Dark Horizons Interview with Stellan - "Exorcist: The Beginning" - 2002


Question
:  Do you feel daunted by the prospect of taking on such a famous role?

SS:  A lot of journalists ask me the question "Do you think you're big enough to fill the shoes of Max Von Sydow?" I wasn't worried about it, but obviously unconsciously I was because I had this dream the other night that I was walking down one of the streets of Cinecitta and from the Passion set where they're shooting the film about Jesus, Mel Gibson's film, Max Von Sydow comes walking towards me. So, I'm happy to see him and he's happy to see me but when he gets close I find out that he's actually nine feet tall which says something about my relationship [with him]. I go up to him and I say, "You do have on high heels, don't you?" "Yeah, Yeah!" Then everything was fine, but unconsciously I'm obviously a little worried.

Question:  How is this film different from the other Exorcists in terms of the journey this character takes?

SS:  Very much because that film was not about Father Merrin really. He was a strong character in it, but this film is very much about Merrin's journey towards the first exorcism and his doubts after the scene in here that starts the film, he starts to doubt his religion and becomes an archaeologist. Then he's fighting his doubts throughout the movie. It's also different in the sense that the first Exorcist took place in a normal suburb with normal people and one person got possessed. This one is in a very exotic setting - Kenya - and not only one person gets possessed, a whole valley does.

Question:  What about stepping into Liam Neeson's shoes as he was originally set to do this part? Were you attached at all when John Frankenheimer was a part of the project?

SS:  So I'm supposed to have dreams about Liam Neeson? I had a dream about Liam Neeson but he was only three feet tall (laughs). No, honestly I don't feel as though I'm stepping into his shoes - more Max Von Sydow's shoes actually. Liam, well obviously we're both pretty big men and so there have been lots of roles I've been interested in that he has gotten, so I'm fine with doing this now. I wasn't in the frame with Frankenheimer. Paul Schrader brought me on.

Question:  Are you trying to recreate Sydow's role, or are you to do your own spin?

SS:  No, I'm putting my own spin on it and I can't do what he can do. I can only do what I can do so I'd better do it my way. Also it's not necessary because his character was at the end of his life, an old man - and what he was like when he was younger, you can't tell so you have freedom to create a character in your own way.

Question:  What did you think of the script and what about it made you want to jump onboard?

SS:  It's very well-written and of course, Paul Schrader is a very good scriptwriter and he's been in there doing a lot of work on it. It's very character-driven to be a film of this size. I also wanted to work with Paul Schrader and Storaro's not bad either!

Question:  Why do you think audiences are still so interested in the franchise 30 years later?

SS:  I'll tell you when I see the boxoffice (laughs). It's such a classic film and at the time it came out it really moved some boundaries and shocked a lot of people. I think it's much harder to shock people today than it was back then, of course.

Question:  Can you talk about shooting in Morocco and how arduous that was?

Answer:  Well it was cold. It hadn't rained for ten years and when we got there, it started to rain immediately. It was very cold and it was supposed to be Kenya, so we didn't wear much clothes either...Shorts!. I've done two films there before and it's a nice country to shoot in and the people are very nice. I've never been colder on a movie, I think.

Question:  What do you think about Paul Schraeder as a director?

SS:  If you look at his films, many of them are actually about men in crisis and so is this one, in a way. He's very interested in actors and he's very much interested in character. That's my job, so I want to work with directors who are like that. He's a very smart man and he has got an interesting past because when it comes to religion, he grew up under very hard religious circumstances. He wasn't allowed to see movies when he was a kid, I think he saw his first movie when he was seventeen or something, so he has seen the backside of religion.

Question:  What about the scares in it, how do you get scared? What do you think of the horror in this?

SS:  The horror thing depends on how they cut it, that's where the scary things happen. It doesn't matter if I 'play scared', the audience won't be scared just because of that. So, I'm concentrating on doing the character and the story and then Paul Schrader and his editor and his sound guys have to make it scary.

Question:  Are you the kind of guy who does a lot of research?

SS:  No, I try to research more into the human being I'm portraying. I met a priest to learn how to handle the crucifix and the crosses and all the gadgets they have, but that's about it. It's inventing a human being and he can be a baker or he could be a priest - I'm interested in what we have in common as human beings.

Question:  Are there a lot of physical effects like in the first film?

SS:  Some will be CGI and some will be physical effects, and there are some nice things that are actually done on camera instead of digitally, which is very nice. It gives another quality to it. The devil is physically there, he's not a CGI monster. It's a human being playing the devil, which is nice. Also, Storaro does fantastic things with light. He's got a board where he runs the lights during the takes and changes the light - which are effects that you can do in post, but they become more tangible when you do them for real.

Question:  You say Paul Schraeder's films are about men in crisis, can you say precisely what the crisis is your character is undergoing?

SS:  This priest has lost his faith and that's pretty critical for priests. He's struggling with it and there are people who want to help him to get it back like another young priest played by Gabriel Mann and a woman who has past experience from a concentration camp played by Clara Bellar. But he's very reluctant to go there, he's full of guilt and he can't really get out of that. Towards the end of course, something happens and he eventually puts on his cassock again and goes to fight the devil.

Question:  Can you talk about the scene your shooting right now and how was it shooting this scene last even though its early on?

SS:  This is the very beginning of the film, it takes place in Holland towards the end of the war. Its a very cruel scene...Its nice to shoot it now when you know what its going to lead to, and its such an emotional scene its good to have about four months to warm up. I prefer shooting chronologically, but you never do that. It's good not to start with the most difficult or emotional scenes. You always want a slow start and gradually warm up...actually you want it to be slow and easy all the time but it never is (laughs) because I'm naturally lazy.

Question:  What was the most surprising thing for you being involved in this film?

SS:  I was worried how I should deal with all the religious language in the exorcism and how I would make that interesting, and then I was worried about performing it but I was thinking this was like boxing - Rocky versus the Devil. That's my trick - physically I'm not giving him any punches but mentally I am (laughs).

Question:  What's lined up for you after this?

SS:  After this I'm taking a vacation. I like working with Paul and would do so again.