Interviews · Movies

Scott Derrickson on Religion, Evil and Other Dark Things

In 2010, Jack Giroux interviewed the filmmaker about ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ and ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose.’
Scott Derrickson Emily Rose
Screen Gems
By  · Published on May 19th, 2010

Interviews done via email are usually not ideal. Usually, you don’t end up with the most inspired answers. Director Scott Derrickson, on the other hand, completely contradicts that theory. I sent Derrickson a few questions a couple of months back and I was hoping he wouldn’t send back a bunch of puffy two sentenced answers. Considering that was quite some time ago, he obviously wanted to take his time and for good reason. Based on his in-depth answers, I’m sure you’ll be able to tell he couldn’t have given better answers.

While Derrickson doesn’t have another film out currently, he was kind enough to briefly talk about his previous two films: The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Derrickson became a director to watch, for me, when Exorcism first came out. It was effective and a horror film that actually had something interesting to say. Visually, it was also impressive. While many may not be the biggest fan of his followup film, I’d say there’s still plenty of aspects that prove he’s a talent to continue watching.

You approached The Exorcism of Emily Rose as a writer and director. With The Day the Earth Stood Still, you came on board where a script had already been written. You obviously had a hand in the script, but that seemed like more of a collaboration between you, Keanu, and David Scarpa. Can you compare the two processes?

The two processes could not have been more different. With Emily Rose, the script was written outside of the Hollywood system, so it was pretty much the script I wanted to make before anybody ever saw it. When we shopped the script for Emily Rose, I made it clear to prospective buyers that I wanted to make it as written – and for the most part, that’s what I was able to do. Clint Culpepper, the head of Screen Gems, was very protective of the script, but he also rightfully identified a flaw in the third act – specifically, that we needed to add the closing arguments in the courtroom. The only script change he insisted upon that I didn’t really like was the onscreen killing of the doctor who’s hit by the car, but I know why he wanted it, and I still go back and forth about whether or not he was right to force that change. But overall, I’m very happy with that movie, and it’s very close to the vision of the original script.

With The Day The Earth Stood Still, I passed on the project twice before agreeing to come aboard with my own writer, Stuart Hazeldine (who had written the script for Paradise Lost for me at Legendary Pictures). Together, Stu and I worked out an extensive rewrite of the script that was the movie I wanted to make. The studio didn’t like that draft and decided to go back to David Scarpa’s original script. Soon after that, Keanu came aboard the project, and he had some of the same misgivings about that original script that I had, so Keanu, myself, and David Scarpa starting working through the script together, trying to strengthen the narrative and the characters. Some good work came out of that process – for example, Keanu came up with the idea of the lie detector scene, and I think Scarpa wrote that scene beautifully. The main problem with that process was that we ran out of time – we were prepping the movie and still working out the script, and then the Writer’s Guild strike happened faster than any of us expected. There was more script work that we wanted to do – mostly in the second half, and especially on the ending of the movie – but all writing had to suddenly cease. We had to shoot the script in hand.

Emily Rose obviously did more than respectable business when that came out, did the financial success of that film allow you to have more leeway or creative control on your followup? I’d imagine people would invest a lot of trust into you after that considering you made a film with artistic and commercial appeal.

Fox had plenty of confidence in me as a director because of Emily Rose, but I wouldn’t say I had creative control of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The process on that film was definitely a group process. We were all just trying to make the best film we could under some difficult circumstances. In the end, the film got some bad reviews, but let’s be honest: if it had won the Academy Award that year, I’d be happy to take all the credit, so I’m not going to blame someone else now for any of its flaws. It’s my film, I made it, and I’ll take the credit and/or blame for it. I think the film has its problems, but I also think it was met with more vitriol than it deserved. I didn’t expect so much remake hatred; I didn’t realize how little the media would judge the movie on its own.

Both of your films have dealt heavily with morals, good and evil. With Exorcism of Emily Rose, it went into the idea that evil is in all of us and we have to confront it. The Day the Earth Stood Still also dealt heavily with that. What is it about that theme that keeps you wanting to delve into it?

I honestly don’t understand why everybody isn’t obsessed with good and evil. I think the single most important, fascinating, and complex aspect of human nature is that we all know, deep down, that we are not what we ought to be — or as John Doe says in Seven, ”We are not what was intended.” I return to that theme creatively because it’s what I think about and care about the most personally. What I desire most in my life is to become a better person. I genuinely want to be good. I am by nature remarkably selfish and destructive, but I have also seen some genuine transformation in myself toward selflessness, and that matters a great deal to me. If you look at life with any honestly and intelligence, it’s clear that human nature is dark, vile, selfish, and despondent. But I also see a force in human nature, namely grace, that sometimes works against our natural moral entropy. The drama that interests me the most often deals with this.

Religion played a big part in Emily Rose, but there’s also some religious undertones in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Klaatu could be interpreted as Jesus, which is somewhat ironic consider Keanu had already played a Christ-like figure in The Matrix. I don’t think I’m looking too deep into that considering the sacrifice Klaatu makes at the end and a few other details that symbolize that. With all that said, religion seems to play a large role in your films.

It does, yes. I think religion is as flawed an enterprise as any other human endeavor, but the interests and ambitions of religion are the right interests and ambitions. I think my attraction to science fiction and horror is that they invite religious exploration in ways that other genres don’t, and when religion is paired with horror or sci-fi, a lot of typical religious baggage falls away. It’s also important for me to not feel that my thoughts and feelings about spirituality must be compartmentalized creatively. I want that part of my life and interest to be a part of my creative process.

While you’ve obviously dealt with darker themes, you still always interject a message of hope. It’s not always bleak, is that something you aspire to do?

I don’t so much aspire to it as I believe in it. I struggle to have hope sometimes; it’s not always easy for me. I think the world is a complicated, confounding, and often terrifying place – but again, I see grace in it too. In the end, I am not a fatalist or a nihilist, so I guess my work will naturally reflect that.

After recently revisiting Emily Rose I took more notice to the timeless feel. What I mean by that is that there’s never a clear sense of what time period the story is set in. You could argue it takes place the ’90s or even the ’80s. Was that something you were going for?

Actually, if you look carefully, there’s nothing in that movie that couldn’t have happened even in the late ’70s. The first draft of the script was written to take place in the ’70s like the true story, but eventually, I felt like the use of the time period wasn’t significant enough to keep the film set 30 years in the past. That’s when I thought about trying to make the film oddly timeless, so that nothing drew attention to when it actually took place. I thought if I did it just right, it wouldn’t be noticeable, but it would add to the unsettling tone of the film, and the movie would feel closer to the true story than if it were clearly contemporary.

Stylistically, I’d say Rose and The Day the Earth Stood Still are a tad different. With Rose, you had a very bright aesthetic with bold colors and contrasting shadows. On a visual level, were you looking to do something different?

I wasn’t thinking at all about Emily Rose when I was working on Day the Earth, so there wasn’t specifically an attempt to do something different. As for the contrast, that is probably more the result of the different DP’s than any hard choice that I was making. Tom Stern tends to shoot high contrast, with extremely dark shadows. The darkest blacks you’ll ever see are in Million Dollar Baby (for which he should have won the Oscar, but wasn’t even nominated). David Tattersal, however, had really grown weary of seeing that hard look of heavy contrast, especially on people’s faces. I remember talking through this issue through with him, and he convinced me to soften the contrast on Day the Earth. Both films have disciplined and extreme uses of color though, and that comes from me, as neither DP naturally shoots that way.

You’re sort of becoming known as a genre director, do you plan on continuing on this path? It seems like the perfect fit for you considering you seem to always be looking to send a message and horror/sc-fi are, arguably, the best genres best suited for that.

I do love horror and sci-fi, in part for the reason you give. I also simply love the entertainment value of those genres. When you see a truly fantastic horror film or sci-fi film, there’s just nothing better.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.