On February 27, 2010, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of central Chile. It was 3:34 a.m. Up and coming Chilean director Nicolas Lopez was at home in bed. Actress Lorenza Izzo was at a club in Valparaiso, a little buzzed from a night of partying.
Lopez, a burly fellow resembling a young Peter Jackson, remembers being shaken awake and turning on a light only to see his Nintendo Wii console flying across the room. Izzo, just 19 at the time, recalls dancing with a friend one minute, and then the next minute trying to feel her way through the rubble of the club, discovering her friend under a pile of debris. Both of his hands were missing. In the chaos, Izzo and others searched the floor for the severed limbs, finally managing to get the badly injured man to a hospital where his hands were reattached.
In a way, Lopez and Izzo were lucky. In all, more than 500 people were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands lost their homes and property in that horrible event, which was followed by a tsunami that ravaged several small coastal towns in the Latin American country.
While such a recent natural disaster may not seem a likely backdrop for a Hollywood horror story, Eli Roth, the filmmaker behind the uber-gory horror flicks “Hostel” and “Cabin Fever,” saw possibilities. A friend of Lopez, whose successful Spanish-language comedies were making him a rising filmmaker in South America, Roth saw a perfect opportunity for them to collaborate. Thus was borne the idea of “Aftershock,” a horror movie involving a group of young friends that have to fight for survival following the 2010 Chilean earthquake and its aftermath.
Roth, 41, decided to pay a visit to Chile and see the devastation for himself. As Lopez described the terror of living through the quake and showed him the wreckage of broken buildings, Roth suggested they make a movie together.
“I told him, ‘let’s do an English-language high-octane horror movie,’” recalls Roth, who speaks with the staccato-like enthusiasm of his filmmaking hero Quentin Tarantino, who directed him in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Lopez’s description of the history of the scenic coastal town, along with the tour of ruined buildings, gave Roth ideas for the script.
He recalls, “He showed me the tunnels that connected the church monasteries with the nunneries and told me ‘that’s where the priests and nuns would go to have sex. If a nun got pregnant, that’s where they’d kill the babies and hide the bodies.’ I said, ‘We gotta put that in the movie. This is crazy!’ He also talked about the prisons breaking open. You couldn’t call the police or fire department. There were prisoners running around everywhere. So we talked about the collapse of society—literally and figuratively—the veneer of society. Everyone behaves and then this happens and then you go back to some survivalist primal state.”
Roth and Lopez, along with Guillermo Amoedo wrote the script, which Lopez directed and which Roth produced and stars in. Roth plays the title character, Gringo, who is visiting friends in Chile. They tour a local vineyard, where they meet some attractive women and invite them to a local club that night. Actress Izzo was cast as a beautiful bilingual beauty named Kylie, who joins Gringo and his friends at the club for a night of partying but winds up enduring the worst night of her life. The true story of her friend’s severe injury caused by the earthquake was incorporated into the script.
As Gringo (an unflattering term for an American), Roth plays a recently divorced tourist with an eight-year-old daughter back home in America whom he misses. Gringo is rusty in the dating department. He doesn’t realize in this high-tech age, you’re not supposed to actually call a woman for a date—you text her. He also doesn’t realize that his local friend’s more direct and aggressive approach works better than the aloof and laid-back effort he is making to woo one of the ladies he met earlier in the day.
All of these mundane concerns go out the window when the room starts rocking, and it’s not the dance music that’s bringing down the house. One of Gringo’s friends loses a hand, which is sliced off from falling debris. As they try to get the injured fellow out of the building and to a hospital, they have to fight with other frightened survivors, who are all trying to reach safety. Soon the entire town is in chaos as emergency service workers are overwhelmed as aftershocks continue to destroy the town. Looters and even escaped inmates from the local prison pose additional threats to Gringo and his friends as they try to protect and save their female companions.
Sitting at a séance table at Hollywood’s private Magic Castle club, Roth says it was important to him for the movie to look realistic and to minimize the use of visual and special effects.
“So many disaster movies look like you’re watching someone else play a videogame,” he laments. “It’s fun, but you don’t feel the connection because they don’t really blow things up. We wanted to really destroy and smash things with as little CG as possible and make this intense thrill ride.”
As with his previous films, Roth was able to maintain control of the budget by not hiring big name Hollywood actors—he is easily the most recognizable face in the cast, aside from a brief cameo by “Spring Breakers” star Selena Gomez. In addition to Izzo, the film stars Hungarian actress Andrea Osvart, Chileans Ariel Levy and Nicholas Martinez and Natasha Yarovenko, a Ukrainian actress.
Roth says he was so impressed with the cast and crew he worked with on “Aftershock,” he used many of them again to make his next film, “The Green Inferno,” a horror movie set in the Amazon. Izzo stars in that as well as the pilot episode of “Hemlock Grove,” a horror series produced by Roth and available on Netflix.
“I want to do the same thing (Spanish filmmaker Pedro) Almodovar did back in the day with Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas,” says Roth. “I just want to use our own crews and build our own stars and start our own factory, making genre movies.”
While Roth is better known for producing and directing, his success in front of the camera in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” in which he played “Bear Jew,” a fearsome Jewish-American soldier who is part of a plot to bring down Hitler, has been encouraging.
“Quentin said to me, ‘You proved you can act. You acted next to Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger, and you acted under me directing. You can now write great parts for yourself,’” he recalls. “It hit me, I’d never taken myself up on that. So when I wrote the character Gringo, I was thinking it is in my zone. I know I can play funny and dorky, but I also liked the idea of writing this character who’s a modern, single dad.”
Roth, who is single in real life, says the character is a composite of people he knows.
“All the guys I know that are divorced have absolutely no game with the ladies,” he says with a laugh. “Gringo’s not a bad-looking guy but clearly he was much cooler 15 years earlier and now doesn’t understand how (the dating scene) works, and is frustrated by that. It seems so important to him until everything’s put into perspective by the earthquake.”
The catastrophe in “Aftershock” is a metaphor for life, he says.
“There are the things that seem so huge, and then the next thing you know, you’re looking for your hands,” he explains. “That’s what life is like. We put such importance on these minor problems, and it generally takes a tragic event to put everything in perspective.”
While director Lopez says he’s concerned that he might face some heat when “Aftershock” opens in Chile, Roth says he doesn’t think it’s too soon for a movie involving the Chilean earthquake to come out.
“I think people are going to love it,” he says confidently. “We didn’t make the serious Oscar-movie about the earthquake. It’s fictional. What we did was make a movie that shows Chile as fun and beautiful. It starts off in the vineyards and clubs. Even Valparaiso looks beautiful. Plus, the Chileans love horror. In Latin America, thrillers and horror movies do very very well. My films have done particularly well down there. It’s set in Chile and people are getting a thrill. It’s a popcorn movie. It’s a fun date movie and an action movie. People are watching this from a completely different perspective. We’re not approaching it as holy subject matter.”
Roth just wrapped production on “The Green Inferno,” a horror movie about a group of plane crash survivors in the Amazon, which he shot in Chile and Peru.
“I had an amazing experience,” he says. “I’d love to shoot more movies there. There is such an incredible wealth of talent down there. The people are great. And they have opposite seasons so when things slow down in Hollywood after Thanksgiving, I just go there and turn up the heat and start shooting there.”
Promoting “Aftershock,” “The Last Exorcism II” (which he produced) and “Hemlock Grove” in quick succession has kept the multi-tasking Roth pretty busy lately, but he vows he’ll get back to writing another screenplay soon.
“I’m so focused right now on getting the music and sound just right for ‘The Green Inferno’ that it’s hard for me to think creatively about anything else,” he says, adding that he would like to premiere that film at next year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“The plan right now is just finish the movie,” he adds before getting up to leave.