Eli Roth and Daniel Stamm Interview: exorcisms, acting, and creating the perfect documentary horror

As documentary-style horror The Last Exorcism heads to UK cinemas, Luke meets with director Daniel Stamm and producer Eil Roth to chat about making the perfect screen horror…

He’s ushered in a new wave of gore-filled horror, is best pals with Quentin Tarantino, and popped up in Piranha 3. Now, Eli Roth has donned his producer hat to bring us The Last Exorcism.

We caught up with him and the film’s director, Daniel Stamm, to talk comedy in horror, going ‘method’, and how you top The Exorcist? (Hint: you don’t.)

How did the film come about? The script came to you first, Eli, is that right?

Eli Roth: Well, actually it was producer Eric Newman who had the idea years ago. He wanted to do this documentary of an exorcism gone wrong. He developed the script at Strike Entertainment and Eric and I started a company called Arcade and we thought … Studio Canal had said if I was involved in the film, they would finance it.

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And I read it and it was really one of the scariest scripts I had ever read. I thought it was so smart and I’ve always wanted to be involved in an exorcism movie. But I thought, “How do you make something scarier than The Exorcist?” The answer is you don’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make something that is original and interesting.

You know, if you look at vampires, it started with Dracula and it’s still going now with Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. So, I just thought it was such a great project. I was so excited to get involved. And, originally, the writers were actually attached to direct it. And then right before we were starting production, their other movie, The Virginity Hit, got greenlit and they had to go direct that.

I was in Berlin filming Inglourious Basterds at the time and so we started this frantic search which wound up being one of the most wonderful happy accidents. You know, sometimes you have this tragedy which turns into an incredible opportunity, and we got so lucky with Daniel Stamm, who I think took what was already a great script and really elevated the material and made an incredible film.

And Daniel, your previous film, An Unnecessary Death, took a similar documentary-style approach. So, was that what got you in? Did that work as a kind of calling card for this?

Daniel Stamm: I think it was because it had won AFI Fest that year and that was how Strike Entertainment, the producers over there, saw it. Because they were working with a writer who I had studied with at AFI at the time, and he had heard that they were looking for a director and he said, “I know exactly the right guy. Here’s his film.” And they loved the film and they wanted exactly that style just for a horror movie. I think that very much is what got me on the film.

And, Eli, you mentioned loving the script, but when you read a script like that do you have an instant reaction of “I want to direct this”? Or “I want to help get this made”?

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ER: Well, you know, I was reading it with the writers attached to direct and I loved their first film, Mail Order Wife, so I was reading it imagining them directing it. You know, I really wanted to branch out as a producer. I mean, I’ve produced all my own films but I have many ideas for movies and many films I want to make and I’m never going to be able to direct them all. 

But, I was actually excited to do this as a producer. The script was so compelling and it really, really kept me guessing. And what I loved about it was, at its core, it was a great psychological thriller. It was very different from Hostel. You know, it was not a gory movie. It was really, really smart and it was really just one of the best scripts I had ever read. And so, I was excited to work with those guys who had done comedy, but to help them wherever they needed it in the horror and with the scares.

And when they wound up dropping out, there was a moment where it was like, “Do I want to direct this?”  But, at the time, I was on Basterds and it just wasn’t reasonable. And I actually said, “No, I don’t”. This is actually a test of me as a producer. I can’t always be the default when I’m producing movies and the director drops out then I’ll jump in and do it.

I said if I’m really going to be a strong producer I have to be able to find new directors. Eric Newman and the guy from Strike saw Daniel’s movie and there were a

few people we were considering but, really, no one came close to Daniel. Once we saw his film and really once we spoke to him, we knew that he was the perfect person. Because we wanted someone who was not just ready to do it, but hungry to dive in and really make the most of the material.

And if you look at what Daniel did with the casting and with the performances he got, there is nobody who could have done that other than Daniel. He is just an amazing talent.

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I was going to ask about the cast, because Patrick Fabian, who plays the Reverend Cotton Marcus, is one of those guys people may recognise but not be able to place. And he’s terrific, a really integral part of what makes the film work. How did you find him?

DS: The role is kind of tricky in that you have someone who makes a living out of exploiting people’s belief. I was always kind of worried about that, because we don’t have that much time to establish that and still be on his side. You know, we need someone who has redeeming qualities, has a likeability to him that is going deeper than just a professional mask of charisma that he uses to do that.

So, I knew it was going to be hard to find that character. We saw hundreds of people for the Cotton character and when Patrick came in and did a sermon – I did a sermon with all the Cotton actors – he just blew me away. He has that mask, that professional mask. There was something very human and very warm behind that and I knew that would allow us to establish him as a protagonist that people would still identify with, even though he has spent decades doing this very questionable business.

He’s also very funny, and that’s what’s quite surprising about the film, the amount of humour in the first half. Do you feel that’s missing in a lot of horror films these days, some lightness to go with the darkness?

DS: I don’t know about other horror films. Everyone has their chemistry. But I know that was important for us, because I wanted to make sure that the audience loved these characters when the scary stuff hit. And humour is a great way to draw people over to your side.

We have more humour in the first half and then, once the darkness starts and the horror starts in the second half, we kind of fade that out pretty much completely and really concentrate on the dark stuff and on the horror stuff.

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In the first half it’s just a great tool to establish character and to make the audience identify with him.

ER: I also think that in the subject matter of fake exorcisms and in exposing himself, it’s so fun to watch his tricks. If we were watching him trick a family, you wouldn’t enjoy it. But when you’re watching him trick the family knowing that he is doing it to give himself up, knowing that he’s filming it to show everyone what a fraud he is, knowing that the family will one day see how they’ve been tricked, it really allows you to enjoy it, and to laugh along with it to have fun with it. You really get caught up in it.

Patrick is so compelling and Daniel kept it moving so fast and so fun that, when things turn ,you really feel terribly for Nell. Either way, if this girl is possessed it’s bad, or if she is crazy and her father believes she’s possessed, it’s bad.

You mention lowering the audience’s defences and drawing people in. It’s quite a refreshing approach to build up to the horror relatively slowly.

DS: You kind of want them to let their guard down, to make them more vulnerable, which the fake documentary style allows you to do. It allows you to take away the fourth wall and suddenly I think audiences are very aware that they’re inside the movie. There’s a character who represents them, which is the guy who is holding the camera. So, they are vulnerable to attacks from outside of the frame.

So, the whole aim for me was to make the audience as vulnerable as possible and get them to a place where they are as unprepared as possible for what’s happening. We are taking our time to jack that up.

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ER: Obviously, they’re very different films, but in Cabin Fever and in Hostel I spent a long time … the first 45 minutes of the movies are very funny and people at first, I think, resist it, they fight it, they don’t want to be in a comedy. But they do let their guard down.

It’s not a comedy, but the result is they let their guard down but they also start to realise, Okay, if we’re a half hour into the movie and we haven’t been scared yet, this director must be so confident in what’s coming that you actually do start to get scared.

The audience trusts the director. They’re waiting for the scare and it’s not coming, but as long as it’s engaging and as long as it’s fun, they do develop a trust with the director and they let themselves go and suddenly they think, “God, if we’re going this long without a scary scene, something so horrible must be coming.” They start to dread what they’re going to see next, actually by delaying them, by teasing them. They really do start to dread what’s coming around the corner.

But you have to have the material to back it up, and you have to be confident that your audience will be with you. And I think Daniel did such an amazing job of really making the first half hour of the movie compelling, that you’re watching it as a story.

There are great characters, incredible performances and it’s actually really, really fun and engaging to watch this guy trick people and watch them show how he does it.

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What’s interesting is that you do a kind of modern magician thing of revealing the mechanics of a trick. You show how someone can stage their own exorcism scene like a horror director might, with pictures falling off a wall and beds shaking. But that also means you have to raise the bar when it comes to a genuine exorcism scene. Was it a case of you sitting down and saying, “We’ve got to do something better than things falling off the wall”?

DS: It’s all steeped in the character. The big difference between the first exorcism and the second is that, in the first, Cotton is in control, and because Cotton is in control, we are witnessing everything that Cotton does. We are in control. We have the feeling we are filled in on all the details. You know, there is nothing scary about the first exorcism. It is not supposed to be scary

But the second exorcism is the complete opposite. Cotton has completely lost control, the audience has no idea what’s going on. So, it just comes from a completely different place psychologically. So, it was never a discussion of which gimmicks do we invent. Because the second exorcism is completely the opposite. There are no gimmicks. There was just Ashley Bell [the actress] and that is all it needed.

We didn’t need demonic voices or stuff flying around or anything like that. The aim was always to completely trust the actors and have it come out of the character rather than out of special effects.

ER: Also, we had discussions about exorcism and possession, and everything that happens in that first exorcism, those are all the clichés and conventions that are based on previous exorcism movies. That’s what the audience expects: demonic voices, the bed shaking, the pictures moving, all that kind of stuff. But who’s to say any of that happens in an exorcism? That’s just stuff from The Exorcist. So, we address it, we show it and we show that he is playing into people’s stereotypes of what an exorcism is.

And then when he encounters the real one, he has no idea what happens, because it’s the first time he’s ever seen anything like this. There are no voices. It shouldn’t be the windows blowing open and the wind coming in. It’s not that. It’s just a girl who could be completely insane and having a total mental breakdown, or this could be what it actually looks like when someone is truly possessed. We don’t know. He’s never seen it.

So, part of the fun was playing into what audience expectations and stereotypes of what an exorcism are and then stripping away all of it. It’s actually … it’s the sparseness of that second exorcism that truly makes it feel like she’s really possessed.

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How does it work with the actors? Were you trying to make it as real as possible for the actors? Because their characters have the same first names as they do.

DS: That’s exactly the aim, that I wanted them to build an artificial personality, as little as possible, and to just go through this as themselves as much as possible. It’s the same thing we were talking about, stripping away that layer of confidence that you want to strip away from the audience. You want to do the same for the actors, to make them as vulnerable and not give them anything to hide behind. And that was exactly the idea with the names.

When another character addresses them by their real name, they are reminded that they are not supposed to act. They’re supposed to give us genuine emotion that they would feel and not a character that they are kind of creating. So, that was really important.

And we did do a lot of preparations like that. With Cotton’s family, for example, that was important to me that they spend the whole day together and I would invent games for them with the little boy and the wife and then, once we had them in front of the camera, there is a chemistry and they feel that they know each other more intimately than characters and actors would who have just arrived on set, just said hello, saw each other for the first time, and now have to pretend to be a family. There was a lot of that going on.

Eli Roth and Daniel Stamm, thank you very much.

The Last Exorcism is released on 3rd September and you can read our review here.

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