Hell Hath No Fury [edited]
Exorcist: The Beginning, a story of Hollywood possession

August 13-19, 2004   

Paul Schrader seems relaxed for a man who’s just been doing battle with dark, demonic forces — and I’m not talking about Pazuzu, the sinister spirit that an elderly priest once pursued from the deserts of Iraq to a young girl’s bedroom on a foggy street in Georgetown. It’s October of last year, and Schrader and I have met for drinks in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont to talk about his latest film, Exorcist: The Beginning — which, as you may already know, will not be coming soon to a theater near you. A couple of months earlier, rumors had begun to circulate that Schrader had been fired from the project — a prequel to the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist — after screening his edit for the executives at Morgan Creek, the independent production company that currently owns all rights to the Exorcist franchise. The former New Hollywood enfant terrible, it was said, had failed to deliver a movie that was as scary or gory as its producers had hoped, and a new director would be brought in to do re-shoots. Then, in a press release dated September 15, 2003, it was made official: "Morgan Creek Productions and director Paul Schrader have jointly announced that Schrader will no longer continue as director of Exorcist: The Beginning due to" — drumroll, please — "creative differences."

As has since been reported, Schrader’s firing was merely the latest in a series of wayward turns that had plagued The Beginning since the beginning — a web of movie making, unmaking and remaking so infernally tangled as to give new meaning to the phrase "development hell." Indeed, plans for a new Exorcist film dated back to the summer of 1997, when Variety reported that Morgan Creek was commissioning a script from Terminator 2 co-writer William Wisher that would recount Father Merrin’s first confrontation with the devil, in British colonial Africa — events briefly alluded to in both the William Friedkin film and the best-selling William Peter Blatty novel on which it had been based. That script was subsequently overhauled by novelist Caleb Carr (The Alienist) and attached to television director Tom McLoughlin. But the project only really began to pick up steam in the fall of 2000, when The Exorcist, in a tricked-out reissue promoted as "The Version You’ve Never Seen," bucked all the conventional wisdom concerning special editions to take in $40 million at the domestic box office. Suddenly, The Beginning was back on track, with John Frankenheimer replacing McLoughlin and Liam Neeson set to star as Father Merrin (the role originally played by Max von Sydow).

There the bedevilment might have ended, had the 72-year-old Frankenheimer — in the summer of 2002, during pre-production — not undergone back surgery and bowed out of directing the film. (He died shortly thereafter.) A replacement was sought, and Schrader, rather unexpectedly, landed the gig. Shooting commenced in late 2002, on locations in Morocco and sound stages in Rome, with a budget of $40 million, the largest of Schrader’s career.

Sometime prior to our meeting, I had seen Schrader’s version of Exorcist: The Beginning. The television screen was small, and the film was far from finished — all the music and visual effects were temporary, the image itself a high-resolution output from a computer editing system. But even under such circumstances, there was no escaping the lyrical sense of terror evoked in the opening scenes of Schrader’s film. In a predominantly Catholic Dutch village in the waning days of World War II, the murder of a German SS officer leads his lieutenant to round up the villagers for interrogation. As snow flurries fill the sky, the lieutenant demands that the local priest identify the guilty party — surely, inasmuch as he is their confessor, he must know which of these people has blood on his hands. The priest, of course, is Father Merrin (played by Stellan Skarsgård, who replaced Neeson during pre-production), and when he insists that none of his parishioners is culpable, the lieutenant sets about a diabolical course of action. He will kill 10 villagers as a warning to the real killer, wherever he may be. What’s more, Merrin must select the 10 who will die. Should he refuse, the lieutenant vows to kill everyone. "God is not here today, priest," he bellows as Merrin collapses into prayer.

From there, the film plunges into postwar colonial Africa. Merrin, now working as an archaeologist, is overseeing the excavation of what appears to be a Byzantine church situated high in the hills surrounding the town. It seems to have been buried, intentionally, just after it was constructed, as if to contain some spiritual force rather than exalt it. And as Merrin digs, a mysterious presence seems to set itself upon the entire region. A tribal elder’s wife gives birth to a maggot-infested fetus; two British soldiers are found murdered at the dig site, their corpses contorted to resemble those of John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul; and an escalating standoff between the British and the natives bears discomforting similarities to one Merrin himself witnessed not so long ago . . .

Rather than worshipfully recalling the claustrophobic, kitchen-sink realism of the 1973 film, Schrader and Carr seemed actively engaged in subverting, as best they could, its iconography. Shot by no less a visual poet than Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, One From the Heart and virtually everything by Bertolucci), the film is visually wide-open, with a dramatic sense of landscape and a marvelous attention to the subtlest tricks of light. Moreover, this Beginning views demonic possession less as a singular occurrence — the terrors visited upon an innocent young victim — than as a contagion born in the hearts of men, able to cross oceans of time and space, infecting entire communities in its wake. It is, by Schrader and Carr’s own admission, an internalized piece of psychological (as opposed to visceral) horror. It’s also, not incidentally, an epistemological study of faith, set against a world that gives even the righteous many reasons to question their beliefs. In short, just the sort of brooding, introspective piece you might expect from Schrader (who was raised as a strict Calvinist and who has explored similar themes in films from Hardcore to Affliction) and Carr (who, though best known for his novels, has also written extensively about military history, global terrorism and other Zeitgeist matters), but which Morgan Creek would later claim was exactly what it hadn’t asked for.

Back at the Marmont, to hear Schrader tell the story — or as much of the story as he is able to tell, given the "non-disparagement" agreement he and Morgan Creek chairman and CEO James G. Robinson have mutually agreed to — he had little inkling that anything was amiss until midway through the Morocco part of his shoot. "When Jim came to Morocco, he started saying to me, 'It isn’t scary enough,' which became a mantra," says Schrader. "We had to get out of Morocco by Christmas, and we only had two weeks left in Morocco before Christmas. So I told him there was nothing we could really do with the Morocco stuff anyway, but let’s add some more stuff when we get to Rome. About eight to 10 elements were subsequently added to make it scarier — all within the context of the script we had, and without going into any real hardcore horror stuff, because it had always been established that we didn’t want spinning heads and pea soup. And if you don’t want that, then it’s natural to assume that you don’t want that kind of in-your-face horror."

But then, Schrader adds, "By the time I was shooting in Rome, my relationship with Jim had deteriorated quite a bit." There were fights over editors and composers, and over whether Schrader would do postproduction work on the film in New York (where he lives) or L.A. Then, Schrader says, in March 2003, he screened his cut for Robinson and other Morgan Creek executives (including company president Guy McElwaine), following which there was talk of re-editing, of cutting down the film’s 130-minute running time. After another round of edits supervised by Schrader, a separate cut of the film was prepared by Robinson himself. By which point, the writing on the wall was plainly visible.

At the time of our meeting, Schrader was still uncertain about the long-term future of his film, though he had gotten wind of who would be warming his recently vacated director’s chair: Renny Harlin, the Finnish action specialist previously responsible for the smart-shark thriller Deep Blue Sea and two of Hollywood’s better sequels, Die Hard 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4.

Two months later, Harlin was in Rome, on Schrader’s old sound stages, shooting a film called Exorcist: The Beginning, made from a new script and featuring almost entirely new creative teams in front of and behind the camera. (Skarsgård and Storaro were the lone holdovers.) Virtually none of Schrader’s scenes were expected to be retained.

"There’s nothing like making a practice movie," chuckles James Robinson. It’s now May 2004, midway through the Cannes Film Festival, and I’ve literally run down the Croisette from an early-morning press screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 to meet with Robinson in his temporary office at the posh Hotel Martinez.

"I was not happy with the Paul Schrader version," says Robinson, who looks a bit like Merv Griffin and whose words flow forth in the just-plain-folks patois of a small-town politician running for office. "Now why do I say ‘Paul Schrader version’ when I’m such a hands-on guy?" he continues. "Bottom line here is that we give the director a lot of latitude during the actual making of the movie, and then I step back in during postproduction. I’m there during production, but if a director has got himself a certain agenda, he can put that thing into effect. So, I saw the director’s cut. Then I went in the editing room with Paul, but no matter what we did, it had been shot in such a way that you really couldn’t change it. I use the word cerebral — the movie was more cerebral than it was fun or scary or all the other things. But let’s not kid ourselves. This is the entertainment business. Realizing we could not get the movie we thought we were going to get, the one Frankenheimer would have given us in a heartbeat, I said, ‘We can just throw the thing at video and walk away, or we can make another movie.’"

Reading that script later, I too find it an entertaining, if altogether more conventional, affair. Credited to first-time screenwriter Alexi Hawley (with Carr and Wisher sharing "story by" credit), it has been predictably gussied up with buzzing flies, upside-down crucifixes, sinister tarot cards and, in what may be perceived as a nod to fans of The Passion of the Christ, blood-soaked messages scrawled in Aramaic. The possibly possessed village boy from Carr’s script has been eliminated in favor of an entirely different possibly possessed village boy. A mad professor has been added to the mix. But what’s more remarkable about Hawley’s script are all the ways in which it doesn’t differ from Carr’s. Africa and the archaeological dig are still there, as is the British army, the flashback to the Dutch village (though now positioned much later in the story) and Merrin’s ultimate standoff with the demon — even if, true to a prediction Schrader made at our first meeting, that confrontation is now more physical than theological. "If they were going to spend all that money to do a rock 'em, sock 'em Exorcist, I figured they would have gone toward a Texas Chainsaw–style movie," Schrader (who has also read the Hawley script) tells me when I drop by his Manhattan office in July on a rain-soaked afternoon. "But they didn’t. They just tried making a more rapid version of what they had and, as such, probably a more commercial version. But whether it’s more commercial in the context of where they were when they made that decision is another matter. If no money had been spent at all, then I suspect that script is more commercial than the one I directed. But having already spent $35 million on my version, is it still more commercial?"

Time will tell. A print of Harlin’s film was not made available for preview in connection with this article, though, speaking by phone from the film’s sound-mixing stage, Harlin assured me that "Like the original, this is a very adult horror film. It very seriously examines the issue of faith and God’s presence in people’s lives as deciding factors in whether or not justice takes place in the world."

[LA Weekly]