by Eli Roth
I’ve always loved exorcism movies, ever since “The Exorcist” traumatized me at the ripe age of 6. I saw that film and literally could not fall asleep for two years without believing the devil was going to possess me. My parents would argue that we were Jewish and that we didn’t believe in that stuff, but I was certain I would be the first test case. My father’s a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst and a professor at the Harvard Medical school, so any kind of altered personality was always approached from a psychiatric point of view in my home. Perhaps that’s the very thing that intrigued me about possession: the thought that maybe he’s wrong, and that another spirit can literally enter your body and take you over. And what if that spirit was none other than the devil himself?
Possession has influenced all my films in a strange way. “Cabin Fever” is very much a possession film, except the body is taken over by a flesh-eating disease. The “Hostel” films deal with total loss of control of your body, which is commandeered by someone who wants to destroy your flesh bit by bit for their pleasure. I’ve always wanted to be involved in a possession movie, but could never quite solve the question that everyone asks themselves: why even bother trying to make a possession movie when everyone’s scariest movie of all time is “The Exorcist”?
It was at this point that producers Eric Newman and Marc Abraham brought me the script for “The Last Exorcism.” The French company StudioCanal said they would finance the project, then titled “Cotton,” if I got involved. Eric and Marc had developed the script over several years with writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, and at the time they were attached to direct. I actually remember Huck’s student film from when I was a freshman at NYU, “Until There Are None,” which was a pseudo-doc about a man who hunts American Bald Eagles in state parks and wants to kill them all “until there are none.” It was so wonderfully sick I was a fan for life, and became an even bigger one after seeing the film he made with writing partner Andrew Gurland called “Mail Order Wife.”
Eric told me he had this idea about “a documentary of an exorcism gone wrong,” and it sounded intriguing. When I got the script I couldn’t put it down. I have read literally hundreds of scripts over the past eight years and this was the only one I wanted to produce. It was just so smart, so creepy and so compelling that I had to help get it made. I came on as producer, and StudioCanal agreed to finance the film. We had our start date, we were literally a day away from beginning prep, and then we lost our directors to their other film they had set up at Sony, “The Virginity Hit,” (which is hilarious, by the way, and comes out in September.) Suddenly, we were without a director.
I remember sitting in Berlin filming “Inglourious Basterds,” getting the phone call from Eric and Marc that we’d lost our directors. That’s never a fun call to get. There was brief discussion if I wanted to direct it, and as much as I loved the script, I felt that this was the true test of my abilities as a producer. If I’m a real producer, I should be able to get out there and find the best director for the project, and couldn’t get the reputation of being the default director if this happened again. We were determined to find someone who would make something better than any of us ever imagined.
We began a frantic search, and soon Eric and Marc saw a very sick, twisted, and most importantly smart film by an A.F.I. grad named Daniel Stamm. His film, “A Necessary Death,” was made for $2,000 over the course of three years, and was making its rounds on the film festival circuit to rave reviews. “A Necessary Death” won A.F.I. fest, so they met with him in Los Angeles, while I watched the film in Berlin.
I still remember sitting in my small room at Babelsberg Studio, dressed in my 1920’s “Basterds” tuxedo, with my eyes glued to the screen. His film was so smart, so well-acted and so damn creepy I knew he had the right sensibility for the job. We set up a call and talked at length. I loved Daniel’s approach to the film. He said he wasn’t out to make a scary movie, he wanted to tell the story of this character, and approach it as a character piece, and let the horror come from the reality of the situation. I once had a lengthy conversation with William Friedkin about “The Exorcist” and told him it was my favorite horror film of all time. He looked at me and said “I didn’t make a horror film. I made a drama. It just happened to be horrific.” When Daniel said that we hired him on the spot.
During the production I kept my distance, because I knew my presence would be something of a distraction. I wanted Daniel to feel that I was there to support him, and that this was truly his film, and that I’m there if he needed me. I watched over the casting tapes with the other producers, but Daniel ran all the auditions, scouted the locations and put together his key creative team. Because we were making the film independently we gave Daniel the freedom to choose whoever he wanted, and his key crew members from “A Necessary Death,” cinematographer Zoltan Honti and editor Shilpa Khanna, came on board.
When it came time to film, it just so happened that I was in Cannes for the premiere of “Inglourious Basterds.” At Cannes, simultaneous to the film festival is the film market, where sales companies sell films to foreign territories all over the world. Daniel was in Louisiana prepping the film, and I told him everyone’s question after they read the script was “Who’s the girl? How will the possession look?” Daniel and Ashley shot a 1 minute teaser with Ashley possessed, and it was brilliant.
StudioCanal and I showed this teaser to the buyers in Cannes and they went crazy for it. In what was considered a dead market, suddenly we were the hot film foreign territories were buying. It also helped there were posters all over Cannes of me for “Inglorious Basterds,” so I was able to use that momentum to really get people to pull the trigger and buy the film for their country. With just a few territories we were fully financed.
I called Daniel and said “Don’t worry, we’re already in profit. But – you’re going to have a huge theatrical release in Italy so don’t f–k it up.” Daniel laughed, he couldn’t believe the film was already financed before we shot, but people believed in the team behind the project and loved what they saw of Ashley, so we were able to really just let them go wild and shoot the film however they wanted.
After Cannes I was tempted to go down to New Orleans for the end of the shoot, but by that point they had such a tight bond on set I didn’t want to disturb it. This is why it’s valuable to have such strong producing partners, which I did with Eric Newman, Marc Abraham and Tom Bliss — they could handle any problem that came up on set and made sure it was all running smoothly while I was in Europe. I had seen dailies online and was sending comments here and there, but mostly it was “Looks amazing! Keep shooting!”
Not only were Patrick and Ashley delivering powerhouse performances, but every other character, like Caleb and Louis and even the nurse at the hospital, were outstanding. Daniel let no one off the hook — he would do 30 or 40 takes if necessary to get the performance to feel totally natural. After the shoot I let Daniel and Shilpa work on the film until they were at a place where they needed our input, and we watched the film, made notes and they did another cut.
Eventually we found ourselves at a place where we could see what the film needed a little more of, so we wrote new scenes and shot them in one night outside Los Angeles. I was on set for those, and it was fun to actually see Daniel in action, and not just hear him as a voice from the dailies. I talked with him in depth about the scares and how I approach filming and editing them, having been down that road so many times in my other films. But he really had such a good sense of how to shoot it, there wasn’t much to say.
Back in the editing room, I went through the film with Daniel and Shilpa and was able to give a more objective opinion on any scenes they felt weren’t coming together the way we had planned. It’s normal for producers to give notes, they’re the ones you depend on to really identify potential story problems you might not see because you’re too close to it. Good producers never lie to you, but they also have ways of solving creative problems with you.
When I was in the editing room I wanted it to be the way it felt with Quentin in my editing room — someone I trust just trying to help make the film stronger in every way. Scary scenes are extremely tricky to cut. You can write it scary, shoot it scary, and somehow, in editing, it just doesn’t quite have the punch you thought it would. I had cut torture scenes in “Hostel” 50 different ways before I got it right, so I was able to help Daniel sort out any potential trouble spots he was having. Plus I was able to help show Daniel how to prep the film to sound mix in 7 days.
Most sound mixes will go for weeks, but we had one week. This requires tremendous preparation and having been through it at this pace before I knew it could be done, and helped guide him through at the pace I had done so that we could get all the sounds he had in his head in the mix. We finished the film just before Christmas, and it was then time to show it to distributors. We showed the film to Lionsgate, and they loved it so much they bought the movie and put it on the release slate for August 27th. We had done our jobs, and “The Last Exorcism,” was going to hit theaters.