From director Eli Roth and writer Eric Kripke, and based on the novel by John Bellairs, the family fantasy film The House with a Clock in its Walls follows recently orphaned 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who goes to live with his rather eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a creaky old house full of all sorts of magical wonder. As Lewis discovers a hidden world of magic, mystery and the supernatural, and gets to know Jonathan’s best friend and neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), he also accidentally awakens the dead, wreaking havoc in his new but otherwise sleepy little town.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with filmmaker Eli Roth to chat 1-on-1 about how he came to make a family fantasy film, finding the right child actor to center this story around, the delightful team-up of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, just how much of a perfectionist Blanchett is, attacking pumpkins, creepy automatons, and where he hopes to take his career next. He also talked about why he doesn’t think it’s right to share his vision for The Meg, what makes a successful scary/horror movie for him, and the stand-outs that he’s seen, in recent years.
Collider: I really enjoyed this!
ELI ROTH: Thank you!
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are the buddy comedy duo that I had no idea I wanted, and now I feel like my life is complete with.
ROTH: I know! They’re the on screen duo that we didn’t realize we all needed.
They’re ridiculously delightful! When did you realize they were going to be that great together?
ROTH: Well, you just have an instinct, as a director, for who would be a fun match, and I think Jack Black is one of the most under-rated dramatic actors out there. He’s like our Robin Williams. If you look at Robin Williams, he could win the Oscar for Good Will Hunting and do Dead Poets Society, but also Mrs. Doubtfire. And Jack can do Jumanji and Bernie and The Polka King. He really has that range. And I think Cate is hilarious. I thought she was so funny in Blue Jasmine. I’ve loved her for a long time. She was so good in The Gift. She just has almost no inhibitions, and is so funny and so cool. She has this playful side to her that I think she really wants to let out. If you read the book, you get this idea that there’s just no one other than Jack Black and Cate Blanchett. And then, you put them together, and suddenly they are this unbelievable screen duo. It’s like William Powell and Myrna Loy, where you just feel like they’ve done 30 movies together. They’re the oddest couple, but it makes sense because Cate brings out the best drama in Jack, and Jack brings out the best comedy in Cate. They both wanna step it up for each other, and there’s such love and respect between the two of them. They’re the same age, and have close to the same birthday, so we all have the same base of references. I like to say that they’re three grades older than me. I got to be a freshman working with like the cool seniors, or the theater kids.
Did you have a moment on set, watching them work, that stands out the most?
ROTH: Yeah, for sure. I remember Cate’s last day, we had to film the fight between the two of them in the bedroom, where Jack is just so pained about admitting that he’s scared to be a father, and Cate’s calling him out on it and going, “You’re terrified!” She lost her child and she’s like, “I would do anything to have that job of being a parent. The job is being scared and doing it anyway. That’s the whole damn job description.” Suddenly, the movie switches and there’s this Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? moment where they drop the shtick. You’ve been seeing them teasing each other, the whole time, and always seeing who can come up with a better insult, but now, it’s this real, raw, honest, painful moment between two friends who love each. She feels let down by his cowardice. There’s this incredible dramatic moment that the movie just detours into, and I stood there in a room and watched them. They were so good. You didn’t really have to do many takes, but I remember Cate was getting frustrated. It was her last shot and she was getting in her head, and she was like, “It’s not there!” She was getting really mad. I was like, “Cate, no, you’re nailing it!” And she was like, “No, no, no, you’re lying to me!” And what do you say? Do it better? You can’t! So, I just watched her. I remember, she did take seven, which is rare for Cate. I had tears in my eyes while she was like, “I would do anything to have that job description and to have my little girl back. Jon Barnavelt, you’re a coward!” You could hear a pin drop. And then, Cate just looked at me and shook her head and said, “That was terrible. I need another one.” I was like, “What? Are you kidding me?! That’s your Oscar clip, and you want another one?” She did it again, and did it even better, and I was like, “I’m not letting you do another one ‘cause that was so damn perfect. We’re moving on!” She was mad and I was like, “Cate, are you kidding me?!” She’s just that level of a perfectionist. She’s such a brilliant actor and she always just wants to bring it. That scene is a beautiful scene in the movie. It’s so simple. There’s no music, no special effects, no magic, and no scares. It’s just two actors, at the top of their game, and you really see what a brilliant, dramatic actor Jack is, in that scene.
When people hear your name, they think of horror and blood and gore, and not kids’ fantasy and family movies.
ROTH: And that’s okay.
So, how did this happen? Is this something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?
ROTH: Yeah, definitely! Look, I understand that I’ve certainly branded myself and marketed myself that way, so I understand why people would think of me that way, but think about my favorite directors, like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, and look at their early movies and where they went in their careers. I remember when I thought, “Wow, Sam Raimi is doing Spider-Man! I wanna see what the guy who did Evil Dead will do with Spider-Man.” And I wanted to see what Peter Jackson, the guy who did Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, would do with The Lord of the Rings and how he would apply that sensibility to the fantasy genre. So, I always looked at myself as hoping to have that kind of career trajectory, like Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson. I’ve wanted to do a Terry Gilliam Time Bandits kind of movie and I said to my agents, “Find me a Time Bandits, otherwise I’ll just have to write something.” They were like, “He did Hostel. How are we gonna fund that?” But that’s where [Steven] Spielberg and Amblin come in. Steven loves Hostel. He saw it and got it and said, “Yeah, I completely get how this can translate.” The director of Jaws went on to make E.T. That makes perfect sense in his head. So, he really backed me and supported me. When I think back to my childhood, those violent movies that I’m known for now, I didn’t see until I was maybe 12 or 13, and they were on VHS at a sleep-over. The movies that I saw in the theater, when I was 9, 10, 11 and 12, were those scary Amblin movies that were everything to me, like E.T., Raiders, Gremlins, Goonies, Poltergeist, and even Ghostbusters. There were other oddball movies, like Time Bandits, where the kid’s parents blow up at the end and a guy gets turned into a pig. That was mind-blowing, as a child. I had never seen anything like it. And there were other movies, like Dragonslayer, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, that were much closer to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, where characters die. They’re very dark stories that aren’t always funny, but those are the movies that were gateway drug movies. Those were the movies that got you into scary movies. Then, you move onto something harder. Now, everyone from the Amblin generation has grown up and has kids, and they want their kids to be into scary movies. What do they show them? They’re showing them Gremlins and Goonies. You can’t start your kid on IT or The Nun. You’ve gotta work your way towards those movies. The movies for kids now are superhero movies or animated movies. There aren’t PG scary, fun fantasy adventure films, that are like going through a haunted house, where it’s scary and fun, but at the end, kids are laughing and they go, “Okay, I wanna do that again!”