I‘ve just returned from The Glen Workshop, my favorite event of the year, a week-long arts conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, hosted by IMAGE journal. (They’ve published a brief sum-up of that extraordinary eight-day experience here.) I’ve attended almost ten years in a row now, and IMAGE posted a “video postcard” in which I testified about the profundity of Scott Cairns’ keynote address. There are other postcards as well; I’m not the only one overjoyed, rejuvenated, and inspired by this experience year after year.
At the last two Glen Workshops, I had the privilege of leading the film seminar. This year, the seminar was led by filmmaker Scott Derrickson, the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the writer of Land of Plenty and the upcoming Atom Egoyan feature The Devil’s Knot. And the IMAGE team invited me to introduce Derrickson to the Glen Workshop community. That was an honor.
(We go back a ways. I interviewed Derrickson about The Exorcism of Emily Rose back in 2005. And before that, I was inspired by his conversation with Wim Wenders, published in IMAGE.)
Derrickson’s presentation on “dark transcendence” was challenging, to say the least. I wish I could share that with all of you. I can, however, share my introduction with you, so you can learn a little more about this guy. I have quite a few reasons to be grateful for him, as you’ll see.
Oh, by the way… I make some of these remarks with my tongue firmly in my cheek, and that’s more evident when I’m reading this aloud. If this whole introduction is taken literally, I’m in trouble.
Here is what I said…
In the 1990s, the front pages of newspapers told a troubling story from Arkansas. Three teenagers were charged with murdering three young boys in a satanic ritual. The accused became known as The West Memphis 3.
18 years after the West Memphis 3 were imprisoned, the plot has thickened. New evidence has led to the release of the defendants just last year.
As you might imagine, that story is coming soon to a theater near you. Hollywood loves to exploit real-world horrors in order to entertain us.
But once in a while we are blessed by artists who are equipped to guide us into the darkness to confront and reckon with our fears … a process that can be redemptive. They may distress us, but we need these artists, because if we remain convinced that there is such a thing as evil within and beyond the sphere of human activity, and if that troubles us, then we know our conscience is awake and alive. We may even recognize ourselves in those monsters. We may shout, like one famous guilty king, “Give me some light.”
Good news: This upcoming film, The Devil’s Knot, was just wrapped up by director by Atom Egoyan, who has already made two excellent films about grief, community, and compassion: The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica.
Reese Witherspoon plays the mother of one of the victims, Colin Firth as the private investigator on the case, as well as Amy Ryan, who you probably know from The Office.
It will be scary. It will disturb you. And it was written by the artist I now have the privilege to introduce.
Scott Derrickson wants to scare you. He probably already has.
Did you see The Exorcism of Emily Rose? He directed that, and won the 2005 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film, and in 2006, the Chicago Film Critics Association called it one of the Top 100 Scariest Films Ever Made.
Before Emily Rose, Derrickson worked on movies like Urban Legends: Final Cut, Dracula 2000 and his directorial debut was a film that, for reasons I cannot fathom, has never been mentioned from a Glen Workshop microphone before: Hellraiser: Inferno. I’m campaigning for a midnight screening of that film at next year’s Glen Workshop, followed by a panel discussion with Scott Cairns, Lauren Winner, and Jeanine Hathaway. (I’ve already asked Jeanine about this, and she said, “Let’s raise some hell.”)
Some of us are squeamish, and we might find ourselves looking toward the exits. But I encourage you to stay and learn from Scott. In a Christianity Today interview, he said:
In my opinion, the horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with. … 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. … To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial.
I could go on quoting him, but I’d rather share testimonies of his achievements.
Some of you know Ron Reed, the playwright who founded Vancouver B.C.’s Pacific Theater. Ron wrote this about The Exorcism of Emily Rose:
I was completely caught up in it, deeply affected, and extremely proud of what Scott Derrickson has accomplished. I think EMILY ROSE is one of the most direct apologetics both for the reality of Evil and the authenticity of the Christian faith that I’ve seen represented on film. And I don’t think it’s a mere tract, the kind of Christian propaganda movie we all dread…. Though marketed as a straight-up horror movie, EMILY ROSE aims to be much, much more than simply scary (though it is that): it tries—and I think it mostly succeeds—to examine the possibility that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in most of our philosophies.
…it is too faithful to the issues it raises to exploit them.
That’s because Scott Derrickson has a rare integrity. Even though he works in Hollywood. Several years ago, he walked away from an opportunity to direct a guaranteed blockbuster because he discovered that his collaborators were actively clouding the story’s clear reflection of the Gospel.
Nevertheless, when he directed the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves, his influence increased. In the first three months of that film’s release, it earned $230,831,978 (Worldwide).
His success provoked Beliefnet to list him among “The 12 Most Powerful Christians in Hollywood,” alongside Tyler Perry, Denzel Washington, Patricia Heaton, and Mel Gibson.
Did this go to his head? “The 12 Most Powerful Christians in Hollywood.”
At artsandfaith.com, he said,
I think if you slide the word ‘Smelling’ between ‘Powerful’ and ‘Christians,’ that link might mean something. Otherwise, no.
His new horror film, Sinister, starring Ethan Hawke, was a big hit at South by Southwest this year. It opens on October 5. (Hey, Anne, that’s our wedding anniversary. Shall we make it a date?)
He may be famous, but he’s also generous and encouraging. I’m grateful for his idea that I start blogging about movies for Image, and that has been—no exaggeration—a life-changing blessing for me.
Scott studied cinema—and eventually taught it—at Biola University. He earned his M.A. in film production from USC School of Cinematic Arts.
But he grew up in Denver, Colorado, in a neighborhood called Northglenn. He loved the name Glen so much, he moved to Glendale, California.
Many of us here cherish the film Wings of Desire, by Wim Wenders. Scott interviewed him about that in Issue 35 of Image Journal.
Scott also wrote one of Wenders’ movies: 2004’s Land of Plenty, which starred Michelle Williams as an inspiring young Christian who tries to rescue her uncle from his hatred for Muslims after 9/11. At the Venice Film Festival, it was nominated for the Golden Lion and won the UNESCO award. It was also the final big screen appearance of Gloria Stuart, the actress who was so famously asked, “Are you ready to go back to Titanic?”
Here’s the thing about Land of Plenty: Derrickson and Wenders developed a treatment in just three days, and then they worked on the screenplay for three weeks and directly after that shot the entire movie in just 16 days.
So as you can see, Scott has a singular imagination—one that would dare to dream of a feature film of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and he told me in a late-night Facebook chat that his real dream is to turn the stories of Flannery O’Connor into movies.
I think she’d be pleased. She wrote:
In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.
Finally: It makes sense to me that Scott’s neighborhood was also the neighborhood of another Christian whose art stirred up trouble in the 1980s. Remember the irreverent Christian rock star Steve Taylor? Scott first heard the gospel in the church of Steve Taylor’s father. Then, Steve’s lyrics challenged listeners to face horrors like hypocrisy, egomania, and superficiality. His music was an inspiration to Scott. And when Steve Taylor showed up at a 2004 media conference in L.A. several years back, Scott introduced him with the enthusiasm of a fanboy.
And so I think it’s only fitting that we bring this full circle. In conversation by email with Steve Taylor last week, this is what he said:
A few years ago I was trying on a shirt at the Diesel store in West L.A. (which is where the annual Hipster Olympics would be held if there was such an event…). It’s closing time, and the three ultra-fashionable guys working there are standing around the denim table debating whether or not they’ll be going to see the “Halloween” remake. Then one of them says, “Did you see Exorcism of Emily Rose? THAT was a great movie!” And the other two heartily concurred.
Scott and I both grew up in the same sleepy suburb of North Denver—his dad’s Dodge dealership was across the street from the church my dad pastored. (Scott was more than a few years behind me in age…) The thought that, decades later, anybody from Northglenn, Colorado could become both a world-class filmmaker and a topic of hipster conversation fills aspiring filmmakers like me with an unbridled sense of false hope.
Unlike many of his peers, he’s equally passionate about what constitutes a life well-lived, which is why I always love talking shop with him and getting his advice.
I still reference The Exorcism of Emily Rose when I’m looking for inspiration, because Scott, like all the best directors, is a real student of cinema. He takes as much delight in the aesthetics of film as he does in scaring people. And he really loves scaring people.
So dig your fingernails into the arms of your chairs and brace yourself. It is with gratitude, admiration, fear, and trembling, that I give you… Scott Derrickson.