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]
Well, and I think it does that very well, because even 10 minutes out from the end of the film, you still kind of have this idea that things have then flipped, and it’s like, “Oh, well, we saw some really crazy things, but maybe it really was just her just reacting to the situation and having this deep shame.” And you can understand that from her father’s perspective.
I think it’s an interesting kind of contrast that as night is falling, that’s when shit really gets crazy in the last 10 minutes of the film. I don’t know, can you talk about the film kind of going crazy at the end there? I love it. I love that it really is…that there really is a satanic cult and that’s what’s been going on. You’ve been kind of playing with the audience’s knowledge of events up until that.
Daniel: But I always liked that, in the end, that we don’t realize in what kind of a movie we are until the very end. That you have to watch 85 minutes of not knowing, and it keeps you on your feet, and you kind of…And you don’t even understand what genre you are in until the very end.
And then suddenly, when the gates of hell open up, it becomes a different genre, because the size and the scale of the whole event is completely different when everything else was so intimate and so small. And that’s something that is being set up in the first act, when Cotton talks about kind of the religious backdrop and says, “The Bible is about the eternal battle between good and evil,” and that we are basically…we are telling an epic story, which ought to tell like the most epic story there is to tell, but we are just seeing that little…we are just seeing it with this family and these three people. But really, the battle that is being fought is like for millions of souls. We are just dealing with one soul at a time right now.
So I always loved that it changes gears at the end. We see it for what it is for the first time.
Eli Roth: I love the idea that the film, at the ending, something that Daniel cleverly did, I don’t want to say it if it’s a spoiler, but like when he’s approaching, they hear chanting, they’re actually saying banana bread backwards.
It’s almost like if Cotton wasn’t there with his cameras, they wouldn’t have even put on the robes. Like the whole thing is to teach Cotton a lesson for everything he’s done. The drawings, obviously I wouldn’t want to spoil it. But the drawings kind of becoming…suddenly you think it’s them but you start to realize it’s predictions.
It’s all because they know if Cotton ever…his faith is continually tested, and he fails at every turn. And then when he reacts to the fire, suddenly he then believes. But that’s not true faith. That’s just a reaction to what you’re seeing.
So I love the idea that the cult was like, well they have these cameras, like, if she was possessed right from the outset, that, yeah, this whole thing is to teach a guy a lesson. But then there’s also the one person who can say, well wait a minute. Somebody edited this together.
The footage isn’t found. It’s clearly been cut and scored. Who did that? Was it the cult that did that? Was it God? Or was this Cotton’s greatest trick? You don’t know. But we love the idea that the film, in the way The Shining raises those kinds of questions, bigger theme questions, the important thing is by sort of raising these questions, it sparks those discussions, of well, did you believe? Was she possessed? Was she crazy? What is true faith?
And that was what was fun and interesting for us is that in the one hand, you can go yeah, the movie changes in the last five minutes. And in the other hand you can go, no, that’s the only ending it could have, because Nell says, she’s in the fire, soon you’ll join her, and knows that everything they do is just to test his faith and if he ever believed he would have gotten someone who could really handle it.
Daniel: Yeah, it was there the whole time, we just didn’t see it. And Cotton also just didn’t see it, so it’s just us being with our protagonist and his point of view and going, oh fuck, the minute he goes, oh fuck. And I always loved it.
Eli: But then the moment that the cameraman, but then it’s like the cult people are chasing them. It’s like, well, fuck, when that thing in the fire is the least of your problems, it’s scary. And then it’s running, so suddenly the movie that starts with this subtle, beautiful control, ends, really builds to this ultimate opposite end of the spectrum of just the kind of adrenaline pumping, heart racing, just feeling of get the fuck out of there. And it’s literally the idea of trying to outrun your destiny.
Because he saw what his destiny was on the wall. The audience knows at that time. They’re going, run, run, run. They’re going, he’s going to get his fucking head cut off, because we saw it. And now we realize what’s happening. It’s like it’s too late. Sort of too late for everybody. They’ve all gone down this path. But I thought that Daniel did such a great job. I was watching the movie, and really took the time, and so much time in editing and finding that balance to do a steady build.
But I thought he just did a great job of making the film that really raises questions and inspires discussion. And I do think people will be expecting one thing with lots of crazy possessions, which is a very small part of it. But I’m really glad you dug the movie and got those different levels from it.
No. Absolutely. I think people have a preconceived notion as well about PG-13 horror. But I think the film is very atmospheric and effective. I don’t know. I know you guys submitted it to South By, did you feel like you had to cut things or are there things left on the floor?
Daniel: For the PG-13?
Daniel: Well the things that happen on this farm of this very religious man, so there is no foul language. So it just wouldn’t make sense. It would be out of character for Cotton or any of them. And it’s really not based on gore because I have the feeling that what we were trying to do was kind of keep the suspense, keep the pressure kind of buckled up, and keep shaking that bottom, but not release it, which would be the gore.
So it’s really an internal thing and the psychological thread more than anything. So it’s not really based on that. So I would have been surprised if it had been anything else than PG-13. But we never shot it for one rating. No one ever said, go make a movie….
Eli: Yeah, we gave Daniel the freedom…we said, let’s cut what is the best dramatic film. I mean, it’s always easy to add more gore, but also you can feel when stuff is thrown in. Like if I saw Piranha 3D and it was PG-13, I would hate it. You love that movie because it’s that goregasm of the most blood. It’s magnificent. And that’s why you’re there.
But this is a very different experience. People are not going there for the gore. That’s why, in a weird way, when it came back, it was PG-13, we were very happily surprised.
But we felt, somewhere in the editing, this kind of could go either way. It feels like at that very Ring/Grudge end of the Cloverfield end of the PG-13, and, I think if it was rated R people would be fully prepared for much more physical violence, and then they would lose the beauty and subtlety of Ashley Bell’s performance and Patrick’s performance.
They’d be waiting for it and going, where is it? Whereas this, they know it. They’re not expecting it. And they are fully absorbed in the characters, which really the movie is, which is what we all want.
Daniel: I would have been terrified if anyone had said, let’s add more gore. Because that means something isn’t working. Like the suspense of the story itself doesn’t work. If we artificially have to add more gore.
You mentioned Patrick and Ashley. Obviously, Patrick’s performance is incredible and really anchors the film. But Ashley kind of works as a counter balance. Can you guys talk about how you went about finding them? The casting process.
Daniel: My first conversation with the producers was exactly about that. They said the really hard character to find, to be cast, is going to be Cotton, because everything hinges on Cotton. And I have the strong feeling it’s the opposite. It’s all about Ashley, because Ashley is the character that’s under investigation. Because we’re like, is she possessed? Is she crazy? What’s going on? So I was prepared to have weeks and weeks of auditions for Ashley, and find Cotton relatively quickly.
And then when we started casting, they were completely right. Ashley was the second girl that walked in, and she just blew my mind. I knew I could never do any better than her. It was so scary. We did an exorcism with her, an improvised exorcism as the audition. And she was so scary. The casting director, everyone in the room was just like, she was going crazy.
Eli: But there were none in the back, that was like right before you shot.
Daniel: Right. That was just that intensity. She’s such a good actress. And Cotton took us forever. For weeks we were seeing hundreds of people. Because we needed this balance between, we needed the quality of someone having that professional charisma to manipulate you. But then, we also need that redeeming quality, and human warmth, a kind of ethical core. And to find someone who had both, and could portray both was really, really hard.
And Patrick Fabian came in, and with him I did an improvised sermon, with all of the people who came in for Cotton. And his sermon, and I’m a non-believer, but after his sermon, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Because he had that energy, and he’s just so likable, that you want to be on his side. You have the feeling, he knows what he’s doing.
He’s funny. He’s smart. I want to be on his side. And that’s exactly what we needed for Cotton. They were great apart from each other but I think once you put them in a room together and just let them react to each other, you get something that’s really magical.
Eli: And Louis being the loving father, you just feel like he almost improvises this weight, this gravitas, and it’s fantastic to watch him counter work. Cotton’s trying to battle evil and he says, but eventually, he gives up very quickly, and he’s like, we have to get her to a psychiatrist. And Louis just counters with, our weapons of war are not carnal, they’re mighty in God for the pulling down of the strongholds. Am I right? And the look on Cotton’s face, he realized that’s probably….
He has no retort.
Eli: But it’s also probably the first time he’s ever heard that sentence. Like he probably may have said that but he never even thought of what that sentence meant. And he’s just like, yeah, you’re right. It’s like he’s so not versed, he knows passages and phrases, but the Bible never meant anything to him. And every word in the Bible means, it’s the Bible, to this person. It’s just fantastic to watch, that way, with Louis, you’re terrified that the guy is a monster, but really he’s just a loving father who kind of turns out to be right about everything.
And you mentioned that you are a non-believer, but at the same time, it felt like you painted these characters with a certain amount of open-mindedness. You’re not attacking people with faith at all. In fact, it seems you really respect people of faith.
Daniel: Well that was always important to us that we give both sides equal amount of time and fairness and present both cases with the same intelligence and eloquence, so that they can really clash, because otherwise it wouldn’t be a real dilemma and a real conflict, if you don’t build them up with the same strength. Because that’s what the realistic situation is.
There’s never going to be a solution. And the dialogue between these two sides, because none of them will budge. So we needed that for this movie because that’s basically what leads to the tragedy, to everyone’s downfall is that inability to communicate and to compromise.
So that was really important to us from the beginning that we don’t prejudge, but we let the elements play out whatever way they will play.
Eli: We love the idea that the people that are devoutly religious would see the movie and really relate with Louis and understand, and the people that approach it from a non-religious would really understand what Cotton was saying. The movie never takes a position. That both sides are truly presented very fairly.
I think you guys accomplished that very well.
Eli: Thanks man. So glad you dug it.
The Last Exorcism is in theaters now. Unless you’re reading this in a future past 2010. Then it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray and whatever format the future has.