The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Scott Derrickson, Paul Harris Boardman, Laura Linney, Jennifer Carpenter
By Steven D. Greydanus
There are no scenes of spinning heads, projectile pea-soup vomiting, or levitating beds in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (opening September 9), starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter, and Campbell Scott.
Writer-director Scott Derrickson and his writing partner Paul Harris Boardman are no strangers to over-the-top horror (previous collaborations include Hellraiser: Inferno and Urban Legends: Final Cut). But Derrickson, who is also a devout Evengelical Christian, wanted this film to be different.
“When you make a movie with this subject matter, you’ve got to reckon with The Exorcist, and what a popular film that is,” Derrickson commented at a recent New York press event. “And I think that in the writing of it, we both felt that we would get around that problem by making a much more realistic movie.”
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is loosely based on a true, tragic story of a pious young German woman named Anneliese Michel, who in 1970 began suffering disturbing symptoms ranging from seizures to seeing demonic faces to manifesting infernal personalities. In 1976, after nearly a year of exorcism sessions, she died, apparently of starvation, resulting in a criminal trial for the priests and her parents.
In the film, the story takes place in the US, and the girl’s name is Emily Rose (Carpenter). Whether the girl’s demons are real or in her mind — and whether or not her sincere, devout priest (Wilkinson) is guilty of negligent homicide — are questions the film raises but doesn’t answer definitively — along with even larger questions regarding the existence of spiritual realities and ultimately God himself.
That open-endedness was important to Linney, who plays the priest’s reluctant, skeptical defense attorney. “I wanted to make sure that both arguments were fully and completely explored and that it was balanced,” Linney stressed. “I wanted to make sure the movie was not telling people what to think or believe, and that it presented two complete sides to the discussion.”
For Linney, rather than answering its questions, the film “opens the question… the big question… Where does evil come from? Is it stuff in our brains? Or is it something outside ourselves?”
The film’s ambiguity was also the goal for Carpenter, whose thoroughly unsettling physical and vocal performance, unenhanced by digital tweaking on the soundtrack or the screen, anchors the film. Carpenter said her aim was “to keep the audience — and myself — on the fence as long as possible.” Adding that how she personally felt about the film’s subject matter was “irrelevant,” Carpenter expressed her hope that viewers of various persuasions would be willing to “look at the things they have faith in, and take inventory, and see how much room they’ve left for new information and new possibilities, and whether they leave the theater feeling exactly the way they felt when they came in, or if they leave a little more open to a different idea.”
These are not the kinds of comments you hear talking to the makers of films like Constantine, in which demons are merely fantastic monsters for heroes to shoot at with big guns, and evil itself is sort of cool. “I don’t think evil’s too cool,” observed Linney. Contemplating the existence of demons, she added, “I don’t know. I just honest to God don’t know. I hope not. I hope not. And I do believe in something bigger than me, I do I do I do I do. And this is where I get caught up. I don’t know. I hope not. I hope that evil is just a man-made thing.”
Part of this open-endedness involved keeping it real — and doing the research necessary to do so. Commented Derrickson, “The research phase was horrible… [and] pretty intensive. I probably read two dozen books on possession and exorcism, and viewed a lot of videotape of real exorcisms, and heard audiotapes of real exorcisms… That was the part of the process that — I’ll never do that again. To get your head into that kind of a space. I guess I’m glad that I know so much about it. It’s good knowledge to have. As a writer — I also feel for me as a Christian it’s good to have that knowledge, but… not again.”
What drew Derrickson to this material? The writer-director explained that it was the opportunity to bring spiritual concerns to the fore in a medium that has often ignored them. “It’s been tough for me to feel so passionate about my faith, to care so much about it… and to be a lover of cinema, and to have cinema be so void of good religious subject matter. I think [religion] tends in the modern era to be treated almost the way sex was treated in the fifties — it’s like, if you just watched our movies, you wouldn’t even know it was part of our culture.
“What I wanted to do was write something that wasn’t propaganda, wasn’t about trying to persuade people to think the way that I do, but recognize the fundamental importance of that question, the central question — does the spiritual realm exist? Is there a devil, and more importantly, is there a God? And if so, what are the implications of that?
“I don’t care what you believe — those are questions to be reckoned with… Everyone has to answer that question. And in some ways everyone lives their life based on what they believe about that question.”
Does the green-lighting of this project reflect a new openness in Hollywood toward spiritual subjects? “I can’t speak for anyone, why they green-light a movie,” Derrickson demurred. “It was green-lit the weekend after The Passion [of the Christ] opened. But it also happened to be the weekend that the head of Screen Gems read the script.
“I was very fortunate, because Clint Culpepper, the head of Sony Screen Gems, is not scared of this material. He likes the fact that it has spiritual content. He appreciated that, and never made any attempt to back off from that in any way.”
While the film’s spiritual content may be challenging to skeptics, believers may find themselves wrestling with the film as well. For one thing, Emily, a devout girl from a Catholic family and apparently guiltless, seems an unlikely candidate for possession. A pious soul in the state of grace might possibly experience demonic oppression — even direct physical abuse, such as that experienced by Padre Pio — but possession, demonic powers speaking and acting through a person, is another story.
Derrickson approached this question gingerly. “I do not believe that a Spirit-filled Christian can become demon-possessed,” he acknowledged. “However, what I will say is that for every one of those theological rules that we like to systematically create, there are often exceptions. I don’t believe that God will tell me to go commit a sin, but He told Abraham to murder his son. I think that there are sometimes exceptions to the rule…
“The movie is intended to stretch and provoke everyone who sees it, including Christians, including believers. It did that to me. That’s one of the reasons why I thought it was a worthwhile story. When we got into the making of the movie, I thought, there is a way to construct this thing so that there’s just no easy wrapping this movie up — for anyone.”
Boardman concurred. “It’s not like The Exorcist where they go back to the explanation [of] the more typical thing of you playing with… Ouija boards. It’s not as simple as that… I think this movie is much more about once she’s in the state she’s in, asking the questions of what does that mean, and where does it end up, and the choice she makes at the end is obviously very essential once she’s already in that state. Trying to figure out where is the crack, what’s the way in, how did she get there… there are things you don’t know.”
Derrickson also admitted that as an Evangelical he is challenged by the Catholic milieu represented in the film, which includes an apparent encounter with the Virgin Mary.
“I am a Protestant… there are specific reasons I’m not Catholic — but I’m pretty close,” he allowed. “One of my closest friends, [Catholic screenwriting maven] Barbara Nicolosi, always teases me that I’m one Chesterton book away from crossing over. Chesterton is my favorite writer. Orthodoxy is the greatest book I’ve ever read. I have a lot of appreciation and a lot of personal affinity for Catholicism, and aesthetically I have much more appreciation for it than the Presbyterian denomination that I am a part of.”
Derrickson also revealed that the project didn’t originally start out as restrained and realistic as the finished film became. The original script called for flashier special effects and more startling makeup — but that was before Carpenter was cast. When he realized what she was capable of, he decided that less would be more.
“I really had an epiphany where I realized that I can get rid of all that stuff, and try to make this movie feel much more real and hope that the intensity and the impact will flow out of it,” he said.
“It was such a relief, because it really allowed us to make a movie that is so much more credible and so much more true to the kind of research and the kind of stuff that got us excited about this, which is just how scary these real exorcisms — no matter what you believe about them — how scary they really are when you actually start researching them. We wanted to stay true to that.”