Q&A with Director Renny Harlin

Exorcist: The Beginning is released nationwide in the UK on 29th October, 2004 by Warner Bros. Pictures. It’s a Certificate 15 and runs for 114 minutes. Counter Culture is pleased to present this Q&A session with Director Renny Harlin.

Q: Were you nervous about getting involved in Exorcist: The Beginning. The films are meant to be cursed aren’t they?

A: [Laughs] Well I don’t know about curses and whatnot. But I was involved in a car accident at the beginning of shooting and had to do most of the film in a cast, so maybe there’s something to it . . .

Q: Making this film seems to have been one of the biggest challenges of your career

A: Yes. But I got caught up in the excitement of how you construct a prequel to this film – which is one of my favourite films of all time. And how you illuminate those issues that are not explained in the original film – and to take the challenge of the schedule. That was exciting.

Q: How did you get involved? It had already been made once by Paul Schrader, right?

A: About a year ago in September, when the studio decided that they didn’t want to release a version of the film that Paul Schrader had made, and they invited some other directors to come and look at the film. They wanted suggestions of how, with a couple of reshoots they add some suspense element into the film. And I saw the film and my opinion was that I didn’t want to start interfering on another director’s film and that I didn’t know how to add things to a film that had a very definite structure and feel. So I said that I’d only be interested if they made a whole new film. I thought “they’ll never pay for that,” and that I’d never hear from them again. Then a few weeks later they called me up and said “we’ve decided to redo the whole thing, are you interested?” And I had to follow through with what I had said and I started working on a new script and a new approach.

Q: It must have been like stepping into a hornet’s nest?

A: Absolutely, I knew this from the beginning. I thought I would just give them my comments and I would never hear from them again, so when I was caught off guard when they said we’ll do what you suggested – I knew from that moment on that I was asking for trouble because I realised there was no way, no matter what we did, that we could satisfy all the fans of the original Exorcist. It was just an impossibility. Together with the fact that they had already made the film once and everybody knew that. So we knew that we had a real uphill battle, but at the same time I was a huge fan of the original film, so I thought it was an exciting film to do in terms of trying to explore where all those things in the original film came from. Where those ideas and thoughts had their birth. That’s what we tried to explore.

Q: Was there ever any suggestion that you’d have a completely new screenplay written?

A: Well, we had very little time. We had 10 months! In that time we had to do some recasting, build the sets in Italy and so on. So to be honest in retrospect when one looks at the situation the smartest thing would have been to completely reconceive the film. What we did was take the basic elements of father Merrin and his loss of faith, and this possession in an African village and so on and keep them. But it was not an ideal situation. I mean we had to start shooting in 2 months! And in that time we had to modify the script and so on. It was a really tight situation.

Q: What are Exorcist fans going to think of it?

A: Well we have made some changes. Fans of the first film have sort of made their rules about possession and exorcism is and how it works and so on. But if you study a little more and go beyond the film you realise there are lots of different kinds of possession. For instance in our film the kid gets touched by the demon, or infected by him, without getting fully possessed. There are endless differences like that. So we’ve varied from the first film – it’s not one person getting possessed and you watching them for an hour and a half like the first film. We felt we couldn’t do that; it would be making the same film that was made in the 70s. Some will buy into it and some won’t.

Q: Critics will inevitably say that you’ve dumbed the concept down. . .

A: That certainly wasn’t our intention. But obviously everybody’s entitled to their opinion. In defence of what we did we had an incredibly challenging task to try to live up to the movie that was made in the 1970s. It’s incredibly famous – it invented a whole new genre. And to make this film without making that film all over again was difficult. In terms of the dumbing it down, maybe people are talking about some of the sequences with the British army and so on – that we made it bigger and more “Hollywood”. Well, we were trying to probe whey people commit these horrible atrocities against each other and where evil comes from and is it some kind of demonic force and so on. Whether people think we succeeded is up to them.

Q: It must have been odd for the actors having to make the same film twice . . .

A: Well I knew Stellan Skarsgard because he was a friend. And he was concerned about this. He wanted to know what we would do and why and how and so on. But he became very much a part of the screenwriting process. We worked together very well. In the previous version his character is very introspective and very passive. In this version he has a traumatic back-story and is more of an active character. because he was part of the process he got really excited about. That was a great experience for both of us. They are two totally different kinds of films, and I think he enjoyed acting in both of them.

Q: Finally, do you believe in possession?

A: I don’t know. But in the research we did we found that the church employs over 300 exorcists. The Pope has his own exorcist, so they certainly believe it. I don’t know if you’d call me religious. But I was brought up to believe in God. And maybe demonic possession would be an explanation for some of the evil things that people do.

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