Tom Six, the notorious writer-director behind the infamous “Human Centipede” trilogy, has always been a bit of a mystery … until now. Having drawn comparisons to a modern-day Ed Wood, the 41-year-old Dutch filmmaker exhibits a gift for making audiences squirm. He may have a kindred spirit in the mad doctor at the heart of the first film, yet he’s also boyish and charming in person.
Two days after the world premiere of “The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence),” Six sat down with TheWrap to discuss his long, messy journey as a filmmaker, from his humble beginnings on the original “Big Brother” series to the poop-obsessed ringleader of a controversial circus.
Six agreed to chat by the pool at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, a town that isn’t quite sure what to make of the director, who was wearing one of his customary white suits while holding a half-smoked cigar.
Whether you love or hate his “Human Centipede” films, the trilogy is considered unforgettable, and we’re hoping this candid interview will achieve the same status. Enjoy, and feel free to sound off in the comments below.
Talk about your childhood. What kind of sick shit were you into as a kid?
I was the victim of a happy childhood. Everything was so friendly. I had the nicest parents. We had cats and a nice little house. My parents were divorced and my mother lived with my grandparents, so I was raised by the three of them. It was all so friendly and nice and somehow that made me mad. I don’t know how, but it was too friendly.
When did you start to rebel, and how?
At a very early age. I rented only horror films like “Salo” and all the weird stuff when I was a little kid. I started reading french literature like Baudelaire and all the dark stuff. Then my little sister came, and I showed her all those films. But she’s a girl, so she was crying all the time. But slowly, she started to enjoy it, so I took her with me on that journey and she’s still very happy today that we did that. I always wanted to make movies. I think it’s kind of a virus.
Did you go to film school?
I went to the New York Film Academy in Amsterdam; it was a short course. I don’t really believe in school. I think filmmaking you can learn best by watching films. I started out in television in Holland and I was one of the pioneer directors on “Big Brother” … It became huge, so they asked me to travel the whole world to teach other directors how the show works. Then I started thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m not working on my own things. I want to make films!” So then I quit.
(His sister) Ilona quit [law] school and we started the Six Entertainment company. We produced three Dutch films in Holland, but they were already too controversial. They had nothing to horror films, they were black comedies. We thought, shit, Holland is such a small country, it’s not interesting to make films there. And then I came up with the “Human Centipede” idea and we made that and it was like a comet hit the world.
Where’d the idea for “The Human Centipede” come from?
It was very simple. I was watching television and I saw a child molester who did absolutely nasty stuff to children, and he got a very low prison sentence. Very low. So the whole country was upset and was like, “What the hell was that?” I said, “They should stitch his mouth to the anus of a fat truck driver. That would be an appropriate punishment for him.” And I told people that and they were like, “Fuck off, what a horrible idea!” And I thought, that is the idea for a horror film. That’s gold!
At what point did you start researching the medical accuracy of the procedure?
Immediately. My girlfriend’s father was a big-time surgeon in Holland so I contacted him and at first he looked at me like I had a terrible disease or something. He was like, “Oh, no way I’m going to help you with this!” But he had a lot of humor so the idea was coming in his head constantly. He called me and said, “I’m gonna help you, but I want to be anonymous.”
He wasn’t worried about you dating his daughter?
Oh, no! He wrote this very detailed operation report … and he said, “I could actually make a human centipede in my hospital, but you’d need to have anti-rejection medication and you’d have to take care that the wounds heal before the feces.” So a lot of stuff comes with it, but you could actually live a long time if it works.
But the victims in the first “Human Centipede” weren’t child molesters; they were innocent. What gives?
Yes, I changed that idea. I watch a lot of horror films and I wanted to use the cliche [American] horror tricks of the innocent girls running away from a crazy guy with a chainsaw. I immediately came up with the idea that a [German] surgeon should stitch them together, which related to the famous Nazi doctors during World War II. It had to be about American girls touring Europe and ending up in Germany. That idea moved pretty fast, and then it came time to cast, and it was hell on earth.
Where did you find Dieter Laser?
He’s very famous in Germany. I was browsing the Internet and I saw this little pic of him on Google Images, and when I saw his face I said, “My god, look at him!” I discovered he was a big theater actor, but he never did any horror films. He always played good guys, which is incredible if you look at his face. He was made for horror films!
Is that what attracts you? People’s faces?
Yes, I’m into faces. You can imagine when I first saw this guy; I was already in love with his personality. So we sat together and I explained to him the script in detail, and I saw his eyes glistening and I knew I had my guy. The girls though … it was really difficult.
We flew to New York for casting … and we got so many requests from actors. I had made Human Centipede drawings and I showed the actresses the image and they said, “What’s that?” And I said, “You are on your hands and knees attached to an asshole in front of you.” And 70 percent of the girls became so angry and so incredibly insulted, they said, “I didn’t go to film school for this you idiot pervert!” In New York, you hear those constant police sirens, and we thought they were coming for us, you can imagine!
But a few girls were very smart and they wanted to know more. “What were your influences? How do you see the movie,” etc. Slowly, the girls were put on their hands and knees close to a person and some couldn’t do it; they thought about their parents or friends. But the ones who were not afraid and had the biggest balls were Ashley (C. Williams) and Ashlynn (Yennie). They understood the concept and they were not afraid. They could really act with their eyes and their emotions … But that was an exhausting journey, to get those two girls.
A Wrap staffer said his wife auditioned with you over Skype and wasn’t sure what to make of you.
I can imagine! Absolutely!
Is there anything that makes you squeamish?
I hate flying. I’m an idiot of course — I watch all the disaster movies and National Geographic things, so when I go on a plane I’m really scared. Really scared.
Do you have to take anything before, like a Xanax?
I take everything in the book. Because every time, I think I’m going to crash. But in real life, not much [makes me squeamish], no.
Does your mind always go to the worst case scenario like that?
Always, yes. In every situation. But flying is the top thing.
So the film comes out and the media reaction comes in. How do you remember that?
It exploded. At the first viewing (at Fantastic Fest in Texas), people were astonished and totally flabbergasted. They texted their friends and it spread like a virus over America. Then there were critics who absolutely detested it. They were mad, mad, mad! I was worse than Satan, worse than Hitler. I’ve been called everything! But there was this group who absolutely loved it and were big fans. There was nothing in between. It would be an insult almost to have people in between, [as if] they don’t care. That’s not how it was and I’m proud of that fact.
The first film was banned in some countries, right?
Absolutely. It was banned in Germany. The second one is totally banned in Germany. They’re not allowed to screen it or anything.
Is that a badge of honor for you?
Definitely. I love it. Of course, I hate censorship, but being banned puts you up there with the big ones.
The premise of “The Human Centipede 2” is very meta. Why did you decide to head in that direction?
When I was traveling the world, everybody kept saying, “What if you inspire some lunatic out there to do it for real?” That idea kept lingering in my head. I was already playing with such a thing, but then I knew for sure. Lots of sequels are the same as part one, but I didn’t want a tall, handsome, intelligent doctor. I wanted a small, chubby, mentally unstable person who is a mute. So I came up with all those contradictions to the first one.
Is that also why you shot it in black and white?
Yes, absolutely. I wanted it to have a dark, underground feeling, and I liked the idea of doing it 100 percent medically inaccurate, because that’s way more scary, of course. When the press saw it, they exploded, or they hated it. The gore was too much! Or they absolutely loved it and they wanted to see more shit flying around. There was a clear split. The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) said it was so harmful that they were going to ban it outright, which was a big thing in the press because of the popularity of the first one and everyone wanted to see the second one.
Did people rally behind the censorship issue?
Absolutely. The BBFC came under such pressure that they had to release it — with a lot of cuts. But they had to release it. I didn’t want to, I wanted to make it illegal. In Germany, part 2 is still illegal. It cannot be shown, so that’s cool.
Now it’s time for the “Final Sequence.” Why did you decide to bring both your lead actors back?
I loved working with Dieter and with Laurence [Harvey], but Dr. Heiter is dead and the other guy is somewhere, we don’t know where. I wanted to bring them back as totally different characters. It was a risky choice, but why not?
I spoke to Dieter about it and said, “We’re going to make your character the complete opposite.” Dr. Heiter is very silent, straight-forward and intelligent and I said we’re going to make the most complete asshole — a screaming, impotent, dumb-ass, racist asshole who people will immediately hate when they see him.
For Laurence, I wanted the same; an intelligent guy who’s good with numbers and talkative and good with plans. They both loved the idea that on the same journey they would reinvent themselves together. And I wanted to go out with a bang again, this time in America, with extra-large American style.
I approached it like a Hollywood film and shot everything widescreen with over-the-top color grading and big Hollywood music … because during the film festivals, people said to me, “We want it to be huge! We want explosions and helicopters. It must be ridiculous!” I’ve always thought my “Centipede” movies are comedies. Some see it as pure horror, but I can laugh about them.
This one takes aim at the prison system, which obviously has a lot of problems in this country. Is that why you targeted it?
Absolutely. I wanted to come back to my original idea of punishment for the child molesters and stuff, which I totally ignored in the first two films. In Europe, the American prison system is very notorious with Guantanamo Bay and the orange overalls, so I wanted to use those images and go for the ultimate prison sentence … something that would drop crime rates like pants in a whorehouse.
I thought maybe the Bush administration could do something like that. It was going to be a huge, snake-like thing with, like, 500 people. I had to make Bill Boss (Laser) the ultimate Republican — this racist asshole who thinks he’s God. The other one is a bookkeeper who’s into the numbers and wants to lower costs … The film has so many layers. It’s a satire about much more than a human centipede.
How did you end up casting adult film star Bree Olson?
I love her and her films as well. It’s an all-male prison, so I wanted to have one female, but the ultimate American female — and who’s better than a glamorous porn star? But first, I wanted to know if she could act. So we did the auditions and she’s a very funny, intelligent lady. People have a whole different idea about her. We laughed very hard and thought she was perfect for this part.
What about Eric Roberts, who was coming off working with directors like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson. Was he harder to convince?
Not at all! Eric had heard about the films and even saw the first one, which he said he loved. So we Skyped together and had so much … I needed the ultimate asshole Governor and Eric had the right face and the right attitude for it. He loved it immediately, so he read the script and came on board.
What happened with Tiny Lister? I saw him walk out before the Q&A after the premiere. Did you hear from him after the screening?
No, I didn’t hear from him. When I told him about the script, he loved it, but he knew he had to be on his hands and knees. But I think maybe when you see it on the screen, it’s a bit [much]…
Getting back to the media reaction, what do you expect from critics these days?
I am this controversial guy who made the “Human Centipede” films, so people think I must be crazy. And I am a little bit crazy, so I like the people who hate it and I like the people who love it. I just get a big kick out of it because I see those guys struggling; they don’t know how to handle it.
Do you feel like some critics aren’t actually willing to engage with your work to being with because it deals with poop and is about a human centipede?
I think so, yes. They have these preconceived notions, so they sit down and immediately think, “I’m going to hate this.” I’m used to this and I think it’s all great marketing.
With so much content in the marketplace, it can be hard to stand out. Is it important in this day and age to be as good a showman as a filmmaker?
I think you have to be … So many films are being made and they never reach any screen or anything. You have to sell it! Somehow people are very irritated by my persona. When I was a little kid, I also wore suits and little hats. It comes very natural to me. I walk around Amsterdam in this every day.
You peddle in schlock, if you will; does the suit kind of legitimize you?
It makes you more charming or something. I can get away with much more. If I had long hair and a dirty T-shirt with Guns ‘N Roses on it, I’m sure people wouldn’t be on their hands and knees.
Ed Wood always wore a suit, right?
Yes, he was a neatly dressed guy. I’ve met a lot of directors who are screamers and assholes, but if you do that to people who are on their hands and knees and are very vulnerable, they will quit immediately.
I always butt heads with my brothers, so how does your collaboration with your sister work?
We are like a magic team. Of course we have big fights, but we always work for one cause. We’re both very passionate. She’s totally on the business side and I’m totally on the creative side. So she does all the contracts and salaries and I stay from that, and she stays away from my end.
You’re in business with IFC, the company that put out “Boyhood.” How has the industry itself has responded to your work? Have studios expressed any interest?
Absolutely. They want me to make remakes of boring old horror films and I turn it all down. I have so many ideas and scripts of my own. Life is so short. I want to make things that people haven’t seen before. You have to fight critics, censors, the whole system to get these films out, but that’s also where the sport is. I could now maybe direct the “Child’s Play” remake or “Fast and Furious 8,” but I would hate it.
Do you still watch shock cinema or movies like “A Serbian Film?”
Not anymore. I liked “Hostel,” but I watch the old ones. When I was a kid in the ’80s, I loved it, but there’s so little originality in horror now. When someone makes a ghost movie, 20 ghost movies come out. It’s very sad because in the ’80s, there were still very good original ideas. I enjoy comedies much more now.
What would a Tom Six comedy look like?
Do you know the documentary “The Aristocrats?” I love that kind of stuff and I love the work of the Farrelly brothers. The gross-out humor, I love. I’m a big fan of Ben Stiller; he’s a great actor. So “Part 3” has a lot of dark humor.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a couple of scripts right now. One we’re going to make is called “The Onania Club.” I can’t say the plot yet because it’s so simple, but so out there. It’s so original, I’m sure that “South Park” is going to make another parody of it. It’s really crazy — a very pitch-black dark comedy with horrific elements. It will upset a lot of people again.
You’re making a documentary about making that movie — do you have aspirations to be in front of the camera, like you are in this film?
I’m not an actor. I was only in this one because people said, “You should be in the film …” I like the idea of making a small appearance and then making a total ass of myself. But I like the showmanship behind it and the selling of the movie. What I want to do in the documentary is show how you get balls and create your own work without having to go to the big studios.
Where did the human caterpillar come from? That was a new twist…
I was thinking of ideas for the death penalty people and I thought, the only thing worse than a human centipede is a caterpillar, where they take off your arms and legs and you’re reduced to nothing. That’s real hell on earth. You couldn’t even scratch your head. There’s a lot of original stuff [in this movie] and it comes so natural to me, somehow!
Is there any line you won’t cross?
No. I never censor myself. When I write things, I enjoy it. I never feel like, “Oh my god, this isn’t going too far,” or “Now I have to shock.” It just comes very natural.
More and more filmmakers are setting up projects at streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix these days. Would you consider going that route?
If it would be 100 percent me conducting it, the way David Lynch did with “Twin Peaks, then I would be up for that. I could come up with something really spectacular, I’m sure.
You’re here today with your girlfriend. How’d you meet her?
I met her in a bar in Amsterdam. She didn’t know what I was doing. I introduced her to the films and she wasn’t afraid. I like girls that have balls.
Finally, what do you make of Hollywood’s focus on tentpoles and the growing popularity of comic book movies?
I hate it. In the early days of Hollywood, much more creative films were made. The directors and writers were really on top, and the studios were following. Now the studios want Superman and Superman vs. Batman, etc. I liked the ’70s when the directors were on top. I’m very disappointed in film nowadays.
“The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)” opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, as well as nationwide on VOD, before it expands to other cities.