We chat with the director about following in the footsteps of a cinematic masterpiece and riding the line between exploitation and truthful terror.
When a filmmaker sets out to make an exorcism film, they are inviting immediate comparison to one of the all-time great horror movies. That’s quite a dare. Director Jason DeVan welcomes those critical evaluations, and as a massive Friedkin fan, understands our desire to dismiss.
His faith rests in the reality of Along Came The Devil. Based on the real-life accounts of a family DeVan has grown to love, his take on demonic possession narrows its focus from cosmic terror to personal trauma. The trick became navigating the high-wire act of satisfying fans of the genre with genuine scares while paying respect to the family that suffered greatly.
Just days before the release of the film, I spoke with DeVan over the phone. He was eager to relate his experience of detailing an exorcism and involving legendary character actor Bruce Davison. Of course, we discussed The Exorcist, but also a variety of horror and non-horror films that influenced the look of Along Came The Devil.
Here is our conversation in full:
What are the essential elements of an Exorcist film?
Yeah, good question. Being a fan of the original Exorcist, we wanted to take the story of this Brazilian family, that are good friends of ours and tell the story, without giving too much of the family away, but also add some elements in that would make it relevant for today’s horror fans. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel either. And we feel too many times people go off and get sidetracked with an Exorcism film, trying to make it their own and it gets away, and sometimes that doesn’t go over well with true Exorcism fans or horror fans.
So I think that’s what we set out to do, to tell this family’s story, while also making it feel modern day, and making it relevant for today’s horror fans. Look at movies like The Conjuring and Insidious, well the older Insidious and Sinister. We wanted to make ours feel real, but also give you jump scares as well.
I guess your experience is similar to that of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty. You are creating a fiction based on a true story, but you are personally connected to it. How do you balance that line of providing a horror film for fans and not venturing into exploitation?
Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s something that, like I said, being a horror fan myself and wanting to tell a story, it’s just the truth to the story. Telling the truth of what I knew with this family while keeping it, not so much so where I’m giving them away, or saying things about em and adding an element of my writing to it. And we did an Exorcism film with a lot lower budget than the original Exorcist.
We also wanted to pay homage to it, that we appreciated that film. But I think what speaks in our film are a lot of the truths that this family believed to be true, or to events that happened, while adding our element of our writing. The little girls in the closet at the beginning. That stuff is a true thing that happened to this family. And the father putting the girls in the closet and if they made noise when he brought the prostitutes over, they were abused, which affected them as they grew up. I feel like when you have those types of elements in a movie, and in a story, and it’s truthful, I think the audience really can connect to that type of story and they can feel that, “Wow, if that’s made up, that’s unbelievable.” And if that’s true you feel it and you know something that’s like that could really happen. So I think having those elements in our story kind of kept it true to what we were trying to get across to the fans.
And has the family that the film is based upon seen the film?
They have, they have. They’re actually really good family friends of ours now. And they appreciated the film and what I did with it, and the way I took the elements of the writing that I wanted to add. Obviously the way the movie ends, we wanted to do it different than any other Exorcist movie has done. We also wanted to show that exorcisms don’t always work. The Bishop at Notre Dame that I interviewed, told me a story of an exorcism, I mean an exorcism that he performed in Africa that we used in the film. He said that some of the exorcisms that don’t work made him question his own faith. That’s why we have Bruce Davison’s character questioning his own faith, because they don’t always work. So we wanted to show that in the film, and also end our film differently than any other film.
Well, I don’t want to reveal too much about the climax of the movie, but I almost find the ending…I would love to start a movie at that point. Like what goes on beyond that moment.
Yeah. You know what’s really cool about that is obviously with all the writing and everything that we had, we have a lot of haunting things that we didn’t even use in the first one, that we would absolutely love someday to do a sequel. And we have a sequel where we don’t have to come up with a bunch of ideas for it, we already have em. Leaving the end of the movie open like that, which can put us in the right direction.
I guess this is a good place to talk about Bruce Davison. He’s perfect for an unstable exorcist.
Bruce is absolutely wonderful. And as a young director, working with him I was of course, I mean you know, I was ecstatic to be able to work with Bruce Davison. And it turned out that Bruce went to Penn State University, where I went to college. He’s from Pennsylvania. Jessica Barth is from Pennsylvania. And a few other of our actors, little Lia McHugh and her father actually went to Penn state while I was there.
So we kind of had a Pennsylvania connection that we didn’t set out to have, but it was neat when we were all on set, there was a bunch of people from Pennsylvania. Oh and Madison Lintz, I forgot. Madison Lintz and her mom, she went to Penn state. It was kind of odd that that happened that way, but it did. And back to your original question with Bruce, he was just a pleasure to work with. You hear stories about how great he is as an actor, and he is just that as a person as well. Sweetest guy you could hope to work with and I look forward to working with him again someday.
Yeah, you know, when you see his name in the credits, and he’s first introduced in the film, I’m wondering, “Well how much of a role is he going to have in this movie?” It gives him, ultimately, so much to work with, and he really chews on it.
Yes, he did. He understood the character, and I feel like he brought that character to life. And he really understood where he was going with it, and the questioning of his own faith, he got that right away. As I felt like all of our actors did. All of our actors really got it.
Talking about the questioning of your own faith, when you’re researching the film and when you’re writing the film, and when you’re ultimately making the film, does this process have you evaluating your own belief system? Or evolving your own belief system?
Yeah, it really does. To tackle an Exorcism movie is not easy, in no extent. And I feel like one of the things that we started doing, is we separated the way we felt from our family and our own faith, with making the film. We never felt any fear or were scared during the filming. Some of the scenes that we did though, like during the exorcism, went to a whole other level. And Sydney’s acting, while being possessed and things like that, had everybody standing around on set with our jaws on the floor.
We were never really afraid until after the filming, that’s when little odd things started happening around our house in California, and we’ve since then moved. But we did have little haunting things happening in the house like voices coming from the vents, that my wife and I both heard, and so did my kids, and we didn’t know if our brains were making this up, but it was definitely an interesting thing that we all kind of felt we all experienced.
How did you and Sydney Sweeney achieve the possession scene? What are the practicalities of reaching such a state?
We wanted her to play the role of Ashley, which was a great decision, because if you follow Sidney Sweeney’s career now, we kind of knew that she was destined to blow up, and she’s on her way right now as a young actress.
She dove in. She was so excited to play the role. She had all these ideas, and I completely was on board with a lot of her ideas, and I explained what I was going for and what I wanted, and in a simple way, as simple as I could put it, I just wanted to share with the audience the transition of this innocent, sweet girl. And I wanted her to really portray that as an actress, and go from this innocent little girl to the real feeling of the devil possessing her, which I felt that Sidney did. And she came to set, by the time she flew to Georgia, she a had thick, 30 page book of her backstory, of her life, what she went through, some of the stories I told her about this family and that she grew up with, and she had completely had this character evolved in her head. And that’s kind of what we wanted, was in a simple manner, was to take her from being innocent, to being completely possessed.
Just visually, what are your inspirations? Obviously, you’re well versed with The Exorcist, but where are you pulling your inspiration for the pallet of the movie?
I’m a fan. I’m just a fan like everybody else. I love a lot of foreign films, Stephen Spielberg, and the way he shoots with his anamorphic lenses. I wanted to have that look while shooting on the Alexa ARRI and using anamorphic lenses to film it, even though it was a low-budget film. And I also wanted to have an element of movement with the camera. I’m a huge fan of everyone from Carpenter to James Wan. I wanted it to feel like you were watching an exorcism movie, which felt really today. That had an old school feel, but it looked relevant to today. So, we wanted to try and add all that, from the look of our camera to the movements of the camera, as best that we could do, that fit into the budget. So, that’s what we went for.
Along Came The Devil is now playing in select theaters, On Demand, and Digital HD.