When the group of reporters arrived in the Bronx late on a Friday night in June of last year, we were ushered into a holding area to wait for our interviews- in the utterly creepy sactuary of a dilapidated church. As we waited, the wide-eyed portraits hanging askew on the wall and the faded red velour of the pews lent an eerie air to the already stormy night. The production could not have picked a creepier place for us to wait – although it set the mood perfectly for the film we were there to cover – Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil.
In the creepy church sanctuary we were able to score an interview with director Derrickson, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Harris Boardman. He told us about why he would never regret filming in the Bronx despite the terrible weather, and in fact why he wouldn’t shoot anywhere else (other than the parts of the film shot in Abu Dhabi). He also spoke about casting (including his best friend Joel McHale) and his experience working with Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the film. Starring Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Joel McHale, Olivia Munn, Chris Coy and Sean Harris, Deliver Us from Evil opens July 2nd. Hit the jump for our interview with Scott Derrickson.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: Oh, 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.
You’ve been specializing mostly in suburban and rural horror in The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, and now you’re doing urban horror. What kind of an adjustment has that been?
DERRICKSON: I mean, that was what was interesting about it, to me, was to take it into a different environment and obviously cross two popular genres that you don’t really see go together. Not that that was my idea; that’s just who the guy is, that’s the real Ralph Sarchie. I mean, there’s a lot in the script that’s fictionalized, but it’s all based on real cases that he had and things that had happened to him. But the character was very true to who he was. In the 4-6 precinct, when he was there, the FBI called it “the most dangerous square mile in America.” It had more violent crimes and arrests as a precinct than any other precinct in the country. So I mean, he was an undercover cop with a team, doing special ops with a team of guys, who were just street crimes, just out there stopping violent crimes all night, every night. So to take a guy like that and have him in a story that involves the paranormal and supernatural and possession and all that is just really great, it’s interesting.
It’s set in present day though, right?
DERRICKSON: It’s set in present day, yes.
We really need a supernatural detective movie, and I was wondering: Does this film tip its hat at all to The Night Stalker or X Files and those other…
DERRICKSON: Yes, because I think those were the things that…certainly Night Stalker. Night Stalker was my introduction to Gothic storytelling. That was the first thing that I saw as a kid that was, you know, I was too young to be seeing horror films. It was that and old William Castle movies on television. But when it comes to contemporary horror and contemporary Gothic storytelling, The Night Stalker was the first thing I remember me and all the kids in elementary school were just, we were always talking about the show. I think it’s that and a lot of love for those two kinds of genres, the New York cop procedural, you know, when it’s rooted in real detective work and it has action in it like The French Connection. I’m not comparing this to The French Connection, but that’s what was interesting to me about it, was to try to put some elements together that you just don’t usually get.
For you, what’s the emotional core of the storytelling? And visually, what is interesting to you, as a director, about telling this story?
DERRICKSON: I think the emotional core of this thing is, it really is the story about a character: It’s about this guy, and that’s not always true when it comes to genre films. That’s not true about everything I’ve done. But this is about a particular guy, and he is a hardcore guy. He’s a hardcore cop, a lot of anger, he’s violent, he’s good at his job, but that takes its toll, and who is the least likely guy in the world to end up doing what he ends up doing by the end of the movie.
It’s a story about that transformation, about him running into things he can’t explain and then entering into a relationship and friendship with a Catholic priest who’s a very atypical priest. He’s a priest who is like the religious people that I’ve known in my life, which are just not the stereotypes. He’s a really complicated guy with a dark past, and emotionally, it’s about those two people as individuals, what’s happened to them in the past and how coming together, something very explicit happens. That’s really what’s at the core of it. And within that, there’s action, horror, possession and all the things that you want to have in a genre film.
I think, visually, the Bronx is the first thing. Just shooting in the Bronx, because it’s so cinematic. 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 be like, “There’s just no places…” 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.” So that became, for making a dark movie, tonally dark and visually dark, the Bronx just became a character—more than I was expecting, frankly. At first I just wanted to shoot here because Ralph lives here, and he’s the real guy, he’s our cop advisor on the movie and this was where it happened. It makes sense, and I got a lot more than I was expecting out of the space.
Can you talk about casting your primary leads and how they came to this film?
DERRICKSON: Yeah. I cast kind of in order of priority, I guess, for the script, you know? I started with Eric [Bana]. It’s always the same experience when you have a lead character for a movie and then everybody starts throwing out all the triple-A-list: “Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio!” And it’s like, “He’s not gonna do this.” Once you get past kind of the unrealistic Leonardo DiCaprio/Will Smith kinds of names, then you get into kind of A-level actors that will do interesting, interesting films. We started to throw names around, and I’ll give them credit; Clint Culpepper, the head of Screen Gems, called me one day and said, “I just really need to know who you’d like for this.” And I said, “You know, I’m thinking about it. I’m compiling a list, but I haven’t really landed on anybody.” So I just asked him, “Who do you think?” And he said, “I’d really like Eric Bana for this.” I remember there was this long silence, because I knew Ralph Sarchie, and they look alike, and I’ve seen what Eric does with accents and just his physicality. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to overreact, but then I just ended up saying, “He’d be perfect. He’s who we should go after.” It was kind of an instantaneous decision, and that was that. And we went after him and he read the script, and I met with him a couple of times, and he signed on.
Edgar Ramirez was, I think everybody really wanted him, and he took some persuading. But he really helped make the character better. Joel McHale’s character I actually wrote for him. Joel’s my best friend, so the Joel McHale in this movie is much more like the real Joel McHale than like the guy in The Soup and Community. Because I was having a hard time with the character, and I started thinking, “I’m gonna make him like Joel.” And then I thought, “I’m gonna write him as Joel.”
This is a Jerry Bruckheimer production.
DERRICKSON: It is.
And it’s not the kind of movie you think of when you think of a Jerry Bruckheimer production.
DERRICKSON: It’s not.
How has it been working with him on this?
DERRICKSON: It’s great! [Laughs all around]
Working with him, it’s so rare that producers are celebrities or such recognizable names. Does that bring a different pressure than you had on, say, Sinister, which was very independent, and you got to do a lot of what you wanted to do?
DERRICKSON: Jason Blum is getting pretty famous himself, right now. It didn’t bring any added pressure. He’s [Bruckheimer] a pretty mellow guy in his demeanor, and very articulate and easy to be around. Personally, I think the most surprising thing about him is about how good he is at making people feel comfortable around him. Because he seems laconic, he seems very quiet and almost shy. But when people are around him, when he’s in the video village and people are visiting who don’t know who he is, he’s so good at making them feel comfortable.
So I’ve never had any kind of, I’ve never felt any personal pressure being around him because of all of his accomplishments. You know, Top Gun was the movie I saw in high school that made me want to be a filmmaker. I remember very specifically coming out of the Century 21 Theater in Colorado from seeing it, and my friend saying, “What did you think of the movie?” And I said, “I think I know what I want to do for a living.” That’s a true story. And Crimson Tide is probably my favorite commercial popcorn movie.
He’s one of the few producers out there who is kind of an auteurist producer, in the sense that like, if Gore Verbinski makes Rango or The Weather Man, it looks like his movies. But when he goes to make The Lone Ranger or Pirates [of the Carribbean], they look like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Rather than saying, “Is he interfering?” what is he bringing to this film, creatively?
DERRICKSON: He contributes through his extraordinarily high taste when it comes to the technical aspects of filmmaking. He really knows how to identify a good DP. He really knows how to identify a great costume designer. So he really helped me crew up this movie in a way that taught me a lot, to be honest with you. And I asked him a lot of questions about why he likes the people he likes, and there were some people I liked and he didn’t want them. And I learned a lot from him. He’s a guy with decades of experience—not just experience, but experience at making a lot of great films. I think when he’s here on set, there’s a whole other thing that kicks in: the practicality of how he thinks about shooting and the tricks of the trade that he has. So it’s been a really good experience, you know? And he’s very director-supportive. I mean, I never have the feeling that he’s applying pressure for me to do anything differently than I would want to do it, except that he challenges me on the quality of certain things and says, “That can be better.” On more than one occasion, there have been things that I’ve been very happy with, and I’ve felt frustrated simply by him saying, “That can be better.” And every time, he’s right.
You’ve said you took Sinister, one of the reasons was that you could do absolutely what you wanted, and that you thought that maybe with a studio, you wouldn’t have been able to do the ending that you did in Sinister. So, this is a much bigger budget, you’ve got someone like Jerry Bruckheimer, do you feel like you still have the same room to go to places that other people won’t go?
DERRICKSON: Yeah, I mean, there are some pretty bold things in this movie. Certainly, Jerry has never made anything even kind of like this. I think that because of the bad studio experience I’d had in the past, I was very gun-shy about doing my next studio picture. So my attitude toward it going in was, “We’ll work on everything. We’ll work on the script, we’ll work on the budget. I’m just not gonna sign on the dotted line until we all agree that this is the script that we’re making and we’re not going to change it.” I don’t think Sony or Jerry typically work that way, but they were very respectful of that. So it’s like, if people don’t like the script, it’s my fault [laughs], because I got the script that I wanted and held out for it and didn’t cut it down, didn’t change it. So it is the script that I wanted it to be. And it’s a story, I don’t know if you know the history of it, but it’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. Do you guys know any of it?
Well, Ralph Sarchie, who you guys met, is the guy who introduced me to Anneliese Michel, that became [Exorcism of Emily Rose]. 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, and actually gave it to David Ayer to rewrite, then I went and made Emily Rose. I optioned that book, I was like, “That was a great book,” so I optioned that and went and made that.
Then, they went through several other writers, and then Clint Culpepper at Screen Gems came back to me and said, “Are you still interested?” I said, “Yeah, I love that story. I’d like to.” So I read that old draft, and the old draft was very dated. It’s amazing how much, what has happened in the genre since 2005, you know? So I said, “I can’t make it like this now. It would have to be something more.” But then I read all of the other writers’ drafts, and there was a lot of great stuff. Bryan Bertino did a draft, and David Ayer’s draft, structurally, had a lot of really great stuff in it. So what I did then was I took all of the drafts, not just the different writers but all of the drafts from the different writers, so I had a stack of like, I think eight or nine drafts, and read them all. I read them all really carefully, and took from them a lot of ideas and then created a different structure for the movie. And that’s the movie that we’re making.
It’s interesting because Ralph said the film has been in development for about 15 years now, and Jerry’s had it for a long time.
He also said that he actually worked with the Warrens for a long time too, and I was wondering, did the heat from The Conjuring sort of…
DERRICKSON: Not at all, because there was no heat on The Conjuring at that time. Zero. Nobody knew what The Conjuring was when we started doing this. But I’m friends with James [Wan], and I had read the script and I asked James for an early screening, because there’s so much overlap with the movies, and I took some of that stuff out after I saw The Conjuring. It was like, “Oh, fuck, I can’t do that. I’ve gotta take that out, and I’ve gotta take that out. Did he read my script?” [Laughs]
But I love The Conjuring. It’s a great movie, it’s so good. But this is a very different kind of movie, it just is. It’s like, that is a movie whose clear, primary purpose is to scare you. This is… I almost hesitate to call it a horror film, to be honest. It is such a character drama. In fact, commercially, and Jerry would hate that I would compare it to this, but the only movie tonally I’ve been able to think of to compare it to is The Grey, a movie that is an action film, a horror film, a suspense film, but that’s really a drama, because it’s really about these characters in a suspenseful situation that gives way to these bursts of action. And in the end, that’s what interested me tonally about making the movie. It was trying to make something that wasn’t a down-the-center horror film, but at the same time was scary. In fact, Bob Shaw, our production designer who just did The Wolf of Wall Street, he made T-shirts for the art department, because I kept saying it to him, it says, “It’s not a horror film…but it’s scary.” [Laughs all around]
I’m sure, after Sinister was a huge success commercially and critically, a lot of options opened up. Was this definitely the thing you wanted to do after that, or did it fight for your attention with some other things?
DERRICKSON: There were other things. There were a number of things that were things I wanted to make, and still do want to make. I thought about waiting longer and waiting to weigh more options, you know? Because of things I had in development that were about to be finished and all of that, and rights that were being secured for other projects. And then, I just thought, “I really love this movie. This is a story I want to tell.” One of the things I’ve been saying to myself—I said it to my manager on the phone—when Sinister first became an opportunity before we had even written the script, because I kind of had to commit to making that movie before I wrote it, in terms of getting into that Jason Blum model, and I just said, “Filmmakers make films. I just want to keep making things.” And this was one where it was kind of the perfect timing of availability, my interest level in the story and just personally, I felt close to it, especially after I finished that rewrite. And the person who took it over the line for me was Edgar Ramirez, and not because of him as an actor, but the hesitancy that I had about doing it—like, I was toying with the idea of doing it and working hard on the script, but I still had reservations.
I had reservations because of some of the religious content and the priest character, and I was trying to make him interesting and it wasn’t really quite happening. And when Edgar showed some interest in it, I met with him, and I sat with him for three long meetings, three long lunch meetings, and between the two of us, they were three-hour conversations. And in those two-to-three-hour conversations, the character he plays, Mendoza, was really created. He and I come from very different backgrounds. He’s from Venezuela, and one of his closest friends is a Venezuelan priest. And I’ve known a lot of people who work in ministries and the clergy who are just so far from anything I’ve ever seen represented in any way, both good and bad. And we just started talking about, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to portray a character like this that just owed nothing to the iconic priest characters of the past, but we’re really trying to draw fresh from our own experiences with individuals?” And he is such an interesting and complicated character, so when I did the first draft of the script for Edgar, based on those conversations, as soon as I was finished with it, I was like, “I’m making this. This is my next thing.”
That was the point where I was like… because Sarchie was already there, Sarchie was already so interesting to me. You guys met him, that guy is so…dangerous, and you can feel that. He’s like a caged animal, even in his good moods. There is a lot of violence in that guy, and then putting him together with this character Mendoza, who was an amalgam of the people that Sarchie knew in his past, the real Bishop, and Malachi Martin, who wrote Hostage to the Devil, if you know that book, that was Ralph’s other primary mentor. And I gave that book to Edgar to read, I said, “This is really all you need to read. Read this book and you’ll understand sort of the plight of the exorcist.” So it all just became really interesting, and it’s all this deep character-study stuff. And I think it’s there. I think the film that we’re shooting is really entertaining and visual, and we’ve got incredible music, so I think it’s very cinematic. But in the end, I just love these characters.
Will you stay in the genre for your next film or are you going to do something different?
DERRICKSON: In the genre being horror?
DERRICKSON: I’m not going to work outside of genre. It’s going to be horror, action or sci-fi. I don’t ever really see myself being interested in movies outside of that. You know, the movies I like the most are movies with great characters in those genres, especially horror and sci-fi. So I would say, you know [C. Robert] Cargill and I are doing Deus Ex, so that might be my next movie. Sinister 2 is there, too. Cyberpunk and horror: that’s the stuff I love. And to do that and try to do it well, and to get guys like Eric Bana to be in movies like this, is great.
What’s one thing about this mode of genre—the possession movie—that has always kind of bugged you, or that you don’t think has been done right, that you feel like you’re side-stepping and doing right with this?
DERRICKSON: I think… That’s a really incisive question. I want to be clear about how I answer this. Possession movies are a subgenre now when they really weren’t 10 years ago. You know, since I made The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Paranormal Activity came out, there’s been around this whole era, like a bunch of us did it all at the same time within a pretty short period of time, and before that, all there was was The Exorcist and some failed attempts, for the most part. And I think the failed attempts up until that time had to do mostly with just people imitating The Exorcist, and doing it poorly. And I think that since then, what has not really been done, and what bugs me about the way that this genre is often handled is that filmmakers are equating, not demons, but specifically exorcism, that’s really the term, they’re equating exorcism with vampires, werewolves and monsters, when in fact, exorcisms are a fact of life. They’re happening all the time, all over the world, and they have since the beginning of civilization, in every culture. What bugs me about it is that it’s not taken seriously as an anthropological reality. There’s something in it, if you really go into it, as I have for Emily Rose and then also for this movie, and I’ve seen, I watched a whole bunch more video exorcism tapes that Ralph has and things he’s been a part of, and I’ve gotten more things, and you can find a lot of things even on the Internet, reading credible cases. I don’t care if you’re an atheist, the phenomenon of most of it is bullshit, most of it is nonsense. But the phenomenon of trance-state exorcisms, across culture, is fascinating, and people who have certain kinds of overwhelming problems are oftentimes snapped like a spell through this process. That’s just really interesting! And the fact that it is so deep in the mythologies of every culture. have exorcisms, Indians have exorcisms; it’s happening in the third world all the time. And it’s happening in Protestant churches and Catholic churches. There’s something about that that, what I think people tend to want to do is take it so super-seriously and use it as a way of proselytizing their religious point of view—that’s of no interest to me—or they just dismiss it as religious hysteria, which I think is just shallow. So I think that answer to it, and what I love about The Exorcist is it does neither. It is not a religious propaganda film, and it’s a film that takes the idea of it very seriously. You watch that movie, and it’s not asking you to pretend like, to suspend disbelief. It makes you go through it, somehow. Even though you know that it’s over-the-top, somehow that movie takes you into something, and that’s why it’s so scary, because it takes you into, as William Friedkin always says about that movie, it’s about the mystery of faith. So what’s interesting to me about it is exactly what Friedkin says. Exorcism, the phenomenon of possession, whatever you think is the source of it, is a real window into some kind of incredible mystery about human life, about human nature, about darkness. Like, when I talk to my crew, and this is all very ambiguous, but when I talk to my crew I say that this is a movie about mystery. It’s a murder mystery, there’s a procedural mystery in it. But much more importantly, it’s about the mystery of existence. Those are the things that are both frightening and fascinating and ultimately, in my opinion, important.
You’re back with Paul Boardman on this film, is that right?
DERRICKSON: He hasn’t done much with me on the last draft of the script. But yeah, it was our original script and he did some work with me at the beginning of this process.
Because I know you had not worked with him for a little while. Was there a reason for that kind of sabbatical apart?
DERRICKSON: It just kind of was what it was. It was timing, I think, more than anything. We still get along really well, you know, and he is certainly a major contributor to this movie. His voice is still in there, no question. I think that it was just kind of finding different things we were interested in doing at the time and pursuing different projects, as individuals. Meeting Cargill was a big part of it, for me, and the experience that I had with him was really positive. We are certainly still friends, and I certainly haven’t written off doing anything with him again.
You were talking about how exorcisms kind of transcended religion—
DERRICKSON: That’s a much more concise way of saying what I was trying to say! [Laughs all around] Thank you!
And Ralph is very much a true believer, but Eric said that his character is much more of a skeptic.
DERRICKSON: Well, because Ralph was much more of a skeptic at the time when this was all happening. You know, Ralph wasn’t a guy who was working the dark streets of the Bronx in the 4-6 and going to church every day. He was a complete lapsed Catholic, had no interest in religion. When certain cases he was involved with started to not only get his curiosity up but he started needing some consultation help from people, that’s what started the process and started the ball rolling for him. This is where I think the movie really is a true story, that it didn’t just transform his beliefs—it certainly did do that—but clearly it transformed his character, who he is as person, much more. Did he believe it? Well, yeah, he’s a Bronx Italian. He’s like, “Yeah, fuck yeah, I believe in Jesus. Now get the fuck on the pavement, asshole.” [Laughs]
He’s seen so much I bet he’d believe in anything.
DERRICKSON: Yeah, exactly. But I think that in some ways, it’s an origin story, but it’s been interesting, because I love seeing him now, and even though he is so hostile, he’s liked a caged animal, the guy is super-dangerous. I mean, he spent the last couple of years teaching the Iraq police how to be police. Like, that’s what he’s been doing since he retired as a cop. Who does that? He’s like, “Yeah, you know, they need someone to teach them how to be cops. I’ll do that!”
He said that you’ve been trying to pressure him into a cameo, and he’s not having it.
DERRICKSON: He’s not having it, man. He just really doesn’t want to do it. I still have plans, though. You don’t get Ralph to do anything he doesn’t want to do, it’s really true.
Can you talk a little bit about the demons themselves? Because it seems like, you were saying we see so many exorcism movies, and they all end up sort of looking the same, like The Last Exorcism, they’re all doing acrobatics and bending this way and that way, and they all just kind of blend together. How does this movie kind of break the mold of the last few years?
DERRICKSON: Well, first, you’ll have to wait and see. That’s my first answer to that. But I think that this movie focuses on kinds of behavior that you just don’t see from possessed characters in movies, traditionally. Behavior meaning cogent behavior; strategic, rational behavior, not just the loss of control. It’s a more directed kind of possession, which makes it really interesting.