Rob Zombie Talks ‘Miserable’ Studio Projects, Naked Shoots and (Yes) Robert Altman (Guest Blog)

“Sometimes when I get that critique of characters being too campy or wacky I think, ‘They look real to me,'” the “3 From Hell” director tells his actor Jeff Daniel Phillips

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(inset) Jeff Daniel Phillips; Rob Zombie (Photo: Lionsgate / Saban Films)

Rock star turned horror film auteur Rob Zombie this month releases “3 From Hell,” the third in a trilogy that started with 2003’s “House of 1,000 Corpses” and continued with 2005’s “The Devil’s Rejects.”

I’ve appeared in several Zombie films over the years, including playing the warden in “3 From Hell” — which continues the story of the murderous backwoods Firefly family.

And I sat down with Zombie to talk about his work and what has influenced him.

As a kid, what kind of films did you like? Was it always horror?

It was everything. I was media obsessed. I would collect TV Guide for decades and sometimes I’ll go back and look at them. I would first grab the TV Guide, I’d circle everything I was going to watch for the week, which was basically everything. But back then, when you look at it there were so few channels. What was on TV was actually more selective. So I go, I’m going to watch “Night at the Opera” at 2 o’clock then I’ll watch “The Great Escape” at 4 and then “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” at 8 o’clock until the “Godzilla” movie’s on. And if I can stay awake “Public Enemy” starting at midnight. Everything is OK. I would just literally watch and be as excited for an Abbott and Costello movie as I would be for “King Kong.”

OK, let’s delve into “Three From Hell.” By the way, I auditioned for “The Devil’s Rejects.”

Yeah. I have to find that tape. I probably have it.

It was the deputy role, which Dave Sheridan killed. I remember reading all the sheriff’s testosterone and bravado in the script so I went with the Barney Fife angle to contrast it. You just make an acting choice. But I know we both love this type of actor — the William Forsythe. He’s got that Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmett Walsh vibe. You watch the film knowing at the very least this character actor will deliver a performance.

I wanted to get William Forsythe. I called him on the phone. And then we got together for coffee and that was the end of that. They did a casting session for the sheriff because what if he didn’t want to do it or wasn’t available? Yeah. He was always choice No. 1, and same goes for Dave Sheridan. I was so in love with Dave’s performance in “Ghost World.” I was like, “I got to get that guy!” He’s so out there with his mullet, nunchucks-7-Eleven dude. This is just the greatest performance I’d ever seen. So f—ing ridiculous.

Like you for instance, I love working with actors who can take the tiniest moment and make a meal out of it because once you cut away all the nonsense, there’s something weirdly special that you create, like a Robert Altman movie. You and Kevin (Jackson) were doing a lot of this on “3 From Hell,” concocted these huge backstories and these scenarios which probably when you watch the movie you’ll think we didn’t use any of that. But in a sense we did. The audience can feel the relationship between you guys without having to overstate it with four pages of dialogue. It makes a difference how everyone is relating physically to each other. The scene is alive. Whereas sometimes I watch a movie I’ll go, “Look at these four actors they look like they’ve never met each other before. Their clothes came right out of wardrobe, they still have the tag hanging off them. They don’t feel like people living in the scene.”

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Lionsgate / Saban Films

Or even want to be there.

Yeah. I also always feel like the second time I work with somebody it’s better. Everybody is more relaxed when you know them. Most of the actors I tend to have continued relationships with on some level. It’s not just like “Oh, I haven’t seen you in five years.” I’ve stayed in contact in some way. So when they come back you always get more from them. It’s always better. Every actor comes to my set with some sort of preconceived idea of what it’s going to be. And it’s usually from the last movie they’re on. I’m always surprised when I’m asked, “Is it OK if I change this one word? Like the word, ‘the’?” “Yeah, go ahead and change it — I don’t give a s—.” “Well, my last job if I changed one word I got yelled at.” Oh, boy, that must have been fun.

Well it is true. Some sets are so tension-filled for whatever reason, that it’s hard it to make yourself vulnerable for the role. If you don’t feel supported or trusted then all of a sudden you just start to close down. Of course, sometimes they just need you to say the line and hit the mark. That’s why when actors come back a second time on your films, they get what you’re about. As long as you come prepared, ready and on time. You then have a bunch of people who know each other, put the formalities aside and everyone can just do their work.

And everyone is respectful. I don’t remember anyone running to their phone, ever. I really can’t remember seeing it. Everyone sits there discussing what’s next. And as a testament to this cast and crew there were people in some scenes naked and being completely naked the whole time on set and no one even seems to notice and eventually the actors don’t care: “Well, I don’t give a s—.” There’s no weirdness. Everyone is just in it and that’s when it works.

An actor also has to be on their toes working with you. In “31,” I was supposed to die on page 30. Everyday I’d show up and you’d inform me I was living another day. This continued almost to the end of the film. [Laughs]

Whatever was working you keep it going. This certain character, he’s the standout character he’s going to carry this through. … [If] It’s not not connecting, if it’s not working, I’m going to rewrite this and continue with this other actor. Whatever makes it work. I’m not sticking to the script like it’s carved in stone.

It takes a long time to find the right cast and crew. Producers suggest, “Well, what about this actor, what about this person.” And I know they’re not right. They don’t fit this world — not that they’re a bad actor, it’s just not going to fly. They don’t get it. Sometimes newer producers you’re working with go, “This actor’s name means something.” “Well, not to me.” It’s all about what works for the film.

I remember the first time I worked with you, on “Halloween II.” I always like to get to the set early and kind of suss it out and figure out what I’m going to do in the performance. I would get there and you’d be setting up a shot or spraying graffiti on the wall with the art department or working with the costumer or whatever it was. You were there because you wanted to be there. I could tell you really loved the filmmaking process. You weren’t jaded by it. When the cast and crew sees that, they want to step up and deliver their best. The only other guy who was like this … when I used to work behind the cameras on commercials and music videos was David Fincher. He had a similar way of working. He would come on set and want to be part of it all. I think that work ethic is just contagious. People see that in you.

How can you not want to be? I mean I love every aspect of it. However many days we get to shoot together is the greatest part. Not arguing with the studio or walking down a red carpet. It’s those moments in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere making this f—ing crazy thing. I love every aspect of it. Every part it matters to me.

It’s trust. When you first worked on “Halloween II,” I didn’t know you. I saw your audition and some other things you did and I thought, “This guy’s great.” Now whatever idea I had, if it was at an eight I expect this actor to take it to a 10. I don’t expect to ride this guy and tell him everything to do. That’s what I think with the actors I choose: “You’re a better actor than me I expect you to take whatever idea I have to the next level.”

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Lionsgate / Saban Films

I try to tell these young filmmakers to watch the behind-the-scenes feature, the one for “The Devils Rejects” and “31,” to understand the amount of energy and detail that you put in your films.

All these things we are saying don’t guarantee a great movie. But they guarantee there’s another level of something going on that usually helps make for a great movie.

It’s also a part of the journey. You know this is the part we’re also supposed to enjoy, the challenge of creating it not just the release of the film.

When I made the two “Halloween” movies, the process, because of the studio, was so miserable. “Oh, my God, I don’t think I want to make movies anymore if this is what it has to be.” I don’t want to wake up every day dreading having to work right. Especially because I know it should be awesome.

In your films, and I know this approach doesn’t apply for every supporting character, but I remember you saying that you like the acting in your films to have a heightened reality or a hyper-reality? “Anything but boring” seems to be your motto.

Yeah, I guess it’s like a grounded hyper-reality. I don’t want the performances to be cartoony, I don’t want it to be campy. For some people it may seem heightened but for me I don’t know if it is because I’m so surrounded by extreme characters in my life from the business I’ve grown up in, the music business. Sometimes I’ll enjoy a small indie movie that’s really quiet but I don’t know if I can make that because that’s not how I think. I like being around people who talk, that are funny, that are big, that are doing — I think that’s why I generally make the characters that way. Because I don’t think I have a great grasp on reality. [Laughs] Sometimes when I get that critique of characters being too campy or wacky I think, “They look real to me.” I like everyone to visually have something going on and their performance to be above just being a background, drab person on screen to move the plot forward. I think everyone should matter.

Your rock idols growing up — Alice Cooper, KISS and Ozzy — they are all still playing and probably will to the end. I know you feel the same about your music. You’ll just drop on stage. Do you feel the same with your filmmaking?

The only thing that would stop me from making more movies is just the fighting to get the money. That’s not fun. It’s never the actual work. I can do that forever: getting up early, going to set, kicking ass. It’s the two years waiting for the moment that you can say, “Action.” I always think about that aspect but then somehow here we go again.