WB Morgan Creek Press
Production Notes II
Acclaimed writer/director Paul
Schrader once wrote that the single most powerful metaphor in cinema is
that of "God and the Devil in a small room, locked in battle over the
body of a thirteen year old girl." He was referring to the classic film
The Exorcist, the story of a young girl violently possessed by a
malevolent demon and the devout priest called upon to rescue her from
its grip. Schrader never imagined that twenty-five years later he would
be behind the camera, adding his own chapter to the legend for a new
generation of filmgoers with Dominion Prequel to the Exorcist.
When Schrader's project was first conceived, it was decided that rather
than a sequel to The Exorcist, the new film would be a 'prequel,' and
would take place twenty-five years before Father Lankester Merrin's
emergency visit to Georgetown in the original film. The main action
would take place in Africa, and the film would illuminate Father
Merrin's path to becoming an exorcist.
As Schrader points out, a significant advantage of a prequel is that
since its events unfold before the original story took place, "you don't
have to deal with the baggage of being tied down to elements and details
that have already been established. When our story takes place, Merrin
doesn't even know where Georgetown is."
There is a unique history behind the film's journey to the screen.
Initially John Frankenheimer was slated to direct Dominion, but sadly he
fell ill before shooting commenced. The torch was then passed to
Schrader, whose numerous and varied film work includes directing Auto
Focus, Affliction and American Gigolo and penning the screenplays for
The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.
Schrader's film is an eerie, disturbing, cerebral exploration of the
manifestation of evil, and the horrors that humans visit upon each
other. However, production company Morgan Creek wanted to deliver a more
traditional horror film to audiences, and subsequently mounted an
entirely new production, Exorcist: The Beginning, which was directed by
Renny Harlin and released in 2004.
Schrader sums up the whole affair neatly. "When this project began,
Morgan Creek thought they wanted a Lexus - but once they got home they
decided that what they really wanted was a Hummer. So they went back and
bought a Hummer."
Yet Schrader's complex and atmospheric work represents a significant
contribution to the Exorcist canon, and so, in an unprecedented move,
Morgan Creek is now releasing Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
While both films follow the storyline of Father Merrin's journey to
rediscover his lost faith, they differ in their depiction of the
transformation wrought by demonic possession. Exorcist: The Beginning
further developed the storyline of a minor character who appears in
Schrader's movie - James, the young son of one of the Derati villagers.
The boy is struck ill and seemingly possessed; his condition further
disintegrates, mirroring the devastation around him, until it is
revealed that the demon has taken over the body of the female nurse who
was attending to him.
Schrader's film takes an entirely new character on a different path. In
Dominion, the character of Cheche, a young man that Merrin finds injured
and on the verge of death, is miraculously healed by the evil roiling
inside him. "Instead of degrading him physically," explains Schrader,
"as the crypt beneath the church opens up and as the human evil around
him increases, he gets better and better, until he finally transforms
into Lucifer, the source of light." As Merrin says to the demon, "You
are the Great Deceiver."
Schrader is often asked how Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist compares
with the original Exorcist, one of the most terrifying horror films of
all time. "Well, that was a classic and you can't top a classic," says
the director. "It would be like saying you can make a film better than
Casablanca. No way! Get that out of your head! Fortunately, since all
the events in my film take place long before that film, I'm not locked
into any of the same characters or situations."
The genesis of the story told in Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
sparked by a comment made in the original Exorcist that Father Merrin
had once performed an exorcism years ago in Africa. Screenwriters
William Wisher and Caleb Carr took that concept and created a new fold
in Merrin's past - many years before the grisly events in Georgetown and
several years after a harrowing incident during World War II, Merrin
first comes face to face with pure evil, inhabiting the body of an
innocent. Only Merrin has the stature and experience to purge and defeat
it - but his crisis of faith may render him powerless. From that point
on, events rapidly spiral downward into existential horror.
Schrader's sensibilities proved perfect for the story. A protagonist who
is utterly without mooring yet searching to believe in something has
been a key feature in many of Schrader's works, exemplified by Travis
Bickle, the tortured antihero of Taxi Driver, the landmark 1976 film
written by Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese.
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is a film that delves deeply into
issues of good, evil, and the true nature of man, and perhaps Schrader's
personal history makes him singularly capable of telling such a tale.
Raised a Dutch Calvinist in a virtually closed community (the youthful
Schrader didn't even see a film until his late teens), it was expected
throughout his childhood that he would one day become a minister.
is a film that delves deeply into issues of good, evil, and the true
nature of man, and perhaps Schrader's personal history makes him
singularly capable of telling such a tale. Raised a Dutch Calvinist in a
virtually closed community (the youthful Schrader didn't even see a film
until his late teens), it was expected throughout his childhood that he
would one day become a minister.
"I was brought up to believe in a very real devil, a real Satan," says
Schrader. "I don't accept his physicality anymore - but it certainly
holds its power as a metaphor. I clearly understand why such a belief
came into being, and how it has performed an ongoing function in human
psychology and spirituality. You can't run away from your childhood -
it's something that you carry with you your whole life. So I don't doubt
for a minute the power of these concepts, or the needs they address."
With the filmmakers left free to invent all new characters and
situations, the sole thread connecting this story to its predecessor is
Father Lankester Merrin. To cast the role of the lost and disillusioned
priest, the filmmakers turned to esteemed actor Stellan Skarsgård, star
of such films as Dogville, Good Will Hunting and Breaking the Waves.
Schrader and Skarsgård had met some years ago at the Telluride Festival
and the director had kept him in mind ever since.
The opportunity to work with Schrader was a draw for the actor, as was
the script. "I've always been a fan of Paul's," says Skarsgård, "and I
found the story very interesting because, particularly for a big budget
American movie, it had a lot of character to it.
"Merrin was once a priest," Skarsgård
continues, "but he has lost his faith and left the Church. And that's
where you meet him in the film. He gets involved in these horrible
events and he is tested - Merrin's battle with faith is one part of this
story, and his battle with evil is another."
"What interests me about this story is that it is ultimately an
introspective journey having to do with Merrin's soul," says Schrader.
"Stellan has the kind of stature and complexity that this character
needs. He can very believably portray a man who's going through this
Skarsgård appreciates the
psychological terror that lies in the heart of Schrader's film. "The
scariest thing to me in The Exorcist was the sound in the attic,"
Skarsgård relates. "Spinning heads
is not my cup of tea really, but the sound in the attic, when the threat
was hidden and everything was left to your imagination - that's when
Beyond being an extraordinary actor with the necessary gravitas to play
such a demanding role, it has often been remarked that Skarsgård
resembles fellow Swede Max von Sydow, who originated the role of Father
Merrin in The Exorcist. As Schrader says, "I must say it's an added
bonus having the best Swedish actor of this generation playing a role
created by the best actor of his father's generation!"
In the role of Father Francis, the idealistic young priest who attempts
to bring Merrin back to the faith, is actor Gabriel Mann, whose previous
films include The Life of David Gale, The Bourne Supremacy and
Like Love. Mann admits he may have done a bit of an actor's overkill
when he showed up for his meeting with Schrader complete with priest's
gear. "I guess I went into it like gangbusters!" says the actor. "At a
certain point Paul just sort of sat back laughing and said, I think you
have the job!'"
Mann, a self-confessed horror fanatic, considers The Exorcist to be "the
mother of all scary films, basically. It's the one by which all others
are gauged." While he was never able to see it on the big screen, Mann
says he treats his DVD of the film's 2000 re-issue almost religiously,
like a relic. "I'm still pinching myself. I can't quite believe that I'm
involved in anything related to that film - it was such a formative
cinematic experience for me."
Actress Clara Bellar believes she was cast for her innate understanding
of the heart of dedicated aid worker and concentration camp survivor
Rachel Lesno. "Paul saw me on video and then asked me to do a second
scene with an actor," she recalls. "I was in L.A., he in New York, and
he asked me to give him as many different shades and choices of reading
as I could. When we finally did meet, he told me it was the soul of the
character he was looking for."
The actress was appreciative of the director's on-set style. She
describes Schrader as "an actors' director" who trusts his players and
always gives them lots of room to breathe. "He has an experimental
attitude toward directing that's very exciting - everything seems
fresher that way. You'd expect that because he's such a well-known
writer he'd demand that you say the words exactly as they were written
on the page. Not at all! He was most open to change. I trust the actor's
instinct,' he'd say, and he proved that again and again."
Singer Billy Crawford makes his big screen debut in the role of Cheche,
the outcast and injured young man whose improbable recovery heralds the
impending doom. "Even though I was a singer, my manager and agent took a
chance and submitted the picture from the cover of my album Ride, where
I look kind of scary and sexy. Pam Dixon, the casting director, saw the
picture and met with me while she was doing open calls in NY - the next
thing I knew, I was being screen tested!"
Both Skarsgård and Mann sought guidance to ensure they were convincing
as men of the cloth. Mann then happened to meet a priest who turned out
to be a part-time actor. "He told me he had worked with Schwarzenegger
on End of Days," Mann recalls. "Priests with SAG cards - you encounter
everything in California."