Postmortem: Rob Zombie's 'The Lords of Salem'

The King of Creeps battles budgets, a breakneck schedule, and bogus production notes to bring his latest horror film to the silver screen. Get In Media writer Christina Couch sat down at a round-table press panel with Rob Zombie at SXSW. 

 

It takes a lot to surprise Rob Zombie. After making five feature films, selling more than 15 million albums worldwide, and landing seven Grammy nominations, the rock star-turned-writer/director has weathered Hollywood highs and lows enough to know that fan love and hatred often come in the same package. The reaction to his newest film, The Lords of Salem, is no exception.

It’s exactly what I thought,” Zombie says. “Some people love it. Some people hate it. Shocking.”

Since the release of his first film, House of 1000 Corpses in 2003, Zombie has established a foothold in the horror community with cult hits including The Devil’s Rejects, remakes of Halloween and Halloween II, and the trippy animated film The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. True to its predecessors, The Lords of Salem keeps Zombie’s terror streak alive by following a recovering drug addict (played by Rob’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie) as she tries to escape the beasts of Beelzebub. Shot with the lowest budget, quickest filming schedule, and highest production value of any of Zombie’s films, Lords presented a wealth of challenges to both cast and crew.

In a round-table press panel held shortly after The Lords of Salem screened at the South By Southwest film festival, Rob Zombie opened up about the struggle to create the film, a book based on the film’s original shooting script, and a new solo album at the same time as well as offered some advice for young filmmakers.

Rob Zombie with cast of "The Lords of Salem"Rob Zombie with cast of “The Lords of Salem”Press: One of the production notes they gave you [for The Lords of Salem] was to make all the characters 18 and sexy.

Rob Zombie: [laughs] Yeah, that’s the note every studio gives you, actually.

Press: What other problems did you encounter while filming?

RZ: Problems kind of get forgotten because there are problems like every second of the day, unfortunately. But really the biggest problem was I had never made a movie this quickly or for this amount of money so I wasn’t ready for that. When you have the script, you’re going through it and you’re like, “Oh crap.” There’s a certain point after the first week of shooting you realize we are never going to get through this script in four weeks and you just start ripping pages out, rewriting stuff. There was a lot of that, just figuring out how can we turn seven pages into a quarter of a page because that’s what we did every day and everybody got like one take because we were running out of time.

Press: Would you ever want to shoot a movie as fast as this again?

RZ: Not a movie like this, no. I would like to have more time. The funny thing is, having too much time and too much money doesn’t mean that what you’re going to do is good. Sometimes I think that actually hurts people because there’s a certain rhythm you get into on set and it’s just the adrenaline of working. I’ve been on sets of other people’s movies where I’m like “Nobody’s working!” They have so much money that there’s literally nothing going on. They’re taking like four hours to set up the most nothing shot and you can just feel, the actors are all in their chairs and they’re like falling asleep and they’re bored and they’re like, “What are we doing now?” They’re not even paying attention. I’m like, “This is no way to work.” There’s that perfect middle ground where you’re like, “we’re moving fast, but not so fast that people are confused.”

Press: The Lords of Salem is a very polished movie. Would you mind speaking to the cinematography?

RZ: The cinematography was a conscious decision because The Lords of Salem is a low-budget movie and it had a short schedule, but I didn’t want to make it look like a low-budget movie. It’s real easy to go, “Oh man, we’ll make everything handheld. We’ll shoot some of it with our iPhones. It’s all rough because we’ve got no money. Whoop de doo!” I was like, “Let’s make it look like the grandest film I’ve ever made even though the budget of that movie is like not even a third of The Devil’s Rejects.” We had nothing to work with but I thought just because of that doesn’t mean it has to look that way. I thought that was important for the story, too. It had to feel normal and safe in a certain way with the cinematography so that when it got grand and weird, it went somewhere. If it was already rough and nasty at the beginning, then you kind of have nowhere to go with it and I didn’t think that really fit the grand visuals. In a way, [it was] the exact opposite in the Halloween movies. I wanted to take something that had become all commercial Michael Myers and make it all dirty and filthy.

RELATED: Cinematographer Peter Simonite is a master of executing other people’s visions, translating the script and storyboards into compelling images. 

Press: I’m kind of wondering whether you accepted these conditions to work fast, to work for X amount of money for total creative control. Was that any reaction to working on the Halloween franchise with the Weinsteins?

RZ: Yeah, it really was. I didn’t realize because of the limitations just how hard it would be at certain times. I didn’t really think about it, but I think all of us, me, my crew, a lot of the actors, after the Halloween stuff we were like, “We need to make a movie that’s fun.” Because those movies were so stressful and not fun to work on that nobody could remember why they wanted to make movies anymore. So that was a big part of it.

Press: What advice do you have for young filmmakers who may be battling with budget constraints to make their film look high quality?

RZ: Truthfully, I don’t think it’s that important. I think that’s the least important thing you can do because it doesn’t impress anybody. Nobody cares. Nobody in Hollywood cares. No one’s going to be impressed by it. Good work comes through no matter how rough it is.

“As far as the biggest success, I always think that’s the next thing. I’m never satisfied. Everything has been the biggest failure I guess.”
Press: Is there ever a point where you’re looking at the makeup, you’re looking at the wardrobe or the scenery and you think, “Ooh, too much. Let’s pull it back.”

RZ: No I always actually think the exact opposite. Every time a movie’s done, I watch it and go, “Why didn’t we go further?” I’ve thought that every time. I thought it on this movie. I’ve thought it on every movie. I always think that. You forget sometimes why you made the choices you did. Sometimes it was the only choice you could make. Sometimes the sun was setting and that was the only shot you could get or whatever. You forget that stuff and you just look at it and go, “Why did I do this?” I guess that’s why other people’s criticisms are irrelevant, because you’re so busy criticizing yourself, there’s no room for other people.

Press: There is something about the horror genre though, when fans like something that comes out right away, there’s always a movement behind it like, “Yes, let’s make another one…”

RZ: Well yeah. It’s weird. You never know how much is dictated by the fans and how much is dictated just by the business. It used to be like, “Oh, check out my new project. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.” And now when you say that people just kind of glaze over, but if you come in “Check out my thing, it’s just like Paranormal Activity,” they’re like “Really? Let me see it.” It’s like that with music. It seems like it’s just the quest of give me more of exactly what I know I already like. That’s why, whatever, everything is just more of the same and that’s why people say, “Oh do you listen to what the fans say?” You really can’t because the Beatles would still be playing “She Loves You.” They never would have gotten to The White Album.

Press: What do you consider to be your biggest career success and your biggest career failure?

RZ: I always feel that both of those things are in the future. I don’t know. I never feel like anything’s been a failure because it always seems like it made sense and worked out in some fashion. There’s been things that have been strange paths to get them there. El SuperBeasto was one where working on it, the company kept changing hands until they’re like, “We’re horrified by this. We’re not releasing this.” But the people we started with were very excited by that aspect of it so that was kind of a bummer. I’m like “Eh, it is what it is.” Some day it’ll be resurrected in some way, somewhere else probably. As far as the biggest success, I always think that’s the next thing. I’m never satisfied. Everything has been the biggest failure I guess.

Zombie’s latest album, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor, comes out April 23. The Lords of Salem hits theaters April 19.

— Christina Couch

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