The Green Inferno Interview with Eli Roth and Lorenza Izzo

Eli Roth's return to filmmaking after a break of seven years endured a bumpy road to release. The Green Inferno was announced for 2014, but then held up due to a distribution snafu. Since that time, Roth made and released another film (last year's Knock Knock). The Green Inferno played a few festivals but the wait was long for fans of the American goreteur. After a release in the USA last autumn, it finally hit UK screens, VOD and Blu-ray this very month.

I sat down for a chat with Roth and Lorenza Izzo in the summer of 2014, at the Soho Hotel. We spoke for 30 minutes about his gory ode to Italian cannibal flicks and this is the edited transcript.

What was it about Italian cannibal films that sparked your imagination?

Roth: First of all, I’m a big horror geek. I love all kinds of horror films but, even among horror fans, the cannibal movies are for a select few. I know that with the animal killings in Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Holocaust, it’s hard for people to watch, but I love those films. I love them so much. What I love about them is that you can tell they went into the jungle. I missed that type of dangerous film-making. [Films by] Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, when you’re watching those movies and you see the locations and you think, ‘How the hell did they do this?’ Even Werner Herzog, with Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, or Apocalypse Now or John Huston’s The African Queen. What’s so special is that they really went there [to the jungle]. I wanted to make a film that looked dangerous and had that spirit of adventure, where people watch the movie and really feel like the people that made it were completely insane.

Lorenza, were you a fan of cannibal movies before you made The Green Inferno?

[Shakes her head from side to side]

Not for you?

Izzo: Not necessarily. But it was an adventure I had to take. I was obsessed with having to go down into the jungle and the Amazon and get down and dirty and make a real movie in a real location and I don’t think you get many opportunities to do that, nowadays. You don’t get to be in a real place, get to know a new culture and really live there.

So you weren’t made to undertake a crash course in cannibal movies?

Izzo: Yes and no. The cannibal ones, not really. There were a lot more influences. I think also because my job was to bring in my generation’s feelings and what’s happening right now. That’s more the process what I did for the movie [than watch cannibal films].

Is it true that you screened Cannibal Holocaust for the tribe that appeared in the film?

Roth: It’s true. We found this village, where most of the villagers had never left the village. There were shacks and rooms with electricity, but most of the older villagers were farmers and had never left the village. We had to conceptualise what a movie was [for them]. The Peruvian producers of the movie, Gustav and Chavo, they went back to the village with a generator and a television. They told me they showed a movie. I was like, ‘Oh, great. What did you show? The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars?’ They said, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?!’

Izzo: I think the idea was to show the worst-case scenario.

Roth: It also showed them how to act. And they got it. They thought Cannibal Holocaust was a comedy. They were all laughing. There are five-year-old children in that village who, if you asked them ‘What is a movie?’ they’d all say: ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. They thought it was the funniest thing ever.

Was it a way, also, because of the exploitative side of the cannibal movies, of warding off claims or fears you were exploiting the tribe?

Roth: That wasn’t so much a concern. They’re not animals. They’re incredibly smart and they got it … nobody was being tricked into anything. They made more money doing three weeks work on The Green Inferno than in six months [doing other work]. The villagers loved it. We showed them Cannibal Holocaust as a worst-case scenario. We didn’t want to film and for them to go, ‘Wait a minute, we didn’t know we’d be ripping off someone’s head.’ We explained the scenes and said it won’t be any worse than Cannibal Holocaust. They were fine with it. 

Is Cannibal Holocaust your favourite movie in this sub-genre? I mean, the title of your film refers directly to Deodato’s.

Roth: I like them [cannibal movies] for different reasons. But Deodato, who started out as an assistant director to Roberto Rossellini and Sergio Corbucci, he took the Italian neorealism of Rossellini and the violence and politics of Corbucci and put it into this genre. It feels authentic. He literally created the found-footage movie with it. I love Cannibal Holocaust and I love Riz Ortolani’s score and the performances. It has a real power to it and 35 years on, you can put it on and people are genuinely shocked when watching it.  

I did see references throughout The Green Inferno to infamous cannibal titles. Was it important to you to pay tribute without making it too obvious that you’re making references?

Roth: Sure. It’s not really a reference movie or a game to see who gets the most references. There are certain things, like a hand gesture, that if you saw Last Cannibal World, you’d know it was a nod to that movie, but if you’re a fan of Apocalypse Now, you’ll see that when they arrive in the cannibal village it’s like the arrival into Col. Kurtz’s village. If you’ve seen Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo, you’ll maybe feel that [in The Green Inferno]. I have to stay true to the film’s story. There are film references in there, but it is more [about] influences. There are lots of other things [outside of cannibal movies].

You dedicated the film to Deodato. The dedication reads in Italian: ‘Per Ruggero’. If there’s so many other influences, why dedicate the movie to him?

Roth: Ruggero’s a friend and he really encouraged me to do it. He said go do the movie, but do it for real, don’t film in the botanical gardens. I wanted to make a great modern version of those [cannibal] movies. That’s why I listed all the cannibal movies in the end credits.

The film captures the zeitgeist regarding social media and online activism, etc.

Roth: I wanted to make a film about what was happening right now. It’s this modern form of activism that I call ‘slacktivism’. People are so aware of every cause in the world because of Twitter and Facebook. Twitter is a very sanctimonious place and half your Twitter feed is from people telling you, ‘You should be tweeting about this!’ or ‘Get involved in this, get involved in that’. It’s so easier for people to retweet something and then get on with their lives than actually get involved [with a cause]. Every time there’s a new craze or new cause, whether it’s ‘Kony 2012’ or ‘Free Pussy Riot’, if you don’t tweet about it they act like there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t tweet, you get called self-involved or selfish. I feel like most are doing it so that they look like good people, but it’s not really doing anything.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Twitter handles and hashtags in a movie’s end credits before. 

Roth: Nicolás López, my co-producer and co-writer, made a trilogy of romantic comedies, they’re all on Netflix, and they’re called Que pena tu vida, which means Fuck My Life, Que pena tu boda, which means Fuck My Wedding and stars Lorenza, and Que pena tu familia, which means Fuck My Family. In the Que pena tu boda and Que pena tu familia, he put Twitter handles in the credits. I thought it was brilliant. We integrated it into The Green Inferno as we thought, ‘This is what it’s about’.

Izzo: It’s so much fun because it ties exactly into the generation today. When did you ever get the chance to go watch a movie before and see right at the end and see who’s who and go tweet them. You actually start a conversation right away. It’s fantastic.

As a film-maker, do you think the old boundaries between fans and the industry will vanish completely?

Roth: It’s gone. The idea that there’s a barrier between the fan and the film director doesn’t exist anymore. You can’t be followed on Instagram and people see what you’re having for lunch, dinner and see what your pets look like and then pretend to have a mystique as an actor. I’ve always tried to break this wall down, anyway. With Cabin Fever, I had five audio commentaries – the first movie to do multiple commentaries – and I put as much into behind-the-scenes extras as much as the movie. I wanted people to know me. I was once the person waiting in line at the horror convention waiting for Tom Savini’s autograph and now I sign the autograph. There’s no boundary anymore, it’s a fluent relationship between the director and the fans. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without them. I see a lot of people try to put up walls and use a mystique or make themselves exclusive, and I’m the opposite. I respond to people that are open and genuine. I remember when I first was in L.A. I was having a meeting about Cabin Fever and I saw Tarantino in a restaurant. He was reading a book and eating and I went up to him and had a twenty minutes long conversation with him. He’s a guy who loves movies and I told him I was making a horror movie and he said ‘Good luck’. We ended up becoming friends. He doesn’t remember that encounter, but I do. That’s my relationship with the fans, I love talking about movies. We wanted to make a movie that was also a ‘fuck you’ to all the other movies that are trying to keep the fans and the stars – who they only see at premieres and only in makeup – and our movie is like ‘This is us’. You like Lorenza in the movie? Tweet @LorenzaIzzo. You liked Eli Roth? Well here I am @eliroth. It gives a much more intimate relationship and I wanted the movie to be a much more interactive experience.

Your films have a lot of humour in them. How do you strike the balance between laughs and scares?

Roth: I don’t necessarily want to make a comedy, but I don’t want it to be boring. If you have a bunch of university students as characters, there’s bound to be humour. It’s like saying that if you’re making a horror movie that you can’t have a joke. It’s life. Even if you’re at a funeral, people are cracking jokes. It is how humans deal with life. It’s all about staying true to real-life situations.

Justine is the nicest character you’ve presented in your movies. Is that fair to say?

Roth: My job isn’t to judge the characters. You might have an opinion about them. It’s not my job to impose my moral view. The character are who they are. If I’m writing a character based on somebody I know, my job isn’t to filter them. All the characters [in my movies], people might find them distasteful but I love them. The ones I don’t like are the ones that feel not fully fleshed out. You see the movie through Justine’s eyes … she’s very idealistic, she’s very sweet but she’s also disobeying her father.

Izzo: There’s a hunger in her to prove a point. She wants to go out into the world and prove she can do something. It’s to try and appease her guilt about having grown up so privileged. So, she does have that in her… she’s nice but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the guts to do something. She gets in way over her head. She’s a very real person.

The names of the moto-taxis that transport the group into the jungle, ‘Brad Pitt’, ‘Rocky IV’, did you make these up or did you find them?

Roth: We found them.

Izzo: Madonna with one ‘n’. I loved it.

Roth: I saw the taxi with ‘Brad Pitt’ and I thought ‘What the fuck?’ The guys will name their moto-taxis to get people to ride them. We found the guy with the Brad Pitt moto-taxi and we brought him in and he said, ‘I love Brad Pitt’. He didn’t have any idea who I was or had seen Inglourious Basterds, he just loved Brad Pitt. They were real moto-taxi guys. After we shot with them, they’d have to go off to work. 

The Green Inferno is out now