Mr. Beaks Takes Batting Practice With "The Bear Jew" Of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Eli Roth!
Published at: Aug. 18, 2009, 1:27 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
"Do you know the latest rumor they've conjured up, in their fear-induced delirium? The one that beats my boys with a bat. The one they call "the Bear Jew" ...is a golem. An avenging Jew angel, conjured up by a vengeful rabbi, to smite the Aryans!"
I have to admit that when I read this Adolph Hitler-uttered passage in Quentin Tarantino's screenplay for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, my first thought wasn't, "Ah, Eli Roth!" Though the director of CABIN FEVER and the two HOSTEL films had capably conveyed a kind of frat-boy malevolence in DEATH PROOF, Donnie Donowitz aka "The Bear Jew" seemed like the kind of role that should go to a stone-faced, broad-shouldered badass.
Well, I was a fool to doubt Tarantino's casting instincts. From his stirring introduction, striding out of the blackness hauling his trusty, skull-dented bat as Ennio Morricone's "La Resa" from THE BIG GUNDOWN blares on the soundtrack, to his climactic encounter with Der Führer (discussed in the below interview, so be careful), Roth is utterly believable as a Boston-bred Jew whose sole purpose in life seems to be braining bigots. And his performance is all the more impressive when you consider that he gets this menace across without the help of the character's cut-from-the-film backstory, which, among other things, explained the significance of the names carved into his bat. Those extra scenes would've allowed us to ease into the idea of Roth as a feared Nazi-killer; now, he's got to sell Donnie's murderousness with nothing more than a lazy gait, a slightly deranged facial expression, and an extra forty pounds of muscle. And he does it brilliantly.
Roth was still carrying most of that added bulk when I sat down with him last week at the INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS junket in Los Angeles, but that was the only trace of Donnie that remained. For the most part, it was the same old gregarious Eli I've known since he broke out with CABIN FEVER seven years ago. As we started our interview, Eli was quizzing me about Joe Dante's five-hour THE MOVIE ORGY, which I had attended at The New Beverly the night before. This led to an amusing anecdote about Dante's initial reaction to Tarantino's WWII epic.
Eli Roth: Quentin showed his very first cut to three people, and Joe Dante was one of them. Joe loved it. And it was interesting because... Quentin and I over Christmas ['08], we stayed in Paris, and we hung out watching movies every day. We went to the movies and saw THE KILLING. And we were watching Timothy Carey when he's shooting the horse - or the scene in the parking lot when he's talking to the black parking attendant, and the guy won't leave, and he has to then start using all the racial slurs to get the guy to leave him alone. We were talking, and Quentin was like, "I love Timothy Carey. He's one of my favorites. He's always so good." So then Joe Dante sees [BASTERDS], and he goes, "Eli, your performance is perfect. You're like Tony Curtis with a touch of... Timothy Carey, especially that ending." (Laughs) I didn't even realize it! Joe is like a master chef who can taste the soup and know the seventeen different obscure ingredients that went into it. I wasn't even consciously doing it. So I told Quentin. I was like, "Do you remember when we saw THE KILLING?" And he was like, "Oh, my god! You're right! You must've been channeling some Timothy Carey after our conversation."
Mr. Beaks: So has Quentin been determinedly trying to draw you out as an actor?
Roth: No, this is just all unfolding. None of this was planned. Even in CABIN FEVER, my appearance wasn't planned. It was that Michael Rosenbaum got stuck doing SMALLVILLE and couldn't get out of Canada, so I had to do the part. I thought it was just ridiculous and fun, and that I could just bluff my way through it, and... Quentin loved it. He thought it was the fucking funniest thing. And that's why he made me do DEATH PROOF. I was like, "No, I'm doing HOSTEL II." And he's like, "No, come on!" And even in DEATH PROOF, it felt like a party. The atmosphere in that bar was just... everyone was drinking and having fun. And Quentin's direction to me was "Uh, you have two minutes to lunch, don't fuck it up." I was like, "This is my close-up monologue in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Can I get a second take please?" And he goes, "You have thirty seconds until meal penalty. If we hit it, you're paying. Go!" And then he's like, "Why do you want another one? You did fine." I was like, "I could do better." And he goes, "Fuck it, let's move on."
Then he told me in the editing of DEATH PROOF, "Goddamn it, you're fucking nailing it! You get my dialogue. Every single time, I'm sitting there with Sally [Menke] going, 'Fucking Eli. He's got it perfect. I can always cut to Eli, and he'll do it exactly the way I want it, exactly the way it's written.'" So that became my audition for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. So starting around 2008, or maybe it was Thanksgiving 2007, he was like, "Yeah, I've been thinking about the Bear Jew." He'd heard me and my friends talking in our Boston accents. All of my friends were in from Boston talking like (in a thick Boston accent), "Okay, guy! You're gonna get fucking punched, dude!" And Quentin was like, "You know, you'd be really good as the Bear Jew." I went, "Really? I thought you'd pictured this other actor." And he said, "Yeah, but you wouldn't be a bad Bear Jew."
I didn't know he was ever going to finish it. And then one day he says, "I'm thinking about finishing INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS." And I was like, "You've got to do it!" So the day he finished the script, I went over to his house to pick it up. I showed up in a tank top and had just gotten a haircut, and he said, "Oh, you even look like the Bear Jew! You're perfect." So he hands it to me, and I never hear anything. Then he doesn't call me into audition - which is cool. I figured, "Alright, Quentin changes his mind a lot about things." Then he calls me and says, "Do you want to go to dinner?" So we sit down, and he says, "Listen, Donowitz has to be a 360-degree character. This can't be DEATH PROOF. You've got to know this person inside and out." And I said, "Quentin, I wasn't going to do that research unless I knew I had the part." And he said, "Oh, no, you have the part, but, listen, it's got to be--" And I'm like, "Wait, are you telling me I have the lead role next to Brad Pitt in your movie?" And he goes, "Yeah." So I say, "Can we have a toast?" And he goes, "Yeah. Cheers. Alright, listen, it's got to be a 360-degree character..." And I was like, "Wait, how long have I had the part?" And he goes, "You've had it since the beginning. I was just auditioning people against you." And I'm like, "Thanks for telling me, dude."
So I said, "Look, if I'm going to do this... if Quentin has this much faith in me, I'm going to blow him away. I don't want to be the guy people see and say, 'Eh, he didn't fuck it up.'" I want people to go, "Oh, we had no idea he was capable of that!" I always liked acting, but I'd never really done it. I mean, I'd studied it and directed actors, but there was nothing I'd done that I really considered acting; I was just goofing around and having fun on camera with friends. So I decided I needed to be like Robert De Niro or Peter Sellers: I put on forty pounds of muscle for that part; I went to Boston and only talked in my accent; I researched the role. And then I offered him, "If I'm there for six months, let me help you make Cannes." And he goes, "I've never had a second unit director, but if you do NATION'S PRIDE, that would be amazing." So I went over there a month ahead of everyone, and there I was prepping NATION'S PRIDE and my character. I knew that everyone was going to grade me on an extra hard curve. I knew it right away. I knew that people were going to say, "Quentin put him in the cast because he's friends with him." So I very quickly have to prove to everyone right away, I have to win them over and show them why Quentin cast me and no one else in the part, and why no one else could've brought to it what I brought to it. And it wasn't just putting on the muscle. That's just one component of it. When people see Donowitz, they have to see the anguish and the anger and the fury in this guy's face, and it has to be real right before he beats [the Nazi soldier] to death. You have to be with this guy right from the moment you see that look in his eyes. He is a killer. He will beat every Nazi to death. There's no question about it.
And right from the beginning, Quentin said, "Look, you have another career here if you want it. I don't want to take you away from what you want to do, but you could be a star if you wanted." And I said, "Quentin, I've worked my whole life to be a director. I wouldn't give that up for anything. And how am I going to top the experience of working with you and Brad and Christoph and Diane?" And he goes, "Well, you might not, but now you've got permission to write great parts for yourself." And that really opened me up creatively. He said, "No one's going to give you shit because you've gone toe-to-toe with the best. You've held the screen with Brad Pitt. He's the biggest movie star in the world, and there you are holding the screen with him. You've proven it. So people aren't going to prejudge your movie if you write a part for yourself." That was my goal. I gave it everything I had. I wanted people coming out of this movie going, "I had no idea he was capable of that, and we're excited to see what he does next."
Beaks: I really want to talk about your entrance. Quentin gave you a fucking great entrance.
Roth: Quentin called me while he was editing, and said, "Alright, I'm not letting you see it until Cannes, but I fucking hooked your ass up. That's all I'm saying. You've got Hitler and Brad Pitt talking you up before you come on screen. I gave you the coolest entrance!"
Beaks: To THE BIG GUNDOWN score. That's one of the greatest Morricone cues ever.
Roth: It's spectacular. And he didn't tell me he was using that cue. He wouldn't tell me what it was until I saw it for the first time in Cannes, and I was just... we're just sitting there watching me, and my jaw was on the ground. I couldn't believe that was me. I grew up watching THE DIRTY DOZEN thinking, "It would be so cool to be one of those guys." And then you're in college dressed up like RESERVOIR DOGS going, "Oh, man, if I was Mr. Blonde..." And there you are, in that theater - especially at Comic Con, because I had a little more distance from it. I was like, "Oh, my god." People were going fucking crazy. They want Donnie. And I come out with a bat all ripped up, and they're all like, "Yeah!!!" They're with him. They are fucking with this guy." They see me, and they know that I'm going to fucking bring the red stuff."
Roth: And that ending. when we were shooting Hitler...
Beaks: Tearing him apart with bullets.
Roth: I said to Quentin, "I wouldn't just shoot this guy. I would stand over his face and shoot him until his fucking head exploded." If it's the last thing I ever do, fuck everything else: shoot this motherfucker until you know for fucking sure he ain't getting up again. This isn't Jason, where we shoot him once and walk away. We fucking stand there until he's dead and disintegrated. And then we blow him up. (Laughs) And that fire was real. That fire turned very real. And it was fucking terrifying. I mean, we weren't burning, but it really kind of added to the insanity of that scene.
Beaks: How do you respond to the criticism that came out of Cannes about the perceived frivolity of this movie? People are saying that you just can't touch this subject if you're not going to handle the subject matter with the utmost seriousness.
Roth: These critics would go, "How could you change history?" And I'd say to them, "Excuse me, what about those other "historically accurate" movies where they have British people speaking with German accents? Because when my ancestors and my relatives were being burned in ovens and gassed and shot, I can guarantee you it wasn't British people shooting them." And they go, "Uhhh." I'm like, "How is this any more historically inaccurate?" What's so wonderfully liberating about the fact that it is a work of fiction is that it makes me draw my own conclusions; it makes it more relevant to my life. I think about after September 11th, how I fantasized about being on those planes and fucking crashing them and killing those hijackers. Quentin has tapped into something very real; it's a very real human emotion of wishing you could go back in time and sacrifice yourself to stop evil and save thousands. It's something that everybody has experienced.
And what about all of these "accurate" movies where people aren't even speaking their own language? It took Quentin Tarantino to have Germans speak German in a war movie, and French people speak French. It's so fucking obvious! But it makes those characters so real and so much more relatable and enjoyable and more human. They're not just people acting in a war movie, those are real characters!
Beaks: It's not Tom Cruise.
Roth: Yeah! Quentin always says his movies take a couple of viewings. There's always the expectation of what the movie is, and people are surprised. Then they watch it again and see it for what it is. He said when people saw PULP FICTION the first time, they said, "Oh, it's so violent!" Then they watched it again, and were like, "Well, it's not that violent. It's actually pretty funny." And then the third time they watched it, they were like, "It's a masterpiece! It's beautiful!" He said with JACKIE BROWN, they were expecting PULP FICTION 2. And then with KILL BILL [VOLUME 1], they said, "Where are those great dialogue scenes from JACKIE BROWN?" And then he gets to all the dialogue in KILL BILL: VOLUME 2, and they're like, "Where's all the action from KILL BILL? We thought this was KILL BILL 2." He said no matter what he does, everyone expects something else, and it takes a few viewings to get that out of your system and get used to it.
Beaks: So contrast the channeling of this fury as the Bear Jew and then going off to author a film in the voice of like a Riefenstahl-esque propagandist.
Roth: Yes. "Uli Rothenstahl", I was calling myself.
Beaks: (Laughing) Obviously, it's always fun for a writer to, say, "write in the voice of Hemingway". But this is filming in the voice of one of the most nefarious propagandists in the history of film.
Roth: I wanted it to be authentic. So I said, "This has got to be about the power of the swastika, and I can't play it safe. We're going to make propaganda, and the more powerful and ridiculous the movie is, the better." And it becomes ridiculous once you see Hitler reacting to it. It just shows what buffoons these guys are, and the self-aggrandizing of them and how ridiculous it was. But it's also scary how effective these movies were. Most people haven't seen a Nazi propaganda movie, and that's what they're like. I just kept going, "More swastikas! More swastikas!" Quentin had three shots in the script, and I kept saying we could have all these bits where we could show the bodies getting higher and higher... and have this huge pile of bodies that you can't even climb over. And then have a baby carriage go rolling by ala Eisenstein. And then someone uses the baby as a shield. And then he carves a swastika, and it gets covered with bullets, and later he uncovers the power of the swastika, and it gives him the power to kill everybody. We had all of these different story beats, but Quentin only needed about fifteen seconds for the movie. But it gave him the scope and scale and feel of a real battle film. I think there was 200 shots in the final piece in five-and-a-half minutes. My brother Gabriel flew out to Berlin, and during those two days of shooting the battle scene, he was my second unit director. And we just staggered the cameras and had twenty guys running back and forth between us, and a couple of fake bodies from KNB. We just... threw threw people off buildings and down stairs and in fountains and out of buildings. It was crazy. It was so much fun. But had I not made three films and the GRINDHOUSE trailer, I would've never been able to do that. Now, I actually kind of like shooting at that pace.
Beaks: But was there ever a moment where you had to stop shooting and go, "Alright, this is too much. This is too fucked up. I need to take a break."
Roth: Never. This is a character in a scene. I wanted it to be authentic. I just wanted it to really feel like one of those propaganda movies were.
Beaks: It's fucking madness.
Roth: Yeah. It was a little bit of..., "Ooh, are we allowed to do this?" It was totally forbidden. I never thought I would do something like that. I mean, why would you ever make a movie like that? You wouldn't. But once I freed myself up to do it, I was like, "Well, actually, I'm quite good at this. I could've done very well as a Nazi propagandist."
Beaks: So you were talking about writing roles for yourself. Are you going to write yourself a lead in your next film?
Roth: Who knows what the future may hold? I'm going to do whatever feels right. I can't say anything because... I don't know. I don't know what the future is. I'm just now enjoying the moment and not trying to think too far ahead, and doing whatever I feel. And if I write myself a part... there's no such thing as a small part. There are good parts and bad parts, and you just want to write great parts. Some of those will be for me, and some of those will not. We'll see. It depends what the role is.
Beaks: Are you thinking your next film will be outside of the horror genre?
Roth: It's all about the story and the idea. I don't think, "Oh, it's time to do this genre, or it's time to do this genre." My interests and my taste change. It's like with music: the music that I'm listening to now is not the music that I'm going to be listening to two years from now. Even though I'll always love The Beatles, there are new bands and phases that I'll go through, And that's kind of how you make films. Films just take a lot longer to do. I've just learned I can't really plan too far ahead.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS opens nationwide on August 21st. Do not miss it.