by Daniel Stamm
In film school they teach you the importance of vision and preparation. Certainly good things to pack when making a film. They are heavy things to carry around, though, and they can make it hard to move. What making “The Last Exorcism” taught me was to readily abandon it all if necessary and go with what feels right in the moment.
There are so many people involved in making a movie that whatever your initial vision is won’t make it through the process in one piece anyway. After every creative meeting with your producers and heads of departments you are picking up the pieces and gluing them back together. If you are working with smart people -– like I was lucky to -– the result is better than what you walked in with round after round.
So when you finally emerge from this process and start pre-production, it will probably have left its mark on you in one of two ways. You are either a) done compromising and eager to finally be in control of the whole damn thing or b) addicted to the process of rolling with the punches and constantly adjusting what you’re going after. I feel both are legitimate and probably come down to personality.
For myself I have found that the documentary style “The Last Exorcism” was shot in really lends itself to the latter. The focus being on the actors and the storytelling rather than on the technical side of making a film allows you to react to changes in a way that a huge studio production might not. A lot of moments in the film just ‘happened into existence’ that way. Here are three examples:
– When we were auditioning actors for the role of our protagonist, Patrick Fabian improvised a four-minute-long flawless sermon. I asked him if we could go again and do it in half the time. What I meant was for him to cut the content in half. Instead he didn’t cut a word – he just talked twice as fast. My little brain couldn’t keep up. I had no idea what he was talking about but his sermon had this energy that made me want to stand up and cheer. Not only did I know that I had found my lead, it also inspired one of the scenes in the film that define this character best: him making a bet that he can preach about his mom’s banana bread recipe and still get a hallelujah out of his congregation.
– There is an equally character-defining moment for the afflicted girl in the script, and that wasn’t planned either. In the script she was barefoot throughout much of the story. When we found our location, a deserted plantation near New Orleans, we knew that this would be a problem. There was no way we could have actress Ashley Bell run around barefoot on splintery floorboards and through high grass. The risk of injury was too high, no insurance would have covered it. So we had to put shoes on her feet and somehow motivate that she never took them off, not even at night. My ex-girlfriend always wore red Doc Martens that I loved. We decided to have a character in the film give them to the girl as a present, and for her to be so overjoyed that she refuses to take them off again. Ashley Bell performs that moment in a way that the audience can’t help but fall in love with her – which the entire rest of the movie builds on.
– The night before we were to shoot the exorcism scene, Ashley and I were talking in the hotel lobby. I asked her if there was anything she wanted to try during the scene. She said: “Why don’t I do this?”… and bent over backwards. I couldn’t believe it. Her head was almost reaching the floor. I had had no idea that she was double-jointed. I ran up to my room and threw out everything I had planned for the scene. The next morning we just put Ashley into a room with the camera. The outcome not only became the core of the movie but also the poster image Lionsgate would later base a marketing campaign on.