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.
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 Island and 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?’”
Two months later, Harlin was in Rome, on Schrader’s old sound stages, shooting a film called Exorcist: The Beginning, made from a new script and featuring almost entirely new creative teams in front of and behind the camera. (Skarsgård and Storaro were the lone holdovers.) Virtually none of Schrader’s scenes were expected to be retained.
“There’s nothing like making a practice movie,” chuckles James Robinson. It’s now May 2004, midway through the Cannes Film Festival, and I’ve literally run down the Croisette from an early-morning press screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 to meet with Robinson in his temporary office at the posh Hotel Martinez. Posters for his first three movies to be distributed by Universal — where Morgan Creek has just moved its deal after more than a decade at Warner Bros. — line the room, while Robinson’s very presence at Cannes is itself something of a statement: Despite reports to the contrary, Morgan Creek is alive and still kicking. Famous for making his fortune before he ever set foot in Hollywood, as a Baltimore entrepreneur whose holdings included a highly profitable Subaru distributorship, Robinson co-founded Morgan Creek in 1988 with then-partner Joe Roth. They went on to enjoy early hits like Young Guns and Major League, mixed in with such prestige titles as David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and Paul Mazursky’s Oscar-nominated Enemies: A Love Story. In 1991, the company hit its first bona fide home run with the release of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But the past few years have been leaner for Robinson, who hasn’t had a smash since 1995’s Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and whose recent efforts include the likes of Chill Factor, Juwanna Mann and I’ll Be There, pictures that either went straight to video or might just as well have. Any way you slice it, Robinson, who prides himself on his hands-on involvement in all of Morgan Creek’s productions — he claims to personally cast the lead roles in all his pictures, in addition to choosing the key creative teams — has a lot riding on Exorcist: The Beginning.
Izabella Scorupco: Freaked out
“I was not happy with the Paul Schrader version,” says Robinson, who looks a bit like Merv Griffin and whose words flow forth in the just-plain-folks patois of a small-town politician running for office. “Now why do I say ‘Paul Schrader version’ when I’m such a hands-on guy?” he continues. “Bottom line here is that we give the director a lot of latitude during the actual making of the movie, and then I step back in during postproduction. I’m there during production, but if a director has got himself a certain agenda, he can put that thing into effect. So, I saw the director’s cut. Then I went in the editing room with Paul, but no matter what we did, it had been shot in such a way that you really couldn’t change it. I use the word cerebral — the movie was more cerebral than it was fun or scary or all the other things. But let’s not kid ourselves. This is the entertainment business. Realizing we could not get the movie we thought we were going to get, the one Frankenheimer would have given us in a heartbeat, I said, ‘We can just throw the thing at video and walk away, or we can make another movie.’”
No question: Robinson is persuasive. Like any true salesman, he’s eternally diplomatic and knows how to work the room. “Jim’s a nice guy,” Caleb Carr tells me by phone several weeks later, “but if you want to go to your grave being one of the most untrustworthy, unreliable people on Earth, he’s got a good shot at it.” Though, like nearly everyone involved with Schrader’s film, he has since moved on to other projects, it’s clear that Carr, who previously suffered an infamously protracted courtship with Scott Rudin over a movie version of The Alienist, still feels bruised by his Exorcist experience. “You know, I had a very interesting upbringing on the Lower East Side of New York City, and I often marvel at the fact that anything can still shock me,” he says. “I have seen most of the horrible shit that people can do to each other at very close range. Yet I am still stunned by Hollywood people’s capacity to be dishonest. It’s just amazing.”
Pounding the Hollywood pavement between book gigs, Carr had originally come to Morgan Creek to work on a couple of other assignments when, in the fall of 1998, he stumbled onto his own archaeological find: Wisher’s script, lying around in a dusty storeroom. “It did have enormous problems, but it also had one of the greatest opening scenes of a horror movie that I’ve ever read,” Carr says in reference to the Dutch-village sequence he would embellish in his rewrite. “The idea of doing a prequel to The Exorcist was not something I had ever considered, but in the course of reading this thing, I started to think, ‘This is a really cool idea. How does an average priest become an exorcist?’” Though Carr claims it was only through his own persistent nagging that he was even allowed to take a crack at the project, upon finishing his script he found a trio of allies in Morgan
Creek’s president at the time, Jonathan Zimbert, and development executives Joe Martino and Hilary Galanoy. Unfortunately, all three were soon to leave the company, in what Carr describes as the first signs that “This was destined to be one of those projects where misfortune just rained down all over the place.”
And for Carr, who had gotten along famously with Frankenheimer, Schrader’s hiring was something of a thunderbolt. (Admittedly not the first person who would spring to mind for the project, Schrader had, according to Carr, landed the gig mainly because of the expectation that his name would generate healthy foreign sales for the film. For his part, Robinson says he “didn’t know Paul Schrader from Adam” when he was proposed by McElwaine, a friend of Schrader’s agent.) “The only time Schrader and I had any contact was a phone call that we had after he was officially hired,” Carr says — a story consistent with Schrader’s own account. “We talked on the phone for probably two hours, out of which I probably talked 15 minutes. And never once — it’s a meaningless detail that nevertheless has some meaning — did Schrader manage to get the words out of his mouth that he liked the script. When I hung up the phone, I realized, ‘That’s it. This is now officially over.’ I called Jim Robinson and said, ‘You need to know that if you hire this guy, this will be his movie. If the day comes when Paul calls me and says, I don’t understand something or I’m lost on this, I will answer the phone. But I do not anticipate that happening.’ And Jim’s constant refrain is that he runs the company, he’s in charge of the show, and, basically, it’s his movie. Which is utter nonsense. He says that on every shoot, and every time he’s got some peculiar excuse for why he actually couldn’t control the director at all.”
If Carr sounds tough on Robinson, you should hear him talk about Schrader. Though he has softened his line considerably since the widely circulated e-mail message in which he accused Schrader of being drunk on the set and suggested, among other things, that the movie might be saved by re-shoots only “if that little cocksucker stays in his fucking hole,” Carr makes little secret of his disdain for Schrader’s version. “What it reminds me of,” he says, “is if you did a blocking rehearsal of the script and somebody filmed it. Nobody’s really focusing. All the actors have that unmistakable look where they’re standing around silently screaming, ‘Someone direct me, please!’ I’ve done a lot of directing in the theater, and I know that look on actors’ faces. But I don’t really blame them. It wasn’t an easy script to do.” He is, however, more than happy to blame Schrader. As he told the Web site Horrorexpress.com in September of last year, “All this crap about Morgan Creek wanting a conventional horror movie is just that, crap made up by Schrader to cover his ass, or rather to cover his lackluster cut.” It was a moment, Carr freely admits, at which he himself was being actively courted by Morgan Creek to return to the project, though that never happened. “I’m sure that Jim Robinson, right up to the moment he got on the plane with Renny Harlin to go to Rome and re-shoot the whole movie, was on his cell phone saying to me, ‘Now, I want to make sure you’re still involved,’” Carr says. “It was one of the most amazing bullshit jobs ever.”
Nowadays, back in upstate New York, where he teaches military history at Bard College and has no immediate plans to return to L.A., Carr has a marginally more generous take on Robinson’s intentions for Exorcist: The Beginning. “You know, the script that I read that they were going to use for the re-shoot — along the lines of a shitty imitation of The Mummy — it wasn’t the worst script I’ve read of that type,” he says. “It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t necessarily awful.”
Reading that script later, I too find it an entertaining, if altogether more conventional, affair. Credited to first-time screenwriter Alexi Hawley (with Carr and Wisher sharing “story by” credit), it has been predictably gussied up with buzzing flies, upside-down crucifixes, sinister tarot cards and, in what may be perceived as a nod to fans of The Passion of the Christ, blood-soaked messages scrawled in Aramaic. The possibly possessed village boy from Carr’s script has been eliminated in favor of an entirely different possibly possessed village boy. A mad professor has been added to the mix. But what’s more remarkable about Hawley’s script are all the ways in which it doesn’t differ from Carr’s. Africa and the archaeological dig are still there, as is the British army, the flashback to the Dutch village (though now positioned much later in the story) and Merrin’s ultimate standoff with the demon — even if, true to a prediction Schrader made at our first meeting, that confrontation is now more physical than theological. “If they were going to spend all that money to do a rock ’em, sock ’em Exorcist, I figured they would have gone toward a Texas Chainsaw–style movie,” Schrader (who has also read the Hawley script) tells me when I drop by his Manhattan office in July on a rain-soaked afternoon. “But they didn’t. They just tried making a more rapid version of what they had and, as such, probably a more commercial version. But whether it’s more commercial in the context of where they were when they made that decision is another matter. If no money had been spent at all, then I suspect that script is more commercial than the one I directed. But having already spent $35 million on my version, is it still more commercial?”
Time will tell. A print of Harlin’s film was not made available for preview in connection with this article, though, speaking by phone from the film’s sound-mixing stage, Harlin assured me that “Like the original, this is a very adult horror film. It very seriously examines the issue of faith and God’s presence in people’s lives as deciding factors in whether or not justice takes place in the world.”
Even on a bright summer’s day, the house at 3600 Prospect Street exudes a cool, quiet menace, as does the adjacent flight of stairs, with its dramatic plummet down to M Street below. And here, on this particular day, stands William Peter Blatty, the man who was once one of the top comedy writers in Hollywood, before a certain novel and film immortalized this house and these stairs and, indeed, Blatty himself. In 1949, less than a mile away, Blatty was an undergraduate at Georgetown University. It was there that he followed, in the pages of the Washington Post, the account of a boy from Silver Spring, Maryland, who had supposedly been freed from the devil’s grip following a series of exorcisms conducted over a period of several months. The story stuck with Blatty, though it would be more than 20 years before he fictionalized it as The Exorcist. That, of course, was the real “beginning” — if one that has been subjected, for more than three decades, to countless revisions.
Published in 1971, Blatty’s novel was a phenomenon from the start, spending 55 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Released two years later on the day after Christmas, William Friedkin’s film version, produced and scripted by Blatty, was itself no slouch. According to The New York Times, at Manhattan’s Cinema 1 theater, “People stood like sheep in the rain, cold and sleet for up to four hours to see the chilling film,” while inside there were reports of nausea, fainting spells and heart attacks — a scene that would be repeated for months to come in cities all around the country. Despite pans from some major critics (including Pauline Kael), the R-rated film went on to gross $193 million (not including the 2000 reissue) and received 10 Oscar nominations, winning for its sound and for Blatty’s script. Though Rosemary’s Baby had created a stir five years earlier, The Exorcist tapped deeper and more potently into the cultural nerve center than any horror story that had come before it or, quite possibly, has since. Not surprisingly, plans for a follow-up began almost immediately, even though both Blatty and Friedkin excused themselves from the negotiations.
“When they first came to me,” Blatty tells me as we duck out of the heat and into the neighborhood bar known as the Tombs, “I said, ‘What are you talking about? There’s no sequel here. That’s the end of the story.’ Then, they came back and said, ‘We have a story of our own, but we don’t have sequel rights.’ So I just named an utterly outlandish figure for those days. And they said, ‘Okay.’” The result would not arrive in theaters until 1977 — by which time several Exorcist knockoffs had already appeared, including the Italian Beyond the Door, an act of cinematic plagiarism so blatant that Warner Bros. sued its producers. But Warner had nobody to blame but itself for John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, a cosmic disaster on which no expense had been spared, save for the brainpower of the people responsible for making it. It too attempts to tell an origin story of sorts, about the young Father Merrin’s African adventures, but ends up being much more memorable for its gobs of New Agey telepathy, its disco-fabulous Ennio Morricone score and its recurrent image of James Earl Jones dressed as a giant locust.
However, the true precedent for Exorcist: The Beginning may be the strange case of Blatty’s own Legion, his 1983 mystery novel that tells a story unrelated to the events of The Exorcist but involving two of the first novel’s peripheral characters: the movie-obsessed detective William Kinderman and the priest Father Joseph Dyer. In 1990, Blatty was approached to adapt and direct a screen version of Legion, though by the time the movie hit theaters, it would be called The Exorcist III and would feature changes — mandated by its producer — that saw the story rewritten to be more of a direct sequel. Those changes included the return of Father Damien Karras (the young priest-psychiatrist who falls to his death at the end of The Exorcist) and the addition of an exorcism scene at the end. The producer in question? None other than James G. Robinson. “Jim Robinson, armed with a copy of my screenplay and his secretary, had requested a meeting with me,” Blatty explains. “He began by turning to his secretary and saying, ‘You tell him.’ She then held up a copy of the screenplay, which I’m supposed to start shooting the next morning, and said, ‘I read this, and I really think it’s wonderful. But what does it have to do with The Exorcist?’ So, I tried to explain to them that The Exorcist was not Rocky — we’re not going to go after a new, one-armed demon every episode. But Robinson wouldn’t give it up. He just let me go my way until the very end, let me do my cut. Then I showed up on the Fox lot one day, and my parking space was gone and the editing-room door was locked.” In fact, Blatty has no shortage of other Robinson stories — unlike Schrader, he ultimately decided to tough 30 things out with Morgan Creek for the duration of postproduction — many of which doubtless informed the more lunatic episodes of Blatty’s 1996 satirical novel Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing. As for The Exorcist III, it rolled into cinemas on August 17, 1990, in a cut Blatty acknowledges was far from what he had intended, just one week after the release of another much-beleaguered sequel, the Chinatown follow-up The Two Jakes. Both films were gone before anyone had much of a chance to notice they were there.
So, there are now four official Exorcist movies and countless imitators, among which only 1976’s The Omen — itself the progenitor of three unmemorable sequels — made any real impact on audiences or the box office. (Nor is there any end in sight: Robinson, who cites his concern for the longevity of the Exorcist brand as his primary motivation for making the Harlin version, promises that a TV series is next in the pipeline.) Yet, not one of these derivations, with the exception of the best parts of Carr’s script and Schrader’s movie, has managed to strike the same dark, primal chord as the original. As Carr sees it, “It’s an easy mystery to figure out. The Exorcist was such a story of the moment. It exposed things we were scared of that we didn’t even know we were scared of at the time. It showed that the traditional path — Catholicism, God and the devil, all of this stuff — could still raise its head and shatter your life. To me, that was really the genius of it, the eruption of the old world into this cool new world of the ’70s that everybody thought was basically untouchable.”
That’s also, Carr adds, the hardest thing about the original to duplicate. “What I kept trying to tell people was, ‘If you’re going to do it again, you have to do the same thing — you have to tap into what the horror is today, now that we’ve seen every possible kind of physical horror, not only in horror movies, but on the news.’ We haven’t yet found a way to cope with the fact that, at their base, a lot of people are not good people. And that’s a scary, scary thought — that even that little bit of evil that’s in every person can be drawn out and used . . .” And for a moment, it’s impossible to be sure whether Carr is talking about Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush, James G. Robinson or, perchance, the devil himself.
Blatty, who hasn’t seen either version of The Beginning, is skeptical about the ability of any new Exorcist story to recapture the alchemy of the original. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he says. In his office on the Paramount Pictures lot, William Friedkin adds, “I don’t know if it’s possible to come close to what we did. But I can tell you that Blatty and I didn’t set out primarily to terrify people. We set out to make a film about the mystery of faith.” It’s on that count, as Friedkin sees it, that the many pretenders to the Exorcist throne have come up woefully short.
“What I think they’ve done,” he tells me, “is just taken the title and gone out and tried to scare the shit out of people, because that’s their perception of what the original movie was. But its impact was far deeper than the fact that people were scared. They really believed it for the most part, or they at least thought it was possible. And they were frightened by it in the same way as by some kind of authentic miracle or disaster of some kind. They realized overwhelmingly that there was evil in the world — that evil could manifest itself and take lives the way a plague or an earthquake might.” And while Friedkin’s exposure to The Beginning has, like Blatty’s, been limited to the movie’s trailer — which he resents for “drizzling” shots from his film over Harlin’s “like a salad dressing” — he has a few ideas about the purported reasons for Schrader’s dismissal. “It’s representative, in my opinion, of profound stupidity,” he says. “What would they say about Luther or A Man for All Seasons — that they’re too religious and profoundly internal, and don’t have enough action, and don’t have enough scares?”
Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning opens in theaters nationwide next Friday. Meanwhile, Schrader’s cut, which had seemed as though it might go the way of von Stroheim’s Greed and Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons to become The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen . . . and Never Will, has been announced by Morgan Creek as a future DVD release. “There ought to be something we can get out of this first movie,” Robinson told me back in May. “So I thought, maybe if we spend the money to finish up the effects and get the sound right on the Schrader version, then on DVD we’ll have a two-pack. Perhaps we can also do an HBO or Showtime sale. But definitely not a theatrical release.” A more pragmatic Schrader is quick to point out that no actual deal has yet been put in writing. In the meantime, he’s focusing his energies on The Walker, a thematic sequel of sorts to American Gigolo that he’s been trying to get made for years. In the immediate future, he’s doing a pilot for the FX network. And he has recently landed his “second job for the rest of my life,” in the form of a book assignment from Faber & Faber that Schrader describes as the film-studies equivalent of The Western Canon. “Basically, it means re-reading and re-viewing the history of the cinema — the history of film aesthetics, the history of all the masters, all of it. It will be a defense of film as high art versus populist entertainment, as a sort of reaction against all this people’s-choice mentality about movies. I’ll be lucky to finish it before I die.” So the war between heaven and hell — or maybe just art and commerce — continues.
NOTE: After completing the interviews for this article, I received a message from William Peter Blatty saying that Schrader had sent him a copy of his version of Exorcist: The Beginning and that, in spite of his initial reservations, he found it to be “wonderfully acted and directed,” “elegant” and “a class act.” In fact, he liked it so much he watched it twice.