Source: WB Morgan Creek Press

Production Notes II

Acclaimed writer/director Paul Schrader once wrote that the single most powerful metaphor in cinema is that of "God and the Devil in a small room, locked in battle over the body of a thirteen year old girl." He was referring to the classic film The Exorcist, the story of a young girl violently possessed by a malevolent demon and the devout priest called upon to rescue her from its grip. Schrader never imagined that twenty-five years later he would be behind the camera, adding his own chapter to the legend for a new generation of filmgoers with Dominion Prequel to the Exorcist.

When Schrader's project was first conceived, it was decided that rather than a sequel to The Exorcist, the new film would be a 'prequel,' and would take place twenty-five years before Father Lankester Merrin's emergency visit to Georgetown in the original film. The main action would take place in Africa, and the film would illuminate Father Merrin's path to becoming an exorcist.

As Schrader points out, a significant advantage of a prequel is that since its events unfold before the original story took place, "you don't have to deal with the baggage of being tied down to elements and details that have already been established. When our story takes place, Merrin doesn't even know where Georgetown is."

There is a unique history behind the film's journey to the screen. Initially John Frankenheimer was slated to direct Dominion, but sadly he fell ill before shooting commenced. The torch was then passed to Schrader, whose numerous and varied film work includes directing Auto Focus, Affliction and American Gigolo and penning the screenplays for The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.

Schrader's film is an eerie, disturbing, cerebral exploration of the manifestation of evil, and the horrors that humans visit upon each other. However, production company Morgan Creek wanted to deliver a more traditional horror film to audiences, and subsequently mounted an entirely new production, Exorcist: The Beginning, which was directed by Renny Harlin and released in 2004.

Schrader sums up the whole affair neatly. "When this project began, Morgan Creek thought they wanted a Lexus - but once they got home they decided that what they really wanted was a Hummer. So they went back and bought a Hummer."

Yet Schrader's complex and atmospheric work represents a significant contribution to the Exorcist canon, and so, in an unprecedented move, Morgan Creek is now releasing Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist theatrically.

While both films follow the storyline of Father Merrin's journey to rediscover his lost faith, they differ in their depiction of the transformation wrought by demonic possession. Exorcist: The Beginning further developed the storyline of a minor character who appears in Schrader's movie - James, the young son of one of the Derati villagers. The boy is struck ill and seemingly possessed; his condition further disintegrates, mirroring the devastation around him, until it is revealed that the demon has taken over the body of the female nurse who was attending to him.

Schrader's film takes an entirely new character on a different path. In Dominion, the character of Cheche, a young man that Merrin finds injured and on the verge of death, is miraculously healed by the evil roiling inside him. "Instead of degrading him physically," explains Schrader, "as the crypt beneath the church opens up and as the human evil around him increases, he gets better and better, until he finally transforms into Lucifer, the source of light." As Merrin says to the demon, "You are the Great Deceiver."

Schrader is often asked how Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist compares with the original Exorcist, one of the most terrifying horror films of all time. "Well, that was a classic and you can't top a classic," says the director. "It would be like saying you can make a film better than Casablanca. No way! Get that out of your head! Fortunately, since all the events in my film take place long before that film, I'm not locked into any of the same characters or situations."

The genesis of the story told in Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist was sparked by a comment made in the original Exorcist that Father Merrin had once performed an exorcism years ago in Africa. Screenwriters William Wisher and Caleb Carr took that concept and created a new fold in Merrin's past - many years before the grisly events in Georgetown and several years after a harrowing incident during World War II, Merrin first comes face to face with pure evil, inhabiting the body of an innocent. Only Merrin has the stature and experience to purge and defeat it - but his crisis of faith may render him powerless. From that point on, events rapidly spiral downward into existential horror.

Schrader's sensibilities proved perfect for the story. A protagonist who is utterly without mooring yet searching to believe in something has been a key feature in many of Schrader's works, exemplified by Travis Bickle, the tortured antihero of Taxi Driver, the landmark 1976 film written by Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is a film that delves deeply into issues of good, evil, and the true nature of man, and perhaps Schrader's personal history makes him singularly capable of telling such a tale. Raised a Dutch Calvinist in a virtually closed community (the youthful Schrader didn't even see a film until his late teens), it was expected throughout his childhood that he would one day become a minister.

This is a film that delves deeply into issues of good, evil, and the true nature of man, and perhaps Schrader's personal history makes him singularly capable of telling such a tale. Raised a Dutch Calvinist in a virtually closed community (the youthful Schrader didn't even see a film until his late teens), it was expected throughout his childhood that he would one day become a minister.

"I was brought up to believe in a very real devil, a real Satan," says Schrader. "I don't accept his physicality anymore - but it certainly holds its power as a metaphor. I clearly understand why such a belief came into being, and how it has performed an ongoing function in human psychology and spirituality. You can't run away from your childhood - it's something that you carry with you your whole life. So I don't doubt for a minute the power of these concepts, or the needs they address."

With the filmmakers left free to invent all new characters and situations, the sole thread connecting this story to its predecessor is Father Lankester Merrin. To cast the role of the lost and disillusioned priest, the filmmakers turned to esteemed actor Stellan Skarsgrd, star of such films as Dogville, Good Will Hunting and Breaking the Waves. Schrader and Skarsgrd had met some years ago at the Telluride Festival and the director had kept him in mind ever since.

The opportunity to work with Schrader was a draw for the actor, as was the script. "I've always been a fan of Paul's," says Skarsgrd, "and I found the story very interesting because, particularly for a big budget American movie, it had a lot of character to it.

"Merrin was once a priest," Skarsgrd continues, "but he has lost his faith and left the Church. And that's where you meet him in the film. He gets involved in these horrible events and he is tested - Merrin's battle with faith is one part of this story, and his battle with evil is another."

"What interests me about this story is that it is ultimately an introspective journey having to do with Merrin's soul," says Schrader. "Stellan has the kind of stature and complexity that this character needs. He can very believably portray a man who's going through this great struggle."

Skarsgrd appreciates the psychological terror that lies in the heart of Schrader's film. "The scariest thing to me in The Exorcist was the sound in the attic," Skarsgrd relates. "Spinning heads is not my cup of tea really, but the sound in the attic, when the threat was hidden and everything was left to your imagination - that's when it's scary."

Beyond being an extraordinary actor with the necessary gravitas to play such a demanding role, it has often been remarked that Skarsgrd resembles fellow Swede Max von Sydow, who originated the role of Father Merrin in The Exorcist. As Schrader says, "I must say it's an added bonus having the best Swedish actor of this generation playing a role created by the best actor of his father's generation!"

In the role of Father Francis, the idealistic young priest who attempts to bring Merrin back to the faith, is actor Gabriel Mann, whose previous films include The Life of David Gale, The Bourne Supremacy and A Lot Like Love. Mann admits he may have done a bit of an actor's overkill when he showed up for his meeting with Schrader complete with priest's gear. "I guess I went into it like gangbusters!" says the actor. "At a certain point Paul just sort of sat back laughing and said, I think you have the job!'"

Mann, a self-confessed horror fanatic, considers The Exorcist to be "the mother of all scary films, basically. It's the one by which all others are gauged." While he was never able to see it on the big screen, Mann says he treats his DVD of the film's 2000 re-issue almost religiously, like a relic. "I'm still pinching myself. I can't quite believe that I'm involved in anything related to that film - it was such a formative cinematic experience for me."

Actress Clara Bellar believes she was cast for her innate understanding of the heart of dedicated aid worker and concentration camp survivor Rachel Lesno. "Paul saw me on video and then asked me to do a second scene with an actor," she recalls. "I was in L.A., he in New York, and he asked me to give him as many different shades and choices of reading as I could. When we finally did meet, he told me it was the soul of the character he was looking for."

The actress was appreciative of the director's on-set style. She describes Schrader as "an actors' director" who trusts his players and always gives them lots of room to breathe. "He has an experimental attitude toward directing that's very exciting - everything seems fresher that way. You'd expect that because he's such a well-known writer he'd demand that you say the words exactly as they were written on the page. Not at all! He was most open to change. I trust the actor's instinct,' he'd say, and he proved that again and again."

Singer Billy Crawford makes his big screen debut in the role of Cheche, the outcast and injured young man whose improbable recovery heralds the impending doom. "Even though I was a singer, my manager and agent took a chance and submitted the picture from the cover of my album Ride, where I look kind of scary and sexy. Pam Dixon, the casting director, saw the picture and met with me while she was doing open calls in NY - the next thing I knew, I was being screen tested!"

Both Skarsgrd and Mann sought guidance to ensure they were convincing as men of the cloth. Mann then happened to meet a priest who turned out to be a part-time actor. "He told me he had worked with Schwarzenegger on End of Days," Mann recalls. "Priests with SAG cards - you encounter everything in California."