SXSW: Jeff Daniel Phillips Fears 'The Lords of Salem'
How a caveman walked with a Zombie
By Richard Whittaker, 9:30AM, Mon. Mar. 11
Don't let the title fool you. There are few lords in Rob Zombie's new shocker The Lords of Salem. Ask Jeff Daniel Phillips, one of the few men in the satanic shocker which tears into its U.S. premier today at SXSW.
For good or ill, Phillips will always be famous as the original Geico caveman, but he's also an indie director and character actor. He and Zombie first met on the set of Halloween II, where Phillips had a brief scene as Howard Boggs, a bouncer stomped to death by Michael Myers. "But then somebody fell through in another part, the MC host Uncle Seymour Coffins, and [Zombie] said, "Hey, what are you doing next week?' There was something he liked in my other scene, but I said, 'I have to go back.' He said, 'I want you to come back and play another role in the film.'"
Now he returns in Lords as Herman Whitey Salvador, one third of the DJ trio besieged by supernatural forces and the closest confidante of Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) as she descends into a private hell. On being asked back again by Zombie, he said: "It kind of blew me away. He's been a true supporter of mine and of my career."
But that's how Zombie works. He has his stable that he goes back to, with underground heroes like Ken Foree and Sid Haig always willing to pick up the phone. Phillips said: "He obviously digs character actors, and he wants to create an environment and let you bring it. All the veteran actors feel it too, with all their cult hits, they were all talking about that on the set, how its rare to have a director with a vision who'll let you have your chance to shine."
He was initially surprised by how big Whitey's part was, and he gave credit to Zombie. While many write him off as a flash-and-bang visuals guy, behind the scenes he's character-first. Originally, he said, "Whitey's character was a little more minimal," but in the final version he is the one standing closest to Heidi's fire. Phillips said, "A lot of that came out of rehearsals. It just kind of evolved a relationship between Sheri's character and mine, and he kept rewriting and we could keep working on it." The end result was that the actors had as long to prepare as to shoot. Phillips said, "It's really rare to have two to three weeks to rehearse any kind of script or any kind of film, and that was blessing. He digs the process, and it's great to be able to sort these things out organically or feel themselves out as far as the characters go, without trying to deal with the pressures of trying to make your day on the shoot."
Not that the preparation made the shoot bloodless. Phillips said, "In the beginning there was laughing and fun, but he shot pretty close to chronological order. By the end of those three weeks, we were all wrecked. Lack of sleep, the contents of the piece, all the torture and terrorizing of Sheri, witnessing it, it was pretty brutal. Hats off to Sheri for going the distance and creating this iconic character."
It's a rough ride for Sheri, who is not just Zombie's muse but also married to him. "I could never make my wife go through that," Phillips said, "but on the other hand it's such a tight couple that she's able to be so vulnerable because she has so much trust for him." The downside is that she has faced criticism for only working in her husband's films. However, Phillips said: "Let's make it clear. She chooses not to work. She could work in a lot of different things. She gets offers. She doesn't want to. She's not like the average actress, knocking on doors and auditioning. She gets offers, but she'd rather just work with him and do what she's comfortable with." As for why Zombie keeps casting her in parts that are often menaced, menacing, or downright psychotic, he said, "Who would you trust more than your wife if you're trying to deliver a vision?"
Not everything has always been wine and bloody-thorned roses in the Zombie cinematic garden. His opening salvo, the hellbilly terrors of House of a Thousand Corpses and The Devil's Rejects were stylized and brutal and got a lot of fans salivating. But the same pack of gorehounds split over his reconstruction of Halloween and its sequel. For some, it was an ingenious way to re-open Michael Myers crypt, both more grounded and more surreal than its predecessors: For others, it was just flat out heresy. Comparing the two shoots, Phillips said: "Halloween II was a lot bigger scope and more locations and a lot more people, and every day was another company move. Whereas this one, while there's some epic moments, you kind of forget that the majority of the film is in this woman's apartment."
SXSW presents the U.S. premiere of The Lords of Salem, Monday midnight, Topfer; Wednesday, 11:30pm, Alamo Ritz 2. Rob Zombie will also be taking part in A Conversation With Rob Zombie, Tuesday, 3:30pm at the Austin Convention Center, Room 16AB, and at 4:40pm he will be signing copies of the novelization of Lords of Salem.