Interview: The Last Exorcism Director Daniel Stamm

By Eric Eisenberg 2010-08-27 00:16:36discussion comments
Interview: The Last Exorcism Director Daniel Stamm image
In all likelihood youíve never heard of Daniel Stamm. And why would you have? Prior to directing The Last Exorcism the young director from Hamburg, Germany only had one feature under his belt, which was only seen in the festival circuit. But all great directors start off being nobodies and have to find their way to the top. Perhaps this is Daniel Stammís path.

Having a chance to sit down with the director, he discussed what it was like working with the horror encyclopedia known as Eli Roth in the editing room, finding the perfect water-damaged plantation in southern Louisiana, and the experience of having a real-life exorcist on the set. Check it out.

How did you come to the project?

My mother asked me that exact same question. What happened is that I made a movie coming out of film school in the same format, and the trap with film school is that most graduates wait for funding and they wait for someone to give them a green light, and they never shoot anything again because that never comes. So we said we just want to shoot something, no matter what, we just want a project that we can shoot without money that would be still captivating. So we shot A Necessary Death, which took three years to make, which is the one downside of not having pressure, not having anyone breathing down your neck. Thereís no reason to stop ever. Finally we did stop and we showed the movie at SXSW, and we won AFI Fest, and a writer that I had studied with at AFI was writing something for Strike Entertainment. The original writers were supposed to direct The Last Exorcism, and they had committed to another movie, so Strike was looking for another director and this writer heard about it and said, ďI know someone,Ē I gave them A Necessary Death, and they watched it and said, ďWe want exactly that style, just with a horror script. Can you do a horror script?Ē And I thought ďI donít know,Ē but I said, ďOf course I can do a horror script.Ē And thatís how that came to be.

Has your mother seen this film now?

Yes, but that doesnít mean much because she doesnít speak a word of English, so who knows what she took away from it. I know that because of the whole shaky thing, which sheís not used to, she must have thought this looks like you could do it over the weekend without any money by yourself. How come it took millions and a huge team? But I just saw the German trailer, which is the weirdest thing, itís like possession Ė different voices come out the actorís mouth. So Iím going to show the film in German to her once itís out.

Did you have any jitters about making a film for an American audience and feel that it might be too German or too European?

Thereís no such thing as too European. [laughs] There is such a thing as too German. Especially shooting in the south you want to get that feeling right, but I was worried about it. A lot of people think that good directing is they have to say something really smart to the actors, and my approach is the complete opposite. I want to have as little in their head as possible. I donít want them to think about anything while theyíre acting, I want them to react and kind of emotionally experience what theyíre going through while Iím experiencing the same thing. So my whole job is basically listening, and getting them to experiment and making them feel comfortable, and giving them space and time to figure out things on their own. So Iím much less imposing myself on whatís going on; Iím trying to provoke them to bring out these things on their own. I think if I was the other way around and was all about telling people what to do then Iíd have even more reason to be worried to get the Americans in there.

In your research did you look at horror movies since it wasnít your original genre? The little evil girl is a really familiar trope. Did you notice that and why do you think that is?

Because the girl in our society is the one person that has to be protected most, so it kind of makes sense that the devil would go into that girl. It makes us so helpless because itís not an external. What I love about possession is that itís not an external enemy, itís not like a vampire and once you chop its head offÖthatís a zombie.

No, thatís vampires too.

See! I did do my horror research! [laughs] But because there is no real threat, itís inside of someone that you love and want to protect, the battle is a much more complicated one. Itís much more interesting, and itís also a metaphor for a lot of different stuff. Itís a metaphor for disease, and rape even, thatís probably more often a young girl. Itís just horrific where you feel so helpless and your protagonist feels so helpless so you immediately have a great basis for drama. That girl has to be saved. And I did watch a lot of horror movies, but mainly to figure out what to avoid, because it was clear you canít go up against The Exorcist. You just donít do that. We couldnít do anything that The Exorcist did, so I had to know what exactly The Exorcist did and what moments we were doing and all that. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, I think, was still very fresh and in peopleís minds, so we couldnít do any of that. All of that really wasnít as much of a problem as I thought in the beginning because our movie is based on this question whether she is possessed or crazy. So we couldnít do any of the supernatural stuff anyway. We couldnít have her levitate, we couldnít have her spin her head, or anything The Exorcist did, big makeup effects. Our movie was completely based on something else so we didnít really run into that problem as much as I thought we would.

So how exciting was it to find out that Ashley [Bell] was double jointed?

Not so much. [silence] No it was, Iím just kidding. [laughs] The thing is thatís not why I cast her. I had no idea that she was double jointed until two days before we shot the scene, which was planned out completely different. And we were sitting in the hotel lobby and I said, ďDo you have any ideas? Anything you want to try? Anything we have to make room for you to try during the second exorcism.Ē And she got up and she said, ďWhy donít I do this?Ē [Points to a copy of the poster where Ashley is doing a backbend] In the hotel lobby. So I said, ďYou stay as you are, Iím going to run upstairs and re-write the scene.Ē And thatís what we did and basically got rid of the other scene completely, which was more of a kind of chess game and had both of them kind of being equally matched. And now it became this where Cotton has no idea what heís in for and hell is producing the demon. And I didnít know she was double jointed. She can pop out her shoulder out of nowhere, which gets really irritating during lunch. But it was an incredible moment.

Did you do any research into so-called real-life exorcisms?

We actually had an exorcist on set. Which was also a coincidence because he was the brother of our driver, and our driver was like, ďOh yeah, my brother does exorcisms, so thatís funny.Ē And he was there for the rest of the shoot. The exciting thing about him was how unexcited he was, because to him itís a job. He talked about it as though he was working for Washington Mutual. Itís not the spectacle that we think. That, to him, is day-to-day practice. Heís dealing, in his church, with people who have problems and he will exorcise them and he will talk about it very matter-of-factly and with an amount of integrity and it was amazing to have him there to ground you.

Very key to this film is your location, particularly that house. How difficult was it to find that particular locale and that house with intact furnishings and what not?

It was very, very, very hard. We went down three times to Louisiana to look for the location and everyone is bringing their own little wish list with them. I wanted definitely two stories, and our cinematographer said no white walls, and our production said we canít paint all the walls, so you better not find walls that are white to begin with. So we had this checklist, but almost no location could ever fulfill, and this one, for some reason, did. Our location manager, location scout called us, and said, ďI think I got it. I got it.Ē He was so excited.

And it was this plantation that had been completely flooded by Katrina and still had the water marks six feet high on the walls and it was deserted, but it had all the props. We didnít bring in any props to the whole thing. There was nothing art directed, we just sort of moved stuff around, but everything you see within that house is originally from that house. And you get the heat in there, because we didnít get air conditioning, and we shot in July, which was crazy, why would you? You have insects, you have that smell, you have that kind of creaking of the floorboards. Everything you hear in the movie is the actual creaking of those floorboards. We didnít sound design, it all kind of came with it. But the great thing was that the actors donít have to act, they donít have to pretend ďoh, this is a creepy environment.Ē They react to that naturally. And thatís why it feels so real, because thereís no thought behind it. Thereís no ďI better pretend itís really hot in here.Ē And we didnít have makeup, we didnít need makeup because they were bathed in sweat the whole time. And one time we came to set and there was a six-foot alligator who had marched out of some swamp to the set, which is now in the movie. Because I was like, ďYou cost us three hours of shooting time because we had to wait for the alligator wrangler, so you better be in our movie.Ē Even the alligator did something to the actorís psyche, like ďthis is the kind of locale that we are in, where thereís an alligator around the next corner.Ē

What was it like having Eli Roth in the editing room working alongside you?

Breathtaking, really, because he knows everything about horror. He has tried everything. Every time Iím not sure about something and I want to try something that would take us half a day, he can say ďIíve tried that, it doesnít work,Ē or ďIíve tried that and it does work.Ē Itís just so reassuring to have a producer whoís also a director, knows exactly where youíre coming from, knows the panic that youíre feeling every single minute and can kind of reassure you. And his enthusiasm will move mountains. Iíve never seen anything like it, how he can come into a room full of people that have an opinion based on a lot of research and fact, and he will go in there with a different opinion based solely supported by enthusiasm and he will walk out with everyone convinced that heís right. He pulls it off. And to see that was just really, really incredible and a big help.

What personally did you take away from this experience?

Well, directorial it was just even more I learned that letting go is the best thing for doing something. You cast forever until you have the people that youíre 100% sure of, and I developed this technique that Iím really proud of, which is Iím sitting in the waiting room in front of the audition room where the audition takes place and I pretend to be an actor whoís waiting. Because actors are on edge before they go in to meet the director, thereís kind of this nervousness, and you really get to know someone if you kind of keep talking to them. Ashley Bell was trying to focus and prepare, and I was like, ďSo, where are you from?Ē And the way she would handle that, in the sweetest way, the nicest way, the most supportive way, so smart, already I was just half sure that I had found my girl before we had even walked in to the auditioning process.

Your style was to do how many takes? I heard as many as 25 takes.

The highest I counted was 36. Well, if it takes a hundredÖ With this style, youíre not playing by any movie artifice rules, because itís set in reality youíre playing by reality rules. That means the audience knows what theyíre watching because they live reality 24/7. So they feel whatís fake. If their look is fake, if a sentence is fake, if a reaction is fake, if you have one fake moment in a film the whole building crashes down on you. So if it takes a hundred takes weíll be there.

When youíre doing that many takes, do you ever fear apathy because of the constant repetition of the lines?

Yes, from take 21 to take 32, but then what happens is rage kicks in. And thatís your biggest ally. Because the actor goes, ďWhat the hell? Weíve done this 26 times, what more do you want me to do?Ē And you have that moment of despair that shows on screen. But when you watch it you donít know theyíre pissed at me and want to go home. And that, with the heat and the insects and all that, you get something wonderful where they canít even have a concept of what they want to do anymore. So things just happen.

So itís like directing through psychological torture?

Well, I wouldnít call it torture. But itís definitely a different approach and itís the richest stuff. A lot of the stuff is actually take 36.
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