Interview: Paul Schrader
By Erik Kristopher Myers
[Interview originally published on BloodyNews.com in 2005]
Five days before its premiere at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film, BloodyNews staffers Erik Kristopher Myers and David Harrington were invited to New York for a private screening of Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Original Prequel. Until now, it’s a film that has remained in limbo after being shelved by Morgan Creek in 2003 and then remade (with disastrous results) by Renny Harlin.
Schrader was willing to sit down with Erik and discuss the project’s troubled history, and speaks candidly for the first time about Morgan Creek CEO James Robinson, Caleb Carr, Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning, and the resurrection of his aborted film.
MYERS: Let’s start at the beginning (no pun intended). How did you first get involved with the project?
SCHRADER: My agent called me, said that John Frankenheimer would have to drop out and that they were looking for a replacement. I read the script, and I liked the script. I liked a lot of things about doing this. I liked the idea of doing a film with [Vittorio] Storaro. All the elements were in place already. They’d already scouted locations. So I met with Jim Robinson, and he agreed, and we went off to work.
MYERS: So when you first sat down with him, did you clearly express that you weren’t trying to remake the original [Exorcist]?
SCHRADER: Well, they had the script, and the script was very, very close to the film you just saw. So I signed on for their script, and the mantra back then was, “no spinning heads, no pea soup.” We all sort of agreed with the idea that with all of the explicit horror, blood and CGI, and with all of the Exorcist copies and parodies, it’s virtually impossible to compete with the original Exorcist. It’s better to go a different route, which is why I liked Caleb [Carr]’s idea. The idea of turning the premise on its head and having a boy glorified, an afflicted boy glorified, rather than a girl tormented, was an original way to get at this. In fact, I think at that time, Jim Robinson was taking credit for that idea.
MYERS: So he was completely receptive to it?
SCHRADER: That was the script. That’s what they gave me. Frankenheimer was going to do it. I found Frankenheimer’s script to be much too talky. The Devil and Merrin talked for almost ten pages at the end, and I just didn’t know how to sustain that. So I cut that back down to a page and a half, two pages. I made a lot of other, smaller changes. So, there was never really a case of me asserting my wishes against Morgan Creek. Just the normal kind of back and forth you always have: casting, budget, this and that. But in terms of the big strokes, everyone was pretty much agreed.
MYERS: Considering you’re so well known for your writing, it seems strange that you didn’t have more of a hand in the actual script itself.
SCHRADER: Well, I did my pass. I did a rewrite, but this was the movie I wanted to make. They weren’t saying, “The script needs work. You rewrite it, we’ll decide whether to make it or not.” No, they said, “We want to make it.” So, it was just a case of making certain changes that I felt made the story better, more interesting, more fun. I wasn’t hired to fix the script. It wasn’t thought to be broken.
MYERS: How religious is your background? Going into a project like this, did you feel you had something relevant to say about the matter of Faith, which is the heart of the story?
SCHRADER: I’m not Catholic. I was raised Dutch Calvinist. I went to church schools, went to Calvin College and Seminary. For post-graduate I went on to UCLA. But I was raised in the bosom of the Christian Reformed Church, which is a Dutch Calvinist church. So yes, I had a religious background.
MYERS: You were thinking about becoming a priest at one point.
SCHRADER: Well, we wouldn’t have called it a priest since we hated the Fish Eaters. (laughs) We would have called them ministers. But I dropped out of pre-Sem, and that was that. If you’re raised in a background of moral concerns, where actions have consequences where you will be judged at the end of your life, put on the scale and weighed. No matter where your life takes you, you never get away from that.
MYERS: You once described The Exorcist as “the greatest metaphor in cinema. God and The Devil in the same room arguing over the body of a little girl.”
SCHRADER: Yes, it’s absolutely metaphorical.
MYERS: How strong was your affinity for the film? Was that why you jumped on board this project?
SCHRADER: I liked the original film. It was more of an encumbrance. If I hadn’t liked it, [the prequel] would have been easier. There’s no way I can compete with Friedkin.
MYERS: Then what were your thoughts on the sequels? Did you go out of your way to watch them and see what worked and what didn’t, or did you stay away?
SCHRADER: Well, John Boorman’s [Exorcist II: The Heretic] which is far too ambitious. It’s all over the place. And Blatty’s [The Exorcist III], which suffered because he was relatively inexperienced as a director, but also from the fact that it was remade into a different film after he finished. One thing I like about a prequel is that you’re free from The Exorcist. All you had to do was have Merrin meet The Devil and make sure that he survives. You didn’t have to reference anything. Georgetown was twenty-five years in the future, and you could do it as a period film. Renny [Harlin], in his commentary [on the Exorcist: The Beginning DVD] talks about how accelerated film making has become. How many more set-ups and shots there are in the average film today, and how fast films are made. When you look at this film, it’s quite leisurely by those standards, and the thinking was, do a film set in the forties, set in an earlier time and sort of adhere to the feeling of that time, of the film making, and try to have as many floor effects as possible, and shoot it in that kind of old-fashioned way.
MYERS: Given the lackluster quality of the sequels, were you ever afraid of attaching your name to the franchise?
SCHRADER: No. (laughs) I’ve done unlikely things over my career. I’ve lacked the fear of doing something that could come back and slap you in the face. I’ve never been afraid of stepping up to the plate and taking a swing.
MYERS: Talk to me about the actual production itself. James Robinson claims to have cast the leads in the film.
SCHRADER: He approved every bit of casting, down to the smallest role.
MYERS: Did you feel he did a good job? Stellan Skarsgard isn’t exactly a conventional choice.
SCHRADER: Stellan – I don’t know how he was presented to Jim, but when Liam [Neeson] backed out, I was scouting in Morocco at that time. I was very, very keen on Stellan, who I’d known, and who I liked a lot. I knew better than to suggest his name to Jim, because there’s a mentality there at work that when the moment an artist has any idea, it’s a bad idea. But, in the end, Stellan was cast.
MYERS: Morgan Creek representative Greg Mielcarz released a statement declaring that “…from the beginning of this project, neither Warner Bros., Morgan Creek or (especially) Caleb Carr has EVER wanted to deliver a film with projectile vomit and spinning heads. I can promise you that.”
SCHRADER: That was the idea.
MYERS: Yet they rejected your film for containing none of these elements.
SCHRADER: That’s why I use the phrase “Buyer’s Remorse.” When they went out and bought the Lexus, they bought the Lexus. It was only once they got home that they kicked themselves and said, “I should have bought a Hummer. I wanted a Hummer all along.” Then they go back and buy a Hummer. That’s why there was not a great deal of argument between me and James Robinson, because he was moving past me, he was moving on to another film. He was headed to the Hummer dealership, and there wasn’t a whole lot to talk to me about because I was busy trying to sell him that Lexus.
MYERS: You were asked to add eight to ten moments that would up the scare factor.
SCHRADER: I don’t know if it was that many. We did add a scene that was at the end and is now cut out. We added that while shooting. Rachel comes to the hospital with a knife, and Father Francis is lying there, and the demon jumps into Francis. He turns into Captain Howdy; she kills him. This we added while we were in Morocco. We shot it wrong, and it didn’t work. It looked really… we tried to fix it with CGI, but it looked really hokey. I executed it badly. So when it came to putting my cut together, there certainly wasn’t money to reshoot a sequence, so I was happy to drop it, because it hadn’t been in the original script anyway.
MYERS: Tell me about the very first time Morgan Creek saw a cut of the film.
SCHRADER: (sighs) This would have been… May 8th, and that would be 2003. I showed it, and it was about two hours and ten minutes long. Jim was there. We talked a little bit about it. Not much. I said, “It’s a little long, let me pull out about ten minutes and then I’ll show it to you again.” I thought I’d get notes. I never got notes. Usually, at that point you get notes, notes upon notes, notes about every single thing. When I showed a two hour version the next week, Jim didn’t show up for the screening. The editor was fired then, and I was told to go home. They wanted to re-edit the movie to make it scarier. I said, “You can’t re-edit it to make it scarier.” You might be able to fix a few little things. The problem isn’t the editing, the problem is the premise. You’re not going to scare the Bejesus out of people when you have [Cheche] getting better [rather than degenerating]. It just doesn’t work that way. And I think they came to realize that, because originally they were just going to do some reshoots, and the reshoots kept getting bigger and bigger. Finally they started to realize the only way to make a horror-driven film was to go in there and change the premise.
MYERS: What specifically did they want to reshoot? The exorcism?
SCHRADER: Well, they were just looking to reshoot anything to make it scarier. It can have a horror element. It just can’t be the rock and roll horror that is now the norm.
MYERS: Now, James Robinson oversaw a cut of the film. Did you see this?
MYERS: So how drastically different was it from the version we just watched?
SCHRADER: Well, he took about twenty minutes out, but the truth was, he couldn’t make it more frightening because he didn’t have the footage.
MYERS: Were you aware at that point that Robinson had a tendency to become actively involved during post-production?
SCHRADER: Not as aware as I am today. (laughs) I’ve dealt with a lot of tough guys in the movie business, and I figured this is just another one of them and I’d be alright. The first indication I had was when I was shooting and one of the producers said to me, “You know, it’s not that bad. Jim doesn’t really bother you that much while you’re shooting.” And I thought, “Wait a minute. If he doesn’t bother you when you’re shooting, does that mean–?” (laughs) And yes, he does.
MYERS: Given the fact that the studio’s complaints that the film wasn’t scary enough, do you feel that you understand the horror genre? It’s not a medium you typically work in.
SCHRADER: I’m not a horror director. As I said to Stellan [Skarsgard], I said, “Give me two guys in a kitchen arguing anytime, over stuff blowing up.”
MYERS: Alright, let’s get to the ugly stuff. Let’s talk about Caleb Carr. He’s your most outspoken critic and he’s made some nasty accusations against you. At what point in the process did the animosity begin?
SCHRADER: I never met Caleb. He lives about two hours north of me. I live up in Westchester. I called him up and said I had some ideas for some changes in the script. So we agreed to meet halfway, but he called to say he couldn’t make it. I said, œFine, perhaps it’s easier for me to make these changes, anyway. I think he was probably offended by that, but in truth, if you know pretty well what you want to change, and you’re a writer yourself, it’s much easier just to do it yourself then to stand over another writer and dictate. So I don’t know Caleb. I’ve heard he has a bit of a hair-trigger.
MYERS: He’s quoted as saying: “Schrader’s ˜rewrite’ consisted, literally, of taking out some key dialogue scenes that he thought were ‘excessive’ (meaning he couldn’t stage them), and adding a couple of walk-on characters in an effort to get himself a writing credit.”
SCHRADER: Well, he obviously doesn’t know anything about writing credit. For a director to get writing credit, fifty percent of the script entirely has to be new. If you’re another writer, only thirty-three percent. If you want credit as a director, you have to literally throw out half the script. I’ve been in enough arbitrations to know that nothing I was doing would get me credit. He hasn’t been in arbitrations, so he doesn’t know that. And the scenes he’s talking about are those long talky debates between Cheche Demon and Merrin, which of course I didn’t know how to stage. I thought they were unstageable. You know, you have a ten page scene with these two people talking, and all the dialogue is essentially what you hear in a college dorm after about midnight and two beers and a joint. You know, it’s one of those discussions: What is Evil and Good? (laughs) Of course I couldn’t shoot it. It was unshootable.
MYERS: One of the accusations he made was that you took the film for a paycheck, as a way into more mainstream, commercial films.
SCHRADER: Well, he should talk. It was not my project. I didn’t originate it. It was someone else’s project. The moment someone hires you to do something they have developed, you’re being hired. So I guess if he wants to say I was hired, then he’s right. And yes, I wouldn’t have done it for free. I’m quite sure I got much less than Renny Harlin did.
MYERS: Did you and Caleb Carr talk much through the production process?
SCHRADER: One phone call. One phone call where we said we said we’d meet halfway and, oh yeah, a second phone call where he said he couldn’t make it. In the first phone call, I laid out certain areas I wanted to talk about when we’d meet. I wanted to talk about the verbosity of some of the scenes – Caleb is one of those writers who feels that if something is worth saying, it’s worth saying twice, and how to make some things more interesting.
MYERS: Then why do you think he bears you such resentment?
SCHRADER: I’m told by people who know him that that’s him. He has a reputation for going off on people and on things, and saying unconsidered things. You have to realize that when he said these things, he was back in the Morgan Creek stable. After I was fired and they wanted to re-write the movie, they brought him back. After he gave that interview, he was fired, and another writer was hired and another. Morgan Creek and I had signed a piece of paper, saying we agreed not to disparage each other. When that interview appeared, the DGA lawyer called up Morgan Creek and said, “This guy’s on the payroll, and he disparaged Schrader.” And they said, “You’re right. We’ll tell him to stop.” But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was put out there as a mouthpiece, to start a negative vibe on the film because they were gonna dump it.
MYERS: What about [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro? What was your relationship like with him?
SCHRADER: I liked Vittorio a lot. I still email and speak to him. I was a little surprised when he agreed to do it again [for the Harlin film], but you see, he’s still semi-retired, and he teaches at the film academy across the street from Cinechetta, and he lives a mile away. He has this whole group of students and people that he brings with him, about twenty strong. A lot of them are his students. So, it was an almost irresistible offer to shoot it again, because he can drive to work, nice paycheck, and he can use all the students from film school.
MYERS: It has to be an attractive opportunity to make the same film twice in two different styles.
SCHRADER: Well, I never asked him about that, but I know, obviously, he’s not very happy with Morgan Creek now. Renny’s film was released in the wrong ratio. That film was shot in a format Vittorio devised called Univision. It’s a 1:2 ratio. Well, it was released in 1:2.35. It wasn’t released in the right ratio. When it came time to color correct my film, [Morgan Creek] wouldn’t pay for him to do it. He emailed me and said it was the first time he did a film and wasn’t allowed to finish it. And the color timing suffers for that.
MYERS: It’s interesting, because Caleb Carr says the two of you didn’t get along.
SCHRADER: How would he know? Has he ever met Vittorio? Was he ever on the set? What you’re dealing with there are words that are being whispered in Caleb’s ear from someone in the production company to start spreading bad vibes about me that they can’t spread themselves.
MYERS: So in some ways Caleb Carr is sort of a scapegoat.
SCHRADER: No, me. I’m the scapegoat. Somebody had to take the fall for the fact that they had to make the movie again. It wasn’t going to be Jim Robinson.
MYERS: Now, after all the arguments with the studio, did you quit or were you fired? Different people have said different things.
SCHRADER: I was fired, because the DGA contract stipulates that the original director is allowed to do the reshoots. I was asked to step aside and not do the reshoots and let them hire another director. I said, “No, I’m not gonna do it.” Whereupon, a bill of particulars was drawn up against me, accusing me of things that caused them financial loss. Being drunk on set. Refusing to work. Being late for work. Alienating actors. A whole list of things, none of which were true, all of which were made up on call. The DGA called me up and said, “Look, this is clearly bogus. But, they’re willing to watch you spend fifty thousand on lawyers, a hundred thousand on lawyers, to prove them wrong. They’re willing to burn you. If you win, you win the right to stand there and say ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’. That’s all. Because they’re not gonna give you any control. If you lose, you lose a lot of money. This is a no-brainer.” That’s how they got me to allegedly quit.
MYERS: Did any of the supposedly injured parties in the production, such as crew members or actors, speak out in your defense?
SCHRADER: It never got that far. In life and this business, you start getting that tar brush out. Once they work you over with that tar brush, almost nothing can make you clean again. There was no upside.
MYERS: Do you feel that any of this tar brushing has affected your reputation and will continue to affect it in the future?
SCHRADER: Not those specifically, because they were never publicly aired, but it doesn’t do anybody’s reputation any good to be taken off a film, which is why I’ve worked so long to get this film to exist. Because no matter who you’re talking to, your best friend, your wife, you tell them, “I made a film that was really good, but they didn’t release it,” nobody believes you. They just look at you and think, “Oh, poor Schrader. Look at the denial he’s in. He really thinks he made a good film. Of course he didn’t. Nobody would pay for a thirty-five million dollar film and then put it on a shelf.” You can’t convince anyone it was any good, because it’s such financial folly. The greatest thing about having this film publicly seen is letting people decide for themselves, and I don’t have to spend my life telling people, “You know, that Exorcist film was actually pretty good.”
MYERS: What was your initial reaction to hearing you’d been replaced by Renny Harlin?
SCHRADER: I was surprised he took the job, because it’s not a very desirable job. You know, being second in line, being restrained by the scandal, the nature of Morgan Creek, not going back to Morocco. I know some other directors who turned down the job. It’s a money thing. That’s the only way you could take that job. Renny can say whatever he wants, but why else do you take that job if you can get another job? If you’ve got a nice selection of jobs, you choose the one that is both satisfying and rewarding. If you don’t have much of a selection, you choose the one that they’re offering.
MYERS: Were you familiar with him as a director?
SCHRADER: We worked on a project together for Mario Kassar a number of years ago. I was gonna write a script for him, The Speedboat King of Miami, but Kassar’s company went down before I could begin writing it, so I never did write that one.
MYERS: Harlin was selected because Morgan Creek was screening the film for potential directors to generate feedback for what would work in reshoots, and Harlin suggested that the entire film be remade. How did you feel that your film was being screened that way?
SCHRADER: Well, it was gone. It didn’t exist anymore.
MYERS: Right, but you labored on it, and now it was being shown as an example of what not to do.
SCHRADER: It’s not that unusual a circumstance. It usually happens with scripts. That’s pretty standard. You don’t so it with directors because it’s too expensive, but you do it all time with writers.
MYERS: How closely did you follow the Harlin production?
SCHRADER: Not much. I mean, I was in contact with Stellan [Skarsgard], and Stellan would tell me things that were happening. I would hear how the budget kept getting bigger and bigger, and when [Gabriel Mann] was replaced, that’s when it looked like they’d have to start over.
MYERS: What was Stellan’s reaction? Did it seem like he was happy with the situation, unhappy with the situation?
SCHRADER: He wasn’t happy. It must have been lucrative. He and Renny are friends, and worked together [on Deep Blue Sea]. Obviously, he got paid, and he did a different performance. One of the fascinating things about the two movies was that it’s not only a different directing style; it’s a different acting style. In my film, he was playing this sort of tormented, Max Von Sydow/Ingmar Bergman sort of character. In [Harlin’s film], he played Harrison Ford.
MYERS: That was something I found particularly ironic. Your film was being labeled as “Father Merrin and The Secret of the Lost Church.” I didn’t get that sense watching it. In Harlin’s film, Merrin seemed like more of a swashbuckler, more of a hard-ass. He would pull out a gun, or maybe a crucifix in lieu of a gun.
MYERS: Did you have any problem with the fact that Skarsgard, or Vittorio, or any of these other people were working on [Harlin’s] film? Was there a sense of betrayal?
SCHRADER: (long pause) No. If I had come up with this idea, if it had been one of my scripts, I would have felt much more possessive about it, but I did not have the idea to do this sequel. I did not write the script. I did my best, the best job I could do, to make it like they wanted. They didn’t really take my baby away from me. They took their baby back from me.
MYERS: When was the first time you saw Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning?
SCHRADER: With [Exorcist author William Peter] Blatty in Washington D.C. I had a pretty good idea what I was in for. What I feared most was that it would be pretty good. If it was pretty good, good enough, it would be assumed that mine was worse, and any chance of my film being resurrected would be gone. So as I sat there and watched, I was rather sort of happy with it. I thought, this is really bad. (laughs) And then when Linda Blair showed up [in the form of Isabella Scorupco] (laughs) I was sitting next to Blatty, and Blatty was much more upset than I was, because it brought back to him all that he had been through [with Morgan Creek during the production of The Exorcist III],]. He’s still very sore, very angry about that experience. He invited me to come down, and said, let’s watch it together. We had dinner, and he was like “When the girl sort of spider-walks across the ceiling, they took that from me, they took that from me!” (laughs) But to be honest, I was of relieved that it didn’t work on any level. If the reviews had been fifty percent favorable, rather than eight or ten percent favorable, that would have just sealed any chance I might have [to release the original version].
MYERS: One would never know you were secretly pleased with this. That photo of you and Blatty together in front of the movie poster [for Harlin’s film], you look like the two most miserable, unhappy men in the entire universe.
SCHRADER: That was my camera. We got a guy in the theater to take it, and my eyes are closed. (laughs)
MYERS: How did you feel sitting there in the theater the first time and seeing shots from your film sprinkled throughout?
SCHRADER: I knew they would be in there. I just thought it was careless they were intercutting rich, glorious, golden shots by Vittorio, shots from Morocco, with shots onstage in Rome, blue-green with smoke. They were cutting them together! It was as if they didn’t care. In fact, it’s interesting: when I went back to Los Angeles to try and put my version back together, I went back into the editing room. There was a big mess that the other editing crew had left. It struck me as a battle field where as soon as they blew the horn, they chopped their things and ran. (laughs) “We’re out of here!”
MYERS: I assume you’ve heard that Harlin claims your shots are stock footage on the DVD commentary [of Exorcist: The Beginning].
SCHRADER: He’s smart enough to know that’s not true. Obviously, he was under instructions on that commentary not to acknowledge there was another film, and so he gets stuck because he can’t really talk about the design of the church, because it’s the same church, or the design of the village, because it’s the same village. But once he gets to a set he actually built, like the tent, then he can talk about it. He must have been under instructions never to say, this is the church that was in the earlier film. In fact, the man who designed the church, the village, the dig site, was a man named John Graysmark. He was not brought back for [Harlin’s] film. And he was not credited.
MYERS: You haven’t spoken with Renny Harlin.
SCHRADER: No. There wouldn’t be much to talk about. I mean, theoretically, somewhere down the road, in a few months or so, it would be interesting to see if he’d do a one-on-one, but I don’t know why he’d do it.
MYERS: It must be a very interesting position. On the one hand, you probably want to punch him in the mouth, but on the other, you realize it’s really not his fault in a lot of ways. His hands were tied regarding the issue of “stock footage.”
SCHRADER: Morgan Creek would have gotten somebody to take that job. If it wasn’t him, it would have been somebody else.
MYERS: Speaking of Renny, the teaser trailer for your version appeared on the Region 2 DVD of Harlin’s film.
SCHRADER: Yeah, I asked Morgan Creek about that, and they said they didn’t know anything about it. It’s just strange, because somebody had to make it! (laughs) But no, I didn’t have anything to do with it.
MYERS: Do you think it was some sort of insurance on their part? Being that the world seems to universally loathe Harlin’s version, it seems like a way of milking the franchise by saying, “Look, there’s another version.”
SCHRADER: Jim Robinson is probably out of pocket on these two films, when you throw in the overhead, of maybe in the vicinity of a hundred million dollars. That’s a lot of money. The thrust of the industry is essentially DVD-driven now. Most films are released theatrically to promote the DVD sales. They start to realize there’s more money to be made here on the DVD than the theatrical [release] because people start to think they’re buying a theater movie instead of a Made-For-Cable movie. So this battle between hubris and greed has been very touch and go, because Morgan Creek needs to make some money. They need the money the Schrader Exorcist can bring in.
MYERS: They really shot themselves in the foot. They said your movie was rubbish, and [between both versions] financed what’s basically a hundred million dollar film, to say nothing of marketing. And then the Harlin version flops, and what are they going to say? They’re going to say, “Well, this is the version we said you were going to hate, but you’re actually going to like it better.”
SCHRADER: The position is really a tricky one for them. First of all, Robinson doesn’t care for critics much. He doesn’t show his films for critics.
MYERS: I can’t imagine why.
SCHRADER: I wrote up a press kit for Belgium, and I called up Morgan Creek and said, “Can I see the press kit on the Renny Harlin film?” And they told me, “There was no press kit.” I thought, “You’re right! You don’t need a press kit if there aren’t press screenings!” (laughs)
MYERS: It’s interesting. I went to an advance screening in Georgetown on the eve of release, and half the theater was partitioned off for the press. Maybe five of them showed up. Maybe five.
SCHRADER: [Morgan Creek] doesn’t like to do that, do press screenings. If there’s a screening the night before, the critics miss their deadline.
MYERS: Getting back to the trailer, is it gratifying to have actually have your footage seen, even though it’s only a short teaser trailer? The first moving footage of Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Beginning has been seen now.
SCHRADER: The whole movie will be seen in a few days, and it will be seen in Univision, the way Storaro wanted.
MYERS: Is there any fear on your part that no matter how good your film is, no matter how well it’s received, it’s destined to forever live in the shadow of Renny Harlin’s film?
SCHRADER: No, it will live in the shadow of the controversy. It will always have an asterisk on it. It will always be seen as part of unique bit of film history.
MYERS: It’s unprecedented.
SCHRADER: A curious chapter in the history of film. That will be its main claim to fame! It’s not a great film, it’s not gonna be a great classic. It’s not gonna be a case where the film outshines the controversy and lives on forever. It’s a very good film, but I don’t think it’s such a great film that it will outshine the murk that’s surrounding it.
MYERS: It’s got to mean something that William Peter Blatty, who is the father of this franchise, who was publicly denouncing the idea of this prequel for so long, came forward to compliment your film when he saw the rough cut. He even went so far as to say he watched it twice.
SCHRADER: I just got an email today from someone from the Torrino film festival who wanted [the film] over there, who said he’s heard good things about it from [Exorcist director] Billy Friedkin, who had heard them from Blatty, which probably means more than anything else. Blatty’s telling Friedkin it’s good, not just me. (laughs)
MYERS: Let’s talk about the editing process. Is the cut that you have now similar to the one that Morgan Creek disliked?
SCHRADER: Very close.
MYERS: Were any sequences modified as a result of seeing Harlin’s film?
SCHRADER: Well, I added one shot. There’s a shot from Harlin’s film in mine.
MYERS: Really? Which one?
SCHRADER: Maggot Baby.
MYERS: I thought when I was watching [your film] that it was your footage and Harlin had lifted it from you.
SCHRADER: We never got around to doing that CGI shot, and he did, so we used it! There were things I learned watching his film that I applied to my re-edit.
MYERS: Were these all things that didn’t work, or were there some things that did work?
SCHRADER: All these small things in there that wouldn’t affect the casual viewer. None of them come to mind. But I did make mine a little more leisurely. I had edited mine in a kind of staccato. I realized that because of the nature of Renny’s film, I could back off and open it up and let it breathe a little more. People would be looking for it to breathe more, looking for it not to have that odd pace.
MYERS: One thing that comes to mind is that there was a lot of concern over your exorcism sequence, that it wasn’t going to play. There was also a lot of concern that Harlin’s exorcism sequence wasn’t going to play, which it doesn’t. Did you modify that particular sequence, with Cheche as Lucifer, in any way as a result?
SCHRADER: No. I mean, the thing behind exorcism is how do you win an exorcism? You can’t win a battle with The Devil. He’s a supernatural creature. Ergo this whole notion of repetition, perseverance, calling upon the forces of [Good], and doing it over and over and over until finally The Devil moves on. It’s not terribly exciting. You can’t exactly take out your laser sword and start hitting The Devil. (laughs) You’ve got Holy water and a cross and that’s about it.
MYERS: Were most of the elements of the exorcism, such as Cheche floating, or the ghostly dolly movements – were those scripted?
SCHRADER: No, those just came out of trying to make the scenes work.
MYERS: One of the most effective moments is when the Captain Howdy subliminal appears over [Cheche’s] face – when he’s moving behind the pillar and snarls, and the ghostly face appears.
SCHRADER: I put Howdy in [Merrin’s] dream, and I put him on the statue [excavated outside of the church]. The thinking was that it was another face of the demon. Lucifer is glorified in our version, but obviously, eons ago when this church was built, he had another face, and that’s the face they put on that statue.
MYERS: So it was a conscious effort on your part to sort of get away from the original film while still acknowledging it?
SCHRADER: Howdy was a nice way to tip the hat. It was a subliminal that only the aficionados know. It’s a way to sort of tip the hat without using one of the more obvious things. One of the lines [from Morgan Creek] about Renny’s film was, “We want to honor the original film more.” Essentially, it’s, “We want to copy it.” (laugh) You end up with all these copied moments.
MYERS: He directly lifted sequences and shots.
SCHRADER: I know! I mean, “Sucks cocks in Hell!”
MYERS: It’s funnier than Repossessed ever was.
SCHRADER: You could tell where I was parting company with Jim Robinson, because one of the things he just hated that I loved was Merrin’s dream. I did it in a very sort of Salvador Dali-style, sort of old forties-style sequence.
MYERS: It looks like a student film, almost. It’s very experimental.
SCHRADER: It’s a forties dream sequence, the way they used to do them, and I brought Captain Howdy into the dream. I love the sequence. I added the idea that [Merrin] comes back to the Dutch village a second time through the dream [during the climax], where you have the dream images come back.
MYERS: There is a really bizarre rumor going around the internet that the Captain Howdy face seen in the dream sequence is actually you.
SCHRADER: It’s Billy [Crawford, the actor who plays Cheche].
MYERS: There were some comparison photos between your face and the Captain Howdy image that [originally appeared] in Fangoria.
SCHRADER: I haven’t seen those. But that’s Billy. I shot that with Billy.
MYERS: The other thing everybody wants to know is: is the demon Pazuzu in your film, or The Devil himself? Or do you care not to differentiate?
SCHRADER: The statue, which they find in Iraq [in The Exorcist], was a manifestation of one of a hundred different manifestations [of The Devil]. The Muslims have a hundred names for God; we have a hundred faces for The Devil, Pazuzu just being one. When I came to make a Pazuzu-like statue, we gave it African-like features rather than Middle Eastern. It’s interesting [that] when Renny re-did the film, he used the Middle Eastern features of the original… Lucifer is a fallen angel. He is a manifestation of the most perfect of angels. A source of light. In modern mythology, maybe Captain Howdy is one, as well. There are many, many. We are Legion, as the Bible says. As far as I know, Pazuzu is a real totem. It’s not something that was manufactured for the Friedkin film. It was discovered.
MYERS: Which was what was so interesting about the statue in the cavern in your film. Rather than doing what Renny did and duplicating the exact same thing [as the Friedkin film], you’re saying, “Here is the same thing, but from another cultural perspective.” Okay, so getting back to editing. Were any of the actors brought in for ADR?
SCHRADER: No. I wasn’t given enough money for ADR.
MYERS: How much of Trevor Rabin’s score was recycled from the Harlin film?
SCHRADER: I’d say about an hour.
MYERS: What did you do for the rest of the film?
SCHRADER: Well, there’s the theme which you hear when you first see Derati and the church, a big, romantic theme written by Angelo Badalamenti. Angelo did around fourteen minutes. Whenever you hear that melody, that’s Angelo. We did that in an afternoon, and his assistant worked it out over a week. Since he was doing it for free, it was all I dared ask. We’d done four films together, and he realized the spot I was in, and he helped me out. And then I was short at the end, and I got my friends from Dog Fashion Disco. We went down to Baltimore to Wrightway [Studios], and then we scored the last twenty minutes. Also, what we were able to do at Wrightway was we sat down and went through the whole film with the guys, with the keyboard and cello, and finessed the whole thing. We tried to give it a feeling [that it] was less of a patchwork quilt. That’s another thing Dog Fashion did. They took elements from one area and dropped them into another area, so it feels like it’s all been thought of as a unity.
MYERS: There’s been a lot of concern about Dog Fashion Disco, because they’re a very avant-garde rock band. What’s your association with them?
SCHRADER: My son is a metal-head, and he’s one of their devotees. Works on their website, follows them around. They were without a record label, so they made up a demo tape of some of their new material. I gave it to a friend of mine, Danny Goldberg, who has a label called Artemis. Danny signed them. They just came out with a live album. They were so happy. They said, “Anything we can ever do for you, we’ll do it.” Then a couple months later, I said, “You know – remember when you offered to do anything for me?” (laughs)
MYERS: Did Morgan Creek give you the opportunity to rifle through any of the other films for sounds or pieces of music that you could use?
SCHRADER: I got a hold of the stuff from Carter Burwell, and [there] wasn’t that much I could use. The Rabin stuff was actually richer in that area. Also with Rabin, you had all of the tracks. With Burwell, you were down to three or four tracks. Rabin, you’re looking at anywhere from thirty to sixty tracks. You open up sixty tracks on a board, and you can start doing a lot of stuff with that music.
MYERS: Was there ever any thought of using Billy Crawford for the soundtrack? He’s a pop star, after all.
SCHRADER: During shooting there was, obviously. He wanted to do it very badly. I don’t know whether it would have been right [for the film], but certainly it was out of the question by the time I was brought back. He was onboard [the movie] before I was. [Morgan Creek] did a talent search, they discovered him. (laughs) It will be cool to see him again this weekend [in Brussels]. Gabe [Mann] is gonna be there, Clara [Bellar] is gonna be there. Of all the actors – there are going to be nine actors there – all but two of them are paying their own way. They’re coming in from London, and all over. The only one who won’t be there is Stellan, and that’s only because [he’s currently shooting] Pirates of the Caribbean 2.
MYERS: Being that most of the actors are paying their own way, it doesn’t sound like Morgan Creek is really giving much money toward the Brussels screening.
MYERS: So they’ve given you money simply to put the film together on the cheap.
MYERS: And at what point did they first approach you about finishing the film?
SCHRADER: What happened was, they hired an editor named Tim Silano who became my great ally, who had been hired to put the film together. They said: “Just put it together.” And then I got the call, Tim saying, “I can’t put it together!” (laughs) That’s when I came back.
MYERS: So they hired someone to interpret your vision.
SCHRADER: Well, it’s what they did with Vittorio. Tim and I had to color-time the movie because they wouldn’t bring Vittorio back.
MYERS: What other compromises were made to get to the finish line?
SCHRADER: You mentioned one: no ADR. I think we did really well in getting a very quick, high-quality mix. We only mixed for six days. I found all through this whole production process, people who were willing to help me at a reduced fee for extra hours, just because of the nobility of the cause. To be a part of rescuing the film, realizing that the quality of the film really just depends on someone making a sacrifice.
MYERS: So how do you feel now that it’s done?
SCHRADER: I haven’t seen it. The print was struck Friday night, it shipped Saturday, and arrived in Brussels today. I have never seen this film on the big screen. I’ve only seen it in digital. The way movies are made today, you capture a film on nitrate, but you never see it in nitrate. Your dailies are on video, your editing is on video. ADR and mix is on video. The first time you see a film is when it’s projected, and it’s done and nothing can be done to it, which is why more and more films have out-of-focus shots, particularly if you’re shooting Stedicam. If you’re shooting Stedicam, you’re looking at a video monitor. The next time you see it, you’re looking at the dailies. Next time you see it, it’s on the Avid. Then it’s during mix. Finally you see it onscreen and go, “Fuck! That’s out of focus!” And every time I go to the movies, I see shots that are out of focus, and I know that nobody could tell. You don’t put out-of-focus shots in a film on purpose.
MYERS: Are you nervous about seeing the film?
SCHRADER: I’m so glad that the film exists that I’m prepared to forgive a lot.
MYERS: What’s the title?
SCHRADER: Good question.
MYERS: The version I just saw was called Exorcist IV.
SCHRADER: That was just slapped on there to have something. In Belgium, for the screening, we’re calling it Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Original Prequel. Now Warner Brothers wants to call it something new. Warner Brothers is now back in the game. They want to release it with another title. But we’ll see, we’ll see. We’re getting reviewed out of Brussels, we’re getting reviewed by the London press, we’re getting reviewed by Variety. At the moment, the one name I heard was Dark Angel. (shrugs)
MYERS: Are you going to have any sort of say?
SCHRADER: There are different ways to have say. Sometimes, the right amount of backroom whispering has its effects. I would have never gotten to where I am now with this film had I been confrontational. I’ve always waited to fight another day. Believe me, there were plenty of occasions where I was tempted to unload, but once I poison the atmosphere, things really can’t be put back together. You have to think in terms of long range. Maybe it feels good to say all sorts of vulgar and insulting things a la Caleb Carr, but it doesn’t help in the long run. The fact that poor Caleb is now stuck in the situation where the film he’s actually gonna get credit for, because he’s the co-writer of this one, he’s not the co-writer of the Renny Harlin one, just story credit, the one he’s co-writer for, the one he’ll get the better reviews for is the one he stuck his head out and disowned. (laughs) If he’d had a little prudence, and a little long-range vision, he wouldn’t be in this unpleasant spot. Even if the film is good and other people say it’s good, he can’t take credit for it. He’d look like a fool.
MYERS: So despite the fact that he went out and dragged your name through the mud, he only shot himself in the foot.
SCHRADER: Yeah. He can’t come out and say, “I’m really proud of it.” It’s his first film credit now.
MYERS: Once your film is screened, there’s absolutely no way you can walk away from this a loser. Not only did you get to make the movie you wanted to make, but the film that replaced yours was critically reviled.
SCHRADER: Here’s the bottom line. You have a company that’s notorious for not letting directors have the final say. A deal breaker with Morgan Creek is always final cut. The films are re-edited, and the directors are shunted off. It’s a historical pattern. So what’s the upshot of all this? Making a thirty-five million dollar film and getting final cut for a company that doesn’t give final cut, which goes into the marketplace without any financial obligations. Nobody expects it to make money. And it goes into the marketplace with the predisposition of critics and cinephiles to be kind to it, because of this sad history. It’s an ideal situation! (laughs)
MYERS: It can’t make you too eager to jump back into bed with a major studio.
SCHRADER: Well, Morgan Creek’s such a unique situation. Such a unique situation. This wouldn’t have happened at any other studio. Any studio where you have a board of people, a group of people, [and] some guy says, “Let’s remake the whole movie,” then some other guy says, “Okay, you do it. You take the fall and we’ll be here to take your job.” And the first guy says, “Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea!” But when it’s a one-man operation, there’s no fear of taking a fall for making a bad decision. That’s why it wouldn’t happen at another studio.
MYERS: Then the big question, the most important one in the world: now that your film is edited, it’s finally getting released. After everything you’ve gone through, was it worth it? Do you look at the film you’ve made, and are you proud of it? Are you satisfied with it? Would you do it again?
SCHRADER: I wouldn’t do it again. There’s no doubt about that. It’s a lot of time out of your life, and I’ve spent more hours agonizing over Morgan Creek and James G. Robinson than any human being should ever be forced to in any number of lifetimes. So in that respect, I wouldn’t do it again. (laughs) On the other hand, I’m happy with the film. I realize its limitations. I realize that I made a film with a problematic commercial premise. Now, it may be a quality film, but there was no way this film was gonna go out and break box office records. Not gonna happen. Now the truth is, if they had tarted up my movie, cut it with some gore, done a misleading ad campaign, not shown it to critics, did a huge television [campaign], which is what they did for Renny’s film, they probably could have made somewhere in the same vicinity of money. There was that much money out there for an Exorcist prequel, regardless of the quality. So if you subscribe to the idea that either the Schrader version tarted up or the Harlin version was going to get you thirty to thirty-five [million] domestic, that means that the second film was like taking a cardboard box full with cash and throwing it out the back window of your car while you’re going down the freeway. But, I’m much happier having the film that I made exist in the form that I made it in rather than some tarted-up version I’d have to disown. Because believe me, if they hadn’t released the Renny Harlin film, I’d have had to disown this one. By the time they got done re-editing it, I couldn’t have been able to defend it. I couldn’t have done press. I would have had to just walk away. I was already prepared to walk away while I was [originally] editing it. I knew there was gonna be blood on the floor. I didn’t know it was all gonna be mine. I was sort of prepared to at some point say, “We’re going to turn this into some tarted whore, and I’m gonna have to disown it.” Rather than that happening, they made another movie that allowed me to go back and reclaim the one I had done. So it’s not so bad.
Erik Kristopher Myers is the award-winning writer/director of indie films Roulette (2013) and Butterfly Kisses (2017). His writings have been featured in such publications as The Exorcist: Studies in the Horror Film, and he is currently penning a book on the making of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III.