As horror archetypes go, the “demonic possession” subgenre is one that didn’t really hit its stride until the 1973 release of the William Friedkin production of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel The Exorcist. Before that there were sporadic cinematic mentions of demons taking over the bodies of the living, but it was The Exorcist and the cultural phenomena it created that set the tone from then on.
After reports of people literally throwing up in theaters, passing out in their seats, and – most importantly – record box office numbers being tallied, the list of films that wanted a piece of the demonic action came fast and furious with titles such as Ovidio G. Assonitis and Robert Barrett’s Beyond The Door, aka The Devil Within Her (1974); the great Mario Bava’s La Casa Dell’Esorcismo, aka House of Exorcism, aka Lisa and the Devil (1974); and on through the years until the recent 2005 release of Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism Of Emily Rose.
Last year Strike Entertainment, StudioCanal, and Arcade Pictures stepped up to the plate and released The Last Exorcism (Blu-ray/DVD review here), a demonic possession film shot in a “cinéma-vérité” manner. Starring Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell, it’s the tale of a preacher who’d begun to question his own faith and his role in the supposed possession of a young farm girl. The film (which was budgeted at just around $2 million) was picked up by Lionsgate in short order and went on to make an estimated $40,990,055. Those are the kinds of numbers that make the Hollywood machine sit up and take notice, kids.
On January 4th, 2011, The Last Exorcism will hit shelves on DVD and Blu-Ray (with multiple commentaries, behind-the-scenes footage, and even some actor audition footage) and make itself known to a whole new sector of horror fans. Dread Central caught up with The Last Exorcism’s Patrick Fabian recently and discussed the film, religion, faith, and the triumphs and tribulations of bringing them all to the screen.
One small word of warning for those who haven’t seen the film: In the following interview there are aspects of the story that are discussed openly. So be warned … there is a spoiler or two contained herein.
Dread Central: First of all, I wanted to tell you that I recently saw the film and enjoyed it. I went into it, to be honest, with a little trepidation since I grew up in the 70s and had seen so many “possession” films over the years, but I was pleasantly surprised by The Last Exorcism. So, good job all the way around.
Patrick Fabian: Thanks very much. You know, I like to call it “a smart thriller that has a bit of a horrific ending” because I thought it had good character work in it and it was a new telling of a tale you think you already know. I think a lot of people’s reactions were like yours… sort of pleasantly surprised.
DC: With films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose having come out a few years prior, I could easily imagine that people were thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be another one of those kinds of things.” I think the genre is usually looking for the next thing and so much ends up being recycled that it was nice to see something we were a bit familiar with, but it also gets turned on its head. And you’re right; the performances are so solid in the film, which always helps.
PF: You come in sort of waiting for the dresser drawer to slam or the bed to move. You go to it because you want to have that feeling, that sensation that you had when you saw something that was really good. We’re all chasing that, I think.
DC: That’s the interesting part of the film. The audience is waiting for the kid’s head to spin and waiting for the pea soup, and when that doesn’t happen – and I’m trying not to give too much away in case some readers haven’t seen it – when that doesn’t happen, you think, “Oh wait… it wasn’t that. It was this!” Then the ending comes, and it all gets explained in an even darker way than the one they’d imagined.
PF: Right. It’s like getting the audience in the car with you and you’re just driving down the road. Then, in the second third of the film, the car is driving sideways and the audience is thinking, “Hey, we’re driving sideways” and the filmmakers are like, “What are you talkin’ about?” The car then turns upside down for the final third and the audience thinks, “Hey, I think I want out of here!” and the filmmakers aren’t listening at that point.
DC: So, how did you come to be a part of the production? How did you get cast?
PF: A casting office here in Los Angeles – Lauren Bass Casting – is one I’d been seeing here for years for projects. There was more improv for the audition. They didn’t really show you a script, they just gave you the breakdown for the character and they asked you to come in. Danny Stamm (LAST EXORCISM’s director) was there and I did some improv with Ashley Bell. Then I went away and they had me come back another time and they asked me, “Would you please come back with a ten-minute sermon?” So I wrote a ten-minute sermon and I came back and did that. Then I got cast and then we read the script and then I went to New Orleans and we talked about what was going on. So it was sort of a “cart before the horse” way to get a role, but it was interesting because what they had talked about was the style of shooting and, having seen Daniel’s other films like A NECESSARY DEATH, I was curious about working with him because he had a reality-based kind of directorial viewpoint, but it didn’t look like somebody was shooting it with an iPhone.
DC: Like, say, Cloverfield.
PF: Right, and I’m not trying to throw CLOVERFIELD under the bus. That was just too shaky for this forty-six-year-old. [laughs] Therefore, I couldn’t watch the story they were trying to tell because I was so taken out of it by the camera work. I know many people who very, very much liked that film. I liked what our cinematographer, Zoltan Honti, did, which was not to get shaky with the camera until they were running for their lives, until things go crazy. He’s really there to document what is going on, and since the premise is I hired them to come along and show what was going on, I think he does a great job of covering the action emotionally and also being that fly on the wall for stuff that the audience might want to be looking at as well.
DC: Well, I think that so much of that style gets you reaching for Dramamine, you know? [laughs] And you guys managed to balance all of that out where it did indeed document what was going on, but you still got that immediacy and that kinetic feel.
PF: Well, Danny was very much going for the idea of bringing the audience in. From the time we are settled in, by the time we reach our destination in the van, people are then shocked by what goes on when they meet Caleb. All of a sudden, they’re like, “Oh, right! We’re down here alone. What’s going on?” And I think at that point the audience has that mentality that they are there.
DC: In fact, the introduction of the brother, Caleb, reminded me a lot of the introduction of The Hitchhiker in Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It was one of those moments like, “Oh, this is severe weirdness and it’s really close!” [laughs]
PF: Yeah! Because before then, we’re all sort of laughing and saying, “Ok, we’re going to go do this thing… nothing to see here! Nothing up my sleeve… nothing to be frightened of.” Then, all of a sudden, you realize, “Wait a second, they are coming down here to investigate something that we haven’t seen yet and we don’t know what is what and we really don’t belong here.”
DC: How long was the production schedule?
PF: We shot it in twenty-four days down in New Orleans. It was hot. We had six-day weeks. It was very tight and it was a low budget film so everybody sort of scrimped and saved and that sort of thing. Also, we wanted a realistic look about it so there was no makeup and hair. We sort of came as we were, and as we got tired, we looked tired… as our suits got a little musty, they continued to be musty. I think it gave a real sense of authenticity that really comes across. The shoot itself was laborious in that I had not worked with Daniel and didn’t realize how many takes he enjoyed doing, which was quite a lot – twenty to thirty takes on some things. I hadn’t worked like that before. I also hadn’t worked where I stared at the camera. You’re very much trained to behave and ignore the camera, and this is the exactly opposite. It took me a little bit to get used to that. The good news was that I was working with Iris Bahr, who was playing the documentary filmmaker, and she literally was there on Camera Left and Camera Right being my scene partner. She doesn’t show up in the film but for about a second, but she certainly was integral to what was going on onscreen. So it became weird. Me, Iris, and Zoltan were like this triumvirate sort of wandering around through the story and we would run into these characters: Louis and Ashley and all those people. We shot it pretty much in sequence so that helped a lot. When we did the exorcism scenes, we sort of already know what we have on our hands.
DC: Was the script fully realized by the time you started shooting? I mean, you knew where you were going and you knew what the ending was, but…
PF: There was debate about some of those things, and as I was saying before, the script was very much a highway that we were driving down, but both the director and the writers and [producer] Eli [Roth] allowed us to go down some off-ramps to explore and see what could be had there. Some of those things we kept and were good and brilliant and other things were just awful and self-indulgent and terrible. [laughs]
DC: So improvising was allowed and actually encouraged.
PF: If something was working, we would go with it… Yeah, absolutely, especially when doing preaching scenes and stuff like that. Since I had written my own sermons, we shot for about two days when I was preaching and I was a little sad because… typical actor… when we go to shoot the film, I was up in the pulpit for two days doing all of this blood and sweat and Christ and all that stuff. I was expecting there would be this moment in the film where, “We will now pause for five minutes while Patrick Fabian delivers a sermon.” [laughs] Of course, nobody wants to see that. That would stop the film dead. Daniel knew that all he needed was a couple of pieces, a couple of slivers, to see me in action so the audience would know this was real and authentic. It’s a back-story we believe for him now. I thought maybe for the DVD release coming up on January 4th that they would have “Patrick’s Ten-Minute Sermon,” but guess what? No, they don’t! [laughs] So either I was not as brilliant as I thought or they just didn’t have the digital space.
DC: A lot of those sermons come off rather authentic. Do you have any kind of background in that stuff or was it just a lot of research?
PF: I did do research, but I kept saying this a lot when we were talking about the film, “The difference between a good preacher and a good actor is a very thin line.” We’re talking about men and women who have no problem standing up in front of people, who have no problem telling you a truth (or what they think is the truth) that they know the way. There’s a bit of ego and hubris involved, and, let’s face it, they also don’t mind a couple of bucks being given along the way. And I believe that. I mean look at Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker and Ted Haggard… all these guys. All these modern day charlatans standing up under the eyes of God while building golden houses with money fountains out back. What I love about them is they all seem genuinely surprised when the house comes down, you know what I mean? When they’re crying in front of… I always feel a little bit bad because I’m like, “Oh, you’re really wrecked because you really believed all your bullshit.” And I think what Cotton Marcus is doing here is avoiding that next step to becoming those people. I think this is his “out.” He’s willing to blow up his life, get rid of his career, in order to find a little bit of humanity. He’s lost his faith, basically, and he’s willing to go ahead and say, “I’ll try to do a little bit of good with what power I still have and we’ll see what happens… next in my life.” And I think that’s a GIANT act of faith and the film acts as a grand confessional for him.
DC: Most of those people – and in this character – there’s a little bit of Harold Hill, a little Music Man in there with the sleight of hand…
PF: Everybody has a little Robert Preston in him, that little wink, that little smile… That ability to smile and act like you’re not asking for money and yet ask for money. That is quite a feat, in my mind.
DC: A thing that struck me was The Recipe…
PF: The Banana Bread Recipe.
DC: Yeah, it was like, “I can do this!” And the documentary filmmakers don’t believe him… then he does it and the parishioners buy it. Then you think, “Okay, well now… what else will they buy and what else have they bought?”
PF: Exactly! And that’s the moment in the film… Well, what surprised me was how much humor was in the first part of the film because we’re laughing with them. When I saw the film at the LA Film Festival, I heard a reaction… I mean, people just started laughing and it was a laughter that said, “Oh, ok… I get it!” Because now, I really let them in on the secret, right? Now, I’ve let them in on seeing, “Look how easy this is…” You’re right. At this point, I could ask them for their daughters and they would line up. And I think everybody likes to see behind the curtain when it comes to that.
DC: It’s interesting for me because I spent some time working in the funeral industry and I got to know a lot of clergy sort of behind the scenes. It was always sort of a guarantee that with a certain guy at a certain point in every one of his services he’d get to John 14:2… and you’d hear, “In My Father’s house, there are many rooms” and you’d know he was winding up. It was, in many ways, schtick and, on one hand, here’s this guy doing this “dog and pony show,” but on the other, there were people staring wide-eyed at him and thinking, “You have The Way. You have the ‘Get Out Of Jail Free Card’ to this whole thing.” All of it made for a very interesting dynamic.
PF: Right, and in the end, as I was saying before, if Cotton Marcus’ father had been a plumber, then he’d be a plumber snaking people’s drains and bilking them for more money than they needed to pay. Instead, his father was a preacher so he learned the family business. I mean he knows all of the words. But, somewhere along the line, it’s just that the backing and the faith sort of left. But that magnetism… that ability to stand up there and speak… well, that provides comfort for those who can’t come up with that thought on their own.
DC: I saw the film’s stance as, on one hand, supportive of what the church can do but also kind of critical of how that same entity can – and sometimes does – take advantage of people who are unable to think for themselves.
PF: The irony is that the only person who gets the whole thing right is Louis (Louis Herthum), who is the father and is a man who is convinced and is a man of God. He’s the one who says, “It is the Devil’s work and I believe that only God can help” and all of those things and it turns out he seems to be the one who has his fingers on the pulse of exactly what is going on better than anybody else. People of faith have seen the film – because every time you do an exorcism movie, people love to go and see what the “God vs. the Devil battleground” is going to look like according to Hollywood and movies and television – and the response that we got was, “Oh, good… that’s exactly right. The people who are lying and abusing the Lord’s name get what’s coming to them.” How can you really see it like that? Well, because you can… there is an argument to be made. That’s part of the thing like, “Yes, I’m making fun” or “Am I treating these people like rubes or degrading religion?” But, in the end, like I say, it’s a grand confessional. It is the act of contrition… by throwing myself under the bus, I am willing to be born again. Now, born again unto what? I do not know. There’s also people who think it’s all a big hoax and it’s one more way for me to rebrand myself as well.
DC: It’s interesting because you start to get a sense that your character is having almost a conversion where he’s saying, “Wait a second… this stuff IS real” and then the reveal comes and we find out it’s not really, but the truth is shown and he ultimately pays the price for his hubris. It’s really fascinating stuff.
PF: Oh, yeah… absolutely. I mean, you’re saying it and saying it and saying it and then it finally shows up and you say, “Ooh, wait a second… I didn’t think this was really going to happen! [laughs] Did I invoke this? Wait… let me check my book!”
DC: Were these kinds of things being discussed on set?
PF: You know, Daniel wanted to get into it and explore it and, as we would do stuff… If we would ever go over the lines with things… For instance, if I went over treating Louis or any of the locals a little too harshly, he would come in and go, “You know, on this pass, let’s be bemused as opposed to ‘holier than thou.’” And that’s also a fine line to do, to be able to enjoy somebody and their story… I’m thinking in particular the situations where people would be telling us their own personal demon stories and their own UFO stories and these people believed in them. I think everybody has a ghost story where they go, “No, I was house-sitting, man, and you wouldn’t believe it…” and they truly believe it and there is nothing that is going to dissuade them from that and I don’t think it’s my job to do that. There is a way to listen to that and comment on it that doesn’t make fun of them, and I think that was what I was trying to do.
DC: Did you find that people – either during production or when you started showing the film – came up to you saying, “I know that was fiction, but let me tell you what happened to me”…?
PF: Yeah, absolutely. There were people who were in the church and what not and they were playing a part of the congregation and we would talk in between takes. Just church-goin’ folks showing me how to be a Baptist minister, basically. But then, all of a sudden, one would say, “Well, you know… I did see a demon once. My brother was possessed by a demon” and I’m like, “Oh, REALLY!?!? Tell me about THAT!” You know, we had a real exorcist on the set. That was what he did and he did it like he was a plumber. He said, “Oh, I believe in this. Absolutely. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen stuff come out of people. I’ve seen the Devil in people and I’ve gotten rid of them”. It makes me – a man of science – sort of go, “Oh, c’mon, man…” But the conviction with which he’s saying it, who am I to say? I mean, I wasn’t there. But at one point he said to me, “You got more than a little preacher in you” which I took as a very big compliment. I said right back at him, “And you have a little more actor in you than you think.” We both had a nice little knowing chuckle.
DC: There’s a great bit of dialogue in the film where you say something about even if it’s all bullshit and the benefit is only in the mind of the subject and the end result is that you still “cured” them, isn’t that still doing good?
PF: It’s the whole idea of “if you think you’re sick and I come to you and you think I’m a doctor and I touch you or say something and you suddenly feel better, does that make me a doctor?” Not necessarily, but does that make me wrong? No. If I take a couple of bucks and you still end up feeling better, where’s the harm? And that’s more of a moralistic slippery slope. There’s the vortex, right? There are people who would definitely say, “Yes, that is wrong.”
DC: Even if it is a “theological placebo,” if it works, it works.
PF: Ahhh… I wish you would have been on set. That’s a nice little phrase.
DC: Thank you. [laughs] The thing I find interesting about preachers – and, like I say, I’ve been around a lot of them – is that there comes a point in a lot of their lives (or in a lot of their teaching) where they become almost a conduit for “the power of the Word” and it’s easy to get a little drunk on the power that inherently gives them. And that is how you get the Swaggarts and the Haggards of the world.
PF: Definitely. Like you said, people are looking at you and believing in you and then you start monkeying with the Scriptures a little bit to fit your point or your own personal beliefs. You know, when I went in for the sermon for this audition, even though I was raised Catholic, I’m not someone who can really quote the Bible and I don’t have a working knowledge of it. So I was trying to come up with some quotes that would help support the sermon I was writing and finally I thought, “Well, it’s a movie. It’s not a documentary. I can just make up a quote.” So, I was like, “In the Book of Ephestes…” whatever THAT is. [laughs] “The Book of Cestes…” I just made up the quote that I needed and I think that’s on the DVD, in the audition thing. I remember… I got so excited, so I wrote like ten quotes out of the Bible. Just made them up and nobody’s questioned me on them so far. No one has said anything.
DC: “Yeah, they’re in the Apocrypha…” [laughs]
PF: Either that or HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. [laughs]
DC: That’s funny… But I think it goes back to what we were saying previously about how you can tell a lie or a fairytale with enough conviction and people will believe it to be true. And isn’t that what Dianetics is… [laughs]
PF: Right, exactly. “Would you like to take a free personality test?” [laughs]
DC: I’m also interested in the idea – and you touched on it earlier – that the father, Louis, was right all along… and not in the way he probably thought he was, but the Devil was definitely at work there. I’m also interested in the precognitive aspect of Nell’s drawings. She did these drawings and they seemed sort of ludicrous and even though the crew got sort of worked up about them, no one knew what they meant. In fact, there were more or less dismissed, but the events replicated them quite literally.
PF: Well, what I like about the film the most is that there’s a sense of humor that’s maintained. When they start showing those drawings, the audience laughs without fail over these rudimentary kid drawings of people’s heads being chopped off. It’s funny. But it’s also funny because it’s a little creepy. You’re like, “What is that?” The audience is sort of unnerved at that point. As far as it being precognitive… There are some mystical aspects about the film that I don’t think are satisfactorily explained and I also like the film because of that. There are things that might not quite fit or they do fit if you allow yourself to go around the bend into magical thinking.
DC: But I think it informs a little bit of Nell’s character with the idea that here she is someone who is a little older, but her drawings and her representations of what she is “seeing” or experiencing are so child-like.
PF: Right. There is a real sympathy that Ashley Bell brings to the project and brings to her characterization of Nell that makes us want her to be “whole” again. No matter what her ailment is, we don’t want to see this girl in distress the way she is. They might have it on the DVD or Blu-Ray, but… Nell’s room was basically intact when we got there, but we added some art props that we felt Nell would probably do on her own there at the farm. One of them was this elaborate 3D diorama of… well, she’d inserted herself into the Nativity scene holding hands with Jesus. It was like some backwood, perverse sort of scene of her sitting hand-in-hand with Jesus. When the prop gal showed it to me, she was showing me around the room, and I said, “Wow, that’s great.” She then says, “Want to see it turn on?” I’m like, “What do you mean?” She hits the switch and it’s got Christmas lights stuck all through it and the whole thing lit up. It was this gaudy, wonderful carnival ride kind of thing. [laughs] I was really hoping that was going to stay in the film, but there were too many good pieces like that that unfortunately had to be dropped out.
DC: And isn’t that the way it would play out, that kind of attention to detail on her part? It really is a representation, in her mind anyway, of something that happened to her, something that makes her very special.
PF: Exactly. I mean, she’s chosen, right? So in that mindset of “I am chosen, things are good,” then you become fixated on stuff and, whether it’s good or bad, you must deserve it, right?
DC: Were there any discussions about her actually knowing what was going on? I mean, she sort of “gives up” a certain character’s identity and “role,” but… even that doesn’t work out for the best.
PF: We were talking about how that was a very kid thing to do, to throw people off or to try to save them. I mean, she’s basically giving us an out to go away at that point, to get away, to save ourselves. Because if those drawings are precognitive and she senses what our fates are, then the story she tells about that certain character is to get us away, to send us to safety. It’s us who decide to go back. “Those nosy kids…” [laughs] My eighteen-year-old nephew saw the film with some friends and he said, when we turn the van around, his friends said, “Noooo… keep driving!”
DC: But isn’t that the cornerstone of the “Hero’s Journey” where… you’re out, you’re safe, but you decide for whatever reason – courage, obligation, honor – to go back?
DC: So, in the end, were you all pleased by the way the film was received?
PF: We were over the moon. I mean, we were shooting this little horror film down in New Orleans and we were hoping for the best, but you never know what you’ve got. We liked what we did, but we also knew it was low budget and I’m not Johnny Depp and all that kind of stuff. But then, when Daniel edited it together and Lionsgate saw it, they said, “Wow, this is good and we know how to market a film like this.” We also happened to catch a couple of breaks. All the right doors opened and some films moved their release dates away from us and we had the perfect slot for people to say, “Let’s get creeped out before we get back to school!” It was a smart film with a horrific ending and it got people saying, “Yeah, this is a cool film regardless of the subject matter.”
DC: So, according to the always reliable IMDB, you have a couple of new films coming out. Land Of The Astronauts…
PF: LAND OF THE ASTRONAUTS is a film I did with David Arquette, Bijou Phillips, and Viveca A. Fox which is in post-production and is a sort of mystical, quasi-“what is real?” type of film. I also did a thing called PIG which is a sci-fi thriller directed and written by Henry Barrial. I use MEMENTO as a touchstone because it’s about a man who doesn’t know who he is or where he’s at, so… It’s a real cool script that’s shot really well. Then, in a completely opposite direction, I just wrapped twelve episodes of a sitcom called WORKING CLASS and that will be premiering January 28th on Country Music Television and it stars Melissa Peterman who is the tall, stunning blonde from REBA, the Reba McEntire show, and also Ed Asner. I play Melissa’s love interest and it’s been loads of fun.
Our thanks to Patrick for taking some time to speak with us. Order yourself a copy of The Last Exorcism below!
Got news? Click here to submit it!
Let the power of Christ compel you to post in the comments section below!