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The Last Exorcism – Eli Roth and Daniel Stamm interview

The Last Exorcism

Interview by Rob Carnevale

HORROR icon and producer Eli Roth and German director Daniel Stamm talk about the making of The Last Exorcism and why they were seeking a more clever approach, as opposed to a more traditional or gory one.

They also discuss the rise of evil in the modern world, and the Pope’s need to open an exorcism academy, and why the Louisiana locations also helped to create a heightened sense of authenticity.

Q. The Last Exorcism is really scary and really smart…
Eli Roth: Thank you… we’re really happy that people have been responding to that aspect of it. We always set out to make a movie that was more psychologically driven than gory, that could be something smarter and different. I’m also so excited for the world to discover Daniel Stamm because he’s done such a great job.

Q. So, what was the appeal of Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland’s script when you first read it?
Daniel Stamm: Well, it was such an incredibly strong script, and I particularly liked the fact there were no gimmicks in it. It had a very, very strong subtext and it was about people who were in a bad situation and how they reacted to the problem before them, which may or may not be supernatural.

I also thought the dilemma facing them all was so tragic – to have a father who might have to shoot his daughter to secure her salvation, and to have this preacher who was totally unprepared for the situation before him, who was undergoing a crisis of faith, and really not prepared to have to save the day. It was a brilliant starting point from which to work because it maintained such a human focus throughout.

Q. Did you have to make many changes to the script?
Daniel Stamm: I have to give the production company credit because they gave me complete freedom to make it mine. The original writers have a very unique style and a very specific point of view. I would have felt trapped if I’d tried to imitate their style.

Q. And Eli, how did you find that as producer?
Eli Roth: What’s so great about Daniel is that he did such a brilliant job in casting this movie as well. He went through a rigorous casting process because we both knew that the whole movie depends on the performances of Patrick Fabian, as the Rev Cotton Marcus, and Ashley Bell, as Nell. But Daniel really got to know them so intimately and he found their strengths through doing that, so new moments were created over the course of that process. The banana bread speech, for instance, came about because he saw what Patrick was capable of… and with Ashley, he saw the things she could do with her body, and the way she could contort it. He really understood where these actors could go and really made the most of it. And things just grew out of that.

Q. So Daniel, what were you looking for when casting?
Daniel Stamm: Well, that’s the thing… if you go into casting with a pre-conceived notion of what you’re looking for it can be very restricting. You want someone to walk in and claim the role and not stick to any mode you have already imagined. You want them to bring a quality and energy you didn’t expect. I thought the role of Nell was going to be so hard to cast, because we’re constantly investigating her character to see if she’s really possessed or just crazy… so I thought it was going to be tremendously hard to find the right actress to convey that.

But Ashley was the second girl to walk in and we stopped casting immediately after her. She just blew us away with her ideas, and the way she was using her body. We were actually looking for Cotton for a long time, but then Patrick came in to his audition and did a sermon that also just blew me away. His energy was so high and he was talking so fast… I had no idea what he was saying but I had the feeling that I wanted to shout ‘hallelujah’ afterwards. In fact, that was where the banana bread speech came from. It came about during the audition process and we incorporated it in the movie after that.

The Last Exorcism

Q. How much did the Louisiana locations help to inform the sense of atmosphere and foster that feeling of unease and slow-building tension that we see in the film?
Daniel Stamm: We actually shot down there for 24 days on an old, deserted plantation that had been flooded by [Hurricane] Katrina. There was still a waterline 6ft high on one of the walls. But that was perfect for us… the smell, the heat, the creaking floorboards… it was something for the actors to use that you can’t fake. It was all real. One day, for instance, we came to set and found a huge alligator that had crawled out of some pond. We couldn’t shoot for three hours. It had a very Southern feel to the place, and the crew were all from down there… so it all added to the authenticity and gave us something you would not have got from a sound stage in LA. There was also no make-up department because I wanted people to appear real. So, likewise, that’s real sweat you can see. The actors can feel that and that helped them to relate to each other.

Q. It’s an obvious question with a horror film of this nature, but did anything spooky happen?
Daniel Stamm: You mean besides the alligator [laughs]?

Eli Roth: We weren’t attacked by anything… we were very respectful of the supernatural, so it didn’t have any reason to attack us. But then I think this movie represents both sides very fairly… both points of view are very well heard throughout, whether you believe in God or believe in the Devil.

Q. Where do you both stand on the supernatural? Do you believe in the devil?
Eli Roth: Well, I saw The Exorcist when I was a kid and I spent all of my time after that believing that I’d be possessed by the devil… that was until my mum explained to me that I was Jewish and that I would be possessed by a dybbuk instead. I then kept picturing an old Jewish guy coming after me! But having made the Hostel films, I also think I’m going to have a VIP section in hell just for me, so I may as well make friends with him [the devil] now! But seriously, exorcism is very real. The Pope really did start an exorcism academy in 2008 and there were 200 exorcisms performed last year, mainly in the US. So, I feel there is something out there and who is to say who’s right and wrong? Certainly, it’s a subject matter that has always fascinated me, perhaps because my father is a psychiatrist too.

Q. And Daniel?
Daniel Stamm: It’s a subject I’ve always found fascinating. And I think it’s bad news either way. If the Devil does exist, it’s not good; but if he doesn’t, then exorcism is a dangerous practice. Three years ago there were only 25 ancient exorcists working, but now there are 300. Exorcism is as strong today than it’s ever been at any time in history. So, either the devil is on the rise, or the church is carrying out more exorcisms for no reason. So, either way it’s bad news.

Q. Why do you think there has been such a rise?
Eli Roth: Well, certainly if you look at America and the world in the 1940s, when it was World War II, there was a very clear cut enemy… dictators were trying to take over the world. Now, there is a general feeling of evil that can’t really be pin-pointed. We had 9/11 and there’s Bid Laden, but that’s one man. We cannot point the finger at Muslims, because the terrorism stems from just this tiny extremist faction. So, there is a feeling in America and throughout the world, with this terrorism, that there’s this general evil out there that can’t be seen or spotted… it’s just felt. You could put a face to evil 50 or 60 years ago, but today, in general, evil cuts cross all cultures and religions. And there’s no stronger place to combat that than in religion. I mean evil is all around us… even on Wall Street with greed and money-making… in Iraq, Afghanistan. People don’t know how to stop it or who to fight, so it makes sense that exorcism is on the rise because, to many people, it’s a concrete foil for casting out evil.

Daniel Stamm: Evil is also coming from within, whereas it used to be external. Nowadays, there is no vampire chasing you. It’s more internal, so if you have evil within yourself, then how do you battle that? It’s why this movie works so well on a psychological level because we explore these issues.

The Last Exorcism

Q. Eli, you mentioned Hostel and you’re known for the gore in your films… The Last Exorcism shows a surprising restraint in that regard, that has taken some fans by surprise. Do you think there’s an expectation surrounding your films now that’s maybe unfair?
Eli Roth: Well, I think it would be crazy for me to expect fans to naturally accept every one of my tastes. That said, I think my fans will also give me the benefit of the doubt to see what I’m trying to do. And that’s why I’ve been very vocal in telling fans that this is different, and I’ve always maintained that every story has its own level of violence. When I was making Hostel, for instance, it would have been a terrible failure if it had been a PG-13 [or 15 certificate]. They were made a certain way because people wanted to see some nasty stuff… scenes of people doing unspeakable things to other people with power tools and such things. There was a certain level of violence required.

This film is about possessions and I didn’t want to throw violence into the movie where it’s not necessary because it would have felt false. I mean, there is violence in it, but it’s more of a PG-13 level – and it can be done. You can still scare people with a PG-13. Cloverfield is a fantastic example of a very scary PG-13 film. We honestly never made The Last Exorcism with a rating in mind. Daniel had total freedom to do whatever he wanted and, in fact, it was only in the editing room that we decided to go for a PG-13. But even then, if the ratings board came back with an R, we would have respected that, but they came back with a PG-13 without requiring any cuts. It wouldn’t have felt appropriate if this had been R rated though. This was the best and smartest way to achieve what we wanted.

It’s not Hostel 3… so as long as people go in knowing this, I don’t think they’re going to feel cheated. And that’s why I consider it my job to educate them as much as possible beforehand. They shouldn’t expect a gore-fest in a film about possession. And I think when people do see it, they’ll get what we’re trying to do and have a lot of fun with it.

Q. The film has already played at a few festivals, so what’s the most pleasing and/or surprising reaction you’ve had to it?
Daniel Stamm: It’s been at the LA Film Festival and Comic-Con and both were incredible experiences. I was really nervous about Comic-Con because I’ve always felt that’s our real audience. There would be no over intellectualising… just pure, genuine reactions. And we had two sold out screenings and two great Q&As. So, that was amazing and flattering.

Q. And Eli?
Eli Roth: We had our first screening at the LA Film Festival and the reaction was amazing, especially in the way that people really embraced Daniel, Patrick and Ashley. A lot of people told us they’d never seen acting like this in a horror film before. But that’s what’s so special about Daniel – he loves Lars von Trier, and he brought that kind of a sensibility to the film. It’s also been really great to see how religious people have responded to the film. Some of them have commented that it has a really faith affirming message – people took away so many different things. You should check out Twitter… there’s a lot of good reactions and interesting comments on there as well.