Rob Zombie is mostly known for his horror flicks, but he says that his new project, based on a book about the final years of comedy legend Groucho Marx, is the kind of movie "I was always looking for."
Here's what we know about the forthcoming Groucho Marx biopic: First, it will be based on the 1996 book Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho's House, written by Marx's former personal assistant, Steve Stoliar. Stoliar worked for Marx during the last few years of the comedian's life and witnessed all the weird and well-documented drama that went down between Marx and his controlling (and much, much younger) girlfriend Erin Fleming. Second, the screenplay is being written by Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the script for the recent Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy. And third, the film will be directed by heavy metal veteran and horror auteur Rob Zombie.
It's this last bit that has proven controversial. Zombie—best known for his multiplatinum musical career and horror flicks like House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects, and two Halloween remakes—isn't exactly the obvious choice to direct a dark drama about the final years of Hollywood's most fabled comedian. In fact, when Zombie was announced as director, the internet threw such a hissy fit that Stoliar felt compelled to write a piece for The Hollywood Reporter defending Zombie as the right man for the job. But other than a widely distributed quote describing the film as "Groucho's Sunset Boulevard," Zombie has remained silent on his involvement.
That is, until now. Zombie recently spoke exclusively to VICE about his love for the Marx Brothers, how people underestimate him, and the similarities between heavy metal and horror.
VICE: When were you first exposed to Groucho Marx?
Rob Zombie: I was a big Marx Brothers fan when I was a little kid because their movies were always on TV. A Night at the Opera, in particular, was on a lot. So I discovered the Marx Brothers movies around the same time I discovered any movie, really. Also around that time, You Bet Your Life, Groucho's game show, was on local TV all the time. I was hooked on that. Groucho was still alive, so you'd see him on The Dick Cavett Show or The Merv Griffin Show. So I was always a fan.
What do you think it was that drew you to his style of humor?
The Marx Brothers were pretty outrageous, especially for the time. They're almost like surrealists—especially Harpo. But I always loved Groucho's double entendres and quick quips, where it seemed like he was on script but ad-libbing at the same time. They were just so bizarre. But for a kid growing up at that time, certain figures were so legendary—Marilyn Monroe, Groucho Marx, James Dean. Hollywood figures like that were so big that they were everywhere. I remember having a Groucho Marx T-shirt as a kid, I think before I even knew who he was. There was a big Groucho resurgence in the early 70s, I think, because he became hip with the college crowd again. I was probably in the second grade, but it was still prevalent.
You got involved with this film because you'd enjoyed Steve Stoliar's book, Raised Eyebrows. When did you first read it?
I remember buying it in hardcover maybe five or seven years ago. I've read tons of books on the Marx Brothers, but what stood out about Raised Eyebrows was that it was the first one that was just about a certain period of time, and it was written from the point of view of the person who lived it. It wasn't an overall biography that covered his whole life—a lot of those books might have the facts wrong because [the authors are] just assuming they know what happened. But Raised Eyebrows is just the last three years of his life.
Did you immediately think about adapting it for a movie?
No, it never crossed my mind—which is strange, because I was always looking for a movie like that. Something like Ed Wood, a small, contained movie about a certain Hollywood figure. Even though that movie is kind of a comedy and kind of ridiculous the way it's told, it's just about the last couple years of his life.
One day—I can remember it clearly—I think I had done an interview with Kerrang! magazine in the UK, and the interviewer had asked me what was one of my favorite books. I said Raised Eyebrows, and somehow that got back to Steve. Then one day I was on the treadmill and Tyler Bates, the composer, called me and said, "A friend of mine is friends with Steve. He was excited you mentioned his book." That was when I was like, "Oh my God—that would be the greatest movie ever! I gotta get Steve on the phone!" For some reason, it just struck me at that moment.
Were you surprised by the pushback since you were announced as director?
No, not really. That's a thing that happens with movies: Whatever type of thing you do, people think that's the only thing you can do. It's not just with directors—I hear it from actors and editors, too. People don't understand that there's a set of skills that exist, and the genre is almost irrelevant. They think, "Oh, you only make Westerns. How could you possibly make a science-fiction movie?"
At the same time, a biopic about a Hollywood legend is a pretty big departure from the horror movies you're known for making. Are you viewing it as a challenge?
I view every movie as a challenge, because they all are. Yeah, it's a departure, but believe it or not, I approach all my films as dark dramas. I never think, "Oh, I'm making a horror movie," because if you're not invested in the characters, the rest of it is irrelevant. You just don't care. As a filmmaker, the character-driven stuff is where I obsess—not on the gore or the violence or the special effects. That's always my least favorite part of the filmmaking process.
Steve met with other producers and directors over the years to get his book made into a film, but it didn't work out. What's your take on why this hasn't been made before?
Without speaking for Steve, I think the reason is that... I mean, Steve wrote the book. Steve lived the story. But people come in and go, "OK, the first person we have to cut out of this process is Steve." [Laughs] That's just the way this town works sometimes. Steve and I saw everything the same way: I wanted to keep Steve in the story; I didn't want any flashbacks with young Groucho; I wanted to work from his book and his original script. Because, you know, the story is dark enough exactly as it is. You don't need to enhance it in any way. And I see Steve as the main source for this—he's the one who was there in the house. Groucho has died. Erin [Fleming] has died. Steve is the only one left. So I think that was the turning point—when he knew I wanted him involved and didn't want to cut him out.
Do you have ideas for whom you want to play Groucho, Steve, and Erin? Or are you totally open to the possibilities at this point?
I have some ideas, mostly for Groucho, but that's about it. But I can't talk about it because they're just ideas. The Groucho role is a tricky one because he was such a charismatic, odd character—even when he was in his 80s. You need someone who has an odd sense of humor but who can really carry a heavy drama. And I want to get someone older. I don't want to get someone young and put them in old-age makeup.
Erin Fleming seems like a tough role to cast as well—if only because her role in Groucho's life was so controversial.
[Steve has said] at first she would seem nice; then she would seem crazy. One day she'd seem like the only thing keeping Groucho alive, and the next day she'd be abusing him. As time went on, Steve realized that she was drugging Groucho and trying to manipulate him for her own showbiz career and kept him separate from his family and children. The story just gets darker and darker.
She's a really complex character. All three of them are. Everybody has to be amazing because all the roles are pretty demanding. In fact, that's one of the problems I had with the first pass of the script: Steve had underplayed his character, I think naturally because it was him. But I said, "Steve, the whole audience is seeing this through your character. You're the super-fan who's 19 and now living in the house with the legend. You gotta stop minimizing your role."
This movie will be judged in way that your horror movies have not been, because it's based both on true events and on a book. Is that on your mind as you're putting the film together?
No, not really. I think it's kind of exciting because in the horror genre, nothing is seen as what it is. It's written off. Same with hard rock: It doesn't matter how skillfully something is made or how much work goes into it, or how incredible it is, it's just, "Oh, it's bad. Who cares?" It's like what used to drive me crazy with the Grammys: The hard rock or heavy metal award would be presented off-screen—even if it sold like 5 million copies—and then something like best spoken word would be presented on-screen, even if it only sold like 600 copies. It's always like that. Then 30 years after the fact, someone does a retrospective on it at the museum of modern art. These things are never appreciated in their time.
As if the Groucho biopic weren't enough, Zombie also has a crowd-funded horror flick on the way called 31, plus a new album entitled The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration due in April. You can preorder it here.