It’s been fifty years since director William Friedkin, writer/producer William Peter Blatty and their collaborators changed the horror genre forever with The Exorcist. Since then, there have been any number of attempts to recapture its mix of terror, drama and spirituality, including several official sequels of widely varying temperament and quality. Now director David Gordon Green, who rebooted Halloween with a trilogy of films, has taken possession of the franchise with The Exorcist: Believer.
Opening Friday from Universal and Blumhouse, Believer changes the game a bit by focusing on a pair of possessees. Angela (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) are young teenage friends in a Georgia community who go for a walk in the woods together and disappear for three days. Once they’re found, they exhibit increasingly hostile and bizarre behavior, frightening and confounding their parents and doctors. It ultimately becomes clear that there are demonic forces at work—and Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who has experience with that sort of thing, returns from the original in an attempt to help rid them of the evil. Scripted by Green and Peter Sattler, The Exorcist: Believer is the first in a planned triptych of features, to be followed by The Exorcist: Deceiver in 2025.
The Exorcist franchise has had such an uneven history; what led you to decide to tackle it and do a new take on it?
I think that some of that uneven history you talk about was inspiring to me. It showed me that you can take bold swings with it, and I’m always inspired by movies that don’t just do the obvious. So that was exciting. The Exorcist is obviously the Holy Grail of horror, so you could look at it as a really daunting undertaking, or, for me, it was a way to embrace the collaborators I’ve been working with, many of them for twenty years, and say, “Let’s take this journey. Let’s challenge the audience. Let’s take the fan base to a place they may or may not expect and make a movie that hopefully, if we’ve done our job right, feels very personal, and that we can connect to in a way that audiences can hopefully enjoy and connect to as well.” I wanted to bring a sense of drama to the genre, which I think Friedkin did so brilliantly. His original film is not just cheap scares; it’s more thought-provoking, more grounded in characters and conversations.
What were some of those challenges that you wanted to give to the audience?
A little bit more of a slow burn. I really admire the first film because it starts in an exotic locale, and you get something that’s not just all shock and scare, but gives you character-building and takes a little while before it gets into some of the more unsettling, disturbing and scary elements. So that was the thing, to make sure there was a story I connected with, as a father and as a curious human on this Earth who’s always looking for what’s out there. I wanted to make sure I could relate to it in that way, and if I could invite an audience that has a nostalgia for the original, and can appreciate some of the attributes we’re bringing over—like Ellen Burstyn or “Tubular Bells” in the score—then there was a way I could bridge to a contemporary audience that may not have even seen the first film. That was the challenge: Could I make something that appealed to contemporary viewers who are conditioned by where the genre is in 2023, which is a much different place than it was in 1973?
Having done the Halloween franchise, which is another horror landmark, did you take any lessons from that experience that you applied to this one?
My instant reaction is no because it’s such a different subgenre of horror. But what it did teach me is patience in the production process. Ninety percent of what you see in these movies is practical effects; sometimes that’s makeup, sometimes that’s setting up a stunt. I want it to be tangible and on Earth, and I learned on the Halloweens that that can be really time-consuming. So I need to be able to manage my day in a way where I’m able to achieve all the narrative developments and the logistics I need to, that I can do practically because when you have a makeup artist like Christopher Nelson, and you rush his job, or you don’t let him do it to the best of his abilities, you’re compromising the end result.
Halloween Ends, in particular, took kind of a big swing in the way it ended the trilogy. Did the responses to that inform how you approached Believer in any way?
We actually filmed some of Believer before we did Halloween Ends, so no, not really. The script was done and ready; it evolved a little bit, but not in relationship to Halloween.
Are you a person of faith yourself, and if so, how did that inform your take on The Exorcist?
Well, I was raised going to church on Sundays, spent a year in a Jesuit school, and my entire life, from birth to death, will be lived as a curious, fascinated person when it comes to spirituality. So every time someone has a religious perspective, or a text or a book I can read, I’m diving in, I’m trying to understand that faith and belief. And I find it in curious places, not necessarily in a specific religion, top to bottom, front to the back of the book, but I take little bits here and there from the buffet of belief.
Can you talk about Ellen Burstyn’s involvement and the process of bringing her back and working with her on this film?
I had such a great experience with Jamie Lee Curtis on Halloween, having someone on board who could be part of the connective tissue of reopening that franchise. So in an effort to have a similar success, bringing Ellen, who’s an icon and an actress I’d always admired and had never met, it started with just getting in the room with her and talking to her about what I was trying to do, and getting her thoughts and ideas. And going from that initial core of fondness to becoming a creative collaborator. It was fun to be able to track that, and ultimately find a great friendship with her.
Where did you want to go with her character, and what did you want to say about the subject through her role in Believer?
I always felt like Chris MacNeil, from a mythological standpoint, brings wisdom, insight, and experience to a situation similar to one she has had. This is a woman who’s found success with a book, but in that success, she fractured her relationship with her daughter. She’s in there with the best of intentions to help others find connection and common ground with families dealing with similar hardships, but at the same time, she’s had a difficult time managing her own relationships. That’s something I found fascinating and wanted to explore with Ellen.
There’s a rumor going around that Burstyn has already shot her scenes for all three of your planned Exorcist trilogy. Is there any truth to that?
There’s no truth to that, no. When I was pitching the movie to Ellen originally, and I got to a pivotal point in the story, she said, “Stop right there, David. You’re not killing me, are you?” [Laughs] And I said, “No!” I think I’ve told that story, and it got transplanted into that rumor. We do have a road map of where we’re going [in the next two movies], but as much as I like big swings and trying different things, and in some ways I enjoy intentionally throwing an audience off, I also, as an artist and a creator, want to study the communication I have with an audience. So as the film is responded to and reacted to, that’s really valuable, so I don’t want to commit to the path I’ve engineered with Peter Sattler. I certainly wouldn’t say anything about a character who will return until I see what that connection or disconnection with an audience is, and then make our choices and put them on a little bit more stable ground later.
After fifty years of films on the subject matter, how did you find your way to a different take on possession and exorcism, visually and thematically?
Thematically, I was always interested in synchronized possessions; that’s something I haven’t seen. In my research and putting this together, that became fascinating to me: this demon that’s possessing multiple souls, and on top of that, how that would affect the perspective of parents who come from different backgrounds and different beliefs. From a technical standpoint, I wasn’t necessarily trying to duplicate what Friedkin and [cinematographer] Owen Roizman did so brilliantly. There are certain things technically that I took, like some hard cuts out of a sound edit, and there’s some aggressive editing they did in the original film that I love, where you’re not necessarily cutting to the reaction, you’re cutting out on the action in the middle of something, or one frame after. So we tried to emulate that somewhat, and use the zoom lens, which I also love in the first movie. But then sometimes, I felt like it was a little cold, and I was trying to get past that. I was trying to be more emotional, so the production definitely took on its own style, its own film language.
The crew was the identical one from the Halloween trilogy, but we wanted to make sure we weren’t retreading the look of those films. We just came up with something that felt right, and set rules and embraced them, looking a lot more to some of my earlier dramatic films than more recent ones, taking a dramatic perspective on this. We were trying to capitalize on what I feel is the movie’s pivotal emotion, which is parents’ love and concern for a child dealing with an ailment they can’t explain.
What was the process of finding the right cast to convey those ideas?
We looked to the theater to find people who could project and command and take these roles and make them theatrical, in a way. So someone like Leslie Odom Jr., who we know from Hamilton, and Jennifer Nettles and Ann Dowd and Norbert Leo Butz, Okwui Okpokwasili and Raphael Sbarge—they all have great theater backgrounds. Danny McCarthy is brilliant on stage, and I love his voice. So it was all about being drawn to voices and movement, to make sure this movie didn’t get too static because there is a lot of talking, a lot of standing around and shouting mantras and things like that. I wanted to bring a bit of a theatrical quality to it.
How about landing the right two young actresses to play the possessed daughters, given both the emotional and physical demands those parts would place on them?
They were awesome. Lidya and Olivia were discoveries by Terri Taylor and Sarah Domeier Lindo, our casting people. After a couple of callbacks, I got in the room, and we just improvised and played games, and I found the natural charisma they had for the early sequences in the film, where you just see girls talking like girls do. That’s dialogue I’m not even going to try to write, so it’s great to have talented performers who can bring their attributes to the table, and bring it confidently. And then when we bring the makeup in… You know, these would be hard roles for anyone, but we were putting young actresses through two and a half hours of makeup and schooling on top of the limited hours for minors anyway. So we tried to make it as playful as possible, and bring qualities of interpretive dance and performance art to what they were doing. They were really the levity of this project, the glue that held us all together.
Keep an eye out for more The Exorcist: Believer goodness in our latest issue, FANGORIA #21, hitting newsstands this month (or possibly already in your mailbox if you're a subscriber!).