EXCLUSIVE! THE LAST EXORCISM PART II DIRECTOR SPEAKS
The DLB had the chance to speak to The Last Exorcist Part II director Ed Gass-Donnelly last week in his hometown of Toronto about working with series star Ashley Bell, shooting in New Orleans, his vision for the franchise, and working with a low budget
First of all, tell me about New Orleans. Tell me about, obviously the typical thing is it’s a character in the movie, certainly Louisiana was very much a character in the first one, in terms of depression of Ashley’s character, Nell; talk about working there and New Orleans as a character in your film.
Well, the big thing for me is that you’ve got this girl in the first movie that has lived in such a repressed environment. Her father won’t even let her go to school and won’t let her listen to music that’s not Christian music, so I loved the idea of what would it be like for that girl to suddenly be…the movie starts with her sort of lost and feral in the woods, almost no memory of what happened, and then she gets put into a transitional home in New Orleans, so you go from like a cabin in the woods where you have no sense of culture, to suddenly being in the middle of Mardi Gras, and certainly what I love about horror movies is it a chance to explore bigger themes and ideas but in a very sort of pop culture environment, so to me this movie is sort of a metaphor for ultimately girls discovering their own voice and sexuality.
What’s the challenge of making a sequel to a successful film which, given that it’s low budget, I just talked to Jason Blum a producer who is doing Dark Skies which opens tomorrow and he was talking about how, “I can do big films but I wouldn’t have the freedom, where as if I am doing a 2 million dollar production in twenty days, I can give it to a director and say do what you want, you have the freedom to do that.” What are the challenges of having a franchise with maybe expectations, but at the same time the creativity of a low budget?
I mean the coolest thing on this project was I got to make a movie that really is entirely my film; it’s specific to me and it’s the movie I wanted to make, but from the get-go I knew it was going to open on two, three thousand screens, and that was the biggest bizarre of a shift. This movie was made with 5 million bucks, which is almost $4 million more than…Small Town was like $1.3 million, but once you actually start paying people a normal livable wage, paying union fees and blah, blah, blah, I felt like we had $1 million more to put up on screen than I did on Small Town, because on Small Town we basically paid people like nothing.
What was the mood like on set, given the seriousness of the material but given that you are doing take after take, blah, blah, blah?
Because we were focusing so much on the…we were trying to make a very elevated movie so we were trying to focus much more on the internal journey of the character. It felt like we were shooting a drama except when the weird shit started to happen, but I think there was really just a lot of comraderie, a lot of the sense that we were really trying to make something special. I think when people really bought into the fact that we weren’t just trying to do a quick cash-grab of a movie. We were actually trying to be bold and do something…It’s funny, I can’t imagine if I tried, if somebody’s writing this movie from scratch, there’s so much freedom because it’s a sequel in many ways because I was actually able to I think explore some themes and ideas that I don’t know if I could have gotten away with. We knew we were going to get a wide release, just by the fact that the first one was so successful. Of course the fear as the movie comes out on thousands of screens is of course if it doesn’t do as well or people don’t respond to it, but in the end all you can do is make the best movie. I tend to put blinders on and just not pay attention to that stuff because if the movie does great, if the movie doesn’t do great, there’s nothing I can do to control it at this point. I made the movie, I’m proud of the movie, obviously I want people to like it. I hope people will like it.
Where is Nell at the beginning of your movie?
At the very beginning of the movie we find her basically feral and lost in the woods with almost no memory of what happened. She is put into a hospital, has no memory, and then slowly transitions to a half-way house environment with some other girls with troubled pasts, and sort of like more of a transitional home for her to start developing some sort of…because all of her family members are dead and then slowly she just starts to find her own voice and starts discovering friends and embracing music and makeup and boys and this amazing world she had never been able to see, and then of course this presence starts to haunt her and again it becomes that you’re not sure if this is a figment of her imagination or memories or is it actually a darker force planning something bigger?
And what’s the relationship between Nell and the demon in this film, because there is obviously a certain amount of – in the promos I’ve seen – a seduction going on…seems like a possessive relationship.
Well that’s just it, I mean that’s why I say there’s a much bigger mythology. It was in her but now it’s fulfilling a much larger destiny and it was much more of a seduction then. You get a sense that essentially he even loves her and wants her and is trying to make her discover…at one point there’s a line, “Together we can do such wonderful, horrible things,” so it wants her and it wants to…ultimately it’s Vader reaching out to Luke saying, “Take my hand, embrace the dark side of the Force”.
Talk about working with Ashley Bell. What’s she good at?
She’s good at bending into a pretzel. I think she’s good at everything, honestly. She comes from a comedy background. She’s physically capable, she can both be extremely tough but also vulnerable and I just think what people will be really impressed by in this movie is just the very vulnerable and nuanced performance she gives. It’s actually really quite an authentic and emotional journey that she goes through. We really tried to keep it still very restrained. There was one day where she had to do four scenes in a row of…and I don’t usually find it dramatic or moving to see people actually cry, it’s usually like it’s more about seeing people on the brink of tears, because once you start crying that’s a release, whereas it’s the tension of not wanting to cry in front of somebody. So she’s going through so much, she’s trying to put on such a brave face. She did four of those scenes in a row and she was just emotionally battered by the end as an actress, but she was just so committed to delivering the best movie possible. She just was relentless.
Did you get any particular advice from producers Eric Newman or Eli Roth in particular? What was their guiding hand on this film, if at all?
It was always just being supportive and encouraging. I think they really bought into what my idea was and what it should be and it was really about just being supportive. That’s honestly the biggest…obviously you don’t want people always saying yes to you. You always want people challenging you, not telling you what to do but always questioning your ideas because then I don’t pretend that I shit brilliance. I think I have really good taste but at the same time there’s a process, that’s why it’s dangerous to make movies in a bubble. You want collaborators and that’s not to say that every idea that I get thrown I embrace, but it’s like out of every ten ideas if one of them is great that’s one more great idea you didn’t have ten minutes earlier so it’s really just about having…and frankly, if you get into challenges being able to call them back and be like, “Come on guys, I really need help getting this done” and really push to make this happen, they’ll be there.
Let me finish off with a couple things; were there any particular stylistic or cinematic touchstones you were using to either inform the colour palate of the film or the tenor of the film; obviously you mentioned seventies Polanski, that sort of thing?
The biggest thing was even the idea of restraint, the idea that less is more and we were trying to play with using master shots a bit more and holding back and letting the beats play out, and I think one of the things that you look at in a lot of seventies horror is putting in a sense of dread and tension, which sometimes can now be lost with the quick cutting gore or violence, but I really think there’s immense power in a wide-shot. A recent example where the limitations of their story forced them into this was Paranormal 3, because they were using those 1980s style cameras and they were limited to three POVs. In the contemporary ones you can basically have any camera angle you want and pretend that there’s a camera on the ceiling, there’s a camera here, and one of the best signature sequences in that movie is when the camera is on an oscillating fan, all playing out in one shot, and there’s…so I really wanted to play with that and use that, and not to be copying Paranormal 3, there’s nothing in the movie like that, but embracing that…which frankly, I did in my last movie, Small Town because I wanted a nostalgic approach to movie-making and we shot it on film. My DP is probably like that’s the last movie I will shoot on film, just because that’s where the industry has changed, but…I forget what the question was now…
Stylistic references, like films that you were referencing or works of art, either in terms of the script or plotting or the look of the film…
I think thematically, it was more the feel of movies like Rosemary’s Baby or The Tenant, and just the restraint…and again, there’s a lot of, the movie is pretty much either static or steady-cam, depending on the scenes and visually that kind of lends to The Shining, being sort of a bit of a reference behind that. But Brendan and I (and Brendan shot Small Town as well), we both have what we find beautiful is often very naturalistic and restrained and it’s all about trying to find elegance…it’s trying to be elegant, and even when it’s dark subject matter, that’s why, again, why I got the tattoo, is making it rich and beautiful and interesting as well as terrifying and frankly just cool. You want the audience to walk away jazzed to see a third one.
And finally what do you feel in a nutshell that you brought to the film in terms…what’s personal about this film for you? What did you bring to it that would say this is an Ed Gass-Donnelly film?
I think it’s that it’s really an internal journey of the character that is very specific to me and it feels very much of me, and that’s the stuff that I tend to be drawn to, just strong character-driven work. I love genre, I love action movies but the one’s that linger the most with me, other than things like Star Wars just because you grew up with that, but it’s just really strong character work that takes it to another level. It makes you care that much more about the consequences, care about the people involved. I really love that movie Ronin, like it has the greatest car chases, but also, I love the performances, I love that there’s mystery. I always say that when I approach things on a dramatic level, I try to treat them as emotional mysteries, rather than just character stories; discover who these people are, let there be mystery within that because I think human beings are fascinating things to discover and to structure a movie that way leads to good results.
The Last Exorcism Part II opens Friday, March 1.