Cabin Fever : Q & A With Writer/Director Eli Roth

The Inspiration for Cabin Fever

I have been a horror movie fanatic for as long as I can remember. Films like Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, John Carpenter's The Thing, and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street were made with uncompromising terror, and pushed my childhood imagination into dark corners I never knew existed. I aspired to make a horror film that would have a resonating scare, one that would stay with the audience long after they left the theater.

Around the mid-80's, my favorite horror directors "graduated" into big studio movies, the new horror films were made with less care and craft, and a genre that once fueled the movie industry came to a grinding halt. At the end of the 1970's, horror films were written around the basic premise: what is horrifying? By the end of the 1980's, horror films were written around the premise: how can we kill this group of kids?

I set out to make a film that would be a throwback to the late 70's/early 80's heyday of horror. This would not be a comedy, but instead a scary movie, one that would use humor to both release tension and draw people into the film.

The initial idea for Cabin Fever came while I was working on a horse farm in Iceland when I was 19 years old. I had been cleaning out a barn and got a skin infection on my face. I woke up in the middle of the night scratching my cheek, thinking I had a mosquito bite. I looked down at my hand and saw chunks of skin. The next morning I attempted to shave and literally, shaved half my face off. The strangest part was not only did it not hurt - it actually satisfied some strange itch underneath my skin. I went to see a dermatologist, who, judging by the horrified and puzzled look on her face, had never seen anything like it before. She gave me steroid creme and luckily, my face cleared up.

The Script

Shortly after I began writing the script, I showed it to my friend Randy Pearlstein with whom I had made over 30 short films at N.Y.U. film school. I remember hoping that Randy would be scared out of his mind, but soon after I handed him the first draft, I could hear him raucously laughing from the other room. He finished the script and said, "This is the funniest thing I've ever read!" I couldn't understand what he was talking about the script was about a flesh-eating virus! How could it be funny?

Randy pointed out a number of structural and character flaws in the story. Once I told him what I was trying to communicate, he said, "What you're describing to me is scary, but it's not in this draft." What began as a notes session soon turned into a four-week collaboration of intense writing and rewriting, and because of Randy, the script is what it is today. He has a wonderful knack for dialogue as well as storytelling. We combined characters and completely restructured the story into what is now a film, all the while keeping the focus of the script on the very idea that drove all my favorite horror films: what is terrifying?

Casting & Rehearsal

I feel there's a limit on what a writer can bring to a role, and when you have an actor who understands the character completely, your possibilities expand infinitely. I think we have been blessed with actors who understand the nature of their characters.

Casting the film was far more difficult than I originally anticipated. I’ve worked with David Lynch and have watched him cast projects by talking to actors and for me that is my favorite way to have actors audition. However, you never have enough time to talk to every single person auditioning so with some people we would have a conversation and with others we would have them read from the script. After a simple conversation with Jordan Ladd, I instantly knew she would be perfect for the part of Karen. James DeBello didn't want to stand up when I asked him to, just the look he gave me and the way he rolled his eyes told me he was the right guy for the part of Bert. Rider Strong nailed his audition with no direction and received the role on the spot.

On a film like Cabin Fever, which takes place primarily in the woods, we needed actors who were not just right for the role, but ones that were professionals and did not mind working long hours drenched in blood. The actors truly went above and beyond what was required of them.

We rehearsed with the cast for a week before shooting. Rehearsals consisted mostly of everyone telling stories about their own germ phobia. By the end of the week everyone had come up with little phrases, words, and moments that really defined their character. We knew the relationships on screen had to feel real or the film would not work. Fortunately the cast got along great and I believe this translated to the big screen.

Violence and Humor

I have a sick sense of humor. While I do not find real life violence funny, I truly enjoy movies that are so violent and disturbing they become funny. I wanted to make a film that would have a certain level of violence, but never crosses the line of exploitation. Cabin Fever is about the destruction of friendships, using the body as a metaphor for their deterioration. In order to effectively convey this, the audience has to see these characters rot to death. We thought that if we went too far overboard the film would become more about the special effects and no longer be about the characters.

I have always felt that humor is an important safety valve in a horror film. With Cabin Fever we tried to give the audience a chance to breathe, feel safe, release tension and then scare them when they least expect it. However, we did not want to go too far with the humor, for fear the audience would no longer take the film seriously. Lynch taught me that you can have a balance between humor and horror and that the two are closely related. You need to have scenes where audience members have an excuse to put their arm around their date, but you also need to have scenes where your heart begins to race fast and your palms become sweaty. We wanted Cabin Fever to be a film that walks the fine line between the grotesque and the absurd, so we tried to let the humor breathe organically from the horror of the situation, yet always insisted that both the characters and the film take the situation seriously.