Rob Zombie on '31': Creating Murder and Mayhem in Low-Budget Horror
The rock-auteur Rob Zombie helms his eighth feature film.
There’s more to horror than the jump scare. If you’re a fan, you want a story that crawls under your skin and gets in your face—one that deprives you of sleep and pushes your tolerance for chaos and massacre.
Rob Zombie’s latest horror film 31 does just that, detailing a gruesome nightmare suffered by five carnival workers after they’re abducted by psychos the night before Halloween. Held hostage, they must play a twisted game and survive the next 12 hours against a band of murderous maniacs, comprised of chainsaw-wielding brothers (David Ury, Lew Temple) and a bloodthirsty homicidal clown (Richard Brake).
"She's in the back of a bathroom stall with her impending death knocking on the door, but for us on set, it’s her reacting to nothing but a camera in her face and me saying, 'Look left, look right.'"
No Film School caught up with Zombie about how the horror genre has changed, his love of the ’70s, and his filmmaking process while on tour with his latest album, The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser.
No Film School: It’s been over 10 years since House of 1000 Corpses. What have you learned about development?
Rob Zombie: I obviously learned a lot, but the main takeaway is to get the film made, as stupid as that sounds. It’s so easy to take meetings and talk and develop and take more meetings. Then all of a sudden, you’re like, 'Wait a minute, it’s been two years and we still haven’t made a movie yet.' That’s my only goal—to get it going.
NFS: Getting the green light is tough, especially in horror.
Zombie: Definitely. The business has changed so much in the short amount of time I’ve been in it, and it’s changed in a way where it’s not easy to make films. We did some crowdfunding for 31 but, unfortunately, we couldn’t do the whole movie that way. It was extremely helpful to get it off the ground, but it wasn’t everything.
"One of the big things hitting horror is the death of DVD. They were our saving grace."
One of the big things hitting horror is the death of DVD. They were our saving grace. Like, for The Devil’s Rejects, we did a little bit of box office, but crazy big on DVD. Now, you take that out of the equation and it’s harder to get the budgets together to make these things.
NFS: Do you think you’ll ever get a budget like The Devil’s Rejects again?
Zombie: I wouldn’t say never, but it would be very hard to get $7 million to make The Devil’s Rejects today. They would give you one maybe two million. The luxury factor is gone.
NFS: So was The Lords of Salem your first foray into low-budget filmmaking?
Zombie: Yes. In a sense, they are all low-budget movies but not like that. It was the lowest budget and had the shortest amount of shooting days until 31.
NFS: How does that affect your script process, then?
Zombie: The budget has a lot of to do with its development. I struggled with The Lords of Salem, but by making that film, in dealing with that short amount of time, I knew how to better deal with 31. I would write my usual way, but when going through it again, you realize you have too many characters, or there are too many situations going on. That’s when you cut, cut, cut and make the script more precise. Knowing from my past experience how shooting days were going to go, I could find what the script could be.
"DPs think it’s all about them. It’s not. You can light a scene all day, and I know it’s going to be beautiful, but I still have to get it on film or it doesn’t count."
While we were shooting, I kept on thinking how crazy everything was. There’s a lot of action in the film. Like, how am I going to do a double chain saw fight sequence in one day? It’s so easy to write it down, but when it comes to actually doing it, you realize how much struggle it is. The fight scenes were easily the most time-consuming thing on this movie. They didn’t have time to be consumed.
NFS: 31 is murder mayhem dipped in crazy-sauce. It’s like a carnival version of Battle Royale, but instead of the heroes killing each other, they’re killing these awful maniacs. Where did the idea come from?
Zombie: It’s interesting. When I talk to people, they say it reminds them of The Running Man or some other film, but the starting point for me was the most dangerous game: people hunting humans. It’s a basic idea, a simple premise that has been done a lot of different ways. Because of the budget restrictions, I knew I had to make it self-contained, so the story developed from there.
NFS: Locations are easily one of the biggest expenses in production. For most of 31, we’re in a rundown factory. Did you find a single place that served the story?
Zombie: We shot everything at practical locations, as we had no money to build anything. Part of the factory was Willow Studios which is in downtown Los Angeles. We used that location for most of the claustrophobic scenes in the film. Then the bigger, more establishing environmental shots took place in an abandoned power plant out in Santa Clarita.
NFS: What kind of plan did you and cinematographer David Daniel have going in?
Zombie: We only had 20 days to shoot this entire movie, but the great thing about David is that he’s worked with me on every single movie except for House of 1000 Corpses. He’s been the main camera operator on both Halloween films and The Lords of Salem, so on 31, I moved him up to DP. We have such a shorthand; it makes it really helpful when we’re constantly shooting.
Zombie: We came up with an overall lighting scheme so we could just crank out the material, but it was never easy. We were always setting up smoke in the scene, setting up backlights, rotating fans, shooting 360 degrees and putting up drip lines so water could drip down. David knows I like to move fast but I wanted detail in every shot.
NFS: My guess with only 20 days, you don’t want to be waiting for camera.
Zombie: David knows I never want to be waiting for camera. I will wait for the actors, but I want camera to always be ready. We were never waiting on him and his team. I’ve worked with other DPs and they think it’s all about them. It’s not. You can light a scene all day, and I know it’s going to be beautiful, but I still have to get it on film or it doesn’t count.
As a director, you have to find a way to make it as good as you can and realistic as possible with the time you have. With a tight schedule, you have a lot to shoot and if you don’t move on, we won’t have a movie.
NFS: 31 is set in 1976, like many of your other films set in the '70s. Any particular reason?
Zombie: I think it’s the best time period. It’s special to me because I was a teenager back then. It’s when I discovered music, TV, and film. It will always be my favorite, 'cause I love how people look and how things are more primitive. The one thing that makes it difficult about shooting period pieces is that it’s more expensive. You can’t just go out and do anything. That’s why with The Lords of Salem I gave it a '70s vibe but it wasn’t in the '70s. If it was, I couldn’t have shot it the way we did. We would have to remove every wrong car, change out all the clocks and lamp posts to give it an authenticity, which we didn’t have the money to do.
NFS: With such a challenging schedule, how do you build the horror in 31?
Zombie: It’s really a combination of the frame and acting. We’ll go over the scene and block it, but it’s really on our cast to bring it. In one scene, the audience sees Sheri [Charly] shoved in the back of a bathroom stall with her impending death knocking on the door, but for us on set, it’s her reacting to nothing but a camera in her face and me saying, "Look left, look right."
Same with the opening scene with Doom-Head [Richard Brake]. In our minds as the audience, we see him talking to this priest, but in reality, he’s just talking to a camera that’s about two inches from his face. It’s up to people behind the scenes to make it look good, but it’s up the actors to make us feel something.
NFS: How do you and editor Glenn Garland work together?
Zombie: I have an editing suite at my house so we will edit there. Glenn starts by building an assembly which is usually about four hours long because he doesn’t want to lose anything. Then, I’ll sit with him every day until we find the story we want to tell. What’s good about Glenn is that 99% of the time he will pick the takes that I would pick. He knows and understands my sensibilities, which is great to have in an editor.