Interview: Rob Zombie
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Teaser poster from Lions Gate Films for Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects.
Consider Variety's dismissive comments on the original ( “A cobwebbed, mummified horror entry that makes obvious, cartoonishly grotesque demands for attention”) and compare them to its praise for the sequel (“a brutal, punishing yet mordantly amusing work that far outpaces its predecessor in its grisly single-mindedness of vision.”) Similarly, the New York Post called the original a “demented dung heap,” but hails Devil's Rejects as "a perfect B-movie, full of wicked dread." Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both give Devil's Rejects a thumbs-up, and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone observes, “ Indefensible on a moral level, Rob Zombie's perversely watchable [Devil's Rejects] is loaded with filmmaking energy."
Both 1000 Corpses and Devil's Rejects concern a family of perverse rapists and killers, including Otis (Bill Moseley), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, the director's wife), and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), a colorfully foul individual who likes to dress up as a clown. The Devil's Rejects opens with most of the family cornered in its lair by Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), bent on avenging his murdered brother. Otis and Baby get away, meet up with Spaulding, and wreak havoc as they flee from Wydell.Considering that Zombie fought for years just to get 1000 Corpses released, the praise for Devil's Rejects comes as vindication. Suddenly, the longtime frontman of White Zombie is being taken seriously as a filmmaker. Surprisingly soft-spoken and affable, Zombie discussed his career as a director with reporters in Los Angeles, as well as his inspirations and his extensive knowledge of film history.
Question: Do you have your own back story for what happened between House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects to get them to this point where William Forsythe's character has them cornered?
Zombie: Sort of. I have a story that I concocted in my head, but I never really attempted to put it into the movie because I figured there's only so much time. You just have to think, “Okay, he's the avenging brother. Good enough.” I think everyone can relate to that. I didn't really want to get into too much back story because I just thought it might bog the movie down. A lot of times, I see movies and I think, “Yeah, we get it. You don't have to keep explaining it to us. We get it.” Everyone's like, “Well, what's their motivation for being serial killers?” I'm like, “What is anyone's motivation? They're insane, obviously.” Sometimes, people are just insane.
AboutFilm: Well, let me get at that in a different way. Where do these characters come from?
Zombie: Well, all the characters—not William Forsythe's character, but Otis, Baby and Spaulding, and those characters—all come from people that I grew up with and that I knew. Not that they were murderers, but just the personalities and the types. The Otis character, who started off in the first movie, being Albino-ish—but, I got rid of that in the second movie because we did make-up tests and it just didn't work because it seemed foolish, so he was just suddenly cured of that—was based on these kids that I went to school with. It was this family of Albinos. There were these three brothers that were Albino, and they all looked like Edgar Winter, except a little bit inbred, and they were farm kids. They were bizarre. If you saw them in a movie, you'd go, “That's unbelievable.” And then, the other characters were just based on members of my family. Growing up, the main family business was the carney business. They all worked in carnivals and they were carneys, and that's a nutty world. You run into a lot of guys who seem like Captain Spaulding.
Question: How easy was it to get this film financed, after all the trouble you had with the first one?
Zombie: It was very easy. The first movie was shot with Universal Studios, and then it moved to Lion's Gate, and Lion's Gate released it and had great success with it, so they were just ready to fund the next one in a heartbeat. So, it was really easy. It was no struggle at all.
Question: Was that a lot of validation after the studio problems you went through the first time?
Zombie: Oh, yeah, because at no point, did I give up on the movie because I knew if I did, that was the end. I had to always proceed as if everything was going to work. But, yeah, of course. That was a movie that was dropped by one studio, picked up by another, dropped again, moved to another. It's a long, involved, boring story, but it bounced around so much. Everyone was like, “Look, man, just forget about it. It's dead. House of 1000 Corpses will never leave the Universal vaults. It will rot there.” And, eventually, we squeezed it out of there and sold it. It did well and we're still here.
Question: Do you think it was also bad timing? It seems like if it had been a couple years later, they would have been jumping to release another horror movie.
Zombie: Yeah, the timing was really bad. It was really, really bad because we were editing the movie around the time of Columbine. So, that happened and everyone got wigged out, thinking that every movie that was like this was the reason that happened. And then, the election was just firing up. I remember that Lieberman was always on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter saying, “Hollywood's got to clean up its act. It's got to do this and that.” And, that just fed right into it. That was the kiss of death for us, at that point.
AboutFilm: Movies like this always become a political football. Can you make the opposite argument, that they're good for people, in the sense that they provide a necessary escape, allowing people to vent certain feelings in a harmless way?
Zombie: I don't know if you can make the argument that they're good, but you can certainly make the argument that they're not bad for people. I'm friends with Alice Cooper and sometimes we talk about this, because he's gone through all kinds of bad stuff, his whole career. He's just like, “Look, Death Row is not filled with murderers that murdered people because they listened to one of my records. It's just not the case.” And, it's just not the case with these movies, either. It's a ridiculous argument. I think they provide an outlet for some people, not because they would then go kill someone if they didn't have that outlet, but it's entertainment. People need entertainment. If they don't have entertainment, they get bored and go crazy. As a kid, when I wasn't being entertained, the first thing I did was go out and do something destructive. That's what every kid does. As soon as you're bored, you're like, “Let's go light something on fire.”
Question: What do you think this film says about violence in society?
Zombie: It doesn't really say anything, in a sense. I don't really want to say anything because I like leaving movies up to everyone's interpretation. I don't really like being force-fed anyone's ideas on anything, ever. I just took an Old West approach because I was always obsessed with the Old West, as a kid. That's why Forsythe's character is a total reflection of that. I'd read books and back stories on sheriffs and detectives from the 1890s, and that was always their thought process—total vigilante justice. Kill the bandits and hang their corpse in the street for all the town folks to look at. I was putting that in a modern setting and having that character ride that line, and then of course, cross it, at some point.
Question: Why didn't you want to call this a sequel?
Zombie: Technically, of course it's a sequel, but that word has been so distorted over the last bunch of years because a sequel, rather than meaning part two or a continuation, like with The Bride of Frankenstein or The Empire Strikes Back, means “Okay, here comes part two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight,” until they can't put it in theaters and they'll milk it on DVD, and they just crank out garbage. That was not my intention. I wanted to make a film that was superior to the first film and completely different in every possible way that I could get away with. So, as soon as you say sequel, it's hard to convince people of that. I made it real clear, early on, with Lion's Gate, there was no way I wanted to call this House of 1000 Corpses 2 because you might as well call it Big Pile of Crap 2. It just seems horrible.
Question: How did you come up with the name The Devil's Rejects then?
Zombie: Every once in awhile, I'll just have titles of things in my head, and I'll go, “Oh, that's a good title. I'll save that someday, for something.” And, that was one of them.
Question: Your knowledge of film history is impressive. I didn't expect that from this film. Where did you get your inspirations?
Zombie: Well, I've just always loved movies. I've always been obsessed with movies. But, it's easier to just go, “Oh, he's the gore/horror guy.” I've never looked at it that way. In fact, gory horror movies don't rank on the [list of] movies that I like. Good horror movies are great, but I just like good movies. I don't just watch grade Z garbage. That just bores me to death. So, some of my favorite movies, growing up—and the movies that had the greatest impact on this film were Bonnie & Clyde, or even a movie like Charly, the Cliff Robertson film, because the use of the split screens and the camera work really affected me, as a kid. The movie owes a lot more to The Gauntlet or Once Upon a Time in the West than it does to The Hills Have Eyes, because those are the movies that I sat down with the cinematographer and said, “I want to play this out like an Italian western.” That's why the pacing is a lot slower. I wanted to switch it from nighttime to a lot of desert scenes, so everything's just right out in the open.
Question: Why did you set this in the Seventies?
Zombie: Well, I set the first one in the Seventies, so I sort of stuck to that with this one. But, that's just my favorite time period for everything. I didn't do it to pay homage to anything, because that seems silly. It was because I love the music from the Seventies more than any other music, I love the movies of the Seventies, the fashion, the look, the feel. And, I think it's probably because, at that point, I was at the right age to just be bombarded by it. I just remember, as a kid, every movie I went to, at that time period, just seemed mind-blowing. You could see Jaws, the next weekend you'd see Close Encounters, then you'd see The Godfather and Taxi Driver. Every week, your mind was exploding. I just took that experience for granted. Now, I go to the movies and I come out feeling like, “Oh, yeah, more of that again.” Then, it just seemed like everything was genius. Maybe I'm reliving it in my mind better than it was. But I remember thinking that every film seemed like genius.
AboutFilm: Another director told me that working with William Forsythe was a complete nightmare. How did you find working with him?
Zombie: I really liked William. We got along great. But, I had heard that, so I was cautious of that, at first. I'm a big proponent of whatever gets on film is what counts, because that's all anyone's going to see, except for me. I'm the one who has to deal with the hell behind the scenes. But for you, that's all that matters. If someone is like, “Oh, I don't like Russell Crowe,” who cares? If he gives you a great performance, that's all that matters, in the average filmgoer's world. But, me and William got on the phone and talked for a long, long time. I had never met him, and we just bonded immediately because his head was right where mine was. I was like, “Look, man, I want you to be Robert Shaw, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum. I need a strong leading man. I don't want a pretty boy. I want a really compelling [leading man].” That was, like, everything he wanted to hear. I think we sort of just bonded over both having an obsession with Robert Shaw, and thinking that he was the greatest actor that ever lived. Once we both said those words—because Robert Shaw is an incredible actor, but his name doesn't come up that often. As soon as he said it, I was like, “That's perfect. He totally, totally gets it 100 percent. Later I realized that he grew his beard, his moustache sort of the way Robert Shaw looks in Jaws, a little bit.
Question: Why did you originally choose to cast your wife as Baby?
Zombie: Because, when I was writing the script, the best thing, for me, that's the easiest, is if you know who's going to play the role. Because then, immediately, the voice is in your head. I always wanted her for that part, and I always wanted Sid to play Captain Spaulding. Even though I didn't know Sid, I had an idea of what I thought he would be like, so it was real easy to write the role. And then, just by accident, I met Bill Moseley at some unrelated event, and that character of Otis didn't even exist in the script. But, as soon as I met him—I had a vague notion of the character, but it was a smaller role. Then, I met him and he was perfect, so I just rewrote it. And so, for this, it was real easy because I knew these guys were all returning. And then, as soon as I thought I had William Forsythe locked in, then I could rewrite everything with his way of speaking in mind. Another actor wouldn't have that slow drawl that he has and might not pull off the lines in the same way.
Question: Are there any current films or filmmakers that excite you?
Zombie: Well, there's always great stuff, all the time. American Splendor is a good example of a movie where, when it came out, I was like, “I have never seen that before.” I was always a big fan of Harvey Pekar. Years ago, I interviewed him as a fanzine guy, writing for a fanzine. And Paul Giamatti is so amazing. The way it integrated the live-action with the animation, and the real people with their characters, was just mind-blowing. I was like, “Finally. That's genius.” I would have never thought of that and, obviously, no one else did either.
Question: It seems like a lot of music video directors are crossing over into features nowadays and making stuff that seems really fresh. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry—
Zombie: I guess so. Spike Jonze is great. It seems like there was a stigma there for a minute. “Oh, Jesus Christ, another music-video idiot trying to make a feature. But on the other hand, like you just said, there's a lot of brilliant stuff that's been coming out of there. I don't know what that is. It's sort of like the new film school, or something.
Question: They seem more experimental.
Zombie: Well, there's no rules [in music videos]. I think you can just experiment. When people ask how that help me—it helped me in the sense that immediately you have to be delivering a product on time, on schedule, and satisfying all these different [interests]. I think you learn the skills quickly. Plus, it's all experimental. In a music video, you can only stay alive if you can constant deliver something people haven't seen before. People will say, “Oh you're so last month.” You always gotta be thinking, how do I stay alive? How do I do something interesting? You can never rest.
Question: You had a cameo in your last film and shot some of it in your basement. Did you do anything like that for this film?
Zombie: No. A lot of that stuff was done out of desperation and necessity because the movie had been shut down at Universal before it was really finished, so I had to go back and re-film things, to just close up some of the gaps. But, this time, none of that happened. Except for Scorsese, I really don't like director cameos. Scorsese is a good actor and he's fun to watch, but most of the time, I feel like I'm watching a movie, and then the brakes come on and the movie comes to a grinding halt while the director stumbles through his few lines, and you're just like, “Oh, dear God!” And, I didn't want to be that guy.
Question: Is it important for you to continue with this genre?
Zombie: Yes and no. I just want to continue making movies. Not for good or bad reasons, I just don't want to get boxed in and have someone think, “Oh, that's what he does and that's all he's ever going to do.” I like directors where you don't know what they're going to do next. If someone said, “Oh, Spike Jonze is doing a horror movie,” you'd be like, “Oh, that sounds insane, I want to see that,” just the way that if someone said, “Oh, [Rob Zombie is] doing a comedy next,” you'd be like, “Oh, that's bizarre, I want to see that.” I don't really want to get pigeonholed into doing one thing.
AboutFilm: Would you direct someone else's material?
Zombie: I definitely would, if something came to me that I was great. And, that's only happened a couple times, and those projects just never got rolling.
Question: Do you have any projects you're working on now?
Zombie: Well, I'm working on an animated movie right now, that's been in the works for about a year. We're going to start doing the voice recording in the next couple of weeks. That's another throw-back, in a way. It's like Fritz the Cat, or something. It's an adult animated feature called The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, and it's basically an overweight Mexican wrestler, who's not actually Mexican, who is sort of like Austin Powers, in the world of the Munsters. It's filthy.
Question: Is your wife working on that with you too?
Zombie: Yeah, she's doing one of the voices, with a whole bunch of other people. It's a filthy, NC-17 adult cartoon.
[Read the AboutFilm review of The Devil's Rejects ]
[Read the AboutFilm interviews with the cast of The Devil's Rejects ]
Article and interviews © August 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.
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