Interview: Original ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ Director Meir Zarchi!

As the director of 1978’s notorious I Spit on Your Grave, Meir Zarchi is no stranger to controversy – his film has been reviled and debated ever since its release, when Roger Ebert famously decried it as “a vile bag of garbage…without a shred of artistic distinction.” Now, with the remake being released in theaters on October 8th, B-D’s Chris Eggertsen had the opportunity to sit down with Zarchi to get his thoughts on the reaction to his original film as well as his feelings on the updated version (on which he is credited as executive producer). What resulted was less an interview than a genuine (very animated) conversation about the nature of art, exploitation, and the sometimes thin line separating the two. Read inside for all the thought-provoking goodness.
As a frequent interviewer, I sometimes can’t help but envy the position of the person at the table across from me – what could be cooler than answering questions about what you do, and having all these other people at least feign interest in it? Coming into my talk with Meir Zarchi, director of the original I Spit on Your Grave, I expected a casual, pleasant conversation with a man gently reflecting on a bygone chapter in his history; what I got was a chance to feel like the interviewee for a change, as Zarchi turned the tables and began grilling me on my own feelings about the film. What resulted was a genuine conversation about the nature of art, exploitation and the sometimes thin line separating the two. Speaking in a thick Israeli accent, Zarchi surprised me with his thoughtfulness and candor about the experience of making the film, and how he views the controversy more than 30 years later.

Bloody-Disgusting: I was reading through the press notes and you were saying you think there are misconceptions about the film and your original intention for the film and I was just wondering what, in your words, you believe the misconceptions were.

What is the misconception you are referring to?

B-D: You just made a very general statement that’s in the press notes saying that you’d felt the film when it was originally released was misread by people. So I was just curious what you feel the misconceptions about the film were.

I don’t think that I ever myself said that people had misconceptions about the movie. I refrain from…defending my movie. So if you think that the movie is, for example, misogynistic, good for you. You feel it is pro-male? Pro-female?…I would never stand to defend it. Let other people defend it. And other people have done it better than I could…so I don’t think that I – unless I [am] misquot[ing] myself – I don’t remember specifically saying anywhere that people have misconceptions [about] what the movie is supposed to represent. I could say maybe they have a misconception about what I meant, personally, to do. In this respect, yes. Misconception that it is what? That it is misogynistic? What exactly are you asking for?

B-D: Well, that was sort of the contention from a lot of people – not necessarily everyone – that it was misogynistic, that it was exploitation. So I was just curious what your take was on that.

Chris, you seem to be a very sharp, smart, quick guy. Is it misogynistic in your opinion?

B-D: [I hesitate] You know…I wouldn’t full-on call it a misogynistic film, no.

But you were hesitating to answer me.

B-D: Right, because I mean it’s a very in-your-face movie. It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s all there. You don’t cut away when many filmmakers would’ve probably cut away. So I think as a viewer you can’t help but wonder what the intention was when you’re confronted by so much degradation and a woman getting raped that way. I’m not for censorship at all, but just me personally, when I viewed the film…it just confronts you with so much assaultive imagery –

For me too. Absolutely, yes. That means that it works not only for you, it works for me as its creator. Because I look at it sometimes, mainly the rape [scene] on the rock, and I say, `Did I make this? Did I do this film?’ Especially this particular rape scene…but it doesn’t mean that it’s anti-female. It doesn’t mean that it’s pro-male. It is what it is!…I let you decide and that’s what happens. Some think this way, some think the other way. For me, curiously enough, I’m always curious to know what women think about this.

B-D: I don’t think it was misogynistic. I don’t think the film was anti-female. I think because it is so raw, what I was thinking was, `Is this a work of exploitation, or is this really just you trying to present this in its rawest form for artistic purposes?’

Chris, what is exploitation? Define exploitation to me.

B-D: I would think it’s creating something specifically to get a really extreme, titillating reaction from the audience without there being necessarily any artistic purpose behind the imagery.

What is artistic? How do you make something artistic? What is the line between artistic and exploitation? Can you define that? Can you show me the line geographically or theoretically where it is so I can find it?

B-D: I admit that it’s a hard line to find. And obviously I don’t know what your intentions were going into it.

Forget about my intentions! Tell me about the facts! Cause everybody interprets my intentions a different way. What are the facts? Where is the line where you cross exploitation and you go into creativity or you cross the talent, the creativity, the genius of doing something artistically and come into exploitation? What, where?

B-D: Well, it’s hard for me to separate the artist’s intention for the piece from the work itself in that I feel that if the artist had approached such a film from a viewpoint of, `I want to really show what rape is, and I want to show how horrible it is, and I don’t want to sugarcoat because it’s not sugarcoated in real life, and I want to present it in its rawest form’, that to me would be a more artistic way of going about it. So again, it’s hard for me to separate the artist’s intention from the work. I don’t know if that’s an answer that works for you, but that’s just how I view it.

Chris, you and I could sit here for five years and still not come to conclusion of what is…because a naked girl in a museum to somebody is art, to somebody else it’s defaming to his eyes to see something like this. Forget about what everybody else writes on the internet, and the thousands of websites that are devoted to it. Let’s take intellectual, intelligent, educated people. Some of them say that it is misogynistic, anti-female, disgusting, without a streak of artistry, others say it’s a genius of a movie.

B-D: Feminist scholars have actually come out and supported the film. They’ve written articles on the movie seeing it as a feminist piece of work. So there are two sides, absolutely.

Ok, so which side shall I take? Those that have said it’s an exploitation movie, or those that have said it’s a work of genius? I don’t take any side.

B-D: Well I think in a way…just the fact that you got such a strong reaction at all says something for the film.

32 years later, yeah. Right. But remember where I came from. I came from a point – I don’t know if you’ve ever encountered [this] – of saving a girl who’d just been viciously gang-raped, beaten almost to death, broken jaw, blood, mud, walking out of the bushes toward me in an isolated, half-dark park in New York City. Have you seen something like this?

B-D: No.

No. There you are. I’ve seen it, so I know the horrors of a girl who’s been raped. I’ve seen it. I witnessed it. I’ve been to the battlefield…a soldier who’s been to the battlefield has seen blood, and death, and horrific scenes. Ok? You haven’t been there. So what I saw is [what you see in] the movie…and I hope I put it in such a way that you will see what this girl that I saved went through. And the fact is that whether you deny it or not, you’re sitting here with me because you want to know more about this…it affected you. So there you are. Again, we can go around and around and around and around…and I will never plead guilty and I will never plead innocent. So get the jury and let them decide. [Laughs]

B-D: How involved were you in the remake initially? Did they come to you and say, `we would like to remake your film?’

Yes.

B-D: And what was your reaction?

Throughout the years – the movie’s 32 years old – for quite a long time a lot of companies approached me to do the remake. I didn’t want to do a remake, I wanted to do a sequel. Cause the movie was done already, you know? And so they offered, `we’ll do the remake and you direct it again’. I said, `no thank you, I cannot outdo myself. If you want to do it, I’ll do the sequel, I’ll direct the sequel, we’ll do a sequel.’ But finally about a year and a half ago when CineTel approached me and offered me to do the remake, they promised me that it would be very close and faithful to the original. They really have a lot of respect for the original, they really care for it. And the price was good. All the conditions were fair, so I did it with them. They also have the rights for the sequel if we’re gonna do [that]. So they said, `instead of doing a sequel let’s do a remake first and then we’ll do the sequel.’ Because once you do a sequel it’s very hard to go back to the remake. You can do it, but it was easy to do it now, 32 years later. Marketing-wise, as well, I think it was a good decision.

B-D: Going into the project – you’re attached as a producer – did you have much input?

[Unintelligible] Yeah, to a great extent. I was involved with the screenplay, the four drafts of the screenplay. A lot of my input [unintelligible] dialogue, adding, deleting, whatever. A lot of it they accepted, some of it they didn’t, because they had the last word. I had the right to say whatever I wanted to say…but they had the last word. But I would say most of the time they listened to me, they accepted and respected what I [was] saying, almost every move that they made with respect to the storyline they [advised] me. And that was throughout…even now, with regard to the marketing. They showed me the drafts, first draft, second draft, of the posters, etc. So yeah, I’ve been involved all the way from A to Z. Most of the time they accepted my word, sometimes they did not. They had the right not to. But I do respect them, and I do respect them for whatever they accepted and do for me.

B-D: There are a lot of watered-down horror remakes right now. Were you at all afraid that the studio was going to lose sight of your original intent for the film, as far as making it very graphic and in your face? Were you afraid they were going to take the teeth out of it?

Look, there were a lot of movies that tried to imitate `I Spit On Your Grave’ or `Day of the Woman’…with big major actresses. Jodie Foster, `The Accused’. Jodie Foster, `The Brave One’…’Thelma and Louise’ also. A lot of movies…including the latest one, `The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. You know, something similar…anyway, they’re all gone. You see them from time to time in syndication or cable T.V., etc. This movie’s still alive…nothing buried it. So I hope that the same equivalent will be with respect to the remake as well. That the other [remakes] will be forgotten, and this one, the remake, will keep on going, while the others, all those horror movies, will be forgotten.

B-D: And what was your initial reaction when you first saw a cut of the remake?

Well, the first time I saw the first cut I gave my suggestions. Then I saw the second cut, and the third cut, and the fourth cut, and each time I gave my suggestions. I sat with them all day in the cutting room. And again, I gave them my feedback – `it should be a little bit shorter there, you should extend this scene, you should eliminate that’, etc. They listened to me. I would say that most of the time they listened. So basically, they were very amiable and very good. I’m talking about CineTel, the production company.

B-D: When you made the first one, did you have any idea what a reaction it would get going into it?

I had more a reaction to it when I was editing it. While I was editing it, I remember going with my assistant to have lunch and we sat and talked about this. And he asked me your question – `what do you think?’ And I was arrogant enough to say, unlike any other movie that dies after a few months or at the most after one year…I said, `this movie will last for at least five years, and that’s a long time.’ In ’78, when I made the movie, you had theatrical and television. Nobody knew what home video [was]. It didn’t exist…so I was arrogant enough to think so, that it would create a little ripple in the ocean, that it may create a little storm, and then it will keep going for five years because of the controversial nature of this, and then it will die away. It’s 32 years later, and it grows more and more…every year we sell more, it becomes more popular. Anchor Bay will release it on Blu-ray and DVD for the seventh edition in the U.S. and Canada. Even Walt Disney…’Snow White’, `Cinderella’ [are released] every seven years for the new generation. This movie, every five years. In England, it came out on the 20th of September, just a few days ago, on Blu-ray. The first time over there on Blu-ray. Actually, the UK put it out on Blu-ray the very first time ever [including VHS and DVD].

B-D: Because it was banned over there.

It was banned for seventeen years. Eighteen, nineteen years. Just like in Australia…

B-D: What are you doing now? Are you planning on producing more, directing more?

Yeah, we are planning the sequel. We are planning also two other projects. It’ll be very interesting. And that’s what we’re working on now.