“Inglourious Basterds” just hit store shelves on DVD and Blu-ray and the Hero Complex caught up with one of the film’s most memorable Nazi killers, Eli Roth, the filmmaker-turned-actor who finds himself now as part of a cast that was just nominated by the Screen Actors Guild as the best ensemble. I talked to Roth about the role, the changing legacy of director Quentin Tarantino and his own experience dealing with a surprising new fan base.
SPOILER ALERT: A MAJOR PLOT POINT IN “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” IS REVEALED IN THIS POST.
GB: So this was Quentin Tarantino’s highest-grossing film ever — it’s pulled in $312 million worldwide. It’s interesting to consider. “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs,” which seem like such towering films in pop culture, but in reality I guess they only reached a narrow audience…
ER: And you’re going to tie this into my being on the poster, right? Yes, well I’ve been telling him since “Pulp Fiction” that if only I was on the posters, you’re movies would do a little better. No, but the success of this film has been incredible. Truthfully, we’re all so amazed. We felt like the movie was great but the big question while we were shooting it was “Is this movie going to find its audience?” The reason is, it’s a war movie without any battle scenes, really. And it’s an Inglourious Basterds movies but the Basterds aren’t on screen that much. It’s a war movie without war and a Basterds movie without Basterds. And two-thirds of it is in a foreign language. One reviewer said on opening weekend that Quentin tricked everyone into seeing a European art film, which he kind of did. The wonderful thing is the audience really embraced it for what it really was. And I think having mixed reviews out of Cannes actually ended up helping. It was a blessing in disguise. The expectations were so high in Cannes. People knew that it was, in a way, 10 years in the making and that this was his war masterpiece …
GB: It sounds like Tarantino’s “Avatar.”
ER: Yeah, exactly. The mixed reactions calmed it down a bit. People went in expecting the movie to be uneven and the truth was that he only had six weeks to edit the film. Some directors spend a year editing a film. So Cannes became a test screening for him. He was really able to finesse the film. And then, because expectations had been lowered, everyone enjoyed it even more. Some people went to see it and wondered, “What movie were they watching at Cannes?” And it was a different one. What was really wonderful was seeing 15- and 16-year-old kids embracing it as their “Pulp Fiction.” “Pulp Fiction” — the movie for their older brothers and sisters and the movie their parents loved. These kids never had their own “Pulp Fiction” experience. These characters are their characters. These aren’t characters they inherited and watched on DVD.
GB: That’s great unless they use the film for guidance on their history exams.
ER: One of the great things about fictionalizing the movie is it makes it a much, much, much more personal experience. It’s like in the way that I grew up with “Star Wars” as a life experience. The things the characters said became the lines I would use every day. “Use the Force, Luke” became my mantra growing up. When you’re in Little League and you’re trying to get a hit off the pitcher, trying to get that home run, you’re like “Use the Force, use the Force.” People embrace works of fiction and personalize them and that’s what people did. Quentin made something that was straight from his soul, straight from his gut. And I think coming off the failure of “Death Proof” a lot of directors would have taken the safe route and made a “safe, conventional movie” but not Quentin. He was not deterred. And that’s a testament to who he is as an artist and filmmaker.
GB: Tell me how this character, Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, has stayed with you. I mean, this is the guy who assassinated Hitler, that’s got to be a singular spot in cinema history.
ER: We had a screening for 150 rabbis the other night and people were coming up to me with the biggest smiles saying, “Thank you! You got to live the dream.” I mean, so many people have fantasized about killing Hitler. People come up to me on the street and give me the thumbs up. “Thanks for shooting Hitler in the face, that was the best thing I’ve ever seen.” My father just wrote an article for the Jewish Journal entitled “My son killed Adolf Hitler.” It’s amazing. And people come up to me and say, “Thank you for making Jews look tough” and “We’re tired of being portrayed as wimps in movies.” The film portrayals of Jews as often nebbishy or nerdy and here’s this guy who is macho, masculine, who is this tough character. He’s got a side that he can be charming but really is just this warrior. This character that Quentin created has become an ideal for a lot of guys.
GB: That screening sounds interesting, what was the setting?
ER: There was a screening [at The Landmark, in Los Angeles, and organized by The Jewish Journal, the Board of Rabbis, and the Israeli Consulate] with Christoph Waltz and Lawrence Bender, and after the move they did a Q&A, which I call a “Jew & A.” A lot of older Jews hadn’t seen the film. The ones that have, a lot of them really loved it. They see it as an important movie. So we wanted to get this audience to be aware of the film as something that they would enjoy. We wanted them to discuss it. So this screening was hosted by Rob Eshman, the editor of the Jewish Journal and the afterward the discussion was intense. We must have sat around for two hours. Just in the lobby — talking and talking and talking — and there were great scholars there and great thinkers. It’s interesting that even though the history was fictionalized, the emotions were very real. The psychology of the movie was really real. The audience was really, really responsive to it and many of them had never seen a Tarantino movie before. They had never gone to his movies because they heard they were really violent. It opened some eyes.
GB: Any other surprises for you along the way?
ER: What I really didn’t expect is how teenage girls respond to the character …[laughs] I suddenly have this whole new fan base. They’re writing me on Myspace and Twitter. It’s high-school and college girls. They love Bear Jew and now they’re checking out my old films. They’re getting “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel” and “Hostel 2.” So my fan base as a director is expanding exponentially in a way I never imagined.
GB: Well then, we will be expecting an embarrassing arrest from you soon involving an underage girl and Myspace…
ER: Ha! No no, I’ve been very careful about all that. Of course. But seriously, this role has been so great for me. It was completely out of nowhere. It was so much fun. It was really one of the greatest challenges I ever had — I was clearly out of my comfort zone — but it was also one of the most enjoyable times of my life.
— Geoff Boucher
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Images: The Weinstein Co.