An exclusive interview with Rob Zombie, originally published on the Empire website in March, 2013 to tie in with the release of his film The Lords of Salem and album Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor (no, really, that’s what it’s called). I’d spoken to Rob in 2011 just before he started shooting Lords, so it was great to catch him again on the other side.
Rock star Rob Zombie first dipped a grungy toe in the brackish waters of horror cinema with his House of 1000 Corpses back in 2003. Since then he’s been irresponsible for Corpses follow-up The Devil’s Rejects, and the Halloween remake and its controversial sequel, while simultaneously keeping his musical horrorshow on the road. His films, shall we say, have not been beloved by the critics, but with a colossal and loyal fanbase (2.5m Facebook followers at last count) that has not caused him undue concern; Halloween’s $31m opening has held the Labor Day weekend box office record since 2007. His latest opus, The Lords of Salem, is almost upon us, and its early festival life has garnered – Shock! – some quite enthusiastic word-of-mouth. You’d think he’d be delighted, but the modest Mr Zombie tells Empire, “I don’t believe the bad stuff or the good stuff…”
We spoke about Lords of Salem in February 2011 before you started shooting. Now we’re on the other side, have you ended up with the film you had in your head two years ago?
Probably not! [laughs] The movie’s definitely changed a lot in the course of two years. I don’t really know what I was thinking two years ago, but that’s probably like every other movie. It’s how it always is for me anyway, and I like it that way. The movie really evolves as the film passes. The basic ideas and the basic premise are the same, but the way it plays out is different.
It seemed to get a quite positive reception at the Toronto International Film Festival – were you surprised? (No offense!)
I’m always happy when people say good things, because I’m really not used to it! Truthfully, I always expect people to say horrible things because that seems to be the only time people talk anymore, when they have something bad to say. The funny thing is, I’m so used to not caring what anyone says, good or bad, that unfortunately even when people say good things… I wish it made me feel good, but [laughs] it doesn’t. I don’t believe the bad stuff and I don’t believe the good stuff, so you’re just sort of left with the same feeling. But it’s nice, I guess.
The people that liked it have been throwing names around like Kubrick and Polanski. Were you consciously drawing from those sorts of influences this time?
Yeah, I suppose. I’m never aiming to make a movie like someone else’s movie, but in order to describe a movie to someone else who hasn’t seen it, you usually have to reference things they have seen. So I think that those references are probably accurate, in a sense. I always thought of it as like a little Kubrick and a little Ken Russell and a little Polanski. In a blender. This film is basically the exact opposite of what I’ve done before; that was my goal in a way. It’s really easy to have your bag of tricks and just kind of do it every time. So I purposefully did everything different. I shot the other movies hand-held: they’re very chaotic and they’re very rough. I wanted them to feel almost like documentaries, and if the focus went out of focus I didn’t care, because I just wanted the spontaneity of it all. But with this movie it was very slow and precise. The camera doesn’t move a lot; it’s very locked down. Usually I’ve got caught up in tight close-ups all the time but this is very wide open, and the space is almost as important as the people. So yes, it’s very different. I don’t know what people are going to think. I guess some people will like it! It’s a double-edged sword: when you do something, whether it be music or movies, if you do the same thing all the time, people complain, but if you change it they still complain.
Did you have more control over Lords of Salem than on your Halloween films, which essentially ‘belong’ to someone else?
It’s definitely much easier working on original material, because nobody has any preconceived ideas. I mean, I had total freedom with Halloween; nobody tried to put any restraints on me, and I didn’t really care what the fans were saying, because I thought, frankly, it was ridiculous. And I still do. But with this I could do whatever, and nobody was going to say they thought it was going to be something in particular, or it should have been done a different way. That’s what I was dealing with on the Halloween movies. It’s kind of changed over time; it’s really amazing how a couple of years go by and everybody steps back and sort of changes their opinion of what they said a couple of years ago. But at the time, everybody’s criticism of Halloween was less about the actual movie, and more about what they thought the movie should have been, the way they saw it. That’s gets to really be a bore after a while. People were talking about things as if they were mistakes. “Dr Loomis can’t do that!” What are you talking about? It’s not like it’s a biography of a real person and I’m altering it! He’s a fictitious character and he can do whatever I want him to do! It’s nice to not have to listen to that. “Michael Myers can’t grow a beard! Michael Myers can’t be a hobo!”
Because Michael Myers lives in a nice tidy house and always takes time to shave…
Exactly! There were all these things… The funny thing is, I really, really love [my] Halloween II. The first one I only love half of it. Actually when I watch it now – well, I don’t watch it, but I see pieces of it sometimes – I like it better. But if I go back to the original sequels now, all of them – part two, part four, part six – they just fucking grate! [laughs] So when people are like, “You ruined the series!” I’m like, “Really? Have you seen the series lately?!”
Halloween II was a very truncated shoot. Did you have more time for Lords of Salem?
No. It was even more truncated than Halloween II. It was the fastest movie I’ve ever made. I think the shooting schedule was about 21 days, although that doesn’t show in the movie, thankfully. That’s exhausting, and it leaves absolutely no room for error. That’s really why the script changed a lot too, because when you start shooting, the realities of the script versus the time you have to shoot it come into play. You say, “Well, this script would have worked great at eighty days… Let’s forget about this stuff, I guess!”
When we first spoke you were planning to go on tour in between shooting and editing. Is that what ended up happening?
Yes. That idea I had of doing an album and a movie at the same time was a great idea on paper, but in execution it’s been insanity. You have no idea. I finished the movie, went on tour, came back, edited the movie, went back on tour, came back, finished the movie, and now I’m just losing my mind. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.
Didn’t it help, to leave the film alone and come back to it later with fresh eyes? That sounds like a plausible plan…
Well there are aspects of it that are good, but you kind of get into a groove in either world. You’re in the editing room and you’re in that frame of mind, and then you’re like, “OK, now I have to stop editing, go into a rehearsal space with the band, go on tour…” It really is like two different halves of my brain, and I have to shut one off to do the other. But that was one good thing, that sometimes there would be a problem with the movie, just like a scene that wasn’t working or something, and I’d get away from it and come back to it and it would seem like the editing choice was suddenly really clear. So in some ways it worked and in some ways it didn’t.
Does the film have any real connection to the song (from the Educated Horses album)?
Oh, no relevance whatsoever. Really, I had the idea for the movie and wrote some of the script, but then I filed it away and never really thought I’d go back to it. But I always liked the title, so I thought, “Ah, fuck it, I’ll just use the title and it’ll be a song.”
The song’s more about the actual business that went on at the Salem Witch Trials, and that is a backdrop for the movie, so there is some relevance I guess. The whole premise of The Lords of Salem is that there were the Salem Witch Trials and twenty innocent people were executed; obviously it was all hysteria and there were no real witches. But [according to my film] actually there was another group of six women that were executed who actually were witches, that nobody knows about. That’s what the movie’s about: the uncovering of a plot that took place during the Salem Witch Trials.
Sheri [Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife] has appeared in all your films, but she has centre stage this time. Did she impress you?
Yeah, she really did. The other films were really ensemble movies; there was never a clear lead person, I didn’t think. This is different in that way. It’s really a character piece, and the whole story goes through her. There are a lot of supporting characters around her, obviously, but she’s definitely the lead. It’s weird: when we work together it’s always good, but she’s the hardest person for me to judge. No matter how well you know the other actors, there’s a level at which you don’t know them at all. Then you get to know them and see how their personality is playing into what they’re doing. Like in Halloween II, when I rewrote the role for Malcolm [McDowell], I rewrote it more like his actual personality. Which is not to say that he isn’t a really nice guy! But Loomis in the second film is closer to Malcolm’s real sense of humour and the way he acts. It’s the same with Sheri: I know her so well that I know when her performance is truthful, because it’s exactly how she’d be in real life. All the best performances are when it doesn’t feel like an actor is acting.
The IMDb page for Lords of Salem lists a lot of actors and characters whose scenes were deleted. Is that accurate?
A lot of things got cut. Things always get cut, but in particular there was like a little movie within the movie, with Udo Kier and Clint Howard, and we had to lose that. It was always just a small background thing, but it just didn’t make sense as we went along.
Then Richard Lynch died, and we never finished his scenes, and there wasn’t enough film of him to piece a performance together, so I had to write his character out, unfortunately. I had to go back and re-film extra stuff with Andrew Prine to fill in the blanks. And there were other people who were announced as having been cast, like Billy Drago, who were never actually in the movie. Billy was going to be, but then something happened. That took a while to fix, but we figured it out.
So April is Zombie month: a new film and a new album!
Yeah, the album’s called [sheepishly] Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor [laughs]. Yeah, that old title again. I think it comes out barely a week after the movie. I don’t know if it’s the same in the UK.
And your next film is Broad Street Bullies; you’re going from horror to hockey?
Yeah, that’s moving ahead and I’m very excited about that one. I think it should be a movie that anyone can enjoy. It’s sort of like Rocky on ice! It’s a character-driven movie; if you don’t watch hockey it shouldn’t even matter. The essential story is that, when the NHL expanded and Philadelphia got a team, they weren’t very good and they were getting their asses kicked by all the other teams who were bigger and stronger. And one day they just decided that if they weren’t the best team they were going to be the toughest. They literally built a team of tough guys that other teams were afraid to play, and because of that they won that championship twice. The story is just… people are going to see this movie and assume we made it all up. The real story is so crazy that it seems like it must be fiction. It takes place in 1974. I’m not sure when we’ll be shooting. It should be sometime this year; that’s as far as I can narrow it down. It’s tricky, because we’ll actually have to find actors who can skate. Or skaters who can act. It’s a very, very different film for me, but it actually plays very strongly to my sensibilities in film, I think. We’re going to shoot some of it in Philadelphia for sure, and a lot of the movie takes place in Canada too. But we might shoot it in Transylvania for all I know at the moment. You never know where you’re going to end up, although we did actually shoot Lords of Salem in Salem, which was cool.
Are you concerned that you might end up going head-to-head with Kevin Smith’s Hit Somebody (originally to be a film; now apparently a TV mini-series)?
I haven’t heard much about that. I assume it’ll be very different…
The Lords of Salem is out on DVD in the UK on April 29. Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor is released on April 22.