With The Green Inferno—the first of two new Eli Roth movies that will be released in the next two weeks—Eli Roth attempts the virtual impossible: making a modern cannibal movie. The Green Inferno is a throwback to the small but notorious cannibal subgenre of Italian horror movies that were made mostly during the late ’70s and early ’80s. The movies were characterized by extreme gore, on-screen mutilation of live animals, sexual violence, and depictions of jungle-dwelling natives as man-eating savages. They are intentionally revolting and, at best, effective assaults on the senses.
In The Green Inferno—named after the movie-within-a-movie of the best-known Italian cannibal flick and precursor to today’s found-footage horror fare, Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 bloodbath Cannibal Holocaust—Roth ditches the animal snuff and the rape, but the natives are there, as hungry and gore-happy as ever. (This time, the cannibals’ targets are a group of New York-based college students who fly down to Peru to protest deforestation.) Unsurprisingly, Roth’s depiction of a Peruvian tribe with a taste for American blood hasn’t sat well with Amazonian activists. A representative for Survivor International said the group was “disturbed” by the depiction of the tribe, explaining, “These stories have created a racist view of uncontacted and isolated groups.” Amazon Watch and AIDESEP have voiced similar concerns.
Roth dismisses the criticism, pointing out that his characters are based on his research of actual cannibals, his extras (not a Peruvian tribe, but farmers from a village deep in the Amazon called Callanayacu) were paid with money and home improvements, and that (spoiler alert) the bad guys of Inferno are not the natives but the “social justice warriors” whose activism is driven by vanity.
I talked to Roth about his movie and the subgenre he’s saluting earlier this week in New York’s Crosby Street Hotel. A condensed and edited transcript of our chat is below.
Gawker: When I think of cannibal movies, I think of animals being ripped apart. You didn’t do that in this movie.
Eli Roth: No, I’ve done a lot of work with PETA and animal rights activism. What people don’t realize is during all the 1950’s cowboy movies, every time you saw a horse fall down, they were actually killing the horse. I’m not excusing in any way the on-camera killings in Cannibal Holocaust, but if you’re gonna get upset about Cannibal Holocaust, you have to get upset about every primate you’ve seen in a movie because you can only use a chimpanzee in a film up until the age of 5, and then they’re completely uncontrollable and by that time they’ve been domesticated so they can’t be put in the wild. I watch those movies and if you can look past the animal killings, and in fact Grindhouse Releasing did a cruelty-free version of Cannibal Holocaust...
I’ve seen that.
...They’re amazing films. I remember as a teenager watching those movies and thinking whoever made those movies was absolutely insane. You thought they were real. The filmmakers went into these jungles and shot with real indigenous tribes. The stuff that Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, and Sergio Martino did, they were crazy making those movies. You couldn’t make a movie like that today. Movies have gotten so safe. There’s very few films that take those kind of risks. Everything looks like it was shot in a studio or was done on a green screen. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I miss that dangerous kind of filmmaking of Werner Herzog or Apocalypse Now or even Apocalypto. I thought you couldn’t do that because the Amazon’s disappearing. And then I thought: Oh my god, that’s the way in. But this time, now that I can do my version of it, I want the animals running free. The pigs are taken out of the cage and the humans are put in—treated lower than animals in this village. The animals just run around, and that’s what it was like in the village.
I don’t know if you can look past the animal killings, though, and I don’t know if those movies would be as resonant as they are without them.
I think that’s a very good point. Those movies are very much of their time. Ruggero Deodato, who did Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Cannibal World, was the assistant director for Roberto Rossellini, who did Italian neo-realism, and Sergio Corbucci, on the Django films, which had very strong political violence. Deodato is almost the hybrid of Rosselini and Corbucci and he applies it to this neorealism and violence. But he’s also unapologetic. There’s a recent interview from the actors from [Umberto Lenzi’s] Cannibal Ferox, who talked about how they couldn’t do the animal killings, but with Deodato it’s all presented very matter of fact, and he says they ate the animals.
That’s what he says...
I believe him, though. I know Ruggero, and he wouldn’t do that today. He’s a kind man and a good person. I think it was very much of their time. It wasn’t seen as a big deal as it is today. I think that what makes them resonate is the unapologetic frankness and the violence. You can say it’s the animal killings but there’s that abortion scene. You’re watching these shocking, savage rituals and I wanted to do a movie that had that kind of danger.
When we researched the film, I looked at all different tribes globally, I looked at female genital mutilation happening to 2 million girls a year, and the helplessness you feel about what you can do about this thing that is so horrific and awful. That’s Justine’s character. She wants to change the world, and her father’s saying, “There’s laws, there’s process, you can’t just go invade a country because they’re doing something you think is illegal or immoral.” The [activist group] leader Alejandro is saying, “Use your phones, these are our guns. Go to a village and you shame [the developers]. You stream it. That’s how you affect change. Forget these lawyers.” She gets very caught up in that idea, but the film is really about people getting caught up in causes they don’t know anything about and doing it for vanity reasons more than for the cause itself.
I really noticed Occupy Wall Street was the first moment when, as it was spreading it starts off as this hugely important cause, this kind of tipping point in culture, and all of a sudden, there was a relative of mine that had graduated college and wasn’t working because he was occupying. I was thinking, “I don’t know how the banks fucked him over, and maybe he feels strongly,” but I got the sense that he was going there because his friends were doing it and they were meeting girls and it was fun to occupy. After we wrote the script, Kony 2012 started and my Twitter timeline was filled with people going, “How come you haven’t tweeted the YouTube video? Don’t you care about child soldiers? What’s wrong with you?” Everyone had this very self-righteous attitude. And then a month later it was, “Free Pussy Riot!” And people were like, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you care about freedom of speech? You must be anti-freedom of speech. You must be pro-Putin.” And then it was Bring Back Our Girls. And, “Don’t you care about Boko Haram? What about these girls? You Hollywood asshole, how come you’re not tweeting about this?”
All of a sudden, everyone’s tweeting almost defensively and retweeting and hashtagging because they don’t want to be accused of not caring. Even after the tiger shark was found, people were like #SharksLivesMatter. Or how about the ice bucket challenge? It starts off as this cause raising money for ALS and all of a sudden everyone’s doing it to show off how hot they are in their bathing suit. “Ooh look at me, supporting ALS!” Cut to me in a bikini looking really hot. “Oh look at all the likes I got.” Everyone’s doing it for vanity, and that’s the kids in Green Inferno. This whole culture of social justice warriors evolved. Then it starts with GamerGate, SJWs are, “You tweeted this, you must hate women!” I think what’s happened now is that everyone is so caught up in looking like they care. The kids in Green Inferno are not happy when they stop the protest. They’re crying, they’re devastated, but when they’re trending on Twitter and on CNN, they’re high-fiving. When they’re on the homepage of Reddit, that’s it. That’s the most important thing. I think for a lot of people, that’s the endgame now. It’s not even about the cause, it’s being recognized for the cause.
But I wonder if that was always the endgame and social media just amplifies the vanity aspect of it. There’s no such thing as an act of generosity that isn’t anonymous. Everything comes back and reflects upon the person.
Well this is the thing, and I have this debate: When you’re at the coffee shop, and you want to put a dollar in the tip jar, do you need the barista to see you putting it in.
You want them to know or they’re gonna look at you like, “You didn’t...” But that’s the thing: Are you tipping to be recognized for tipping? They’re still getting the money...
Why do you need them to see you do it?
Because I want them to leave that transaction not thinking that I’m an asshole. It’s to make their day a little bit more pleasant. It’s about my gesture and giving them money.
Exactly. There’s a need to be recognized for doing a good thing.
Absolutely. But I think there always was.
For sure. I think it’s a human need to want to be recognized, but there are a lot of people that just do good things. I had a very good talk with Jason Russell, obviously there’s a nod to him and Kony 2012 in the movie. He said that all the retweeting and the tweeting, most of it clouded what they did. Everyone was so excited to show a picture of themselves with their Kony 2012 mugs that even they don’t like the kind of slacktivism/reactivism. They’d rather have people that just care about the cause.
I think we’re in this really interesting time where social media can raise awareness. You look at what’s going on in Ferguson. Every time there’s a shooting or injustice, we’re on our Twitter feeds and we all get it, but then all of a sudden everyone’s tweeting about it. Uganda was like, “Thank you, we’re well aware of Joseph Kony. We’ve been after him for a long time. I know you guys are liking a YouTube video but that’s not going to stop this insane person who’s enslaving children.” It’s much more complicated than that. My feeling is people might care about something, but very few people care about it enough to inconvenience their own lives.
But your characters do. They get on the plane.
They do but they want the shortcut. They don’t want to go through the process and the law, and even Alejandro says it was all kind of this masturbatory exercise because even if they saved it another group was going in because there’s too much money in the ground. “But we get credit—that’s why we went here, to get credit.” I think there is a fine line between wanting to help [and wanting glory], and the truth is I’m not here to judge. I’m not here to say you’re a good person if you want to do that or you’re a bad person. I’m just observing behavior that I see.
We get our news from our phones, from our Twitter feeds, from our Facebooks, or whatever, and you only follow people that generally agree with you. If you’re going to vote for Donald Trump, you’re going to follow those feeds. For Hilary Clinton, you’re going to follow these feeds. So what happens is we’re in this culture where people are only listening to people who have the same ideas as them. So if they say someone else is a bad person, it’s like, “Well, I trust that person,” and they just attack them. You see these crazy attacks going on.
It’s happened to me.
It’s happened to me, too. Of course it happens to you as a writer, it happens to me as a filmmaker. You tweet something and people go fucking crazy. And that is this culture of these social justice warriors. It’s so easy to do it. You can just go crazy pushing buttons on your phone and it’s so much easier to do that than to look into it. There’s always more than one side to a story.
And I see people conflating building a brand and activism all the time. Given this climate, it can’t be surprising to you that The Green Inferno has received criticism over its depiction of natives.
Of course it’s not surprising, but what’s interesting is the people who are criticizing it are the people who haven’t seen the movie.
They’ve seen trailers.
Right, but when we showed it to everyone at Mongabay, an Amazon rights organization, they loved it. We’re doing a fundraiser with Mongabay to raise money for accurate journalism with Prizeo. The people that attacked us haven’t seen the movie, which is fine. They don’t have to. I’m not making a movie to please everybody. But I looked into cannibalism. Look at who ate Michael Rockefeller, the Azmat in Otsjanep.
It’s the best. That was 2014, but this movie was 2012. In Savage Harvest, he talks about them eating Michael Rockefeller, the ritual in which they did it, the manner in which they did it, which was all documented by the Dutch missionaries, and the fact that they did it to absorb his powers and to free the spirits of their ancestors—who are we to say that cannibalism is wrong? People can say the natives are savage but read the January/February 1966 issue of National Geographic. There are tribes from Brazil, tribes from Venezuela. The movie is a work of fiction for sure, but we pulled from National Geographic on things like: What are the ovens going to look like? What’s the hierarchy? What’s the makeup they wear? Look at Leni Riefenstahl’s photos from Africa. We pulled from all different tribes to create a fictional tribe.
But what I found absurd is that people were looking at the movie going, “This will now allow the gas companies to rip up the villages.” It’s like, they’re already doing it. They don’t need a movie. If a movie had that kind of power, then a movie could just end violence. The inverse would be true. The idea that someone at a gas company would sit down, watch Green Inferno and go, “Oh great, this is the excuse we need!” Since we made the movie in the past three years, the laws protecting them have been eradicated.
What about AIDESEP, though? That argument was a little different: “This kind of content also reinforces policies of the Peruvian state that are geared towards contacting them through force, integrating them into society, imposing upon them a certain way of life, acculturating them, ‘freeing up their territories’ and taking advantage of the natural resources found within.”
This is happening without the movie existing. Without the movie happening or not, this is a major issue that Peru is having. In the movie, we don’t say the government, we create a company and say it’s biogas, but it is the government. Peru is a very poor country and this is how they’re going to make money. [Indigenous people] have natural resources. It’s not my place to judge. It’s Peru going, “OK, we have a lot of people that can’t afford to eat. We have a poor infrastructure in a lot of the country and we have these natural resources here. So if we take the resources then we can feed these other people.” It’s weighing out the lesser of two evils and the truth is these people are being contacted. Anyone who’s seen the movie knows that it’s very much on the side of the villagers.
Well kind of. As the story is unfolding, the viewer relates to the Americans who are trapped by them.
Actually, the most impressive thing about this movie is how tense it is. I’ve never gotten that from a cannibal movie before. I’ve only distanced myself while watching cannibal movies, whereas I was invested in The Green Inferno.
Well thank you. Obviously it’s a modern movie for modern audiences. I wanted it to look like Apocalypse Now. I wanted people to think they were going to see a horror movie and it’s this beautiful jungle adventure film. We wanted to show the beauty of the jungle. At the end, Justine has a choice: Does she want credit or does she want to save them? In the final scene, she makes a choice to protect the village.
She gives herself up to the culture she doesn’t understand. But tell me what tribe your cannibals were in and how you went about hiring them.
The tribe was played by farmers. They’re not a tribe. Most of the people had not left the village before. We had to conceptually explain what a movie was. They’re so far remote that boats come by and sell them things but the village does not own a boat, and the current is so strong that the wooden canoes can only go to the neighboring village just selling vegetables. It’s a protected land. When we found it, it looked very much like it does in the movie. We had to take out some of the modern-looking wood, but we built a kitchen for the school. We gave them metal roofs for the houses.
And you paid them?
We paid them. They made more money in three weeks than they would get in an entire year of work. But they said, “It’s hard for us to spend the money,” so we said, “What else can we do for the village?” It’s a village of 300 people, there are four village elders, and we had a big discussion of what would be the most useful. The first thing discussed was a boat but then it was: Who would get to ride it? How would they get gas? Ultimately, they said, there’s 103 huts with straw roofs. They wanted metal roofs for the houses to get them through the rainy season. So we brought 103 roofs for the houses when the shooting was done. Electricity, as we were there, the poles arrived. They were like, “We’ve been asking the government for 50 years for electricity.” But the way it works is first they put in the poles, then a guy comes and says, “Vote for me, and I’ll put in the wires.” Then: “Vote for me and I’ll run the electricity.” In the last few shots of the movie we had to digitally paint out the poles. It’s all coming.
And they had no concept of movies? How could they even know what they were doing?
There were a few people who had left the village that knew and could explain them to everyone else, but most of them had never seen a television. So Perurvians went back with a television, a DVD player, and a generator and they called us to tell us, “We showed them a movie. And they loved it. They voted yes.” And it was like, “Great, what did you show them? Star Wars? Wizard of Oz?” They said, “No we showed them Cannibal Holocaust.” I said, “Even the little kids? How is that possible?” They said, “No, they thought it was a comedy.” So if you talk to the 5-year-old kids and say, “What is a movie?” they go, “Oh that’s when you get painted red and eat people.”
Maybe you did them a total disservice by letting children see that movie!
Well, here’s thing: They thought it was hilarious. They don’t think of it the same way that we do. Even though they had never seen a movie before, they all tell stories. Storytelling is part of their culture, and we made it very clear: “We’re telling a story. It’s pretend.” Kids pick up stuff so fast. We showed them the cameras the first day and everybody gathered around. They all wanted their picture taken right away, they all wanted videos, they all were taking selfies. The kids wanted to do the slate, they wanted to hold the sound, they wanted to yell, “Action!” The kids really got into it.
They speak Spanish?
They speak Spanish and the older generation speaks Quechua, but the kids don’t want to learn Quechua because they feel like it’s an old-person language. So we had translators for Quechua and Spanish. The kids would come up with ideas. My assistant director told me, “The kids have an idea.” We turn around and the kids are holding up a baby python. He was like, “They caught a python for you. The kids were thinking it would be funny if you threw it in the cage with the Americans.” I was thinking, “That’s a really good idea.” We did it, and right before the actor was like, “Is that poisonous?” “No no no.” “But it could bite.” “Yeah.” So we have Kirby [Bliss Blanton] and Magda [Apanowicz] sleeping there and we drop the snake and if you freeze frame it, the fangs were inches away.
The body parts, the whole thing, everybody thought it was hilarious. Even as the kids were arriving on the beach, as soon as I yelled, “Cut!” everyone would laugh. The women would pick up the American girls’ hair and blow on their neck, like, “Are you OK? Are you OK?” They thought it was the funniest thing. They loved it. Everyone knew it was pretend, it was just a story. They loved it. They thought maybe it would make their village famous.
The Green Inferno will be released in theaters on Friday.