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Q&A: Eli Roth on Venturing Into “THE GREEN INFERNO,” Part Two

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When Eli Roth set out to make his cannibal shocker THE GREEN INFERNO (in theaters this Friday), he didn’t do it in the safety of a studio setting; he took his cast and crew into the wilds of the Peruvian jungle (and explained his reasons in part one of this interview). It’s certainly an ambitious and, some might say, insane production model to follow, yet one that lends an almost indescribable sense of danger to the final movie.

There’s a documentary sense to the fictional goings-on; you can tell the actors and filmmakers were just as sweaty and isolated as the characters, which adds an extra level of discomfort to the viewing experience that accentuates the horror. “Every scene we shot had an element of danger to it,” Roth admits. “Even getting to the village was hazardous. We had to get in a van and drive along a winding road on a rocky cliff that’s known for mudslides. Then that would lead us to the one town where we could get the boat to take us 90 minutes up the river to the village.

“Now, the river was fine on most days,” he continues, “but there was one day where the river rose to the point where the water was 20 feet higher, up to the treetops. The trees were swirling, there was debris; it was terrifying. We thought, ‘Shit. There are no phones, there’s no help, there’s nothing. If we tip over in this river, we’re done.’ We all had to get yellow fever shots. We got deparasited after—never thought that would happen. Every day, someone was coming down with a different illness and couldn’t work. It was a rough shoot, especially staging the plane crash. I wanted that to look real, so what we did was build a plane and drive a truck with a giant tree on the back of it at 80 miles an hour until it slammed into the back and broke the tail off. It was crazy.”

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That brand of renegade filmmaking clearly excited the director, and his enthusiasm bleeds off the screen just as intensely as the danger of the production. And the obstacles went beyond the environmental; shooting in the isolated Peruvian locations opened up all sorts of problems, such as how to get the gorgeously gross and fleshy FX creations by KNB past the local government and onto the set. “That was really hard; their customs took everything,” Roth remembers. “We had special glue that could withstand the 110-degree heat and humidity, but the Peruvian government had never seen it before, so they wouldn’t let it in. The body parts were held for three weeks until we went in and showed that they were foam, because apparently shipping body parts is a big problem in Peru.

“Just getting the equipment in and out of there was a challenge,” he continues. “We had Peruvian producers and a Chilean crew who knew how to deal with it, but there were days when we had to shoot a big kill scene and didn’t have anything to use. The country isn’t used to an American team coming in to shoot a horror movie, so we always knew it was going to be difficult.”

Then there was the issue of filming scenes of cannibalism before breaking for lunch with healthy portions of meat, which didn’t exactly help the crew’s appetite. “Everyone was eating people all day, and we would all laugh between takes, but it was very strange,” Roth notes. “Every day, the villagers would cook us lunch. We employed everyone in that village, so we would bring in the chicken and they would cook it. It was great; we ate very well and I got super-fat, so that was awesome. But it was definitely weird eating a chicken and thinking, ‘If I was a chicken right now, this would be cannibalism.’ That was strange. I thought it wouldn’t be, but it was.”

That unappetizing anecdote brings up one more grand experiment in Roth’s ambitious project that really paid off. Rather than flying in actors to play his cannibal tribe, Roth found an actual village of farmers in the Peruvian jungle whom he hired for the parts, and even shot the film in their home. “We found this incredible village with wonderful people in Peru,” he recalls fondly. “They’d never seen televisions or movies before. They’d never even seen ice cubes. We had to educate them about all that, and they loved it.

“We wanted people who had the true Indio native look. There’s a difference between CANNIBAL FEROX and CANNIBAL TERROR, which is a French movie, and you can tell they just used people who sort of look like natives but are pretty fat. We created a look that’s an amalgamation of different tribes from National Geographic, then found this village of farmers. When we put them in the wigs and red body paint, it was just unbelievable. They were exactly what you’d imagine. It felt like we had actually found uncontacted people.”

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Other filmmakers might worry about casting non-actors who weren’t even aware of what a movie was, but for Roth, it was just another challenge that yielded rich rewards. “They don’t seem like they’re acting. They’d never seen a camera before, so they had no camera awareness. They wouldn’t change their body movements or speak in a certain way when we were filming them, because they had no experience seeing a bad picture of themselves. There was no self-consciousness, and they were so happy to be there and be a part of it. They thought it was hilarious that you could do this for a living. They couldn’t believe that pretending to eat someone or playing around in a cannibal movie could be a job. They loved it.”

Of all the risks Roth took on the production, it was casting these locals that may have paid off the most. The authenticity is undeniable, and the village feels like a real place, filled with life and hidden side dramas. They come off like actual native dwellers who just happen to have a taste for human flesh, and the casualness with which they go about their eating makes it all the scarier. There are no monsters in GREEN INFERNO, and it’s only terrifying because it’s told from the perspective of the eaten. For the villagers, it’s an exciting day with a rare feast.

For some directors, returning behind the camera after a prolonged absence might lead to sense of cleaning the rust off the wheels, but not for Roth. With THE GREEN INFERNO, he has delivered a film as terrifying, funny, intelligent, risky, ambitious and unique as anything he’s ever made. His HOSTEL movies may have helped inadvertently usher in the ill-titled torture-porn era, but horror has moved on since then, and so has Roth. INFERNO is just as lively and unexpected as his previous work, and proves Roth is a filmmaker more likely to create trends than follow them. Indeed, he has another, completely different feature opening next month: the Keanu Reeves-starring KNOCK KNOCK, about a man tormented by a pair of sexy femmes fatale.

“I wanted to make something that felt like a Roman Polanski movie, or an early Paul Verhoeven or Adrian Lyne film,” the director says. “It’s kind of like FATAL ATTRACTION for the modern generation. It’s not really a horror film and it’s not bloody, but it’s still sick and twisted.” And for his next directorial outing, he’s significantly changing gears again as he tackles the two-decades-in-development, big-budget film adaptation of Steve Alten’s giant-prehistoric-shark novel MEG for Warner Bros. But no matter which directions his career takes, it’s safe to say that Roth will always deliver the gruesome goods.

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About the author
Phil Brown
Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).
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