Writer-director Eli Roth and actor Lorenza Izzo had such a great time making cannibalism gore fest The Green Inferno together, they decided to make another film, the new psychosexual tension-generator Knock Knock. Of course, the fact that the two got married last year might have made the creative partnership even more of a logical step. The A.V. Club talked to the two of them about their new Keanu Reeves-starring thriller, the difference between filming in the jungle and filming in a single house, and why distributors were so uncomfortable with the newer film.
The A.V. Club: You have these two very different films coming out back-to-back as a result of the legal issues involved in The Green Inferno, but Knock Knock actually feels like an inverted companion piece. It takes place almost entirely in one place versus a big jungle; it features only three leads instead of a cast of hundreds; it’s got a single domestic incident versus the international politics of social media and so on. How much of Knock Knock was born out of your desire to sort of flip the script from your last project?
Eli Roth: In a strange way, I’m sort of glad the movies are coming out together because they do feel like complement pieces. That’s a great question, because in The Green Inferno, we shot farther than anyone had ever taken a film crew in the Amazon, and every day was this grueling adventure to just get to the set, and we were under such intense time constraints. It was 115 degrees and we were shooting with people who had never seen a camera before, let alone a movie, and you’re just battling the elements constantly on top of trying to get a shot. It was a very, very grueling shoot and I think it gives the film a certain energy.
In Knock Knock, I really wanted to do something that was more contained, more controlled, more stylish and do something that was really a performance piece. I wanted The Green Inferno to have that scope and scale of a movie like Apocalypse Now or Apocalypto, or those Werner Herzog movies, but also with a feeling like those old Italian cannibal movies I love so much, like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox—this kind of dangerous filmmaking. With Knock Knock, I wanted to show something that was much more like a chess game. I looked at Peter Jackson—going from Brain Dead [a.k.a Dead Alive], which was the wettest movie he could have ever made, to Heavenly Creatures. To me, The Green Inferno was just my mic drop; I mean, that’s it. I don’t know where else I can bleed, from there. So I just wanted to do something that was different and stylish and sexy and really a performance piece, like when you watch old films like Peter Traynor’s Death Game or Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction or Polanski’s Death And The Maiden. Also, you know, it was such an amazing experience working with Lorenza Izzo that I wanted to write a better role for her that showed her range as an actor. I didn’t want a movie where the blood and gore was going to overshadow the acting, because I think often in my films, [people] don’t give credit to the actors. They talk about the kill scenes, and what makes the kill scenes effective is the acting.
AVC: What different challenges did Knock Knock present creatively? You’ve both spoken about how tough The Green Inferno shoot was. Was there a more playful sensibility on Knock Knock, because you weren’t as constrained by these outside forces?
Lorenza Izzo: Well, for me, [The Green Inferno] was like, “The jungle! Yeah, I’m going to go to the jungle, it’s going to be an adventure and so much fun!” Then I got there, and all hell broke loose, and I was like, “This is really hard.” And even though it was horrible in the sense of how hard the conditions were to work in and the elements, it was a blessing at the same time because you had so much to work with and that was an awesome experience.
So when Knock Knock came around, I thought, “Yes, this is going to be so easy, one house, one location, two other people, what else could I ask for?” But of course I didn’t realize that came with an all-new set of challenges completely different from the physical ones in The Green Inferno. You have to completely rely on your other cast members to carry the story and make it as real as possible. And I don’t think I would have been able to do that without the directing of Eli and the camaraderie and the chemistry I had with Keanu and Ana [De Armas]. It was quite the trip to go from the literal jungle adventure to a sort of destruction adventure.
ER: Yeah, and shooting with our DP, Antonio Quercia, who I think did such a magnificent job on both films, we really talked about Knock Knock, which I wanted to feel like Fatal Attraction, which was about mood and lighting and composing shots and just letting the moment breath and letting the actors act. But it was hard and we had to sort of shoot it in order, so we shot day and night. So there’s a level of exhaustion, but it was a fast shoot. I just wanted to set up a situation where you could just really let the actors run wild and show what incredible range all of them have.
AVC: The Green Inferno feels very much in the Roth oeuvre of young, entitled people going somewhere they don’t understand and getting in over their heads. Knock Knock plays with some of the same ethical questions but in a more mature, grown-up scale. You’re moving on to some deeper themes.
ER: Well, The Green Inferno we shot three years ago and Knock Knock we shot a year and a half ago, so obviously as you change and grow, your interests change.
The Green Inferno was very much my reaction to this social activism—I call it “slacktivism” or “quicktivism”—with people hashtagging or retweeting things because it’s trendy. Everything starting from Occupy Wall Street to the shame that went on with Kony 2012, people are blasting my Twitter account saying, “What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you tweeting about Joseph Kony, don’t you care about child soldiers?” Then a month later they’re saying, “Why aren’t you tweeting about Free Pussy Riot, don’t you care about freedom of speech? And why aren’t you tweeting about bringing back our girls, don’t you care about these kidnapped girls?” Everybody has gotten so self-righteous—look at the Ice Bucket Challenge, where it starts off as this great cause to raise money for ALS, then it turns into this bikini contest where everybody is going, “Look at my washboard abs.” It’s like, are people retweeting things because they care or because they want to look like they care? So the kids in The Green Inferno, they’re happiest when they’re trending on Twitter or when they make the front page of Reddit. I mean, social activism can be a great thing; look at what’s happening with Ferguson. We wouldn’t know what’s happening without it, but people just use it to look like caring people.
Knock Knock is very much about relationships and what happens when we don’t confront unhappiness in relationships. You know, Keanu Reeves seems happy—he’s got a wife and he’s got kids—but if you look beneath the surface, his wife isn’t having sex with him and he feels ignored. He can’t really confront it. The kids are making fun of him, like, “Get a haircut, dad” and the wife’s artwork dominates the house, and it’s Father’s Day and her catalogue shows up and it’s all about her, and then they leave him on Father’s Day. So all of that frustration, if you don’t deal with it and attack it, it’s going to come out one way or another. I think there’s a version where the two characters, Bel and Genesis [De Armas and Izzo], are like created from Keanu’s id, from this desire to see himself as a sexy man. Where all the things that he thinks are cool, they think are cool, and his desire to smash all this artwork and destroy this life that’s he’s built. So obviously, your interests change as you get older, and I just try to make movies that are honest and reflect where I am at that point in time.
AVC: Lorenza, your character has this definite history with this other girl but, at the same time, she almost functions as an avatar for this set of vengeful ethics. How challenging is it to find the person in a role that, in less capable hands, could have fallen into the trap of, “Oh, they’re just crazy”?
LI: When I read for it, I was very conscious of portraying someone that was very empowered but troubled, and I think she’s angry at society and she almost feels—not defeated, but separated and ignored by society and culture. So I think that’s why the whole destruction of art for her is a real show of “Everything you believe in is bullshit and I’ll tell you what’s real.” I think she’s very manipulative and very smart and very troubled and I think those three elements were key for me to make a real person. It’s hard; I agree with you, I was very scared of falling into some kind of clown of a character, and for me, I had to ground her as much as possible and put myself in her shoes. And you know what, I came up with just doing whatever my impulses told me in a situation like that.
And I love that there’s really no Genesis without Bel and no Bel without Genesis, and I think that connection and chemistry these two girls have—they’re basically family. So her morals and her ethics come completely from protecting her best friend and her sister and anybody who is female. I think in an insane way, she’s this huge feminist woman and she wants this power to show the world what pigs men can be, and how society is sort of a shit to women. There’s many ways to look at them. Eli and Nicolás [López]’s script was very unapologetic and took risks and allowed audiences to come up with whatever they thought. So for me, the biggest challenge was grounding her.
AVC: The values and politics of the film almost play like a Rorschach test. How you see the rightness or wrongness of what unfolds depends so much on what you, as a viewer, bring belief-wise to the movie.
LI: For sure. [Laughs.]
ER: For sure, and what’s interesting is that in the distribution of the movie, there were a lot of distributors who were scared of the film. Our theory was that if their wives saw them releasing the movie, they would say, “Oh, is this how you feel about a marriage?” Like, people got uncomfortable, which is what we want. Some people agree with Keanu and some people agree with the girls. I like the idea that you have a film where it’s not my job to judge the characters; it’s my job as the writer-director to portray the characters honestly.
I think there’s a trend going on in filmmaking—it’s Tarantino and maybe a few others that do this—where the characters are unapologetic. You’re not trying to make characters that are likable to everybody. I think it’s bullshit when you watch a movie where everyone is politically correct and everybody is nice and you like them all. That’s not life; you don’t like everybody you meet. You like your friends and then everybody else you have to put up with. I wanted characters that were honest and true to themselves. I don’t impose my morality on the characters. My job is to let the characters be the characters, and as long as the actors truly understand their backstories and where they’re coming from, which is something we worked on extensively with Lorenza and Keanu and Ana so that they all felt real and grounded, my job was just to set up the camera and stay out of their way.
AVC: The humor tends to be unacknowledged in a lot of your work, because of the focus on the gore. Unless a blond kid is yelling “Pancakes!” and doing kung fu, like in Cabin Fever, people tend to not notice. The Green Inferno has a very funny moment, when you cut from this horrifying murder to a scene of women in the village, quietly singing and going about their day, but their day just happens to be preparing human flesh—
ER: [Laughs.] It’s [Sings.] “Whistle While You Work.”
AVC: And Knock Knock has some similarly funny bits that stem almost entirely from mundane human behavior. Do you discover this humor and personality in the editing room, or as you’re making it?
ER: We’re planning it when we’re shooting, and we’re writing about it and there are certain things that are so fucked up that you laugh. And that’s life. People laugh at funerals because they’re uncomfortable. The way we deal with tragedy is through humor. That’s normal, and for me growing up being Jewish, the Holocaust was so horrible that you had no choice but to make awful Nazi jokes about it and deal with the incomprehensibility of what happened. But that’s just my sense of humor and it has to be natural. People say to me that you can’t have comedy in a horror film, and I agree with that. Comedy in a horror film takes away from the horror. But if you have humor in a horror film, it makes it more human. And that’s what I try to do. I don’t try to insert a comedic moment; I try to let the humor breathe.
When we were in the jungle, everyone—except me [Izzo laughs]—came down with horrible, crippling diarrhea. That’s no joke. So when [the characters] are in the cage, we have to acknowledge what happens if someone has to take a shit! When I’m a viewer and I see eight people trapped in a room, I’m thinking, “Where do they go to the bathroom?” I can’t enjoy the story until that question has been answered. So we have that scene and it’s awful and horrific, but it’s hilarious and it’s a well-needed laugh. But that’s reality. Like, that is exactly what happened when we were shooting. Someone was peeing and a tarantula almost bites them, that was real life. So my job is, as long as it feels real and it fits into the story—okay, the pancakes thing was weird and it comes out of nowhere, but it comes from my sense of humor 12 years ago. But I like the humor because I think it makes the movie fun. What’s wrong with entertaining audiences? I feel movies have gotten so caught up in being so self-congratulatory, with their own message and their own self-righteousness, that they’ve forgotten about the audience. When I see a movie, I want to be entertained. That’s my job first and foremost as a director.