I’ve been excited to see The Last Exorcism for the last 5 months. Originally slated to play at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, the Eli Roth-produced horror film was quickly bought up by Lionsgate and subsequently pulled from the festival. A sad day indeed for horror fans who were already chomping at the bit to see the film. Here we are several months later and Lionsgate has pulled out all the stops for a wide release of The Last Exorcism this past weekend.
It did very well for itself, going neck and neck with Takers for the top spot at the box office with just over $20 million in ticket sales. Not too shabby for a film produced outside the studio system with a production budget of less than $2 million.
I had an opportunity to sit down with producer Eli Roth and director Daniel Stamm and talk about the film in detail.
Cut to the interview, already in progress:
Eli Roth: …and they did a Fred Decker film festival in Night of the Creeps, Monster Squad. It’s awesome.
So let me just start by saying I love the film. I thought it was awesome. I was really, really impressed by how everything went. Dan, I had seen your previous film A Necessary Death and I think it’s interesting that there’s kind of this correlation where you obviously have a fascination with the documentary style and using that as your storytelling technique. Can you talk a little bit about that for me?
Daniel Stamm: It’s just very [garbled], because you get to concentrate completely on the acting and on the story. You don’t wait for three hours until something is lit. All the technical aspects kind of take a backseat to what really matters, which is your work with the actors and giving them the space to really participate as a creative entity. Rather than just deliver my vision that is filtered through my mind and that’s about it, I have the time to actually listen to them and see…because they are the authority on the character. So I’d cut myself off if I didn’t listen to them about where they felt this should be going. And to give us time to try as many takes as we need. We could do 30, 40 takes if necessary until we have the scene exactly where we need it.
So that’s great about that style. And then once you work in horror, it is especially great, because it allows you to kind of drag down that fourth wall, that protective layer that separates the audience from what is actually going on in the film, and drag them into the film and make them a lot more vulnerable.
And I think they are kind of aware that what they are seeing is just this little frame, but there is like a whole 360 degrees around them that also plays into what is going on in the film, but they don’t see it. And that’s something you don’t really get in conventional style. So I love this style for this kind of movie. It was just the perfect style to tell the story.
Eli Roth: And originally, Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland were slated to direct it. But they…did you see their first film Mail Order Wife?
No, I saw Broken Condom, but they do the docu-styles too, yeah.
Eli: I know Huck from film school and I saw his student film “Until There Were None” which is this style of fake documentary; a guy who shoots bald eagles in national parks. His whole mission was to kill them until there were none. It was like really sick. So they were slated to do it. And when we lost them to the Virginity Hit which got green lit at the exact same time, you know, we thought, “Gosh, how are we going to find someone who understands how great this medium can be?”
And it’s not found footage. I mean it’s documentary, like thinking Brother’s Keeper, Great Guard, and Sir King of Kong. American Movie really filmed and edited and scored. And then we saw A Necessary Death and thought, “Oh my God.” Daniel not only really understood the format and embraced it and got those subtle moments, but he understood at what point the crew would naturally get involved.
One of his great additions was sort of like adding Iris as a perspective, and sort of the cameraman, like an hour into the film, says, “Guys, wait. I’m really not comfortable being here.” And eventually, he is kind of like asking what the audience is asking. And when the audience is like, “I would get the fuck out of there!” the cameraman is like, “See ya!”
So it was great that he really understood…He didn’t say, “I’m coming in to make a horror film.” He really…Daniel, when you talk to him…When we spoke, he said his favorite director was Lars Von Trier, and he was coming at the place of making a true drama like The Idiots. He knew it was a Hollywood movie for a wide release, but approaching it like, “We are going to follow these people and be invested in these characters, and the horror will naturally grow out of it, and slowly, they will lose control and become the subjects of their own film.” It’s not really about Nell anymore, it becomes about them.
He just understood the film on so many levels, and I think just did an amazing job of really taking what was a great script and making a really interesting, incredible, and different movie.
And kind of along those same lines, I mean it is really a character piece. I mean it’s got this horror framework and a documentary framework around it, but really, it’s all about Cotton. And, in fact, I think the film was originally titled Cotton.
Eli: The original title was The Ivanwood Exorcism. And then after the script was done, we changed the title to Cotton. And it was somewhere in editing we came up with The Last Exorcism. Cotton, you would have to do like District 9, like massively spend millions educating people that Cotton, this is a movie about a reverend, that somehow…but Last Exorcism had the double meaning.
But it is really Cotton’s story…
Daniel: Right. Which I think if you follow that, if you trust your characters and you follow that, then everything else is going to come to you. We just talked about that doing all these interviews and being asked all these questions, and hearing each other talk about it, we have all these revelations where we are like, “Oh, that’s true! That’s the movie we made.” It has that subtext, it has that political noise to it, it has blah, blah, blah.
But it only can have all these layers because that’s what life is like. If you trust your characters and let them do their thing, they will do things that go beyond just your preconceived notion of what that story should be, and everything kind of conveniently blending together for that one message.
But if you root everything in the characters, it’s like real life. There will be themes happening that you didn’t plan for, and that’s the most beautiful aspect of this style. And it’s the same for the horror. The horror, I think, only works if you love the character and you don’t want the character to get hurt. So you have to come from the character perspective instead of saying, “We’re making a horror movie and we’re excited about the scares. And we have these five scares, and now let’s squeeze it into some story.”
But with us, it was the other way around. We were excited about the characters and about the story. And that’s why the humor was so important for us, for example, to suck the audience in and make them care about these characters so that later we care about them enough to find the horror horrific because we don’t want them to get hurt.
That’s such an interesting point, because Cotton is a sympathetic character. You sympathize with him, even though he’s kind of a schiester. He’s kind of a charlatan in certain ways. But you understand his motivations behind that.
Eli: I want to jump in on that idea of being a charlatan. He is, but what’s great is that the point the audience is entering is that we’re coming when he’s already…the very purpose of why he’s making the film is to put a stop to what he did. You feel like this is someone…in the way that prisoners come out of prison, they have been there for drugs, and they go grunting drug education, you felt like because he’s doing it to confess, it allows the audience to enjoy it. And when we’re laughing at the first exorcism, laughing at the tricks, we know that eventually he will show the Sweetzer fam that film. We’re laughing at how uncomfortable it’s going to be for him to put himself out there.
But there’s something very noble about someone who knows they did something wrong, came to it in their own terms, and said, “This is now going to be done. I’m going to use this film for good.” But that’s sort of why you like him.
It’s just very interesting how…you know, what Daniel, I thought, did so well was the clash of science and religion. That he does say, “Maybe I don’t believe in God.” But it really comes out in the film that he truly…He says if you believe in God, you believe in the devil. The whole time, he is just saying, “Get her to a psychiatrist.” And even when he goes to Pastor Manley, he’s saying, “Get her to a psychiatrist.” And it’s Louis who is devoutly faithful, but only so faithful; he believed everything Cotton told him.
So you really have these clashes of two people that are so…all they want to do is help this girl, and they are completely unbending in their points of view. And it leads to everyone’s detriment. And I thought that that, really, is the essence of what the film is.
Just as an example of marketing with Inglourious Basterds, there was a terror of, like, “Fuck, two thirds of this movie is in a foreign language.” There is no war. The Basterds are barely in it. Are people going to accept it for what it is?
So the hope is that the film…As soon as they hear “exorcism,” they are going to think horror film. But I think what Daniel did was really make a film that is actually truly a drama and a psychological thriller, and a horror film. But the hope is that the audience will, even though they are expecting one thing, will be satisfied with that, but we’ll see…
You know, he wanted to make a film that raised questions and got people discussing.
[THE NEXT SECTION DISCUSSES THE ENDING OF THE FILM, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YOU MAY WANT TO SKIP DOWN TO AVOID SPOILERS]