It’s usually never a good sign for a filmmaker when people get up in the middle of your movie and leave the theater shaking their heads in disgust. But for Dutch director/writer Tom Six, it’s kind of flattering.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, it’s a shame that you walked out because you’re going to miss so many nice things and beautiful shots,” Six told me during a phone interview from Amsterdam. “But on the other hand it’s a compliment because if your story affects people so much that they can’t handle it then you must have done something right.”
In Six’s latest film “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” (released on DVD Oct. 5), the controversial horror film tells the story of two young American girls (Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie) who are taken hostage by a psychotic German surgeon (Deiter Laser) after their car breaks down near his home in the woods.
What makes “The Human Centipede” one of the most talked about horror movies this year is what comes next. The surgeon, who has also taken a young Japanese man captive, performs a medical procedure on all three individuals creating what he calls a “human centipede” by stitching them together mouth to anus.
During our interview, Six discussed how fascinated he is by human behavior, how medically accurate the film actually is, and how he plans on topping the “First Sequence” with an upcoming sequel.
None of your films before “The Human Centipede” were horror films, so what led you to the genre?
I absolutely love horror. When I was a kid I would watch so many horror films. But in Holland, the film world is very narrow-minded. The country is so small and everyone makes the same films over and over again. Holland is not a good place to make horror films, but I always knew that when I made this film – my first international film – it would have to be a horror film because I love the genre. There are a lot of boundaries to be discovered and tested.
What types of horror movies did you grow up watching? Were they from America?
Absolutely. I love the early work of David Cronenberg like “The Brood.” I love his work. There’s an Italian film I love called “Saló” by [Pier Paolo] Pasolini. It’s a masterpiece. I have seen so many films. “The Shining” is another.
What is your take on American horror today and its reliance on sequels and remakes?
Sometimes there are really original films made, but it’s only a handful. Things like “The Blair Witch Project” and the original “Saw” and “Hostel” were very original, but most of the time they just copy old films and do them over and over again.
Have you always been attracted to the darker aspects of human behavior?
Yeah, I am fascinated by human behavior. Most of the time in daily life you experience the normal side of people. But it’s such a thin layer. It’s so interesting when a war breaks out and people turn into animals. It’s very hard to imagine that people can be so cruel and behave so strangely. That fascinates me. As a filmmaker you can show the dark side without being dark yourself.
Isn’t it interesting how people can look at a movie like “The Human Centipede” and honestly think that whoever made the film has to be just as psychotic as the movie is?
It is so strange. There are so many people out there that will make that connection. I always tell people that it’s just make believe. It’s not real. Someone made a Facebook page of me and people can write anything they want on that page. People are saying I should be sterilized. Some people say I’m worse than Hitler. Some people want to shoot me. It’s incredible. People say I’m degrading the human race and women. I say it’s just a film. There are prisons out there with real lunatics. I’m just a guy with a big imagination, that’s all.
Most of that criticism online – and I’ve read a lot of it – is from people who haven’t even seen the film. They’re simply passing judgment on the trailer or just the premise of the film. Wouldn’t you rather them watch your film first and then hate it?
I think a person reacting to the idea is a good thing. I think the movie works so well because it has such a crazy, basic idea. That’s what every filmmaker dreams of – having an idea that you can shoot into the world and have it spread like a virus. I knew it was a crazy idea when I wrote it. I knew I would get a lot of reactions from it. But I never expected those really extreme reactions.
What kind of research did you have to do to see if this medical procedure was even possible, and was it even important to you to make sure it could really be done?
Oh, yeah, definitely. When I wrote the story I knew I wanted a surgeon to do an operation in the film. I wanted to consult a real surgeon, so I found one in Holland. At first he said he wasn’t going to work with me because it was against his medical oath, but I found out he was a big movie lover so after a while he agreed to help me anonymously. He ended up writing this very detailed operation report for me. He told me he could actually make a human centipede in his hospital. In the film you see that the people are hooked to IVs at night. When they get nutrients and fluids through these IVs they can live for a long, long time. People always ask me about the feces, but the doctor told me that feces is not attacked by outside bacteria so you could live for a long time.
Do you think part of the reason the film is so disturbing is because if there was really a psychotic surgeon out there he could actually perform a procedure like this if he really wanted?
Yeah, that’s what makes it so scary, and the fact that you’re so helpless. You’re in this situation and you really can’t escape. You’re there on your hands and knees and your built in between other human beings.
Describe to me what your first public screening of this film was like.
I love watching the movie with an audience. The first screening was a test screening in Holland. We invited all kinds of people – people who liked horror films and people who like romantic comedies. We didn’t tell them what they were going to see. There were a lot of people who left the theater when they saw it, mostly women. They were actually afraid to look at me and talk to me afterwards. They thought I was absolutely crazy. The horror fans absolutely loved it. They said they had never seen anything like it before.
How do you respond to your critics who say this film is nothing more than another entry into the “torture porn” subgenre? Honestly, I was kind of surprised at how very little you show in terms of blood and gore.
Yeah, I knew when I made this film that critics would be divided. One half of the critics think it’s great and the other half don’t. But those who call it “torture porn” I don’t think really understand the film very well. You can never please everybody and there is nothing I can do about it. But I think it’s a shame when they think it’s something cheap.
One film critic we have to discuss is Roger Ebert. “The Human Centipede” was only the second film of his entire career that he refused to give a star rating to. Basically he said he couldn’t recommend it, but also couldn’t not recommend it. What did you think about that decision?
I think that was a very cool criticism. I was very proud of that. I think some part of him likes it but the other part doesn’t. Those conflicting feelings I think were too much for him so he decided not to give it a rating. If he really didn’t like it he would have just given it one star or something. But somehow his head is saying, “Hm, this film is better than one star but I can’t give it five stars either.” I was really happy with his review.
“The Human Centipede” is unlike any horror film I’ve ever seen, but I have to say the first 15 minutes or so hit just about every horror cliché in the book. Can you explain to me why you decided to set up the film like that?
I did it on purpose because I wanted to trick the audience. So, I used all the horror clichés like the phone not working and the flat tire. I saw people watching the movie at film festivals and they all had the same reaction: “Oh, we’ve see this a thousand times.” And then it hits them extra hard when [the rest of the film] happens. I could have began the film very original, but I think this works better.
What was the inspiration behind writing the character of Dr. Heiter and how did the role transform in the hands of Deiter Laser?
When I was writing the script I read a lot about WWII. I read about the most scary and notorious Nazi surgeons. I really wanted to use a German actor and play with the idea that he might have been related to a Nazi doctor. I saw a DVD of Deiter when I was writing the script and thought he was amazing. I loved his charisma and his voice. I looked him up and saw that he had done like 40 films, but he never played in a horror film before. We contacted him and he absolutely loved the script. He’s such a great actor. He even brought his own wardrobe that he wanted to wear. The white coat that he wears is something he found at an old Nazi depot. It’s a real Nazi coat from WWII! He’s a really nice guy, but on set he never wanted to eat with the crew or the cast. He wanted to be alone to stay in character all the time. He gave me a lot for this role.
So, Deiter was your first choice for the surgeon all along. I have to assume it was much more difficult to cast the two girls. Describe what that casting process was like and some of the reactions you got from actresses who came in to audition and found out what this movie was about.
It was so hard. It was a real nightmare. We did the casting in New York and almost 70 actresses left almost immediately when I showed them drawings and told them about my plan. So many actresses just want to be pretty. But the smart ones stayed. Both Ashley [Williams] and Ashlynn [Yennie] wanted to learn more about how I was going to shoot it and were curious and not afraid. The other girls that were left, even when we put them on their hands and knees, they were so afraid to be close to the ass in front of them. They couldn’t do it. The strongest ones ended up being Ashley and Ashlynn. They were really brave.
It’s no secret that the sequel to this movie will feature a 12-person centipede. What is significant about that number and aren’t you worried it will be less believable with that many people?
I always told myself if I was going to make a sequel it had to be just as original as the first one. I see a lot of films with unoriginal sequels and am very disappointed. I think I had so many ideas when I was writing the first one I said, “I really have to make another one to put all my ideas in.” I always imagined a longer centipede. Somehow that number came up as the length I wanted. Part 2 is going to be very nasty.