Director Daniel Stamm is no stranger to the faux-documentary style of filmmaking. In fact, his faux-documentary drama A Necessary Death is largely why he was tapped to direct The Last Exorcism. We sat down to talk about the benefits and possible pitfalls of this style of filmmaking, his methods for achieving stellar performances, the The Last Exorcism's controversial ending and double jointed leading ladies.
Screen Rant: You’ve talked about some of the appeal of the documentary style, in terms of creating a greater sense of intimacy with the audience. You’ve said that a benefit of this style is that the camera stands in for the audience, in effect forcing them into the action. Given that this film chooses a documentary/found footage approach, why did you (though Nathan Barr is great) choose to score the film?
Daniel Stamm: I think you have to separate the intellectual approach which of course would say; no music at all and we are fanatic about the one camera angle which I was in the beginning. I said if we have…
[HUGE SPOILER ALERT]
…the demon coming out of the fire the camera man would not say, ‘I wonder what Cotton would think of that.’ He would stay on the damn demon.
Spoiler-free translation: If the camera is focused on a certain area then it would not look to see what the actors are thinking about the action in that area, it would stay focused on what is happening there.
DS: But then we had that we completely lost our protagonist for minutes and we completely lost our connection to the hero in the movie. So we actually re-shot those action shots. So that was the kind of intellectual approach vs. the emotional approach and the emotional intent of the scene. When we had to make a decision to go for the intellectual or the emotional approach, we went for the emotional. The same goes for the music. Without music in a horror there is actually such a big part missing. I’d rather lose the small part of the audience that is going to be insulted because a documentary shouldn’t have music than the big part of the audience that kind of gives itself over to the scene. And actually most documentaries are scored. And Nathan is so subtle with the score that I feel it is a balance of not being invasive but at the same time being as effective as possible.
SR: Is that a limitation of a traditional documentary style? That you can get caught in some of those rules or restrictions?
DS: It’s not a limitation but it’s a balancing act to strike and you will alienate some people on some sides of the spectrum. Because they would want a complete found footage feel. But then there shouldn’t be any editing either. And if we had a completely found footage feel, with no editing, then we would have a twenty four hour movie and that doesn’t really work either. And you would have only one camera and one angle. In a conventional movie, you have all these different angles and you can show the audience everything that you want to show them. And you can make a lot of stuff happen in the editing, especially in a horror movie. And here you have to make it work in camera – which is maybe the biggest limitation.
SR: How long did it take to shoot, and how many hours of footage did you have? You mention that you would sometimes take as many as twenty takes.
DS: Where did I say that?
SR: I read the press kit – I come prepared! (laughing).
DS: Ah yes! I should read the press kit!
SR: You should! It’s a good read.
DS: The great thing about that style is that you don’t wait for lighting; you know you don’t wait for the crane to arrive so you can really concentrate on the actors and you have all the time in the world to experiment. So if you want to do 20 takes you can do 20 takes.
Stamm used this technique to push the actors past the boundaries of their own minds, past the point of apathy in delivery and all the way to the point where “rage sets in.” In that place they found an instinctive response from a place of truth in alignment with their characters. In addition to multiple takes Stamm included a healthy amount of improvisation as preparation for the actors. Some of which made it in as some of the film's greatest moments. The “banana bread” sermon will stand for many as a favored scene.
This is a film that offers some outstanding performances; each one gripping in their own right. I was absolutely taken and fascinated with the character of Cotton Marcus beginning with his introduction in the first quarter of the film. Caleb Jones gave me physical chills as Caleb Sweetzer. A palpable sense of danger surrounds him and one has no idea what he might do next. He gives us a sense that he was a complete live wire. Ashley Bell's range and physicality is astounding. So there can be no doubt that Stamm’s process is effective.
SR: So how many days did you shoot?
DS: 24 days.
SR: How many hours of footage did you shoot?
DS: I have no idea but it was a lot. Because on a conventional movie you would have running only for a few minutes a day and we probably had it running for four to six hours.
24 x 5 = 120. So that is a fair amount of footage.
SR: It’s mentioned that you did a fair amount of improvisation. Did that create any issues in the editing room?
DS: Mostly in rehearsals we went away from the script but then would come back to it. But it’s true that in one take to the next are much more different that they would be in a more conventional movie. But that’s great because you have all this footage – you know you can edit your way out of stuff because you have all this great material.
Anyone who has seen the poster for this film has seen the mind bending back bend that lead actress Ashley Bell performs. The real shocker is that there is absolutely no CGI used to enhance her performance.
SR: I have to ask, how in the world did Ashley contort her body like that?
DS: She is double jointed; she can pull out her shoulder like that. Which I didn’t even know she could. That’s not why I cast her.
SR: Yes, I was going to ask if that was part of the casting process.
DS: I cast her because we did an improvised exorcism in the auditions and she was sooo scary. I have this trick that I’m really proud of and I think it’s going to go down in cinema history. I sit in the waiting room of an audition and pretend to be another actor who is auditioning and talk to the people coming in before they know that I am the director. So I really have a very good feel for who they are as a person, before they even enter the room. She was the sweetest mellowest, nicest girl. And when she did the exorcism she went up the walls – people were scared like “what the hell is going on” and that is exactly what we needed – that energy and that darkness. And that’s why I cast her.
And then two days before we actually shot the exorcism scene (which was written completely differently from what you saw); I asked her if she had any ideas, anything that she wanted to try out. She said in the hotel lobby ‘why don’t I do this?’ and she bent over backwards like that. And I said you stay as you are, I am going to go rewrite the whole scene and we are going to base the scene around that.
SR: How was it written differently originally?
[SPOILERS ON THE FILM'S ENDING]
DS: It was much more dialog, It was much more kind of a chess game that had both of them very equal. Now it is much more Ashley calling the shots and him reacting to the demon.
SR: What is your take on the ending of the film?
DS: There is no take of mine on the ending, because basically what we are saying we give you a ninety minute movie and then we are going to tell you if faith is true or not? I can’t say that, that would be the most arrogant thing in the world to do. So it’s kind of important that we have an open ending. You know we have a character who didn’t believe in God and now that Hell actually opens up in front of him he finally believes in God – but is that Faith? Do you really want to see a demon in front of you and believe in God? That’s not really faith. So when he walks towards the demon asking God for help I don’t want to show the outcome of that because I don’t know if God would help him or if God would say; “You know what you didn’t believe in me before so you handle that yourself.” It’s kind of important that the ending is as open ended as it is right now and that there is no take of mine. The absence of the take of the director and the writer is kind of important when it comes to questions.
SR: What is your personal take on Faith?
DS: Well I wasn’t brought up as a believer. But as I get older there is so much stuff happening that doesn’t make sense to me any other way… So I am not there yet that I would say I do believe. But I am not as militant an atheist anymore. I think I’m more … I switched from atheism to agnosticism.
SR: So you keep an open mind?
Look for an additional piece in which the film's creators discuss their different points of views on the films central themes as well its surprising ending. Producers Eli Roth and Eric Newman, and lead actors Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell all weigh in.