Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Interview with Ashley Bell and Patrick Fabian, actors of The Last Exorcism

Patrick Fabian as Cotton Marcus and Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer in The Last Exorcism

The following is a transcription of an interview with Ashley Bell and Patrick Fabian, actors of The Last Exorcism when they were in town for the Toronto premiere of the film on Monday August 16, 2010 at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. We chat about what drew them to the project, their characters, the physicality of the roles and a whole lot more. This interview has been edited to be spoiler-free.

The Last Exorcism is a documentary-style film following Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a non-believing preacher set out to debunk exorcism. Then he meets Nell (Ashley Bell), an earnest and sweet-as-pie girl whose Dad asks for help as he's started to see all the signs of her being possessed.

Rather listen than read? Scoot over and listen to the interview on Episode 5 of the Movie Moxie Podcast here, where I also chatted with producer Eli Roth & also review the film.

Shannon: Well my first question is what drew you to this project?

Ashley Bell: I was immediately struck by the character of Nell Sweetzer from the first time I read the character breakdown. I think she’s such a complex character, and to have the opportunity as an actress to research and prepare for that and play it was just so huge. It’s something you dream about, a role you get to play.

Patrick Fabian: I love playing a preacher. That idea totally attracts me because a preacher is for the most part a dramatic larger than life character anyways, it’s a knowit all, somebody who has the ego to stand up in front of people and say “I know the way” and give me a little bit of money on the way. So that is absolutely fun. Plus, it’s a scary film. I always want to be a part of something like that.

Seán: I noticed with both characters, I think we are probably both close in age…

Patrick Fabian: 45.

Seán: Yeah, I’m 45 as well. But it’s a situation where both characters in their own way gifted as children really. And you’ve sort of got to the point where I don’t think you are cynical at all, I think you are just facing your own family realities, economic realities and everything like that. And you are sort of still on this more optimistic, trying to figure our your world as well, you are kind of in this home. But there is this place where these characters meet unexpectedly, and I’m wondering if it’s based on the idea that you are still searching for something in your 40’s and you are just getting through your teens in this film.

Patrick Fabian: I think when I first encountered her, when I first interviewed her, I’m so taken by her because of her innocence. I think a lot of my anger and angst is really at the father in the situation, because here is this girl and you’d like to save her from maybe the fate that I had, which was sort of being trapped in the monkey cage of what I was doing. Like her art that she shows me on the wall, and her room there are so many great things that she had that were precious and wonderful.

Ashley Bell: I love those drawings, that was a total surprize. I showed up to set one day and they had done all these drawings and I said “What a gift! Who made these? This is incredible.”

Patrick Fabian: So there is something about wanting to save her, I don’t know if it’s emphatically by saving her I save myself. But there is a sense of redemption and that I’m searching for something, clearly at the crossroads of my midlife, clearly trying to accept my responsibility to my family. And it’s the leap of faith that says I can no longer do what I’m doing, I don’t know what is out there and I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it but I’m willing to severe my past in anticipation and faith that I will be provided for in the future. And she becomes that conduit, that lynchpin into it.

Shannon: Both of the characters have a certain duality to them, not only in combination with the vérité /documentary style and the narrative style, but Nell with the literal possession as well as being herself; and then your character with believing and non-believing. Were there challenges to, or excitement about that kind of duality?

Ashley Bell: Yeah, there was tons of excitement actually. When I was preparing for both the audition and I had about a month before we all went to New Orleans and it was cool to try to prepare two different characters. Both Nell before her possessions and then during her kind of episodes or possessions. You know, she’s a 15 year old girl from the backwoods of Louisiana, extremely religious and I just started asking myself questions about who is she? Why hasn’t she left? She’s never had the need to leave that area. What has she been exposed to? What hasn’t she been exposed to? And that was so fascinating figuring that out and kind of pitting that character against the possessed Nell and using them to manipulate Patrick and the outsiders that come.

Patrick Fabian: And it was great to be able to both of hers (laughter). It really was. You know, I’ve said this before and I’ll said this again, without Ashley and her talent the film is a house of cards. If you don’t believe her as being innocent, then you aren’t going to believe her as being possessed and if either one of those aren’t being authentically portrayed, then you get suspect and then you are out. I think anytime you get into a horror film, or any time you get suspense or anxiousness in it, audiences are looking for that thing to hang their had on and say “Nope, that’s not good.”, and they are out, they check out quickly.

I think the film works because she brings that full. And a plus, it makes my job easier because there is no acting involved when I walk in and she’s in the full throws of being possessed. It’s a whole lot of reacting saying “I am legitimately creeped out, I am legitimately afraid for her and I legitimately do not know what to do.” She doesn’t meet me half way there, she comes like 90% over and then lets me walk over and have some water. It’s really wonderful, you know.

For my character to be both sides, I think any man of faith or any man who stands up there ultimately, intrinsically has to have that. Yes, I’m a man of faith. Yes, I believe in God. Yes, I believe other things. But more often than not, act in very ungodly ways, taking money and sleeping around and all those sort of things. I think that is just built in being part and parcel of being a preacher.

Ashley Bell: My job was made ten thousand times easier by the environment that Daniel created on set. He made it so safe to try anything and to welcome our ideas, and to ask if we had something in mind to try. And then the whole cast, Patrick and I would be sitting for hours, him interviewing me, and to have someone that is so generous and so there. It makes me feel safe to try anything, it’s all everyone else.

Patrick Fabian: I think that shows up in the film too. There is a relaxation, there is a reality and comfortableness of the situation, then through we are … not pitted against one another but certainly I’m here to discover the puzzle that is Nell. But she’s so open, so seemingly open in giving me “I want you to discover the puzzle too”. Yet every time she opens up to, that it leads me down a corridor that runs into a wall or runs into a that doesn’t make sense thing. Something is not adding up here.

Seán: That struck me as well going in at first, I was going “Oh, god, they are going down to the south, we’ve got some… “ (laughter), but you are taking Nell at face value right off the start, because it’s kind of what you want, too. You think you see everything there.

Patrick Fabian: Right. Story over, nice and clean.

Seán: But I find the early bridge in this is Caleb, but as an actor as well with him in drawing the three characters together, never mind the father Louis as well, but how important was it for you three to be working together to be on the same page throughout this?

Patrick Fabian: Well I just know that the first time I was working with Caleb (Landry Jones), first off Caleb is a very talented young man and he’s definitely going places. As a matter of fact he’s going to be in the new X-Men film as well. And he has a wonderful quality where you are a little creeped out standing next to him, and I think that is because he’s playing a creepy character not because he’s a creepy guy by any stretch.

Ashley Bell: He’s the sweetest.

Patrick Fabian: Yeah. But him & I, certainly we are odds with one another as characters and he just didn’t let me off the hook, and made me uncomfortable and I think that shows up. Consequently, I think that he is on her side, because they are brother and sister but I don’t know if he really is.

Ashley Bell: Yeah, there are almost two different teams. And I think that whole feel of whole the plantation, and certainly filming on location in Louisiana was so great. I mean, the humidity was at 100% humidity and we walked outside and it hit us like a big, warm, wet blanket (laughter). It just engulfed us.

Shannon: And it was so great? (laughter) Atmosphere.

Ashley Bell: But it was! The house was an actual plantation that had just been redone before Katrina, so everything was polished, but warped. So you still saw the waterlines, and the stairs ran crooked and the floorboards. All that helps so much and the Sweetzer farm and/or compound was just isolated out there, and just so claustrophobic. I think being down there helped a lot.

Patrick Fabian: Yeah.

Ashley Bell: And also to bond that with Caleb and Louis.

Patrick Fabian: I mean when you think about it, when we first drove up it looks like you would find these people there. And it feels like you are intruding, even though – why would you be intruding? You are just going to a farm. And yet it feels like you aren’t supposed to be here. And that is a great feel, that’s great. That worked just driving up, there is no window dressing for that, it just like “Let’s go the other way.”

Shannon: Both of your characters have some pretty interesting physical feats. You with the literal physicality and you with the slight of hand/magic type stuff. What did you do to prepare? Or do you have a movement background?

Ashley Bell: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of ballet, I’m double jointed… I like to pull that at parties. No, Daniel nailed my boots down and pushed me over and yelled ‘Action!’

Shannon: Wow. What was the experience like being in those crazy positions?

Ashley Bell: Honestly, it was so much fun. To get to play a character that physically demanding like that was a lot of fun. And Daniel made room for that one set, he kind of welcomed it. That night before the exorcism scene we were talking and he asked if I had in mind for the next day. And, first of all you just dream that anyone would ask you that as an actor, so I shared the back bend and several other physical things I was working on and he said “Yes, let’s do it. Let’s put it in.” So it was exciting.

Patrick Fabian: Fun for her. For us and the camera crew we were like “OH! Stop doing that! No! No!” (laughter), and she just smiled and go. It was wonderful to work on that. The tricks that I did and stuff like that, the slight of hand, that all plays into the idea of he’s a showman first. His real passion is magic, he happens to be a preacher. His day job is preaching, but what he really wants to be is a magician and it happens to reinforce that, I think thr one informs the other. And they had a great guy on set, they had an actual local magician who came and helped with the things that we did, and there were other things that we tried to do, but I think that was one of those cases where the magician was really good at it, and then they hoped that the actor could pick it up in 5 minutes (laughter). And we’d try it in film and I’d see Daniel be like “Oh, that not so good. We move on” (laughter).

Seán: What you were saying about Daniel asking you, you’ve got a writer/director team with Huck & Andrew, they’ve worked together before, they know each other really well. Probably at this point they probably really instinctive with each other too. But in doing something in such a vérité manner, and really with limited cast, how much did you stick to the page and how much started to evolve and things maybe taken in slightly different direction as the film went on? Did you film in sequence, by the way?

Patrick Fabian: Virtually, yeah.

Ashley Bell: We did pretty much film in sequence, which was so helpful.

Patrick Fabian: Yeah. I can’t imagine having it juxtaposed.

Ashley Bell: Yeah. But we pretty much stuck to the script and Huck & Andrew wrote such an incredible script with so much humour in it. When we saw it for the first time I was surprized by how much humour there was, and in just the right places. And then in some of the more emotional scenes, certainly the exorcism scenes and some of the physical stuff, I was allowed to have a little bit more freedom to go off and improvize with that. Daniel was encouraging if we were going someplace, to go there.

Patrick Fabian: We did a lot of takes. We did like 20 – 30 takes for a lot of the scenes, not most of the scenes. So consequently when you start to do that you start discovering things. I was saying that Huck & Andrew wrote a great script and it’s our road map and sometimes we take exits to other parts of the scene and Daniel and those guys were really good about saying “Let’s go there.” And if that became the scene, that is what would happen. But just by the nature of the beast, by talking all that much things start morphing and start growing. Sometimes not so great, which is why you have the director come in and say “I know you think that is a wonderful moment, but we are going to get rid of that now, alright?” (laughter).

Shannon: With it being a combination of sort of documentary/ vérité style and more narrative, where there challenges that came up with that?

Patrick Fabian: I think sometimes we would feel like we would get good takes, or at least what we were talking about in terms of electricity we wanted out of the scene was being had, but by the nature of having Zoltan Honti (cinematographer), who is chasing us down for everything, you are just sometimes not going to get the framing you want. And even though it was loose, it was very controlled loose. He really knew what was going on, and he wanted to show what he wanted to show. I know there were a lot of times where we would feel, well I can only speak for myself on this point, where I feel like “That was it, man! That was really good. Boy, wasn’t that on fire?” and they were like “Yeah….well, we don’t have anything on that one. That’s no good.” And then you get frustrated and stuff like that, but then it gets real because of that. Because you really start to really let it go, and I guess I’m going to do this scene all goddamn day, that is what I’m going to do, just shoot! Keep shooting! And they will find what they need.

Ashley Bell: On the note of Zoltan, this has obviously been a style that has been done so many times before but he is so smart.

Patrick Fabian: Yeah.

Ashley Bell: And the angles he found, and what he was able to do! I saw it for that first time and I was like, what Zoltan was able to do so differently. And the communication that he had with Daniel on set, I think they worked almost silently sometimes. They just knew each others thoughts, they knew exactly as they had worked together before and they knew exactly where to go, or what to do, or where to come in from, or where to spy from.

Patrick Fabian: I think he sets a new standard for that kind of handheld stuff. I don’t think you’ll be able to tolerate less than from here on out. The whole idea of “Hey, I have a camcorder” sort of jerky thing, doesn’t play unless it’s deliberately chosen to play like that.

Seán: Me, when I was kind of rolling my eyes about what I was walking in to, first thing, I grew up in a town about 70 miles from here, so this in not endemic to the south at all. You know so anything dealing with religion and film in any manner, like Last Temptation of Christ I had to drive 50 miles to go see it in another town. Life of Brian I had to go to the United States kind of thing to see it. It was that kind of town. Whenever a film comes out that is involving an exorcism, there is usually some sort of human cry somewhere. It’s usually probably lower than it has been before but I don’t at first, if someone is going to roll there eyes at this, to me, it was not really a mock at religion but you worry that things get lost in translation. Can you even worry about controlling that sort of thing?

Ashley Bell: I don’t think so, no.

Patrick Fabian: I think ultimately, no. But I think because people are going to take what they want. But if you are a believer in The Bible and God and that the Devil is real, and exorcisms are real, I don’t think there is anything in this film that is going to dissuade you from that and/or necessarily put a damper on that. So you have both points of view that whole way.

* Seán Francis Condon from MSN Canada, who was included in the roundtable interview. Check out his take on Eli Roth and the film here.

Ashley Bell and Patrick Fabian at the Toronto Premiere of The Last Exorcism at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival

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