Fresh from the bloodletting in The Green Inferno, Eli Roth is back with his second movie of 2015, the sexual thriller Knock Knock, starring Keanu Reeves as Evan Webber, a family man whose life is turned completely upside down and inside out when he opens his door to two beautiful young women (played by Roth’s real-life wife Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas), who are much more than what they seem when they offer him “free pizza,” a metaphor for no-strings-attached, unadulterated sex. As it turns out, nothing is free, as the consequence for his one-night stand with the two women is very costly indeed as they tie him up, torture him, and demoralize him over the course of the weekend.
Produced by Colleen Camp, whose starring role in the 1977 film Death Game inspired Roth to write and direct this film, Knock Knock was filmed on location in Chile. Here Roth addresses the themes of his body of work, and specifically discusses his latest foray into genre filmmaking.
Eli, this is a departure for you. Talk about the direction you went in for Knock Knock. It’s different than your usual hack-’em up gory films.
My other films are certainly known for the gore. We substitute the chopping off of heads in The Green Inferno for sawing off the heads of the statues in this film. In a crazy way, I found this more disturbing. My mother is an artist and I grew up with her artwork all over the house. You had to be very careful because we didn’t want to bump into a painting or scratch anything. We found some amazing artists in Chile to create this work. I remember even when we were shooting it … when you’re doing a kill scene in a movie you have to get it right to make it look great, but we were really destroying the art [in this movie], and everyone who was in character really went for it. There was a feeling like, Oh my God, we’re really destroying this artwork. And of course, they spray paint, “Art does not exist,” which leads to the question, “What is art?” Is it the object that’s artistic or is it the value you place on it? With my films, to one person they could be complete garbage and to another person they’re a work of art. What is art?
Is this a cautionary tale? Talk a little bit about the premise of the film and where that came from.
I would say that for sure, it’s a cautionary tale, but it’s also, in a way, it’s about the way … when there’re problems in a relationship, it’s probably going to come out in your behavior one way or another. It seems on the surface that Evan is very happy in his life. But there’re little frustrations like not being able to have sex when he wants. He never directly addresses the problems in his relationship. Then his wife gets mad at him, and it’s, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Then his wife and kids leave him for the weekend – on Father’s Day – and the house has her artwork everywhere. It’s all about her – her catalogue – and she gives him a list of things to do. He’s just managing the house. Their frustrations … whatever happens can come from his id, wanting to destroy what they had.
How many times did Keanu Reeves have to do the “free pizza” rant? It looked like he really went for it.
Twice. It was a very difficult scene. We were having lunches at 2:30 in the morning. I just want to say what an honor it was to work with everyone. They were such troopers. Keanu was out of gas and was loosing his voice, and it was his moment. We had to do it again. This is the moment where he breaks. He came in fresh the next day. It was beautiful to watch.
By the way the film is structured it felt like there could be a prequel or a sequel to it, with the two girls going on to the next house to prey on another guy. Any plans for a sequel or prequel? It would be great if they knocked on the wrong door.
We talked about doing another one called Who’s There? We certainly talked about it. I love these characters. We really wanted Ana’s and Lorenza’s characters to have real depth and be real characters and not be caricatures. We offer a little hint to their past. They believe that all men are basically animals and if they offer up free pizza, it doesn’t matter if he has a ring on his finger or if he has kids, if they show him free pizza, he’s going to take it. And all this art, it’s all bullshit. The reason to do a sequel would be to work with Lorenza and Ana again. Everybody made the most of every single moment in the movie.
I’m guessing that the 1977 movie Death Game was an inspiration to you while you were making this. Talk a little bit about what happens to Keanu’s character and how the two women who torture him are able to get away with the things they do on screen. Usually in your films your characters travel someplace and bad things happen to them, but bad things come to Evan, and he didn’t go anywhere. All he did was open his door.
We talked about the morning after. That’s what makes Death Game so masterful. If that movie came out today and we saw Colleen Camp for the first time, she’d be that “It” girl. It’s worth revisiting again. We talked about the morning after in the movie, and Keanu goes to the kitchen and the two girls are there in the kitchen like two raccoons, going through everything, with food everywhere. If he’d gone in there and said, “I can’t believe I did that,” like it was a weird wake-up call and tried to talk to them about his issues in his marriage and offered to make them breakfast, then maybe things would have been different. He doesn’t do that. The first thing he says is, “I thought you guys had left.” He wanted them gone, they’re like toilet paper; he wants them flushed. He literally starts going through the house and starts cleaning everything. As soon as he comes in and does that, the game was on. The thing with the cannibals in The Green Inferno, you go into the shark’s backyard, you’re going to get ate. You go into the cannibal’s house, they’re going to eat you. That’s what they do, but what’s scary is when you bring it upon yourself. Keanu invites the vampire into his house. Every step of the way, it’s his decision.
After making a movie halfway across the world with The Green Inferno, was it nice to come in and make what is essentially a chamber drama?
With The Green Inferno, we shot the movie farther than anyone’s ever taken a film crew. But with Knock Knock, things were very different. Shooting in the nights was really tricky. Lunch was at 2 a.m., and when we started shooting the game show scene in this, it was already 3 a.m. The main obstacle was time constraint. We shot it down and dirty and tried to shoot it in 22 days, which is crazy. It’s the kind of thing where we only had an hour and half to do some scenes. We were in a tight space sometimes and the actors were constricted. We got in there and rehearsed and everybody had their game face on, but once we added water and glass, the reflections were a nightmare. But it was worth it. The struggle of getting it there. We were all crazy by the end of the movie.
For the look of the film, what were your go-to points of reference in terms of looking at other films?
I watched Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, Death Game, and Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden. I tried to find films that were contained and confined that didn’t feel claustrophobic. The house was the metaphor for the marriage. It had different layers, the U-shape of it. This had to have that stylish look from start to finish, and I wanted to show that I could do that Paul Verhoeven, Jan de Bont, Turkish Delight, The Fourth Man … I love those movies that feel beautiful and feel rich and lush. I like setting up the frame and letting it be about the actors and their performance.
Eli, when you wrote this film was Keanu the guy you always had in mind for it, and when you got him on board, what was it like for you to work with him?
Our partner read the script and said, “This has to be Keanu.” I just think none of us thought that was realistic. He was the first choice from the first draft of the script. We were like, “Yeah, right, like he’s going to come to Chile.” Colleen Camp was such a pit pull producer. Nicolas and I rented the house in the movie. We put down a $50,000 down payment of our own money. We called it a faith-based system. We thought the movie was going to get made. We had ten days to get the movie financed. Go! I went to Colleen, and she went, “Why did you rent the house?!” There we were, and it was the Oscars in 2013, and we started to badger Paramount and David O. Russell, and we got two tickets to the Oscars. Me and Colleen went around looking for money at the Oscars! She was like, “Come on – let’s go to the Vanity Fair party!” We bulldozed our way to the Oscars, bulldozed our way to the parties, and we were with David O. Russell. We got stopped, and we kept saying, “We’re with David! David, get us in!” Then it happened. We saw Cassian Elwes. He said, “What are you doing?” I was like, “Actually, we need money for a script!” He said, “Can you send it to me?” I emailed it to his phone from my phone. He said, “I’ll read it tonight.”
And he did! He called me the next morning at like 9:30. He said, “It’s fucking amazing. When do you guys need to start?” I said, “We need to start prep in ten days.” He went, “Eli, are you fucking crazy? But I’ve done two movies with Keanu Reeves…” I said, “Can you get it to him?” He said, “Keanu actually has a window of six weeks.” I just needed him for four, and it all came together. Keanu came in a week before shooting, and I remember being in Chile literally a week before with Lorenza with no money, no cast, and Keanu showed up. It’s all because Colleen punched her way in like the Kool Aid Man to the Oscars. We did it. It worked. My first Skype chat with Keanu … it’s no accident he’s been a movie star since the 80’s. He’s so, so good. This is the first movie he’s played a dad. He’s fantastic.
Can you talk a little bit about filming the seduction scene? Was it ever awkward, considering that you and Lorenza are a couple?
We wanted the scene to be great. The scene would have been awkward with different partners, but we were all friends and we wanted it to look good. We watched the scene, and realized that the sex scene could have been better. We shot some inserts and used photo doubles, and it turned out awesome. That’s how I’ll do it in the future. No shame in admitting that. But yes, it’s weird.
Your movies tend to push the limits of what humans are willing to do to one another. Any comment about that?
It’s interesting, but I think that at this point of my career there’s no way to divorce myself from horror. I can only transition and make different types of movies because I’m so strongly associated with horror. My hope is that people will watch Knock Knock as its own contained film, not necessarily as the fifth chapter in some sort of long form horror series. It’s a drama, it’s a sexual thriller. If you put it into the category of horror, it gives the audience the wrong experience. I don’t want people to think that it’s a horror movie without blood. It really follows the conventions of a sexual thriller. For me, it was fun to get into the psychology of those characters. When someone does something because they so truly believe that what they’re doing has a larger cause for it where they’ve justified it in their own head, that’s what I think is interesting and dangerous and exciting. The idea that Keanu’s character knows it’s wrong, but he’s justified it in his head. The girls know what they are doing is wrong, but they’ve justified it in their own heads. What happens when those two worlds meet?