In the documentary-style horror thriller The Last Exorcism, the Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) expects to perform another routine exorcism, which he admits to being smoke and mirrors, when he arrives at the rural Louisiana farm of Louis Sweetzer with a film crew in tow. Living there with his two children, the earnest fundamentalist has contacted the preacher in an attempt to save his teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell), who he is convinced is possessed by a demon. However, things quickly become more bizarre than Cotton ever could have imagined, and it soon becomes clear that nothing could have prepared him for the true evil he encounters there.
Promoting the film at the press day, co-stars Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell talked about what drew them to this project, what it was like to study real exorcisms in preparation for the film and their own personal beliefs about demons. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Patrick: I think any time you get a chance to play a preacher, you take it. As an actor, that’s a larger than life role, and preachers and actors are not too far from one another. A good preacher knows how to stand up in front of people and get their attention, and has the ego and the hubris to stand up there and say, “I know something, and you need to follow me and maybe give me some money, along the way.”
Did you study any evangelical preachers, in preparation for this?
Patrick: Sure, a little bit. We have so many great examples out there, like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and all those charlatans. They’re men of the cloth who become undone by their own humanness, in the end. Mostly, I liked Elmer Gantry, which is a film that Burt Lancaster did a long time ago. I like Burt and I think you like him in the film, and you need to like Cotton Marcus in this. He can’t be too off-putting, or else you don’t go along for the ride.
Ashley, which version of Nell are you closer to, in real life?
Ashley: I think that’s a question for my parents, when I was going through my teenage years. They, unfortunately, have seen that look in my eyes, a couple times before. I think the most fun part of doing the film was getting the chance to prepare for two different characters, both Nell before she gets possessed, and then Nell when she’s either completely possessed or insane. (Director) Daniel [Stamm] gave me that hint, during the second half of it, to preserve the hope that she’s not possessed, and that she might be insane, so I got a chance to look at manias, certain post-traumatic stress disorders and hysterias. I had a book called The Invention of Hysteria, where they induced hysterical shocks in women and got them out of their human form. So, having those pictures running through my head, of real people that are contorted or don’t look like humans anymore, was what was most helpful to try to give it that real feel that Daniel was going for.
How did you contort your body like that?
Ashley: Daniel just nailed my boots to the ground, pushed me over and yelled, “Action!” I’ve been very physical my whole life. I’ve done a lot of ballet, fencing and karate, and everything. Getting a chance to play a role that physical was actually what first attracted me to the film. I didn’t know what was going to be required of me when I got there, so I really tried to prepare for everything physically. They had sent those Doc Marten boots in advance to break them in, and once I put those on, I started experimenting with things. And, the night before the second exorcism, Daniel asked, “Is there anything you want to try?” First of all, to even get asked that question, as an actor, is just something that you dream of. I said I’d been working on a musical number, but that’s been cut since. No. I said I was working on that backbend and several other physical things, and I showed him, and he said, “Great! Let’s use it. Let’s put it in.” That’s all him. That safe environment that he created was all him.
Can you guys talk about the experience of working so closely with each other?
Patrick: I’ve been around for awhile. I have been a journeyman actor, and have been thankful to cobble together a career. Working with Ashley, even though this is her first big role in a film, what’s great is that she’s so committed and her performance is so stellar. If she weren’t as good as she is, the film would fall about. It didn’t matter how much I huffed and puffed, those scenes that she does when she was possessed, there was no acting involved on my part. I was genuinely creeped out and scared.
Ashley: I have to say, with the whole cast, everyone was so there and so dedicated. Most of our scenes would be us together, for hours on end, with only Daniel [Stamm] and Zoltan [Honti], our cinematographer, in the room. If I didn’t have Patrick to work opposite against, and have him be so generous, I wouldn’t have felt safe to try anything. I feel like we were all there, trying to surprise each other, trying to through in something new and being there for each other. It was a really safe set to be on, which is also thanks to Daniel Stamm. He shoots about 20 or 30 takes a scene, and he created such a safe environment to try anything. He kept on asking us to go someplace new, to find something different and push ourselves to a new place.
Patrick: Having worked for awhile, you start to get into habits and ruts, and have expectations. You think, “Oh, we’ll do five takes and then move on.” That was not the case here, so I was a little resistant at first. Honestly, it was probably my ego as well, thinking, “Didn’t I do that right already?” The fact of the matter was that the right was further down the line.
Did you look at other exorcism movies before shooting?
Ashley: Yeah, Daniel actually said to watch every exorcist movie, and then don’t do that. From the outset, it was aiming to be something really, really different. When I saw the film for the first time, with a huge audience at the L.A. Film Festival, I’ve grown up watching horror films and what I was most surprised by how smart a horror film it is. It felt so smart and so manipulative, and that’s all Daniel and Eli Roth. There’s humor in all the right moments and they just manipulate you and, before you know it, you’re just in this spider’s den, just in over your head in horror.
Patrick: It’s a horror film, but it’s also a really smart thriller. I have friends who don’t like needles and bugs, and they’re like, “Oh, I love you, but I can’t go see the film.” I’m like, “You actually can go see the film because what it does is give you anxiety, creep you out and stick up the hair on the back of your neck. If you’re worried about a body count, it’s not there.” Those films certainly satisfy a certain blood lust, but this is not that film.
Ashley, how did you avoid imitating Linda Blair?
Ashley: That is thanks to Daniel and how he led me into the research and prep for it. Certainly, seeing those films and being aware of them was helpful. You can’t redo The Exorcist. It’s a classic and, to this day, that film scares me to death. So, we had to hit it from a more realistic point of view. The way it was shot, I was so surprised by the angles and that terror. When I was watching it, I felt so vulnerable in the audience. You’re in this arena and you don’t know who’s or what is coming next.
Patrick: The camera work really helps lull the audience into a sense of security, in the first half of the film, especially. When you’re introduced to the Cotton Marcus character, he’s a family man, he’s a charlatan and he allows you in on his secret, and that really lets the audience go, “Oh, okay, I understand that.” So, we strap you into the car to come for the ride of this exposure, and then we get down to the Sweetzer farm and we see Nell and it’s like, “Oh, things aren’t what they seem,” and then the car turns sideways. By the third act, the car is upside down and the audience member, at that point, wants out but can’t get out because they’ve been locked in and lulled into it with Daniel piecing out the story in such a good way, and Zoltan shooting it in such a manner.
People that make these types of films always talk about unusual or strange things that happen on set. Did anything happen while you were filming this?
Ashley: Honestly, when we first pulled up at the location, there was a giant machete that had been rusted and stuck into the fence. I looked at everyone and I said, “We’re home!” But, the whole plantation was that way, when we got there. There were set decorations and everything, but the bed in Nell’s bedroom was that bed when we got there. To walk into a house like that, have all that original furniture and feel that history in there was so helpful. It was certainly helpful for me to play off of.
Patrick: We were also down in the Lower 9th Ward, and that had not recovered from Hurricane Katrina. We’d leave our hotel and it would take about 30 or 40 minutes to get there, and it was like driving back through time. We were literally the last plantation on the road, at the end of the bayou, and it felt and sounded like that. That visceral feeling you get in the film is genuine.
Having made this film, what is your take on this subject matter now?
Ashley: It’s odd. The most exciting part of this film is that people are leaving and talking about it. They’re getting into discussions, thinking about it and still trying to figure it out, and that’s the ultimate compliment for any film.
Are you personally a believer in the need for exorcisms?
Ashley: I was listening to these tapes and you hear things that could be made. There are noises, screams and sounds that could be fabricated. And then, there just comes this sound that is neither masculine nor feminine, or animal or human. It’s just primal, or not even that. You just say, “What is that noise? Where does it come from?” And, it’s creepy. Even when I was talking to people that had been around exorcisms, they would be nervous to tell me what they had even been around ‘cause they would be scared it would come back or that they would be susceptible to getting hit by it again.
Patrick: I came into the film, not necessarily believing in exorcism, per se, but certainly in evil and a spiritual world. I do believe that people believe that they are possessed. Whether it’s an actual possession by Satan himself, I don’t know if I’m that much of an authority to really say yay or nay. I think everybody has a ghost story, and they believe it and want to convince you that it actually happened.
Patrick, how do you think preachers will react to your performance in this?
Patrick: Some people are going to be really offended and say, “How could you possibly do this and defame exorcism and the cloth?” I think there have been enough preachers who have defamed the cloth, all on their own without the help of an actor from Hollywood. You see the guys in the Phillippines who are doing surgery with their hands, and maybe it’s chicken parts or maybe it’s a tumor. I don’t know. But, if the person on the table thinks they’re cured of cancer, who cares?
What did you think of your smoking cross?
Patrick: That was my favorite prop. The only regret I have about the film is that I did not steal that immediately. It was such a cool prop. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not in the finished product that is like that. We just had so much fun filming little things, here and there.
Do you think that will be on the DVD?