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In all likelihood you’ve 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 Stamm’s 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. There’s 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, “I know someone,” I gave them A Necessary Death, and they watched it and said, “We want exactly that style, just with a horror script. Can you do a horror script?” And I thought “I don’t know,” but I said, “Of course I can do a horror script.” And that’s how that came to be.
Has your mother seen this film now?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean much because she doesn’t speak a word of English, so who knows what she took away from it. I know that because of the whole shaky thing, which she’s 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, it’s like possession – different voices come out the actor’s mouth. So I’m going to show the film in German to her once it’s 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?
There’s 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 don’t want them to think about anything while they’re acting, I want them to react and kind of emotionally experience what they’re going through while I’m 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 I’m much less imposing myself on what’s going on; I’m 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 I’d have even more reason to be worried to get the Americans in there.
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 it’s not an external. What I love about possession is that it’s not an external enemy, it’s not like a vampire and once you chop its head off…that’s a zombie.
No, that’s vampires too.
See! I did do my horror research! [laughs] But because there is no real threat, it’s inside of someone that you love and want to protect, the battle is a much more complicated one. It’s much more interesting, and it’s also a metaphor for a lot of different stuff. It’s a metaphor for disease, and rape even, that’s probably more often a young girl. It’s 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 can’t go up against The Exorcist. You just don’t do that. We couldn’t 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 people’s minds, so we couldn’t do any of that. All of that really wasn’t 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 couldn’t do any of the supernatural stuff anyway. We couldn’t have her levitate, we couldn’t have her spin her head, or anything The Exorcist did, big makeup effects. Our movie was completely based on something else so we didn’t 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, I’m just kidding. [laughs] The thing is that’s 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, “Do you have any ideas? Anything you want to try? Anything we have to make room for you to try during the second exorcism.” And she got up and she said, “Why don’t I do this?” [Points to a copy of the poster where Ashley is doing a backbend] In the hotel lobby. So I said, “You stay as you are, I’m going to run upstairs and re-write the scene.” And that’s 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 he’s in for and hell is producing the demon. And I didn’t 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.
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, “Oh yeah, my brother does exorcisms, so that’s funny.” And he was there for the rest of the shoot. The exciting thing about him was how unexcited he was, because to him it’s a job. He talked about it as though he was working for Washington Mutual. It’s not the spectacle that we think. That, to him, is day-to-day practice. He’s 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 can’t 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, “I think I got it. I got it.” 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t sound design, it all kind of came with it. But the great thing was that the actors don’t have to act, they don’t have to pretend “oh, this is a creepy environment.” They react to that naturally. And that’s why it feels so real, because there’s no thought behind it. There’s no “I better pretend it’s really hot in here.” And we didn’t have makeup, we didn’t 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, “You cost us three hours of shooting time because we had to wait for the alligator wrangler, so you better be in our movie.” Even the alligator did something to the actor’s psyche, like “this is the kind of locale that we are in, where there’s an alligator around the next corner.”
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 I’m not sure about something and I want to try something that would take us half a day, he can say “I’ve tried that, it doesn’t work,” or “I’ve tried that and it does work.” It’s just so reassuring to have a producer who’s also a director, knows exactly where you’re coming from, knows the panic that you’re feeling every single minute and can kind of reassure you. And his enthusiasm will move mountains. I’ve 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 he’s right. He pulls it off. And to see that was just really, really incredible and a big help.
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 you’re 100% sure of, and I developed this technique that I’m really proud of, which is I’m sitting in the waiting room in front of the audition room where the audition takes place and I pretend to be an actor who’s waiting. Because actors are on edge before they go in to meet the director, there’s 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, “So, where are you from?” 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 hundred… With this style, you’re not playing by any movie artifice rules, because it’s set in reality you’re playing by reality rules. That means the audience knows what they’re watching because they live reality 24/7. So they feel what’s 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 we’ll be there.
When you’re 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 that’s your biggest ally. Because the actor goes, “What the hell? We’ve done this 26 times, what more do you want me to do?” And you have that moment of despair that shows on screen. But when you watch it you don’t know they’re 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 can’t even have a concept of what they want to do anymore. So things just happen.
So it’s like directing through psychological torture?
Well, I wouldn’t call it torture. But it’s definitely a different approach and it’s the richest stuff. A lot of the stuff is actually take 36.