Eli Roth has made a kids' movie. Let that sink in for a moment. The director behind the gloriously gory Hostel franchise and The Green Inferno – in which one character has his eyes plucked out before being torn apart by cannibals – has landed a family-friendly PG rating with his film of John Bellairs's The House with a Clock in its Walls.
Today just ahead of the London premiere, he shakes his head at my incredulity and smiles. "At a certain point there's no more body parts to chop up," says Roth. "I think this is entirely an Eli Roth movie, I just haven't showed this side of me before. I've always wanted to do a kids' film but my version of a kids' film. As a kid I watched as a kid the horror movies and video nasties like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street on VHS at sleepovers. But my theatrical experiences were Poltergeist, Goonies, Gremlins, Raiders, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and Time Bandits. That's what kids' movies looked like. Time Bandits was a kids' movie and his parents blow up at the end. I feel like kids' movies are now always animation or schmaltzy or PG13 superhero films. You just don't see those fun, scary live-action movies any more. So that's what I wanted to do. A mix of Monty Python and Steven Spielberg. "
Roth, who acted in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (and the incoming Manson drama Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and an icon at Men’s Fitness magazine, has been courted by studios and franchises and big books before. It’s a big deal that he has finally acquiesced.
“I looked at the projects they offered and thought: I could do this but do I really want to do this,” he says. “A lot of movie franchises feel like Game of Thrones. I hate to say this but it doesn’t really matter who is directing. It’s produced a certain way. It’s cast a certain way. It looks a certain way. Some of the films are better than others but most movie franchises have become like episodic television. This came to me. There’s no pre-set world. There’s a book. But I am world-building. I’m putting my own visual stamp on it.”
The House with a Clock in Its Walls, set in 1953, concerns 10-year-old Lewis, an orphan who is sent to live with eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and Florence (Cate Blanchett), his even stranger neighbour, in an enchanted house. Lewis quickly comes to understand that his uncle is a warlock and that his new gothic home has many more secrets to yield.
"I love the theme of the movie," says Roth. "How different people deal with tragedy and how some people want to move forward and other people want to turn everything backwards. Also, feeling like a misfit and embracing your weirdness and all the things that you think make you weak. I was a kid like Lewis. I was last picked in gym. I was not the popular kid. I was super weird. People made fun of me for being into horror movies. We live in this Instagram where everything is filtered and everyone is putting on this prettier version of what our lives are like. But it's only when you think to yourself, screw it, I'm just going to be myself, that you become more attractive to people."
Never mind that he's just made a picture for Spielberg's Amblin imprint – it is odd seeing Roth working for any studio. Since the mid-1990s, the sometime actor, director, producer and writer has cut a maverick figure in the industry. By the time he made Cabin Fever, his 2002 debut feature, he had already created various shorts and animations, produced content for David Lynch's website, and worked as an assistant to producer Frederick Zollo. Roth recalls meeting Jon Hutman, a production designer, on that shoot. The pair reunited to create the elaborate set for The House with a Clock in its Walls.
"I was 20 and Jon was super nice to me, you always remember who was nice to you when you're starting out," smiles the film-maker. "I've always loved his designs and that designer porn and level of detail he brings to Nancy Meyers's films, with those beautiful New York apartments and Hampton houses and kitchen countertops. I thought, what if we did like a haunted Nancy Meyers movie? We looked at the Quay brothers' Street of Crocodiles and Edward Gorey and Serrador's The House that Screamed, a beautiful movie. And we also shot in the Kandler Mansion, which was the summer party mansion for the family that owned Coca Cola in the 1920s. So that was like being in The Shining."
The House with a Clock in its Walls is Roth's second feature to drop in 2018. Last March, Death Wish, his long-awaited remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson vehicle, earned the director some of the unkindest notices of his career.
"We were just making a straight-up revenge thriller," says Roth. "I wanted to show this guy going crazy. We had Ludwig Göransson do the score and Bruce Willis gave a fabulous performance. You make the movie and then this shooting happened in Vegas. So they delay the release and then Parkland happens. So suddenly your movie comes out and you become the focal point for the anger and there's just nothing you can do about it. You just throw your hands up and say 'This has happened and it's beyond my control'. I didn't take it personally, I didn't engage with it. I understand that a lot of people are upset. I don't understand why there are other movies like Equalizer 2 and Peppermint and you don't hear complaints about the gun violence in those movies."
Such criticism is unlikely to deter the plucky Roth. For one thing, he’s always made his own luck, having come into the industry with no connections. While many of his post-Tarantino peers have disappeared from the cultural horizon, he’s still standing.
“I had to fight and scrap for everything and when you start out with that fighter mentality it makes you stronger,” he says. “As soon as I figured out film-making, I wanted to figure out producing so I went to China and made The Man with the Iron Fist. And then I produced The Last Exorcism and then I wrote Aftershock. I just kept going. A lot of people I know said: I’m a director; I did my low-budget movie, now I want to make a studio movie. That’s great when it works out, but if it doesn’t you’re at the back of the line. I didn’t really engage with the studios until the last two years. I’d have an idea and I’d write it and make it. I’m very fortunate because with my first five films I kept my costs very low and everything made money. And I started making movies at a time when people still went to theatres and bought DVDs. Once you’re forced into writing, producing, directing, and doing everything yourself as an independent, you feel bullet-proof. I know that as long as I have my brain I’ll never go broke.”
The House with a Clock in its Walls opens tomorrow