Scott Derrickson’s fifth feature film as a director, Deliver Us from Evil, finds the man behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose returning to the same general territory as that 2005 sleeper hit, which has quietly earned a reputation as one of the more effective horror films of the past decade. Like Emily Rose, Deliver Us from Evil is inspired by a true story as recounted in a book; also like the earlier movie, the new one explores the idea of religious faith vs. modern skepticism. This time it’s through the eyes of New York City police officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), who finds demonic evil lurking underneath the surface of the everyday horrors he sees while on patrol in the toughest parts of the South Bronx.
Unlike Emily Rose, however, Deliver Us from Evil is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, a man known more for slam-bang action adventures like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and TV cop franchises like the near-legendary C.S.I. The movie weds Derrickson’s evolving approach to horror — a precise use of sound, negative space and atmosphere to create a suffocating sense of dread — with the decidedly louder Bruckheimer house style. The results are quite different from Derrickson’s last film, 2012’s truly creepy Sinister, although many of the director’s trademarks make an appearance.
Den of Geek had a chance to sit down with Derrickson to discuss the story of the real cop behind Deliver Us from Evil, as well as working with Bruckheimer, his cast and shooting on location in New York. Unfortunately, we were told beforehand that he could not answer questions about his next film, Marvel Studios’ long-awaited production of Doctor Strange (for the record, we think he’s a great choice). That did not stop us, however, from also querying him about why he decided to not direct Sinister 2 and how he got the job writing (with Sinister partner C. Robert Cargill) a big-screen adaptation of the classic 1960s sci-fi series The Outer Limits.
Den Of Geek: How did the story of Ralph Sarchie come to you?
Scott Derrickson: Jerry bought the book which was the memoirs of Sarchie, and was looking for writers. And I thought that the material was really engaging and got involved then. And that was before Emily Rose. Ralph Sarchie’s actually the guy who gave me the nonfiction book that turned into Emily Rose…when I went to New York to meet him he handed me an out of print copy of The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel. I ended up optioning that myself.
The two stories have some similar themes…
I mean I think obviously they both deal with the paranormal and possession and exorcism. This movie is less of a possession movie than Emily Rose was. This is much more of a broader police procedural and different type of paranormal movie. But I think that both movies are dealing with characters who are skeptical in confronting the reality of the phenomenon. And I think that this movie takes less of a direct approach on that skepticism versus belief question.
I don’t think the movie’s so much interested in that as it is in just the transformational qualities of this character and how this guy who was this foul-mouthed, loud, angry, violent Bronx police sergeant in the most violent district in the country, who didn’t believe in God, becomes, of all people, the most unlikely person to investigate the paranormal and become an assistant to an exorcist. I think that’s so fascinating. He’s just a fascinating guy.
When you first met with him, did you find him credible and believable?
Oh yeah, it’s very clear that he’s honest. He’s an almost painfully honest guy. And I think that in meeting him, the whole thing became real to me in a way. I liked the idea of a cop horror film. But in meeting him it became clear that the movie wanted to be a lot deeper than just that and that it really did want to be a movie about this guy, about this character. And specifically about a guy who, because of the level of violence that he was surrounded by working in the 46th precinct in the Bronx, saw evil every day.
The stories that he tells as a cop in his book and the stories he’s told me in person, the things he witnessed as a cop are some of the worst things I’ve heard. So he was uniquely equipped, I think, to handle the kind of darkness that you get into when you’re talking about this sort of material. There’s some strange connection between the two that just makes sense when you meet him.
Sarchie’s book contains a collection of incidents and cases that he investigated. Did you pick one from the book specifically?
No, I took several and then used a more fictional narrative to tie them all together. That was the trick, you know. I didn’t have any problem taking those fictional liberties to make the movie work. The thing I wanted to make sure I captured was the general quality of some of the things that he experienced and the character himself, who the guy was and what he had gone through. And that’s the thing I think I’m most proud of in relationship to the true stories. We got the real Ralph Sarchie in this film and who he is as a person, what he went through and what he continues to do in his life. I think that’s more important than the details of the story.
I’ve dealt with a number of true life characters and I was working actually with Ralph in this process and he was fine with this. I wanted to capture him and his personal journey and his family, his movement of faith, his movement from street evil to paranormal evil, all of that. I wanted to get that down. I wanted to use the actual scenarios from his book because they’re great, but they’re all individual scenarios that are all separate and unrelated. And so I had to create a fictional narrative to try to tie the best of those together. And that’s essentially what the movie is.
He was also on the set as your police consultant. Was having the real person there an advantage in this case?
Oh yeah, it’s huge because well first of all you take some of the ethical burden off because when you say, “Hey, this is what we’re doing,” if they’re okay with it then that’s fine…so you get the liberty of that but also his presence was really important just because it helped Eric Bana. Eric talks like him, moves like him, thinks like him in the movie. And I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the movie — you really are watching a three-dimensional real character being portrayed there as he really is.
Is the priest played by Edgar Ramirez a real person?
The priest is a composite character. There were two people who were highly influential in his life. One was a Catholic priest who was an exorcist and the other one was a bishop in New York who was also I think the primary functioning exorcist for the Catholic Church. So I kind of combined elements of those two but also chose to make him Latin American because there was a lot of baggage I found that fell away once you did that, you know, by not having him be the same white older priest you’ve seen before. When Edgar got involved with it, Edgar was really helpful too in shaping that character into an emotional character with a very interesting idiosyncrasies and demons of his own that I think makes this character one of the more compelling parts of the movie.
One of the things I like about your movies is the way you use darkness and negative space.
I think that’s what makes movies like this cinematically interesting and it’s what I like about the horror genre, that you get to use interior space and extremities of light and darkness and sound design in ways that you don’t in other kinds of movies. It cries out for a boldness on those fronts. I think in this case it’s a larger canvas because we’re not stuck to just the inside of a house. We shot on location in the Bronx. There’s no place in the world that looks like the Bronx. So I think I was able to make a lot of use of that physical space and got a look for the movie that’s pretty unique.
Does doing this kind of material in the context of a police procedural keep it fresh?
Yeah. Jerry’s whole idea when he first optioned the book was that he wanted to make Serpico meets The Exorcist and I thought that was the coolest idea, you know. What we made is probably closer to Seven meets The Exorcist but I think that you can make the movie function completely on both levels. Emily Rose was a horror film and it’s also 100 percent a courtroom movie. From beginning to end it functions as a courtroom movie. And I think the same is true in this case that it is a supernatural thriller or horror film, but it also is very much a police procedural and it functions as a police procedural.
The film is kind of like a melding of your style with the Bruckheimer house brand…
I was conscientious about that. That’s what I was trying to make. Jerry was very much my partner creatively. That was what I was paying attention to. I really listened to him carefully because that’s exactly what we were trying to make. I’m certainly somebody who tries to make a movie for the audience and wants the audience to like it. I want people to get their money’s worth. But in the end you also have to sort of judge your success or failure not by anything other than whether you really hit the target you were aiming at. What you just described was the target. It was absolutely the target for this movie. So I’m really satisfied that that’s what it is because it’s different from anything I’ve done before.
You filmed in some pretty creepy locations in the Bronx and around New York too. Did that just heighten the atmosphere for everyone?
I think it heightens it because of the realism, and because they’re so textural. First of all it’s very cinematic. The Bronx is gritty but with kind of a beautiful grittiness now. When you feel the tactile physical realness of that place and then you start to enter the supernatural stuff into, it suddenly it takes on a different quality. You’re not working so hard to believe it as an audience member. You’re feeling like, “Wow, this is happening because of where we are.”
Why did you pass on directing Sinister 2 even though you co-wrote the script?
It wasn’t something I was sure about, but the writing of the script was extremely difficult for me, you know. It took a long time. It took longer to write Sinister 2 probably than any script I’ve worked on because I didn’t want to compromise the quality of what I thought the franchise should be. I really wanted it to be the sequel that I would want to see to this movie, you know, the kind of sequel that you hope for when you see a good horror film and you rarely get. So Cargill and I threw out a lot of material. We would write big chunks of it and then just get rid of it.
By the time it was finished I was happy with it, but I also felt that I was struggling with it because I had already gone over that territory once before and I grew concerned that as a director I might have a similar struggle. So I started to feel that what the movie needed was a fresh directorial vision to take the script that I had written and bring some freshness to it. Then the process of finding the right director took a lot of time. I talked to a lot of directors and looked at a lot of possibilities and got Ciaran Foy, whose Citadel I love. I feel so much better about him making the movie than me.
We were told not to ask about Doctor Strange, but nobody told me not to ask about The Outer Limits.
Yeah, I’ve haven’t been told not to say anything about The Outer Limits. We had been talking with MGM for a long time about it. I love that show. I was always a bigger Outer Limits fan than a Twilight Zone fan. So I went back and rewatched all the episodes and of course remembered “Demon with a Glass Hand.” Watching it again, it is a spectacular story, and I was surprised at how little had been stolen from it. I figured out that you can’t steal a little bit from it without stealing all of it — it’s so intricately put together. So we just went in with a take on it that MGM suddenly said, “Ah, this is a movie.” I think we’re picking one of the most episodes, if not the most beloved episode to try to bring to the screen. It feels like a big privilege.
Have you asked (original writer) Harlan Ellison for his blessing?
From what I’ve been told –- I did not speak to him personally — but from what I’m told we have his blessing.
That’s a good thing to have.
Yeah, yeah. You don’t want the other thing.
You once tried to adapt Dan Simmon’s Hyperion novels for the screen, but the project never took off. Is there another science fiction book that you’d like to adapt?
There are a couple. I really love The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell’s book. I think that is a really compelling story that could be amazingly very difficult one to make. I think that A Fire Upon the Deep could be a great space opera. There’s enough imagination in that and enough richness of character, I think that could be fantastic also. And there’s some short work by Ted Chiang, some short stories that he wrote which I think could make amazing science fiction films.
Deliver Us from Evil is out now in theaters.