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Scott Derrickson has directed a number of major films, including notable contributions to his beloved horror genre: The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister. And he was recently tapped to direct the upcoming Marvel film Dr. Strange.
We interviewed Derrickson—a Christian with a love for mystery—nearly a decade ago, and in 2002 he wrote an article ("Behind the Lens") for the Christian Century about inhabiting the world of American filmmaking as a Christian. Derrickson has also taught seminar workshops about film noir at IMAGE Journal's Glen Workshop. When he's speaking of his work, Derrickson references the Biblical injunction to expose evil with light—a compelling sensibility in the world of cinema.
Derrickson's latest film, Deliver Us from Evil, releases this Wednesday, July 2. It's inspired by Beware the Night, a memoir that chronicles Ralph Sarchie's time as a sergeant in the New York City Police Department. Sarchie worked in the South Bronx, where he began investigating cases of paranormal activity and demonic possession. A devout Catholic, Sarchie is said to have made over 300 arrests and won 7 medals (he's since retired from the NYPD), while also assisting in over 20 exorcisms.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Derrickson after seeing Deliver Us from Evil. He was generous with his time and engaging in his interaction.
What has drawn you to Ralph Sarchie's story for so many years—such that when studio executives came to you after Sinister and asked what you wanted to do next, this project was at the top of your list?
I stayed in touch with Ralph over the years, and I think it was the guy—the person himself—and the fact that he remained one of the more interesting people I've met in my life. Specifically, he was a really hardcore cop who, at the time of my meeting him, was working in the Bronx in the most violent precinct in the country. It was known as the most dangerous square mile in America.
He was working undercover with a team trying to catch crimes as they're happening and witnessing a kind of evil night to night that even the most seasoned cops don't experience. And then he started witnessing the paranormal. He always felt like a character I would want to see on the screen.
Given your film's title and what's involved in exorcism within the Catholic Church, it's inevitable that prayer is significant in this film in which Jesus is both a curse on the lips and a power to silence the cursed. How does communication with "the other side" play into the drama of Sarchie's life in this film?
It's the whole movie. The second major motive for me in making this movie is I want to tell stories about the larger mysteries of life. We live in much more than just a material world that we can see and measure. The real Ralph Sarchie is a salty-tongued cop and he talks the same way in the movie.
Yet there is the specific language of these ritual prayers in the movie, too. The language of prayer that Mendoza uses is significant as well.
Much of the movie is about the sacredness of language and the power of words. Christians believe that "in the beginning was the word" and that God spoke the world into existence. So there's something about the power of language in this movie that plays in a significant way.
And it's no accident in the film's climactic scene that the demon speaks Spanish—in order to attack (exorcist priest) Mendoza personally. So the language of the film—all of it, from expletives to the rite of exorcism—is definitely significant.
You've been invested in horror films, or films about grave evils, for many years. Do you still learn new things about the mystery of evil or God or spirituality in the process of creating in this particular genre?
It's a good question. I think there's a real mystery to the inexplicable irrationality of true evil—both human and spiritual. I think that the more I work in the genre, the more I see it and the more I learn about the mysteries that can be worked in the world and how it's at work in my own life and within me. It's one of the reasons I do what I do. I am obsessed with it.
To be honest with you, I genuinely don't understand why everyone isn't obsessed with discovering and unmooring a deeper understanding of it. If we're not compelled to gain a deeper understanding of good and evil, how can we make the world a better place? How can we find ourselves at the end of our lives and know that our lives were significant? Those things would be impossibilities.
Your thoughts here remind me that I've always thought of you as an artist working in the same way as someone like novelist Flannery O'Connor who, while primarily wanting to tell a good story, also thought that we couldn't return to good unless we fully understood the depths of evil. Your filmography in the horror genre has seemed to me similar to her literary use of the grotesque. Is there a sense in which you're hopeful that a byproduct of providing a good scare might also be to shock people out of a comfortable nihilism?
Flannery O'Connor is my creative hero. I think she's the greatest American writer. Her book, Mystery and Manners, is my creative bible. I'm humbled by the comparison. She's a true American treasure.
She said to the deaf you have to shout and to the blind you have to draw large and startling pictures. That phrase itself is as good of an apologetic for horror as you're ever going to speak.
What I love about her work and what I'm still learning is the manner in which she trusted the complexities of narrative to place her readers in the right range to gather what they needed or to miss it if they weren't prepared for it. In the end her stories are like moral mazes, and you're not going to be able to get to the end and have a clean takeaway but she will have placed you in an arena of thought until you've worked something out.
She does all that while being shocking and entertaining and giving you a great tale. If there's an artist's philosophy that I aspire to, it's hers. There's a love of mystery there.
There's an old and ongoing theological argument or tension as to whether Satan is merely the negation of good, a "nothing" as it were, or if he is more of an active, identifiable entity. How is this question of the nature of Satan's existence related to how you choose to depict Satan in such a uniquely visual medium? What's at play for you in imagining what evil looks like?
Well, either way, you're still dealing with abstraction and immaterial persona that's not visually represented. But to get to the heart of what I think your question is, though, I have a lot of appreciation and respect for both understandings of evil.
I think the two most significant descriptions of evil and of the devil that have influenced me are from Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that evil is an abstraction, that the evil in the world is a distortion of what is good, and from C.S. Lewis, who wrote that there is no such thing as absolute evil.
And I agree with that. For something to be completely evil is to be nothing. Satan has good attributes—intelligence, for instance—but they are corrupted. I cannot reconcile myself emotionally to alternative understandings of evil.
So much in this film is about portals and the tension between perception and reality, and of course The Doors show up a few times in the film's soundtrack. In what ways does Jim Morrison loom large in your imagination?
I think a lot of my appreciation for The Doors' music, which I love, originates with my discovery of them through seeing Apocalypse Now. It's my second favorite film of all time. There is a dark mysticism in The Doors' music and I first experienced it that way in that movie and with repeat viewings. I heard "Light My Fire" on the radio growing up. And then in my early college years and after seeing Apocalypse Now, I really got into The Doors more.
These ideas of dark mysticism and doors of perception and being on one side of the material world and being able to step through to the other side and of people being strange—they play pretty obviously to what's going on in the movie.
In my films, I either want the music to be very subtle and very buried or just put it right out in front and be super blunt with it. In this case the bluntness of who The Doors were and what their music represented worked in this movie.
One thing that struck me when I had the opportunity to sit down with several members of your cast was that this group had become very close-knit through the making of this movie. How important is it to you to cultivate that sort of collegial spirit on set? And how do you go about it as a director?
It's different with every film. For being a genre filmmaker I get really good actors. I don't love celebrities. I love actors. I love what they do. I love creating an arena in which they can do unexpected things. With this particular film, it became a much deeper, much more personal collaboration of relationships than I was expecting.
Much of this started because Joel [McHale] has been my best friend for thirteen years. I knew him when he was in Seattle trying to get into local plays for free. So there was a comfort level there.
Then Edgar [Ramirez] and I became incredibly close in preproduction—we built his Mendoza character together. At first, he passed on the role, so I asked him to lunch to find out why. He started talking about his Venezuelan Priest friend who was dealing with drug addiction. Through working on the character together, he joined the film.
And by the time we got to set we'd become quite close. Joel already knew Olivia [Munn]. Eric [Bana] and Joel hit it off—they both have backgrounds in comedy. These are all really good, nice people.
But then in showing them some of the research videos—exposing them to some of the exorcism videos, in particular—the seriousness of the subject matter hit them. I showed them things I wouldn't show anybody otherwise. Suddenly, all of them realized that we're trying to make a real movie here—something that really happens in the world. You don't have to believe evil in order to be disturbed by the profound human suffering in the video.
Lastly, it was a really hard movie to make. There was a lot of pressure from studio, the New York weather was brutal, and we were doing night shoots in sweltering heat. There was a grueling quality to the shooting. And the ending scene was emotionally demanding.
This was certainly the hardest movie on me personally in terms of how much it drained me. The cast became a support system to one another. We've become close. When we're all in town, we go out and get a meal, and it won't be about anything professionally.
Eric Bana and Olivia Munn both talked quite a bit about an NYPD police tape they've seen which disturbed their sleep for several days. I know you've said you're going for realism with this film. Can you confirm that the tape is as shocking as they've made it out to be? And can you comment on to what extent people might be surprised to find out just how realistically depicted possession and exorcism are in this film?
Well, on the one hand, the depiction of possession and exorcism in this film, like The Exorcist before it, is still really hyped up. And yet, in various ways, it really is like this. So I haven't seen a video that's as extreme as what happens in the movie.
But some of what happens in the movie is true to life. I've seen a guy being held down and his forehead all of a sudden opens up on its own and starts bleeding. If you're a materialist skeptic you're going to have to deny that it happened. But Ralph Sarchie was there and saw it. Some of these extreme things really happen.
But what makes it scary is not those inexplicable things, it's the depth of human suffering that you're witnessing and the unrelenting banality of evil and the sense of alien presence in these people and the credibility of the testimony of the people who've gone through it.
I didn't show Eric [Bana] one tape; I showed him a bunch of tapes. I even showed him some Islamic exorcisms. This isn't just a Christian phenomenon. This is an anthropological reality. When the disciples came to Jesus complaining of someone casting out demons even though he was not one of their followers—Jesus says let him do it, because he's still helping people.
It's not as wildly dramatic as what it is in The Exorcist or my film but it's more dramatic than people think. But what's deeply frightening or disturbing about it is not the paranormal activity; it is the profundity of human suffering at work.
One of the things I'm most proud of is that the Mendoza character as constructed is not a warrior demon hunter priest. His primary concern is helping people. He cares so much about the people who are possessed. He cares about Santino and that's why the ending has emotional power. The reality of possession and exorcism is being approached from an emotionally truthful perspective.
The exorcists I've approached in real life are not making a game of it—they're not interested in the demonic—they care about people. They have helped people find relief in ways that they couldn't find from the psychological or material world.