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How Eli Roth Is Fostering the Next Generation of Indie Horror Directors

The horror master, who added two directing gigs to his plate just this week, explains his philosophy for picking projects and betting on talented emerging filmmakers.

Eli Roth

Eli Roth

Shutterstock

“Clown,” produced by Eli Roth, became available on Blu-ray and DVD on August 23.

Eli Roth is having a very good week. On Monday, the horror writer-director-producer officially signed on to direct the remake of the 1974 vigilante action film “Death Wish,” with Bruce Willis attached to star. Then on Tuesday, Roth landed a horror directing gig for the adaptation of the “Aleister Arcane” comic book, starring Jim Carrey in the lead role. As if that wasn’t enough, on Wednesday, the Jon Watts horror film “Clown” that Roth produced hit #1 on iTunes’s horror section. The film opened in theaters and on video-on-demand on June 17.

The story of a loving father who dresses up as a clown for his son’s birthday — only to find the suit is cursed and won’t come off — “Clown” famously started as a fake movie trailer Watts posted on YouTube that said “From master of horror Eli Roth” even though Roth had nothing to do with the project. He was so impressed with the trailer, however, that he got in touch with Watts, then a music video and commercial director, who quickly thanked Roth for not suing him for using his name without permission.

“I said, ‘Jon, this is Hollywood. We only sue each other after we make money. There’s no point in suing you now,'” Roth said in a recent interview. After watching Watts’ music videos and commercials, Roth was convinced the aspiring feature director deserved a shot at turning “Clown” into a real horror film. “I said, ‘If you can write a movie that we can shoot for a million bucks, let’s do it,'” Roth said. “‘I can get the money, I’ll let you have total creative control, and I’ll protect you.'”

While the phrase “total creative control” gets thrown around a lot in Hollywood, in the case of “Clown,” Roth meant it. He even sided with Watts when the director pushed to offer the lead role to Andy Powers, an actor who had never played a lead in a feature film — despite several high-profile actors angling for the part. “Jon really wanted Andy,” Roth said, adding that he was willing to take the gamble of not casting a star. “The whole point of doing this at a million bucks is that we can take chances.”

Clown

Andy Powers in “Clown”

Dimension Films

Indeed, Roth has been taking seemingly every chance he gets to help up-and-coming directors get their films made. In the past six years, he’s produced eight features for other directors, two of which have included sequels: “The Last Exorcism,” directed by Daniel Stamm, and “The Man with the Iron Fists,” the debut film from RZA, a co-founder of the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan. “If I’m going to work with a director, it’s got to be someone like Jon Watts, who hadn’t done a feature,” Roth said, “but who you could tell was so ready to do a feature based on the other things that he had done.”

For “The Last Exorcism 2,” Roth tapped screenwriter Damien Chazelle, then a 25-year-old math tutor with one indie film under his belt, the musical “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” A year after “Last Exorcism 2,” Chazelle’s “Whiplash” earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. “Damien used his ‘Last Exorcism 2’ money to make his ‘Whiplash’ short film,” Roth said. “For people that deserve it, it feels great to help them out at a certain moment in their career where you’re in a position to.”

Much of Roth’s willingness to help emerging directors get a leg up in Hollywood can be traced to his own experience on the second feature he directed, 2005’s “Hostel,” executive produced by Quentin Tarantino. “Quentin coming on to ‘Hostel’ was a huge deal for me and it really helped me out, so when I could help Daniel Stamm make ‘The Last Exorcism’ I wanted to do it and pay it forward,” Roth said. “I try to look at myself as nurturing for filmmakers in general, but obviously horror is the easiest.”

Though known for directing “torture porn” films like “Hostel,” “Cabin Fever” and “The Green Inferno,” Roth branched out with 2015’s “Knock Knock,” a sexual home invasion thriller starring Keanu Reeves, and his upcoming remake of the action film “Death Wish.” “I like when you can take a classic thing and put your own twist on it,” Roth said.

Knock Knock

Lorenza Izzo, Keanu Reeves and Ana de Armas in “Knock Knock”

Lionsgate Premiere

Though Roth’s prolific output might suggest he’s trying to put out as many films as possible, he insists that he’s trying to be much more of a “boutique” producer. “I don’t want to produce a bunch of things and hope one hits,” he said. “I find that if I overextend myself, I can’t really to quality control the way I like on projects.”

Though “Clown” just hit theaters last week, Watts’s directing career has already taken off in a major way. He’s since directed the Kevin Bacon crime thriller “Cop Car,” about two kids who take a small town sheriff’s car on a joy ride, and is currently filming “Spiderman: Homecoming” for Columbia Pictures and Marvel. “It was only a matter of time until he was going to pop,” Roth said.

While on the surface it appears that everything is going right for Roth, internet piracy has put a significant dent in the commercial prospects of his films, which no longer can count on revenue from DVD sales. Just 90 minutes after “Knock Knock” hit iTunes, a pirated version of the movie was available online. “There’s no stopping it,” Roth said. “Getting financiers to back these movies is becoming harder and harder. You have to score a theatrical release or hope that people want to pay for it, because the DVD market doesn’t exist.”

Last year, in an effort to both help emerging artists and generate new sources of revenue, Roth co-founded CryptTV, which creates original short form horror content to be watched online. The site gets roughly 20 million views per month, and has featured work from around 150 young filmmakers, according to Roth. “I’m working on other ways of monetizing properties and merchandizing because unfortunately the film sales just aren’t what they were,” he said. “People don’t want to pay.”

While it seems like Roth has done just about everything conceivable in Hollywood, he recently had the opportunity to executive produce a movie unlike anything else he’s ever worked on: a remake of his own 2002 film “Cabin Fever,” directed by Travis Zariwny. “Travis did a great job,” Roth said, adding that having a second film made based on a script he wrote that originally nobody wanted was “supremely satisfying.”

So what are his favorite horror films of the past couple years, including those that he’s producer or directed? “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” “It Follows,” and “Green Room,” Roth said, before adding one unexpected answer. “The 2016 presidential election,” he said. “That’s an ongoing saga.”

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