Just before a B-D hosted screening of The Last Exorcism at this year’s Comic Con, Mr. Disgusting caught up with director Daniel Stamm to pick his brain on the Eli Roth-produced film, opening in theaters August 27th. During their talk Stamm discussed the inevitable Exorcist comparisons, how he kept the realism-based tone of the film from veering into the overtly supernatural, and even hinted at an expensively-budgeted alternate ending! Read on for more details.
Daniel Stamm is nervous. And who could blame him, considering his first major feature, Eli Roth-produced The Last Exorcism, is about to be screened for a notoriously fickle, fanboy-heavy audience at San Diego’s Comic Con festival?
“I don’t know why, but I am very nervous“, he admitted in his thick-but-not-impenetrable German accent before the screening. “Especially with Twitter and Facebook…”
Indeed, Stamm seemed well-aware of the power of early fan screenings to make or break a film’s opening weekend, in an industry positively obsessed with a movie’s initial three-day haul. It’s a phenomenon that Stamm – who before this had only directed a couple of small independents – hasn’t yet experienced first hand, but will certainly come to know on a very personal level when The Last Exorcism premieres on August 27th, in a seemingly make-or-break moment for his career.
Of course, it won’t be the first challenge he’s faced in making the film, since any project with the word “Exorcism” in the title is bound to draw comparisons with that other movie.
“Well, we were really aware of `The Exorcist’“, he told us. “We didn’t want to do any of that and repeat any of that.”
This was especially important because of the level of reality required to keep the audience guessing whether the central girl really is possessed or just suffering from insanity-fueled delusions – an important distinction from William Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster.
“The whole backbone of the story is the question of whether she’s possessed or if she’s crazy“, said the director. “So we could never do anything that clearly gives away that she is more than crazy. You can’t ever levitate [her]…we always had to walk that line that was creepy on the one hand but not venturing into the supernatural.”
Luckily, something Stamm was well-versed in before signing on for the project was the first-person “docu style” employed to heighten the realism of the film, as his last movie – micro-budgeted horror/thriller A Necessary Death – was also shot in the “mock-doc” style popularized by films like The Blair Witch Project and the more recent Paranormal Activity. Whether you chalk up the release of The Last Exorcism to bandwagon-jumping after the massive success of Paranormal Activity or not, to his credit Stamm seems genuinely interested in more than just stringing together a bunch of shaky-cam jump scares; when prompted about his influences, Lars von Trier was the first name to roll off his tongue.
“I’m a huge Lars von Trier fan, and I think he gets performances out of actors that are incredible to me, and that are so much creepier than any makeup effect“, he said about the director, while also noting that given the raft of creative input from other voices on the project – including producer Eli Roth – The Last Exorcism is nevertheless a mixture of character-driven elements with more horror-centric, visceral flourishes. “It was a really interesting mixture of people behind it, so I think everyone had their own kind of references… Eli let me use his makeup effects people, [and] Nathan Barr as a composer, who’s a genius in the horror field. So all of that kind of comes together with this film.”
Like his stated influence, Stamm also indicated an interest in creating an overwhelming atmosphere of dread rather than relying too much on cheap shocks – the constant threat of violence as opposed to an endless stream of gratuitous blood-letting.
“To me, it’s always like a gory scene or even a jump effect works for a second, is scary for a second, but then it evaporates“, said Stamm. “So we were going more for the overall eeriness that you never know what’s around the next bend, you never know what’s around the next corner…that was the great thing about our antagonist, the girl…[with] Michael Myers, you know when he appears he’s gonna kill someone. With our girl, you don’t know that. When she appears you have no idea what’s gonna happen.”
Speaking of not knowing what’s around the next corner, Stamm has to be apprehensive considering fan reaction in early screenings has so far been split when it comes to the film’s open-ended conclusion, though in an artistic sense the director indicated he found it the most appropriate way to finish off the story.
“It’s very true to the form. If you shoot a documentary, you’re not gonna answer all the questions“, said the director. “And if your camera person decides to leave, or you lose that person somehow, you’re never gonna find out what the rest of the story is. So I kind of like that…we knew we’d antagonize people. It’s gonna be interesting to see today what part of the audience loves it, deals with it, or hates it.”
Those who tend to count themselves in the “hates it” category when it comes to ambiguous climaxes should feel thankful, though, that the film’s original ending – which according to the director was even more open-ended than the one the film is being released with – was scrapped after a negative reaction in an early test-screening, and likely won’t even be featured on the DVD.
Said the director: “It was even more open-ended than this version, to a degree where we never asked the question, which I learned – I don’t know if this is too abstract – but I learned that you can have an open ending if you `ask’ the question but never answer [it]; that works. But you have to ask the question. Our other ending never asked the question, so people were like, `are we supposed to wonder if…?’ Which is one step too removed, which I didn’t know before we shot it. And of course, [the ending] that got cut had the most extras in it [and] was the most expensive [scene] to shoot.”
Stamm had better pray the extra expense pays off come August 27th so that his next project, a “horror/thriller” he’s developing with one of the writers on Exorcism, won’t have any problems getting off the ground. He described the film this way:
“There are children being murdered in this little town, and the parents get a hold of the killer before the police [do]. And they put him on trial, because there is no death penalty in the state where the whole thing happened, but one of the mother’s kids hasn’t been found yet, and she’s hoping that the kid is still out there. But in order to find him, she has to keep the killer alive.”
Sounds cool. Let’s just hope Stamm can keep his career alive long enough to make it happen.