Scott Derrickson
by Greg Shull

Interview with The Exorcism of Emily Rose director/writer, Scott Derrickson, conducted on September 6, 2005, by Greg Shull, editor of Preview.

Greg: Just to let you know our approach at Preview Family Movie Review, we address not only the plot and acting of a movie but also the morality and the message. Much of our subscriber base is parents who want to find out about a film before their kids ask them if they can see it. Now, our reviewer gave your film high marks, even in our acceptability category, which surprised me for a film with “exorcism” in the title. What type of crowd do you expect will be drawn to see this film?

Scott: We’re definitely marketing the movie to horror fans. And I don’t think that anybody who goes to a movie with “exorcism” in the title isn’t paying to get scared. I think people who are going to see this movie are going to expect and they’re going to get a scary picture. The movie is not a straight-up horror film. It’s really a hybrid as far as genre goes. It’s a courtroom movie as much as it is a horror film. And the horror aspects of it are not as exploitive as you would expect to see in this genre. It’s done very realistically, which in my opinion makes it even more frightening. We didn’t resort to a lot of visual effects and a lot of grotesque imagery or vulgarity and things like that to make the scenes of possession and exorcism effective.

Greg: The trailer alone got my adrenaline going. And my wife said there’s no way in the world I’m going to drag her to it. She said, “Nope. I’m not going.”

Scott: Yeah, it’s not a movie for everybody. I can definitely understand that.

Greg: Well, what are your thoughts in general — backing up a little bit — as far as what role you think morality and positive messages should play in films?

Scott: I think that every movie has moral structure. I don’t think that you can avoid that when you’re telling a story. I don’t think that that means that the only good movies are movies that are void of sex, violence and profanity. I don’t think that’s the moral criteria. But I think that every story within its structure has ideas that are going to be communicated. And I think ideas have consequences. As a filmmaker, I certainly take that stuff very seriously.

Greg: I’d like you to compare The Exorcism of Emily Rose to a couple others.

Scott: All right.

Greg: First, The Exorcist.

Scott: I think The Exorcist is probably the scariest movie ever made. But I knew that in trying to make this film, I was going to have to do something dramatically different. If it was an attempt to imitate that movie or to outdo that movie, it would be a failure. This film is much more realistic and much less over the top than The Exorcist. I did a lot of research into real documented cases of possession and exorcism and tried to capture something that was a bit closer to the reality of the phenomenon. That was certainly the strategy with this movie. And this film is also much more of a direct exploration of spiritual issues I think than that film was. The courtroom half of the movie is really an inquisition into the realities of the spiritual realm, the realities of the demonic and ultimately the reality of God. It is a movie that is about asking those questions, and the highest intention of the movie is to cause the audience to think about what they believe, to ask themselves if they believe the spiritual realm exists and if the devil exists and therefore if God exists and, if so, what does that mean? I don’t think you can watch this movie, no matter who you are, without thinking pretty seriously about those issues.

Greg: An observation I’ve had: It seems in a lot of horror films today, the reaction of the crowd often is laughter. I’m guessing that’s not going to be the case in this one.

Scott: Well, there are a few moments that are intentionally funny, moments of dialog in particular. And you never know. Some audiences are jaded, and they think everything is funny. And some people laugh when they’re nervous. So, laughter in a theater is always a difficult thing to judge, especially when you’re talking about something like a horror film. I’ve screened this with audiences where there was some laughter in places that I didn’t expect. And I’ve screened it with audiences where I didn’t hear a pin drop.

Greg: The second film is Constantine.

Scott: This is a much more serious film than Constantine. This movie takes the subject matter very seriously and very literally and is meant to be a very realistic inquiry into the subject. I think Constantine is an interesting film in some ways, but for me I personally found it relatively unsatisfying as any kind of jumping off point for real thought or discussion about the demonic or about spiritual issues. I also think that film suffers from what a lot of … And I don’t ever want to criticize anybody else’s work because I do think the director did a good job. I think they made a relatively effective film, but my personal reaction to the movie was that the mixing of Christian mythology with other kind of random, innovative philosophies is always a bit unsatisfying to me. It’s as though it’s too dangerous to let the Christian mythology — and by mythology I mean, not in a sense of falsehood, but in the C.S. Lewis use of the term mythology, the whole iconography of Christianity. I think that that film, I don’t know, there was something about it that felt very watered down. And this film is not watered down. There is a very direct presentation of argument for the spiritual realm, and there’s a very serious presentation for a nonspiritual view of the world, a view of the world that does not encompass things like the devil and the demonic. And there’s even, you know, the prosecutor in the case is an identifying Christian, but he’s a very different kind of believer who doesn’t believe, at least in this case, that there’s such a thing as possession and argues accordingly. Terry Mattingly, the religion writer, felt that he really represented the modernist church movement and could have been a spokesman for the National Council of Churches, which I thought was a very fair reading of the character. As you see, I think that this movie has a lot more gravity and weight than a movie like Constantine and is much, much scarier.

Greg: Okay. Seeing the films that you’ve been involved with, someone might think that you’re fascinated with horror or possibly the spiritual. What would you say is the common thread, if there is one, that runs through a lot of your work?

Scott: Well, I don’t have a particular fascination with it. I’ve seen within the horror genre and within stories about the supernatural and spiritual, as you said, I just really see within that a place where my faith and the marketplace can meet. I was very inspired in school when I reread “The Screwtape Letters” because that book was being passed around by a lot of my film-school peers who were not Christians. And they were all raving about it. So I reread the book, and it was a real watershed moment for me. It was a moment when I realized that by telling stories in this sort of darker arena, I just felt there was a place where issues of faith could connect with popular culture. The horror genre is the best genre that there is to deal with spiritual questions. It’s probably the most friendly genre to religious and theological subject matter. I think it’s the genre that takes good and evil the most seriously. And I love the fact that it’s — I would call it the genre of nondenial. I think that a lot of Hollywood cinema is about escaping reality, and I think that horror can be a genre that forces you to confront reality, to confront the things that are scary in the world, the evil inside us as human beings, the evil that’s in the world. I think that a lot of Christians are wary of the genre with good cause because it’s probably also the genre given over to the most exploitation. Let’s face it; there have been a lot of really bad horror films. And part of my desire with this movie in particular was to take that genre of film and do something that had tremendous value. And I think that Christians used to do that a lot. Church history is full of writers and painters and artists who used dark, gothic storytelling as a way of presenting moral ideas and theological questions in a way that was very provocative. And it seems to be something that hasn’t really been taken up by many Christians in cinema. And I do want to say this in case we don’t get back to it. It is a PG-13 movie, but it is a very, very scary movie. It’s not a movie that I would recommend, by any means, for small children. Too scary for them.

Greg: How does your view of demons and angels line up with the presentation in Emily Rose or you mentioned “The Screwtape Letters”?

Scott: I’m an orthodox Christian, and I have pretty traditional views of that sort of thing. I mean I believe in the spiritual realm, and I believe in possession. I think it’s a real phenomenon. I came away from the research phase much more convinced than ever that it’s a real phenomenon. But, there are other people who have seen the same research and don’t think that. In the making of the movie, however, I was not interested in trying to propagate my point of view. I think that’s really a danger that many Christians succumb to when they try to write screenplays or try to work in cinema. They end up trying to persuade the audience to think the way they do. I don’t know how it is with you, but I know that for me whenever I feel a filmmaker’s agenda coming through, I naturally resist it, even if it’s an agenda I agree with. I don’t think people want to be preached at in a movie. There are different venues for that. I do think that it’s a spectacular medium for provoking really good questions and asking the right questions, and that’s certainly what the intention is behind this movie.

Greg: I noticed that you have a minor in theological studies from Biola. Not in a sense of propagation, but did this education help you in this work?

Scott: Oh yeah, most definitely. I can’t imagine I would have gravitated toward this kind of stuff at all had it not been for that study. And again, it was a desire to integrate my moral and theological and spiritual interest with the marketplace of making movies that ultimately led me into this place.

Greg: Of the many hats you wear in the film-making process, which one brings the most satisfaction?

Scott: I think directing and specifically editing. The act of production itself is quite grueling. Writing is extraordinarily difficult. Writing is where most of the creativity takes place, but it is very, very hard. I don’t know any writers who actually enjoy writing. I think we all love to have written. But I think that directing and making the movie and then specifically the editing process. Watching all of those years of writing and all of those months of directing and then watching it all start to come together in the comfort of an air-conditioned room, that’s really a joy. That’s where I think the payoff really comes.

Greg: On the less enjoyable side, as a writer, where do you derive your ideas?

Scott: The original ideas are just sort of moments of inspiration that come when they come. The idea for this movie came when I heard the true story. When I heard the story about a girl who died during an exorcism and the priest was on trial for negligent homicide, I just immediately sparked to the idea of a courtroom horror film. I’d never seen a movie that really combined those two genres. So, that was the original spark. I’m a big believer in research. I think a lot of the ideas that I get come from the act of injecting lots of research in a subject. Also having read a lot of books and seen a lot of films in my life, there’s a lot of things swimming around in my head. You just have to sort of trust the creative process that some good will eventually emerge in your mind. But there’s a bit of a mystery to it. You know, I remember hearing someone ask Stephen King that, because he’s such a prolific writer. And he just talked about the idea store. Somewhere in his head, there’s an idea store. And he’d kind of walk into it and peruse the shelf and pull something out, and there it is! And where does that come from? Who knows? It just is. I think everyone has an idea store. Getting inside of it is the trick. And the people who become professional writers are the people who somehow have found access to the idea store.

Greg: That’s good. Wrapping things up, what is a film that you feel everybody should see?

Scott: A great question. That’s a fabulous question. I’ll tell you what my favorite film is, and it’s a film that I do think everyone should see. It’s not an easy film to find. It’s a beautiful, little film called Ikiru. I think it’s the most meaningful film I’ve ever seen. It’s a Japanese movie with Japanese subtitles. I’m going to give you a foreign film and a classic film. And the classic film I would say is To Kill a Mockingbird.

Greg: Oh, man. Yeah, I love that.

Scott: Yeah. I named my oldest son Atticus.

Greg: Really? Not Scout?

Scott: Not Scout. To Kill a Mockingbird is a film that everyone should see. Nobody should get through their life without seeing that movie.

Greg: Thanks so much. Good stuff.

Scott: My pleasure.