Daniel Stamm Interview: Exorcising His Demons
Following his riveting drama A Necessary Death, the engaging (not to mention giant) German director Daniel Stamm has turned his hand to horror with hit mockumentary shocker The Last Exorcism. “I get messages on Twitter telling me to jump off the Empire State Building,” Stamm tells Matt McAllister.
Did shooting in the ‘mockumentary’ style throw up any particular challenges? And equally, was it liberating in some ways?
It was completely liberating, because you don’t spend time on the technical aspects – you don’t spend four hours lighting something! You have the camera rolling for eight hours a day, and you completely concentrate on the actors. We did 20 or 30 takes to try to experiment, just to give the actors the freedom; they didn’t feel they needed to hit a “vision” of mine there, but were completely free to improvise from their impulses right there. 90% might be crap, but 10% we get is brilliant, it feels real and authentic.
That’s the challenge in that medium. You don’t create a cinematic artifice; you don’t create a world where you say, “My movie is set in this world and so these are my rules.” If you’re setting it in the real world then you have to play by the rules of the real world. Which means that your audience really are experts because, of course, they live in the real world – they know exactly what feels right and what feels wrong. If there’s a single moment in there that feels fake, the whole world you’re building falls apart.
The other thing it allows you do, in a horror movie in particular, is that you can tear down the fourth wall that kind of protects the audience – that whole “It’s just a movie, it’s just a movie” is gone… You can’t count on me to cut away [to another shot], because there is no second camera… I think it puts the audience in a very vulnerable and fragile spot, which is exactly where you want them in a horror movie.
The film really does feel like a genuine documentary. That scene where the producer gives Nell her shoes – it feels like one of those documentaries where a filmmaker gets too close to their subject…
It’s funny, because I made a movie before that called A Necessary Death, which was all about that. It was about a documentary filmmaker who puts an ad on Craigslist and says, “I’m making a movie about suicide. Does anyone plan to kill themselves any time soon, I want to follow that journey.” They get so attached to that person that they influence the whole thing. That’s something I’m really interested in.
However, the producers [of The Last Exorcism] said from the beginning that that wasn’t what they were interested in. They said, “We don’t want to make a movie about the documentarians. We want to make a movie about Cotton Marcus, and we don’t really want to focus on the relationship between him and the documentary filmmakers.”
But the thing with the shoe scene is interesting. It shows you how free-flowing the process was. It was never in the script, but I think it’s one of the most important scenes for the character of the girl, because that’s probably the moment we fall in love with her. How that came to be was that we had her barefoot in the script. When we came to location and we thought we can’t have her run around barefoot on that actual plantation because no insurance company in the world is going to cover it! My ex-girlfriend always had these red Doc Martens and I was in love with those shoes. So now it’s got this iconic image of the girl in the Doc Martens!
Another great moment is when Cotton is talking to his family after an exorcism, and says he’d trade it all in for medical cover, which gives a depth to the character. Was that a sly comment on American health insurance?
(Laughs) Yeah, I couldn’t resist! But what I also liked about that scene was that we made this family so important in the first act. You think you’re going to return to them at the end, and we don’t because he’s probably dead. And I kind of like that. Because in the documentary it’s not all that convenient, it doesn’t all fit together that well, you don’t know which pieces are going to be important and which aren’t…
It also gave him this redeeming quality. Because he has this very questionable past where he has exploited people’s beliefs… It’s a confessional, he takes us on this journey where he says, “I was wrong.”
Did you deliberately want to play on people’s expectations from The Exorcist?
Well, it was important to me that we wouldn’t repeat anything from The Exorcist. It’s such an iconic movie, everyone remembers it and we can’t top it… But I think our movie and characters are so completely different. And because we didn’t do any CGI or levitating or spinning heads, I never felt we were in danger of getting too close to The Exorcist.
I understand that in marketing, with that poster, that you immediately think of The Exorcist. I think it’s even a similar font! But I think in the movie I was never afraid we’d get too close. The same with Blair Witch – our movie has nothing to do with Blair Witch ¬- as soon as you go handheld people go, “Oh it’s really inspired by the Blair Witch Project.” I mean, there have been fake documentaries in the ‘60s, it’s not as if Blair Witch invented that genre, but that’s as far back as people can remember and it was a very successful example. So now you have to put up with, “It’s a mixture between Blair Witch and The Exorcist!”
Could you talk a little about what you were trying to say about faith? There are different ways of reading the film depending on who you are…
I’m not arrogant enough to say, “Here’s a 90-minute film and by the end I’m going to answer your questions about faith.” But it was important to me that we have these two forces, science and faith, and we don’t have any pre-conceived notion about who should win. We’ll make the best, most eloquent and fair case for each and give them both a protagonist – one’s Cotton, the other’s Louis – and then we’ll see them clash and see what the outcome might be.
I think it’s much stronger to create this question mark… To me, that’s the big difference between the American audience and the European audience. The American audience enjoys answers and the European audience enjoys questions. I wanted to try to make a European movie in that we throw the question out there. And then, as you say, it depends on who you are. If you’re a believer you could go, “Oh, he was confronted by a demon.” If you are a cynic or an atheist you would say, “No way.”
Mixing humour and horror is a difficult thing to pull off, but the film does it well…
Humour to me was a really important weapon in getting people on Cotton’s side, because you want to disarm your audience and have him accept him as a protagonist. And how do you make them enjoy his company? You make him entertaining and funny.
The banana bread moment is an important moment for his character – and that was another moment that was unscripted, it just started happening in the audition process. Patrick Fabian came in and we asked him to improvise a sermon, and he did this eight-minute perfect sermon. Because he can talk that man! And I said, “Can we do it again in half the time?”, because it was a bit long. I thought he would take out content. But he didn’t, he just sped up talking twice as fast! And what happened was my brain couldn’t process what he was saying any more because he was so fast, but the energy made me want to stand up and cheer, “Hallelujah!” That scene is where people understand what Cotton Marcus is about. It’s about entertaining, but also about manipulating.
Do you think there’s a parallel between what Cotton does and the nature of filmmaking? After all, everything could be one big illusion…
I always loved the idea that it all might be his show. Because if you pay attention to the first act, there is a lot of set-up which doesn’t pay off. He says, “Every preacher needs a hook to bring them in” – and his hook would be this film or this demon. His wife said he’s started making his own movies, and there’s the scene in the boy’s bedroom with smoke, flames – everything that the demon’s made of…
I actually thought that that would come across much more, but when we test screened the film it didn’t really because I don’t think people could wrap their heads around him finding actors that were that good – him finding a girl that is that good and can do all the stuff she did. So that kind of fell apart a little bit, in that it’s probably not kind of Cotton Marcus’s show any more.
Do you think the marketing may have pushed people towards a certain view of the story?
Well, I think they understood that they had to market it as a clear genre movie. But in the movie I tried not to, because it’s real life. Because life is funny, life is horrific, it has real dramatic moments between people… You have all these different genres, so how do you market it? They decided to go with the horror aspect. You can only hope audiences will get more than they thought they would get and love it.
We get all kinds of reaction to the ending. People either love it or hate it, there’s a real passionate debate…. It shows how passionate people are about the movie and the characters. I get messages on Twitter telling me to jump off the Empire State Building. I’m like, “Wow, that’s pretty passionate!”
You’ve already mentioned Patrick Fabian’s audition. Is it true Ashley Bell lay on the floor screaming for her audition?
Yeah, she did that. But what she didn’t do was any of her contorting. Originally the exorcism was written completely differently. Then we sat in the hotel lobby in New Orleans the night before we shot the exorcism, and I asked Ashley if she had any ideas for the exorcism, anything she wanted to try. And I kid you not, she got up and said, “Why don’t I try this?” and bent over backwards in the lobby and almost touched the floor! I was blown away, because I had no idea she was double-jointed, she never mentioned it! So I ran upstairs and re-wrote the scene, and the next day we just put her in the room with the camera. The great thing was Patrick had no idea she could do that either and I didn’t tell him, so we just them in a room together and she just did it! He was like, “What the hell…?”
It’s great with these things because you don’t have to act them. They don’t feel fake – because it was really hot in there, there were really insects in there, and at one point there was an alligator coming out of the swamps onto our set… You can feel they’re not pretending, and it was the same with Patrick’s reaction to Ashley.
This isn’t a film that has much in the way of elaborate effects, is it?
What’s great is that there were no special effects – except for the finger break! What was hard was that we had Greg Nicotero, who is a multi-Oscar winning make-up special effects artist on set. He said, “I’ll do whatever you want.” You’re making a horror movie, so it’s tempting to say, “Yeah, let’s go crazy and have her head explode!” But that’s not the movie we’re making – the movie is about whether she’s possessed or crazy. So you have to kind of restrain yourself.
What’s next for you?
My next project’s going to be a supernatural thriller, and it’s not going to be shot as a fake documentary. The deal’s just being made, so I can’t talk about it yet – but I’m burning to! One of my favourite filmmakers in the world is producing it, and he’s a legend.
The Last Exorcism is out now in UK and US cinemas.
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