One of the most terrifying films of all time, The Exorcist has been the source of countless nightmares since its debut in 1973. Written by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin, the film graphically chronicles the macabre story of Regan, a 12-year-old girl who becomes demonically possessed. The only force that can release her from the demon’s grasp and end her torture is a powerful exorcism, performed by Father Lankester Merrin in a ritual that almost kills them both. Exorcist: The Beginning takes audiences back in time, 25 years into Father Merrin’s past, to illuminate the horrifying events that first turned him away from God, then ultimately led him down the path to becoming an exorcist.

Director Renny Harlin, known for the dynamic directing style he has brought to hit action films such as Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Deep Blue Sea, has created a new chapter in the Exorcist legend. “I am a huge fan of the horror genre,” says Harlin. “I’m known for my action films, but I started in horror and it is a genre that I’ve always loved and admired. And obviously the original Exorcist is one of the most famous horror films ever made. It’s one of my favorite films, so when this opportunity came across my path, I just couldn’t pass it by.”

Immediately after shooting began in Rome, the director was seriously injured when he was struck by a car. “I broke my leg pretty badly,” he recounts, “so I had to shoot the entire movie on crutches with a cast on my leg, which was definitely tough and frustrating. But I think that it contributed to the movie in that it made me really sit in one place and think hard about what I wanted to do. 

“In doing a prequel, I tried to set up a lot of those unanswered questions that are posed in the original,” Harlin continues. “There are a lot of open plotlines that are never explained, including a comment about an exorcism that Merrin had performed years ago in Africa. I wanted to make it so that if you watch this film and then watch The Exorcist, the original naturally follows, as if it were the sequel. I wanted to really find the way into people’s minds and hearts, to give them an experience that would satisfy them as well as horrify and surprise them.”

The story begins with a broken and desolate Father Lankester Merrin who, in the wake of his agonizing experiences in his native Holland during World War II, has traveled the world in a vain attempt to escape the horrors of his past. “We chose to tell the story of Father Merrin as a young priest,” says Harlin, “and learn how he first came into contact with the demon. The central story of this movie is really Merrin’s struggle to find his faith again. We learn that something absolutely horrific happened to him that made him walk away from priesthood, and he’s lost his faith in everything, including himself.”

Stellan Skarsgård plays the disillusioned priest, a role that Harlin found particularly fitting for the actor. “Max Von Sydow played Father Merrin in the 1973 original,” says the director, “and I think there’s a very natural connection. Both actors are Swedish, they look alike, and both are fantastic actors who are renowned both in their own country and abroad. Stellan brought a real sense of reality to this part.” 

Skarsgård himself did not feel daunted or bound by the famous performance of his predecessor. “I’ve given my own take on the character,” he says of his approach to the role. “In The Exorcist, Max portrayed the character of Merrin as an old man who was nearing the end of his life. You can’t tell what he may have been like when he was younger, so I had the freedom to approach the character in my own way.”

During his travels through Cairo, Merrin is approached by a stranger for an unusual assignment. The British government is financing an archaeological dig in a remote area of Kenya, and they have uncovered a striking discovery – a perfectly preserved Byzantine church that appears to have been buried immediately after it was constructed. His mysterious patron wants to hire Merrin to covertly search the site for a religious artifact, a small sculpture that he wants to secret away from the British contingent for his own private collection. Intrigued, Merrin agrees to take on the job.

“What they have found there is a church in a place where no church should be,” explains Skarsgård, “because it was built in the fifth century and at that time Christianity hadn’t yet arrived in the region. When they begin to excavate the site, disturbing things start to happen and the Turkana natives whom they’ve hired on as workers begin to refuse to enter it.”

Merrin unhappily finds himself joined by Father Francis, an ideological young priest who was sent to Africa to begin missionary work. “Father Francis has been studying at the Vatican,” says James D’Arcy, who plays the earnest priest. “Upon discovery of the church, the Vatican orders him to change course to Kenya. He is charged with making sure that the religious aspects of the excavation are given the proper consideration and respect, and when he hears that Father Merrin is joining the dig, he believes they will have a common purpose.” 

When they meet, however, he finds that he is quite alone in his endeavor. “Father Merrin is in a pretty bad place in his life,” says D’Arcy. “He’s rejected God and as the film progresses Francis is trying constantly to persuade him to re-discover his faith and to help as things become progressively stranger and stranger and more sinister. And Francis has to help him, persuade him that falling from God was the wrong thing for him to have done.” 

“There’s an interesting tension between Father Merrin and Father Francis,” notes Harlin, “because they’re both in the middle of nowhere working at the dig, and the suspicion starts growing that maybe Father Francis knows much more than what he shows and maybe there are lots of secrets that Father Merrin has yet to discover. We were very lucky to get James because he’s a really strong young actor and delivers a wonderful performance as this young, idealistic missionary. And at the same time, you see behind his eyes that maybe there’s something more going on.” 

Merrin soon finds he has a like-minded ally in the suspicious and fearful climate. Dr. Sarah Novack has come to the region to try and bring aid to its inhabitants. But she has had to overcome the suspicion of the Turkana tribesmen, whose mistrust of all the newcomers who have descended upon them only deepens as their land becomes increasingly corrupted by dangerous forces. 

The role of Sarah is played by Izabella Scorupco, who has appeared in films such as Reign of Fire, Vertical Limit and GoldenEye. “Sarah has made the choice to come to this little village in Africa to help the people she feels need to be taken care of,” says the actress. “She’s a woman with a past full of suffering and she wants to do something good, to try and make up for the ways in which the world is so unfair. She’s a very strong personality, and she’s not going to give up.”

Scorupco has vivid memories of her first encounter with the original film. “The Exorcist is definitely the scariest movie I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” she says. “I remember being twelve years old and not being able to sleep for weeks and weeks after I saw it. At that age you get together with your friends and you watch it over and over again. It’s all about thinking what could be around the next corner.”  

“I searched long and hard for an actor who could fill the shoes of this character,” says Harlin. “Izabella is perfect in the role of a professional, strong woman who can survive in these very harsh conditions and still do her job. Also, one thing that made the experience of making this film very nice was the fact that many of us are from Scandinavia. Stellan and Izabella are both from Sweden and I’m from Finland, so we can speak the same language and we can share some of the same jokes, and,” he adds laughingly, “talk behind the producer’s back without him knowing what we’re saying!”

Her co-star and director were a large factor in Scorupco’s decision to accept the role. “What convinced me to fly to Rome with a four month-old baby was the chance to work with Stellan Skarsgård,” she recalls. “I am from Sweden and he’s one of our biggest, most respected actors. It is just the most beautiful gift to be a part of the production where he is and be around him and his energy. And of course, Renny Harlin is an extremely talented director and such a great spirit to be around. He’s an extremely hard-working person, but also very playful. He likes to try out different things, and he allows you to do whatever you feel could be right for the scene without fear.” 

“Renny creates an atmosphere on the set where it’s fun to come to work,” agrees D’Arcy. “He leads from the top, and he creates an environment in which people want to play. He’s not forever calling ‘cut,’ you just keep rolling and go back and find a new moment and see it from a different perspective. And he’s incredibly competent with the camera. I’ve never seen anybody throw the camera around so happily and without any worries of, ‘how do I cut that scene together?’ He absolutely is the master. It’s terrific to be around him.”

Both Father Merrin and Sarah fear for the safety of Joseph, a young African boy who befriends the former priest, but they are powerless to stop the terrifying events that are unfolding around him. As darkness descends upon their village, Joseph and his family become deeply embroiled in the evil in their midst. It’s a demanding role, but young actor Remy Sweeney quickly proved he was up for the task.  “Joseph was a difficult character to cast,” says Harlin, “because he’s only about eight years old. I went through a couple hundred young actors, and when Remy walked in, I knew that I had found my guy. He was just this ball of energy and inspiration and I could just see that he had the kind of imagination that we needed for the part.” 

As the local tribes become convinced that the presence of the outsiders is responsible for the madness that has engulfed them, tensions threaten to explode. British soldiers are brought in to keep the peace, but they only contribute to the chaos and push the situation to its breaking point, and Merrin must watch helplessly as his wartime memories of innocence corrupted by cruelty and evil are played out once again. “In this story, evil exists in its pure form,” muses Skarsgård. “It’s manifested in the presence of the Devil. It’s one of those stories where evil is purified and good is to a certain extent purified as well. It’s not like in real life where there are no good guys and bad guys. Merrin’s battle with faith is one part of the story, and his battle with evil is another.” 

The priest becomes convinced that the source of the escalating atrocities lies not within the church itself, but below it, where the oldest evil has been lying in wait for an eternity, waiting to be released. But if he is to have any chance of defeating it, Merrin will have to recover the faith he thought was lost to him forever. “This isn’t a fantasy story,” says Harlin. “It’s a very primal story, about God and about the devil. Without one, there cannot be the other. So if you believe, you have to believe in both.”

While Exorcist: The Beginning was filmed entirely at the world-famous Cinecittā Studios in Rome, the action of the film takes place in the disparate locations of various sites in Africa, Cairo and Holland. “Creating the feeling that you are in the middle of Africa is not that easy when you’re actually just a hundred yards away from the closest pizza place,” says Harlin. “So we had to build some very, very large sets, and also use different techniques in creating the illusion that you are in the middle of Africa and not on the back lot of a studio. For scenes in the film that illustrate the back stories of the characters, we go to Holland during World War II and so we constructed buildings that made up part of the town where some very dramatic scenes take place.” 

Harlin turned to production designer Stefano Ortolani to bring the film’s monumental environments to life. “I was looking for a very textured feeling in all the sets,” says Harlin. “I wanted all everything to look very authentic, very worn out, to give the audience the experience that they are in this incredibly ancient place where it feels possible that anything can happen.”

Ortolani and his team performed extensive research in preparation for constructing the film’s ornate Byzantine church, as well as the menacing chamber below it. A large steel structure was built to support the church’s dome roof, and platforms were built to accommodate the electricians and their lighting equipment. The church features elaborate mosaic tableaus illustrating legends of the war in heaven and Lucifer’s fall from grace, which figure prominently in the story. “We did quite a bit of research when it came to the mosaics,” says Ortolani. “It is not easy to make a mosaic – it’s very time consuming, so we made a cast of an original plain Roman mosaic floor, from Villa Adriana in Tivoli near Rome, with no designs. Then we had a beautiful artist who came from England and painted our scenes on it, which are based on the Christian tradition and stories about Satanism.”

An immense fiberglass canyon was constructed on the back lot of Cine Tutta. With the help of computer imaging, it was able to serve as many different locations in the movie. The canyon measured 262 feet by 197 feet in size, and at its highest point reached 33 feet high. Throughout filming, the levels of the ground were changed to match the location of the scene, and in post production computer imaging was employed to enhance the appearance.  

Harlin felt fortunate to have renowned Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, four-time Oscar nominee and three-time winner for his work on Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor, lending his distinct and masterful style to the film. “Having Vittorio was instrumental in our bringing something quite frightening, and quite beautiful, to the screen,” Harlin compliments. “My main goal was to create a film that is very dark in its mood, and offers a lot of shadows and dark places in the basic frame where the audience’s mind can wonder what is in that area that they don’t see. Creating that dark feeling was very key for me in the film.”

When The Exorcist hit theaters in 1973, the special effects that horrified audiences across the globe were unprecedented on the screen. In 2004, of course, spectacular effects are commonplace and moviegoers are accustomed to believing the unbelievable. But the filmmakers of Exorcist: The Beginning didn’t want to simply inundate audiences with showy effects – instead, they intended to use effects as a tool to recapture the chilling mood of the original, rather than as an end unto themselves.

“I wanted to make a film that you would actually believe led into The Exorcist,” says Harlin. “So it’s not filled with fancy special effects and tricks of the trade of today. It’s more of a primal horror film based on suspense and psychological terror, and our effects are more old-school in their approach than something you can obviously tell came from a computer.”

The Exorcist is required watching for effects guys,” enthuses Exorcist: The Beginning makeup effects supervisor Gary Tunnicliffe, whose work has been seen in a host of terrifying films, including installments in the Hellraiser and Halloween series and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. “It has stood the test of time so well because it hits you on both a cerebral and a physical level. There are horror films that just hit you in the gut, and there are horror films that hit you in the mind. The Exorcist has that two-punch.”

In spite of the more than 30 years that passed between the two productions, the materials and processes employed by the makeup effects crew on Exorcist: The Beginning match those used by Dick Smith in the original film. “We used the traditional, tried and true foam latex appliances,” reveals Tunnicliffe. “So it’s exactly the same kind of makeup in its creation and build that Dick used, although I employed a slightly different paint and the contact lenses are more comfortable than the contact lenses would have been back then. But it’s basically 1970s technology. And a lot of those techniques were created by Dick Smith. So if it looks good it’s a tribute to him, really.”

Interestingly, perhaps the most extraordinary effect Dick Smith conjured for The Exorcist was one that went virtually unnoticed. While the character of Merrin was in his 70s, Max von Sydow was only 44 years old at the time the film was shot. It took three to four hours in the makeup chair each day to turn Sydow into a 70-year-old man. 

“I think people love to be scared in the movies,” says Harlin, “because it’s a very satisfying cathartic emotion to be able to sit in your seat, go through these horrific scenarios, and then the lights come up in the end and you walk out of the theater and your life is safe and good. I think this film will be that kind of an experience. If you really want to see a movie where you will have to grab that person who is next to you and your popcorn will go flying and hopefully you’ll have to cover your eyes a few times as well, Exorcist: The Beginning is the film for you.”