it’s not surprising. I certainly helped cultivate that, and if I want to change the perception of who I am as a director it’s entirely up to me. I don’t blame anyone for what people think about me. It’s all based on the material I’ve put out there. So if I want to evolve and show another side of me as a filmmaker, I have to make something great that people support.
READ MORE: The 2015 Indiewire Sundance Bible