The Omen — the interview’s up!

The Omen — the interview’s up! May 31, 2006

My interview with John Moore, director of The Omen, is now up at CT Movies. I may post a longer version here in a few days.

JUN 5 UPDATE: Here it is, the full unexpurgated interview!

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By Peter T. Chattaway

It has been 30 years since The Omen introduced Damien Thorn, the five-year-old Antichrist, to moviegoers. The film marked director Richard Donner’s transition from TV to feature films (he went on to direct Superman, Scrooged and all four Lethal Weapons), and was famous for its grisly scenes of seemingly accidental but supernaturally motivated deaths.

Three decades, three sequels, and many parodies later, the film has been re-made for the big screen — and it comes out next Tuesday, which is (not coincidentally) 6/6/06!

The new film is written by David Seltzer, who also wrote the original movie (as well as last year’s TV mini-series Revelations), and it stars Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles as Damien’s unsuspecting adoptive parents, Pete Postlethwaite as a paranoid priest, Mia Farrow as a darkly manipulative nanny, and newcomer Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick as a young boy who is destined to become the Antichrist.

Director John Moore previously directed Behind Enemy Lines and the remake of Flight of the Phoenix. He spoke to Christianity Today Movies from his office in California.

In taking on this project, were you concerned about the so-called “curse of The Omen” at all?

John Moore: It didn’t strike me when I took it on, but certainly as the film has progressed, and even up to relatively recently, some weird stuff has certainly happened. I know public relations people think it’s great fun, but actually what’s happening to me is quite disturbing.

When you say “weird stuff”, what sort of stuff do you mean?

Moore: Just all sorts. We lost some film on the movie that was unexplainable and destroyed a couple days of work. The numbers kept cropping up, the three sixes, everywhere. I mean, even today, I was booking a flight online, and the fare total was 666 bucks. (laughs) So stuff like that. It was very weird, and really really quite disturbing last week in New York, I was on the junket, and I was in my hotel room, and the L.A. office sent over a bunch of TV spots for me to review, so I asked the hotel to send up the VHS player, and the guy was goofing around, plugging it in, whatever, and he inadvertently taped over the spot with the ESPN thing on Barry Bonds. And I was like, “Oh, man, you just taped over our spot,” and he said, “No I didn’t,” and he got a little touchy. I was like, “Dude, look, you can see this is live ESPN, clearly you just taped over it.” And he said, “You don’t understand, this machine can’t record.” And there was no record button, no record head, no record on the remote. So, stuff like that. It’s kind of funny to talk about, but when it actually happens to you, it’s anything but funny.

You’ve made a few films before, so for comparison’s sake, has stuff like this happened on those other films?

Moore: No, nowhere near the level of — nowhere near. When I say we lost some film, we lost two entire days’ worth, which is unheard of, really unheard of. Completely destroyed it. It happened to be the scene where Thorn cuts the kid’s hair and reveals the three sixes. So, uh, yeah. I mean, nobody’s died directly related to the movie — yet! — but we shall see.

The first question that came to mind when I heard the remake was being made was basically, Why now? In the ’70s, end-times, Revelation stuff was a big deal, when the first film was made, and seven or eight years ago, when the Millennium was coming, we had Stigmata and so forth. But why make a movie like this now, at this time in history?

Moore: Well, I think we’re in a lot of trouble right now. I think times are very dark. The new scenes in the movie really happen at the beginning of the movie, where Cardinal Fabretti basically outlines for the Pope just how dark things are. And I truly believe that that is the case. I think we’re living in very fearful and hateful times, and so I think it’s an appropriate time [for the movie]. The Omen works on two levels — obviously it’s entertainment and the story’s a damn good yarn, but for my money there’s certainly a metaphorical aspect to the story, and I think that plays out more critically right now.

When you refer to dark times right now, the film actually shows footage of 9/11 and things like that, but I don’t think it refers explicitly to Christian-Muslim tensions.

Moore: No, it doesn’t, and it certainly only hints at that in the images used, and I rather purposefully came at it a little bit sideways. Cardinal Fabretti at the end of his presentation says, “A great evil this way comes,” so I hope that’s interpretable in several ways, whether it be the Christian-Muslim tension, or the fact that we’re destroying the planet we live on, or the gap between rich and poor getting worse and worse and worse and worse. It seems to me — I feel very pessimistic about the world right now, and I think that’s reflected in the movie.

At the time the film was going into production, a story in the Telegraph mentioned that there was potential to refer to things like the London bombings — especially since the story takes place in England — so was that ever a consideration for you, to get that specific?

Moore: Not really. And beware the filmmaker who jumps at shadows and tries to be ultra-current. I think it can be foolhardy sometimes. I think you need time to reflect on issues, rather than be that immediately current. So no, that wasn’t a temptation. And it’s interesting to me how, pretty much without exception, people I’ve talked to about the movie, when I refer to the notion that we’re in dark times, singularly, people tend to gravitate towards thinking that means the war in Iraq or the war on terror. Obviously it’s a huge preoccupation for every American, but I’m not American, I’m Irish, and I think it’s also being used as a great preoccupation for the American public, to the detriment of other issues. I mean, anyone remember health care or the environment? I think that part of the evil of this whole war is that, that it’s being constantly rammed down our throats. It seems even disastrous White House popularity numbers, nothing seems to be able to stop this, and I wonder why.

What about even just the fact that this film does use real-life news footage, especially in those opening scenes. Was there any concern about that seeming exploitative? For example, I know that when Contact came out, there was some criticism of the film for using footage of a speech that Bill Clinton had given after the Oklahoma bombing.

Moore: That’s right, that’s right. That’s funny, I just watched that the other day.

Footage of that speech was used in that film to refer to a fictitious bombing, and there was some criticism of that. Did you have any concerns about that?

Moore: I personally didn’t, because we certainly used real-world images but wholly in a fictitious context. I think the example you used of Clinton, that’s basically just misinterpreting what the man said, deliberately, and I think that does cross the line, a little bit. Whereby what I’ve done in the film is shown people the real world and how bad things have gotten, and then play out this fable or parable with that as a backdrop. So I don’t feel uncomfortable.

I think all film is exploitation of emotion anyway. It seems to be a dirty word, but to me it’s just an accurate term of reference, as to the power of film. It is exploitative of your sensibility. But my intention wasn’t cynical. My intention was to get people’s attention, and to posit the notion that time is ripe for a great evil to get the world in its grasp.

At the New York screening, one gentleman, I was pretty sure, was going to pull out a gun and shoot me, for using an image of 9/11. And his take on it was extraordinary. He said I wasn’t from New York so I had no right to use an image of 9/11. I understand the sensitivity certainly. New Yorkers have a unique right to grieve. But it certainly was a global event.

Was another factor in the making of this film, or the way it was made, the popularity of The Da Vinci Code? There seems to be a huge interest in the Vatican these days, all of a sudden. Mission: Impossible III also has Vatican content.

Moore: It certainly does, they break into the Vatican. Look, it would be churlish of me not to admit that this is the work of a major commercial studio. I’m sure, at the back of many people’s minds, yes, there was a tantalizing notion that maybe this is a wave that we can all ride along. I am a little bewildered that the church gets so embroiled in what is admitted by the author to be a complete work of fiction, with The Da Vinci Code — despite the coy marketing, Dan Brown has openly admitted that this is a work of fiction — and to watch the church get its knickers in a twist is a little disappointing, to be quite honest. I’d much rather that they embrace — even if it’s negative — that they debate a movie like The Omen, which I feel is very much a movie that’s deeply seated in reality, and what I mean by that, is that the Bible is real. Whether or not you believe in it, the phenomenon of belief in the Bible is real, the phenomenon of Christian religion is tangibly real, and this film uses interpretation of works in that book to extrapolate a theory. And it’s funny to me, maybe I’m just envious of all the attention that Da Vinci got, but it’s weird that you’ve got this completely fictional work that gets people so hot under the collar. It’s bewildering.

Your last film, Flight of the Phoenix, was also a remake. Was there any concern on your part in terms of going straight from one remake to another?

Moore: Yeah, certainly for a couple of minutes. But in one way it was like, that’s my problem. Do you know what I mean? Of course people are going to remark on it, but if you like, it’s a private problem that I alone really have to deal with. I don’t think people would be turned off seeing The Omen because of that. But obviously, yeah, it does flash into your mind — “Oh God, is this the right thing to do?” — but at the end of the day, if the story is that compelling, which it was —

And you know, I have options in my life. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can choose to tell any number of stories. I could choose to take on any number of projects last year, but to me, the time just felt so right to tell the Omen story that I just jumped at it.

To what degree would you say the making of this film was motivated just by the fact that you had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to —

Moore: Oh sure! The date? Oh yeah, that was a huge factor. But again, people have referred to it as a cynical marketing exercise, to which I answer, “Could you please demonstrate what a genuine marketing exercise would look like?” There’s no doubt it’s a great hook, but you know, people make movies so that other people will see them, and you want to use anything you can to draw attention to your movie, so the tantalizing connection with the numbers was certainly — certainly, I have no qualms about saying it — a big factor in rushing the film into production.

Who approached who? Was this a remake that you were interested in doing?

Moore: Yeah, I’d heard rumours. These things often work on overhearing a snippet of conversation. I’d heard that Fox were interested in making it as a Japanese-language remake for the Japanese market, because apparently anything to do with scary children is huge in Japan. And I said, “Guys, why limit ourselves? Why not do a full-out world’s version of it?” So when I heard they were doing it, yeah, I chased it pretty keenly.

That’s bizarre to me, because The Omen is a very Christian story, and certainly in North America, Christianity is foundational to our civilization, but in Japan, it’s not —

Moore: Right.

— so what would the appeal be in Japan?

Moore: Well, you see, there’s actually a refreshing lesson in the level of Japanese interest. I mean, they flew planeloads of journalists over here to see it, to talk to me. They’re absolutely fascinated by the movie. But I think what’s almost refreshing about it is they look at it as a story, and like you say, the religious context of the movie has no relevance to their culture. But yet they can see beyond that, to perhaps the bigger notion, the trans-religious notion of evil.

Having said that, I’m curious as to how familiar you are with the milieu of the original film in the ’70s. At the time the original film came out, interest in the Book of Revelation was incredibly high, thanks to authors like Hal Lindsey and Salem Kirban. Do you know those names?

Moore: Yes, I know them.

So how familiar are you with that sort of Christian subculture? And more recently it’s been reflected in the Left Behind franchise.

Moore: Yeah, the Tim LaHaye stuff. I know a little of LaHaye’s work. It’s funny, it seems most people think the book of revelation was written in 1976. It seems that it gets dusted off once every generation, and I think that phenomenon is, in itself, significant. The organized Christian religious groups — not that LaHaye’s is a group, but certainly those who believe in the Rapture, for example — seem to be quite an exclusive grouping, whereas a movie like The Omen certainly is sort of all-encompassing, and invites everyone to examine the theories put forward in the work.

But I find, in general, my sensibility of Christian religious groups is, I have a sensation of exclusion. There’s something vaguely anti-Christian about it, to be quite honest. Do you know what I’m saying? It seems like there’s a pyramid structure to Christian religion in America, and those at the very top are holier-than-thou and are quite damning of people lower down in the pyramid, even though these people might be practising Christian. It strikes me as an irony, the level of are-you-in-the-club-or-not that tends to pervade — I use the term cautiously — an extremist Christian religion.

I can’t imagine what extremist Christian religion would be, except anything but a good thing. The basic tenets of Christianity are all about helping each other and being good, and I won’t ask you to agree or disagree with this, but to my mind, there seems to be more of a negative association with extremist Christian religion in America.

Is it fair to ask what sort of religious affiliation, if any, you have yourself?

Moore: No problem. I’m an Irish Catholic. I was brought up Catholic, and I’m one of the — probably the over-used term is “lapsed Catholic”, because I don’t go to church regularly. But I still have a very deep sensibility of Catholicism, I believe in God, but I think, like — I’m 36, and I think a lot of people my age who have grown up with a college education and living a comfortable lifestyle have had very little reason in their life to question belief, and that’s just occurring to me really now, as I get older. I wonder why the lapsing occurs. And there’s some debate in my mind that suggests intelligence could be the enemy of belief. It’s almost like the more we educate ourselves, the smarter we get, the less inclined we are, then, towards religion until the onset of a certain age — and then the insurance-policy mentality kicks in.

As one who believes in God, when you tackle a project like this, which does presume God and the Devil exist, do you feel an extra responsibility in telling this story? Not even to people groups, but just to God himself?

Moore: That’s a very good question. And the answer is complex. Maybe I’ll tell you a story and maybe therein lies the answer. Pete Postlethwaite, who plays Father Brennan, was brought up Catholic in England as well. I remember one day he was in costume, his tunic, his religious garb, and I remember goofing around and being what you could only interpret as disrespectful to the uniform, you know? And both of us just quietly remarked, somewhat rhetorically, how that could come to be when, as children, the sight of that tunic, the sight of a priest, that uniform, would strike certainly if not fear then healthy respect into you. And yet, here we were, goofing around, like I say wholly disrespectful to the image of the uniform.

And so, to kind of answer your question, I subsequently then began to worry, quietly — you might say the exploitive manner of the film was of concern to me. I started to think, “Am I pissing God off?” If I believe in him, and if I have to follow that notion, then surely, I have to question whether or not I’m encouraging his wrath by making a movie like this. But then you extrapolate the theory further. The story of the film very much confirms the existence of a God, by the reflective demonstration of the existence of the Devil, and evil. It is by default that we are suggesting — we’re not even suggesting, we’re outright saying — that God exists. So ultimately, I think the film is an emboldened reaffirmation of the existence of God, and therefore I stopped worrying about it. How about that for an answer? I can see you typing, “Yes, he believes in God.” (laughs)

Something a little more complex than that, maybe! Last specifically religious question: You talk about the problems in the world today, and in the film, the ambassador has a line where he says [of the monk Bugenhagen], “Like every fanatic, he thinks arcane scripture justifies killing.” And yet the film does show that character coming to believe that he has to kill his son as well. I don’t want to go too far out on a limb here, but could somebody argue that this film shows sometimes killing is justified?

Moore: That’s certainly an interesting theory. The Robert Thorn character suffers religious flip-flopping worse than John Kerry did. He leaves Bugenhagen and he has a moment of clarity. It’s as if someone threw a glass of cold water on his face. He storms off, he says, “This is ridiculous, that guy’s a crackpot, and like all crackpots, he’s justifying killing with scripture.” And then it takes the killing of his friend and ally in front of his very eyes to reaffirm his belief, and knock him back over the edge — not just to belief but a fanatical belief. It motivates him so much that he attempts to kill the child.

And what I think is interesting is you never really get to know if he was going to go through with it. I think that’s important in the film. There’s a hesitation at the end which is taken advantage of, to kill him. So I’m betting that Thorn ultimately doesn’t think that what he was about to do was right. I don’t know that he was going to go through with it.

He gets very close, though.

Moore: He gets damn close! And that’s what’s interesting, it leaves it open. Was he committed to it? Did he himself turn into a quote-unquote religious fanatic, the people he damned five minutes ago in the movie? Or ultimately, does his sense of what’s right and wrong win out and force the hesitation that stops the act? Of course, it turns out to be an unfortunate act for the rest of us, because the bad guys lose.

The original film was part of a trilogy. Are there any plans for sequels to this? Does Damien grow up?

Moore: It’s a very tantalizing prospect. But I think you have to remember the original film wasn’t planned as a trilogy. Seltzer’s work was very definitely making a statement that if we don’t watch it, the bad guy will win, and there will be no Hollywood ending. I think it was purely because of the success of the original that the commercial notion kicked in. But we certainly don’t have a plan.

I haven’t seen the original film in five or six years, but certainly the new film felt very familiar, and almost kind of retro, and I’m thinking specifically of the darkroom that David Thewlis’s character uses. Do photojournalists still use film?

Moore: Well, what I thought was cute about it was that he subsequently then switches over to examine the digital file, and I used that to reaffirm the existence of the phenomenon. I thought, you know, he’s checked it on film, and now he’s going to go check it on digital, and there it is — the blemish is in both formats. But I agree with you, it’s a quaint notion, a quaint image to see someone working in a darkroom. But again, we used to have a line in the script that I ended up not using, whereby when Thorn leaves Bugenhagen and he’s arguing with Jennings, and Jennings says, “Well what about the photographs?” I used to have a line in there that said, “Any 12-year-old with a laptop could doctor those photographs.” Because the Photoshop phenomenon is a reality in life. But I ultimately left it out. I’m not sure why.

Speaking of David Thewlis, just yesterday I was watching the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven, and in one of the features there, Thewlis is speaking to Ridley Scott about the fact that he had just been beheaded in Timeline.

Moore: Yes, he’s the most beheaded actor in history! Four times, I think.

Four times, really? What’s the other one?

Moore: Let’s see, it was Kingdom, Timeline, The Omen, and — ah, dammit, there is one more. I knew that he was chuffed because I sent him the head from The Omen, so he has a nice pair of heads on the fridge. Donner gave him the head from Timeline.

He didn’t get the one from Kingdom of Heaven?

Moore: He didn’t get the one from Kingdom. No, Ridley’s too tight. He’ll probably sell it on eBay.

On the screen, when he mentions Timeline, there’s a subtitle which then says, “He’s been cast as the David Warner character in The Omen” —

Moore: Oh, I didn’t know that.

— so if you know who the David Warner character was, then, y’know, dot dot dot.

Moore: Sure. That’s cool. I must check that out.

Also, I thought the casting of Mia Farrow as the nanny was brilliant, partly of course because of the Rosemary’s Baby connection, but also because, in her very first scene, when she’s being interviewed for the job, she talks about how she loves raising children.

Moore: Yeah. (laughs)

She’s got this very public persona as someone who does love children, and it was fascinating to see her, in a way, subvert her public image like that.

Moore: I agree. I mean, we got very lucky with her.

Was she the first choice for that?

Moore: Oh God yeah, but it was a fantasy choice. We used to pin her picture up on the casting board and daydream about it. “Wouldn’t it be great if…?”

Did she take a lot of persuasion?

Moore: No. I think she was working with Julia at the time on stage in Broadway, and I think Julia had been talking to her about The Omen, and then I got wind of the fact that Mia might be approachable on this, so I just cold-called her and introduced myself, and I think she thought it would be fun, and she said yeah. Yeah, I know, I’ve just used up all my luck.

Finally, working with the boy who plays Damien. You’ve got a boy, a young child, and we try to keep children as innocent as possible, but you’ve got him playing the Antichrist, and lots of bad stuff happens around him. So how did you handle working with a child actor in that sort of context?

Moore: Well, you know, it’s funny. The great illusion of film really strikes me here. Because when you break it down, Seamus wasn’t really that involved in any of the harrowing scenes. He literally wasn’t on set for all the things. But of course, when you’re watching the whole film in a dark room, your perception is that he’s there all the time. So there wasn’t a lot to shield him from, because he literally wasn’t working on the days that the bad stuff happened. And we just kept reaffirming to him that this is a story, we’re telling a story, and we kept it very simple for him. Because like you said, nobody particularly wants to go around disturbing a six-year-old child. But his memory of the experience will be — is — a happy one, because he had fun doing it. And like I say, he wasn’t around any of the bad stuff, so he has no visual memory of that stuff. And I hope he won’t see the film until he is of an appropriate age.

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