It was a dark, stormy night. Shortly after having four wisdom teeth extracted Hostel-style, my mouth pooled with blood as I picked up the phone to talk horror and exorcisms with Eli Roth. No, it didn’t really happen like that, but it would have made for an appropriate post-op chat about The Last Exorcism Part II, right?
In the sequel to the 2010 hit, Nell (Ashley Bell) is back and even though she’s still reeling from the effects of her terrifying, body-contorting bout with the demon Abalam, she tries to adapt and build a new life. Trouble is, it’s impossible to escape her past with the footage of her disturbing experience all over the Internet and Abalam still hot on her trail.
With The Last Exorcism Part II due in theaters on March 1st, Roth took a little break from editing The Green Inferno to discuss the meticulous process of developing a worthy sequel. It’s a wonder the producer managed to decipher my puffy-cheeked, garbled questions, but Roth was thrilled to dish on passing the torch from Daniel Stamm to Ed Gass-Donnelly, giving Nell a crash course in modern technology and more.
SCREEN RANT: Congratulations on the trailer!
Eli Roth: “Thank you! We’re really, really proud of the movie. Ed Gass-Donnelly did an amazing job. We’re really, really happy.”
At what point did you start thinking sequel? Was it before the first film came out or when it did really well critically and at the box office?
“Now horror people are just so commonplace that the idea of the sequel, conceptually, was while we were in editing we thought, “What if we do a second one?” That’s where movies tend to go wrong. I don’t really like to get ahead of yourself. The whole goal is making the first one a hit and then maybe start to think about it. We made the first movie for $1.5 million. Opening weekend it made $20 million and then it went around the world in a lot of territories, so everyone, of course, is asking us, ‘Can we have another one?’ I think part of what made the first one great is that we really, really took our time in making it. That script was developed for like three years and even in the editing of the movie, we really spent a long time getting it right because it’s docu-style. It took a while. Daniel Stamm did an amazing job, but we thought the last thing we want to do is just rush into the sequel and make something that we’re not proud of or that isn’t worthy of being made. The last one came out in 2010, so here we are in 2013 and we really, really spent a long time getting the story right. Everybody wanted to do a sequel and they basically said, ‘Whenever you guys are ready to go, the financing is there, but take your time and get it right.’
The first one has such a strong reason to have a docu-style for filming the confessional, but I thought, what if we don’t do it in the found footage, but within the world of the sequel, the first film exists, but as an online video. That way, you have Nell coming out of this experience; she has absolutely no memory of it. She just appears out of the woods. She’s covered in burns. She doesn’t even know what she’s escaped from, but other people had seen the video and some guy on the street recognizes, ‘Oh, you’re the chick from that video! Do the back flip thing!’ They see this girl as someone who’s been through this experience, but people just think it’s some crazy video. They don’t know it’s really not.”
Was that always the storyline you were going with or did you toy around with any other ideas?
“People died pretty brutally in the first one [laughs], so our options were limited, but anytime you’re exploring an idea, you start to think of every single storyline. What we really came up against was that there is no good excuse to have another documentary. But we also knew you could really see the audience responding to Ashley Bell. Those scenes where she’s bending her back, and that’s her doing it, it’s really her doing all that stuff, people really, really responded to it. And I wanted to see more! We thought, ‘Okay, let’s really write a showcase for her,’ so we started thinking about Nell’s story. The original title of the first movie was Cotton and it was all about Cotton Marcus. It was after Lionsgate bought the movie that we changed the title to The Last Exorcism because we felt that Cotton wasn’t telling people what the movie was about. The Last Exorcism, people get it right away. [Laughs] So obviously we weren’t thinking about a sequel when we called it the first movie the last one, but then we thought, ‘How many Final Destinations are never really final?’
We love the idea of this thing that’s still attached to her in some way and wants her to fall in love with it. Instead of forcibly taking her over, it’s trying to seduce her, and we were thinking, what would happen if there was this thing that was in love with you and wouldn’t let you go, and started to destroy the world around you? We spent a long time on the story and brought in Ed Gass-Donnelly to direct. I loved his movie Small Town Murder Songs. I thought it was extremely well done on a very low budget, there’s a real elegance and the performances were terrific. Ed and Damien [Chazelle] really worked on the script. We spent a long time and had a great time making it.”
Can you tell me about the shift from Daniel to Ed? I bet Ed is great, but I happened to have watched A Necessary Death recently so it made me long for Daniel a bit.
“Daniel, obviously, is an amazing talent. A Necessary Death is why we hired him for Last Exorcism. We saw that movie that he made for $2,000 and that’s why I gave him the quote for the DVD. I was like, ‘This is such a great example of smart filmmaking.’ When people tell me they don’t have enough money for their movie, I tell them to watch A Necessary Death because it’s such a great example of making a movie to showcase your talent. After Last Exorcism, that became a showcase for the studios and, right away, picked him up to direct a movie. He was very, very involved with the development of that movie and, at the time, it really looked like that movie was about to start production, so instead of trying to court Daniel again, we thought, he’s had this great experience, but there’s another guy out there like Daniel that’s made a feature, that we think is great, but is only seen in film festivals or on the art house circuit who’s ready to dive in and take the opportunity to make a mainstream, commercial scary movie to really showcase their talents, but do it in an elegant, smart way to maintain what Daniel did, but in a different style. I thought Ed Gass-Donnelly really had that with Small Town Murder Songs. It was so well photographed, tense, the lighting, the score. And he’s from a theater background, his family’s in theater, so he’s very performance driven. We wanted to continue the story and continue the world, but have someone else bring a fresh, creative perspective to it because we’ve been in it for three or four years at that point.”
You’ve got Ed’s fresh perspective and the switch from found-footage, but were there any specific visual elements you wanted him to maintain to keep the worlds connected?
“Yeah! First of all, Ashley’s performance, she’s the same character and it’s actually kind of crushing to watch the big scope and beautiful photography. Daniel, his favorite director is Lars von Trier and that’s what he was going for when he was making the movie. He wasn’t setting out to make a scary movie or horror movie; he wanted to make a movie that was very uncomfortable and compelling. Ed, lots of Roman Polanski. Rosemary’s Baby or he loves The Shining. He wanted to make that classical, elegant, slow burn, tense, creepy kind of horror that wasn’t lots of flashes, jumps and camera shaking. You could watch the performances unfold and get terrified from the characters. I love that Ed was approaching it like he was making Rosemary’s Baby. Everyone should shoot for Rosemary’s Baby. It’s one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but that’s the type of movie Ed set out to make, and we were all completely on board with that!
I think the common thread is Nell, but it’s fun to watch her react. She’s at a home for troubled girls because she has no memory of what happened, she can’t really fit in, her family’s dead and there’s this video online of what people did to her that she’s told is a hoax, that these people conned her and tricked her, and it’s a hoax that all went wrong. But then these other girls that are in the home watch the video and they think she’s really possessed and are like, ‘Get her away from us. That girl has a demon in her!’ It was really fun to have the other audience be on the same level as the other characters in the movie, knowing that she’s got something in her. You feel like you’re really connected to the world. But we also wanted to try this great new style for the sequel with how the story evolves, and we found it just gives all kinds of new, exciting possibilities so that the sequel can be a completely fresh new movie. They’re both very different films, but still connected.”
Does Nell even have any concept of what the Internet is?
“Sort of. That’s the thing; she learns about it. We address that, right away. She goes into the room and her roommate shows her what an iPod is. She lived completely away from technology. She understands what a camera is and she conceptually understands it, but she was taught that it was bad. She’s not Tweeting in the movie or anything [laughs], but we are watching a girl who was taught that all these things were bad for her, slowly engage with it and start to get more comfortable with it. She gets this job working in a motel so she has something to do and it’s fun to watch Nell walk into New Orleans Mardi Gras because she’s never been there before, and see the floats, the parade and all these things that she was taught were the devil’s work, all this stuff, to watch her really enjoy it and see the world that’s out there, but also feel terrified for her because this mass is subjecting her and now this horrible evil thing has targeted her.”
To wrap up, I hear you’re in Chile right now, so are you still wrapping things up on The Green Inferno?
“Yeah, I’m actually diving into the editing. It was the craziest experience of my life. [Laughs] I have to write a book about it one day. We filmed in a village farther than anyone’s ever filmed before in the Amazon. It was four hours of travel every day with 90 minutes each way up a riverboat. Where we were going had no electricity. There were 200 villagers that we hired as extras. They had never seen a movie before and didn’t even know what a movie was, and I had them all acting in the movie. It was 100 degrees, and there were tarantulas, there were pigs, cows and horses running everywhere. It was an insane experience of deadly spiders, all kinds of stuff, but the movie looks incredible. There’s nothing like it! We filmed so deep in the Amazon in areas that nobody’s ever shot in and the film just looks spectacular.”
Must be fun getting insurance for something like that!
“Basically there was no insurance. There were so many things that we were like, ‘Wow, this is a really, really stupid idea,’ that we basically have to do it without telling. A lot of the stuff we did, we did without telling anyone and, thank God, the actors survived. They were just like, ‘Is this okay? Is this safe?’ But let me put it this way, everybody had to get de-parasited after the movie. [Laughs]”
The Last Exorcism Part II opens theatrically on March 1, 2013.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.