I think most people, and for valid marketing reasons, are expecting The Last Exorcism to be just another entry in the recent swell of "found footage" horror movies. It is not. At all. Director Daniel Stamm's documentary approach is not capitalizing on any trends, it's not trying to convince the audience that it's fact. It's used expertly as a means of lowering the fourth wall, of delivering a frightening story and experience that would not be matched in any other style.
Cinematical was recently given a chance to talk to Stamm and producer Eli Roth about the film and while I had a ton of questions to ask the duo, most of our time went straight to talking about the film's mindset. It's something that can't be prepackaged in a trailer or TV spot. The Last Exorcism is flat out not your typical horror movie. And I can't think of a better embodiment of that than how we spent several minutes of our all-too-brief time together chatting about a character's shoes. That is not a topic of conversation people are going to expect from a movie whose predominant marketing component is the name Eli Roth-- and that's just one of many, many reasons I think The Last Exorcism is going to blindside (in a brilliant way) a lot of people when it opens on August 27th.
Cinematical: I have to thank you, Eli, because, in a roundabout way, you're the reason I write about movies for a living.
Eli Roth: Wow. Really?
Cinematical: About four years ago something you kept repeating on the Cabin Fever commentary – that horror is not dead - inspired me to start my own genre review site.
Roth: That's amazing, that's so cool. I'm so proud.
Cinematical: Yep, so this is kind of a geeky full circle for me.
Roth: Here's the thing: it wasn't! Sh***y movies were dead and you felt it! The more you talk to guys like Neil Marshall, Alex Aja, Edgar Wright-- everyone thought people gave up caring and stopped trying and we were very much against it. Let's push it forward, let's take a convention, challenge expectations and give something new and fresh that makes people go, "Oh my God, I never thought of doing it that way!"
And that's what we clearly tried here, to give a shot in the arm to the exorcism sub-genre; a sub-genre I think should be as prolific as vampires. But people stayed away from it.
Cinematical: Well, I loved the result. I love the movie, it's my favorite horror movie of the year so far.
Roth & Daniel Stamm: Thank you.
Cinematical: How did Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland's script find the both of you?
Roth: For the whole project you really have to credit Eric Newman. Eric was the one who said 'We want to remake Dawn of the Dead' when everyone thought it was crazy. He found Zack Snyder and got James Gunn to write it. Eric's a very creative producer and partner with Marc Abraham at Strike Entertainment, who had done Children of Men as well.
Eric had the conception of taking the pseudo-documentary style and do an exorcism gone wrong. He knew Huck and Andrew from their film Mail Order Wife. Which is a great, sick-
Cinematical: I've heard of it, but I haven't seen it.
Roth: Oh, it's so great!
Stamm: It's a horror movie of a very different kind.
Roth: It's dark, dark comedy. I knew Huck from film school and his short film Until There Are None about a guy who goes into national parks and shoots American Bald Eagles because he wants to kill them all. That kind of sensibility, these are f**ked up guys. So they wrote the script and Studio Canal said they'd finance it and the only name they'd need was mine; " if Eli is on it, it will satisfy the international distribution climate." The film had to be great, but it would at least get the film the attention of the fans.
Once I read it, I thought it was such a great script that worked on so many levels. It's a psychological thriller, it's a drama, then it gets...It's my favorite kind of slowly building horror where you're invested in the characters. I couldn't put it down, every time I thought I had it figured out, the movie was a step of head of me.
They were about to start prep [to direct], but then we lost them because of their movie The Virginity Hit, which is a great comedy coming out in September by the way. That got greenlit so they contractually had to go and shoot that. So we thought about how we were going to find a director to fill their shoes, and enter Daniel, who definitely comes with his own very unique, giant shoes.
His film A Necessary Death blew us away with what he did. We spoke to him and his understanding of the material was so intelligent. We were talking about influences, and I love Fulci and Argento, and Daniel loves filmmakers like Lars von Trier. Now, that's not saying we were trying to make a European art house film – we were always doing this for wide release audiences – but approaching it from a place of character and story that happens to be horrific. Not worrying about the scares, but coming from the place of telling a great story. And he got the job right away.
Cinematical: That's one of the things I love about it; that it treats the audience like adults. It understands our subjectivity and leverages it. Not just in a visual sense, but its approach understands personal prejudices toward people of the deep South who are also deeply religious and uses that to play into the question of whether it is a possession or whether its something more cultural.
Would you agree that that social awareness of what the audience is going to be thinking is something that's significantly lacking from most modern horror movies? To me, that's one of the dividing lines between a fantastic horror movie and one that's simply about a few base thrills.
Roth [to Daniel]: Well you respect your audience.
Stamm: To me that's the most important thing. I can't speak of other horror movies, but I know that for this movie it was important to me that I'm not giving them the answers, that they have to come up with the answers themselves. All I can do is give them a dilemma and ask the question. I'm not going to be arrogant enough to say I know the answer to this age old conflict between science and religion.
The best thing I can do is create very believable protagonists for both sides that are smart and have the girl's best interests at heart. They all want to do good, they all want to help, but they have their different ways. And their ways make sense in the way they argue them and that is exactly the dilemma. There is no bridge between the two. They come from such different angles that they just clash and are unable to help in the end and that's what leads to the tragedy. And I do think that that is something that reflects America in a way right now, but that's also something for the audience to figure out and not for me to present on a silver platter.
Roth: Daniel took what was already a great script and truly made a fantastic, incredible film out of it. I remember watching the dailies and seeing that certain things from the script were exactly the same and others became launching points. He got such fantastic performances out of these actors and got to know them as people and truly see what they're capable of.
I'll never forget watching one particular dramatic moment where we're caught in that conflict. It's so interesting that its the preacher who is saying "Get her to a psychiatrist!" and even when he goes to Pastor Manley, he goes for a psychiatric reference! He never fully believed for a second that he would be able to help her, but there's that scene where Cotton says, "Please, can we just get her to a psychiatrist!" and Louis comes back so fiery with "Our weapons of war are not carnal, they are mighty in God for the pulling down of strongholds. Am I right?!" And Patrick [Fabian] just does this look where you realize it's probably the first time he's ever heard that. But he's pretended to be the authority on this and it's so painful for both of them.
Stamm: He's essentially a champion in a sport he's never even practiced. He's always pretended to be a master of the sport, but he's never even had a practice lesson.
Cinematical: That's a great way of putting it.
Stamm: It's what makes him so vulnerable. We're with him in his awkwardness in not being able to actually deal with it.
Roth: And that's where Daniel's understanding of what the audience is going through comes in. With the script, Daniel said he wanted the crew to be more involved, which is what we saw in A Necessary Death. The cameraman is at first in control because he represents the audience, but once he starts asking questions and saying things like "I'm not comfortable being in a house with a girl who is drawing pictures of my head being chopped off" it worries us even more. But Cotton, because he's coming from science, says "Well, she's 16 years old, what's she going to do? We can overpower her, what's she going to do to us?"
So when things get so bad that the audience thinks "This is where I would get the f**k out of there", that's what the cameraman wants to do. This person, who is not even in the film but is us the audience, kind of becomes the subject of the movie in a strange way. But that's Daniel. He really understood the film working on so many different levels.
Cinematical: What attracts you, Daniel, to the documentary style? Between this and A Necessary Death, is there one particular thing that makes you want to use it?
Stamm: It's just so rich. It's completely beautiful. You put a pin in all of the technical stuff and can focus on just the acting and on the storytelling. I think that now that everything is about special effects, it's very harder to excite people with special effects. You can do it with $300 million obviously, but the really exciting stuff are the little human moments between people in conflict. I don't think special effects can excite us as much as human darkness can.
In that style you can focus not just on the acting, but the actors as people. What you want them to do is contribute creatively, to have who they are as real people inform the character, to develop the characters with them, to listen to them and the impulses they have, which you don't have time for on a normal film set with a different style because you're like "I have this scene, I have this vision, we have to do it this way."
There are all these little beautiful moments, like Nell getting the shoes for example. It's probably something that wouldn't have survived in a normal movie because how does it directly contribute to the plot? It doesn't. But it's so important.
Roth: And now you can't imagine her without the Doc Martens.
Cinematical. I agree completely. Coincidentally I was recently talking with my wife about what, to me, is a big difference between good and great writing and it always comes down to what doesn't appear necessary-
Roth: Exactly! You don't realize how necessary it is at the time.
Cinematical: But its subtle moments like that that are crucial for instantly informing characters, and yet they're most often things that most people wouldn't think to include.
Stamm: Those things come out of having the time to develop them, to experiment. You'll try a million different things and 98% of them won't work, but they'll lead to the 2% that are gold. That's something this style really gives you.
It was great for A Necessary Death, but with horror it's a whole different thing because it allows you to drag down that fourth wall that protects the audience from what is going on on the screen. There is no movie artificiality, no "this is the world of the movie".
It's funny how it works both ways. Talk about figuring things out... The audience is not protected from the film anymore, but you as a filmmaker are also not protected from the audience anymore. Suddenly you've set your movie in the real world that the audience lives in and they know what feels right and what feels wrong, what look is fake, what word is fake. You have to be so detail oriented or that single fake moment will bring the whole house down.
Roth: And detailed not just in terms of props, but in terms of character. You look now at a moment like the shoes and how essential that is. Not because Nell gets the shoes, but because in one second it says who Iris is and gets you to like her. So later, when she's [outraged] it doesn't suddenly come out of nowhere. It's not just the female of the group that feels bad for what's happening to the girl, we've seen that Iris likes her, that she wants to do something nice for her, that her care for Nell is genuine. It's truly those subtle, subtle moments of understanding where the arc was going and fully thinking these characters out.
I mean, Iris was not in the script. That was Daniel adding that and now you can't imagine the movie without her.
Cinematical: Oh, absolutely.
Stamm: How that moment developed – it's so funny thinking back now - Nell was written as being barefoot the whole time, but the producers said that there is no insurance company that would cover us if we had our lead actress running around in a plantation that's 200 years old in New Orleans barefoot. We had to put shoes on her somehow.
Okay, so what kind of shoes? Well, my ex girlfriend always had these Doc Martens and I kind of loved the image of them, so that's how we got to that scene with them. But now it's such a character thing.
Roth: It came inadvertently from an insurance company. If they had said they'd insure her, it wouldn't be there. It's weird, but that's his understanding; that's Daniel's ability to take a script, which is truly a blueprint for where you're going. We know what the film is basically going to look like, but certainly in the docu style it is all about those character moments. That's why I loved Daniel's approach of making a character piece.
Yes, obviously this being a horror film with my name it people are going to expect the gore and the blood, but that's not what we were trying for. That's why the PG-13 rating, which we did not shoot for and came back to us as a very pleasant surprise, is the correct rating. I think if people saw my name, an R rating and the word "exorcism" they'd be very disappointed and come back wondering why we didn't get more gore. Whereas with PG-13 they go "we got these wonderful performances."
And that's what we want people to focus on: the performances and what Daniel is able to achieve with the simplicity and without the special effects and all the stuff that normally comes with horror movies. Something that is truly compelling.
Cinematical: Oh, it is. It works in a big way.
Stamm: To find producers – not to just kiss each others asses – but to find producers that are that open and trusting with that kind of stuff... they don't go to a place of "We have to list the scares and I need to know in advance what the scare is going to be and how you're going to solve it through an effect or through make-up".
For them to just go, "Go! Make your movie and take your time and develop and change it as far away from the script as you want as the situation calls for and we'll talk about it when you come back with the footage"... it was just incredible.