“50% of you are going to love this movie, while the other 50% of you are going to hate it,” writer-director Rob Zombie said to the SXSW crowd at the midnight screening of his newest film, The Lords of Salem. That’s not something we often hear filmmakers while they intro their film, and the same goes for most of what we heard at his highly entertaining Q&A. Zombie, who wore splashy blue pants and what looked like over-sized crocs to the event, was correct when it came to the reaction.
For the 50% of the people who hated it, he doesn’t care too much. Zombie knows his work isn’t for everyone, and the idea that he can get half of an audience onboard with his films or music sits well with him. According to Zombie (and David Bowie), getting a reaction is all that matters.
We discussed that reaction, as well as how the film’s producers were only interested in lunch and more, with a candid and relaxed Mr. Zombie.
Last night you mentioned how you had to take out huge sections of the original script. What did you have to cut?
Well, the script was just too grand for the budget. I mean the budget was… We shot for four and a half weeks. So it was a very tight shooting schedule. And the script was like ridiculous. I should have realized that before we started shooting. But, you know, the 1697 stuff or whatever — I forget what year I set it in now, it’s been so long. That was a much bigger thing. That was a big half of the movie. At the beginning it was all about the witches and their time and what happened to them, blah, blah, blah. But that was a lot that got cut out there because it was just too elaborate. And a lot of the sort of like fantasy sequences and the witch things; all the weird stuff was much more elaborate. Let’s put it that way.
With all your scripts, do you always find yourself paring it down by the end?
That’s pretty much the way it always goes. I try to be budget conscious when I’m writing, but at the same time you don’t want to hold yourself back. But at the same time you don’t want to… You just do it instinctively — you know, “Okay, this scene is going to take place in a sold out soccer stadium.” And in reality we’re going to end up shooting it in an empty laundry mat. That’s funny because sometimes, like they say, the joke is, “Atlanta burns”. That’s one sentence, but it becomes Gone With the Wind.
So yeah, I always write with the budget in mind. On this one, though, it was the lowest budget I ever worked with, so I kind of didn’t really quite realize how tight that would be.
How tight would it be? Any examples from set?
Well, I mean it was almost ridiculous. A lot of the scenes we did in one take. For the actors it was fast. Some days we were shooting… You know, sometimes on a big movie they’ll get through a page a day, a half a page a day. We were shooting like 17 pages a day of the script. So that’s fast.
Do you like that urgency at all or is it all maddening?
Well, no, I don’t like it at all because… I mean, too much time can be the opposite problem where you have so much time that there’s a… I’ve been on movies, not my movie sets, but I’ve been on other people’s movie sets where they have so much time and money that it feels like nobody is working. There is no urgency because they can take all day to do the tiniest thing.
So it’s just that balance where you want enough time that you’re not rushing, or if you make a breakthrough where you go, “Oh, it’d be so much better if this person did that and we changed that,” that you can do it. That’s the most frustrating thing when you know something could have been better but you had to move on just due to time. But that’s always going to happen, I suppose.
And a lot of filmmakers, obviously they are working on a bigger film, they can just throw more money at it.
Well that’s the thing. But sometimes it doesn’t always work. There’s always the stories of big budget movies that they hated, and then they went back and shot for two more months to fix all the problems. And they do that and next thing you know it still doesn’t work. So I mean it is hard to… If it’s not working to begin with, more money is not going to really fix it. But this was stretched thin.
That’s crazy nowadays. I mean, they’re still doing reshoots on World War Z.
Sometimes they’ll go back and reshoot on these movies longer than most movies even shoot to begin with. I mean, it’s crazy. But I think sometimes if you get off on the wrong foot with a project it just stays on that wrong foot and it’s like limping along the whole way.
Do you know pretty early on, say, for a project, “This isn’t going so great”?
Yeah. I mean your gut tells you when there’s going to be problems. This was always going well. It was just that they hit a point… I don’t remember if it was at the end of the first week or something where I realized, “Okay. This is unrealistic.” And I started rewriting rather than making the mistake of trying to get it all done.
Is it usually like that for a lot of your films? Are you constantly rewriting?
Yeah, because sometime, for me anyway, the worst thing you can do is go, “This is the script. It’s never going to change. Even if it’s not working we’re going to stick by it.” Because sometimes, you know, people come and go. An actor comes in and they don’t quite deliver what you were hoping for. Another actor comes in who is so much better than you could have ever hoped for and you just sort of want more of them and less of them. So you just kind of go with it.
Play to your strengths.
Yeah, really. I mean it makes no sense not to.
Is it a different discipline when you are writing a film versus an album?
Well, I guess in some respect it’s the same. I mean, it’s a very different skill set that you need to have, I guess. But you are trying to create something from nothing that will entertain somebody. So, in a way, the process is kind of similar.
Does writing come easy to you?
Not a lot of writer’s block then?
Well, I mean, I always have writer’s block with things. But I always try to have several projects going at once because that way if I get hung up on a script and I’m like, “Ah, I can’t figure that out,” I can work on something else. If I just have one thing to focus on it will make me insane.
You said at the Q&A last night, “50% of you are going to love this. The other half is going to hate it.” Did you know from square one of becoming a filmmaker that you were going to make those kind of movies?
I just figured that was the case with everything I’ve ever done anyway. I don’t think that you can please everybody all the time. And I think the quest to please everybody is why you get a lot of bland stuff. When you go to the movies and you are like, “Eh, eh. I guess it’s okay. It didn’t offend me, but it didn’t really work.”
Every once in a while there will be that moment where somebody will create something that’s great and everybody loves it. But that doesn’t happen a lot. I just know by my own personal taste it’s not possible, because stuff that’s usually popular sometimes, I could care less about. It doesn’t interest me at all. And there’s other stuff that I know most people don’t even like that I love. So just by my own criteria I know I can’t create things that everybody will love.
Any examples of something you love that most people don’t?
Most blockbuster movies that people love that will go make a billion dollars, I’ll walk out going, “Eh, I could have lived without it.” And then I’ll be obsessed with some little move that nobody cares about. Well, this is not necessarily a little movie, but this year my favorite movie was Amour. A movie that obviously had a lot of recognition with the Oscars and whatnot. But for the most part, if you mention it to somebody nobody’s seen it. But if you mention the Avengers everybody loves it…
Do you care about the 50% that doesn’t like your work, or do you just let it go and think it’s not for them?
I mean, I figure that’s just life. Now it seems more prevalent because people can Twitter and blog and talk about it all the time. But I figure it’s always been like that. Most of the stuff that I loved growing up weren’t hugely popular things. So it’s all good. Hey, 50%. That’s not bad.
Even if people are trashing the work, at least you’ve still got people seeing the film.
I mean, to me it’s always been important that… It’s funny. I was reading this interview with David Bowie, this old interview on the plane coming in, and he was almost saying identically the thing that I feel. Getting a reaction is what counts. Even if the people fucking hate it or they fucking love it, that’s what’s exciting. Having people kind of enjoy something is a bore. [Laughs]
People’s opinions of things are irrelevant, in a sense, because if you are upset that people don’t like something then you should be so happy they love it. But it doesn’t really work that way. It just kind of is what it is. You make ‘em, and if people like it or don’t like it, it is what it is.
With that mindset, when you are working on a studio level how do you approach test screenings?
Well the test screening process is really bullshit, I think, because it’s asking… Playing the movie for people and sitting in the crowd and watching it, that’s helpful, because you can sit there and you can kinda feel, “Ah, the audience is bored. Oh, they are laughing at this. They are not laughing at that…” You kinda get all your answers just from that.
But I’ve found whenever they break out the comment cards and they really start asking questions, it really derails into nonsense. I’ve worked with some studios that realize that. Like Lionsgate. I remember when we did a test screening for Devil’s Rejects we were with Lionsgate. And the head of Lionsgate, as soon as the selected group of 20 started talking it was like, “Ugh. This is all fucking bullshit now.”
But some studios, they hang on every word. That’s crazy. Here’s 20 people. They just said 20 conflicting things. And now you are going to try to satisfy 20 conflicting things in your film? It’s just a mess. And you just can’t do it.
You can sense certain things, like you will sense, “Oh, this beginning drags. I could tell everyone is bored.” And you’ll go and edit it up with your own thought process. But to sit there and take detailed notes from somebody, it’s craziness. Can’t do things that way.
For all you know, those people could know nothing about making a movie or what qualifies as a good one.
Yeah. And it’s not like… There’s the filmmaker and the fans. The fans can’t agree. So it’s like if you read anything… So you just sort of have to do what you think is right, because what else can you really do? And some people love it, some people hate it. But to try to satisfy everybody is like a psychotic idea.
So when you get one of those conflicting notes, what do you do?
I just do what I think is right, because I’m the one at the end of the day who’s got to live with it forever, not the guy who made a comment at some theater in Burbank eight years ago, or even the producer who won’t stand… He’ll go, “Ooh!” He’ll walk away from it. There were things in this movie where the producers were like, “We hate that! You’ve got to change this or that!” Well, I think it works. I’m going with it. Sorry.
What’s your relationship with producers? You mentioned last night a good amount of them just come to set for a free lunch.
Well, it all depends. Andy Gould is one of the producers on all my films. He will work around the clock, 24 hours a day, till I’m surprised he hasn’t put a noose around his neck and jumped off a ledge. And then there’s other producers, I’ll see their names scroll down in the credits and I’ll go, “Who is that? I never even met that person!” But it just becomes like that. It becomes like a really random term.
Did you notice that from the beginning?
Yeah, it’s always been like that. But sometimes people sign deals, you know, with companies so that they, “Oh, I get to have a credit on that!” Even if they never showed up… I don’t even know if they’ve ever even seen the movie, but they have a credit on it. It’s Hollywood.
Did you test screen this?
No. I did not.
Do you ever see yourself test screening again in the future if you don’t have to?
I would rather not. I don’t mind the idea of playing it for people and seeing how they feel. You know, just sensing it. I think that’s helpful. But the test screening process is… I think it’s a little bit like the cart pulling the horse because people are always going to comment based upon what they know and already like, not what the next thing could be. I always say like, well, if you tested Beatles albums, they would have been making “She Loves You” for their whole career. No girl at that moment in time wanted the fucking White album. They’d be like, “I hate that! That’s horrible! Write another love song!” So that’s the thing. You are supposed to push the envelope to the next place. And maybe people like it, maybe they don’t. But that’s not the machine. The machine is to constantly grind out the same thing for people so they’ll buy more. But that’s not really my concern.
The Lords of Salem opens in theaters on April 19th.