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The Last Exorcism 2 – Ed Gass-Donnelly interview (exclusive)

The Last Exorcism, Part II

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ED GASS-DONNELLY talks about the appeal of making The Last Exorcism Part II, working with producer Eli Roth and why Roman Polanski’s Rosemary Baby was a big reference point for him.

He also talks about some of the lessons he learned while shooting, what he looks for in horror films and ways to lend films crossover appeal, and why he enjoyed working with leading lady Ashley Bell.

Q. What attracted you to The Last Exorcism Part II?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: Well, I’d seen the first movie and had been a fan of it. It’s funny, I actually went with a friend who is a huge horror fan. I like horror films but I’m not a fan with a capital ‘F’. I have pretty diverse taste. So, I went in knowing absolutely nothing about it, with not very high expectations, but one of the things that struck me about it was the authenticity of the performances. So, I guess that was one of the biggest things that sold it for me. Bad acting, especially in horror, is a no-no because it’s hard to believe something is scary if you can’t believe the actors. And Ashley Bell and Patrick Fabian were great. So, then a few months later I happened to meet one of the producers [Eli Roth] who was a fan of my last film, Small Town Murder Songs, and we ended up chatting.

And then out of the blue, six months later, he called me and asked me how I would hypothetically feel about directing the sequel. So, I said : “Hypothetically maybe…” And we started talking about it from then on. They said what they were interested in and what would my take on it be… it’s tricky for a director coming into something like this, especially as this was my first American film – I’m Canadian – because the big question is how to make it my own. But they were really open to departing heavily from the first film, so the first thing to go was the found footage format. It was really just working from an initial idea – they knew where they wanted the film to start and where to get to but how she [Ashley Bell] gets there and what it all means was blank, so we dove in and started developing ideas and then started shooting.

Q. It sounds like a whirlwind experience for you?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: It really was. I came on in October and we started prepping the shoot at the beginning of February. We shot in New Orleans and shot a bit during Mardi Gras, which is the end of February, so it happened pretty quickly. I was sort of catapulted into it. But it was exciting. It’s funny, all the movies I’ve made, for whatever reasons, have happened quite quickly. People say things happen at a snail’s pace in this industry but, ironically, that hasn’t really been the case for me so far. But it’s exciting that way… it’s like working on the adrenaline of “oh shit, we have a deadline!’.

Q. The first film was very much based around the idea of religion versus faith. Is this the same?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yeah. In this one, we find Nell [Ashley Bell] after the events of the first film with no real memory of what happened to her. They can’t find her family and all the information surrounding what happened is murky. So, she settles into a halfway house and starts to move on with her life. And one of the biggest things for her is that she’s come from such an uptight religious upbringing but now suddenly she’s on her own and discovering who she is. There are lots of temptations around her, but as they start to get darker she realises the presence that was after her in the first film is trying to get back into her life again and that it’s all part of a greater plan.

Q. [Producer] Eli Roth has credited you with adopting a Roman Polanski-style approach to this? Is that accurate?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yeah. I wanted this to be very old school and elegant. For me, one of the biggest reference points was Rosemary’s Baby. I was trying to make a movie that is simple and restrained and much more about the character and her internal arc as opposed to a more external, conventional approach that’s plot driven. Polanski did such a great job with Rosemary’s Baby. But that’s the kind of horror that most interests me, when it’s used as a means to explore wider issues. Horror can be a great device for exploring social commentary – Dawn of the Dead was amazing in that way – or getting into a deeper character study. And that’s the approach I took here.

Q. Would you say you’re an actor’s director? That you like working with actors more than, say effects, which bedevil a lot of horror films?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: Yeah, everything I do is actor-driven. I’m doing a high concept political kidnapping action thriller next but, again, it had to be rooted in rich themes and ideas and really strong characters. I think that’s how you make movies with crossover appeal that can transcend genre.

The Last Exorcism, Part II

Q. What was the biggest lesson you took away from the experience of making The Last Exorcism: Part 2?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: Well, this is the first movie ever that I’ve been on that I’m not also a producer, so the biggest challenge came towards the end of post-production, once the movie got bought, and there was pressure to meet a release date. Up until that point, we’d had this casual, languid shooting and editing process and then suddenly we were being shot out of the canon. It was like: “Holy fuck, we have to finish this in three weeks!” And let me tell you, it’s not the way that I like to work… not that I can really complain because it comes from a positive place. So, it was really the reality of having to deal with that kind of sudden post-production process, which really involves working non-stop. It’s not a pleasant way to work. But then when you think about how many people are going to see it and how many screens this is going to open in, then you have to view it as a positive learning experience.

Q. Do you feel any sense of nervousness about the release date?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: Honestly, with horror you’ve got such hardcore opinionated fans that all I can do is step back and let things take their course. It’s kind of cool that people are so passionate about horror because it’s rare in many ways to get people to be passionate about anything nowadays. So, even though I really care about this, you have to disengage after a point and let people do what they want with it.

Q. Having been a fan of Ashley’s work in the first film how was getting to work with her? And how was working with Eli Roth?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: Ashley was someone I became really close with. She’s just a really great human being and so passionate. She so wanted to do her best. She loves the character of Nell and was so concerned about doing her justice. She was a pleasure to work with. Eli… it’s funny, I had some nervousness about working with him because he’s so huge within the genre and I’d never met him prior to signing up. But my fears were quickly allayed because he’s just this excited, passionate guy who has this encyclopaedic knowledge of horror, which came in really handy for me. If I wrote something wrong, he’d straight away say ‘you can’t do that’ and explain why. Or if I was missing something he would come in and be very helpful because he knows the genre inside out and is so full of good ideas.

Q. And are you working on a thriller next?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: The next one is a supernatural thriller… actually I have two thrillers waiting to go. Both are slated to start shooting in the Fall but I’m not sure which one is going first.

Q. Has either one been cast?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: Not yet, we’re still securing the funding. But whichever one gets that completed first we’ll shoot first and hold the other one over to spring.

Q. Has shooting The Last Exorcism Part II opened more doors for you? Or is it too early to tell?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: Definitely. But my last film, Small Town Murder Songs, was a big one too because it got a lot of attention in the States

Read our review of The Last Exorcism Part II

Read our interview with Eli Roth