I knew exactly what Rob Zombie was going for visually with his latest trippy, head-first plunge into the world of witches and the occult in THE LORDS OF SALEM, a film he wrote and directed with a small budget and a whole lot of ideas. The centerpiece and object that all of the insanity revolves around is rock DJ Heidi (played by Zombie's wife Sherri Moon Zombie), and perhaps for the first time the two have worked together, she's ready to actually carry this film with a psychologically bent performance that involves her being torn between two worlds--the modern and one centuries ago when witches were put on trial and burned in Salem, Massachusetts.
Heidi gets an ancient-looking box containing recordings of some truly warped music from a band called The Lords that, when broadcast starts a supernatural upheaval that brings forth the spirits of witches and also drums up age-old traumatic events in Heidi's life. The film style and atmosphere harkens back to the classic Italian horror films (which we'll talk about). Is it scary? Not especially, but the imagery and sensory overload really burned a hole in my brain, and there are still sequences from LORDS OF SALEM that continue to impress me.
In my estimation, Zombie has directed one masterpiece: 2005's THE DEVIL'S REJECTS. I thought HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES was just loud, and his two HALLOWEEN movies weren't terrible, but I don't think they justified themselves in the end, especially the sequel. And of course, we're all waiting on his feature-length version of his GRINDHOUSE trailer WEREWOLF WOMEN ON THE S.S. (fingers crossed). I sat down with Zombie at the SXSW Film Festival, and I can tell you that regardless of what you think of his films, the man's knowledge of horror is indisputable. Whether he will end up ranking among the greats that he admires so much remains to be seen, but I love that he's still trying to, and in some cases succeeding. Please enjoy my talk with Rob Zombie…
Capone: One of the things I was focusing on when I was watching the movie last night was this idea of rituals. There’s a lot of emphasis on rituals and religious iconography. Why does that freak people out? Why do you think that's a part of horror?
Rob Zombie: I think that’s why so many people say like “Oh, THE EXORCIST freaked me out so much.” That’s what I remember as a kid, not seeing up, but my parents going to see it and talking about their friends “who now needed therapy.” It seems so funny, but I guess because people just have their rituals, and it just makes them feel good about life. “If I do this and I say Hail Mary and hang this cross on the wall, it’s all good.” As soon as you come along and shit all over that, it bothers people.
Capone: And do some bastardized version of it…
RZ: Yeah. I don’t believe in all of that stuff, so it’s all fair game for me to fuck with it, but for people that take that stuff seriously, I guess it bothers them.
Capone: I can get that, sure. After you made the HALLOWEEN films, was your goal to do something more personal and experimental? Or did you even know at that point what you wanted to do next?
RZ: I didn’t know at that point. My goal really was to do something that was fun, as basic as that sounds. The making of HALLOWEEN was so stressful and so brutal, and the making of HALLOWEEN 2 was like enough to drive me and the entire cast and crew to suicide. It was just a horrible experience. I won’t go into why; it’s a long story. But by the end of that, I was like “I don’t even know why I ever thought this was fun. I don’t even know what I want to make movies. I don’t know why anyone wants to watch movies.” It just fucked with me very much.
Capone: It scarred you.
RZ: It really did. I go, “The next movie has to be something freeing where we can go crazy, have fun, and try to remember why we like doing this.” That was the main goal.
Capone: You said last night that you had this script, but when it came time to shoot--you didn’t throw out the script--you decided to be really spontaneous and try some visual things that weren’t scriptable. Was that part of the thing that was fun for you? Just to have that freedom?
RZ: Well yeah, because the tight schedule dictates a lot of that, because in reality if I had a time machine, I could go back to the original LORDS OF SALEM script, and I should have been able to look at it and go, “There is no way we are ever going to shoot this script in four weeks for $2 million. It’s just not going to fucking happen.” But nobody said that, so you start working and by day four you realize, “We are never going to do this, so this scene is gone, this scene is gone, we better rewrite this…” So every day I would rewrite everything, because it just became a domino effect.
Capone: I’m a huge fan of that European sensibility where everything doesn’t have to make sense to be effective necessarily.
RZ: Yeah, me too. That’s something I miss in movies sometimes. Why does everything have to make sense? Everything in life doesn’t make sense, why does something in some crazy movie always have to mean something? It makes sense, and I wanted it to make sense. So if I sat down and I said, “Well you see this leads to that…,” you’d go “Oh, okay.” Like I didn’t just randomly film weird stuff and go “It’s a party,” but it didn’t have to be completely obvious on the first viewing or explainable. Some people may think it will never makes sense, but I did make sure that it was there if that was important to somebody.
Capone: I think I could explain it. I’m not sure I could pass a test on it, but I think I could get somebody through it. You turned the script into this book, but I still can’t even imagine how that script read. Was it a little more conventional than the movie might lead us to believe?
RZ: It’s so long ago since I actually read the original script. It was bigger. The weirdness that was in the movie was bigger in the original script, because I thought we could do more. So it was just more craziness.
Capone: Talk about casting all of these faces that we recognize, especially us that have been going to horror movies forever. There are a lot of speaking roles in this movie.
RZ: Yes, there is.
Capone: Were you just trying make it easy on an audience to keep everyone straight, or was it just that you had access to all of these people?
RZ: Well, I always get carried away with that. I really do, because I’ve done that in every movie. Every time we're getting ready to start, the casting agent always goes “You know, there are 55 speaking roles in this film.” I think the model that this whole structure was built on was what Blumhouse [Productions, which produced THE LORDS OF SALEM] did with INSIDIOUS where you go “Okay, there are five speaking roles or six people and that’s it.” I thought “Okay, that makes sense. We'll do that.” And somehow I find one more person I want to work with and I create a little something for them, and I keep doing that and doing that and doing that and doing that.
Capone: And a lot of them end up getting cut out anyway. Will they get their day on the DVD?
RZ: I don’t know. I was just having that conversation with somebody else. I’m on the fence now about DVD extras. First of all, DVD extras are going to soon be a thing of the past, because DVDs are almost a thing of the past, so that whole cool thing is going away. We are making a Behind the Scenes documentary. We shot one, because I like doing that, because I think it’s cool for people who really like film to see the reality of making it, but I don’t know. Sometimes you film stuff, and it doesn’t work. I don’t know is showing someone some crappy scene that didn’t work enhances their viewing. You just watch it and go “Yeah, you’re right. That scene did suck.”
Capone: Yeah, but that’s insight into the editing process. Just me personally, I dig those scenes that I watch and say, “Oh yeah, they should have cut that.”
RZ: True. A lot of what was cut, there was a real problem I had with this film in the sense that there was a big beginning of the movie in 1697 or whatever year. That’s where the Sid Haig character was with Richard Lynch, Michael Berryman and all of that. That didn’t play as flashbacks in the original script; that played as a chunk in the beginning, and that sort of set up the whole thing. We go through that, then we jump to modern-day Salem. But we ran out of time shooting that, and I thought, “Okay, well we'll come back and finish that stuff.” But then Richard Lynch passed away, so then I was left with this stuff, and it wasn’t enough. So I had to cut Richard out of the movie completely, because what he had shot didn’t make sense. I just couldn’t make it work in the first way I had intended, so then that had to be turned into these flashbacks, which maybe works better. That’s the thing, who knows? Sometimes fucked-up situations can make for a better movie.
Capone: That’s a whole DVD extra unto itself, like “Here’s what was going to happen and here’s what happens when your actor dies in the middle of shooting.”
RZ: So when the actor dies, that affected other people, like “What happened to Barbara Crampton’s character?” “Well then that character didn’t make sense, because we never filmed that stuff.” At one point, I tried making it work and I realized “I’ve just got to wipe it all out, because it creates more problems than it does solutions.”
Capone: The visuals in this film are remarkable. Were there any touchstone films that you and your cinematographer looked at, or you showed him, where you said, “Think about this when you’re lighting this scene.”
RZ: I think some of the stuff that influenced it is pretty obvious, in a way. Kubrick always had that style of things being symmetrical and slow, also Polanski and Ken Russell. Not a lot of the Argento films, although SUSPIRIA is the most obvious one, but just anything with that sense of style.
Capone: When Sheri walks into that Apartment 5, and it’s all decked out, I’m like, “That was the Kubrick moment.” I’ve never seen anybody mimic him so directly. It’s a great shot and it just hit me so hard. The other really cool thing other than the visuals is the soundscape, it’s unbelievable. It seems like you spent a lot of time pulling that together.
RZ: It’s really funny, because we didn’t spend a lot of time on anything. [laughs] We had no time. I’m not even kidding. For the average movie, they could mix the sound or six months to a year. On HALLOWEEN, I was like “Six weeks? That’s all we have?” We had five days on this movie to mix the whole thing, so it was a nightmare.
Capone: Talk about that, because it’s constant. I’m not just talking about the music, I’m talking about the eerie sounds.
RZ: What I set out to do was, even though the budget was low and the time frame was four weeks to shoot, I didn’t want it to look like that. I don’t want people to go, “Oh, it’s a low-budget movie, so the whole movie is going to take place in her apartment. We’re going to have three characters.” I didn’t want to cave to the pressure of the limitations. I was like, “Let’s make our biggest film ever with the least that we’ve ever had to work with,” which sounds great on paper, but when you’re doing it it’s really hard, because you’ve got guys that need two months to mix something, and you’re giving them two days.
So it was hard, but everybody was down for the challenge. It was tricky, because a lot of times even some of those camera moves means that by the time the camera operator gets his move down, that’s all you get, so, “You as an actor get one take, because the camera operator took the other six takes that you might have wanted.” It was a battle, so the actors had to be pretty on the ball.
Capone: Most of the action is in that one apartment, but it’s also a lot of it is in that hallway with what I think is the creepiest wallpaper I have ever seen. Did you pick that out? I didn’t know wall paper could be creepy.
RZ: [laughs] Yeah, it was funny. I remember that day, the wallpaper day. I was in the office, and the production designer came in with books and books of wallpaper, and we were just going through them for hours and hours, and suddenly I was like [Record scratch noise] “This is it.” It felt like I was acting insane with the wallpaper, but you just know when you see it.
Capone: I never want to see it again. You also have an album coming out in April. Did you deliberately coordinate the release of the movie, book, and album?
RZ: Yes, that was my master plan. What I’d always done in the past is make a movie, ignore music for a couple of years; do music, ignore movies. I was like, “I want to try to do everything at once,” which may or may not have been the stupidest idea I’ve ever had, but it’s all good. There was a moment a couple of weeks ago where I really thought I was losing it, because it just became like, “Okay, we need to finish everything for the album, for the movie, everything for the soundtrack album for the movie…” There were just so many things that I was like, “I’m going to crack,” but it all got done, and it’s kind of cool that it’s all happening at the same time.
Capone: I was talking to Sheri about the radio station scenes being almost like this separate, most based-in-reality thing in the film. But those are really funny, and I don’t some of the audience last night understood it at first, but the little Morning Zoo sound effects that kept running through the whole thing, because those were great.
RZ: Yeah, yeah. Obviously the inspiration for that was the Howard Stern Show, and obviously Sheri is the Robin Quivers who laughs hysterically at everything that Whitey says, and Whitey [Jeff Daniel Phillips] is the Fred Norris with the sound effects. When we rehearsed with those guys, that’s really what we rehearsed more than anything else, because the other stuff was just go with the flow. We didn’t have a lot of time, and those were the first scenes we shot, and I didn’t want them to just walk in and be like, “Okay, now we're supposed to act like we’ve been doing this as a team for years and years.” So they got pretty natural after a while, and it felt pretty good. We shot so much stuff that was really funny. It was actually hard editing it down, because at one point I was like, “Is this a movie about a radio station?” So it was hard to pair it down.
Capone: Those were the first thing you guys shot?
RZ: Yeah, it was the first thing. We kind of shot the movie in sequence almost, so it was good because it started off light, and then it became all bad-stuff day after day after day.
Capone: The stuff that you shot from 1600s Salem, I’ve seen that treatment of witch movies of the past before. That material could be really silly looking, almost campy, if you’re not careful. How did you keep that grounded?
RZ: It could have been a big problem. There were two things. I thought by having old women and they're just naked, that immediately makes it different, because it’s not like you’re trying to make “sexy witches.” It just makes it real, and then Meg [Foster], what’s so great about Meg is she really buys into it for real. She’s not like “I’m going to say this spooky stuff,” like she's so there. I was really worried about that, because when you see the words written you go, “If someone can’t really sell this, this could just sound like a lot of spooky bullshit that they are saying, but she was the key part of that.” Once I heard her do it, I was like, “Okay we're good. She can sell all of that, and you'll buy it.” She was always breaking into tears doing those satanic speeches, like she was so into it; that it makes a difference.
Capone: You said last night that you’d just yell something for her to do, and she did it.
RZ: She really wears her emotions on the outside; she’s a very special person.
Capone: I want to ask about that sort of witches theme by The Lords that’s being played throughout the film. Did you write that?
RZ: Well I wrote that with John 5. He was in L.A., and I was on the east coast, and we did it over the phone together. He would play me something, and I’d go “No, more like this,” and I’d play something. We just kept going back and forth until we hit that sort of pattern.
Capone: What were you going for?
RZ: I didn’t really want it to be "music" necessarily, I just wanted it to be this atonal weird pattern that you could remember, but it wasn’t supposed to be a song or anything. It was just trying to find something simple that was haunting.
Capone: Somebody asked a question last night, and I didn’t hear the whole question. I thought I heard them say “hockey movie.” I didn’t realize you were working on one.
RZ: Yeah, that’s the next thing. It’s a true story, and I was always a huge hockey fan as a kid and I still am now, but especially in the '70s when I was younger, and someone just came to me who had the rights to the Philadelphia Flyers story called BROADSTREET BULLIES. For people who don’t know, the basic story is that in the '70s, Philadelphia was a horrible city with horrible sports teams. It was a city of losers essentially, and their hockey team was just getting crushed, like physically manhandled by other teams and just brutalized.
And the guy who owned the team said, “That’s it. Your mission is to build me the toughest team anyone has ever seen. I don’t care if they are good shooters, skaters, I just want them fucking tough,” and they literally did. They were dubbed “The Broadstreet Bullies,” and they terrorized everybody. Teams were afraid to play them. There was a thing called “The Philly Flu” where guys from other teams would say, “I’m too sick to play tonight in Philadelphia,” and they won two Stanley Cups. SLAPSHOT is sort of a rip off of their story, in a sense. The guy who owned the rights loved THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. He was like, “That’s the style. It seems like that movie was made in the '70s. I feel like you could take this.” And my being a fan of the genre and a fan of the vibe, it’s a team of thugs who become champions.
Capone: Did you seen GOON?
Capone: What did you think of that?
RZ: I thought parts of it were really cool. I think Liev Schreiber was really great in that movie.
Capone: And just for the record, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS was in my top 10 movies of that year. I don’t focus on horror or anything when I put my list together. But I revisited it many times to make sure it’s still as good as I remember it, and it is. That movie is just art.
RZ: Thanks, man. That is the one movie I’ve ever made that was the best experience. We had enough time and money and no meddling. This time, no meddling, no time, no money. HALLOWEEN, plenty of time and money and all meddling. That was the one time it was the perfect situation for making a movie. I'm always searching for that.
Capone: There’s a lesson there. Rob, it was great to meet you. Thanks a lot.