Eli Roth on Shark Slaughter Doc Fin, Activist Progress, Animal Cruelty – The Hollywood Reporter
This story is part of The Hollywood Reporter’s 2023 Sustainability Issue (click here to read more).
Director Eli Roth entered the documentary feature world in 2021 when he helmed and starred in Fin, an advocacy title about the forces driving the global trade in shark fins and other products derived from the increasingly threatened animals. For five years, Roth — an avid shark lover — worked on the film, traveling the world to expose the barbarity undergirding the market. Scenes include Roth boarding an industrial fishing ship with dead sharks littering its floors, for example, and fishermen cutting open and/or beating the animals. Roth has called Fin, which was executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Nina Dobrev, “the most terrifying movie I’ve ever made.”
But the horror helmer’s (Cabin Fever, Hostel) activism didn’t end with the film’s premiere on Discovery+ nearly two years ago. Ever since, he’s been advocating to end shark fishing tournaments, contests rewarding those who catch the largest animal, including the North Atlantic Monster Shark Tournament in Fairhaven, Massachusetts — which was abruptly shut down in 2021 after Roth posted a complaint on Instagram. Roth’s also working to discourage the use of shark liver oil (aka squalene) in cosmetics products.
“My goal is if I can make Fin a totally obsolete movie,” Roth says, “that nothing in it is relevant anymore because it’s all been fixed.” In the U.S., shark “finning” — the practice of cutting off a shark’s fin and often re-releasing the animal back into the water — is illegal; as of last year, buying or selling fins is as well. Roth wants to end all shark fishing in the U.S.
Shark populations have plummeted in recent decades due to a number of factors, especially overfishing and bycatch, exacerbated by sharks’ low reproductive rates. According to a 2021 study published in Nature, the number of sharks in the open oceans has fallen 71 percent in 50 years, while an estimated 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year. And yet sharks play a crucial role in their ecosystems, as apex predators managing the oceans’ diversity of species.
Just days before he heads off to make his latest film (the title of which he’s keeping under wraps), Roth spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about progress on his cause and why, though he uses Instagram as a major platform for his shark activism, he prefers not to “spout off on social media with no solution.”
How did this project begin and come together for you?
I was first asked [by] Rich Ross when he was running Discovery, “Hey, would you want to host Shark After Dark?” They knew my personality, and I had done stuff for Discovery, for the show Curiosity, and he said, “I think you’d be great as a talk show host.” And I’d been an avid Shark Week watcher since it began, really, and I was obsessed with sharks and shark movies, but I’d never been in the water with them. And then it was Laurie Goldberg from Discovery, their head of publicity, [who] said, “Well, do you want to go on a shark dive? We can send you to the Bahamas.” And I thought, “How great would it be? The guy who makes horror movies getting in the water with sharks.” [So] I got in. There are very few moments in your life that the before and after is instantaneous. And immediately I felt so comfortable and so safe. I realized that everything I believed growing up, growing up in Massachusetts where Jaws is set, was a lie. And it was all propaganda against sharks. They are incredible animals, these majestic creatures that are so intelligent, very aware of you. I couldn’t believe they had personalities like dogs. I just started diving more and more, falling in love with it. But I realized that we’re killing 100 million a year. That’s the conservative estimate. And you hear a statistic like that and you think, How is that actually possible?
So I set out to make a documentary, and it was Pilgrim [Media Group] and Lionsgate, they said, “Go for it. Just go make a doc.” They said, “If you can get on a shark fishing boat, one of those industrial boats, we’ll do it.” And so while I was making A House With a Clock in Its Walls, I was secretly leaving and like going to Liberia and getting myself into incredibly dangerous situations where there were guns, the fishermen started going crazy, I mean, it got scary. I wasn’t so much worried for myself as I was the crew. I don’t want other people getting hurt in service of a documentary, but I knew if I was going to do this, I had to get in the water with them and I had to travel the world — thank God we [traveled] before the pandemic. And then we spent a long time editing it. The pandemic was happening and Discovery said, “We can put this on Shark Week.” It was actually always intended as a theatrical documentary, but Shark Week is the audience we wanted to hit. And it really helped open people’s eyes to what’s going on and helped change the perception of sharks.
Let’s talk more about that. Now that it’s been over one and half years since the film was released, what impact did the documentary have that you were able to measure or observe?
I met all the different conservationists and they’re amazing: You have people like Regina Domingo in Mexico and the Nakawe Project, and Stefanie Brendl at Shark Allies and @sharkgirlmadison [Madison Stewart], who’s working with shark fisherman to flip them into shark tourism, and Ocean Ramsey in Hawaii, Gary Stokes at Oceans Asia, just people that are all doing incredible stuff. They all feel so isolated, and I wanted to give them a tool [where] they could just push a button [and], in 90 minutes, explain the problem. The Hollywood connections I had with Leonardo DiCaprio and Nina Dobrev and photographer Michael Muller [who became executive producers], everyone that came on board the movie, we all did it for nothing. We just said, “Let’s give these people a record to explain it.”
What I really saw was a lot of young people started getting involved and they felt that they can make a difference. What I noticed was last summer, for example, people saw what happened at that shark fishing tournament in Massachusetts, and they were going [to] try and come back in 2021. And in a day we shut it down again. I did it by posting, going, “These same people that are in the documentary are trying to do this again. They’ve changed the name, they’re moving it.” What’s happened is everybody became a spotter in their town. They’re like, “There’s a shark tournament here” [and] I would post it. There’s a whole bunch of [advocates], I call them the “sharkos,” whether it’s [cinematographers] Joe Romeiro or Andy Casagrande or [speaker and author] Paul de Gelder, everyone that’s involved in Shark Week, we’re all now reposting. And suddenly people like Slash from Guns N’ Roses, Dave Bautista, Uzo Aduba, Karen Gillan, January Jones [picked it up]. It was amazing. So we got that one shut down. But then there was another tournament in Florida and a woman, an incredibly brave woman, went in and got this footage of [people] with knives stabbing dead sharks, people with power tools cutting the heads off. It was so beyond shocking. We started blasting it on social media. The local people started getting death threats, it got really ugly; I got death threats, we got the police involved, the head lawyers from PETA got involved. But basically every other shark tournament last summer got canceled after that one.
The documentary also details how shark is used in cosmetics. Have you been working on that?
Something I’ve been working with a lot of people on is creating, with Shark Allies, a “shark free” and a “shark safe” label, the thing that we need on all products — and we’re going to do this and we’re working with EMA [Environmental Media Association] on this. There’s something called squalene, which is made from shark liver. The liver gets used in lipstick and in moisturizer, but squalene also can be derived from plants. You can get it from olives. So we need a movement where there can be a label. Dollars are the only [thing] that’s going to change this. We have to have a system where [we show], “These are the companies that are part of the problem, and these are the companies that are the solution.” I think it’s baby steps. You can’t change the culture overnight, but I do think that we have to look at sharks the way we looked at gorilla hunting and elephant hunting and tiger hunting.
What platform are you posting on with these calls to action?
I post on Instagram. I feel like everyone has their specialty, and I know that my audience looks for me on Instagram. And as a visual medium, [as a] director and creator, I’m very big into “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” and Instagram is all pictures. And with the right reel, it’s so shareable now. I’ve got my system where all the people I want to tag, I know will repost it, and that then it will spread to Twitter and let those people [know]. I don’t try to hit all places, I just kind of hit the center that I know, and then everyone else does their thing.
I wanted to make a movie that began the conversation. And because I am who I am and I do what I do, I’m a great lightning rod because I don’t care what people say about me. I truly don’t. If a bunch of fishermen want to hate me, it’s too bad they won’t go see my movies. But I’m not under threat of my lab being shut down or any fishing or science-related business. So I’m happy to go out there and say the thing that absolutely no shark should be out of the water and we should never have a shark[-fishing] tournament.
Look, this summer, it’s going to start very soon. So as soon as you see them this year, we’re going to go hard. If you are having a shark tournament, everybody should know we are organized now. We have a voice. We are all working together and everyone is tagging everyone. And we are going after every sponsor, and we will boycott you until you become part of the solution. This isn’t about fishing; this isn’t about charity. This is [the] destruction of a critically endangered species. They’re not going to be around in 10 years. It’s going to be hard to find them. That’s how fast we’re killing them.
I heard that you engaged in talks with Walmart following the Environmental Media Association event last year, where they were a sponsor. How have you balanced public activism on this issue versus working on the inside to make change?
Well, I like to announce stuff when it’s going to be done. Walmart’s been amazingly open to this. When you’re working with a corporation like Walmart, it’s not just like asking one person’s permission. People at the company watched the documentary and they were really impressed, and everybody wants to do something. They feel very strongly about it. That said, there are many steps to what can they do and how we work with their suppliers. Because you can’t go out and just shame people and blame them. You’ve got to go, “Look, we all inherited this problem. This is a problem of the last 20 years.”
Everyone kind of tips me off to things and we talk on the side because what you don’t want to do is just spout off on social media with no solution. And we all get emotional. I mean, we care about this so much, we all get fed up and frustrated. You want to end it instantly, but you’ve got to have a concrete plan. I’d rather lay the foundation for a really smart, long-term plan rather than just being reactionary in tweets. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. I just don’t talk about it because then people want to see a result right away. And everyone knows that I’m very committed. I’ll never stop. My goal is that one day Fin is a work of science fiction. You know, people watch it and they go, “How was this ever real? People used to do this?” My goal is if I can make Fin a totally obsolete movie, that nothing in it is relevant anymore because it’s all been fixed. That’s the goal of the film.
What are some developments that have occurred since the documentary was released that have given you hope on this issue?
Well, the fin [sales] ban in the U.S. is major because even if it doesn’t stop the problem of people fishing and killing sharks, it does send a message that people care about not killing them for their fins. So now you’re talking about people that are killing them for fun and for trophies and social media likes. And so that’s the next step that we can focus [on]. Definitely the [fin trade] ban in the EU getting enough signatures that people realize how many other people feel this way, and if they feel empowered, they know that their voice matters. The EU fin [trade] ban needs to get voted on, but it’s got enough signatures to get discussed. Shark protections at CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora]: It’s incredible how a hundred countries voted to protect these sharks.
The good news is that you’re seeing like 14-year-old kids going to CITES and everyone in the shark community [going] — it felt like we hit the tipping point for saving sharks. And that enough people, because of the movie, are aware of the problem. And people who weren’t interested have realized that it’s so easy to get involved and it’s essential. All we have to do is speak up and use our dollars. That’s it. It’s so simple.
You’ve described this project as the “scariest movie you’ve ever made.” Did you bring your craft and knowledge as a horror filmmaker to bear on this project and, if so, how?
I didn’t want it to look spooky or scary. But, you know, it starts with a baseball bat scene where I’m watching someone beat a mako shark to death. And instead of vilifying the people, I follow them to their village and I talk to them and explain what the alternatives are, what’s going to happen? What do you do? How did it get this way? Why is it this bad? To really let them speak and let them tell me what they’re doing. Everyone’s just trying to make a living; I understand that. And I understand the fishermen like sport fishing, they don’t want their lives disrupted. But you know, there were sport hunters in the 1920s that were shooting elephants, also in the 1960s that were killing elephants and tigers. So, you know, habits have to change, we’ve got to change. But it’s got to come from those communities, it can’t come from a Hollywood director. I wanted to make a movie that scared people into action. You know, I used the Cannibal Holocaust theme, Riz Ortolani’s family very generously let me use it, and I paid for it out of my own pocket because we didn’t even have a budget. I wanted it to edit over the scene of the kill tournament that was outside Boston. This is my home state. And they’re wiping out these beautiful, threatened and endangered sharks. And I just, I couldn’t believe it.
We’re in a moment when viewers have a glut of options to choose from in terms of what to watch, including and especially among documentaries. Based on your experience with this film, how can issue-oriented documentaries stand out and potentially even prompt change? Now that you’ve had this experience, what’s some lessons you’ve learned in that regard?
I wish I could tell you, because I think that certain things catch fire. I was making a movie for five years and then Seaspiracy came out. Netflix was like, “We already got Seaspiracy,” but at the same time, Seaspiracy also got people aware that there’s a problem. So the documentaries kind of feed off of each other. It’s very hard to cut through. I think you just have to make it relatable to people. I always think, “I’ve got the shark people — how do I make a documentary for people that hate sharks and want nothing to do with them and want them to die?” Those are the people I want to reach. Those are the minds I want to change. And if you change the minds of the young generation, they’re going to tell their friends. When you do something, you don’t know what the effects are going to be. Sometimes it’s instantaneous and everyone watches it and it’s Tiger King. Other times it takes years and years and years for people to see it. So all you have to do is make something that gets the human side of it and do it in that small way, and then it can spread from there.
Interview edited for length and clarity.