Interview: Filmmaker Scott Derrickson on Horror, Faith, Chesterton and His New Movie
The director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose — and Marvel’s recruit to direct Doctor Strange — talks about mystery, Catholicism, confronting evil and his new film, Deliver Us From Evil.
Scott Derrickson is a very nice guy who makes movies about things that aren’t very nice.
Articulate, thoughtful and disarmingly frank, Derrickson is a rare outspoken Christian in Hollywood. He’s also a horror filmmaker and aficionado probably been best known for the 2005 supernatural thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose — though his recent deal with Marvel to bring the comic-book character Doctor Strange to the big screen changes that in a big way.
Derrickson’s new film, Deliver Us From Evil, is inspired by Beware the Night, the memoir of former New York police Sgt. Ralph Sarchie, a Catholic and self-described demonologist, who claims Traditionalist Bishop Robert McKenna and Malachi Martin as his mentors.
I recently caught up with Derrickson in Manhattan, where he held forth at length on horror, faith, art and Catholicism. (Our sprawling 45-minute interview covered more ground than I can do justice to in this article; you can watch the full video review on my blog.)
Deliver Us From Evil opens Wednesday, July 2.
What does a nice Christian guy like you see in this genre? What does horror at its best offer us?
For me, [horror] is the perfect genre for a person of faith to work in. You can think about good and evil pretty openly. I always talk about it being the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that it’s a genre about confronting evil, confronting what’s frightening in the world.
I like the mystery of the genre. It’s a genre that takes the mystery in the world very seriously. There are a lot of voices that are broadcasting that the world is explainable. Corporate America limits the world to consumerism. Science can limit it to the material world. Even religion limits it to a lot of theories that can explain everything. I think we need cinema to break that apart and remind us that we’re not in control, and we don’t understand as much as we think do.
What about the flip side — the potential pitfalls or down side of horror as a genre? Any concerns there?
Sure. There are concerns for every genre. Action can become mere stimulus and mere distraction. When an action film is reduced to that, I’m not sure how healthy that is, at least in large quantities. Horror is the same way. When it’s reduced to mere scariness — or even worse, mere exploitation … I don’t think it’s necessarily a good or healthy thing, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Horror, for me at least, invites depth, invites moral passion, invites ideas that are to be taken seriously.
It’s interesting to me that you’ve raised the theme of balance. As a film critic, I try to think seriously about the long-term impact on me of the things I expose myself to. I don’t think any one film is going to destroy my soul, but I do take very seriously an idea that may or may not have been expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the words, “We become what we think about all day long.” And I think of people like exorcists, priests, policemen, clinical social workers, divorce attorneys, garbage men …
Dentists, exactly! People who deal with the less inspiring aspects of human existence and that sort of occupational hazard. Is that something you think about?
I think a genre film director who takes fear and the horrible seriously belongs in that list. What all of those occupations demand is a particular kind of strength. I happen to have that particular kind of strength, when it comes to making these movies. I’m an unlikely candidate to have it, because I grew up so scared. But the process of confronting fear in my own life made me an unusually strong-minded person, I think.
When it comes to viewing the material, everyone has to make those decisions for themselves — where their strength level is and what it does for them.
I think it’s important for anyone who takes cinema seriously not to limit yourself to just optimistic or happy movies. I think that’s a problem. You’ve got to be willing to let the art of cinema take you into some darker places if you’re going to make full use of it. There are some people who shouldn’t watch horror films, and I’m all right with that.
It’s not about putting something evil in the world. It’s about reckoning with evil. We don’t need any more evil in the world. We need a lot more reckoning with it.
Sounds to me like some things G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis have said about terrifying things in fairy tales ...
You have to have dragons in order that knights can defeat them.
I think [the scary things in horror movies] are the dragons of pop culture. That’s exactly what they are.
A few exorcism films, like The Last Exorcism, have dealt with this material from a non-Catholic perspective — but not many. As Roger Ebert wrote, “When it comes to fighting vampires and performing exorcisms, the Roman Catholic Church has the heavy artillery.”
[Laughing] God bless Roger Ebert. Don’t we all miss him so much!
Do you think that’s true?
I think there’s some truth to it. Catholicism is so steeped in imagery. It’s one of the many reasons Catholicism has given birth to so many great filmmakers compared to the Protestant tradition — even in America, where we’re primarily Protestant.
I also think that when it comes to the supernatural, I think there’s a general appreciation of the fact that the Catholic Church at least is rigorous about it. They’re not hucksters selling the idea for show. Every Catholic I’ve ever met who was involved in the actual process of exorcism — they’re always looking for a reason to not do it, to discredit it. I don’t think that’s the tendency in the Protestant tradition.
You are not Catholic …
I am not Catholic. I am, as a friend of mine once said, “one Chesterton book away from crossing the Tiber.” Chesterton’s my favorite writer. I’m a big fan of a lot of Catholic mystic writers. I think the honest answer at this point in my life is I think I would become Catholic if I weren’t a parent. And the only reason I don’t is my tradition is so Protestant; it’s what I know. I don’t know how to raise my kids Catholic. Given the busyness of my life, it’s something I can’t start at this point. Maybe I will. Otherwise, I’m not sure there’s any reason for me not to make that leap. I wear a St. Francis rosary almost all the time. There’s a lot of things about Catholicism that have become increasingly important to me.
Orthodoxy is the seminal book of ideas in my life. That book I’ve read more than any other book. It’s the spinal column that leads up to my brain and informs the way I think. Flannery O’Connor is my favorite American writer. Mystery and Manners is my favorite book on writing and creativity. And she said this about Catholicism: Catholicism is the only institution left in the world that protects mystery. I think that’s true. And I think it’s that role that it has in the world that is at the root of my current fondness for it.
[But] I don’t know it well enough to bring my kids into it and raise them in it. I do know how to raise them as Presbyterians … [laughing] which is far less interesting! But I can do it, and I can make it interesting in my own way. I have nothing but love for Catholicism.
If you ever felt the need to bring in some “heavy artillery” … would you go to your Presbyterian pastor or would you go to a Catholic priest?
[Laughing] Oh, I would probably go to a Catholic priest.
I’d probably call Ralph Sarchie! His fellow cops make fun of him. He always says, “Yeah, when a lamp flies across your room, I’m gonna be the first person you call!”
There have been a lot of exorcism-related films in the nine years since Emily Rose. What did you want to do in this film that was different from what you did nine years ago or these other films?
The biggest thing for me was to create a tonally different movie. Deliver Us From Evil is an almost bizarre smashing together of different kinds of movies. Emily Rose was a courtroom demon-possession film. It kind of classically follows the structures of both of those [genres] at the same time.
This movie is a much messier mash-up. It’s a police procedural. It’s not a possession film. You’re not watching the girl getting oppressed and getting all twisted up, like we’ve seen since Emily Rose. Or the Paranormal movies — the sort of gradual increase of activity in one’s home. There’s none of that. It’s cops working cases and then some big action scenes. There’s a four-minute knife fight and some humor and some dramatic scenes.
Obviously, as a filmmaker, you’re always trying to evoke a sense of credibility, of getting the audience to buy into the film — whether or not viewers happen to personally believe in the supernatural. And the fact that you believe in it and your audience might not isn’t necessarily an issue. Do you think at all about the line, though, between what is the kind of thing that really happens and what is Hollywood — things you’re doing because it’s a movie?
Like all filmmakers, I’m crossing that line aggressively all the time. The best film that will ever be made in the genre is the original Exorcist, and it crosses it extremely aggressively. I think audiences know that. I don’t think anyone’s necessarily looking for anything as limited as reality when they go to this kind of picture.
I like the comment you made about where my faith and belief is being irrelevant to where the audience might be. If you’re doing it right, you’re not asking the audience to buy into your point of view at all. If you’re doing it right, you’re asking the audience to accept the character’s point of view as the character’s point of view. That can be anything. We’ve all watched hundreds of movies from characters’ points of view that are not our own. That’s part of the gift movies give us.
So what I’m never trying to do is impart the way I understand the world, and especially my view of controversial religious issues. I’m never trying to propagate that or impart that on the audience.
I am interested in representing characters who think about these things in ways that are truthful and realistic. Priests and pastors are the most stereotyped characters in film and television, but not for the reasons I think a lot of conservatives think. A lot of conservatives think it’s because of an anti-religious agenda. I don’t think that’s the case. I just think a lot of writers and directors in Hollywood don’t know any priests and pastors. And I’ve known a lot.
In the movies, they tend to be sanctimonious or hypocritical. And a lot of priests and pastors I’ve known are those things. But the most intelligent, decent people I’ve met in my life are priests and pastors. For a person to dedicate their life to the service of others and do it authentically … I’m interested in representing people like that, because I’ve known them.
Where did Father Mendoza come from?
I owe a lot to the actor, Edgar Ramirez, who played him, for that character.
The real Ralph Sarchie had two mentors. One was a bishop. Ralph was his assistant in exorcisms that he did here in New York. Malachi Martin, who wrote the harrowing book Hostage to the Devil — read at your own risk; scariest book I’ve ever read — he was a Catholic priest who was Ralph’s other mentor.
So the two of them, in the first draft, I sort of blended into one character. Then, having written that in 2003, when I came back and reread the script, I just felt I didn’t want to write the same old Irish priest demon-hunting guy. And — this was before Pope Francis — I just decided: He needs to be a Latin-American priest.
In white America, there’s a kind of religious baggage that falls away when you’re talking about a Latin-American priest. There’s a cultural acceptance. … People are not going to be as harsh on it.
So I went after Edgar. He was the only person I went after for the role. And he read it, and he passed on the script. He said, “The movie could be great, but there’s not enough there.” So I said, “Well, let’s have lunch and talk about it.” And so we sat there at lunch for four hours one day in Beverly Hills, and what really opened it up for me was him starting to talk about a Jesuit that he knows in Venezuela — a good friend of his who is a Jesuit priest, who had struggled with addiction in his past, which was instrumental in him converting and becoming a priest. And he had made mistakes even as a priest and was very human.
And as we started to talk about the role that guy had played in Edger’s life, I thought, “That’s what I want.” That’s where this whole idea Mendoza says comes from: “A saint is not a moral exemplar. A saint is a life-giver.” This man who had dedicated his life to helping people, to giving his life to people — I was really interested in trying to write a character like that.
As Edgar and I continued to work on it, what became most interesting to me — the movie never says it; it’s pure subtext, but it’s always there — is we said, “This is not a guy who sees himself as the exorcist warrior, who’s out there battling demons.” He’s not the demon-hunter, he’s not the demon-slayer at all. He’s out there helping people. He doesn’t care about the demons. He knows this is what can help people. He’s doing this to try to release and liberate the individual.
One thing that making your priest Latino gives you is, during the exorcism, he starts out doing the rite in English, but at a certain point, he switches over to Spanish. Spanish isn’t Latin, but it’s a Romance language. It gives you something that exorcism movies set in the post-Vatican II era don’t have. Do you think there is, not necessarily a spiritual power, but at least a cultural power to Latin — that the use of a language other than the language of everyday life has something special to it?
I think there is particular spiritual power in each language and in words in general. I think Latin in its antiquity and longevity has a particular density of power and even spiritual power. Words are magic things. “In the beginning was the Word.” I’m fascinated by the idea that words are more than we think they are.
Suppose you were talking to a timorous moviegoer who hadn’t seen any horror films but was interested in some of the things you’re saying about what horror can do for us. Are there any movies — other than The Exorcism of Emily Rose or Deliver Us From Evil! — that you might point them toward?
There are horror films that non-horror fans tend to like. I’ve never met anybody who regrets seeing The Sixth Sense. It’s scary, it’s got ghosts in it, but it’s a very soft, beautiful movie. I do know that a lot of people who don’t watch horror, especially people of faith, who have seen Emily Rose and like it. The same is true, weirdly, of The Exorcist.
If I was going to start somebody out in the genre, to test the waters, I would probably pick … Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage. Spanish-language film. Beautifully made film. Incredibly emotional, touching, relevant; serious things being dealt with in that movie about grief and human processing. Very frightening in places, but the reward of the whole experience is so deep and so rich.
If you watch something like that and don’t feel rewarded by it, you should never watch another horror film. But if you do, just know that there are movies like that out there. Everybody should be a discerning viewer. That’s a movie I would feel comfortable recommending to almost anyone.
SDG Reviews Deliver Us From Evil