Last July I visited the set of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister director Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil in the Bronx area of New York. Unfamiliar with the area and not especially knowledgeable about the material (aside from Derrickson’s involvement), it was a learning experience to say the least.
Starring Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, and Sean Harris, “New York police officer Ralph Sarchie (Bana), struggling with his own personal issues, begins investigating a series of disturbing and inexplicable crimes. He joins forces with an unconventional priest (Ramirez), schooled in the rituals of exorcism, to combat the frightening and demonic possessions that are terrorizing their city. Based upon the book, which details Sarchie’s bone-chilling real-life cases.”
It’s a freezing, rainy night in the Bronx and, for the first time in my life I’m sort of scared of Joel McHale. He’s one of two NYPD officers questioning someone on the front stoop of their house when a suspect bolts out of the front door. McHale gives chase after the shirtless perp (played by Chris Coy), pursuing him the length of the block as the rain bears down on them both. When he comes back around as the shot is set back up for another take, it’s impossible not to notice how jacked McHale is – something not always evident on “Community.” I wouldn’t want this guy bearing down on me.
Residents of the neighborhood gather on their front porches to watch the shot. This isn’t a soundstage, this is on location – the rain is an unhappy accident – shooting in the very streets where the real life corollary to these events occurred. Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) has partnered with über producer Jerry Bruckheimer to bring the real-life story of Ralph Sarchie to the screen, and they’re set on making it as authentic as possible. Lots of location shooting, with the real life Sarchie onhand to pipe up if they’re not getting something quite right.
It doesn’t seem like Sarchie would be shy about correcting them either. A 16 year veteran of the NYPD as well as a demonologist – he is nothing if not honestly blunt. Having studied with Ed and Lorraine Warren (the real-life demonologists portrayed in last summer’s The Conjuring), he decided to ply his trade in the same stomping grounds as his day job. A cop by day, by night he would help residents of the neighborhood combat evil supernatural elements (sometimes even assisting in exorcisms) without ever charging for his services. He spent over 10 of his 16 years on the force at Precinct 46 in the South Bronx, marrying policework with God’s work. At the time the FBI had designated his beat as “the most dangerous square mile in America.”
Sarchie complied these experiences in his book, “Beware The Night,” which affected Derrickson so much that he’s been working on this film adaptation on and off for over a decade. In fact, it was research for what would eventually become Deliver Us From Evil that led to The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Derrickson explains, “I wrote the first draft of the script in 2004, and doing research here, I came to visit and I met Ralph, and he was still a cop in the 4-6. A very different guy than the guy you met; the guy you met now has kind of got a winsome manner. He was a very hardcore, angry guy back then, just working in the Bronx, all those guys seem like that, all those cops, you know? He was burned out and ready to retire. But he gave me the non-fiction book The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, which was written by an anthropologist, that was out of print at the time. It was a photocopy of it, and that was how I learned about that case. And then when Bruckheimer didn’t make the script then I went and made Emily Rose. I optioned that book and went and made that.”
Derrickson is also fond of the location, though not the rain so much. “The rain has been really hard on this show. We’ve lost a lot of time from the rain. It’s been an unusually rainy summer. But I don’t have any regrets, because there’s no place that looks like the Bronx. I mean really, shooting here, you start to go around the neighborhoods, and particularly, the neighborhoods I got to see, because we have a very good location scout, there’s just no place in the world that looks like it. And it’s where the real guy did his work. Ralph Sarchie was a cop in the 4-6 for over a decade, I believe. So it’s all authentic and it feels cool. It’s also free production design, because it’s just so cinematic. It makes the movie look at lot, I think, bigger and more expensive than it is.”
We get a more specific taste of the location when we visit the basement of an adjacent building that is dressed for nefarious purposes. Cloves of garlic and dried peppers hang from the rafters. Bottles of dubious looking home brewed wine adorn the shelves. A bloody mannequin in the corner, a stand-in for a more elaborate dummy the crew is still working on. The first thing that occurs to me, aside from how creepy the setting is, is just how tight the space is. It’s authentic, but probably difficult to shoot in. I feel claustrophobic just being there and can’t imagine further constricting the space by bringing equipment and crew down there.
It seems to work for Derrickson though, “The exteriors of the buildings are the obvious part, but the interiors of the Bronx, the hallways, the basements and the spaces that we’ve found, just these 150-year-old buildings with all these crevices and hallways and pipes. Everywhere we would go I’d go into places and I’d say, “You could look in LA for a year and you’d never find a space like this.”
Back inside the church that serves as the production’s base camp for the day, we sit down with the real-life Ralph Sarchie. He immediately explains his role on set, “The only reason I’m here is for police procedure. As far as how the actors act, it’s up to Scott. He’ll be the first to tell me, “save it for the Police stuff.” It’s just procedure and the way cops act, the tactics. Making it as realistic as possible. I’m honored to be here because it doesn’t happen that often from what I hear. They keep people like me away. “Come down and say ‘Hello’ and get out!””
Derrickson had previously described the current, retired, Sarchie as being much more relaxed and affable than the “angry” guy he met ten years earlier. And while Sarchie is indeed affable now, he’s got a clear zero tolerance policy for bullsh*t that makes me glad I’m meeting the “happy” version. He’s also very much a true believer. “I always believed in the spirit realm. Whether or not I understood it or witnessed it or was involved in it. There wasn’t an incident that made be believe it was real, like I said I had an interest in it and as I grew older I realized that there are some people that are doing this for real. That’s when I realized this isn’t just a Hollywood thing. There’s an element of realism to it. I immersed myself more in the subject as a young adult. And I learned and decided that my Christian charity, what I wanted to do to serve God’s will, was to help people that were ensnared by the demonic. Somebody goes to a soup kitchen and serves the hungry, someone goes to a prison and tries to get people to turn their lives around – those are all Christian charities. This is just another charity the way I look at it. I don’t look at it as being special or different.”
As far as the forces he encounters while performing his “charity” work are concerned, needless to say they’re not all friendly. “There is a primary evil that comes directly from the Devil. Even though all evil stems from the Devil, the Devil sometimes interacts with people in the physical world and the spiritual world and sometimes there’s just plain evil that people do to one another. And I’ve seen plenty of that over the course of 20 years. And I realized that there is something else that is influencing people to behave like that, and that’s the taking of the souls away from God. If you get people to sin, they get pushed further away from God and eventually God doesn’t really own the soul anymore. The Devil owns the soul and that’s where the danger comes in.”
Whether or not Sarchie himself will be in the film is still up for debate, “It’s really not what I’m looking for. I’ve been arguing with Scott over it. He wants me to do it and I don’t want to do it and he says, “you gotta do it. I need you do do it.” But I don’t really want to do it.”
It’s always startling when the Hollywood version of a guy you’ve just been talking to enters the room. In this case, Eric Bana is quite a bit taller than Ralph Sarchie. He’s also Eric Bana. After the pleasantries are out of the way (“how is it playing a real life guy?” etc..) we find out that Bana was initially a little concerned about the script. Not its quality mind you, but its brutality. This is a gory hard “R” rated movie. “At the end of the day, I think you really have to put your total faith in the director in those instances because, I think, tonally and visually, that’s really in the edit. They can make it a smorgasbord of material, and it’s up to them then, according to taste and preference, to go and assemble that, because it’s really all in the edit, how that stuff plays out: how brutal or non-brutal, how gory or non-gory. So I’ve really got just complete faith in Scott. I’d met with him a couple of times long before we signed on and we got along extremely well. We got along extremely well and saw things very similar. So I have a lot of trust, a lot of trust in him.”
And being a fan of Derrickson’s work certainly didn’t hurt. “And Scott’s films, the characters are very strong. Really, really strong. When I saw Sinister and Emily Rose I was really intrigued. I thought this script was in keeping with that strong character at the center of these really interesting, scary, potentially, stories. So, selfishly for me, it was Ralph that really jumped off the page, and Scott’s previous work. I’ve not worked in this genre and I’m really excited about it.”
Back outside. Back in the rain. Back in the real Bronx. Joel McHale is still shooting the chase scene but takes a break to come over and speak with us. He’s… got a lot of knives. And a backwards Boston baseball cap. It’s certainly a look. “My character not only prefers knives to guns, police batons or Tasers, he just wears stuff to piss off other cops. I’m not joking, there’s a whole scene about the hat.” And while McHale might not be doing the kind of comedy he’s known for here, his character still knows how to have fun. In a dark way. “ He has fun, he kills people who are bad and protects people who are good. He enjoys it, he is like a robot, kind of, but a fun-loving robot. My character has zero… he has some fear but he doesn’t really care about a lot of stuff. So he sees bodies and shootings and stabbings, he’s happy to joke and have a warm meal afterwards. Because the movie is pretty dark, there are definitely jokes in it, but I don’t want anybody to think for a second it’s a comedy. It’s not.”
At that point it’s time to leave the Bronx as shooting carries on in the rain. It’s the best of set visits in the sense that I have a real flavor for the type of film Deliver Us From Evil will be, but I’m not completely spoiled on the plot. I walk away intrigued… and a little more wary of Joel McHale.