Are you wondering how Eli Roth went from directing (Hostel, Cabin Fever) to producing one of this year’s biggest horror films? Bloody Disgusting caught up with Roth, who produced Lionsgate’s The Last Exorcism alongside Eric Newman of Strike Entertainment, to chat about how he became involved in the Daniel Stamm directed horror, how hands on he got during the writing/filming process, and if this is just the beginning of a long line of Eli Roth produced genre pics (and sequels). You’ll get the skinny beyond the break. The Last Exorcism arrives in theaters this Friday.
“After a career spent helping the devout through prayer and trickery, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) invites a film crew to document his final fraudulent days as an exorcist. Soon his faith is truly tested when a desperate plea from the father of a possessed girl (Ashley Bell) brings him face to face with the devil himself. ”
BD: How did you come aboard Exorcism?
ELI ROTH: Eric Newman and I formed a company called Arcade to make genre films, and we started putting together our slate of projects. Eric and I had met when he was producing “Dawn of the Dead,” and we’ve been close friends since then. He told me about this idea he had, a documentary about an “exorcism gone wrong.” I read the script and it was one of the scariest scripts I had ever read. StudioCanal said they’d finance the film if I came on to produce with him and to present the film, and it went from there.
BD: How much input did you have in the development of the script leading up to filming?
By the time Eric Newman brought me on board the script was ready to go. It was an idea Eric had, and he hired Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland and developed the script with them, along with his producers Marc Abraham and Tom Bliss. When I read it, the script was ready to shoot. I had a bunch of creative ideas on how to make the film scarier and definitely got my input in there, as did Daniel Stamm, who came up with great scenes as well. But the script was ready to shoot when I got involved.
BD: How involved were you on set during filming?
During the shooting I gave Daniel Stamm his space. The schedule timed out so that I was in Cannes with “Basterds” for the first week and a half of photography, and I felt like they had such good chemistry going on set, I didn’t want to throw it off. They were off in the middle of nowhere in their own world for 18 days, so for me to show up on day 12 would have been strange, especially when they’re filming these crazy intense scenes like the exorcism in the barn. I was watching dailies every night, making comments by phone and e-mail, and was involved in the casting and prep process, but I didn’t get too hands on until the editing room. There was one night of shooting I was there for, and other than one night of shooting that I was there for, my presence was helping him finesse certain scenes that were giving him trouble in editing. There are a lot of tricks I learned from working with Quentin and Boaz Yakin and Scott Spiegel – low budget tricks like flipping shots and blowing things up to make eyelines match here and there, so I could help him bridge a scene from a piece of footage he might not have used otherwise. But I was really there to support Daniel wherever he needed it. My composer and friend Nathan Barr did a huge favor and came in and scored the movie. He really loves the genre and was happy to do it and I think created his greatest and creepiest score yet. I have a lot of experience working through scenes in the editing room to really make them as tense as possible, and I was able to offer advice and suggestions as needed. Filmmaking’s a collaborative medium, and Daniel was great and very open to hearing my ideas when I had a suggestion on how to make a moment scarier. But I really wanted to just give him the support he needed and surround him with the best creative team possible, as did the other producers Eric Marc and Tom. It was a great team with all of us working to make the scariest film possible. Daniel’s incredibly talented, he really made my job easy because you can just sit back and watch him bring this script to life in such an imaginative and fun way.
BD: Is this the first in a long line of Eli Roth produced horror flicks? How was the experience?
The experience was great because I had superb producing partners in Eric Newman, Marc Abraham, and Tom Bliss. We all worked really well together. I love making films like this. I want to keep producing them simultaneous to my directing career, which is why Eric and I set up our company Arcade. We’re doing Funhouse with the same team, as well as RZA’s Kung Fu film The Man With the Iron Fists. So yes, this will be the first in the line of hopefully many. I never want to stop making films, this is a great way to always have a creative project you’re involved in, even if you’re not behind the reins.
BD: Can you talk about creating scares?
The scares were in the script. Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland did a brilliant job of building this weird atmosphere where each story twist gets stranger and stranger and you quickly see how in over their heads these people are. The key is to never approach it like you’re making a horror film, you’re telling a story that happens to be horrific, but have everyone react the way they would as if it was all really happening and the scares will take care of themselves.
BD: Was there a debate on whether or not to have the girl digress like in Exorcist?
We wanted our film to be as different as possible from The Exorcist, but simply because you’re dealing with possession you’re going to have some crossover. We talked about the difference between being a boy and a girl and ultimately the story worked best with the girl so we went with that. But people are so used to “demonic” conventions like yellow eyes and a deep voice, and I knew those conventions were derived directly from The Exorcist. They didn’t really exist before that film. We wanted our possession to feel real, and raw, like you’re really there in the room, but also keep open the possibility that she’s not possessed, just losing her mind. So everything she does is stuff that she could do – there’s no CGI, no makeup, no effects – nothing, it’s purely Ashley Bell, and she does a magnificent job.
BD: Exorcism felt very much like it could take place in the real world, was that the aim, was it difficult to accomplish that effect?
Daniel Stamm was the one who accomplished that. He can speak in greater detail than I, but the reason we hired him is that he truly understood that the only way the film worked is if every moment from the actors and the camera felt real. Sometimes you captured everything on camera, other times the camera just misses it. The world was 360 degrees – everything you see was there, so an actor could go into any room and the camera could follow. He worked very hard at creating an entirely believable atmosphere from all sides.
BD: The movie is more moody than bloody (not that-that’s a bad thing), can you talk about the decision process behind that?
Every story has the appropriate level of blood required to tell that story. It’s an ingredient I love, but not the necessary ingredient to make a film work. “The Last Exorcism,” at its core, is truly a psychological thriller about a girl who may or may not be possessed. Is she having a mental breakdown, or is there truly something inside of her? The film does a great job of keeping you guessing the whole way through, but it’s really about possession, not power tools. We wanted blood to show what she’s capable of, but the film isn’t about gore moments, it’s much more of a slow build creepy feeling, an impending sense of doom these characters are headed towards. It’s just something that comes with the story – write the story, and then you’ll feel how much blood you need. You can feel when it’s too much, or too little, and when it’s just right. I feel like ours is just right. If you’re going to make an R rated film, make it R rated and take full advantage of the rating with lots of gore and nudity. Our story doesn’t call for that, it’s much more at the “Ring/Grudge” end of the horror spectrum. It’s a creepy build. That’s not to say it’s without its bloody moments, but fans should not go to see this expecting lots of blood, because that’s not what it’s about. Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” is one of the scariest films of all time and that’s G-rated.
BD: Being vague, the ending is very open-ended, what types of things did you try with the ending and ultimately, what made you choose to go in this direction?
Well, I like that the story ends but it raises discussion. Clues are left along the way to let you know where this is heading, and I think one of the great things in horror is when the story ends but you are left to wonder what exactly, specifically happened to some of the people. At the end of REC the girl gets dragged away and we assume she was killed, but we don’t know for sure. In CLOVERFIELD the camera goes black and we’re pretty sure they died but we don’t know 100%. In THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT we know the witch got them, but we’re not exactly sure how. It’s creepy, it’s scary, it’s satisfying, but it also lets your mind wander and think of all the horrible things these people could be going through. I love those kinds of endings.
BD: Do you see this as a franchise? Where would you like to take the next film if it were to happen?
I don’t think about anything beyond the immediate film. Every film I make I think about just that film and that film only. Sometimes you have notions of where the story would go if you continued, but then you lose focus on what’s important, which is making sure the one you have works. But you know this is a business and if the fans demand it, someone probably would. But I have much more control over the material now, so if anyone ever did do a sequel we’d have to make sure it was at the level of the first one or we wouldn’t do it. I have too many ideas to waste my time making a “Book of Shadows.” It’s not worth it. Just go make the best film possible and figure that stuff out after the release if there’s a demand for it.
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