An edited version of my interview with Scott Derrickson, the co-writer and director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, is up at CT Movies today. For now, they have the exclusive, but I’ll post a longer version of the interview here — and it is quite a bit longer! — a few days from now. FWIW, this interview took place a week or two ago, but I didn’t actually see the film until last night.
SEP 2 UPDATE: Here it is, the full unexpurgated interview — it’s a sprawling epic, full of diversions and tangents, and four or five times as long as the edited version that ran at CT Movies!
SEP 9 UPDATE: And now my review has been posted, too.
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By Peter T. Chattaway
Can a Christian make horror movies? Scott Derrickson thinks so. As a screenwriter — and a Christian — he has worked on quite a few films in the genre, including Urban Legends: Final Cut, Dracula 2000 and Hellraiser: Inferno, the last of which he also directed. His newest film as co-writer and director, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, coming to theaters on September 9, looks at first glance like more of the same.
But this movie is a little different. It is based on the true story of a German woman named Anneliese Michel, who died during an exorcism in 1976; the priests who tried to cast the demons out of her were charged with manslaughter. So the film is part horror story, part courtroom drama — and Derrickson says it will get people talking about God.
Derrickson spoke to Christianity Today Movies from his home in Glendale, California.
The first question I have — and it’s probably a question you’ve addressed many times, I’m sure, but just for the sake of our readers — is, Why would a Christian get involved in horror films, of all things?
Derrickson: In my opinion, the horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with. I think the more compelling question is, Why do so many Christians find it odd that a Christian would be working in this genre? To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it’s unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that’s something that a lot of Christians don’t want to do, unfortunately.
And that has been my experience as a Christian through much of my life. To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It’s about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we’re not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I’m talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don’t do these things. It is a genre that’s full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.
You mentioned the supernatural. Many Christians who don’t like horror are also very much in love with the fantasy world — C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, etc. Does fantasy deal with the supernatural in any sort of comparable way?
Derrickson: I think that fantasy does deal with it overtly — more overtly than most other genres — but I also think that fantasy deals with it a bit more fancifully. The evil within the fantasy genre tends to be threatening to the heroes within the story, but not to the reader — or not to the viewer, in the case of cinema — and that’s why I think it’s more palatable, and something that is more easily embraced for a lot of people. Because it does deal directly with good and evil, but it doesn’t serve to actually render feelings of fear and terror within the reader, in the case of literature, or within the viewer, in the case of cinema.
I’m not a giant fan of fantasy, I guess, because it’s also very metaphorical. There is something about even the more imaginative horror films that still strikes closer to reality. But there’s definitely a relationship between them, and it’s no coincidence that, when you go to your local blockbuster or bookstore, science fiction and fantasy are put together on the same shelf. And I think that has to do with what we’re talking about: that willingness of those genres to tackle the supernatural, and tackle good and evil, and tackle the grand imaginative realms of darkness and light without just sticking only to the lighter side.
How do you avoid — or should you avoid — what some might consider a fascination with evil? This is not just applicable to secular horror films, but, you know, when I was a kid, Jack Chick comics were really cool, because they got into really sensationalistic stuff.
Derrickson: That’s a very good question, and it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I think of this kind of material in an almost dietary fashion. It’s something that is potent and powerful and it’s not healthy for anyone to overindulge in it.
I remember I interviewed Wes Craven one time, and he had an analogy for what he felt was the value of the horror genre, and he’s a very non-religious person, and what he said was he felt that it functioned almost like an inoculant, and I like that term. The idea that horror and gothic material can inoculate us from evil, it gives us enough of the experience of it, almost like when you are inoculated with a small dose of smallpox — I think it’s called cowpox — a small dose of the disease can help your system become capable of dealing with the larger infection that is out in the world. And I think that horror films and horror literature can do that same thing, but the danger is that you can get too much inoculant and catch the disease.
I would be concerned if one of my children were constantly watching nothing but horror films or indulging in gothic literature without the balance of other types of art and entertainment. I do think that’s a danger. C. S. Lewis had that very practical wisdom, well stated, in his introduction to The Screwtape Letters, when he talks about how the two great dangers, in regard to our thoughts about the demonic and the devil, are to think too much of them or too little of them. To be too afraid of them, to be too hesitant to engage in discussion or thought or art that deals with this realm, is to give in to fear; but to become fascinated with it and to indulge in the material is also very unhealthy.
So for me personally, I stagger the kinds of material that I do. I’ve written a lot of science fiction, I’ve written in other genres, and if I’m working on a project like the one that I just did, during the course of working on it, I don’t watch any horror films, I don’t read any scary literature, I try to fill myself with things that are a bit brighter, to keep myself personally balanced. But I think that both kinds of material are important for a balanced diet — at least for me.
I do think also that there are some people who, just by their nature, are not supposed to watch horror films. I don’t feel like every Christian is obliged to appreciate the genre. It’s almost like whether or not you appreciate roller coasters. A roller coaster can be a very thrilling, very cathartic, very good thing for some people, and it can just be flat-out unpleasant for others — and if watching horror cinema is really gruelling for somebody, they probably shouldn’t do it.
Just another comment on a Christian pop-culture artefact, as it were. It’s been said that The Passion of the Christ was very popular with horror audiences. Do you have any perspective on that?
Derrickson: I do, and I think it was very popular with horror audiences because it’s an incredibly gruesome movie, it’s a gore film —
With a very pronounced role for Satan, as well.
Derrickson: And a very pronounced role for Satan. It’s very gothic, a very dark film. And I think there are people who just have an inclination to want to see material that deals with that aesthetic. And yet I think that film also ought to be regarded by Christians as a horror film. I think the crucifix is gothic iconography, and yet what I love about the horror genre, what I love about gothic iconography, what I love about gothic literature, is the potential that it carries to blend with it beauty and meaning. And when beauty and meaning are combined with the horrific, you get things like the cross, and you get things like medieval art, and you get things like Dante’s Inferno.
And it is something that American evangelicalism has abandoned, for the most part — to their own detriment, because I think the result is, we have left gothic imagery and the power of that aesthetic to Catholics and to non-Christians. Not that Catholics are non-Christians — I think most Catholics are Christians — but my point is that there is a great value in that aesthetic and people need that. I think that the history of the Christian church is one that is marked by an understanding of this. When I went to Europe a few years ago, I felt very at home there, and I loved standing in Notre Dame and looking at all the gargoyles on the outside of that building, and realizing that, as scary and frightening as they were, what I was looking at was something that was built to the glory of god, and I was standing inside of a church, and I was looking out over Paris.
The scriptures say, “Have nothing to do with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.” And I think that, as a trained evangelical, I was certainly trained in a tradition that was vigilant in its efforts to have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but this line, “but rather expose them,” has very little meaning in my spiritual training. And I think part of what I do is expose the darkness, it’s about recognizing the darkness that’s in us and our sin and our sinful nature, the monstrous that is in us, and also the monstrous that is in the world, the evil that is in the world, both in the physical realm and in the spiritual realm. And I think that that is a necessary part of a full and true understanding of life.
To go back to your original question, my commentary on The Passion of the Christ is that I don’t know that any film has ever been made that elicits more of a personal reaction from a viewer than that film. It’s almost not a movie, it’s more like a eucharist, and it is what you bring to it. And Christians who bring to it a love for the blood of Christ, a passionate romantic appreciation for the blood of Christ, they see one thing. The horror film fans have a different relationship with blood, and they are probably appreciating simply a film that is willing to go so far with its sadistic impulses, and they, I think, see a very different film than Christians do. And that, to me, is the most fascinating thing about that movie. More than any other film I’ve seen, that film causes people to take away what they bring to it.
One last comment on evangelical or Christian pop culture. You mentioned that American evangelicalism had abandoned the more gothic, horrific, etc., but I know that when I was growing up, movies like A Thief in the Night were accused of trying to scare people into heaven.
Derrickson: That’s the exception! The apocalypse is the big exception, yeah. It really is, and it’s so funny, because I’m not a dispensationalist.
Are those films “gothic”?
Derrickson: I don’t know that I would call them gothic. They definitely are in the gothic tradition, in that the primary aesthetic purpose of those films, and the primary sort of impulse of that kind of storytelling, is to strike fear in the hearts of the listeners or the viewers.
I’m not a dispensationalist — I don’t believe in the Rapture, I think it’s an unbiblical doctrine, and in North American Christianity, at least, it is the teaching that is the root of much of our subculturalism. It creates a dynamic where we believe that we are on the launching pad, ready to be taken out; the culture doesn’t matter, the world doesn’t matter, the world’s going to burn. I have a different eschatological view of the world, that we are here to bring God’s Kingdom to the world, to make the world a better place. Jesus said at the end of his life, to his disciples, “My prayer for you is not that you be taken out of the world, but that you be delivered from the evil one,” and I feel that Rapture teachings really turn that on its head; we are really waiting to be taken out of the world.
But going back to the horror aesthetic, I admire those writers and filmmakers who are willing to scare their audiences for a higher purpose. Unfortunately, I just think their higher purpose is not true, is not accurate, is not actually a higher purpose at all. It’s a case where they’re getting the aesthetics right, but they’re getting the meaning and purpose wrong.
I do feel very strongly about it. I became a Christian within a fundamentalist church. I saw A Thief in the Night on a 16mm print when I was in the eighth grade, and I got the whole scare speech from our pastors. Do you want to be left here, left behind, for the Tribulation? If not, then come forward. And again, I respect that tradition. I respect Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,’ and I respect Dante and Milton and I respect that whole form of storytelling — and let’s go back further, to Jesus, and his propensity to tell stories that end with characters weeping and gnashing their teeth, and I think he told stories specifically to strike fear in the hearts of his listeners. Because he wanted to get their attention, and he wanted them to probe and ask deeper questions about who he was and what he had to say. And so that aspect of storytelling is, I think, a great one.
I think C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is the great work in this regard from the 20th century, because he wrote a book that was definitely in the gothic tradition: the only characters in it are demons, it is all about evil, and yet it is probably the preachiest book he ever wrote. Every single paragraph in that book is just a dense didactic of what he believes people ought to do and not do in the world. And yet because he took this aesthetic approach, it is a book that is loved by every person who ever reads it, and most of the people I know who love that book are not Christian.
In addition to being one of the preachiest books he ever wrote, I think it’s also one of the most entertaining. I’ve probably read it more often than any other book by him or anybody else.
Derrickson: No question, no question. My whole trajectory in this genre started when I was in film school. Because I love all genres. I really love the horror genre, but I also love science fiction, I love westerns, I love film noir, I love comedy, I love dramas. But when I was in film school, I knew that I wanted to integrate my faith with cinema in some way that was relevant to the culture. And I was looking for a way to do that, and I happened to re-read The Screwtape Letters because a friend of mine who was not a Christian had just stumbled upon it and was so excited about it. And within the same year, I read Walker Percy’s novel Lancelot, and there was a line in Lancelot that said, “‘Evil’ is surely the clue to this age, the only quest appropriate to the age. For everything and everyone’s either wonderful or sick and nothing is evil . . . God may be absent, but what if someone should find the Devil?”
And I remember reading that and reading The Screwtape Letters within the same year, and something really started to resonate with me, that this was the genre where a Christian could connect with mainstream culture, and there was potential there to not preach to the choir — and to not even preach to the culture, but connect with the culture. And that is certainly what I have been trying to do with a lot of my work. And in the case of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, I was very committed to not making a movie that was intended to give spiritual or religious or metaphysical answers to the audience. I really just wanted to make a film that was going to provoke the mainstream audience to ask themselves what they believe, and cause them to come away from the film provoked to think about and discuss spiritual matters and spiritual issues that I think are profoundly important.
I was going to ask if you chose to focus on horror films, and it sounds like you did —
Derrickson: I did.
— but you say you have also written in other genres —
Derrickson: I have.
— and looking at your filmography on the IMDB, almost everything there seems to be horror-related, whether it’s Hellraiser or Urban Legends or whatever.
Derrickson: And that’s because horror films are comparatively easy to get made, compared to other genres. I’ve written several science-fiction screenplays, I’ve worked on thrillers, I’ve worked in other genres, and I probably will not direct another horror film next, just because I do love other genres. And also because I think it’s going to be very difficult to find a horror film that accomplishes what I’ve been saying I wanted to accomplish better than Emily Rose does. It really kind of encapsulates what I want to do with the genre. But yeah, the things that ended up getting made tended to be in that genre, and part of it is the ease of getting those films made, but also part of it is the fact that two of those films — Hellraiser: Inferno and Urban Legends: Final Cut — were green-lit before I ever wrote the screenplays to those sequels. I just happened to be the guy who got hired to do it.
Is the rumour true that you had a hand in the writing of Dracula 2000 as well?
Derrickson: I did. I did an uncredited rewrite on Dracula 2000, and that was another example of —
And that whole back-story involving Judas Iscariot, was that your idea?
Derrickson: No, that idea was already in the script. What I did was really a production polish, it was a two-week re-write on the script. There were structural changes and stuff like that, but a lot of it was dialogue, a lot of the dialogue at the end when Judas-slash-Dracula talks to the cross. What was missing from that script before my writing partner, Paul [Harris Boardman], and I got involved with it was the notion that Judas had never asked for forgiveness. If they were going to vilify Judas in the manner that they were, which I thought was interesting — if he was going to have this embittered, resentment-fuelled hatred for Christ and the cross — then it was going to have to be acknowledged that even he had the potential for redemption, but chose to reject it. So I think that was one of the things we wanted to get in there.
You mentioned your writing partner. Is he a Christian?
Derrickson: I think if you asked him that question, he would not want to say, “I am not a Christian.” Because he is certainly very open to it, he is certainly growing, he has become an increasingly spiritual person over the course of my relationship with him. He once said to me he feels like he’s swimming towards the surface. And I know that his grandfather was an Episcopal minister. And in fact he has his daughter in pre-school at my church. So it’s a part of his life, but he’s also quite the skeptic. I can’t assess his standing before God, and I don’t have any interest in doing that, but how he would answer that, I don’t know. But he is not an identifying Christian in the sense that I am, I can say that.
I seem to remember reading something years ago in Entertainment Weekly, interviewing three writer-directors who had just made it big — I think Brian Helgeland was one of them — and they all got their start writing slasher flicks or horror flicks, and I get the impression that it’s a genre that’s easy to get your feet wet in.
Derrickson: Well, it’s a couple things. It’s easy to get your feet wet in because they tend to be made for little money; they tend to be low-budget; they tend to be things that more accomplished filmmakers don’t want to do; and I would not probably find myself back in this genre any time soon, but it’s also a genre that is very cinematic, it really demands craftsmanship in order to work. You really have to have some directorial skill to create tension, and it can really show what you can do with the camera and with sound. And for that reason, it’s one of, if not the, most cinematic of all genres in what it allows you to do.
I remember I had dinner once with Robert Wise. Early in his career he did some films with Val Lewton — The Curse of the Cat People was his, and of course he did the original The Haunting, which is a brilliant movie — but I remember talking to him about it, and that’s what he said to me, because he knew I was breaking into the business in that genre, and he said it’s a great genre to start in, because it really shows what you can do as a director, in a way that a lot of other genres don’t. There’s probably a lot of other talented directors who unfortunately get their first shot by directing a straight drama, and even if the film is good, it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate cinematic prowess the way that a good horror film does. Marcus Nispel, who directed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, can make anything he wants now, because the movie was very — I loathed the film, but it was a very, very well-made, very well-crafted, very cinematically explosive movie made for very little money, and of course it made $75 million or whatever it was, so when Hollywood saw that, they saw him as a director who had tremendous skill. So he’s off to bigger and better things.
Turning to Emily Rose specifically: When I first heard about this film, it still had that other woman’s name in the title — Anneliese Michel — and shortly afterwards, I heard that it had been renamed. So this appears to be a fictionalization. This doesn’t take place in 1970s Bavaria, I assume — or does it?
Derrickson: The film that I made does not identify the time or the place of the event, which was a challenge, but it was ultimately what I wanted to do. I wanted to pay respect to the true story and not set it in, you know, Wisconsin in 2005.
My understanding is that the historical court case involved tape recordings of some of the things the demons said, and I imagine that, once technology enters the picture, that could date the movie. So if you see a certain device, you might say, “That looks like the 1970s.”
Derrickson: That’s the kind of stuff that I was real careful to do with the picture. Because I wanted the film to be timeless and placeless, I avoided any signifiers in the film that would place it. It’s not timeless in the sense that it could be in the 1800s. It’s in the modern era, it’s somewhere between the 1970s and now, but you’re not going to see any automobiles or technology in there that really date it. That stuff we were very careful about it. And the effect of it is exactly the effect that I wanted, which is, you don’t really recognize it. Unless you go out of your way to ask yourself the question, “What is this time period and where is this,” the movie doesn’t do anything to make you think one way or another about it, which was the goal. It’s very similar to what David Fincher did with the place in Se7en. It’s a city that feels like New York City but it doesn’t quite look like New York City, and there’s a desert outside of it. And so the result is it is its own kind of creation. And this film kind of does the same thing with not just place but also with time.
I’m aware that there is a possession case and I’m aware that there’s a court case. Is the movie kind of divided like Law & Order, is it half-and-half? How does it weigh these two, or balance these two elements?
Derrickson: They’re pretty balanced all the way through the movie. With Law & Order, the first half is a cop show and the second half is a legal show, and this one is really a courtroom movie all the way through and it is a horror film all the way through.
Is the possession told in flashbacks?
Derrickson: Yeah, it’s very inspired by Rashomon. And that’s a term that gets thrown around by filmmakers a lot, inaccurately I think, because typically, any time a film has a fragmented narrative and has any flashbacks, people talk about Rashomon. But as you know, Kurosawa is my hero and I’ve taught courses on his films, and I love what he does, and Rashomon is, I think, his second greatest film after Ikiru. And I think what is so amazing about that film is not just that it’s a fragmented narrative and not just that it has flashbacks, but that it really has flashbacks from multiple points of view that are not all compatible. And this movie does have that strategy at work in it. It is a movie that is looking at the past from various retrospectives, trying to extricate from that past what really happened. Hence the website WhatHappenedToEmily.com.
It’s interesting you should mention that, because one of the things I’ve always liked about Ikiru is the way it sort of contrasts with Rashomon. The last third of Ikiru is comparable to Rashomon in that they both involve people with their memories, trying to make sense of what they remember.
Derrickson: That’s right. And I think that was an inspiration on the film. Because while the film is about the possession and exorcism of this girl, it is just as much about how the unpacking of her story affects the people who are trying to figure it out, and in that regard it is more like Ikiru than it is like Rashomon. It is really about these lawyers — specifically Laura Linney — and how her investigation into the case, defending Tom Wilkinson, the priest who performed the exorcism — how she unpacks the history of the case, and how it affects her.
One of the things that I think is striking about the contrast between Rashomon and Ikiru is that Rashomon presents these memories that seem to lead in very different directions, whereas Ikiru presents all these different memories that actually add up to a basically cohesive narrative. The flashbacks in your film, in that sense, do they tilt in a more multidirectional sort of way like Rashomon, or is it more like Ikiru?
Derrickson: I think it’s somewhere in between the two, and I think that’s a really insightful analysis of those two movies, and I think that this one sort of falls in between them. It is fragmented in that there are specifically two very distinct perspectives on this girl’s condition — there basically is the spiritual or metaphysical perspective, and then there is the medical or psychiatric perspective, and those two views, I really tried to present them well, and they can’t both be true, exclusively. One of them is going to be more exclusively accurate than the other.
If there is a point to Rashomon, it is a point that I would disagree with, frankly, which is that the knowability of history is basically impossible. I don’t think Kurosawa would ever say that he thought the truth was relative, but I think he understood that memory warps history, and there is possibly a point to Rashomon that’s a bit cynical. This film doesn’t go in that direction at all. It is really about presenting cogent arguments for two very different perspectives on this girl’s condition and her story, and I tried to have those articulated very well throughout the film, and the goal, I think, is, again, not to provide any metaphysical answers for the audience, but to leave them asking themselves, what do they believe about this particular girl’s case, and what do they believe about the larger questions that her case proposes? Do demons exist? Is there a spiritual realm? How does God play into all of that? Is there a Devil and therefore is there a God? Questions like that. And I don’t think that anyone can watch this movie without asking themselves what they believe.
And that, in some ways, is the goal of it in a nutshell. Not to persuade people to believe one thing or another, but I really wanted to create an entertaining, thrilling, vibrant, powerful experience that left the audience in a realm of thought that many of them might not frequent.
Is it possible to raise those kinds of questions, to leave people thinking about the case, when the film is explicitly fictitious, as opposed to based on a true story? For example, if you walked out of Hellraiser, you can say, “It’s just a movie,” whereas if you walk out of (to cite another Laura Linney movie) The Mothman Prophecies, you might say, “Wow, this is based on a true story? Hmmm, I wonder.”
Derrickson: Absolutely. And I’ll say this unequivocally: That is absolutely a part of what this film is. It is based on a true story. And because of that, there is I think a gravity and weight to the subject matter that you wouldn’t get from a purely fictitious tale.
And it’s still there despite the elements of fiction that are brought to it?
What was it like getting the film made, in terms of working with the kinds of actors you had. You’ve got some really great actors in there — Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, and of course Laura Linney. On Hellraiser, you had one or two name actors, but it sounded like you had quite a few more on this one. Was it intimidating to be surrounded by so much talent?
Derrickson: It wasn’t intimidating because they were all such generous people. It was a really, really enjoyable experience, and they also understood that it’s a very performance-driven piece. The film really features a quartet of actors. It’s Laura Linney, Campbell Scott, Tom Wilkinson and Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Emily Rose; and Jennifer is probably the performance that everyone will be talking about when the movie’s over. And I found her through Laura Linney.
When Laura Linney and I first met, Laura was very hesitant to do a movie with this title, I think. She had read the script and thought the script was really good and really fascinating, but she reeeeally had a lot of questions. We met at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, and probably talked for over two, maybe three hours, and she really wanted to know very specifically where I was coming from, and what kind of film I wanted to make. And I think, when we were finished, she was sold that this was not going to be an exploitive film but a classy movie, which it really is. It’s not gory, there’s virtually no gore or blood or anything like that. It’s not a violent film — not physically violent, anyway — but Laura just wanted to know that it was going to be intelligent and that it was going to represent various points of view and not just one point of view on the subject matter. And she had done The Crucible on Broadway with Jennifer Carpenter, and one of the last things she said to me before we left, the first time we met, was, “You have to audition this girl named Jennifer Carpenter,” and she leaned forward and she said to me, “This is the best young actress I have ever seen.” And when Laura Linney says that to you, it sort of puts a chill down your spine. Wow, that’s quite a recommendation.
So it is a very performance-driven piece, but they’re all generous actors and personally they’re all really fun and we had a lot of fun on the set. It was a very enjoyable climate to work in. But they are also very unselfish actors, in that they work hard and want the film to be good, and so they were all looking for how to make each scene the best that it could be. I never had any feelings of intimidation, because I just felt like we were all standing side-by-side, committed to the same goal, which was making the best movie we possibly could.
I can tell you it was a thrill to watch them act, particularly the scenes with Jennifer; some of the possession scenes with Jennifer were just jaw-dropping to observe, to watch an actress do the things she was doing, and go as far as she would go. But then, also, the more intimate scenes between Tom Wilkinson and Laura Linney — that was a real delight for me as a director, and as a writer, to sit there and listen to them say things that I had written, and to watch them act. I had just never been physically in the proximity of that kind of talent, acting-wise. It was quite a thing to behold. I felt really privileged to do it.
And I also learned a great lesson from it. I think it’s a very hard thing for first-time directors or for young directors to really learn, which is that your film is never going to be better than your actors. And no matter how good it is, it’s only going to be as good as your best performer, in terms of the major roles. And so I think I learned from this that prioritizing great actors is just something I’m going to have to do from now on, because I’ve seen the value of it up close.
In the possession scenes, does Jennifer use her own voice, or is that going to be dubbed in?
Derrickson: It’s all Jennifer’s voice. The problem with making an exorcism film is you’ve got the burden of The Exorcist on your shoulders the whole time. I don’t think any film defines its subgenre more than The Exorcist defines the exorcism genre, and I knew that you could never top that movie in terms of shock value, and the approach that we took was to go much more realistic, and try to portray the phenomenon in a manner that felt real, and that felt true to the kinds of accounts that you do hear out there in the world. Cases of possession and exorcism happen all the time; whether you believe in them or not, they happen, frequently. And whether it’s the Protestant version of deliverances or the Catholic version of exorcisms. I really wanted to make a film that captured more of what it reportedly looks and feels and sounds like, and it is, in my opinion, probably a better way to scare a contemporary audience. I don’t think visual effects and vulgar spewing and spinning heads and things like that are as scary to an audience today as it was in 1973 when The Exorcist came out.
How does being a Christian affect how far you would be prepared to go in those sorts of depictions? If you’re going to depict evil, you kind of have to let it be evil, even if that means, as a filmmaker, you are somehow complicit in making that evil imagery.
Derrickson: That’s exactly right, and that’s, again, the absolute duty and responsibility of a Christian filmmaker, to let evil be evil and to be portray it accurately, to be truthful, to tell the truth, and again that’s what I love about the horror genre. I think it’s the genre that forces us to look at the harder truths.
How do you feel, as a filmmaker, about the idea that you as the person who makes the film are somehow responsible for that evil?
Derrickson: What do you mean?
For example, I watched Hellraiser: Inferno last week — and just for the record, I’ve never seen any other Hellraiser movies, so I don’t know where that film fits aesthetically or thematically into the rest of the franchise — but when you see images of people with hookers or sticking their hands in someone else’s chest and blood coming out and all that stuff, on one level, as a moviegoer, I kind of want to think that the filmmaker has made this movie because they actually like making movies and they like making these kinds of movies, and on one level I kind of want to think that they enjoy it and they’re not just doing it because they feel they have to. But on the other hand, I know that as a Christian filmmaker, if other Christians were to see those images, they would come to you asking you to justify that, and so you’d have to come up with answers that might make it sound like you put it in there because you had to.
Derrickson: Yeah, that’s not the case. I don’t like gore, I really don’t. I’m not a big fan of gory films, and that one is a gory film. It’s a brutally violent movie, and it’s got sexuality in it, and it’s got lots of things that I didn’t particularly enjoy doing or writing or shooting, but in that case the subject matter just really demanded it.
I wanted to make a movie about Hell, I wanted to make a movie about a man who was in Hell and didn’t know it, and when I was approached with the possibility of making the fifth movie in that franchise, I watched the other films and said, “No, I pass.” Because it’s not a genre that was particularly interesting to me. But the one that I liked the most was Clive Barker’s original film, because his film was a very moral movie. It was a gruesomely violent movie, but it had a real moral centre to it that I thought was really compelling, and so it kind of stuck in the back of my mind, and when I came up with this idea of a film about a man in Hell who doesn’t know he’s in Hell, who’s revisiting the sins of his life — that, I thought, was a film that ought to be made, for me personally to try to give myself a vision of Hell that had meaning, and that goes beyond the Devil in the red underwear running around in flames. So I knew that if I was going to do that, it would have to be unpleasant for me, and that’s what it was.
I can state unequivocally that I would never make a film that’s that gruesome or violent again. I don’t think there’s any other subject matter that would merit it, and if there was I probably wouldn’t be interested in it.
I noticed also that the prostitute keeps her underwear on, at least as far as we can see, and was that because you, as a Christian, were making the movie? Or was that the standard level of exploitation in the genre at that time?
Derrickson: It’s funny, because actually, the sex scene with the prostitute in that movie was not in the script that was green-lit. And as I was working on the movie, I really began to feel like there was something missing in terms of the demonstration of the main character’s personal vileness; and I wrote that scene in myself, later, and wanted to get it in, in terms of the actual sex-scene moment, because I felt like the movie needed it morally, I felt the audience needed to have a better understanding of who this guy was and how he’d lived his life. And shooting the actual scene, yeah, it was my choice.
In other words, the studio didn’t need the exploitive T&A; element in it, or a sex scene; that had nothing to do with it. I wanted to put it in there, but I myself have found very few sex scenes to be beneficial to the movie, and as a man, most often when there’s nudity in them, I find myself distracted. I find myself suddenly thinking, “I’m looking at that actress’s naked body.” And some films are exceptions to this, but for the most part, I feel like it usually pulls me away from the movie. I can name probably five films where I would say that’s not the case, where the sex scenes are really appropriate for the film. But for this one, what I didn’t want to do was to throw in nudity for that horror audience so that they could be getting off on seeing a naked girl. I just didn’t want to do that.
It kind of breaks the line between the make-believe and documentary aspects of a film, as it were. Every film — except for animation I guess — is documentary, in the sense that it captures what people are actually doing, but for the most part, we accept the make-believe, so when you see someone go into a courtroom, you can say, “I’m not really watching Tom Wilkinson in the courtroom, I’m watching his character in the courtroom.”
But then once people take their clothes off, suddenly you sort of forget the make-believe part of it and you’re going, “Wow, that’s really Tom Wilkinson naked!”
Derrickson: That’s exactly right. That is very much my experience with movies, and it’s very rare to have an instance where that’s not the case. My favorite example is the nudity in Witness where Kelly McGillis turns around and shows herself to Harrison Ford. That’s a good case where the nudity was just paramount, and it doesn’t pull me out of the movie. I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, she is showing her breasts to that guy. She’s inviting him.” There’s something about that moment where it doesn’t do that to me; I stay with the characters through that experience. And my favorite sex scene, actually, is from Don’t Look Now, just because it’s so raw and it’s a man and a wife — and I am just so appreciative that someone at some point shot a sex scene that was between a man and a wife, because it’s the only one I think I know of!
Well, there was Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut, but the less said about that, the better.
Derrickson: Yeah, exactly. I’m in denial that Stanley Kubrick made that movie. I pretend like it doesn’t exist.
Speaking of Kubrick, I just want to throw in one thing here. We were talking about directors who start out in horror and then go on to other things now that they have proved how cinematic they can be, and I found myself thinking of Kubrick, because he did other things for the bulk of his career — for me, he hit his peak between Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon — and then Barry Lyndon was a bit of a flop, so looking for something more commercial, he then made The Shining, and for me, The Shining marks the beginning of his decline. And I’ve heard The Shining described as a horror film for people who hate horror movies.
What’s your take on that?
Derrickson: First of all, your assessment of Kubrick’s career is spot-on and I very much agree with that. I think there are certain elements that are typical of the genre — exploitive elements of the blood, and even the shocks, and the graphic sort of imagery — most of which you don’t get in The Shining or you get very little of. That movie is much more about mood and theme, and when you think about what’s scary about that movie, it’s almost the potential danger of Jack Nicholson with that axe, and I do think he buries it into Scatman Crothers at one point, but if I remember right, even that is done in a kind of wide shot and is almost kind of flat, in itself, which I like, as opposed to making that the big climactic moment of the scene. So I think there is some truth to that.
I remember watching a number of Stephen King films years ago, and it seemed like in all of them the wise old man gets killed 15 minutes before the end.
Derrickson: [ laughs ]
Derrickson: That’s very funny. I had never heard that before. That’s great.
Since you made the film in Vancouver, I have to ask questions pertaining specifically to this city. Apart from the studio work, did you make any use of local locations or anything like that?
Derrickson: We did, quite a bit actually. There were a number of things shot at UBC, and there was a bar that we shot in that was on Granville Street, I believe. What other locations did we use? There’s a farmhouse in the movie, a lot of action takes place in there, and that was in a rural area outside of Vancouver. I loved the city, by the way. I had such a good time there. I loved the city itself, it was a wonderful experience being there.
Did you attend any of the churches here?
Derrickson: Yeah, Grace Vancouver. It was a really nice church, and they had a daycare; my son was only about one and a half at the time, so he came to like it there, too.
And you’ve got a second child now, I understand, right?
Oh my goodness, movie connections.
Derrickson: That’s right! I’m a film geek!
I was going to say, in some Christian traditions, they make a point of naming children after saints, but you’re going for the movie references, apparently.
Derrickson: Oh I consider them saints!
Derrickson: [ laughs ] Saints of the cinema!
What about the kind of exposure this film is going to get? I know that I’ve been seeing ads for this on the web for weeks now — Oh, and speaking of which, by the way, around the time the trailer came out, there was another true story you might have heard about, in Romania.
Derrickson: I did, I did hear about that.
What do you make of that? Is it a similar kind of case? Is it just a coincidence?
Derrickson: Well these things happen quite frequently. It seems to me like there have been quite a number of cases of people dying during exorcisms over the last couple years. It seems to me like that was the third or fourth one I’ve heard of. I know that there was a young boy in the south, somewhere in the States, about a year ago, so it happens on occasion.
On the one hand, your film is getting people to think about the supernatural who might naturally not do that, but on the other hand, would it be fair to say it is also encouraging believers to be more cautious in how they approach the supernatural or try to deal with it? I don’t know how the case is handled in your film, but certainly in Romania, there was the sense that part of the problem there was that the Church was going through certain growing pains now that the Communist regime is gone, and they’re rushing people through seminaries to meet the demand for parish priests, so the case in Romania has been credited to that factor.
Derrickson: There’s no question that it’s been a problem in the past, that the people who are doing these things are acting really recklessly and foolishly. There was a case that occurred here in Glendale, in the city I live in, that I remember reading about from just a few years ago, I think, where these pastors were jumping up and down on a person who they believed was possessed, and he died. In most of those cases, it involves the physical assault of the person’s body, from the ones that I read about. In the Romanian case, if I remember, they had gagged her and tied her to a cross or something like that.
So she was deprived of food and water, I think.
Derrickson: Yeah, she was literally deprived of what she needs. So obviously, that’s bad.
One last question. You collaborated with Wim Wenders on Land of Plenty. Has that film come and gone already? I ask because I’m in Canada and occasionally I’ll hear about a film playing in the States, and I never know if it’s a limited-run thing before it goes straight to video, or —
Derrickson: No. That’s a very interesting life that that movie is having. You should buy it online, find an international version. It has no distribution in North America, it has no distribution in the States. It’s actually quite an interesting little film. It was made for $500,000, but it’s a very Christian film. There are two characters in it: one of them is a Christian missionary kid, and the other is a paranoid military veteran.
Wim’s a Christian, and he and I connected partly because of our faith and our love of cinema, but also we share very similar political views, in that the gospel as being much more in line with a lot of Democratic politics than Republican politics, and he really wanted to make a movie that was spiritually present as well as showing that there is a Christian Left, basically. And he wanted to deal with some of America’s foreign policies and the war in Iraq and all of that, and I have very strong feelings about that as well, as a Christian. And the result was that when all the distributors saw it, they said it was too politically liberal for the mainstream Christian American public, and it’s too Christian for the liberal market. So they basically said there’s nowhere this film can fit. And so it has no distributor. And the funny thing is, it has great distribution everywhere else in the world.
It is a movie in America, about America, and it has been released in every market except America. Isn’t that something?