Eight years ago, Eli Roth wrote his first feature-length script for a horror movie called "Cabin Fever." Roth, a graduate of New York University's prestigious film school and the winner of a Student Academy Award, was optimistic it could get made. But for years he was a victim of naïveté and bad timing.
It was the mid-'90s, a time when audiences craved heavy doses of irony in scary films, such as Wes Craven's "Scream." Hollywood executives looked at "Cabin Fever" as a throwback to classic horror, and the script was summarily rejected by every major and independent studio, some several times over.
After nearly a decade of struggle, however, Mr. Roth's film finally opened this past weekend to widespread acclaim and respectable box-office numbers. "Cabin Fever" earned $8.5 million, making it the second highest opening ever for Lion's Gate ("Dogma" was first with $8.77 million).
"Cabin Fever" has been hailed, along with the recent "28 Days Later," as giving birth to a newly reborn horror genre. A smash at last year's Toronto Film Festival, where it prompted a bidding war, "Cabin Fever" has been especially popular with other filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson, who called Roth's effort "brilliant."
"Once you've made a movie in Los Angeles, it's like you've been given the secret password to a place where everyone's trying to break in," the gregarious Roth says from a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard. "But the last thing people want to hear is that hard work and perseverance is what it takes."
Starring Jordan Ladd, daughter of actress Cheryl Ladd, and Rider Strong of the TV series "Boy Meets World," "Cabin Fever" portrays a group of five college students who celebrate the end of the school year by renting a remote cabin - and contracting a flesh-eating virus. Roth is the first to concede his film is not for everyone - "Cabin Fever" is unapologetically gruesome. But the film is also a classic psychological drama, akin to the 1948 "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," with Humphrey Bogart. And "Cabin Fever" deftly intertwines its fear factor with campy, bizarre humor in the tradition of David Lynch, under whom Roth worked for six years while trying to get his own movie made.
Roth grew up in Boston on a diet of classic films that were decidedly not by Disney. His parents, a Harvard psychiatry professor and a painter, showed Roth "The Exorcist" at age 6, and Lynch's "Blue Velvet" at 14. "We'd sit around watching someone get killed with a chainsaw and laughing," he recalls. "My parents always knew that it was fake."
Roth's father also took him to see Buster Keaton comedies every night for a month. "It was more important than homework," the filmmaker recalls.
For most of the past decade, Roth worked as a technician on more than 100 movies, from "Meet Joe Black" to "Ransom." Although much of the time consisted of "making $400 a week standing in zero-degree weather wrapping cable," he learned a lot about how movies are shot - as much by watching filmmakers' mistakes as their successes. "I just always said to myself, 'When it's my shot, I'm never going to do that,' " he recalls.
After years of trying to acquire financial backing for "Cabin Fever," shooting finally began in the fall of 2001, right around the attacks of Sept. 11. One group of investors withdrew a sizable amount of funding after the anthrax attacks made the plot feel uncomfortably real.
Roth and his producers had to raise money while shooting, to the point where Roth's parents even offered up their retirement funds. "I remember the first day, I said to [producer] Lauren Moews, 'Are we shooting tomorrow?' " Roth recalls. "And she said, 'I'll let you know at dinner.' "
But Roth took to heart some advice his old boss, David Lynch, gave him before shooting began. "He told me, 'Keep your eye on the doughnut, not the hole,' " Roth recalls. "What gets on those little 35mm frames, that is the only thing that matters. That is the doughnut. Everything else around it, everything distracting you, that's the hole."
Roth is slated next to direct a horror film called "Drawn." Yet he confesses his experience with "Cabin Fever" was "...definitely a blessing in disguise. For years, I really believed there was a niche market for horror movies that weren't being made but [that] fans really wanted. And I needed the time to be right."