Scott Derrickson, as evidenced by this interview, is one of the most thoughtful, sure-handed American directors the genre has working in the field today. If you’re not convinced of that after Sinister alone, then Deliver Us From Evil just might make you a believer.
Inspired by the true events of officer Ralph Sarchie and his dealings with the occult and assistance with actual exorcisms in some of the darkest corners of New York City, Derrickson and company will do their worst in trying to convince us that these occurrences are based in fact.
In doing so, Derrickson will also probably wind up scaring the crap out of you.
When we spoke to Derrickson on set in the South Bronx back in July of 2013, his usual soft, inviting demeanor was still on full display even though he was neck deep in the minute-to-minute stress of shooting a nuanced film that’s equal parts horror and crime drama.
Dread Central: Are you regretting not shooting somewhere else [than] New York, now that it’s raining? Why shoot in the Bronx?
Scott Derrisckson: Oh, the rain has been really hard on this show. We’ve lost a lot of time from the rain. It’s been an unusually rainy summer. But I don’t have any regrets because there’s no place that looks like the Bronx. I mean really, shooting here, you start to go around the neighborhoods, and particularly the neighborhoods I got to see, because we have a very good location scout, there’s just no place in the world that looks like it. And it’s where the real guy did his work. Ralph Sarchie was a cop in the 4-6 for over a decade, I believe. So it’s all authentic, and it feels cool. It’s also free production design because it’s just so cinematic. It makes the movie look at lot, I think, bigger and more expensive than it is.
DC: You’ve been specializing mostly in suburban and rural horror in The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, and now you’re doing urban horror. What kind of an adjustment has that been?
SD: That was what was interesting about it, to me… to take it into a different environment and obviously cross two popular genres that you don’t really see go together. Not that that was my idea; that’s just who the guy is, that’s the real Ralph Sarchie. I mean, there’s a lot in the script that’s fictionalized, but it’s all based on real cases that he had and things that had happened to him. But the character was very true to who he was. In the 4-6 precinct, when he was there, the FBI called it “the most dangerous square mile in America.” It had more violent crimes and arrests as a precinct than any other precinct in the country. He was an undercover cop with a team, doing special ops with a team of guys, who were just stopping street crimes, out there stopping violent crimes all night, every night. So to take a guy like that and have him in a story that involves the paranormal and supernatural and possession and all that is just really great; it’s interesting.
DC: It’s set in present day though, right?
SD: It’s set in present day, yes.
DC: We really need a supernatural detective movie, and I was wondering: Does this film tip its hat at all to “The Night Stalker” or “X-Files” and those other…
SD: Yes… certainly “Night Stalker.” “Night Stalker” was my introduction to Gothic storytelling. That was the first thing that I saw as a kid that was… I was too young to be seeing horror films. It was that and old William Castle movies on television. But when it comes to contemporary horror and contemporary Gothic storytelling, “The Night Stalker” was the first thing I remember. Me and all the kids in elementary school were always talking about the show. I think it’s that and a lot of love for those two kinds of genres, the New York cop procedural, you know, when it’s rooted in real detective work and it has action in it like The French Connection. I’m not comparing this to The French Connection, but that’s what was interesting to me about it, to try to put some elements together that you just don’t usually get.
DC: For you, what’s the emotional core of the storytelling? And visually, what is interesting to you, as a director, about telling this story?
SD: I think the emotional core of this thing is, it really is the story about a character: It’s about this guy, and that’s not always true when it comes to genre films. That’s not true about everything I’ve done. But this is about a particular guy, and he is a hardcore guy. He’s a hardcore cop, a lot of anger, he’s violent, he’s good at his job, but that takes its toll, and he is the least likely guy in the world to end up doing what he ends up doing by the end of the movie.
It’s a story about that transformation, about him running into things he can’t explain and then entering into a relationship and friendship with a Catholic priest who’s a very atypical priest. He’s a priest who is like the religious people that I’ve known in my life, which are just not the stereotypes. He’s a really complicated guy with a dark past, and emotionally, it’s about those two people as individuals, what’s happened to them in the past and how coming together, something very explicit happens. That’s really what’s at the core of it. And within that, there’s action, horror, possession and all the things that you want to have in a genre film.
DC: Can you talk about casting your primary leads and how they came to this film?
SD: Yeah. I cast kind of in order of priority, I guess, for the script, you know? I started with Eric [Bana]. It’s always the same experience when you have a lead character for a movie and then everybody starts throwing out all the triple-A list: “Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio!” And it’s like, “He’s not gonna do this.” Once you get past kind of the unrealistic Leonardo DiCaprio/Will Smith kinds of names, then you get into kind of A-level actors that will do interesting films. We started to throw names around, and I’ll give them credit; Clint Culpepper, the head of Screen Gems, called me one day and said, “I just really need to know who you’d like for this.” And I said, “You know, I’m thinking about it. I’m compiling a list, but I haven’t really landed on anybody.” So I just asked him, “Who do you think?” And he said, “I’d really like Eric Bana for this.” I remember there was this long silence, because I knew Ralph Sarchie, and they look alike, and I’ve seen what Eric does with accents and just his physicality. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to overreact, but then I just ended up saying, “He’d be perfect. He’s who we should go after.” It was kind of an instantaneous decision, and that was that. And we went after him and he read the script, and I met with him a couple of times, and he signed on.
Edgar Ramirez was… I think everybody really wanted him, and he took some persuading. But he really helped make the character better. Joel McHale’s character I actually wrote for him. Joel’s my best friend, so the Joel McHale in this movie is much more like the real Joel McHale than like the guy in “The Soup” and “Community.” Because I was having a hard time with the character, and I started thinking, “I’m gonna make him like Joel.” And then I thought, “I’m gonna write him as Joel.”
DC: Working with [Jerry Bruckheimer], it’s so rare that producers are celebrities or such recognizable names. Does that bring a different pressure than you had on, say, Sinister, which was very independent, and you got to do a lot of what you wanted to do?
SD: Jason Blum is getting pretty famous himself, right now. It didn’t bring any added pressure. He’s [Bruckheimer] a pretty mellow guy in his demeanor and very articulate and easy to be around. Personally, I think the most surprising thing about him is about how good he is at making people feel comfortable around him. Because he seems laconic, he seems very quiet and almost shy. But when people are around him, when he’s in the video village and people are visiting who don’t know who he is, he’s so good at making them feel comfortable.
So I’ve never felt any personal pressure being around him because of all of his accomplishments. You know, Top Gun was the movie I saw in high school that made me want to be a filmmaker. I remember very specifically coming out of the Century 21 Theater in Colorado from seeing it, and my friend saying, “What did you think of the movie?” And I said, “I think I know what I want to do for a living.” That’s a true story. And Crimson Tide is probably my favorite commercial popcorn movie.
DC: He’s one of the few producers out there who is kind of an auteurist producer, in the sense that like, if Gore Verbinski makes Rango or The Weather Man, it looks like his movies. But when he goes to make The Lone Ranger or Pirates [of the Carribbean], they look like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Rather than saying, “Is he interfering?” what is he bringing to this film, creatively?
SD: He contributes through his extraordinarily high taste when it comes to the technical aspects of filmmaking. He really knows how to identify a good DP. He really knows how to identify a great costume designer. So he really helped me crew up this movie in a way that taught me a lot, to be honest with you. And I asked him a lot of questions about why he likes the people he likes, and there were some people I liked and he didn’t want them. And I learned a lot from him. He’s a guy with decades of experience—not just experience, but experience at making a lot of great films. I think when he’s here on set, there’s a whole other thing that kicks in: the practicality of how he thinks about shooting and the tricks of the trade that he has. So it’s been a really good experience, you know? And he’s very director-supportive. I mean, I never have the feeling that he’s applying pressure for me to do anything differently than I would want to do it, except that he challenges me on the quality of certain things and says, “That can be better.” On more than one occasion, there have been things that I’ve been very happy with, and I’ve felt frustrated simply by him saying, “That can be better.” And every time, he’s right.
DC: You’ve said you took Sinister, one of the reasons was that you could do absolutely what you wanted, and that you thought that maybe with a studio, you wouldn’t have been able to do the ending that you did in Sinister. So, this is a much bigger budget, you’ve got someone like Jerry Bruckheimer, do you feel like you still have the same room to go to places that other people won’t go?
SD: Yeah, I mean, there are some pretty bold things in this movie. Certainly, Jerry has never made anything even kind of like this. I think that because of the bad studio experience I’d had in the past, I was very gun-shy about doing my next studio picture. So my attitude toward it going in was, “We’ll work on everything. We’ll work on the script, we’ll work on the budget. I’m just not gonna sign on the dotted line until we all agree that this is the script that we’re making and we’re not going to change it.” I don’t think Sony or Jerry typically work that way, but they were very respectful of that. So it’s like, if people don’t like the script, it’s my fault [laughs], because I got the script that I wanted and held out for it and didn’t cut it down, didn’t change it. So it is the script that I wanted it to be. And it’s a story, I don’t know if you know the history of it, but it’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. Do you guys know any of it?
Well, Ralph Sarchie, who you guys met, is the guy who introduced me to Anneliese Michel, that became [Exorcism of Emily Rose]. I wrote the first draft of the script in 2004, and doing research here, I came to visit and I met Ralph, and he was still a cop in the 4-6. A very different guy than the guy you met; the guy you met now has kind of got a winsome manner. He was a very hardcore, angry guy back then, just working in the Bronx, all those guys seem like that, all those cops, you know? He was burned out and ready to retire. But he gave me the non-fiction book The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, which was written by an anthropologist, that was out of print at the time. It was a photocopy of it, and that was how I learned about that case. And then, when Bruckheimer didn’t make the script then, and actually gave it to David Ayer to rewrite, then I went and made Emily Rose. I optioned that book, I was like, “That was a great book,” so I optioned that and went and made that.
Then, they went through several other writers, and then Clint Culpepper at Screen Gems came back to me and said, “Are you still interested?” I said, “Yeah, I love that story. I’d like to.” So I read that old draft, and the old draft was very dated. It’s amazing how much, what has happened in the genre since 2005, you know? So I said, “I can’t make it like this now. It would have to be something more.” But then I read all of the other writers’ drafts, and there was a lot of great stuff. Bryan Bertino did a draft, and David Ayer’s draft, structurally, had a lot of really great stuff in it. So what I did then was I took all of the drafts, not just the different writers but all of the drafts from the different writers, so I had a stack of like, I think eight or nine drafts, and read them all. I read them all really carefully, and took from them a lot of ideas and then created a different structure for the movie. And that’s the movie that we’re making.
Deliver Us From Evil is in theatres now for the July 4th weekend.
Joel McHale, Sean Harris, Edgar Ramirez, and Olivia Munn star alongside Eric Bana. The film is a paranormal thriller produced by Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Scott Derrickson directs a script he and Paul Boardman (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) wrote.
Look for Deliver Us from Evil in theaters now.
New York police officer Ralph Sarchie (Bana), struggling with his own personal issues, begins investigating a series of disturbing and inexplicable crimes. He joins forces with an unconventional priest (Ramirez), schooled in the rituals of exorcism, to combat the frightening and demonic possessions that are terrorizing their city. Based upon the book, which details Sarchie’s bone-chilling real-life cases.
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