Last weekend, Collider sat down with Scott Derrickson to discuss his new supernatural police thriller, Deliver Us From Evil, starring Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn and Joel McHale. The deeply creepy and surprisingly thoughtful film, which hits theaters July 2nd, mixes Serpico and The Exorcist in the story of Ralph Sarchie (Bana) a real-life NYPD Sergeant from the Bronx who eventually became involved in Church-approved exorcisms after a career working the toughest streets the city had to offer.
During our one-on-one interview, Derrickson discussed creating original and memorable priests to match original and memorable demonic possessions, how he bought the rights to The Exorcism of Emily Rose for a hundred bucks, the way this movie prefigured Pope Francis, the relative merits of Hellraiser and Exorcist sequels, why The Day the Earth Stood Still is perhaps the film closest to his heart, the limits of found footage as a storytelling device and much more. Hit the jump to read the full, exclusive interview.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: Oh, God bless you.
The only watchable. Hellraiser part one; one of my top 10 favorite films. Hellraiser 2 through 10 – except for yours – I cannot sit through them.
DERRICKSON: It’s pretty much how I feel. I think the first Hellraiser is a work of genius.
DERRICKSON: And I am not a fan of any of the other ones.
So, with that, and having made two exorcism movies now, I want to know — what do you think of Exorcist II: The Heretic?
DERRICKSON: Terrible movie. I, I please tell me… you’re going to tell me you’re a fan, right?
I’m not a fan of the movie, I’m just fascinated by it.
DERRICKSON: It is that. It is one of those film aberrations that you have to, if there’s a way to appreciate it, it’s to appreciate the fact that it’s the greatest horror film ever made, still unanimously thought that way, The Exorcist. And then this is the direction they went for the sequel. That alone is kinda spectacular. That would only happen in the ’70s.
It was John Boorman, just after Zardoz and Deliverance.
DERRICKSON: And that’s the other thing. He’s just an amazing director. It’s a great director who made a fantastic body of work.
It’s not successful. But I wanted to know because it’s, ‘How do you follow up an exorcism movie?’ Because you also, you’ve made The Exorcism of Emily Rose. So when you sat down to start working on this, how did you decide to make something different, or were you working on this before Emily Rose came about?
DERRICKSON: The way that it worked was, it was 2003, Jerry [Bruckheimer] had bought the book – Ralph Sarchie’s book – and was looking for writers. And when I met with them over at Bruckheimer, what Jerry wanted was to make Serpico meets The Exorcist. And I was like, ‘That’s the coolest idea I’ve ever heard!’ And this was before the resurgence. Like, Emily Rose kinda did create a resurgence in possession movies and exorcism movies. Nobody had done it really, at least successfully, since The Exorcist. And so that hadn’t happened yet. And I’m like, ‘I’m in. This is really interesting.’ So I signed on, I went to New York, I met Ralph. Ralph was working in the 4-6, I think I talked in the room with you about, you know he was such a hardcore cop and the Bronx was so harsh and other cops respected what he was doing. And I was taken by how kind of lethal and powerful he was as an officer and then the fact that he was doing this other stuff. Then I was like, ‘I’m in. I get this. This is really, really cool.’
So, in the four days I was with him, he gave me the non-fiction, out of print, photocopied version of the the Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, written by an anthropologist about the girl. I optioned that book for a hundred dollars and I turned it into The Exorcism of Emily Rose. And Ralph was the one who introduced me to that case. And during that time, Bruckheimer had three other writers write a dozen drafts of this and it never quite really worked. And then when I went back, when I came back on board, for me the idea was to try to make a Bruckheimer movie, that was the initial idea, which was a police procedural blended with an exorcism, a horror film. But the exorcism is just the climactic scene. It’s not a possession movie. It’s not like Emily Rose or The Exorcist or Paranormal Activity where you’re watching the methodical taking over of a spirit, taking over of a person’s life. That’s how those movies work. It’s not that. You know, this is – the guy who becomes possessed is a real mystery. And he’s dangerous and he’s calculated and they can’t catch him. So I thought that was already interesting. And then there was just a little bit of the kitchen sink mentality which I keep talking about. You know, fill it with some action scenes. Cause these are cops. And fill it with some humor. And then have a five minute art house scene of, you know, the two characters talking about G-d for five minutes.
And that scene is so cool. Because he doesn’t wear the collar. And he’s looking at women. And he’s smoking and drinking. And he’s talking about how he used to be a heroin addict… But he’s better now. ‘I smoke and I drink to make it through.’ And he’s suddenly, this character is so much more interesting and relatable as a Priest. I wasn’t raised Catholic so, Priests to me aren’t like, ‘Oh, well he’s somebody I should definitely trust because he’s a Priest.’ But [the character is] not based on any one person?
DERRICKSON: He is and he isn’t. Sarchie had two men who were his mentors. One of them was Bishop [Robert] McKenna, who’s still alive. He’s sick. He’s older. The other one was Father Malachi Martin, who wrote the scariest book I’ve ever read called Hostage to the Devil. It’s a detailed case of five american possession and exorcisms. That book is horrifying. And they were the guys who really trained him and mentored him. And so the first draft I did was an amalgam of those two men. And then – and this is one of the most interesting stories about the development of the script – when I came back after making Sinister, I was like, ‘I don’t want to have another old white Priest in this movie.’ And this is before Pope Francis. I want him to be not just a Spanish Priest. I want him to be specifically Latin American. I want him to be from Venezuela. So, I rewrote that and thought, ‘This is a lot better.’ And I gave it to Edgar Ramirez and Edgar was interested but he wasn’t going to do the movie because he didn’t think the character was interesting enough.
So we had a four-hour lunch together and basically started to create [his character] Mendoza. And it was really Edgar who brought in the back story of the guy who had broken his vows but still stayed a priest and struggled. He was this hard drinking, hard smoking ex-drug addict. Because he knows people, Jesuits from back in Venezuela who are these deep, rich, intelligent people who are in the business of helping others. That’s what they’re called to do. But they’re human beings. I was like, ‘I wanna write that guy,’ you know? I remember leaving that lunch – up until that lunch meeting I wasn’t sure I was gonna do the movie – and I remember leaving the lunch meeting and calling my agents and saying, ‘I’m gonna make this movie, 100%.’ And they say, ‘Great! So he’s in?’ And I’m like, ‘No!’
But you had a clearer idea?
DERRICKSON: I’m making the movie because now I know how the movie works. And whether Edgar does it or not because now I know how to write this character. And then once I wrote it and he read it, he was like, ‘I’m in.’
This plays with an idea and expands in a couple of different visual sections on ideas you also had in Sinister where you had found footage mixed with traditional cinematography. And I want to know, is it that found footage should only be used in a Blumhouse type thing, or is there space to be using found footage in, or elements of that, in a $200 million blockbuster?
DERRICKSON: I think there have been enough good, really good found footage films. I mean, Cloverfield’s a good film. I think Paranormal Activity is a good film. I think [REC] is a really great film. Trollhunter’s a good movie. And some of those movies already have a pretty massive scale to them. So I think that there is absolutely a place for it. I think the limitation of found footage is not – when you’re talking about strict found footage as actually that – I think the limitation of it is not scale and size. The limitation of it is cinematic manipulation. The limitation of angles and the limitation of justifiable score and sound design and things like that. By sticking to the strictly real, there’s the kind of visceral experience that you’re not going to get out of that kind of film, you know? But I have nothing but love for it, for the most part. I think it’s been a very exciting wave that we’ve seen. V/H/S is great.
Oh yeah. V/H/S is a bunch of crazy shorts. Brad Miska. Cool guy. I’m almost out of time and I know the things I can’t ask you about and I’m not trying to push you towards that, but I want to know, having made Sinister – which was produced by Blumhouse, no?
DERRICKSON: Yes, yes it was.
And then moving on to, you know, projects with Jerry Bruckheimer like this, or Outer Limits or The Birds or even Devil’s Knot which is Atom Egoyan, having a massive budget for a film, what do you lose? Were there things you creatively liked to do on small budget films or creatively like to do on giant budget films that you’re trading off? Is it a deal with the devil in its own way?
DERRICKSON: Yeah it is, in a way. I think you do have to know the answer to that question if you’re going to do it well. And I think that Day the Earth Stood Still is a movie I learned a lot of lessons from. Like, if I could erase one movie from my experience, that would be the last movie I would erase because that would be the movie I learned the most from, by far. I think that was the movie that gave me a certain understanding of what, of how movies actually work. And a lot of what it is, is that the more money you have and the bigger scale you have, the more freedom you have to create anything, to create a spectacular, original thing that audiences haven’t seen and to take them into places that they haven’t gone before. And that’s why people go to these big summer event movies. They’re looking for this new experience. And I think that’s awesome and I think that movies should do that. The danger of it is that, the bigger the movie and the more moving parts in a movie, the easier it is for you to lose track, or become distracted from, or to not be properly dedicated to the story and the character.
And you have to take all the bells and the whistles out of it and say, ‘Okay. If we remove all of this and it’s just the story and character, is the movie still awesome?’ And if it’s not awesome on that level, all this other stuff will not make the movie awesome. All the pyrotechnics and the CG and explosions and car chases and, you know, battle scenes will do nothing to make the movie better. And we’ve all sat in $200 million movies and been bored tears. And we’ve all sat in one-million dollar movies and been riveted. And it’s all because what makes a movie work is always story and character. Period. And so, I think the the gift of it is, you get to do more You can create higher experiences, you can create more awesome imagery with bigger movies and the budget. And the downside is that it’s going to inevitably be pulling you away from that. And great filmmakers don’t let that happen. Great filmmakers know how to keep the movie about story and character while pulling all this other stuff off. But in the end, when the movie is really good, it’s because of the story and character. Simple of that.