Eli Roth always knew he wanted to scare the bejesus out of audiences. He accomplished that goal and gamely did so while telling stories that hit close to home, despite their frequently remote (to us) settings. After frightening and grossing people out for a while, he smashed Nazi brains for Quentin Tarantino, directed a kids’ movie, helmed a Keanu Reeves flick, and recently finished filming on the Borderlands video-game adaptation with Cate Blanchett. As if that wasn’t enough morphing for you, the Shark Week mainstay traveled the globe for his new Discovery movie.
Fin (which Eli directed, wrote, and executive produced, along with Leonardo DiCaprio) will scare you in a different way than you’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Roth. He’s exposing real-life horrors here and envisioning an Earth in the not-too-distant future, one when sharks don’t exist at all after having fallen prey to humans. Roth calls this “scariest film I’ve ever made, and certainly the most dangerous,” and he’s not wrong. The film received support from Oceana, Sea Shepherd, and Wild Aid, and what’s shown is not for the faint of heart. That’s especially the case during scenes where humans commit the egregious act of finning (especially in the case of a live shark’s fins being sliced off before it’s shoved back into the water and left for dead).
Finning (which happens around the globe, often beginning a chain that ends around the globe in China, which is awfully fond of pricey shark-fin soup) is not only inhumane but proceeding at catastrophic rates for the shark population. As the film and Roth discuss, dozens of shark species are now on the verge of going extinct. On average, 11,000 or so sharks die by human hands each hour (and over 100 million each year). At this pace, sharks won’t exist in a decade or two down the line, but there’s possible good news coming from Congressional legislation, along with citizens pressing corporations to step in and actually do the right thing.
Roth was gracious enough to speak with us about this horrific subject and also relive a little joke (which was admittedly dumb as hell) from yours truly that might not hit the mark with you fine folks. This goes back to his spiky-haired days, when I kind-of roasted him over his notorious love of hair product, and he certainly took things well at the time. When I hopped on a Zoom call with him this week, he informed me that I’m not the only one who gave him hell, back in the day, and as it turns out, none other than John Carpenter did so, too. Thank god that Eli Roth has a sense of humor while also getting serious about the shark crisis.
Hey, there you are, Eli, on my screen.
How are you, Kimberly? It’s nice to see you.
I am well, and I’m not dragging you over your use of hair product for once.
I know… I remember very well! But if you’ve seen me grow, and you’ve known me that long, and you’ve seen the evolution of my hair and my hair products… but yeah, deservedly so. It needed a teasing. Completely unacceptable! And by the way, it’s not like you were the only one. My hair was ridiculous. And here we are, talking about sharks.
Yes, here we are. Let me first say that when you started hosting Shark After Dark, about five years ago…?
Yeah, it was 2016.
I remember that I wasn’t surprised, I was like, “Oh, that makes sense.” Because you and I actually discussed sharks before, like a decade ago. I once asked you what scares Eli Roth, and you responded, “I am reasonably certain that I’m going to die by getting eaten by a shark.”
Isn’t that crazy? And that was real. And I thought, “What am I doing? Why do I think that?” It’s like I really believed it in some weird way, and I have to confront this, and I have to understand why I think this. And what is that really saying? And I went in the water, and it’s so interesting that you remember that because there are very few moments in your life where your whole kind-of base of operations shifts. You have an actual shift in your foundation of belief. I got in the water, and they were like dogs. They’d just come right up to you. They’d get fish and gently eat the fish, they swam around like they do. They were super cautious around me. None of them went after me. None of them charged me. After I came up from the water, I was like, “I love them.” Then I went up to my neck in chain mail, and eventually, they were throwing chum around me. And there were sharks all around me. I was the happiest that I’d ever been.
It sounds like your whole worldview shifted from this experience.
Yeah, I started diving, and then I went with a tiger shark and was like, “This is my happy place. I wasn’t this happy since I named my first movie, and it went into movie theaters.” It was such a thrill, and then on Shark After Dark, I learned that 100 million per year were being killed. I was like, “What?” Then I realized that the fear of “a shark’s gonna eat me” or “a shark’s gonna kill me” is why nobody really cares about sharks or pays attention to them. So I realized that this is it, and my calling isn’t to be eaten by a shark. It’s that we’re the one eating sharks, and I actually have a voice and need to say something.
You traveled the globe for this movie and went to some dangerous places.
It was terrifying, making the film, because I’ve never made a documentary. I didn’t wanna be one of those Hollywood idiots making a movie about a cause. I thought that if I was gonna do this, I needed to go in the water and get on the fishing boats. I needed to talk to fisherman and talk to shark traders. I wanted to understand how it went from being in the water to a bowl of soup. Where does the money go, and who gets rich in between? And then I learned that the fins have no taste, and the meat is super toxic. And the pills with shark cartilage and the shark oil that’s in makeup, and there’s a plant alternative [to shark liver oil, known as squalene] that’s cheaper?
Psychologically, how can we understand how some of these fishermen and businesspeople in FIN can rationalize finning a shark, when they say that someone else will kill the shark for other parts anyway?
Think about the news. The news doesn’t report that a shark did nothing today. 364 days per year, these sharks do nothing and wait around for a dying fish. That’s not really a story. More people are killed by armed toddlers every year. More people are killed by vending machines every year than sharks. These people like the movies like Jaws, so nobody gets mad at what they’re doing. It used to be that people thought of whales like that, that they’re gonna eat you, and Moby Dick. With sharks, I’m not saying that they’re not dangerous. They’re quite intelligent. They’re so shy and cautious. They don’t want anything to do with us. So with a lot of it, I think the traders love the reputation of sharks, and they’re decimating the ecosystem.
Why do you think that finning is still somehow happening?
The whole thing is organized crime. It’s all corrupt, and shark populations have plummeted 90% since 2000. Right now, really, there’s a window where we can actually get the protection by banning the sale of shark fins. It just passed by the Senate and needs to be passed by the House. I was like, please, let’s do a website. At FINTheMovie.com, I wanted a button for people to contact their rep. There’s a letter that can be copy-pasted, you choose your rep and email them. And in the EU, they need a million signatures to ban finning. Click there, and you can sign a petition.
This legislation that you mentioned, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, has a complicated history. Didn’t Marco Rubio shut down a version of the bill?
Yeah, he killed it, but it’s back. It was so close to passing, and then Marco Rubio shut it down. The lobbying! We’re talking about a billion-dollar industry. The industry is so corrupt, and they’re paying off politicians. We talk about it in the movie: the EU, they pay for the fuel and the oil and subsidize these boats, these floating death machines. So, you have these fishing companies that are very powerful and even pay off the scientists. They’ll pay you to research and say that shark fishing is sustainable, but really, who’s paying for that? The fishing industry. And when they’re pulling 11,000 [sharks] out per hour, and a shark takes up to eighteen years to reach sexual maturity, you do the math… they say they don’t kill the babies, but the ones they kill are old enough to reproduce. They’re killing any shot they have at reproduction, the population is already decimated, and they’re pulling them out of the water for fun and giving themselves trophies and money for it.
In the event that this legislation doesn’t pass, or it doesn’t work, then what?
The only way it’s really gonna stop is if people vote with their dollars. And I think the idea of banning them is actually not enough. It’s like 50 years ago with save the whales, we can say to GMC to stop the pledge and stop selling shark. Amazon, you sell 375 types of shark products, please stop. FedEx, please vow to stop shipping shark fins. Guys, c’mon, we need your help. There are companies… Air China is not shipping shark fin anymore. Young people in China are really anti-shark fin. It’s the older people at weddings who are doing it for status. But what I learned is that there’s no flavor.
When you tried the shark soup on camera, your expression was a telling one.
You’re literally eating cartilage that has no taste. They’re a plant alternative that’s identical, it’s like gelatin, there’s no taste… people just like it because it’s expensive. So, we need to just stop. WildAid has a bunch of campaigns going with the airlines that were shipping, and they were petitioning them, but you know, FedEx is still doing it. They’re making money off of it. If Amazon is making money selling shark, they’re gonna keep doing it, unless people go, “Can we stop eating shark because it is terrible for us?” It’s poisonous for people to eat shark.
Yeah, there’s bleach and stuff in it? Really disgusting stuff.
People need to start speaking up, but they don’t really know why, so I wanted this movie to explain why sharks are doctors of the sea. They don’t go after healthy fish, it’s too much energy. They’ve been around 400 million years, they’ve been here longer than trees, and their sense of hunting is so evolved, they’re not gonna go after something healthy. That’s too much energy, so they’ll wait until something’s sick and dying.
So, sharks really do clean up disease from the ocean in a way.
And at least with whaling, you can use it for energy. To burn oil for a lamp, but what do we need [to kill] sharks for? Nothing.
You’re like a man on a mission here. It’s like I’m barely doing anything on this call, and you’ve done all the lifting.
Well, sharks have no vocal cords. We are of the Jaws generation, and if we don’t do something, our kids are not gonna have sharks. There will be a world without sharks. 50 years ago, we did it for whales. We recently did it for orcas. We’ve ended the ivory trade, we have to end the shark trade. We’re basically screwing the planet for future generations.
Alright, so we’ve established that Eli Roth is no longer afraid of sharks. What is Eli Roth afraid of these days?
Oh my gosh. All the normal things.
There sure is a ton to be scared about in this world.
There are so many things that scare me. I still have this fear that I’ll die before… [laughs] every time I’ve made a movie, I worry that I’ll die before the movie ends. And then the movie comes out and I’m like, “Eh, I’ll be good.” So now that Fin‘s coming out, I’ll be like, “Eh, if I get crushed by a bus, what are you gonna do?”
‘Fin’ is now streaming on Discovery as part of Shark Week.