I have a very clear memory of meeting Netherlands-born writer-director Tom Six, the man behind THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE films, including the latest and last (he says), THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE III (FINAL SEQUENCE). It was during the the fifth Fantastic Fest, where the first in the trilogy premiered. I make no secret about the fact that I think that THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is a great, oddball piece of body horror, complete with one of my favorite screen villains in the past 10 years, Dr. Heiter, played by Dieter Laser. Six was about as cheerful and sweet a person as I’ve ever met, and he was thrilled with the Austin audience’s response.
And in the six or so years since then, I’ve interviewed Six for all three of his CENTIPEDE film, as well as spoken to both Laser (for the first film), and Laurence R. Harvey, the troll-like star of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II (FULL SEQUENCE). I’ll admit, I didn’t really I had so much time invested in these films over the years, but there you go. With each new CENTIPEDE film, Six has attempted to make a completely different style of film. You could even say that one film feeds the next film with its story and then craps out the next offering.
But with his final chapter, Six not only wanted to create the largest human centipede yet (the press notes say 500 poor souls), but he wanted to do so in his version of a “big American film,” complete with distinctly American villains, a few familiar American actors, and a level of gratuitous violence that goes well beyond a few medically accurate surgical cuts.
My main objective with this interview (as with most I do) is to get the heart of what the director was going for with his latest work, and maybe get a hint about what’s next for him. If you are appalled by the idea of these films, why are you reading this? Walk away with your dignity, away from the Talkback, away from this piece, and move onto to something you’re generally interested in. If you have some enthusiasm for the HUMAN CENTIPEDE films, I think you’ll find this interview enjoyable and enlightening; Six is a great talker—surprisingly matter of fact about his gruesome inclinations.
Nothing enrages me more than people passing judgement on a film they haven’t seen—even a film like this one. It goes against everything I believe as a critic, and it embraces an ignorance that I loathe. Plus, I firmly believe that the more people talk shit about a film like this, the more people race to see it. Time will tell. In the mean time, please enjoy my talk with the singular, indescribable, and sometimes indefensible Tom Six…
Tom Six: Hello, Steve. This is Tom.
Capone: Tom, how are you?
TS: I’m very good. You too?
Capone: Yeah. We’ve spoken for every one of these films, but we met at Fantastic Fest when the first one came out.
TS: Absolutely. I definitely remember you. We are completing our own trilogy.
Capone: Hopefully ours ends better.
Capone: I did notice, one of the credits that you had during the end credits is a thank you to the “brave extras.”
TS: That’s true. They are very brave people. Can you imagine?
Capone: I assume that means that most of those prisoners in the final centipede actually wanted to be there.
TS: They wanted to. Yeah, yeah they wanted to. They’re not real prisoners.
Capone: I didn’t think that. It reminds me of when George Romero was shooting zombie movies, and people would show up volunteering to be zombies. In the 21st century, people want to be part of one of your centipedes.
TS: Part one was hard casting. Everybody from now on wants to be in the centipede.
Capone: How did you recruit those people? How did you get them to actually show up?
TS: As you can imagine, we have so many, so we had to use an agency for that, and when they put out their advertisements they got so many requests. So we shot the film in a big prison outside of L.A., in Lancaster, so we had all of the extras come there, and I could just choose them like some kind of megalomaniac, and they went on their hands and knees, so I could see who could have the close ups and who could perform the best swallowing scenes. Oh yeah, they were fighting for it.
Capone: With this third one, you cast yourself as you. The implication is that this is taking place in the real world. It’s a much more violent film and hateful and insane. Is that how you see the real world?
TS: Absolutely. It’s a cruel world where we live. And I wanted to go out with a bang. And I wanted to go out extra, extra, extra large with the idea of the bad guy winning, because in real life, the bad guys always win.
Capone: I know you say there were 500 people in the final centipede. Were there actually 500 people in that?
TS: Close to. We didn’t do it computer generated. It’s all real.
Capone: I don’t want to ruin it, but there’s an extra bonus insect that we get to see as well. Where did that idea come from?
TS: The Human Caterpillar. I thought, what could be worse than the human centipede? Well, that would be a human caterpillar [in which the inmates are attached similarly, but also have their arms and legs cut off], because you can’t even scratch your head when you’re itchy. So I thought, for the death-row inmates I have to come up with something really spectacular. These guys don't return into society, so why not make them into a human caterpillar, the ultimate in horrible misery, I think.
Capone: There is a crazy logic to that, because they’re never leaving prison, so arms and legs are expendable.
TS: They’re not needed. They just lie there in the sand.
Capone: Between the first and second film, you made a real severe tonal shift. They’re two very different films. They look different; they feel different. What were the changes in tone you were trying to make for this third film?
TS: Well, one and two are very European in style. You see that. With three, I wanted to go full frontal with everything large. We wanted to shoot in America, in a Hollywood style. It’s all shot in widescreen, we used cranes and all the camera techniques they use in Hollywood, and we used much louder, bigger music, like the big Hollywood scores they use. As you can see, the colors, the color grading, we use those shiny, desert colors, so it looks very vibrant, as you see. But parts one and two are way more European. Part two is very underground, dark, black and white, of course. And part one is very medical. And this one is really a satire on Hollywood.
Capone: Every minute of the film looks hot.
TS: It is.
Capone: You mentioned vibrant colors, you use a red color is represents heat, but also everyone is sweating almost the whole time.
TS: Oh, absolutely. It’s also a big contrast, because in part one and two it rains all the time. And this time, I wanted to have the heat.
Capone: Also in this one, the people put in the centipede are prisoners, and there is the implication that, unlike the first two films, in which those people are victims, you believe these people actually deserve this fate to a certain degree? There are no good guys in this film.
TS: Yes. This was my idea. My original idea was about punishment, but I wanted to use all the horror cliches, so I changed it to innocent girls for one and two. This time, I brought back my punishment idea, so I went for prisoners. And I liked the idea when they go out, they can go back into society only having stigma on their mouth and anus. I like that idea.
Capone: Just mildly scarred.
TS: It’s a good deterrent, right?
Capone: It certainly marks them as being a part of something special.
Capone: Also by shooting in the United States for the first time, you were able to get better-known actors—Eric Roberts and Tiny Lister for starters. How did you get them involved?
TS: Part one and two, they became so popular, and the HUMAN CENTIPEDE concept became so huge, that a lot of people in Hollywood know about it. So when I was looking for actors, we contacted agents, and those agents were fans of the HUMAN CENTIPEDE films, and so were a lot of the actors. So when we approached Eric Roberts, he had seen part one, he was a big fan, so we did a Skype interview, and he loved my work. We sent him the script, and he immediately said, “I will be on board.” Same with Tiny Lister and Robert LaSardo. All lovers of the centipede concept.
Capone: You also have Bree Olson, who is know for a couple of different things, but initially at least as adult film actor. She does eventually become a part of this centipede, but that wasn’t her role initially.
TS: Because it’s an all-male cast in an all-male prison, I wanted to have one woman in the film, and I wanted an ultimate American seductress, and I immediately thought I have to get someone from the porn world. Someone like Sasha Grey, the famous porn actress turned actress. I thought about Bree Olsen immediately, and we did castings here in L.A., and she’s a very funny girl and very intelligent, and she wanted to do more acting, and she did an audition and absolutely nailed it. Wo we thought she’s perfect for the roll. She pulled it off. I’m proud.
Capone: Another reason this film seems uniquely American is that Dieter’s character is so racist and hateful. We’re at a time in the U.S. where these issues are being discussed in a big way. Were you afraid you were going too far?
TS: We wanted a character that was completely the opposite of Dr. Heiter, so we wanted a man that’s the ultimate asshole, screaming racist guy who also hates women. He’s the ultimate Southern bad guy— a prison warden who is the ultimate badass. So we put that together and created this person that you are so irritated with, such an asshole. At the same time, the character is also impotent, because he’s also very much a sissy. He’s afraid of everything. But we created a character that is very irritating to watch at the same time, and everybody hates him.
Capone: I won’t deny, the yelling get to me after a while.
TS: Yeah, absolutely. You want him to shut up badly. We had great fun in creating this character. He represents the ultimate Southern Republican American.
Capone: In the first film, it seemed like even though he’s insane, he’s also very much in control, very precise. But here, it’s like you wound him up and let him go. Is he reciting your dialogue, or is he just making it up as he goes?
TS: No, it’s all dialogue. It’s all written, but Dieter sometimes comes up with a line or extra improvisation, and he’s an unstoppable force. I just told him, we go all the way. We go full force. Like you said, Dr. Heiter is very restrained, and this time he’s completely the opposite. He really goes crazy in his performance.
Capone: And to the same degree, Lawrence Harvey in the second film is almost a troll. Here he’s a little bit more refined. He’s the one that has the big ideas. I’m sure as a fairly new actor he was excited to be able to try out some new things.
TS: For Lawrence, we wanted the opposite of the character he played before. He’s a complete mute in part two and mentally unstable, and this time we wanted a very intelligent guy who works with numbers, who comes up with the ideas, who is the brains behind the whole concept, and he loved playing it. Those actors can, in one trilogy, show so much of their skills.
Capone: Did you ever consider getting an actor to play you, or would that have ruined the illusion of reality?
TS: Yeah, certainly. When I was promoting part one and two all over the world, people would say, “You should be in the film. You should create the human centipede.” And I’m not an actor, of course, but I like to play with the effects of reality, so I wanted to bring in The Creator. So I play myself, but I play a sissy form of myself. I wanted to make a complete ass out of myself. I never would have approached this seriously, because I’m not an actor. Otherwise it would have been stupid. As this guy, I could sell myself.
Capone: When you say “sissy,” what exactly are you talking about? You might want to watch how you toss that word around.
TS: I mean a wimpy version of myself, because I insist on seeing the real centipede operation, but in the end, I cannot handle it. It’s too much for me.
Capone: Because you throw up, right. So when you began making these films, did you have a mission statement or an idea of how you wanted to map out a trilogy initially?
TS: I always secretly intended to make three films, because with three films, I could make a movie centipede. In the end, all three can literally be connected. Part two starts where one ends. You can literally connect them into one four-and-a-half-hour film. And I wanted to make it bigger and bigger and bigger. The real challenge was for me to make each film completely different in style, in tone, everything. Nowadays, I see a lot of sequels that are completely the same as part one only worse than the original. They’re so unoriginal. I really wanted to make every one a new movie.
Capone: Are you done with insects for a while?
TS: Yeah. This is now the final sequence, and I have so many other original ideas I want to execute first, but never say never. I can make a film about aliens connecting to the human race or something, maybe one day in 10-20 years. Never say never. But now I’m fed up, like you said, with insects and centipedes for now.
Capone: Where do you see yourself going from here? What direction do you want to go in?
TS: I always want to keep exploring the dark sides of humanity. I don’t see myself directing Hollywood romantic comedies or something. Or I get offers from Hollywood to direct remakes of horror films, and I’m not interested in that. Life is too short, and I want to create my own things that are original, but I always will stick to the pitch-black comedy and horror elements. I’m working now on a film that’s called the ONANIA CLUB. It’s like a biblical term, maybe you should look it up [the terms refers to masturbation, or more specifically, the “heinous sin of self-pollution”]. It has a hook that everybody will talk about, a little bit like the centipede. It is very simple, but “South Park” could easily make a parody of that as well.
Capone: They did a pretty great one after the first one.
TS: They did. I was proud of them.
Capone: Let’s talk about the cultural phenomenon that has surrounded this series, because I have seen everything from stuffed animals, to “South Park,” tattoos. How do you respond to the way people have taken to it?
TS: It’s incredible. I’m very proud that it took off. When I made the films in Holland, it started off with a small idea, and it’s crazy that it spread like an aggressive fire. It’s all over the world. And then like you say we have cat toys, people make cakes, so many people have tattoos, even of Dr. Heiter and Laurence on their legs. It’s amazing. Where will it stop?
Capone: I just saw a picture yesterday of a hamburger,where the three buns are connected and the burgers are connected.
TS: It’s ridiculous, and I love it.
Capone: Did something happen to you as a child that somehow damaged your brain and made this come out of it?
TS: I’m a victim of a happy childhood. I had a very lovely childhood, I was brought up by loving, caring people around me, we had pets. And that, I think, made me completely insane. I couldn’t stand it, so I started watching horror films and reading all kinds of dark literature, and that never left me. I’m fascinated by that part of life.
Capone: Do you remember specific horror films that you responded to early on?
TS: Definitely. The film that made the biggest impression when I was young was SALO by Pasolini. It’s great. And I saw that when I was a little kid. It’s pretty intense and it never left my mind. Of course, I saw THE SHINING and THE EXORCIST, all those classics. They’re brilliant, brilliant pieces of art.
Capone: Suddenly you make much more sense to me, now that I know that SALO was the film that struck you the most.
TS: I wish Pasolini could have seen my centipedes.
Capone: Looking back on your centipede films, is there anything you might have done differently with more time or money?
TS: No. Nothing differently. This is exactly how my master plan looked. So I just followed my animal instincts to get it done.
Capone: Going back to Eric Roberts for a second, he looks genuinely uncomfortable in most of the scenes he’s in. Was he a little weirded out by what was going on, or did he seem to be going with it?
TS: No, he embraced it. I saw him looking around, because of course we are European film team, so we work totally different than Americans. He was fascinated by our way of working. He was surrounded by European actors, European DP, and he was looking like, “My god, you work in a totally different style.” That’s why he loved it on set.
Capone: Tom, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I can’t wait to see what you’ve got next.
TS: Thank you so much, Steve. We’ll talk for the next film—100 percent sure.