Rob Zombie – House of 1000 Corpses – Interview

Rob Zombie

House of 1000 Corpses (Lion’s Gate)
An interview with Rob Zombie
by Scott Hefflon

Rob Zombie has always done things his own way. Being one of the accidental forefathers of nü metal (when it actually was new), doing his own album art, and directing his own videos, Rob Zombie is a guy who takes matters into his own hands.

The story of getting his debut film, House of 1000 Corpses, to the screen is one of legend. Not because Zombie was a flake and ran late or over-budget, but because the Hollywood machine is filled with cowards. Criticized at every turn for bucking the system and breaking convention, House of 1000 Corpses dared to challenge the audience, to push buttons, and to obsess about aesthetics most directors overlook. Rob Zombie made his movie his way, and then The Powers That Be chickened out and refused to release it.

First Universal, then MGM. Each tried to compromise the film, recommending safe choices and formula-based advice on how to ensure the box office success of yet another mediocre Hollywood movie. Zombie stood his ground. Despite years of delays, the kind of big-business stonewalling and faith-undermining control tactics that’ve killed many a good project and innovative artist, Rob Zombie made it out alive. And his film is already a cult classic.

Within the first few minutes of viewing, you realize you’d better strap yurself in for a wild ride, because House of 1000 Corpses pulls no punches. It swears, it moves quickly, the scenery is dense and colorful, and like a good traffic accident, you don’t wanna miss a single detail. It’s violent, it’s graphic, it’s funny, there are scenes that make you jump, and there are scenes that make you squirm. Good fuckin’ movie. The Blair Witch Project was probably the last film to offer such a novel approach to filmmaking, and that’s now a reference point, ya know? Creative vision and balls are what it takes to make something unique and legendary, and Rob Zombie’s got both.

As a first-time director, I was impressed by your pacing…
I wanted it to be fast-paced, because except for The Greats, these movies always have the same pacing: Forty minutes of nothing, just building characters and set-up, then things finally start to happen.

You also often cut to the grainy, home-style nightmare/flashback stuff during or directly after gruesome scenes to let the audience catch a quick breath before staring horror in the face again…
The uncomfortable moment I love is when the Slim Whitman song is playing, just before the cop gets shot… There’s that long, dead silence… People become so uncomfortable during that scene, they don’t know what to do. It’s silent, there’s no movement, the anticipation and discomfort are prolonged, second after second… When the cop gets shot, a lot of people cheer, just because they’re glad the waiting is over.

That scene is very unHollywood…
It breaks all the rules. Everyone said “don’t shoot it in slow motion, don’t take that long pause,” everything… Basically – like in anything – people always tell you not to do anything extreme. Not even extreme in a shocking sense, but in any sense. But the thing is, when you break convention and offer people something new and different, it usually works. Whether you’re an avid film buff or a casual moviegoer, you’re never blown away by typical, formula-based movies.

Both your bands and now your movie show a deep love and understanding of “campy” sci-fi and horror flicks…
I was definitely going for the drive-in vibe, and I even considered shooting it in the exact same style, but there are some things you can’t recreate… I wanted to recreate the spirit of those films, but using the styles and technology available today. To try to actually BE one those movies would be some kinda retro art project…

I really like the vibrant, over-saturated colors…
I’ve always liked Italian films, like by Mario Bava, where the colors are crazy. If there’s a tree in the background, you shoot a green light at it and the color just pops… Comedies are the worst lit, because they just don’t seem to pay attention to the colors, they try to get by on the jokes alone. And most of the time they do, but they’re still flat and boring-looking. It’s amazing to me to watch a Jim Carrey movie that’ll bring in 100 million dollars, and it looks as drab and colorless as a TV sit-com. It’s funny, sure, but…

Horror movies are much the same. They focus so much on the shock, but they pay no attention to costumes or setting detail. One of the major influences on House of 1000 Corpses was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s a different type of movie, of course, but it was richly-detailed and flamboyantly visual. I think that’s why it became a cult movie. There’s so much to see, you can watch it again and again.

When they redid Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they had to throw Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger in it.
Even in horror movies now, all the kids have to be really sexy and sweaty… Texas Chainsaw Massacre was brilliant. I don’t know why anyone would want to remake a brilliant film.

Karen Black, who’s the hot’n’deranged mom in your film, was also in Easy Rider, and she always said they could never remake that movie or make a sequel, because it was true to a specific time period.
But Hollywood has always been remake-happy, and to an extent, I understand it. Without remakes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame would only exist as a silent film. When John Carpenter remade The Thing, it was cool, and it works a lot of the time, but it’s largely unnecessary. It’d be like if I decided to remake Sgt. Pepper’s… for my next album… You always have to be pushing to make “the next new thing.”

How much stuff did you have to edit out of House of 1000 Corpses to get an R rating?
A decent amount. We had to recut it at least five times. That was actually the one good thing that came from our brief time with MGM: They helped us get the R rating. There are also a lot of scenes I cut out just to keep the pacing quick. Those are always tough… It’s a good scene and you know it works, but it’s slowing down the movie. There were some good scenes with the cops that make them more human and funny and likeable, and I may add them back in, but I don’t know… People are already waiting for the Director’s Cut, so I have to figure out what that’ll be…

Editing a movie with the bigger picture in mind is not so different from writing and recording songs – something you’ve dabbled in over the years – and using what works and ruthlessly scrapping the rest.
Totally. You have to know how to edit yourself.

You’re also a person who understands an album as a whole, and not just a collection of your latest songs.
That’s just what I grew up on, so that’s how I naturally view things. That’s how records used to be, I think, and if not, that’s at least the way I used to see them. The soundtrack, to me, is just an audio version of the film, something that hopefully jogs your memory as to what was happening while this or that song played. Soundtracks aren’t meant to be excuses to hype new songs by breaking bands, and there’s nothing sleazier than three seconds of a song used in the movie, and then it’s the lead single…

When people think of this film, the song they’ll remember most is Slim Whitman’s “I Remember You.” It’s one of those movie moments, like Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” from Pulp Fiction or “Singing in the Rain” from A Clockwork Orange.

I really liked “Run, Rabbit, Run,” cuz aside from being a cool song and a great soundbite, it reminded me of that scene in Gummo
…Where the kids shoot the kid in the bunny suit with popguns and then poke him with a stick. Yeah!

Did Lions Gate interfere creatively, or did they pretty much give you cart blanche?
They didn’t want to give any input, they wanted to release the movie. When we were at Universal, they’d give me 18 pages of notes a day. I felt I was slowly losing my mind… I’d be over-tired from shooting 18-hour days, then I’d have to go into these morning board meetings with 20 people with conflicting opinions, and while I’m all for hearing peoples ideas, I don’t remember any good ideas coming out of those meetings. Most of it was trying to get House of 1000 Corpses to look and feel more like I Know What You Did Last Summer and every other formulaic movie you’ve seen.

You nailed it in an interview when you had your falling out with them: that Universal has theme parks and their movies do cross-promotion with fast food chains. House of 1000 Corpses is a risk, with no back-end of Happy Meal trinkets, collector’s cups, or live-action figurines…
A little movie like House of 1000 Corpses, even if it made a 100 million dollars, is still just a drop in the bucket to such a giant company. And there was, of course, the potential for it to cause legal trouble and controversy…

Another unHollywood move was that the two young couples who enter the dark house on the hill cliché aren’t big name stars, nor are they, ya know, role model youths…
I always like the standard premise of a couple or couples finding themselves in a dark, scary house… Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rocky Horror, you name it… I wanted the couples to be pretty normal. Attractive enough so you don’t mind looking at them, but I didn’t want it to be like “look! They’ve abducted a carload of models!” There were some “name” people I could’ve cast but passed over for unknowns, because the second you put a “name” in there, it becomes “well, there’s so-and-so, acting out another role.” The intimate connection is lost, and it becomes a movie with stars.

I like the way you cast Michael J. Pollard as the loony dad, cuz I always seem to picture him kinda bumbling and sniveling…
I got to cast whoever I wanted, and that was great. I don’t know how most movies are cast, I just know how my movie was cast. There was no agenda, no one was forced on me, the only people Universal cared about were the four kids, and they let me cast them. They didn’t care that Sid Haig was the lead, the first time in his long career that Sid’s ever been a lead…

The clown-faced carnival barker narrator is considered the lead?
I gave Sid top billing, and Bill Mosely, who plays [psychotic, stringy-haired] Otis, is second. There is no real STAR of the movie, it’s more an ensemble…

I instantly recognized Bill Mosely as Chop-Top in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, but I didn’t realize he was the Deadite captain in Army of Darkness
He was also Johnny in the remake of Night of the Living Dead… It’s funny, because he has a big role in a new HBO show, and the kid with the glasses, Bill, is now the new boarder (and really creepy in an overly-polite, “I could snap and kill you all” way) on HBO’s Six Feet Under, and the young cop is a star in The Shield. So many of the unknowns I cast have gone on to become stars.

Sheri Moon, the sexy temptress, is your wife?
Yeah. We’ve been together for like ten years, but we’ve only been married since Halloween.

She has a fantastic cackle.
I never heard her do that before the movie.

She had a really good dynamic with Karen Black (who plays her mom).
They hit it off really well in real life, and it came through on screen. That was something I was really hoping for. As a first-time director, I went into it knowing what I thought should happen… I had no one to turn to. Now I have some director friends I can bounce ideas off of, but at the time, I didn’t know anyone, so I thought the best thing to do would be to get the cast together as much as possible before shooting so they could get to know each other and get a vibe. I didn’t want the first day of filming to be like “Hi, I’m playing your best friend.” The two dorky guys, played by Chris Hardwick and Rainn Wilson, hung out a lot together, and they developed a real natural dynamic, and that’s pretty much how they acted off-screen together as well. They’re both kinda smart-asses, but they alternate and play off each other. I always liked John Wayne movies because he plays John Wayne. There’s nothing worse than miscasting, watching someone do or say things that are totally unnatural for them.

What were some of the moments in the film that made you say “Yeah, this is right, this is totally the person I wanted to bring this character to life.”
The first scene I shot was Capt. Spaulding (Sid Haig) being interrogated by the cops. And that scene turned out great. My direction to Sid was always to be a lovable asshole. I mean, he’s a total asshole, but you love him… And that’s a hard thing to pull off. He shoots someone in the face, he’s mean to everyone, he’s generally creepy and foul and disgusting, but everyone likes him anyway.

The scenes with the cops that got cut were good, you really got to know and like them, but the title of the picture dictated a certain course. If the movie had been called American Nightmare or something, people’d probably watch it with more patience, but since it’s called House of 1000 Corpses, people want to see the fucking house. So some of the most character-developing scenes got cut so we could get down to business. If you’re going to call the movie Godzilla, I wanna see Godzilla. I’ll put the cut stuff on the DVD.

My favorite example for stuff like this is Dawn of the Dead. I’ve seen that movie a kazillion times and can quote the whole thing. But I always saw the normal version, which is still long, but then I finally saw an uncut European version, which is about 20 minutes longer. There’s no more violence or anything, it was just character moments that had been cut. In most cases, that would’ve been boring to me, but because I loved the film so much, it was more scenes with characters I knew well.

Word has it you’ve agreed to do a sequel (filmed in the Fall, released April 2004). So even after all the hassles, you’re not scared off by Hollywood?
Not at all. Everything is difficult. Whatever happened, happened, and now the movie’s in theaters. I looked in Variety, and opening weekend, we had the highest per-screen average, second only to Anger Management. We were the seventh most-popular movie, and we only opened on 600 screens, whereas most of the others opened on 2000 or more. The president of Lions Gate said they’d made back all the money they’d spent on the movie in the first weekend. That just doesn’t happen…

How much did the movie actually cost to make, if you don’t mind my asking?
It’s hard to gauge (Hollywood accounting), but I’d say between five and seven million. We shot it in 25 days, which I knew was considered short, but I didn’t realize how short…

Luckily, all my actors were very professional. If I’d had even one actor who couldn’t remember their lines, it would’ve killed me.

But again, you’re not new to producing things… Even though the medium is different, you’ve been in the studio enough so you can roughly plot out what you need to do and what order you need to do things in, right?
It’s still very unpredictable, and I think it’s meant to be.

You’re a very resilient guy…
It’s a hard business. But I learned that from being in band. We had seven years of misery before we even saw a glimmer of hope. People often ask me what advice I can give them, and the simple asking of the question implies they should quit right now. My only advise is that if people feel the need to enter a business where most people are going to tell you you suck, you’re going to need to be completely sure of yourself and your beliefs so you keep pushing forward.\

But people revise as they go along, especially if someone starts becoming popular. White Zombie’s first record for Geffen got slaughtered in the press. “This is the worst band ever” kind of thing.

When La Sexorcisto… came out in ’91, it actually was “new metal.”
People complained that it was all rhythmic and that I couldn’t sing, but it’s the way I liked it.

Great to be a pioneer, isn’t it? Everyone around you says you’ll fail, that you’re doing it all wrong, but you soldier on, and then when it works, people say they always knew you had it in you. Then others copy you, dumb the idea down and get rich, and everyone looks back on a time when things were pure.
If it was easy, everyone’d do it.

You have a practical head on your shoulders… You sure you’re from L.A.?
I don’t know how people buy into that whole thing. Everything is harder than it looks, and everyone’s going to be your friend if they think you can do something for them, blah blah blah…

But yeah, it helped having been in bands when I did the movie, because all the “it’ll never work, you’re doing it all wrong” criticisms are things I’d heard when I was in White Zombie. And when I left White Zombie and went solo, I heard it again.

Every band that started at the same time as White Zombie didn’t become as successful because they quit. And we started off terrible, I have no illusions about that. We were horrible, but we had something happening… We looked different, we acted different, we sounded different, but we didn’t have the playing ability, songwriting ability, or the producing ability to make it work yet. But I always knew we just had to catch our abilities up with our ambition, and that would “just” take time and hard work.

The simplest phrases are often the most accurate. The secret to my success? I didn’t quit. Everyone else quit. If everyone else quits and you’re the only one left standing, you win.