By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
From there, the film plunges into postwar colonial Africa. Merrin, now working as an archaeologist, is overseeing the excavation of what appears to be a Byzantine church situated high in the hills surrounding the town. It seems to have been buried, intentionally, just after it was constructed, as if to contain some spiritual force rather than exalt it. And as Merrin digs, a mysterious presence seems to set itself upon the entire region. A tribal elder’s wife gives birth to a maggot-infested fetus; two British soldiers are found murdered at the dig site, their corpses contorted to resemble those of John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul; and an escalating standoff between the British and the natives bears discomforting similarities to one Merrin himself witnessed not so long ago . . .
Rather than worshipfully recalling the claustrophobic, kitchen-sink realism of the 1973 film, Schrader and Carr seemed actively engaged in subverting, as best they could, its iconography. Shot by no less a visual poet than Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, One From the Heart and virtually everything by Bertolucci), the film is visually wide-open, with a dramatic sense of landscape and a marvelous attention to the subtlest tricks of light. Moreover, this Beginning views demonic possession less as a singular occurrence — the terrors visited upon an innocent young victim — than as a contagion born in the hearts of men, able to cross oceans of time and space, infecting entire communities in its wake. It is, by Schrader and Carr’s own admission, an internalized piece of psychological (as opposed to visceral) horror. It’s also, not incidentally, an epistemological study of faith, set against a world that gives even the righteous many reasons to question their beliefs. In short, just the sort of brooding, introspective piece you might expect from Schrader (who was raised as a strict Calvinist and who has explored similar themes in films from Hardcore to Affliction) and Carr (who, though best known for his novels, has also written extensively about military history, global terrorism and other Zeitgeist matters), but which Morgan Creek would later claim was exactly what it hadn’t asked for.Knock knock: Pazuzu calling
Back at the Marmont, to hear Schrader tell the story — or as much of the story as he is able to tell, given the “non-disparagement” agreement he and Morgan Creek chairman and CEO James G. Robinson have mutually agreed to — he had little inkling that anything was amiss until midway through the Morocco part of his shoot. “When Jim came to Morocco, he started saying to me, ‘It isn’t scary enough,’ which became a mantra,” says Schrader. “We had to get out of Morocco by Christmas, and we only had two weeks left in Morocco before Christmas. So I told him there was nothing we could really do with the Morocco stuff anyway, but let’s add some more stuff when we get to Rome. About eight to 10 elements were subsequently added to make it scarier — all within the context of the script we had, and without going into any real hardcore horror stuff, because it had always been established that we didn’t want spinning heads and pea soup. And if you don’t want that, then it’s natural to assume that you don’t want that kind of in-your-face horror.”
But then, Schrader adds, “By the time I was shooting in Rome, my relationship with Jim had deteriorated quite a bit.” There were fights over editors and composers, and over whether Schrader would do postproduction work on the film in New York (where he lives) or L.A. Then, Schrader says, in March 2003, he screened his cut for Robinson and other Morgan Creek executives (including company president Guy McElwaine), following which there was talk of re-editing, of cutting down the film’s 130-minute running time. After another round of edits supervised by Schrader, a separate cut of the film was prepared by Robinson himself. By which point, the writing on the wall was plainly visible.
At the time of our meeting, Schrader was still uncertain about the long-term future of his film, though he had gotten wind of who would be warming his recently vacated director’s chair: Renny Harlin, the Finnish action specialist previously responsible for the smart-shark thriller Deep Blue Sea and two of Hollywood’s better sequels, Die Hard 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, but whose résumé also includes Cutthroat Islandand Mindhunters, an abysmal updating of the old Agatha Christie And Then There Were None idea that has so far been bumped by Miramax from at least five different release dates.
“I had actually wanted to stay on and do the re-shoots myself,” Schrader told me. “They were contractually obligated to use me, and so they drew up a bill of particulars, of things I had done wrong, a lot of it just normal stuff — fights, angry disputes. It was going to go to arbitration, where the DGA would have represented me. But the people from the DGA said, ‘Look, you could lose this. If you lose this, you will lose your salary, and you will open yourself up for a civil suit for damages. It’ll be a nuisance suit, but it will keep you in lawyers for the better part of a year. It will cost you a lot of money, and what you will win is the right to do re-shoots that will be dictated to you, and during which there’ll probably be a second director on the set. So what are you fighting for?’”
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