50 years ago this December, the most terrifying horror film in history landed on screens, shocking audiences around the world. Now, a new chapter begins. From Blumhouse and director David Gordon Green, who shattered the status quo with their resurrection of the Halloween franchise, comes The Exorcist: Believer.
Ahead of the film’s much discussed release this week, Peter Gray spoke with the filmmaker about the pressure he felt in taking on another genre classic, how he convinced Ellen Burstyn to say yes to reprising her Oscar-nominated role from half a century prior, and what we can expect from him next.
After the Halloween trilogy, the horror fans – we’ll call them – were quite vocal about certain things. Going into The Exorcist, was there certain pressure taken off because you sort of weathered the storm with Halloween?
I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I surround myself with kind of a circle of trust of creative collaborators I’ve been working with for 20 years, so, you know, I’m always going to make things that divisive. I know that my own criteria is to make it as personal as possible. To make what I really want to make (and to not) let it be engineered by the system or institution or just a fan base. It’s good to acknowledge that exists, (but) for me it’s a great opportunity to make a movie that people will open their eyes or turn their heads and maybe buy a ticket to, so I get excited about that. But I’m always going to be there to push buttons and challenge myself and challenge an audience.
I spoke to Andi Matichak for Halloween Ends, and she basically said for fans to not be precious about (the film), and I think that’s what we need to take away. Don’t be precious and enjoy the film for what it is.
Oh, I remember being a kid and playing with my Star Wars action figures and creating stories and doing things, and I just feel like I’m a grown-up version of that same playful kid in the sandbox. Whether it’s Michael Myers or Chris MacNeil, to be able to have these iconic franchises and get in that playground is an incredible opportunity that I’m trying to maximise what I want to do in there.
On the mention of Chris MacNeil, when yourself, Scott Teems, Danny McBride and Peter Sattler are creating this story, was the narrative always there for Ellen Burstyn to return? Or did you have other things in place in case you couldn’t get her to say yes?
Yeah, we’re not idiots, we were protecting ourselves. Much like on Halloween with (Jamie Lee Curtis), you kind of hope there’s these ingredients you can include. When it’s a legacy that means a lot to me, it means a lot to so many people, if you could convince them to do that….and getting to know Ellen was amazing. I can’t say it wasn’t challenging. (She was) very sceptical of what we’re trying to do. A lot of people had come to her in the past, and her immediate answer was no. But we worked together, we sculpted a character together that I think was meaningful to her, and in a lot of ways mirrored some of her real-life experience in the 50 years after the success of The Exorcist. Then we became great collaborators and formed a great partnership and are really good friends. So that’s a thrill for me as a young movie junkie to be hanging out with “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”.
On the subject of Ellen Burstyn, obviously casting is key, and the casting of the young children is so crucial to the film’ success. Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum’s performances are so great. How was that casting process and realising that you’re going to be getting these kids to do and say certain things?
We had a script that was a blueprint of where we would go, and I looked to them for the early stages of the film. I looked to them for the authenticity of what these young, vivacious ladies would be saying and how they would be interacting. So most of that’s not even scripted. They would just say things and do things, and we’d do a series of leaving the camera rolling to see what happened and then edit together. And then the emotional attributes of the possession, as that started and under the heavy duress of such makeup and the demonic look that Christopher Nelson and his team created for them, it was amazing to see them turn it on and turn it off. The makeup really just turned into an interpretative dance kind of thing. When it was dark, they were dark, (but) then we’d say “Cut” and they would just joke around and play Taylor Swift songs. It became really light on the set. They were really grounding for the entire crew.
Regarding the execution of jump scares. I found the most surprising one to me was surrounding the snake. Is it becoming easier for you to know when to properly place the scare and execute them in a manner that your audience may not expect?
That’s a great question. For me, it’s always a consideration of “Are you going to go for surprise or suspense?”, and that was an example of surprise being the most successful route, because you don’t want to know the snake is there. Sometimes you want to know that the bomb is about to go off, and how you’re going to structure than in an Alfred Hitchcock-type of way. I think the payoff can be quite dynamite. In the case of the snake, we wanted to clear away any type of music and just have it be quiet. We hear voices up above that are making discoveries of their own, so we’re focused on this one thing, which is looking at the necklace. We’re distracting your eye. So I guess the key to a great scare, for me, is the distraction. You look over here and then the scare’s over there.
And we’ve obviously seen you with the Halloween trilogy, and I understand there’s potentially more Exorcist films on the way. I believe Silent Night, Deadly Night is something of a childhood favourite of yours? So I’m wondering do you have any ideas of where you would go post-Exorcist? I’d personally love to see what you could do with that movie!
I feel like I need a palate cleanser. Like I should make a film for children, or I should make a documentary. I should do something very different. All of those (ideas) I’m entertaining, but every day I have this new idea. Someone was wearing a Re-Animator t-shirt today, and I thought “Why not?”. Any title that inspired me as a young movie goer always triggers something, some new place to go, some reinvention that we could do. There’s this wonderful Kenny Rogers movie from the early 80s called Six Pack, and I just thought, “Why aren’t people making movies like that?” We need a new, great, iconic family film. Regardless of if it’s inspiration, or influence, or a sequel, or a reboot, I can’t stop my brain from spinning all these ideas.
The Exorcist: Believer is screening in Australian theatres from October 5th, 2023.