Paul Schrader: Exorcising his demons

11 March 2005

As his prequel to The Exorcist finally premieres in Brussels, Paul Schrader talks to James Drew about an unlikely resurrection.

Next week Paul Schrader will introduce an unexpected world premiere at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film: the director's cut of the prequel to The Exorcist. The film was notoriously abandoned by its studio on delivery and virtually re-shot by a new director. But Schrader is adamant that his hiring (and firing) was based more on a head-of-studio's whims than artistic problems with his project.

In late 2003, US studio Morgan Creek was under pressure to replace John Frankenheimer at the helm of the long-waited prequel to The Exorcist. The seriously ill director stepped down a month before his death, so Schrader, who hadn't touched horror since his 1982 remake of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942), was under immediate pressure to get his cut in ahead of time and on budget. He duly delivered - only to have his vision nixed by boss James Robinson. After a re-shoot by Renny Harlin, Exorcist: The Beginning was released to underwhelming critical response but reasonable box-office success in late 2004.

The prequel deals with the earlier encounter of Father Lancaster Merrin (the titular exorcist from William Friedkin's 1973 genre-defining film, played first by Max von Sydow and now by Stellan Skarsgard) with a diabolical entity - a preparatory battleground for the terrors he will face 30 years later.

Schrader explains his decision to sign up: "I was more attracted to the The Exorcist's mythos rather than wanting to duplicate its shocks. I am a big fan of Friedkin's original and its metaphorical purity. That's why my story has an old-fashioned feel - it's set in the 1940s, and I hope it feels like that. It's leisurely - it's not done in the current, hyper- kinetic horror style. It's much more focused on Father Merrin's personal situation."

While Schrader had fun putting the picture together ("I really enjoyed working with Stellan Skarsgrd and the rest of the cast"), the story did not have a happy ending. With several explanations doing the rounds, ranging from the studio insisting the film did not have "enough bloody violence" to the old chestnut, "creative differences", Schrader sets the record straight.

"Morgan Creek is one man - it's a one-man operation, it's James Robinson. If he decides something, that's it - everything comes out of his pocket, so I think that somewhere in the shooting, he started to change his mind about having made this film, and he started to feel that he was making the wrong movie."

This turnabout was in spite of the fact that Schrader had been completely open about the kind of film he wanted before and during the production - a departure from the overt body-horror aspects of the first film, but a vision rich in psychological nuance.

"That's why I call it buyer's remorse," Schrader says. "You know, like, he went out and bought a Lexus and came home and said, 'I really shouldn't have bought that,' so then he goes back out and buys a Hunter - now he has a Lexus and a Hunter. I think that, by the time I had finished - and there was a lot of pressure on me to deliver my first cut very, very quickly - I think that he was already moving on in his mind to another film.

"What he didn't know was how much he was going to re-shoot - it just got bigger and bigger until virtually all of it had been redone. The problem was that the core of the idea, which was there before I came, and which I liked, is not designed for hard-core horror, despite its diabolical and disturbing elements. Essentially, you have an afflicted boy, an outcast who is possessed, and, as his possession deepens, he gets better, until finally he is perfected and glorified as Lucifer incarnate. A poor crippled boy, getting better - not very useful for hardcore horror, which usually turns on an innocent being tormented, as in the first Exorcist. Here, the concept was turned on its head. I did not want to wrench hard-core horror from it, because the concept really wasn't suitable. Jim came to realise, I think, that the problem for him lay with the premise. But once you change the premise and the director, you have a new movie."

So, does he have an opinion on Renny Harlin's final version? "Well, you have to have a kind of ironic world view, if you are going to survive in a business such as this, otherwise it's just a life of grinding pain. I went to Washington DC, with [Exorcist author and Exorcist III director] William Peter Blatty, and we saw Renny's film together. Blatty had also made his film for Morgan Creek, and Robinson had taken its creative direction away from him [the insertion of a blood-and-thunder exorcism, among other, erm, 'narrative tweaks']. Well, he was sitting there in the theatre, getting much more angry than I was, remembering all the things he went through. Everything is now so driven by CGI and gore, rather than suspense and storytelling. And so, it makes it kind of hard to get a good suspenseful story going, because you are competing with people who are throwing heavy metal instruments at the viewer from the moment the movie starts."

But Schrader is still (reasonably) graceful about the whole damn thing. "There wasn't a big fight when I left. I spoke to Jim Robinson for all of five minutes after I delivered the film to him - and I wanted to take some time out and show it to him again. But he didn't show up for the next screening, and then he fired the editor, and, shortly after, he fired me." He laughs ruefully. "Er, let's just say that Jim Robinson's reputation precedes him."

So how did Schrader manage to persuade Morgan Creek to part with his director's cut footage? "They had extremely ambivalent feelings about it. They wanted to make some money. But obviously, they take the risk that, the better people think of my film, the worse they look. So, its obviously an extremely difficult situation for them. They gave me the money to finish the film on the cheap, so that there would be a DVD. And, I was trying to work out a way, to give it a theatrical life as well."

It's a coup for Belgium's Festival of Fantastic Film - Schrader contacted the festival organisers, thinking that it would be a better showcase for the film to be the biggest movie in a smaller festival "than just another film in a big festival". Solidarity will also be on display - the director will be accompanied at the premiere by cast and crew members of the film, and Stellan Skarsgrd will also be sending a message of support. As a result, Dutch Filmworks has agreed to give the film a Benelux release - so it is on Belgian soil that the first verdict will be delivered. "Its theatrical fate awaits Brussels," says Schrader.

For a man whose parents, apocryphally, didn't let him see a film until he was 18 years old, Schrader's movie career hit pay-dirt early. He and his brother Leonard (an expert on Japanese culture) co-scripted Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza (1975), before Martin Scorsese took Taxi Driver (1976), which Schrader wrote during a bout of drink and depression. With the help of Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, the "nobody dreaming of being somebody", it made cinema history.

Taxi Driver's success gave Schrader enough financial freedom to start directing (as well as writing) his own films, including American Gigolo (1980) and the Japanese co-production Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985) - Schrader's personal favourite.

But Raging Bull , made in 1980 by Martin Scorcese, is without doubt Schrader's finest hour. This is a script that screams brilliance, and combined with De Niro's powerhouse performance, it has ensured the movie's inclusion in most critics' 10 best films lists ever since.

His original prequel to The Exorcist seems very much in keeping with his own tradition - the descent into hell of men who allow their worlds to crumble. "What fascinates me are people who want to be one thing," says Schrader, "but who behave in a way contradictory to that. Who might say, 'I want to be happy, but I keep doing things that make me unhappy.'"

Will the release of The Exorcist prequel make Paul Schrader happy, one wonders? One can but hope, if only to quash those hoary old "curse of The Exorcist" yarns, that it doesn't have the devil of a time with its first audience.