By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Paul Schrader seems relaxed for a man who’s just been doing battle with dark, demonic forces — and I’m not talking about Pazuzu, the sinister spirit that an elderly priest once pursued from the deserts of Iraq to a young girl’s bedroom on a foggy street in Georgetown. It’s October of last year, and Schrader and I have met for drinks in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont to talk about his latest film, Exorcist: The Beginning— which, as you may already know, will not be coming soon to a theater near you. A couple of months earlier, rumors had begun to circulate that Schrader had been fired from the project — a prequel to the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist— after screening his edit for the executives at Morgan Creek, the independent production company that currently owns all rights to the Exorcist franchise. The former New Hollywood enfant terrible, it was said, had failed to deliver a movie that was as scary or gory as its producers had hoped, and a new director would be brought in to do re-shoots. Then, in a press release dated September 15, 2003, it was made official: “Morgan Creek Productions and director Paul Schrader have jointly announced that Schrader will no longer continue as director of Exorcist: The Beginning due to” — drumroll, please — “creative differences.”
As has since been reported, Schrader’s firing was merely the latest in a series of wayward turns that had plagued The Beginning since the beginning — a web of movie making, unmaking and remaking so infernally tangled as to give new meaning to the phrase “development hell.” Indeed, plans for a new Exorcist film dated back to the summer of 1997, when Variety reported that Morgan Creek was commissioning a script from Terminator 2 co-writer William Wisher that would recount Father Merrin’s first confrontation with the devil, in British colonial Africa — events briefly alluded to in both the William Friedkin film and the best-selling William Peter Blatty novel on which it had been based. That script was subsequently overhauled by novelist Caleb Carr (The Alienist) and attached to television director Tom McLoughlin. But the project only really began to pick up steam in the fall of 2000, when The Exorcist, in a tricked-out reissue promoted as “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” bucked all the conventional wisdom concerning special editions to take in $40 million at the domestic box office. Suddenly, The Beginning was back on track, with John Frankenheimer replacing McLoughlin and Liam Neeson set to star as Father Merrin (the role originally played by Max von Sydow).Paul Schrader: Cast out(Photo by Max S. Gerber)
There the bedevilment might have ended, had the 72-year-old Frankenheimer — in the summer of 2002, during pre-production — not undergone back surgery and bowed out of directing the film. (He died shortly thereafter.) A replacement was sought, and Schrader, rather unexpectedly, landed the gig — no matter that he hadn’t sat at the helm of a major-studio feature since his much-maligned Cat People remake 20 years earlier. Shooting commenced in late 2002, on locations in Morocco and sound stages in Rome, with a budget of $40 million, the largest of Schrader’s career.
“It came out of the blue,” Schrader tells me. “It was very prestigious. A chance to play with the big toys — two cameras, cranes, the lighting, the manpower. So I jumped at it.” When I ask him why he doesn’t seem more riled up about getting fired: “There’s no profit in it. People are going to fuck you. Things are going to not work out. You’re going to get lucky some days. Most days, you’re not going to be lucky. Why dwell on this? Scorsese could tell you virtually every critic who ever gave him a bad review. I couldn’t.”Renny Harlin: Unholy alliance?
Sometime prior to our meeting, I had seen Schrader’s version of Exorcist: The Beginning. The television screen was small, and the film was far from finished — all the music and visual effects were temporary, the image itself a high-resolution output from a computer editing system. But even under such circumstances, there was no escaping the lyrical sense of terror evoked in the opening scenes of Schrader’s film. In a predominantly Catholic Dutch village in the waning days of World War II, the murder of a German SS officer leads his lieutenant to round up the villagers for interrogation. As snow flurries fill the sky, the lieutenant demands that the local priest identify the guilty party — surely, inasmuch as he is their confessor, he must know which of these people has blood on his hands. The priest, of course, is Father Merrin (played by Stellan Skarsgård, who replaced Neeson during pre-production), and when he insists that none of his parishioners is culpable, the lieutenant sets about a diabolical course of action. He will kill 10 villagers as a warning to the real killer, wherever he may be. What’s more, Merrin must select the 10 who will die. Should he refuse, the lieutenant vows to kill everyone. “God is not here today, priest,” he bellows as Merrin collapses into prayer.