The Lords of Salem opens in limited theaters (New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, DC, Miami, Dallas, Houston, Detroit) tomorrow, April 19 from Anchor Bay Films. While not all of the story worked for me, I definitely appreciated the mood, tone and striking visuals in the film. I sat down with writer/director Rob Zombie a few weeks back and we discussed his approach to crafting such a cinematic experience, as well as what corners he needed to cut in order to get his tale to the screen.
“From the singular mind of horror maestro Rob Zombie comes a chilling plunge into a nightmare world where evil runs in the blood. The Lords of Salem tells the tale of Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a radio station DJ living in Salem, Massachusetts, who receives a strange wooden box containing a record, a “gift from the Lords.” Heidi listens, and the bizarre sounds within the grooves immediately trigger flashbacks of the town’s violent past. Is Heidi going mad, or are the “Lords of Salem” returning for revenge on modern-day Salem?” The film stars Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Maria Conchita Alonso, Judy Geeson, Meg Foster and Griffin Boice.
I can’t imagine it coming across at all in the online screener. Really what inspired the look of it was, well people say The Shining, and that’s true in the sense that I saw that in the theater when I was young. And I was so blown away by it and so sucked into it. And for all the years that followed I watched it on a TV or computer or something smaller until just recently I saw it again on the big screen and I was just shocked by the impact. How big it was. And that’s when I decided to start shooting everything real wide, it works best in a theater. It feels like a movie. It’s more of a visual movie than a talky one.
Starting at the beginning, this is an original story. What was the inception point for it?
Well, I’m from Massachusetts and knew about it but never really thought about it. And about seven years ago I got this cheap little book on the Salem Witch Trials. I was staying at a hotel and I saw it in the lobby – it was called Hunting Witches or something like that. So I started reading it and then working on Lords, but then I just forgot all about it. I’d written about a third of the script and threw it in the drawer.
Then a few years ago I was approached by Blumhouse, who wanted to do a low budget movie where I had total control. The only stipulation was that they wanted something that was supernatural or psychological – not as violent. So I dragged it out and it all came to be.
For something with so many hallucinatory sequences, what’s it like executing that on the page?
It’s a little weird. It’s tricky for me because I can picture what I want to do. It’s sort of a backwards process because, in my mind, it’s done. So my process is sort of describing to someone else a finished movie, for visuals and stuff. So when we were making it people would gather around the monitor and say, “oh that’s what you were talking about!”
So when you get to your final cut, how close is it in reality to what you imagined?
It varies. Sometimes I’ll look at it and say, “okay, this is exactly how I pictured it.” From the actors to the shot to the lines, it’s exactly the same. And then some other things are so different. Like the image on the poster, which is something I thought of the night before and just did it the next day. That wasn’t in the script. The makeup, the look, the whole scene – none of it was in the script. We ran out of time to shoot the scene that was in the script.
“We ran out of time” was sort of the catchphrase of the whole movie. We’d be running out of time and I’d have to think of something else and we’d do it. The cast and crew were very confused.
People mention The Shining, but to me that’s mainly in shot composition. The pacing here is much more fast. Was there a different, slower version of the movie? There are a lot of actors that were in it at one point that are no longer in it.
There was and there wasn’t. I conceived the whole thing as being a little more epic, but the budget and the shooting schedule couldn’t handle what I had conceived. We had enough of a budget to make a movie about a girl stuck in a spooky house, and that literally would have been the whole movie. We would have stayed in the apartment building and we would have had like three other characters.
A lot of Blumhouse films take place in a confined space.
And that’s the kind of budget we had. But I wanted to have this and that, and have all these other characters. I didn’t want it to look like a small budget horror movie. So then I got more ideas and ran amok and had to peel back. Because the stuff that takes place in 1697 was initially a bigger story. The characters that Sid Haig, Michael Berryman and Richard Lynch played were much more fleshed out characters. They had scenes that would really explain things and their connection to the more modern day characters. But then you just realize that you have to cut your losses because you just don’t have enough time.
That became a domino effect. If the character that Sid Haig is playing is connected to Barbara Crampton’s character and his story doesn’t get fleshed out, then her story won’t make any sense. There was a point where I kept some of it in, and when we were editing we tried making it work. And then we realized that the more we tried to explain it, the more confusing it was actually getting. So that’s when we dialed it back.
Perhaps that helps the film benefit from a consistency of mood?
It works best the way it is now. I could have worked the way it was, but we didn’t have time to make that movie so there’s no sense in forcing it. Movies take on a life of their own, and now I can’t picture the movie any other way.