Horror films have always been my thing. Ever since I caught sight of Wes Craven's Scream I have been addicted to the genre like nobody's business. So, when I found out that Eli Roth and Daniel Stamm were going to be in town for their current project, The Last Exorcism, I knew that I had to meet them.
Roth is an icon when it comes to horror films and Stamm directed one of my all-time festival favorites A Necessary Death. Needless to say I was nervous. But as soon as they started talking I became infatuated with their passion and excitement for the movie. We got to discuss everything from the story to the casting to the underlying humor, and how they worked to bring it all together. Overall a great interview from two outstanding members of the business!
CollegeMovieReview.com: With The Last Exorcism I found it most interesting to see how the psychological aspects mix with that of horror.
Eli Roth: Yea.
CMR: It wasn't necessarily as scary as it was a complete mind f*ck...I felt dirty watching the film.
Daniel Stamm: Well that's good.
CMR: How did you guys develop that line and make sure that you were pushing it on both sides, but still held back enough to make sure neither genre dominated the other?
ER: Well, in the script, the script stage, the thing that was most interesting was to tell a compelling story. That is why we are trying to make it clear to people who go and see it that it is definitely much - they will see my name and they will think gore and violence, but the film came back from the ratings board PG-13, which I thought was the right rating. I think an R would make you think that it was going to be more gory.
But what was interesting to us was the idea of this guy going to debunk - he thinks that it is all bullshit, and then, the next thing he starts to think that maybe this is real but he doesn't know what is going on. He thinks the girl is crazy and the father believes she is possessed. Kind of the clash between an absolute scientific approach, your daughter needs a psychiatrist, to absolute faith, but you said she is possessed by a demon you need to get the demon out of her. And neither of them being willing to bend. They are both trying to help her, but their unwillingness to bend kind of leads to everyone's detriment.
And when Lionsgate bought the film; you know, we went out to make the most interesting, best, scary - really it truly is a psychological thriller. When Lionsgate bought the film, they said they were going to sell this as a scary exorcism movie. I think you have to sell it to get people to come see it. But hopefully people will enjoy it for what it is. I mean, I remember when for Inglorious Basterds they were selling it as a World War II film.
DS: I think the trick was to kind of start with the psychology of the horror world. THen you have to get them to take the characters seriously, you show the most interesting story you can, and it is a dark story and people will be terrified because they care about the characters. If we had approached it the other way around; if we had gone for the gimmicks first, and gotten all excited about the scares, it would have been a totally different approach that wouldn't have worked so well. We were really excited about the characters, we were excited about the story, and the story brought the scares
CMR: In terms of the lead character, especially at the beginning of the movie, he was hilarious in terms of all the religious information he was going through. There were other characters that kept coming along, providing timely comedic relief. I can't remember her name, but the other preacher's assistant...
CMR: Yes, Becky. She was priceless. I mean, the excitement in her eyes, just everything was perfect. How important was the comedic side to the whole story?
DS: It is an amazing tool to get the audience to like someone, if that person is funny. That was kind of the trick. You are the first one to point out that women; she only has like four lines in the whole movie. But you want people to like her because that is the only way that the twist is going to work. So, how do you do that quickly? You give the audience kind of a chuckle about her, and it is done. They like her, she is on their good side, and they will be very surprised when she turns out to be on the bad side.
With Cotton, even more in the beginning, has this past that is kind of questionable. He has spent decades performing fake exorcisms and defrauding people of their money and of their beliefs, which is a tricky situation to be in when you are starting a movie because you want people to be on board and able to identify with your character. So we had to do that very quickly and economically so that you can start to enjoy the film. Humor is the best tool for that.
ER: Well, with my experience with humor and horror is that I think as long as the characters take the situation seriously, you have license to let the humor naturally breathe. You shouldn't stifle it. I remember in Cabin Fever, it's fun, but when things first turn dark you care for the characters. Then the violence got so ridiculous that when he hits the deer it is more of a tension release. You are so uncomfortable you can't help but laugh. It is just so ridiculous. This is not that kind of gory film. I remember with Hostel I wanted to drag, just make people wait for the horror because the audience starts to wonder, they are expecting a scare and then it is funny and then these guys are going and having sex and you are sitting there wondering what is going on? Where is the scare? And if you do it, keep telling a great story that keeps the audience involved, they start to think, alright, if these guys haven't scared me yet, then they must be so confident about what the last fifteen minutes of this movie are going to be. Now I'm even more dreading, they get this sense of dread that really starts to build. And I think that that is what Daniel did so well. It wasn't about coming up with a big scare, it was maintaining this sense of dread that slowly starts to build. First when she is at the motel, then after the hospital, then the pregnancy. You are just like, what is going on? You just feel that something terrible is coming and that is really what the story is about.
CMR: The film is a mockumentary, I guess that is the best term to use.
DS: There is really no good word for it.
ER: First person horror pseudo documentary.
CMR: It falls into the category of Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project. But the one thing they did that you guys didn't do is they had complete unknowns that played with the audience's perception of reality. You guys have some well-known, reputable actors. What made you decide to go that way in terms of your casting?
DS: Everyone references these movies (that I have never heard of by the way), but they are so different. It is the same style that it is a handheld camera, but that is about it. Blair Witch functions on a completely different level from Paranormal Activity. Paranormal Activity is a brilliant exercise in terms of timing and anticipating, has little to do with acting. Has very little to do with writing. Blair Witch is all about what you don't see. It doesn't really have a story, but it works. I think The Last Exorcism functions on a completely different level. It's all about the actors, all about the characters, all about the writing - and much less about what makes Paranormal great. What was the question again?
CMR: Casting. What made you decide to go with well-knowns?
ER: Unless you watch 'Saved by the Bell: The College Years' you're the only one who's really familiar with Patrick Fabian. And Ashley Bell did a couple of guest spots on 'The United States of Tara.' I think that Daniel found 'unknown' actors who are also actors who have lots of experience. Patrick, maybe if you watch a lot of television you'd recognize his face. But people have never seen them in movies before.
CMR: Yea. You nailed it. 'Saved by the Bell,' is a guilty pleasure.
ER: Right. So you watched that. Once my name was on the project we had the freedom to cast whoever we wanted, so Daniel really casted the best actors for the film. And I think that as far as the docu-style - I think its probably a closer comparison, in a strange way, to District 9. It starts as one type of film and then, you know it is really documentary, and then it kind of becomes this great father and son story that you don't expect. The story twists in ways you don't see coming and that is kind of what we wanted. I went into District 9 thinking it was an alien film and came out thinking it was a beautiful father and son story. So I think people come in thinking it is a possession movie and then they come out thinking it was a great, fantastic, psychological thriller.
DS: One of the first dialogues I ever had with a producer was, were not going to sell this as real. This is not going to be like Blair Witch where the marking plan is based on is it or isn't it real. Don't hide behind that. You know you have to tell a great story, you have to make a great movie, and it has to stand on its own without being aided by that kind of controversy. That time is over.
ER: You could do that in 1997, but now in the age of someone goes and takes a picture of that person at 7-11 with their iPhone and tweets it, it is over. And I think it is an insult to the audience's intelligence. Today, to a modern audience, you can't go in and say 'This is real, this really happened." They tried that with The Psygepsie Tapes and it backfired. They started this campaign going we found this tape, this is real, and within two seconds ever actor was googled, IMDBed and the fans were all over it. So don't insult their intelligence. Nobody cares if it is real. People just want to be told the right story.
DS: And don't insult the style. The style is so rich that it doesn't need that kind of fake....
ER: It doesn't need the gimmicks.
DS: The Pykipsie Tapes is a great movie in itself. It really doesn't need a marketing campaign that tries to make it something different. So that was kind of important.
ER: Exactly. The Pykipse Tapes was great! The marketing kind of pissed people off. They were so angry at it for trying to - for like 'what you think I'm an idiot? I know this is fake.' Where as Paranormal, they didn't pretend it was real, they just kept the actor's out of the spotlight until after the movie opened. But we knew it was a movie, and audiences are going to a movie knowing it's a movie. People went to see Inglorious Basterds knowing it was fake. You just want to be told a great story. That is why we go to the movies. So we said right from the beginning, we are never going to pretend it is real. We are saying that it is done in this style, but let's let people just get into the world.