From the mind of Rob Zombie, The Lords of Salem is a chilling tale of horror set in modern-day Salem, Massachusetts. When radio station DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) receives a strange wooden box containing a record that’s a gift from The Lords, the bizarre sounds within the grooves trigger flashbacks of the town’s violent past that lead Heidi to question whether she’s going mad.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, Rob Zombie talked about how this idea came about, the adjustments he had to make to allow for the low budget, having new script pages for the actors on a daily basis, whether record executives or music producers are more difficult to deal with, how challenging special effects can be, that he’s intentionally tried to keep as much of the film a secret as possible, how the companion book is essentially the original script that they didn’t get to make, and how he determines what works and what doesn’t for the final cut of his films. He also talked about being soured on directing episode television again, that he’ll be heading out on tour for his new album, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor, in June, and how his next film, Broad Street Bullies, is a true life hockey story. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
ROB ZOMBIE: It was an idea that had been kicking around for a long time. I have a lot of ideas for things that kick around for a long time. Some of them will be a movie, and some of them won’t. But, I always had this unfinished idea of something with Salem and a radio station and witches. It was just this fragmented idea. I just wrote it down a little bit, and then filed it away and forgot all about it. And then, about two years ago, these producers came to me and said, “We want to make these modest-budget, supernatural horror movies. Do you have any ideas?” I had forgotten all about this idea, but a friend of mine reminded me of it. And then, I pulled it out and looked at it and thought, “This could work.” That’s how it all happened. It was just one of those things.
Did you have to make any major adjustments with the low budget?
ZOMBIE: Yeah. The script that I started with has almost no relation to the movie. Every day, I would look at what we had accomplished that day and thought, “This is never going to happen. We’re gonna skip this. We’re gonna change that. I’m gonna rewrite this. We’re gonna shoot this. Sorry, you’re not in the movie anymore.” Every day was like that. The actors didn’t know what the hell was going on. They really didn’t, half the time.
How did your wife feel about working like that?
ZOMBIE: Oh, she hated it! I would get up really early because I would be working on what that day’s work would be. I would print out the new pages and have them sitting out on the kitchen counter, just waiting for that look of horror on her face when she saw the new pages waiting, every morning. Sometimes I would leave before she got them, so I didn’t have to see how upset she was. The actors spend all their time learning one thing, and then I throw it all away and make them do something else.
Did you ever feel bad about some of the things you put her through in the film?
ZOMBIE: Sometimes. I try not to, but she reminds me. She’s like, “I’ll do it. I don’t like it, but I’ll do it.”
ZOMBIE: Well, film is much more difficult, just because it takes more money. Even a low-budget film costs way more money than a high-priced record. So, it’s mo’ money, mo’ problems. When you have more money, it just creates more people trying to get involved and you have more trouble. So, movies are much more difficult.
As you make more films and you become more aware of what needs to be done, do you become more conscious of that while you’re writing, or do you just write what you want to write first?
ZOMBIE: Usually, I’ll just write whatever, to start off with. I don’t want to write worrying about the budget because you just never know. But, as you break it down and you get closer to shooting, you have to figure those things out. I had never made a movie this cheaply before, so I just couldn’t get my head around it. The cheapest movie I had ever made was $7 million, and this one cost $2 million. It was ridiculous. But, I will know. I’ll write something and go, “Well, this scene says it’s taking place in this location, and I can see all these extras. Why don’t we just take that scene and put it here?” You just know that simple little things will be a huge money drain, so I do go through and rewrite things, taking out stuff like that. Even if you say, “These two characters have a conversation in a coffee shop,” then you need a coffee shop and all the extras. Suddenly, it’s expensive to just have that little conversation.
Does working with effects get any easier, or is it all still challenging?
ZOMBIE: It’s always challenging, mostly because, on something like this, the effects can take a long time, even if it’s a really simple effect. We don’t have anything like this in the movie, but even a simple thing where a guy gets shot, it means you have to wire him up and do it, and maybe it doesn’t explode right, even though he gets bloody anyway. So, you’ve gotta send the actor back, clean him all up, and then bring him back and do it all again. Sometimes the simplest gag can just take forever. A lot of the gags we had for Sheri were going to be very messy, but then I thought, “Crap, she’s wearing this wig. We don’t have a double. If the wig gets bloody, it will turn it pink, and then I’ll have to clean her up. That could waste hours. How do we do this effect without all of that?” It was a nightmare. The effects are never easy.
You seem to be perfectly comfortable knowing that, with the type of work you do, some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it. Is that how you’ve always approached your work?
ZOMBIE: Yeah. I didn’t start out making music and being in a band because I thought everybody would love it. I didn’t even know if anyone would like it, let alone everybody love it. So, you just do what you’re going to do, and you figure some people will like it and some people won’t. Sometimes you just have to be realistic with yourself. My tastes are so odd that even when there’s a huge movie that everyone’s in agreement that they love, I’ll go, “Eh, I didn’t really like it.” And then, there will be some other movie that most people hate and I’ll go, “I thought that was the best movie of the year.” So, I know that my tastes are just not in line with the mainstream. The fact that the records and the movies have been able to reach such a wide audience, to me, is almost a fucking miracle.
ZOMBIE: Yeah, I’ve been trying to keep it secret. It’s been intentional because I feel that, going back to the movies when I was a kid, whether it was Jaws or The Shining or Close Encounters, I would go in literally knowing nothing about it. When I went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, I didn’t even know what the fuck it was. I remember that me and my brother went to see Star Wars when it came out and we didn’t even know what it was, and within two seconds, we were blown away. There was something so exciting about not knowing anything. Now, because of a million blogs, it seems like everyone walks in knowing everything, so of course it’s not scary, of course it’s not funny and of course it’s not blowing your mind because you know everything. Of course, you have to promote the movie, so somehow you have to let some of the cats out of the bag, but I’ve been trying, as much as possible, to keep things secret. It’s hard because I’ll hold images back, but then the studio releases them and I’m like, “God dammit, don’t give everything away! No one’s going to be surprised about anything!”
What was the idea behind doing a companion book?
ZOMBIE: Well, the book is basically the movie that we didn’t make. The book is exactly the original shooting script. So, if anybody sees the movie and goes, “I wonder what they were going to do originally, before they ran out of money,” they can just go read the book.
When you’re working on the final cut of your films, is there something you use to gauge it? Are there friends and family that you screen it for, or do you trust your own instincts?
ZOMBIE: You have to go with how you feel about it because, at the end of the day, you have to live and breathe by it. With The Lords of Salem, the final shot of the movie where Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) is playing with the dog, everyone hated that. Everyone was like, “I don’t get it. Take it out. I hate it!” I was like, “I like it. It stays.” And I’m glad it stayed because I’m the one that’s going to live with it. But then, you always have a few people that you trust where you can go, “What do you think?” But really, you can show the movie to almost anybody, and you don’t even have to talk to them to tell that they’re getting bored, the beginning is too long or no one is paying attention. When they have the focus groups for movies, when the people start talking, it’s all bullshit because it’s always some, “I know more than you,” film student dickhead mouthing off. You can just sense it. If you go to any movie and watch it with a crowd, you can tell. You can gauge a lot from the movie. If it’s supposed to be funny and nobody’s laughing, you’ve got a big problem on your hands.
Do you think you’ll ever direct for episodic television again? Do you ever watch shows and think about directing an episode?
ZOMBIE: I really don’t. Maybe I used to, until I did TV. It’s just the format, even with shows I love. I love Breaking Bad, but I don’t think that there would be any creative room to direct one because it’s so set in stone what the show is, who the characters are and what they’re going to do. TV directors are different, especially when you just go in for the one episode. When I did CSI: Miami, I tried to fuck with it, as much as possible. Not like I thought it was broken and I was trying to fix it, but just to give it a different flavor. But, they don’t really want that. Obviously, they have a formula that’s been working and they don’t want to change it. That kind of soured me to TV, truthfully.
Has directing films affected how you approach music videos?
ZOMBIE: Actually, it did on this one. In the past, I would have said no. I just shot a video and finished editing it, and I took what we did with The Lords of Salem and just crossed it over. I also used the same crew. It’s just a more cinematic, controlled video. It’s not all crazy with people rocking out. The way I did the compositions was influenced by that, a lot.
ZOMBIE: I always think about that. Right now, I’m finishing up the script for my next film, Broad Street Bullies. I’ll be leaving for tour in June, so I have a lot of touring ahead of me. But within that, I’ll be prepping and working on what the next movie will be.
What’s the film about?
ZOMBIE: It’s a true life hockey movie. It’s a sports film that takes place in 1974. It’s a true life sports story, so that’s a totally different thing. I’m not going to make any more horror movies for a really long time, or maybe never again. I don’t know.
What was it about that story, in particular, that has made you want to tell it?
ZOMBIE: It’s a really weird story. What I like about it is that stylistically it’s very interesting because it all takes place in 1974. Also, you say it’s a hockey movie and most people are like, “I don’t like hockey. I don’t care.” But, it’s almost like Rocky, where you can hate boxing and still love Rocky because it’s really a character-driven, human interest story. So is this movie, and that’s what I liked about it. The hockey aspect is not the only part that’s attractive about it. It really is an interesting story. It’s like Rocky meets Boogie Nights. If someone said, “Oh, it’s a movie about the porno industry in the ‘80s,” you might go, “Who cares!” But, it’s the crazy characters and the way the story unfolds that makes it completely compelling, and that’s what this is like, except that it happens to be true. I’m very excited about it.
The Lords of Salem opens in theaters on April 19th, and his latest album, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor, will be available on April 23rd.