The Last Word With COOTIES’ And THE LAST WITCH HUNTER’s Elijah Wood

The busy actor discusses his lifelong love of film.

Q: What is your earliest movie memory?

A: It actually might be Gremlins, which is kind of amazing. But my memory is that I remember being in my childhood home, and I was probably like five or six years old, and I remember being terrified that there were gremlins under my bed. So that’s why the movie stands out the most in my memory, is that it may be one of the first things I remember seeing and being affected by. I think I loved it, but it also left me with the aftermath of being terrified that there were going to be gremlins while I slept.

It also dovetails with the whole thing of being exposed to horror movies at a young age, and some of that was a result of my brother being seven years older than me, and he would rent movies with his friends and then show them to me and tell me not to tell my mom. So I think that started my relationship, certainly with movies, but also with horror films.

Q: What was the first movie you saw that made you understand that movies can be art?

A: It would have been the first time I saw a foreign film, and I think the first foreign films I saw were French films. And the one that really stands out in my memory, in sort of recognizing that you could do something with the medium that could be artful or different than what I’d realized it could be prior, was Delicatessen, I think. Delicatessen made a huge impact on me.

And it’s funny because I think that prior to seeing Delicatessen, it was long after it had come out, and Jeunet had done City of Lost Children, as well, at that point, which had been recommended to me. But Delicatessen was the first of his movies that I’d seen. And it was so vibrant aesthetically; everything was kind of built in this surrealistic apartment, and the movie was so designed, I don’t think I’d ever seen anything quite like it before. So yeah, that opened my mind to not only the art of cinema and what is possible, but also to the larger foreign cinema world.

I think there’s this time in your life, growing up, where obviously everything that you’re initially exposed to are films from your own country. And there are those pop culture films that you end up seeing that become the fabric of your identity, growing up in this world, but at a certain point there’s a moment where the door to the expansion of the greater world of cinema occurs, that there are so many extraordinary films being made across the world, and so much history associated with them and so much influence, even, on American cinema associated with them.

So that happened for me around my early teens, when I started to see these films. And the first primer into that was French cinema. And I think it was my mom, too, who was excited about French cinema, sort of the romance of it, so I remember seeing Manon of the Spring and Babette's Feast at a young age, as well.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure movie?

A: I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures, because I always find that the reference to a guilty pleasure is to say that you like something despite the fact that you think it’s not well-liked, or that you might be made fun of because you like that. But I sort of like liking things genuinely, regardless of what people think, because I don’t give a shit. [laughs] So I have a few of those, maybe, but again I don’t really associate any guilt to them whatsoever. A big movie for me growing up that I saw so many times on cable was Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead. That’s a huge, huge reference point for me in my early teens. Again, no guilt associated.

And, I don’t know, The Craft? But The Craft is awesome! I mean, anything I reference, I’ll be like, ‘But that thing’s awesome!’ There is a movie that’s a bad film, but this also goes into that being a fan of cinema, there are those movies that you love because of the fact that they’re bad. And growing up there was a movie that I saw when I was probably five or six called Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness. It was a direct-to-VHS, shot on VHS horror movie that’s terrible. But it’s wonderfully terrible. So that’s another one. I’ve recommended that movie to a lot of people over the years.

And in fact my relationship to it was re-established in Austin, Texas, back in 1997. Because it was one of these things that I had in the back of my head, like this sort of ephemera of movies that I’d seen as a kid but hadn’t seen since then. So I had these vague memories of it, some of them were specific, but I was talking to a friend of Harry Knowles’, and I said, “There’s this movie that I saw as a kid,” and we worked it out that it was that movie, and I ended up getting a copy of it on DVD and it was like the holy grail for a while.

Q: What role do you want to play before you die?

A: I don’t know if there is a role that I want to play before I die. I guess I don’t really think about the work that I do as an actor in those terms, in the sense that I don’t have a checklist of things that I want to have accomplished or roles that I want to have played. Primarily because I think I look at it from the standpoint of filmmaking, and I’m more drawn to working with a great filmmaker than I am specifically just to play that role in that specific film. When I think about work that I want to do in the future, I’m not really thinking about the specifics of being an actor; it’s more the kinds of films that I want to be a part of or the filmmakers I want to work with. That tends to motivate me more.

Q: Is there a filmmaker you’d love to work with before you die?

A: There are too many. I would love to work with the Coen Brothers. I would love to work with David Lynch. There are new filmmakers that I think are extraordinary that I think are doing the finest work. I think Jeremy Saulnier is such an extraordinary new filmmaker. And I think what Robert Eggers did with The Witch is totally astonishing.

But I love Buster Keaton, and I’ve had this thing where people have mentioned to me, “You should play Buster Keaton; there’s something physical about you.” But I don’t know, that doesn’t come from the same place. I don’t have this burning desire to play him, and I think oftentimes the notion of playing a living person comes with an extra, added stress that’s difficult to get out from underneath.

Q: What was your most magical cinema experience?

A: That is actually a somewhat easy answer. The thing that stands out most in my memory is only from a couple of years ago. I was at Sitges, and they showed a 2k print of E.T., digitally restored. And I’d seen E.T. many, many times in my life, but I’d never seen it projected onto the big screen. At Sitges, there are three theaters, and there’s one big cinema in this hotel that’s kind of the central hub for all the activity of the festival. And that theater is massive; I think it’s like a 700-800 seat theater, maybe more. And the screen is really massive. That experience, seeing that film, was totally devastating. I can’t remember a time prior or since that I’ve cried that much watching a film, that I was that moved by the magic of it, by the emotion of it. It’s such an exceptional film that goes far beyond, because I think it’s obviously one of those things that’s part of pop culture, that movie, and the imagery of it, and it is terribly magical, and it’s a part of many people’s childhoods.

But being an adult and seeing it, sitting in a theater and really watching it, and being taken by it, was one of the greatest cinematic experiences of my life. And I felt like I was wrung out after. I was physically so exhausted because where it sort of takes you. And I’d forgotten how truly devastating that movie is. It’s just raw emotion. And I think things that I’d picked up on, too, that hadn’t occurred to me as strongly, cinematic choices and really clever plot device choices. Like the whole notion of using the keys for the man as a way to establish a villainous character until you actually meet him is just so brilliant, and there’s just so much of that in the film. It’s just yet again proof of what an extraordinary master Steven Spielberg is.

Q: What is the one movie you believe everyone should see?

A: Everyone should see Who Can Kill a Child. That’s a pretty brilliant, relatively obscure film, and I’m surprised by that, but it is relatively obscure. It’s incredible. It’s genuinely frightening and totally disturbing, and there are some really awful moments in the film where it kind of goes places that other killer children films from before and since haven’t explored. Particularly the thing that stands out in my memory is the piñata scene, where it’s revealed that the kids are not hitting a piñata, but they’re bashing a body that’s been hung up. It’s wonderful. And I think what makes that movie really powerful, too, is the opening is so serious, like the whole opening credit sequence where it basically shows the results of man and adults’ quarrels and how that’s been responsible for so much death, and the children, the innocents, have been at the mercy of man’s fights and quarrels, and died as a result. And it’s this real news footage, and you’re just like, ‘Jesus! This is so intense!’ They’re showing the most heinous acts of man and how they’ve essentially been imprinted on the minds of children who have to fight back. It’s so powerful, to lead into this horror movie about killer children this way. It’s sort of wonderful.

Q: Only one of your movies can continue to exist after you're gone - which one is it?

A: Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind. I love that movie. I just love it. It’s so profoundly emotional. I feel like it’s still one of the most emotional movies that Kaufman’s made. Except I hear his new film is really powerful, as well. But I did feel like that movie really cuts to the truth of human connection and the experience of loving somebody, and puts it in this really cerebral, science fiction context that only Michel Gondry could have interpreted, in regards to Kaufman’s work. I just think it’s a beautiful piece of cinema, so that would be the one.

Q: If you weren’t born to act, what else would you be doing?

A: I feel like at this point, I would have to be working in cinema in some regard. I just love the process too much. I love movies, I love the community around it. I love the process that goes into it, the sort of collaborative nature of a group of people working towards a creative goal. I’d have to work in film, on some level. But if it weren’t that, I don’t know. There’s so much about life that I love that I feel I would be drawn to, be it working in the food industry or in photography or music, all things that I love that are in some way extensions of myself already, so if I wasn’t acting, I feel like I would fill my time with a lot of other things.

This was previously published in the October issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. See The Last Witch Hunter at the Alamo Drafthouse starting today!