A Roundtable Interview with Rob Zombie, Part One
By Desmond Reddick
06 August 2007 Born of carnival workers and steeped in 1960s B movies, Rob Zombie got his start in show business as a technician on the seminal show Pee-wee's Playhouse. From there he went on to form one of the most popular heavy metal bands of the 1980s and 90s: White Zombie. The band, named after a Bela Lugosi film, wore Zombie's fascination with horror films on their sleeve and produced four records before disbanding. Zombie later continued his multi-platinum success with his self-titled solo albums, but that too was set aside this time for films.
In mere weeks, Zombie's re-imagined vision of Halloween, the classic John Carpenter film, will be released. In this very special director spotlight, the director himself will tell you about the forthcoming film and all things Zombie.
First thing's first: this wasn't a one-on-one interview. It was a roundtable / press conference call. The participants were, of course, Rob Zombie, roughly six or so other journalists and I. The following is an attempted word for word transcription of the call. I have shortened questions for clarity, space and to remove the names of those who asked them. Due to more than one person talking and the occasional stuttering, I have left very little out but have streamlined the transcription so you aren't reading lots of "uhms" and "ers." I have also added my own little running commentary in italics to try and help this flow a little better.
Without further ado, the questioning opens with a discussion on the portrayal of violence in his films.
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Q: Your first film was sort of a highly stylized horror film and then you moved down in the sequel to a stripped down kind of realistic violent film with Devil's Rejects. Is the move to realism sort of a reason why you wanted to go forward with the re-imagining of Halloween?
A: Is the move to realism why I wanted to go forward? Not necessarily, I mean, that's what I wanted to bring to it in a sense. You know, because I think John's Halloween, which I love, is very stylized so I thought that was one of the main things that when re-imagining it or remaking it, whatever you want to call it, that would be interesting was to bring a new grittier realism to it.
Q: Could you give us an example of how the two films differ with this new gritty realism?
A: The main thing that's different and the main thing that I was trying to do with Michael Myers... in the first movie Michael is kind of always spoken about in legend as Dr. Loomis describes him, and then he's kind of this elusive presence throughout the film which is fantastic. But I wanted to take a different approach. A lot of my film follows young Michael's life through his years at Smith's Grove, through his escape, through his return to Haddonfield so that you follow him and he's a much more realistic character. He's not just a Boogeyman-type presences and that's one of the main differences. Just that approach to the character brought a different sort of vibe to the whole project.
Q: Is the approach to violence that you take, particularly with your second film, when people get hurt they really get hurt? It's not fun, it really means something. Are you carrying that kind of thing forward from Devil's Rejects into Halloween?
A: Yeah, definitely. Because I think that that is the only way, for me anyway, that I want to portray violence. That's one of the things that always bothered me about the... glut of sequels that follows most of these films. Halloween and Friday the 13th... the violence stopped seeming real and it started seeming like just some over-the-top moment for the audience to go, "Ooooh gross." And I want it to be, you know, if we're going to follow the journey of these characters, if something bad happens to them it should resonate on some emotional level. You shouldn't be able to watch it and study it as some sort of special effect. It should be a more guttural emotional moment.
I couldn't help but nod along to all of this as he's hitting the nail on the head there. From there we move into a discussion of casting and directing actors.
Q: How are you able to keep your actors in a constant state of fear on the set? And how has that changed from movie to movie?
A: It changes from actor to actor really. It's really strange, I mean all the actors are really, really different. You know, some of them stay very focused on what they're doing. William Forsyth is very focused on what he's about right there at the moment, where someone like Malcolm McDowell can just wonder off and do something else, have a conversation with someone else and come back to what he's doing. So one of the jobs as a director is to quickly know each actor as much as possible. To figure out what they need to get them where they need to be. They all have a different way to focus, and the person who had to stay in that emotional state the longest was Scout who played Laurie Strode and she was just incredible. I mean, the way she could turn it off and on and get herself in that state. That's the thing that makes one actor better than another actor.
Q: You don't do anything particular to ramp them up for any particular shoot?
A: No, it has to come from within them. You get them to a place and they're either going to, you know you can only do so much and they have to bring it to you. And that's where you define the levels of acting ability that the actors have. It's not like you can take any actor and they give you some brilliant performance. I mean, they have to bring it too. You know, some people you have to babysit through everything, and some get it and they run with it and they keep themselves in that place in their mind because they have that sort of focus. And some of them don't have that focus, and you have to help them and help them a little more to stay there so it's different for everybody.
Q: Speaking of the actors, what were you looking for when it came to casting Laurie and Michael Myers? Was there anything in particular you were looking for?
A: Well those were the two hardest roles, not adult Michael Myers: I always knew who I wanted for him. Young Michael Myers and Laurie Strode are the two trickiest roles because every other role I basically had somebody in mind; another actor I liked that I wanted to approach. But those were the roles that I knew I needed fresh faces. And that's always the scariest because it's almost like you know what you don't want. You don't quite know what you want because you want something you've never seen before. You want someone with a fresh presence that you go, "Wow," you know. Because it's a tough challenge. Established actors and movie stars come in and you're already ready to go with them because you know them and like them. But a fresh person who you've never seen before has a really tough challenge to win you over and make you really want to watch the, That's why you cast and you see somebody and you go, "That person has that quality that I want to watch them in a movie." And that's hard to describe, you just see it.
Q: To follow that up, you mentioned you already knew who you wanted to play the adult Michael Myers, why did you know you wanted Tyler Mane?
A: Because I worked before on Devil's Rejects with Tyler and I knew that he was a good actor. Even though he didn't get to do a lot in that movie, I knew that he was good. That was one of the things... I wanted someone who was an actor and not just a physical presence. The other times they had cast mostly stuntmen and people who were more there for the physical gags that were going to take place because they weren't going to bring anything more to the role. And this was a much bigger role. It wasn't just him falling off a building or crashing through walls... it wasn't just that. And also Tyler is a big guy. He's really big and I wanted somebody with a big physical presence. He's not bulky. He's kinda slender and moves really well. I just thought that it would feel more intimidating to have him just be more physically dominating than any other person in the whole movie.
Q: Carpenter's Halloween was the film that got me into horror and I really think it was the Psycho of its generation. What is it about the original that has such staying power and what do you admire most about it?
A: I think the thing that I always liked most about it probably, I mean it's always hard to say why you like a film, it's good. It works for you. But what I like most about it is that even though it was shot in Pasadena, I always loved the atmosphere it created. It just felt like it was Halloween watching that move. You really got the feeling you were there at that time. It was cold and it was Halloween. That's what the great movies do. You feel like you're there experiencing the movie. Whether it's The Shining or A Christmas Story, you feel like you're part of it. Sometimes you feel like you're sitting back watching a movie. You don't feel like you're there, you don't feel like you understand the world or you're part of it. But that movie just felt like it was a real place with real people.
Q: Now I heard that you're version of the film will look very deeply into Michael Myers's background. Did you base his reasons for killing upon any real life serial killers?
A: I didn't base it on any real life serial killers or anything like that, but I did research the character of Michael Myers and thought, "Well, okay, if this was a real person, how would they classify him and what would he really be?" Essentially, Myers is a real person, how he's always been described. He'd pretty much be a textbook psychopath. So I researched that. The definition of that is that he's a person with no understanding of human emotion or other hums. No conscious and no reason and basically a robot. And that's kind of like how Myers has always been described and how he is except showing that in a kid growing up and how he sort of starts in one place and degenerates into a classic sort of monster.
I'm not so sure how I feel about looking at Michael Myers as a person rather than a force of nature but I must say I'm very intrigued. In listening to Rob's answers to the above question, it is evident that he has a clear vision of what the film is supposed to do which is certainly missing from a lot of recent releases. Only time will tell whether the vision was realized or not. Now on to a couple of short housekeeping questions.
Q: What led to the decision to release the film in August rather than say Wednesday, October 31st?
A: I don't know. I don't really get involved in that stuff. [laughs] I'm making the movie and the studio comes up with their ideas of a release date and what they want to do.
Q: How does Michael Myers find the mask in this one?
A: Well that's part of the movie. I don't want to give it away. [all laugh]
Q: Are you going to retain Carpenter's signature musical theme?
A: There's a couple of the themes, there's probably three really classic themes. There's obviously the title and there's two others and we basically use all of them.
Having heard Tyler Bates' version of the classic title theme, I have to say I'm happy it was virtually unchanged.
Q: I'd read that you had talked to John Carpenter and I was wondering what he said to you and what you guys talked about.
A: I think they called John before the news of the whole thing even came out. They wanted him to know first. I met John when he was shooting Escape from LA so I'd known him for a while and he was just like, "That's great. Cool," you know? I think his exact words were, "Hey, make it your own. Go for it." It was pretty accepting.
Q: He had no reservations about anyone doing his film?
A: Nope. Not at all.
I feel compelled to mention that at this time I felt confident enough to jump in and ask the question that first came to me when I watched the final trailer...
Q: The family aspect was not there in the original film. It seemed to be added in during a frantic rush to write the sequel and give Myers some motivation I suppose. From what I've seen of the trailers, the family aspect is there form the get-go. Is that something you wanted right off the bat for your re-imagination.
A: Well, I wanted everything to be there from the beginning. In the original Michael's just this kid who doesn't talk and we're not even sure those are his parents. Two adults come home and take off the mask and a long tracking shot. I wanted to really set up a life for him. Everyone knows who he is except Laurie Strode. She doesn't know.
You see, initially, I was a little upset at this treatment of Myers, but in listening to Rob's brief answer I really thought, "You know, Michael really is a non-character," so who's to say that that shouldn't be explored? I continued...
Q: Speaking of sequels, I mean I don't think I'm being presumptuous in saying this will be one of, if not the most successful horror film of the year. Do you have sequels in mind?
A: I have in mind that I have no intention of doing sequels. [all laugh]
Q: Any reason for that?
A: I just wanted to make one movie. Put everything into this one movie and I think that's the way things should be. I know the reality of life is that if it does well, somebody will do a sequel and I don't have any intention of being involved.
I had to admire his total dismissal of any more films (especially since I had originally heard this was supposed to be a trilogy), and look forward to this as a standalone film. Before I continued the line of questioning another reporter jumped in for further clarification.
Q: You don't have any control of the franchise? That's what sent the first one off the rails.
A: No. I have no control. I don't want to have any control. I don't own Halloween or Michael Myers. They could make Halloween II: Michael Myers in Space and I'd have nothing to say. But I don't care. I only care about the film that I made. You can only care about your film. What someone chooses to do with part two, three, four... part six, seven, eight as time goes on, it's out of my control.
It's almost as if the other reporter was setting me up for my next line of questions.
Q: Following that, as someone who is used to having a large amount of control through your career as a musician I am safe in assuming you have a lot of control over the stage show and the videos you directed... right?
A: Total control.
Q: Okay, I also understand that House of 1000 Corpses was a bit of a grind trying to get it out through the studio system. I think we saw a lot of the making of Devil's Rejects on the DVD, so was it sort of an evolution coming to Halloween. Or was it a bit of a step back with a franchise? Was there a bit more control from the studio there?
A: No, I mean I had total control over what I was doing. They had tried for many years to make a Halloween movie after they did Halloween: Resurrection. And I know they had many, many scripts and they tried and failed to make another movie. So when I came into it they kind of let me do whatever I wanted. I wouldn't do it any other way. You really can't make a really good film by committee because everyone puts in their two cents, and it's a big mess of trying to make everyone happy and you get generic garbage. You have to have one person with an idea. That's the only way you can do it.
Q: Was there any debate whether to expand the story or go back to the beginning?
A: I thought that each sequel seemed to degenerate more and more until I didn't even think about it any more. With the last movie they had driven it so far into the ground that I thought the only way to do this was to start over. To not try and pick up the pieces. I mean I wouldn't want to do part nine of anything. [laughs]
Happy with those answers I sat back to catch my breath and allow others to ask some questions.
Q: You were talking before about going back and putting more of a focus on Michael and his story. In doing that, is there any sympathy generated for him because of his past? Do we see what motivates him?
A: Not really. There may be times where briefly you feel sympathetic for him, but then you realize that no matter what his situation is, it's because he is basically born bad. He's insane. A lot of people have misunderstood what's going on at this point. How he's in this bad situation and it's made him evil. But it's not the case. I just thought that having him be a normal kid from a good home in a nice suburban neighborhood who goes bad seemed sooo lame. I wanted to give him a background that was a little more realistic. It's not this horrible background, it's normal. How you remember kids you know? It sets up a nice parallel; where he returns to Haddonfield to search for Laurie, she's been adopted in a more upscale way, so it's her past coming to haunt her. There's just more grit to the story. Normal people can be a bit of a bore.
I would have clapped at this point, but I didn't want to sound like an idiot. I'm happy with that choice. It's the anti-clichι and I love that. Bravo!
Q: Are you concerned the horror genre is on a downturn right now?
A: No, I think it's the same as always. Things go up and down. It's so funny, the press creates these scenarios. I remember doing interviews on a Thursday before Hostel II opened and then on Monday after a poor opening weekend, the tone of every interview changed over the weekend. It is what it is, you know. Every movie can't be a smash hit. It comes and goes. You go through a period that there's so many movies that people get tired. You know, now because of 40 Year-Old Virgin everyone's like, "Oh, we need R-rated comedy." So then comes Knocked Up and they'll jam a million of them until it runs out of juice again and something else is exciting. If there's one thing that's true, there's always fans of horror movies. They may come and go in popularity in the mainstream press, but the fans are always there.
I think this is kind of an obvious answer, but it's the one that I would give because it's the truth and it needs to be said. Things die in the film industry because studios see dollar signs and flood the market. Want to see an example of this in action? See Halloween and the inevitable sequels and the huge glut of slasher remakes and lame originals that will be pumped out in the next two years.
Q: Can you speak about the music? In the first movie you made, some of your music was in there. I don't think any of your music was in Devil's Rejects, was it?
Q: None of your music is going to be in Halloween right?
A: I don't think I'll put my music in any of my movies again, because I find it distracting to have my own music in my own films. I did some music for House of 1000 Corpses because at that time it was more out of necessity because I knew I could get more money for the soundtrack if I had songs on it, and I took that money and put it back into the movie to finish the movie. That whole movie was... anything you could make happen to finish the movie is what I'm talking about. Devil's Rejects is a different situation because I could do whatever I wanted and the same with Halloween.
I though this was candid and interesting. I mean, everybody knows that House of 1000 Corpses was not a masterpiece, but it was interesting to hear Rob Zombie, a character as much as a public person, be so humble and reflective. He didn't outright say it, but it was clearly a mistake. On with more casting discussion.
Q: The Internet is rife with rumors and misinformation. Was Ben Kingsley originally considered for the role of Dr. Loomis?
A: I always had Malcolm in mind. I mean, Kingsley's a great actor, but I always had Malcolm in mind. Early on when the project first came up he was the first person who popped into my mind.
Q: How did you come to cast the rest of Halloween the way you did. Obvious choices, the people you worked with.
A: As I'm writing I just think of people for parts because it's easier to write. There's lots and lots of actors I've always liked but never worked with like Dee Wallace for one. And as far as the people who were in Rejects that were in this, most of the people in Rejects have very small roles in this movie. I'd rather have Bill Moseley come in on a small role and take it to the bank than to just cast somebody who knows they're in a small role. And they don't really bring it. That's what's great about that. As far as the other people, it just kind of evolves as times go on. Ideas get popped around.
Here's where I've seen the first explicit explanation of the story's plot structure. I am pretty sure that the following answer is an exclusive to this interview.
Q: I was wondering about the look of the film. Halloween is the second collaboration with cinematographer Phil Parmet, third if you count the Grindhouse trailer, and the cameraman is not usually connected to the horror genre. What element does it add to the production, and did you discuss the original cinematography?
A: No, we didn't really discuss the original at all. I didn't want it to look and feel like the original in any way. You want to capture the essence of what you like about it, but you never want it to fell like, "Oh, that looks like that" because it's kind of pointless. I basically wanted to break the film into three acts and each act is slightly different. The beginning of the film is a little more rough. And then the middle section is the very institutionalized with Smith's Grove, and the movie feels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest suddenly. And then part three in Haddonfield has a much richer kind of look to it. We discussed this movie. Not the original.
On to some more discussion on current filmmaking techniques reflected in Halloween.
Q: Some of the early reviews have talked about the use of handheld cameras with some of the attack scenes. What do you think of the use of shaky-cam in Hollywood right now? There's a lot of it going around and people are complaining about action sequences not knowing what's going on.
A: I use it sometimes, not always. It's a great effect when you use it as an effect, and I think it can get overused and you're going, "I can't tell what the hell's going on," with the camera flying all over the place. I kind of play Michael like the movie is calm and stalking, but when he attacks it's very violent. Some times the camera will be shaky and others it won't move. It all depends on the moment or what is happening. We're trying to find the combination of the two. The great thing about the handheld look is, if done right, it throws you right into the picture and you're right there. A movie can have a detached feel where you very much feel like you're watching a movie, and then others can make you feel like you're right there. There has to be a balance.
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There you have it, faithful readers! Part one of the roundtable / press conference interview with the man himself: Rob Zombie. Be sure to check back on Wednesday for part two where we delve deeper into things like filmmaking techniques, future plans, the current state of the genre and why Michael Myers is like Batman.
Don't miss it.
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