The Last Exorcism has been very successful in the US and has an ending that has divided audiences. We were lucky enough to get to talk to both Eli Roth and Daniel Stamm about the film and its ending. There are therefore quite a few spoilers throughout.
Eli Roth’s involvement.
ER: Originally the producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman brought the script to me as it was a project that they had developed and Studio Canal said that they would step in to finance the movie if I got involved. Originally the writers were attached to direct and I loved their film, Mail Order Wife. I read it (The Last Exorcism script) and thought it was one of the best, smartest, scariest, most compelling scripts I’d ever read. Every time I thought I had it figured out a new twist came in. And I’d always wanted to be involved in a possession film, an exorcism film. It’s such rich subject matter but of course you think, how could you ever top The Exorcist. I read the script and thought well you can’t top The Exorcist, don’t even try. You can tell a different story in this space, make it completely original and totally different. I started thinking about vampires and what started as Dracula and Nosferatu is now Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. Look at Zombies, there’s the Dawn of the Dead remake, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, The Walking Dead. It’s endless, people love it. Possession is so relevant and so modern, it’s still very much a part of culture and I thought it’s time to do an updated treatment of the subject.
The Last Exorcism is a very small film, it’s a psychological thriller, a drama about a girl who might be possessed or might be crazy. It’s the clash of science versus religion with the reverend taking the position of science saying she’s crazy and the father taking the position of religion. The fun is watching these two sides duke it out.
Social commentary in the film and the themes of faith and religion.
ER: When making the film you’re not really conscious of that but looking back you are. People have come out of it and they look at the clash of science and religion. That’s really America, I mean 42% of Americans believe in the Devil and Creationism and the other half think that that’s ridiculous and there were dinosaurs. Neither side will bend to one degree and it leads to everyone’s downfall. Both the father and Cotton want what’s best for the girl and they’re both coming out it from completely opposite ends. The film does not take a side, it presents both sides fairly. We’ve seen people who are atheists who’ve seen the movie who think she’s crazy and the deeply faithful who think the father’s right.
DS: I’m not arrogant enough to say here’s a ninety minute movie and by the end of it I’ll answer your questions about faith. But it was important to me that we would have these two forces, science and faith, that we send on their journey. We don’t have any preconceived notion of who should win, that we make the best possible case, the most intelligent, eloquent and fair case for each of these two and give them each a protagonist. Then send them on the journey and see what the outcome might be. And not say this is a movie about faith winning or science winning. I think it’s much stronger to create that question mark. That’s the big difference between the American audience and the European audience in that the American audience enjoys answers a lot and the European audience enjoys questions. I wanted to make a European movie in that way, we throw that question out there.
Why it is often women, in particular young girls who are the possessed characters in Exocism films?
ER: There have been films with men but when a girl gets possessed it’s terrifying and seeing a girl that’s very unsexualised, the way that Nell is, a virgin behaving sexually is disturbing as it looks out of character. If you saw a fifteen year old boy suddenly acting that way you wouldn’t think he was possessed you’d think he was fifteen. If you saw him doing the things that she does you’d think he’s not possessed he’s just being an asshole teenager. If you had a boy doing the stuff that happens in an exorcism movie you’d be watching A Clockwork Orange.
The documentary style of The Last Exorcism
ER: Found footage is where you found a camera, you took out the tape and pressed play and that’s it. We wanted to do a documentary where you’re watching Grey Gardens, The Brother’s Keeper, The king of Kong or American Movie and it’s scored and edited and you want people to get to the end of the movie and think who the f**k got this together. Was this the cult, was it God, is this Cotton’s greatest trick. Who knows. We like starting that discussion at the end of the film.
DS: The documentary style is completely liberating because you don’t spend any time on the technical aspects, you don’t spend four hours lighting something. You completely concentrate on the actors. We did twenty/thirty takes of stuff just to try to experiment, to give them the freedom of not feeling like they had to hit a particular vision of mine. They were completely free to improvise. 90% of what you get might be crap but the 10% feels real, it feels authentic. You have to create moments that feel real and if there’s a single moment that feels fake the whole building you’re building falls apart. That’s the challenge of that style. What it allows you to do in a horror movie is tear down that fourth wall that protects you.
ER:Part of the fun of doing it for under two million dollars is you can take the position on the ending we took where this is where the story ends and leave it open ended. People are split on it too. They are either 100% with it and think, that’s incredible I need to rethink the whole movie or people think the movie just switched on them and think, what the f**k just happened and feel totally betrayed by it. We knew that was a chance that we were taking but overall for the people that like digging into an intellectual type of film it has sparked all kinds of discussion.
At the end of the film, the final ceremony is all about Cotton. The townspeople are doing all these theatrics for Cotton because they know he has the camera and it’s all because they know he doesn’t believe in God and therefore does not believe in the Devil. By the time the demon reveals itself it’s too late, if he really believed in God he’d have believed in him before that point. The whole film has an underlying message of faith, that you shouldn’t mess with forces bigger than yourself, than your understanding.
DS: When he walks towards the fire he has just found his faith but he hasn’t found his faith before hell opens up and the demon shoots out so can you really call that faith. How is God going to react to that? That isn’t for me to decide so we cut away.
(at this point I asked about how the film could be read as a creation by the villagers or by Cotton)
I always loved the idea too that it might all be his (Cotton Marcus’) show and if you pay attention to the first act there is a lot of set up to that that then never pays off. He says that every preacher needs a hook to bring people in. His hook would be this film, the demon. His wife also says that he’s writing screenplays. Then we have the flames, the smoke, everything that the demon is made of. I was hoping this would come across more but when we test screened it it didn’t really as people couldn’t wrap the heads around the idea that he found actors that good, finding a girl that good who could do all the stuff she does. That fell apart a bit in that it’s probably not Cotton Marcus’ film but I love that there is a touch of that. No-one asked me about that in the US.
We get all kinds of reactions about the ending and there is a real passionate debate. I would love for everyone to love it but the next best thing is this because it shows how passionate people are about the movie and about the characters. I’m getting people on Twitter telling me to jump of the Empire State building. Wow, that’s pretty passionate.
ER: Endangered Species is in the writing stage. For The Man With The Iron Fist we are scouting locations in the middle of September in China. In my dream I will finish this (The Last Exorcism) then do Endangered Species then do Thanksgiving… The problem is that in the first 12 pages of Thanksgiving we already have 38 kills and we realise that’s a bit ridiculous, we’ll have to tone it down a bit.
DS: My next project is a supernatural thriller and it’s not going to be shot in documentary style. It’s going to be an actual narrative, conventional movie. The deal is just being made so I can’t talk about it but I’m burning to talk about it because one of my favourite filmmakers in the world, whose a legend, is producing it. He’s incredible and I can’t wait to work with him on this. It’s an idea of his that another writer is writing and I’m going to direct. It has a twist in the ending, without giving away who it is.
The Last Exorcism is released in UK cinemas today.