What happens when you combine a stylistic horror film with a good courtroom drama? Answer, you end up with the genre-defying film “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” I met with the film’s creators Scott Derrickson, Paul Harris Boardman and star, Laura Linney, on Sunday to discuss how such an innovative film concept caught the eyes and ears Hollywood. I asked Scott about how he and Paul pitched the idea for their film about a 19 year-old American girl’s exorcism to Screen Gems’ Senior VP Clint Culpepper. As they recall, they were clear about one thing: this film would be both horror story and courtroom drama.
To director Derrickson’s relief, Screen Gems not only saw the potential in this unusual pairing of genres, but also gave the writers the green light to “stay true to their script.” They attempt to depart from the formula of the “slasher film” to fashion what Derrickson believes is a more “intelligent horror film,” comparable to 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” And so began the filming of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”
A true scholar of film, Derrickson realized the risk in “putting two genres together.” As he points out, “there are two reasons why such a film wouldn’t get made. They could tell you A, we’ve seen it before, or B we’ve never seen this before.” Yet luckily Culpepper got their concept of mixing the two genres together. Derrickson recalls, “the film was a dream to make.” When asked if he had any challenges getting his film made, Derrickson said, “I worked very hard to get to this point in my career. Screen Gems was great to work with. When David and I approached Clint Culpepper, he understood what we were trying to do...There are two things that Hollywood understands, courtroom dramas and horror films, and we wanted to make both in one film."
Inspired by a compelling true story of the Catholic Church’s official recognition of a teenager’s demonic possession, Derrickson built his film around believable characters and original horror sequences. For months Derrickson and Boardman read extensively about demonic possession, even listening to tape recordings and speaking to eyewitnesses, to create as realistic a portrayal as possible. And while comparisons to the movie that made exorcisms famous are inevitable, Scott Derrickson never hoped to recreate the 1973 film “The Exorcist.” He admits to being a “huge fan of the genre” but he argues, “The Exorcist can’t be out done.”
During their approximate 40-day shoot, Boardman and Derrickson were conscious of the difficulties in mixing such seemingly disparate storylines. The film focuses on the trial of a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) accused of neglect resulting in the death of a girl (Jennifer Carpenter) who he believed was possessed by the devil. A sequence of flashbacks addresses both the priest’s involvement with the victim, Emily Rose, and provides the elements of horror for which director Derrickson has become famous. Boardman in particular was concerned about the “rhythm” and pacing that such a story would warrant. Yet they found a compromise in the very formula of the horror film itself. As Derrickson comments on the plot structure, “horror elements are about tension and relief,” so the courtroom scenes became those moments of relief from the suspense built
by the horror sequences.
After watching “all the great courtroom movies,” Derrickson felt that most directors used courtroom scenes to “manipulate” audiences with fancy camera work. While he “trusts the audience to listen to the arguments presented in the trial,” he also relied upon the set design to carry those scenes and to make them what Boardman calls “less TV.” In just 13 days, Derrickson shot the courtroom sequences in chronological order to ensure that intellectual sides of the story would be as compelling as the horror elements.
Although Boardman likens his creative pairing with Derrickson to the “Scully and Mulder” variety—with him being the skeptic and Derrickson acting as a believer in the potential for demonic possession to exist—both were convinced that Laura Linney would be the perfect actor to carry the courtroom scenes which are central to the film. When asked why she decided to take the part of defense attorney Erin Bruner, she said that she was “curious” about how “you complement these two kinds of stresses…suspense…and the fear of the supernatural.” She commented that her character “is going through a period of time when her conscience is banging at the door.”
Laura Linney admits that “everybody has personal demons” and she was attracted to “the challenge of whether or not... this endlessly fascinating story could be turned into more than just a scary movie.” Once Boardman and Derrickson guaranteed to “fully explore…both sides” of this religious issue, Linney signed on with one more provision: that Jennifer Carpenter read for the part of Emily Rose. Both writers and Linney agree that Carpenter was perfect for the role and had the range necessary to create a believable character. In fact, Carpenter was so authentic that Derrickson said he was able to “withhold the CGI effects and let Jennifer act.”
In the end, writers Boardman and Derrickson have created a compelling thriller whose purpose as Derrickson says is “not to persuade” and “not to provide any metaphysical answer” to the question are demonic possessions real or the stuff of church lore and fantasy. Even after the nearly two month shoot Linney is still “not sure if a possession can occur,” but as she points out when “questions…this big” are posed to an audience “it is ok not to know.” Yet it will be up to audiences—both believers and skeptics—to determine if Boardman and Derrickson have found the right balance between genres to captivate audiences when the film opens for wide release on September 9th.
So what’s next for this writing duo? Derrickson and Boardman are not looking to rush into their next project. They want to choose and work on something they think would be great. Perhaps science fiction. And perhaps with Screen Gems.