Director's Chair: Eli Roth — <I>The House With A Clock In Its Walls</I>
Issue: September 1, 2018

Director's Chair: Eli Roth — The House With A Clock In Its Walls

Director/producer/writer/actor Eli Roth isn’t just one of Hollywood’s most successful quadruple-threats. He’s also established himself as a go-to brand for horror fans — one guaranteed to chill and thrill audiences everywhere with his gleefully gruesome, over-the-top set pieces.

One of those — the notoriously cringe-inducing leg-shaving scene in his 2002 directorial debut Cabin Fever — helped kick-start his career. The film was made independently for a budget of $1.5 million dollars, sparked a frenzied seven-studio bidding war, and went on to be Lionsgate’s highest grossing film that year. 

Roth’s follow-up film Hostel, which he wrote, produced and directed, featured the equally notorious eyeball scene and cemented his reputation as a master of horror. It also earned him critical praise and was a massive worldwide hit, spawning a successful sequel, Hostel Part II, also written and directed by Roth. 

As a producer, his credits include The Last Exorcism, The Man with the Iron Fists and The Last Exorcism Part II, and he was an executive producer on the hit Emmy nominated Netflix series Hemlock Grove. 

As an actor, Roth has appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” segment of Grindhouse (in which he also wrote and directed the popular faux trailer “Thanksgiving” that played between the features in the film) and Inglourious Basterds (in which he portrayed Sgt. Donnie Donowitz and directed the propaganda film-within-the-film, "Nation’s Pride"). Roth and his cast members received the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble, as well as the Broadcast Film Critic’s Choice Award and the People’s Choice Award. Roth also appeared in, as well as co-wrote and co-produced, Nicolas Lopez’s earthquake thriller Aftershock. The film marks the start of Roth and Lopez’s “Chilewood” partnership. In 2014, Roth also co-founded The Crypt, a multi-platform digital channel for dark and edgy content. The Crypt’s series to date have over 100 million views. 

Roth’s new film, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which stars two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett and Jack Black, marks a change of pace for the director. Based on the beloved children’s classic written by John Bellairs, the magical adventure tells the spine-tingling tale of 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), who goes to live with his uncle in a creaky old house with a mysterious tick-tocking heart.  But his new town’s sleepy façade jolts to life with a secret world of warlocks and witches when Lewis accidentally awakens the dead. 

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Roth talks about making the film (released this month by Universal), and his love of post. 

You definitely changed gears for this. What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“I’ve always wanted to make my version of a kid’s scary movie, and the most influential ones for me growing up were all the Amblin movies — Gremlins, Goonies, E.T. — and Tim Burton movies — Beetlejuice, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure — and those all had that sort of handmade feel, with kids off on a big adventure, that I love. But I also wanted to include some of the tricks and stuff I do in my adult horror films — but not horror. More spooky, scary stuff than horror.”

There’s a big difference, right?

“Exactly. I think adults love to be terrified and shocked with horror films, but kids are different. They love Halloween and they want to be scared — but in a fun, safe way. They don’t want to be genuinely terrified and you don’t want to traumatize them. So this has a lot of good scary moments, but it also has that sense of playfulness, along with a type of Monty Python insanity and absurdity to it. And it was so much fun for me to be able to mix all these different tones, where one minute it’s really scary and the next it’s kind of silly and playful.”

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“We had a very short prep period after the whole project came together very fast, and we had a very short window with Cate’s availability, so we had to race to design and build a lot of our big effects bits, like the vomiting pumpkins. So that was tricky. Some of the stuff we knew we’d do CGI, and we also had this sequence with some 20 automatons attacking, and I really wanted to design all that and have them look old and real and not just use green screen. So the art department and production design and so on did an amazing job given the short schedule.”

So you must have started integrating post and all the VFX immediately?

“Exactly. Our VFX supervisor Louis Morin, who did Arrival, Sicario, The Aviator and Brokeback Mountain, is so experienced and creative, and he did a flawless job considering we didn’t have a big VFX budget. We shot plates for everything, so if we had to do plate reconstruction it wasn’t a big issue. We didn’t do a lot of previs and animatics, as we just didn’t have the money. We did previs on one sequence, which really helped, and I just storyboarded stuff like the pumpkins. But then, later in editing, we got a bit of money to do postvis for the pumpkins, as the studio loved it, so we were able to do more to the sequence and enhance it. The clock was the hardest thing to get right, and we really built the whole room where the floor falls out and there are all the gears, and I’ve never had to do anything like it before, with so many moving pieces. We had our lead, Owen, right there, with all these real teeth on the gears, and he’s on a harness, and it was so complicated to build and shoot.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was tough because of the schedule, and the very first week we had to shoot two stunt scenes on two sets at once in this huge mansion. We had the lab and the solarium, and the only way to get from one to the other was down this very long corridor, so we’d light one and then race over to the other set. It got easier after that, thankfully, and our DP, Rogier Stoffers, did a brilliant job and it looks awesome. And we came in on schedule and budget in the end.”

Where did you post?

“At Amblin, on the Universal lot, and we got to edit right across from where Spielberg edits, which was very cool, as we also had access to the screening room where I could watch the movie on a big screen every week, instead of just on the Avid. Then we did all the VFX in Montreal, because of the tax breaks, and then the VFX companies we used, like Mavericks, Rodeo, Alchemy and Hybride, are just amazing, and Louis’s there and he’s a perfectionist and so great to work with. Sometimes we’d do a little previs, and other times he’d go, ‘Let’s just rock ‘n’ roll and go for it.’”
Do you like the post process?

“I love it. Nothing’s more fun than shooting, especially when you have a bunch of hilarious kids running around, and we had such great energy on set and good vibes. Then you have the whole different pace of post, and I really loved working with my editor, Fred Raskin.”

Talk about editing with him. What were the big editing challenges?

“I’d never cut such a big, VFX-heavy movie, and a lot of the scenes you’re looking at blue screen and waiting for the effects shots, and I didn’t really know how to deal with that. It’s a leap of faith, but Fred’s very experienced with that, and then tweaking stuff right till the end. We went to NYU together but we’d never worked together before, although I’d always wanted to, but he’s always been busy doing Tarantino’s movies like The Hateful Eight and Django, and he’s cut Guardians of the Galaxy, Fast and Furious and so on. This time, the timing worked out, and he wasn’t on the set but he’d cut every day in LA and send me stuff and keep a list of inserts and extra stuff he felt I’d need, so he became the de facto 2nd unit director. And he cuts very fast. He had the whole clock sequence done days after we’d shot it, so then I could show the crew, and everyone gets pumped up.”
All the VFX play a big role. How many were there?

“In the end we had well over a thousand, but it was more like a few hundred of full-on CG shots. Most of the others had little fixes and enhancements and clean up. And we kept adding stuff, like having the chair move.”

Talk about the importance of sound on this.
“It’s so important in all films, but I think it’s especially crucial in horror and suspense, where the right sound can add so much to a scene, and you learn so much from that. For this, we did all the sound at 424 Post and had an amazing team, with guys like Gary Rizzo, who won Oscars for Dunkirk and Inception, and Oscar winner Bob Beemer and sound designer Karen Baker Landers — the best in the business. Just getting the right sound for a clock in a wall took us a long time, and I’m just as obsessed with sound as I am with every other aspect, and I’d meet with Karen every day to go over every single sound effect. It was a lot of trial and error, but I’m very happy with the result. We did a Dolby Atmos mix and it sounds phenomenal.”

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“At Efilm with colorist Mitch Paulson, who did Death Wish for me. He did Sicario and Bladerunner 2049, and is just a master of his craft, and he, Rogier and I all worked on getting the right look. It’s very important, especially on this as we also blew it up to IMAX, so the whole look and sound was a first for me.” 

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“Even better than I hoped. And it’s largely thanks to the great cast and crew I had.”

What’s next? Maybe a light comedy?

(Laughs) “Maybe. No one expected this from me. I’m not sure what’s next. I have a lot of projects lined up but I haven’t decided which one’s next.”