Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Interview with Eli Roth, producer of The Last Exorcism


The following is a transcription of an interview with Eli Roth, producer for The Last Exorcism when he was in town for the Toronto premiere of the film on Monday August 16, 2010 at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. We chat about how he got involved in the project, what draws people to horror film, the films PG-13 rating 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 actors Ashley Bell and Patrick Fabian & also review the film.

Shannon: Alright, I’m curious what drew you to this project?

Eli Roth: Well it was actually the producer Eric Newman, who brought it to me. He had about 3 or 4 years ago, had an idea to make a film that would be a pseudo-documentary about an exorcism gone wrong. And he hired Huck & Andrew to write the script and they were originally going to direct it, and I was a big fan of theirs and loved their movie Mail Order Wife. And Eric & I had partnered and formed a company called Arcade to make genre films, so it wound up being a co-production with Arcade and his company Strike, and he gave me the script and it was truly one of the scariest, most compelling, interesting scripts I’d ever read, not just as a horror film but just as a movie, as a screenplay. The characters were so well written and the story, I had no idea where it was going. He didn’t tell me anything about it other than it’s this documentary of this exorcism. I mean I couldn’t put it down.

As soon as I finished the script I called him right away and said “I have to be involved in this.” And it was Studio Canal had said to him “If Eli puts his name on it, we’ll finance it. That’s the only name we want.” So, my name was able to give us the freedom to cast Patrick Fabian and Ashley. Once I was involved we could put anyone we wanted on it. And the writers actually dropped out at the last minute to make their film The Virginity Hit, which is coming out in September and a very funny movie that got green lit by Sony. So, I was in Berlin at work on Inglourious Basterds, and Eric Newman and the team at Strike found this director Daniel Stamm, and it wound up being the greatest thing that could have happened, because I think he did such a magnificent job.

But I’ve always wanted to make an exorcism movie. The Exorcist traumatized me when I was 6 years old. I couldn’t sleep for years after I saw that. Part of it was my father was a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst and a professor at Harvard and I always approached everything from a very psychiatric point of view and then I saw this movie and I was like “What’s this possession?!? You never told me about that!” And he was like “Well, were Jews, we don’t believe in that” and I was like “No! You are hiding it from me, so it must be true. You just don’t want me to be afraid of it”. But I always thought, how can you top The Exorcist? It’s truly regarded by many as the scariest movie of all time, and the answer is: don’t. Don’t try to top The Exorcist, just make something that is different and original and make it great.

I thought what’s great about the documentary style is that you can acknowledge The Exorcist and in that first exorcism play on all those clichés, the shaking bed, the voices, and when you are in that room there is no make up. There is no CG, there is nothing, it’s purely Ashley Bell. And when she’s twisting her neck and the veins are bolting, and back bending, that is all 100% her. And it’s terrifying. Either way, this girl is possessed or she completely insane, and either way it’s bad. There is a whole other level of tension going on, and I just love the way the movie, the script just kept the audience guessing.

Because at its core the film is truly a psychological thriller about a girl who might be crazy, might be possessed, and about the clash of science and religion. But what I thought was so clever was that the scientific point of view, it’s the Reverend who has the scientific point of view. And it’s the father who’s the devout Fundamentalist. And both of them want to save this girl, but they are completely approaching it from the opposite ends and neither one of them will see the others point of view.

I just thought it was really great kind of microcosm for the way that science and religion clash in America, and certainly in the North and South the way people see different things. But I loved that the movie really does present both sides fairly. That if were a devout Fundamentalist, you would see this movie and agree with everything the father says and if you didn’t believe in any of that you would believe everything that Cotton says but yet you can also see the others’ point of view.

Seán*: Yeah, and I think there is a sense in argument now that that the two camps can’t be mutually exclusive and I don’t believe that at all. I think that everything is on a case by case basis and you sort of have to sort have to ration out percentages and figure out strategies by being able to listen to people.

Eli Roth: Right. Nobody listens, and that is what’s interesting. They are so unbending and unwavering. But I think I wanted to make a film that was thought provoking and worked on many levels, and wasn’t just a straight up horror movie. For me, to put my name on it as producer and really see it all the way though it has to be something I truly believed in.

Shannon: Well, it has a PG-13 rating and I don’t think a lot of people say Eli Roth and PG-13 in the same breath.

Eli Roth: Nobody does.

Shannon: What do you think the response is going to be from your fan base?

Eli Roth: I think the fans, you know it’s my job to communicate to the fans that this is not Hostel III. That this is a film about possession, not power tools and doesn’t expect that. Every story has its appropriate level of violence. When you see Piranha 3D, that is a movie that takes full advantage of the R rating, it is the most blood, it’s a gore-gasm and it’s beautiful. And that’s what you want – bodies being ripped apart, blood everywhere, stuff popping out of the screen, it’s wonderful. This is not that movie. This movie is much more at The Grudge, The Ring, paranormal end of the horror spectrum. More actually close to District 9 in terms of how the story unfolds.

As long as the fans know what they are getting, if you order steak and chicken comes you can be really angry, even though it’s delicious chicken. Fans have to know what they are in for, so we’ve been very clear in the marketing saying “Yes, this is PG-13, but you know what? So is Cloverfield, so is The Ring, so is The Grudge” and I love those movies. Those are fantastic movies. Cloverfield was the movie that made me think “Wow, you can really be very scary and still be PG-13”, because as I proudly push the boundaries of R rating, PG -13 is growing along with it. The PG-13 today is not what PG-13 was in 2002, just as R today is not what R rating was years ago, so more violence has become permissible in a PG-13 film. But I also feel like, if you are going to make an R film, make it R and have a purpose for doing it. And we didn’t decide on a rating when we made it. We said let’s make the best film possible but and once you realize that they are on a farm with a religious family, they aren’t going to swear, there is no sex in the film and a lot of the violence is off-camera, it’s not really about that. It’s about whether or not this girl is possessed or crazy.

Seán: I was going to ask about that too, you mentioned getting your up there on top, when you look at the final list of course of production credits there are a load of other names in there, lots of money comes from here and there, there are also the audience expectations like you were talking about. How scary is it to have your name up there? And once it’s up there on a project and you’re not happy, can you pull that off?

Eli Roth: Oh yeah, I mean there is no fear whatsoever. You don’t put your name on a project unless you are really confident, and that you love it and believe in it. And that’s something where I’m there as the insurance policy to make sure that the movies scary. And when the movie is financed, it’s financed on my name. So I’m there every step of the way making sure it’s going as planned. And I was there in the editing room and there were scenes where the director did an amazing job but just didn’t have the experience of cutting scary scenes the way that I did. And I could see why certain scenes weren’t working as well as we want them to and I could say “Just change this music cue, you’re giving it away a beat early here, cut to a shot of that”, you know really helping show Daniel how to build tension in certain scenes. But Daniel did an amazing job and needed very little help.

I was there in the way that Quentin was there for me when I made Hostel, he wasn’t there during the shooting but in the editing room he came in and helped me take 7 minutes out of the film. And even though District 9 is very much Neill Blomkamp’s film, you can feel Peter Jackson’s influence. So for me, I always want to challenge myself and do something different. You know, it was actually scarier to do be on a poster for Inglourious Basterds, I mean people are going to be like – with producing it’s always like what did anyone really do? It’s always this nebulous thing. But when you are acting on camera it’s like that is what you did and there you are for everyone to judge.

But this, I feel great about it, I’m excited about it and I’m also excited to launch the career of Daniel Stamm, I think he is an amazing talent and I’m also to if the film works it’s just a victory for independent film in general that you can make a movie with total control and cast the best actors, you don’t need stars, and shoot it on a budget and get it in theatres and fans will love it. You know it really will help, just like Paranormal (Activity) did, it keeps the genre alive.

Shannon: What do you think draws people to horror films?

Eli Roth: I think that there is no place left that’s really socially acceptable, where you can be terrified. We are not allowed to be terrified at home. We are not allowed to be terrified at work. We can’t walk around on the street and scream, but we all have fears we just absorb and they come out in weird ways. And when you see a horror movie, it’s basically saying that for the next 90minutes you are allowed to be scared and to feel that terror. So the terror that you’ve stored up for all kinds of other things and it’s very cathartic to let it out and to have that adrenaline rush. And they are also great date movies. If you want to get your date to hold your hand and sit in you lap, take your date to a horror movie. There is always one person that doesn’t want to sleep alone, so you say ‘stay over at my place,’ and in 9 months there’s The Last Exorcism babies.

But, you know I think that there are things that people are afraid of that they don’t necessarily want to admit they are afraid of, that they think of. And when they go and see it with their friends and discuss it, it’s a way of dealing with fear and the terror of death and the unknown, but all done if a very, very safe way. But I really think that release of screaming, it’s like when you go to a sporting event you can get that scream, but it’s more of a cheer that a scream. But really there is no other place that you are allowed to let yourself be terrified without feeling like a coward.

Seán: About the idea of horror films too, and like you are not going to re-make The Exorcist or anything like that, with all the elements that you got here I actually didn’t find myself thinking it overall as a horror film anyway.

Eli Roth: No, it’s truly a psychological thriller. A drama.

Seán: It’s a situation too where you know I’m at a such an age when I go in skeptical to a lot of things, unfortunately, because it’s not something I’m proud of to be honest, to go into something skeptical.

Eli Roth: Nobody likes to feel jaded.

Seán: Yeah, but I think Cotton is an interesting vehicle for moving forward that skepticism and have it kind of be evaporated, blown away as things go on.

Eli Roth: Thank you.

Seán: For me, he is kind of the guy that I’m attaching myself to.

Eli Roth: Oh, for sure, he kind of wins you over. And what’s great about the movie is what is so clever is, that if this was a movie about a guy conning people, you kind of feel bad. You kind of feel guilty laughing at Louis. But because it’s a confessional, because he’s saying this “I am making this to then show everybody”, it allows you to enjoy it. You don’t feel bad about laughing, because you know he’s doing it and he’ll never do it again and everything he is doing and the people he is doing it to, everyone is going to learn and going to have to pay for that. You know he is going to have to squirm when he has to actually sit there and say “Sorry.”

And there is something that feels like “Wow, this guy is confessing his deepest, darkest secret and he’s going to spill it”, and you have to kind of admire that he’s doing it and he’s just going “Sorry, I’m throwing in the towel and spilling my secrets and it’s all a game. I lied to everybody.” And you really realize he really cares for Nell/ That this isn’t someone just taking advantage of, but he feels terribly.

So they are both going about it completely the wrong way but he’s so sympathetic because you can tell he really does care and he really does feel terrible, and he really wants to help and he feels like he’s goofing around has completely made a mess and he feels terrible about it. But you also see how terrible Louis feels, and how Louis doesn’t want to do this either.

But it’s just a very interesting study with their unwavering faith can also get them into trouble. I’m glad you said that because we wanted to make a film that would broaden beyond just the horror fans, that the horror fans would go out and see and say that was more than just a scary movie, that that was a very, very interesting psychological thriller, it’s and interesting drama, it’s an interesting study on religion versus science and really make something that people can watch over and over that would really prompt discussion.

Shannon: With it being a combination of sort of documentary/vérité style and a more narrative style, what were the rationale to combine them both as opposed to going with one or the other?

Eli Roth: Well, it doesn’t combine them both, it is documentary style. There is found footage, and then there is documentary. Cloverfield is found footage, Grey Gardens is a documentary. American Movie is a documentary. Brother’s Keeper is a documentary. King of Kong is a documentary. All of those documentaries are edited and scored, and photographed beautifully. Fred Wisemans films: Zoo, Titicut Follies, those are vérité documentaries that are edited and shot but do not have music or narration. So within documentary, there’s different styles of documentary. So we said … let’s say we were making Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, Brothers Keeper, if we wanted to make the best story with Brother's Keeper we would have scored it during dramatic moments and darkest moments. We would have a composer do this movie, to bring along the emotions that we want the audience to feel. And we thought if he’s doing a documentary about a girl who is possessed, why wouldn’t he score it?

But we also like raising the question of who put this together? We wanted to kind of inspire that discussion as well. We kind of said just because Cloverfield was handheld and didn’t have any music, there is no reason – why should we stick to their rules? That’s what worked for their story. What worked for our story is that we want to tell a dramatic story in a documentary style. And documentaries have music so, so will we.

Seán: It’s a case to like how you were saying earlier about talking with Daniel about sort of communicating and establishing a rhythm and language as well. Is a lot of that instead of coming through the page, end up coming through the editing room? You were talking about the editing process earlier.

Eli Roth: Sure, well it was all written. It was all written on the page, the docu-style, incorporating things. But Daniel certainly added, he said we should have the sound girl get more involved. She wasn’t a character but that way Cotton has someone to play off of a little more. Than we made the conscious decision to slowly make the camera man a character. But that is really the audience, we wanted him to be the voice of the audience, he is kind of the voice of reason.

Going with that vérité style, that was Daniel and his vision and his understanding of how to embrace that. It was one the page but he added so much more once we started shooting. Even in post-production and in editing we could add in ADR a line about this, just certain things to make it feel more vérité, that was all though the editing room.

Shannon: With the title of the film, it has certain finality to it.

Eli Roth: Yep.

Shannon: What was the rationale behind that or were there other titles in the running?

Eli Roth: The original title was The Ivanwood Exorcism. Then, we changed the title to Cotton. And then in editing I came up with the title The Last Exorcism, and I liked the double meaning of it. And I liked he’s doing this as “Hey , this is my swan song and we are going to film it and this is the last exorcism”. But there is something – you know, Cotton, you really have to educate people “This is Cotton, a movie about exorcism”. Cotton we’d have to blast like District 9, nobody knew what it was, then you saw spaceship and they really branded it. The money to branding it just so people know what it was, then the next step was to get them interested.

The title The Last Exorcism, instantly you know what space you are in. And I think when it comes to horror, people want to know what they are in for. If it’s a zombie movie, they want to know it’s a zombie movie. If it’s a vampire movie, they want to know its vampires. If it’s possession, people want to know what they are getting themselves into. And we just liked the immediacy of the title, that we could then just focus on getting people excited about the film, rather than educating them on what it is.

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


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