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Capone gets possessive with THE LAST EXORCISM director Daniel Stamm!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. First off, I'm going to say this right at the top so there's no confusion: this interview with the director of THE LAST EXORCISM is loaded with spoilers throughout. These spoilers shed a great deal of light on the film, in particular, the film's highly divisive ending, so I thought it was important to include here. Okay, consider yourself warned. Second, I fucking love THE LAST EXORCISM. It's just the right amounts of Southern Gothic, creepy, and batshit crazy (the ending is divisive for a very good reason). Two years ago I saw the first feature from German-born Daniel Stamm, called A NECESSARY DEATH and it kind of shook me up, primarily because it took me about three-quarters of the film to realize this really powerful documentary in which a film crew follows a young man in the days leading up to his committing suicide wasn't a real documentary. I'm gullible, so sue me. And while THE LAST EXORCISM also takes the form of a faux documentary, I knew going into the Comic-Con screening that what I was watching wasn't real, which made it no less terrifying at times. There's such a great attention to detail, from the simple home decorations of young Miss Nell Sweetzer to the tricks that preacher Cotton Marcus uses to simulate an exorcism. In many ways, Stamm has taken the limitations of a one-camera doc style and turned them into advantages. What is going on just outside the ring of light from the camera's spotlight. It's a great little movie that doesn't answer every question, and leaves lot of room for discussion and interpretation. What a concept. I spoke with Stamm just before we went before a room filled mostly with AICN readers to introduce THE LAST EXORCISM, and even those in the audience who disapproved of the ending, still liked everything leading up to it. It's a fun and nerve-wracking movie that I've loved both times I saw it. Enjoy this interview with director Daniel Stamm…
Capone: When you make a film with the word “exorcism” in the title, you're calling forth some classic iconography. At what point did you decide, “Okay, we are going to embrace these things that have been used before and we are going to stay as far away from these other things as we possibly can?” Daniel Stamm: Well, we knew that in the writing that when you make an exorcism movie, the first thing you do is you watch THE EXORCIST and then you make sure that you don’t do any of the stuff in there, because you can be sure that people remember THE EXORCIST, because they were traumatized by it. So you have to make sure to avoid all of that stuff, which is a real challenge, because you have to be original without using any of the old iconography, so that was already in the writing that we avoided. And the other thing was THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, which people remember because it wasn’t that long ago. Capone: Only about five years ago or so, yeah. DS: And Jennifer Carpenter was great in that. Capone: It’s a really good movie. So you are really up some memorable touchstones. DS: Well, the important thing is that you don’t go against them; you kind of have to tell your own story with your own characters and just avoid the stuff that has worked that you have seen work, and avoid the temptation of going the same route. Do you get the feeling that it was very EXORCIST-y, because that’s, of course, what everyone says that has only seen the trailer. They are like “Oh, they are remaking THE EXORCIST.” Capone: Not particularly, no. It has a completely different vibe than any of the other films I’ve seen. What I think solidified it for me was that I could tell that your actress, Ashley Bell, appeared to be doing her contortions and voices. No special effects. They were all her, right? DS: Right. Capone: And I got a sense of that when I watched it the first time. And you left it open until close to the end to decide “Is she possessed or is insane?” That’s the difference. You leave that possibility open until the end, and by then it’s too late. DS: We almost don’t know which genre we are in while we watch the movie; only the last scene kind of decides it. Capone: But you also are, right from the offset, making a movie about a con artist too. So who’s conning who? That’s what I liked about it actually was that it is a little bit of a mystery, on top of everything else, and then when you see it a second time, it's a very different movie. DS: That was always important to me, the mystery. To me it’s a psychological thriller that’s based on this question “Is she possessed or is she crazy?” So you are looking for completely different things than you would in THE EXORCIST, where it’s very clear that it is about God and the Devil and the eternal battle. You don’t know that in our film until the very end. It’s a possibility, but we never stated it. Capone: What is it about making it a young girl or a young woman that everyone who makes exorcism films seems drawn to? DS: Fragility, innocence, and that you need to protect these girls. In our society, young women and girls are the individuals that have to be protected, and so if they are suddenly faced with a power as big as the Devil, you are really helpless, which is great for our protagonist, because he’s up against someone who he doesn’t even believe in. How far from being able to actually do something against the Devil are you if you don’t even believe in him. So this girl is really out there to be rescued, and I hope that the audience feels the same way, like “We have to help this girl somehow.” If it’s a guy and he can kind of battle for himself, that’s a different thing, but a young girl… I think that’s why possession movies go back to young girls, because it’s about innocent, purity, fragility… Capone: It feels like more of a violation. DS: Right. That’s a good word, “violation.” Possession is a metaphor for so much stuff, because something is inside of you that shouldn’t be there. It’s a metaphor for disease. It’s almost a metaphor for rape. There’s all of this stuff going on that’s just wrong and has to be rectified somehow. That’s a great basis for drama. Capone: Tell me about the search for Nell, because that had to be painstaking. DS: [laughs] When I was coming in with Strike [Entertainment], Eric Newman, one of the producers, said, “The hardest thing is going to be to find Cotton, because this movie hinges on Cotton. The hard thing is going to be Cotton.” I was sitting there and I was like “Cotton is going to be easy, Nell is going to be difficult.” Capone: I think it all hinges on her. DS: The whole movie is based on the question of whether she is possessed or crazy, so you focus in on her and you really inspect her throughout the movie and you go like “What is she giving away?” “What vibe is she giving off?” I was convinced that Nell was going to be tough, and then sure enough Ashley Bell was the second girl that walked in. DS: That’s just “Stop casting right there." Capone: Did you really stop? DS: We didn’t see a single other girl after her, because she blew me away. I saw her on tape first and I was like “We have to get her,” and she had this Southern accent. She was doing this Southern accent, and I was just blown away. I thought that was her real accent, and then I wasn’t sure about the accents, like “Maybe she can talk without the accent.” Then I met her and she didn’t have an accent at all, and she was so amazing and we did an exorcism for the audition, and she was just going up the walls. It got scary in the room and I know I had Nell. Then Cotton was exactly that Strike predicted too. It took weeks and hundreds of people came in. With him it was actually funny, because I asked him to improvise a sermon for the audition, and he did his sermon and it was eight minutes long or something like he had really written it at home and thought it out. It was all perfect, but way too long, so I said “Can we do that in half the time” just to see how he would improvise and go with the punches. And what he would do is he didn’t actually change any of the words, he just talked twice as fast. I was sitting there and there was this energy coming from him that I thought “I have no idea what you were saying, because you were talking way to fast for my little brain to process everything you are saying, but I want to stand up and cheer.” That’s the energy and that’s where this whole banana bread scene came from. That’s exactly born out of that moment that I was like “You could tell me anything right now and I would believe it.” Then I showed him and two other people, my number two and my number three choice to the producers and they were all sitting around a table watching the three videos and one of the producers had gone to get a pitcher of water and a glass and then Patrick [Fabian] on--our Cotton--and was talking or in the middle of his speech, he froze mid-air while pouring water into his glass and stayed like that for two minutes, didn’t move. I knew I had my guy at that moment. If someone can make someone stop in their tracks like that, then that’s pretty special, but it took much longer than Nell. Capone: I actually recognized that actor. I didn’t recognize any of the other actors immediately, I had to look them up, but that guy I recognized only from one thing. He has a recurring character on "Big Love." Let’s talk about the documentary aspect. What is it that that style adds to this story that just telling it like a standard-issue feature would not? DS: A lot. What it does I think is it takes away the fourth wall, so the audience doesn’t have the usual protection words like movie artifice, but they have a representative--the guy that’s holding the camera in the actual movie, so they are very aware that even though they might just be seeing the frame, there is 360 degrees around them that could have things lurking in the shadows waiting to attack them. I think it goes back to vulnerability again. You are much more vulnerable, more fragile, and in a normal movie I think the audience can count on you showing them everything you want them to see. You have different angles, you cut them together and you will see everything. In this, you don’t and I think it’s great. The fragility is emphasized by the unsteadiness of the camera. Always there is some one breathing behind the camera; it’s much more personal, and I thought it did magic for this movie. Capone: And your lighting is limited in a lot of ways too, which is important for a scary movie. DS: And it has to be done so well. Our cinematographer had to work with practicals, because we never knew where we would light, so there was never any movie light on set. It was all practicals, and you had to strategically place the lamps in the house and all of that, and I wanted to keep the whole crew as small as possible to get that intimate feeling. I didn’t want 25 people staring at the girl when she did her exorcism. So most of the time it was really just my cinematographer, one guy for lighting, and that was the entire team. So that’s another thing about that style that’s amazing. Capone: Yeah. How early in the process did Eli [Roth] get involved? DS: Way before I was involved. Capone: So this came to you with him already attached? DS: The way it happened was that Eric Newman, from Strike had developed the script with the two guys that had done MAIL ORDER WIFE [Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland], and they were supposed to direct it, but the did THE VIRGINITY HIT instead. Did you see it at Comic-Con? Capone: No. I did see the sign though. It’s opening pretty soon, I think. DS: They were actually shooting that while we were shooting THE LAST EXORCISM, so they had committed to that and had to do that, so Strike was looking for a new director for THE LAST EXORCISM. And the way they got it financed is that Eric showed it to Eli, Eli loved the script and the same day that Eli said “I’m on board,” Studio Canal said “We are financing it completely,” whereas before that they had for years tried to get financing and could never get it financed and Eli’s name just kind of got all of the financing. Capone: Was it still in the documentary style the way it was written? DS: All the time. Capone: So did they come to you because you had done that so successfully before? DS: Right. They had seen a writer that I had studied with at AFI and worked with at the time and he heard that they were looking for a director and he had seen A NECESSARY DEATH, which had just won AFI Fest, so he gave them a copy and they said “We want exactly that style” and that’s how that came to be. Capone: That’s a great sort of fortuitous thing that that’s the style they were looking for. DS: I was really lucky. Right place at the right time. Capone: Between when you made it and now that there have been quite a few of these “found-footage” films released. Were you concerned about getting lumped in with the rest of them in the eyes of the movie going public? I should say for the record, I happen to like most of those movies. DS: Sure, the funny thing is that people will always go “Oh, it’s another BLAIR WITCH,” but BLAIR WITCH wasn’t the first fake documentary. In the early '70s, there was PUNISHMENT PARK and other amazing stuff. It’s just that’s how far back people can think, but I think they will just have to get over that, and it’s such a strong style that I hope there are more movies like that and it’s going to perceiver and establish itself as a style rather than being a gimmick, because the movies are so different. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which I actually loved, is a completely different movie, but it’s a brilliant exercise in timing and rhythm and expectation, but it’s completely different from THE LAST EXORCISM, because we are much more character and actor based. And CLOVERFIELD was completely different again from BLAIR WITCH and these movies are so different, so for people to always go like “It’s one of those…” I think those are people who either haven’t seen the other ones or didn’t understand how different they actually are. Capone: Plus, in LAST EXORCISM, it’s supposed to be a legitimate film crew following Cotton around. It’s not one of the cast members just grabbing a video camera like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or like CLOVERFIELD, it’s a legitimate film crew. DS: Which was great for our kind of build up, because we always said that we wanted the beginning of the documentary very static and very rigid, so that when they lose control we feel that in the camera work, that suddenly things don’t go according to their plan anymore, but someone else is calling the shots, and I think that worked really well as a progression. Capone: In terms of producing, what did Eli do for you along the way while the film was actually being made? DS: Not only would the film never have gotten made without him and his name, but he was very involved in the script-writing process. It’s different dealing with a producer who is also a director and a writer, because they know what you are dealing with, and they know how to help, and he did do that a lot. During the actual shoot he wasn’t there, because he was on the INGLORIOUS BASTERDS press tour in Europe, but he saw all of the dailies, they were always uploaded at night, and then he would call and give me notes on the dailies, but loved everything and was really excited for the stuff. What he understood is that he, because he could have come to set towards the end of the shoot and he said, “Let me not disturb the chemistry that’s going on there,” which is true, especially with a set that was so intimate. Now if Eli Roth, as the celebrity that he is, would have marched in there, it would have destroyed the entire thing. He was there for one reshoot day that we did in L.A., and then he was really involved in post and with the edit. Capone: Tell me about shooting in the south, because I think people associate that with a little bit more folklore and superstition. What did you get just from being there? DS: We shot where Katrina had flooded everything, near New Orleans and we shot on a plantation where you could still see the water marks six feet high on the wall, and this plantation--because it was real and wasn’t a set we built--had that smell and it had those sounds and all of that stuff. And that gives the actors something to work with, because they react to it, and it’s nothing they have to generate, so they can concentrate on different stuff. The creepiness that they react to and the sweat with the heat, because we had no air conditioning in the house… I can’t tell the Fahrenheit, but it was almost torture, and we didn’t have any makeup department or anything. Capone: What month were you there? DS: July. [Both Laugh] DS: It wasn’t fun. Capone: That’s the worst! DS: You walk out of the hotel, and it’s like this wall that just hits you. And it’s icky and strange for the first couple of days and the insects and then this alligator walked on set. All of that stuff, so that’s something you get in the south, and just people down there, because it is much more rooted in religion and in superstition there, just the stories you hear even talking while you are on your break having lunch, and someone walks over and tells you stories. It’s about that texture to it that’s very beautiful. Capone: There’s a lot of humor in the film that I wasn’t expecting, especially in the beginning with Cotton. Was that okay with you? Did you want to deliberately lighten the mood? DS: Oh yeah. That’s a secret weapon that I’ve discovered, because what it does is not only does this style anyway allow you to do exposition and get it off the table really quickly, because you have interviews and you can talk about this and that, but humor allows the audience to identify with a character who is a prankster and who has spent decades exploiting people’s beliefs, which people in the audience I think are very sensitive towards that and humor kind of loosens that up some how. And the humor, you will notice completely stops halfway through the film. I didn’t want to interweave anything, but really kind of use it in the beginning to get people onto his side, and then fade out the humor and bring in the creepy. Capone: Did you ever give any thought to who found this footage? Or who put this film together? DS: I like the question. I don’t know if I have an answer, necessarily, but I like that people wonder about that, so they are like “Wait a minute, so did the Devil put it together?” [Both Laugh] Capone: I wasn’t thinking that. DS: What were you thinking? Capone: I don’t know. I’m kind of wondering did one of the people that we see at the end of the film… DS: Actually cut it together quite professionally? Capone: Yeah, just wanted to see what was on the camera. DS: I have to think, because of course we had those discussions, and there were different opinions on that and I have a feeling that because there have been so many fake documentaries, the one thing they all share is that they have to establish why they keep filming when shit goes down, and they have to establish how the footage actually made it into the editing room. Both of these moments are always clumsy, because people know it’s just an excuse and an alibi, so why not just not touch on it? Do people still really need it after all of these years? Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, we will find out. Capone: What do you have lined up next? I read somewhere that you might have something. DS: Did it say what though? Capone: You gave a synopsis of some sort. DS: That must have been something else. I just signed something--like the deal is being negotiated right now which is super exciting and I would love to tell you. I can probably tell you tomorrow. There’s a big name producing it, and I’m the biggest fan of the man, who is also a writer and producer, but I can’t tell you who. Capone: I’ll give you my card and you can email me tomorrow. DS: I will. Capone: Please do. I do have some questions I want to ask after the audience has seen it, questions about the ending… DS: What did you think about the ending? Tell me really quick, because people either hate it or they love it. Capone: It’s so out there, and I was so not expecting it to go to that place that I started to rethink a lot of what came before it and started to wonder if Pastor Manley had been manipulating things to get that demon out to a place where they could do that ceremony or something. I think anytime anyone can surprise me in a horror film, I love it. So even if it’s so far out there--it almost doesn’t make sense--I don’t care I’m all for it. DS: But at the same time, it’s such a standard situation for a horror film, that’s why I found it original, because it’s not an original scene in of itself, but because the path there is such a different path, I found it original when I read it. I was like “That makes sense.” Capone: And I heard you had an ending that was completely different and not nearly as satisfying originally. DS: Exactly. It just didn’t work and then we reshot… This was always the ending, but the setup for the ending was a different one. But I have been ordered by Lionsgate not to talk about the original ending, because they are afraid that then that’s all that’s going to be talked about. “What was the original ending?” I’ll just say, “I can’t talk about it.” Capone: Okay, that’s fine. All right. I think they're ready for us. Shall we go? DS: Absolutely.
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