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In the director’s chair: Eli Roth on Ridley Scott's influence and how it's becoming harder to get a film made without superheroes

Hostel and Cabin Fever director Eli Roth answers this month's In The Director's Chair questions

For the latest director’s chair series, in which The Drum interviews directors on influences, passions and career highlights, acclaimed horror film director Eli Roth, Tool of North America, discusses the impact that Ridley Scott’s Alien has on him, and how hard it is to get a film made that doesn’t have superheroes in it.

An earlier interview in the series saw Andrew Lang discuss funny moments in an Ikea ad and documentary making, while Camille Marotte discussed why the best jobs come from asking to shoot anamorphic and how having many skills, including being your girlfriend’s photographer, can influence a director’s style in another. Mea Dols de Jong spoke about avoiding being pigeon-holed as a female director and making authenticity cinematic. Last month Klaus Obermeyer discussed impossible logistics and growth with a vengeance.

Who or what inspired you to be a director? (or who are your creative heroes and why?)

When I was eight years old, I went to see Alien with my father, and I had never considered until that moment that I could be the one making movies, and that someday they’ll play in a theater. I looked at the credits and saw, “Directed by Ridley Scott.” And right then and there, I knew that I wanted to be a director. Most kids idolized baseball players, but my idols were Spielberg, Lucas, Scott, Tobe Hooper, George Romero, Kubrick. I was a weird kid for sure.

Outside of work, what are you into?

I love boxing. I look at the old photos of Steve McQueen and other actors who boxed and they stayed in incredible condition their whole lives. I just hit, I don’t spar, but if you don’t have your guard up you get whacked pretty good. I wanted to find a sport that would keep me in great shape for the next 30 years. And for my brain, I play piano. It helps with my ability to multitask.

How would you describe your style of commercial/filmmaking? What are you known for?

I generally prefer a classical style of filmmaking, which at times can seem antithetical to the flashiness of a commercial, but I believe you can have it both ways. If you fill the frame right and cast it correctly, the camera work is easy. You can always go flashier, but that doesn’t necessarily get the audience more involved or excited. Sometimes, you stay out of the way and just create the imagery and let it speak for itself.

Have you got an idea about what sort of projects you’d like to work on or are you quite open minded about what work comes your way?

I used to have a clear plan of my life and what I wanted to do, and the more I’ve worked the more I learned I just enjoy seeing what comes in front of me. If you’re too focused on your plan, you miss incredible opportunities that life is presenting you. It’s not good to be locked in because you don’t push yourself. I like a challenge and do whatever is least expected of me.

When you’re looking at scripts and projects that come in, is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?

I like to write my own scripts, but my last few films have been collaborations with other writers and I really enjoy it. I just look for a story that speaks to me, in the way you read a book or see a movie and completely understand what the main character is going through. What got me on my current film is when I read it, I said, “That was absolutely me as a kid, I have to tell this story.”

What’s your funniest moment on set?

While shooting a commercial in Mexico City, we had this amazing mansion filled with these fabulous creatures and people in wild makeup. At one point, the energy was dropping and I put on Reggaeton music (my wife is Chilean, and I learned it from her) and everyone just started dancing and it turned into a real party. That was fun.

What's your best piece of work?

Not for me to say. I love them all in their own way for different reasons. There’s always things I wish I had done differently but at the time it felt perfect when I was doing it.

Which ad do you wish you'd made?

The Ridley Scott 1984 Apple ad. I still remember it so vividly. It changed what I thought commercials could be. Suddenly they were an art form.

What’s been the biggest change to the industry during your career?

The “middle movies” are gone. Right now, it’s so expensive to release a film that people test them first and see what tests the highest. For example, “Get Out” almost didn’t get released because it didn’t test well, but that’s not the sign of a bad film, it just means the audience didn’t ‘get it’ in the way they do a Marvel film. However, the trailers tested so high that they rolled the dice and look what happened. Also, it feels like right now there are independent movies, most of which go to streaming, and Marvel / Star Wars or animated films. I’m very lucky that the film I’m working on now is an Amblin movie (a scary kid’s movie), and I’m grateful not only to be working on such an incredible project, but also that it’s about people and not superheroes saving the galaxy. I don’t know where the film industry is going, it just feels like all we have are these event films. But it’s not the fault of the public; it’s up to the storytellers to step up and make better films and remind them why they loved going to movies.

Have you worked on any client direct commercials (no agency involved). What's been the difference?

Not yet, I’ll let you know how I feel when I do!