Director Daniel Stamm discusses The Last Exorcism
German director Daniel Stamm sat down with Time Out Chicago contributor Cliff Doerksen to discuss Stamm's new film, The Last Exorcism, the tradition of horror and the use of the "recovered documentary footage" trick. The Last Exorcism is in theaters now.
Obviously, casting is absolutely key in a project like this because everyone’s so wonderfully naturalistic. To what extent were you involved in the casting and how did you find all those very, very natural Americans?
It’s funny, because when I came on board, the producer said that they think the hard role to cast is gonna be Reverend Cotton Marcus because the whole movie hinges on Cotton. And I had the feeling the hard one to find was going to be Nell, because she’s the one who’s being investigated the entire time. The whole movie hinges on the question: Is she possessed? Ashley Bell was the second girl who came in, and I said “Stop right there because we’re not gonna get better than that.” Cotton, on the other hand, was really hard to find, and we saw hundreds of people. I actually did a lot of improv with them in the auditions. I’d done an internship with Melanie Finn, who was a casting director who died last year unfortunately. She did all the James Cameron movies—Titanic, all of Gus Van Sant’s stuff, the Matrix movies, L.A. Confidential. And her whole thing was: Don’t look for what people can act, but look at who people are. Because when it gets stressful on set and after ten hours of shooting, actors will always revert to who they are at their core. So it’s a very different casting process, I think, from what you would do for a conventional movie. So I did a lot of improv with them.
So you’re an actor yourself?
No. I didn’t personally do improv, I just asked them to do it. And one thing that really helped me was that no one knew me. I was sitting outside the casting room pretending to be another actor going in for a role. I was talking to them for ten minutes, and because actors [are] kind of nervous before the audition, and how they deal with that really tells you who they are. Are they constantly going “So, how are you doing today?,” or are they saying, “Shut up. Leave me alone!”
The seeming key to Cotton Marcus’s character is that he’s so unflappable throughout the movie.
“Unflappable”—what is that?
He doesn’t freak out. He doesn’t panic. He remains extremely rational even as things get freakier and freakier. Is that how Patrick Fabian came across before the audition?
Well, that’s why the character makes sense to me: He doesn’t understand what he’s up against. If he understood, he probably would freak out, but he doesn’t. What was important to me about Cotton’s character is that he’s established as someone who has committed fraud for decades [by] exploiting people’s beliefs. We needed someone who on one hand has that charismatic mask so you believe that he was capable of that, but at the same time he needed a core quality of human warmth. He’s not cynical. He does care. He’s a family man who loves his family, and he wants to help this girl. So that’s something I had to find in that character. He’s a showman but also a really good person.
He couldn’t have done what he’d done for so many years if he didn’t also see himself as a part of the helping professions, like a minister or a shrink.
And that’s something I found in Patrick very quickly. He’s just a really, really good guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he also has this incredible energy. I asked him to perform a sermon for me. I said “I am your audience, go!” And he did it as if he had never done anything else in his life.
The guy missed his calling, as far as I’m concerned. His preacher shtick wasn’t too broad, it was just really persuasive.
Well, it is pretty broad, but that’s what those sermons are really like.
Tell me about how much research into evangelical culture went into the script. The screenwriters seemed to really know their stuff, even down to Reverend Marcus’s name, which is one syllable away from that of Cotton Mather, the great Puritan divine and colonial witch finder. There’s great stuff embedded in a very smart script. Do the screenwriters come from evangelical backgrounds, or have they just done their homework?
See, I didn’t even know that about Cotton Mather. This is very educational. I can’t really talk for their religious backgrounds. I don’t think that they have any. They just really did their research. And then I sent out the actors to do their independent research, which was important to me that they all bring stuff to the table that doesn’t come from one source. Because I think you feel that. If it’s the mind of just one writer filtering everything, you feel that everything fits together really neatly. Everyone is kind of talking in one voice. So I wanted everyone to have their own discoveries, have their own secrets, and not tell me about it beforehand.
More plus trailer after the jump
What cinematic precedents would you acknowledge to this movie? Because when I was watching it I was thinking “Okay, there’s a dash of Race with the Devil, a smidgen of The Devil’s Rain, a soupçon of The Conqueror Worm.…”
The only two movies we were really conscious of referencing were The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Exorcist, and in both cases we were mostly trying to stay away from them—Emily Rose because it was made just three years ago and The Exorcist because it’s a classic whose existence we couldn’t ignore. That’s why it was important to me to mention The Exorcist so nobody does say this. In the world within the film, the movie The Exorcist exists—that’s kind of important. Other than that, there are a million great fake documentaries: Lake Mungo, Punishment Park. Everyone references The Blair Witch Project, because that’s about how far back most people can remember, but there have been fake documentaries around for ages. And to me, the pseudo-documentary is such a rich style because they are all so different. Have you seen Paranormal Activity?
No, I haven’t seen it.
I saw it on video first and I thought it was scary, but people were like “No, no, no…you have to go see it with an audience.” So I did and it was a mass hysteria that I’d never seen before. People were screaming at every cut and there was absolutely nothing happening. This guy was screaming for two minutes straight throughout the credits. The movie was over and people kept screaming. Are you kidding me? But the mechanisms behind it are completely different from The Last Exorcism, because it’s not an acting-based movie, it’s very much a brilliant exercise in rhythm and expectation. It’s a completely different movie. Blair Witch is the same thing—it isn’t about acting or story, it’s about what you don’t see and what might be out there. And Cloverfield is a completely different movie. The only thing they all share is a handheld camera and a first-person perspective.
That, plus a request to the audience that they commit to the idea that this footage could have been gathered somehow, which is a real heavy tax to levy on the viewer, you know?
Right! The two things that have to be tackled in every fake documentary is why do they keep shooting after shit hits the fan, and who cut the footage together?
And in all the fake documentaries, those are the two clumsiest moments. Because everyone knows, “Oh, here comes the explanation, here’s the alibi,” and it almost takes you out of it for the moment.
That’s the downfall of The Blair Witch Project: Why are they still shooting? They work real hard at finessing it with the claim that looking through the viewfinder can distance you from what’s happening. That’s kind of clever. It’s a nice construction.
And it worked with Blair Witch back then.
But you can only use it once.
Yeah, and now, every movie you just say “Here it goes, here’s the explanation.” But we just don’t buy into it anymore. So I thought let’s take these two moments and just ignore them. We will not have text plates at the end that say “The tapes were found at the—” Who cares? But no, people do seem to care, because lots of people ask me and say, “Who cut the footage?” I don’t know if I need an answer for that necessarily. Perhaps the satanic cult found the footage. I don’t mind that question as long as it doesn’t take you out of the film.
Wait, how many people are actually coming out of this talking to you as if it were a documentary?
No one. No one. [Laughs] It’s such an intellectual question, what is real what is not real.
Well, it’s question about form to that most people probably don’t even have the grammatical chops to engage with. Which raises the question: How much of your movie is real? Can Nell actually do that crazy shit with her neck?
She can do that shit with her neck.
She’s a special effect unto herself.
She really is! And that’s not even why I cast her. She didn’t do any of that in her audition. She re-did it two days in advance in the hotel lobby. It turned out she’s double-jointed!
She looks like someone who would be double-jointed! Crap…
She can dislocate her shoulders and all that. She’s a gymnast. I mean, we were really lucky.
That girl is going places.
Are you a horror-film guy at heart? Is that your home base?
I love horror but I can’t tell you oh, like, That’s a 1972 Italian giallo by Dario Argento. My background is pretty narrow. My favorite horror movie is Psycho, and I love The Shining. I’m very mainstream.
That’s interesting, because Germany actually has a substantial tradition of horror, as opposed to the French, for example, who don’t do it very much and not very naturally either. Whereas Germany has Mabuse, Caligari, The Golem and Max Schreck. People can point to Germany as a wellspring of horror even if it’s never been an actual industry there. But it sounds like horror isn’t what actually brought you to the movies.
Well, kind of, now that I think about it. It’s a very visceral thing, horror. Everyone has an attitude towards evil. Everyone has dealt with their perceptions of evil. So, there is a common understanding of what we’re dealing with, and it’s a great place to pick people up and go, “Now let’s go on this journey.”