MIPTV: Eli Roth on His Netflix TV Debut 'Hemlock Grove' (Q&A)

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Eli Roth

The director discusses why he wanted to go the streaming route and the importance of algorithms, Twitter followers and Klout scores in today's industry.

Eli Roth is known for pushing, beating and slashing up the boundaries of the horror genre with Hostel 1 & 2 and Cabin Fever. Now he’s trying his hand at episodic television with werewolf drama Hemlock Grove, debuting on Netflix on April 19.  Based on the book written by Brian McGreevy, and starring Famke Janssen and Swedish import Bill Skarsgard (the younger brother of True Blood's Alexander Skarsgard), it focuses on the secrets of a small town after a grisly murder. Not one to shy away from every last gory detail -- in fact, he revels in it -- Roth says he approached the project as a 13-hour movie to strike the right balance between developing the story and delivering scares.

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Roth sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at international TV market MIPTV in Cannes to talk about working with the streaming service, interacting with fans on social media and sinking his teeth into an entire season at once. 

The Hollywood Reporter: You’re said to be the driving force behind taking Hemlock Grove to Netflix instead of a traditional network. What excited you about the idea of going there?

Eli Roth: I’m always for breaking new ground and trying something different. With Cabin Fever, when Lionsgate acquired the movie, we had offers from seven different studios including New Line and Revolution and Artisan, and at the time Lionsgate only did four wide releases a year. They said, "We’re so passionate about the movie that we’re gonna make this count." And we went with them and it wound up being the best decision. With Hemlock Grove, we talked to a few different networks, but Netflix had independently sought me out because they knew from how many people rented their DVDs, they had all these algorithms that said my name was very high on the Netflix index. And it was just perfect timing. 

We actually went and pitched directly to [Netflix vice president of content] Ted Sarandos and told him the whole story and he loved it. He loved the idea, he loved the idea of doing the show with me, and they really got that we wanted to do something different and out there and unique, and I loved the idea that not only were they greenlighting the entire series at once and that they were going to put them online, but also the interactive component. We live in an age now where so many people watch movies based on what Netflix recommends. It learns your taste and they really understand viewer habits. 

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And part of the pitch when I talked to Famke Janssen and Lily Taylor is that there is no other format on television like it. It’s like a combination of TV and IMDB, where right after an episode ends it’s ‘If you like this, you can watch Cabin Fever, Hostel, Hostel 2’ or ‘X-Men, Household Saints’ or anything with Famke or Lily Taylor or myself. That there is a connectivity with everything, that you actually have connective tissue between what people just watched and your entire back catalog. That’s huge in an age when the number of your Twitter followers matters and your Klout score matters. 

Now you can have a fan base of people that can watch the show and talk to you on Twitter and then go back and watch everything you’ve done. And so it’s actually really fun and makes the show more enjoyable when you’ve seen the all the other work that the actors have done. If you watch then you want to watch a Swedish film of Bill [Skarsgard]’s or an Australian film from Penelope Mitchell, suddenly they’re not just the characters from that TV show, but you use the TV show as a platform to see everyone’s work. 

That’s where television is going. If we went to a traditional network, not only would you have to go week to week, but as soon as the show ends, that’s it. Whereas if I could watch Game of Thrones on a network where everything else Emilia Clarke was on or everything Peter Dinklage was on I would watch those right after the episode while it was fresh and while I was still excited to see it. It’s a different way to consume entertainment, but it also really grows the admiration and the respect from your fan base because they can instantly see everything else you have done. 

THR: It’s a way for them to become more involved and invested in the cast?

Eli Roth: And fans, horror fans in particular, love that. The horror fans are so committed, they’re such devout fans, that not only do they delve into the mythology of the series when you give them a reason to, but they will see anything else you have done. And there’s going to be a generation that has never seen Hostel or has never seen Cabin Fever that can go back and watch all those movies and seek them out. It’s right there at their fingertips if they enjoy Hemlock Grove. Even if you finish the series, while you are waiting for the next season, you are more likely to go and watch other shows that the creators of Hemlock Grove are involved in. 

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THR: You mentioned Twitter. Do you interact directly with your fans there?

Eli Roth: Very much so. I have over 200,000 followers, and it makes a huge difference. It’s great -- number one for dispelling rumors and also it’s the best way to disseminate information. The fans are talking directly to the source. And you get immediate feedback on Twitter, not all of it positive. But I’m also a fan first. I was the guy at the Fangoria convention and waiting in line for Tom Sevini’s autograph. I remember I snuck into a Fangoria convention my first year in L.A. because I couldn’t afford the ticket and got thrown out. But now I’m there signing autographs. But I understand the fan mentality and that feeling of wanting to be connected to the people who create this stuff, so I’m very very interactive with the fans. I think it’s hugely, hugely helpful and important. I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to be on Twitter. I don’t think Brad Pitt needs to be on Twitter, I don’t think Famke does. Movie stars need to retain some of that mystique if you are a big movie star. But it’s a big deal now especially for young actors, and studios are casting people by who has the most Twitter followers I’ve heard. 

THR: Studios are casting by Twitter followers?

Eli Roth: That’s what I’ve heard from different sources at studios. That the executives are going, ‘OK, if it’s between two actors, who has more Twitter followers?’ It’s a huge deal. The world is changing. Social media is a way to sell movies and to build a fan base. The truth is that you have followers because they know you are into it and you’re funny and you like it. I think it’s great.

THR: If the reactions are not positive, do you let that influence your creative decisions at all?

Eli Roth: No. You have to trust your instincts and hope the fans like what you do, but you don’t gut check with the fans. If we’re going to make a series, people are going to have a lot of opinions and if there’s one overwhelming majority or one thing you continuously hear repeated from the fans, you certainly take that into account going into season two. I hear what people say, I read all the reviews, all the blogs, and I am always curious to hear it -- because you can’t always listen to the good press, you have to hear the bad press, too. I also make things that are going to provoke people, so I know that I’m provoking a reaction in a lot of what I do. I’m not doing it for adulation, so it’s interesting when you get a really strong reaction, part of you thinks ‘Wow that really works.’

THR: When you’re directing a full season at once, do you approach that as a TV show or almost as a feature film?

Eli Roth: You have to shoot it like a TV series where you have eight days to shoot an episode. However, since the episodes aren’t airing until they are all completed, we can take a major set piece like the transformation, which was the reason why I signed on -- I read the book and went "I want to do a transformation that can be seen as a definitive transformation in the way I view the Rick Baker transformation from An American Werewolf in London, even taking influence from Rob Bottin in The Howling, or Neil Jordan in The Company of Wolves, but also doing my spin on it, I want it to be like a birth." The thing comes out and eats its own placenta and it like eats the human skin after. They released it on YouTube and people were freaking out. I wanted the Twilight fans to be shocked when they saw it! Like, "Oh my god, that’s how it really happens." Like if you’re in science class in 9th grade and they’re like "This is what a birth looks like" and the whole class is screaming. 

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But it seems like something you can’t shoot on an eight-day schedule. What we could do is storyboard it completely beforehand, plan it out meticulously with KNB Efx, and work it out so that you shoot a chunk of it during episode two, but also that we could shoot pieces all the way up through episode 13. So if the teeth breaking out or the eyes popping out doesn’t look right, or we need to redo it, we could really really get those pieces. It’s also that if there’s a story point in episode six that is unclear, that we should have set it up better, we can go back and re-shoot that and change it. So the early episodes get changed a lot because you start to look at it like a 13-hour movie and the first three or four episodes are your act one. It does change the way you edit and the way you shoot, but it’s all for the positive. You start looking at it like, "OK, you don’t have to fill a quota of scares or violence each week," and you go, "OK, episode one, if there’s so much violence in it, then the transformation at the end of episode two isn’t going to work, so let’s just use episode one to set it up," and then you realize you actually enjoyed episode two more because of the set up in episode one. So that I didn’t quite get or expect until the editing stage, but it was great because you can really ramp things up in a way that you really couldn’t if you were doing things on a network. 

THR: That's the opposite of a series that starts with a great premise but seems to be making it up as it goes along, episode by episode, that ends up losing continuity.

Eli Roth: It’s nice to be able to go back. And what’s really nice is because we’re not making DVDs and it’s just on the air, and I’ve even talked to Netfilx about this: What if we’re in season two and I want to go back and change things in season one? Like, can I do that?  What if by season four, you look at season one and the season looks so different or feels so different, what if we could tweak that? I used to get so outraged at George Lucas for going back and doing what I saw as tampering with movies. And now that I’ve directed movies I totally get it. I’d totally do it; I’m all for it. They say that movies aren’t finished, they’re abandoned. But if you could, would you keep going back and re-tweaking things forever? That’s what’s exciting, is that in episode thirteen we were able to go back and change things in episode two.

THR: How about season two?

Eli Roth: We have the story ideas for season two, but everybody right now is focusing on making season one a success before Netflix gives us the go head for season two. But we definitely have the ideas.

THR: So you know where the story is going?

Eli Roth: Yes, and that was part of the pitch when we gave them season one. As much as I think Twin Peaks is my favorite show of all time, you can tell they never intended to solve Laura Palmer’s murder. I’ve talked about this to David Lynch and the network made him do it. And after that happened, they had to figure out a new mythology. We wanted to make sure that we had a long-term mythology that the murder at the beginning kicks off, and the murder is an excuse to dive into the world of this town of Hemlock Grove. Once that murder is solved, which it is, it opens up a much larger mythology that gets played out over several seasons. We wanted to write something that would be deep and that would give the fans something that’s worthwhile to dig into.