Interview: "Deliver Us From Evil" Director Scott Derrickson Isn't Scared of Reinventing Possession/Exorcism Horror

Director Scott Derrickson gives the inside story on his dark and gritty horror flick "Deliver Us From Evil."

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Deliver Us From Evil (in theaters nationwide today) has everything you’d want from a summer movie, especially the season’s big Fourth of July release. It has demonic possession, horrific murders, an intense eight-minute exorcism sequence, and a cat that’s gutted out and pinned to a cross in tone truly sick Crucifixion tableau. “Wait, what?” you’re probably saying to yourself. “That doesn’t sound like a summer movie at all.” A fair response, but also a wrong one. Despite it’s thematic darkness and nightmarish imagery, Deliver Us From Evil makes perfect sense as an early July release.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, it’s a lively, broadly accessible hybrid. At its core, Deliver Us From Evil is a police procedural, telling the story of real-life South Bronx cop Ralph Sarchie (played with a convincing “New Yawk” accent and bravado by the Aussie Eric Bana). In spots, Deliver Us From Evil also plays like an emotionally charged drama, spending time with Sarchie and his family, wife Jen (Olivia Munn) and young daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson), as his loved ones try to contend with his long hours on the job. There’s plenty of action, showing how Sarchie and his partner, Butler (Joel McHale), must lump some skulls in order to uphold the law. But, indeed, Deliver Us From Evil, is primarily a horror movie, and a no-bullshit, creep-you-the-hell-out one at that. In the midst of his domestic troubles, the un-religious and skeptical Sarchie links up with a priest (Edgar Ramirez) to investigate a string of paranormal incidents throughout the Bronx, which lead back to the Iraq War and all things demonic.

That Deliver Us From Evil is atypically hardcore for a mainstream horror film shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s seen Scott Derrickson’s previous contributions to the genre. A practitioner of cinematic bleakness, Derrickson has more in common with Rob Zombie than James Wan, layering his films with unnerving sound designs and taking this subject matter seriously. In The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), he struck just the right middle ground between riveting courtroom drama and refreshingly gore-deficient macabre, bringing life to the exorcism sub-genre that’d been dormant for years. In 2012’s Sinister, he used the guise of an A-list star (Ethan Hawke) to launch an extremely downbeat assault on viewers’ senses, a first-class creepshow accentuated by disorienting musical choices, highly disturbing snuff films shot on Super 8, and the polar opposite of a Hollywood ending.

With Deliver Us From Evil, Derrickson has successfully brought his acute genre sensibilities to the big show. Produced by action movie icon Jerry Bruckheimer (the muscle behind films like The Rock, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and the Bad Boys flicks), it’s Derrickson’s largest work to date, and, thankfully, it doesn’t skimp out on what’s made his past horror films so effective. His accomplishment hasn’t gone unnoticed in Hollywood, either. Next up for Derrickson, as a director, is Marvel’s sure-to-be-massive Doctor Strange, which he’ll oversee while also co-writing—along with fellow Sinister screenwriter C. Robert Cargill—a movie based on the classic The Outer Limits episode ”Demon with a Glass Hand. He's also producing Sinister 2, which he also co-wrote.

But for now, it’s all about Deliver Us From Evil. Here, Derrickson discusses transferring his all-dark horror style to summer movie screens and what makes Deliver Us From Evil so different from other possession films.

First off, thank you for not softening up this time, even though Deliver Us From Evil is a big-deal Jerry Bruckheimer production. Despite that major pedigree, it’s just as dark and no-bullshit as your previous horror movies, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister.
Dude, thanks! That means the world to me. That was the best opening to an interview yet.

Just being honest as someone who likes his horror mean and creepy. Was it in your head, though, while making the film that you didn’t want to soften up just because it’s your biggest movie yet?
No, that concern, honestly, never crossed my mind. It was quite the opposite, actually. It was that this particular story and the way I wanted to tell it seemed like such a good match for Bruckheimer, and I wanted a certain Bruckheimer quality in the movie.

I thought that’s what it ought to be, in the same way I love the Bruckheimer qualities in the best of Tony Scott’s movies, which are cinema at its best—a movie like Crimson Tide, you know? So I think I was conscious of what I was getting into, but it wasn’t something I was wary of—it was something I wanted.

It’s a unique summer movie, too, in that it’s this really dark, brooding horror film, but it’s also an action movie at times, a police procedural the whole way through, and also a family drama. But the way that all congeals together, it definitely feels like a broadly accessible summer movie. You’ve been working with Jerry Bruckheimer on this project since before Emily Rose—did you guys always see it in such a broad way?
Well, I knew with Jerry’s involvement that there was going to be a certain commercial sales quality behind it. It wasn’t slated to be a summer release until I made the movie, though; it was originally slated to be released next January. Once everyone at Sony saw the movie, they moved it to summer. They thought it had a bigger, broader appeal, and I wasn’t expecting that at all. I knew I was making a more commercial movie, but I wasn’t making it for that reason. I wasn’t making it because I wanted to make a more commercial movie.

For me, the bizarre hybrid elements of the whole story, that it’s not just combining a police procedural with a supernatural horror/thriller movie, but that it had all these bursts of action in it, and there are some good comedic moments, as well—I liked the kitchen-sink mentality that the script ended up having, and I fully embraced it and wanted to put that on the screen for a big audience.

That it’s as dark and effectively creepy as an indie movie like Sinister makes it even more impressive. Your approach to horror reminds me a lot of Rob Zombie, in how you both create and sustain really strong, dark moods—your films play like nightmare fuel, maintaining dread through sound design and imagery. Whereas the films of, say, a James Wan, whose work I love, feel more like funhouse rides. Deliver Us From Evil retains that "nightmare fuel" quality.
I like everything you just said about it. Certainly in my case, I think that quality comes from the fact that I have deep feelings about these movies I make. I’m not standing above the audience trying to manipulate them as a puppet master or a trickster; I’m inside the story I’m writing and making and thinking about things very seriously and feeling very deeply at times, and trying to translate that into a narrative. I’m not doing it as a form of self-expression, but I am doing it as something that’s deeply felt.

All three of my horror films are very deeply felt. I’m really fortunate that I was able to work through them and process them that way and they somehow made it onto the big screen and found audiences. It’s a bit surprising to me at times, but it’s what I do and I’m just fortunate that it’s been working.

Deliver Us From Evil might seem familiar to people in its commercials and with its exorcism angle, but it’s a really unique entry into that sub-genre for many reasons. The first is its setting: the South Bronx in all of its gritty, urban glory. Usually movies that deal with possessions or exorcisms take place in rural areas with farmhouses and barns, but this one’s right in the heart of New York City. That vibe plays especially well during the film’s big exorcism scene, which happens inside the police precinct’s claustrophobic interrogation room. Was the story’s urban setting a big attraction for you?
Yeah, I think so. All possession movies and almost all horror films of the last five to ten years have been so contained and have been single-location for budget reasons. They’re usually in a house or an apartment. Meeting the real Ralph Sarchie, spending time with him, and seeing the real evil he was up against as an undercover cop in the Bronx, in the 4-6 precinct, which, at the time, was the most violent precinct in the country, there was something about that natural, human evil connecting with the paranormal evil he was seeing that was strangely pure. I felt this pure connection when I was around him, and then my goal was to translate that to the screen.

A lot of that was setting it right in the Bronx and letting the city’s presence do much of the work visually, both in exteriors and the interiors, with all of the weird, narrow hallways, and the expansive basements. All of that was part of what I had felt very early on in the process and wanted to translate onto the screen. And then that leading up to a climactic scene in an interrogation room seemed both pure, in the sense that it’s a cop movie, and so unlikely. Ultimately it was a leap of faith that I’d have actors who could be unleashed in this small, cramped space and they could sustain a powerful scene for eight minutes, which I think they did.

Though Deliver Us From Evil is based on Ralph Sarchie’s real-life experiences, there’s a lot of fictionalization involved, from setting the film in the present day to the story’s supernatural through line and demonic presence. When writing a screenplay like this, is it difficult to both honor the real person’s life story while letting your imagination run wild?
I’ve run up against the challenge of that quite a few times. Emily Rose was based on a real story, and the real girl died and there were surviving members of the family, so I took the concerns of that very seriously. When I wrote the early draft of Devil’s Knot, I was really concerned about it because the West Memphis Three were still in jail and I didn’t want to fictionalize anything.

In this case, I had the good fortune of being able to run everything by Ralph. His memoir, Beware the Night, which he wrote and Jerry Bruckheimer bought for me to adapt, is a bunch of individual cases—they’re not connected at all. So I just took elements from what I thought were the most interesting cases and tied them together with a fictional narrative. I told Ralph I was going to do that, and said, “Look, this is going to be a real blend of fact and fiction, but I’m going to get you right,” which I think I did.

It’s the real Ralph Sarchie, how he thinks, how he talks, what he does, how he’s changed as a person as a result of the stuff he does. But the main storyline is fictional, and I had to do that in order to make it work as a movie. I would have not done that, though, if I didn’t have his blessing. Even if I had a legal right to do that, I wouldn’t do that to somebody’s name unless they were behind it. When he read the script, I think he felt that while there’s a heavy blend of fact and fiction, who he is and what matters to him as a copy and demonologist, which is what he describes himself as, he felt that I got a lot of it right.

He gave me his blessing, and, in fact, he worked on the film every day. Not only was he an advisor for his personal story, he was our NYPD police advisor, to make sure that all police procedure was followed properly, and that Eric Bana drew his gun properly. If they had to break into a room or clear a room, he made sure that Joel [McHale] and Eric acted like real cops. He was there every day to make sure it was authentic from a police officer’s standpoint.

I’m a big of Ralph Sarchie’s now, too, after watching the short documentary about him that was released online last week. In it, he says one of the best lines I’ve heard all year, with his heavy accent: “You’ve gotta give the Devil the middle fingah!”
[Laughs.] That’s Ralph. That’s Ralph Sarchie. And that’s the thing, there’s just no one on Earth like that guy. He was the one who made me want to make this movie.

When the film opens up in Iraq, with U.S. Marines about to go into battle, I thought, am I in the right movie?
[Laughs.] That’s great!

That’s because the commercials and the film’s trailer had me thinking it’d be about Eric Bana running around the city investigating various supernatural occurrences, which might be because I’ve been watching Ghostbusters a lot recently; I expected it to be like the Ghostbusters montage where the cab driver’s a skeleton and the hot dog truck spouts out a ghost. But there’s a concise and compelling narrative through-line in Deliver Us From Evil, and as it transpired, it never did what I expected it to do.
I’m really glad to hear that. That was the big challenge of the movie, to mix these genres and to play with drama, action, horror, and all of that and yet find a story that’s complex and interesting enough that the audience wouldn’t get ahead of it, so you wouldn’t know where it’s exactly going. I do think that, so far, that seems to be the case; so far, the audiences who’ve seen the movie have had that experience.

Another element that separates it from other possession and exorcism movies is Edgar Ramirez’s priest character. Until the exorcism sequence near the end, you’d never know that he’s a priest—he looks like a regular guy. There are no grandstanding religious views or heavy-handed allusions to his faith. He doesn’t look or feel like the priests we usually see in movies like this.
Here’s the thing, though: What does a priest “feel” like? [Laughs.] Priests and pastors are probably the most stereotyped characters in film and television, and the reason why, I think, is that most people don’t know one. Most writers who work in Hollywood don’t know any. I happen to have known quite a few, and Catholic priests and Protestant pastors are almost always at best sanctimonious and at worst complete fucking hypocrites. Some of the most intelligent people I’ve met in my life are priests and pastors, now, a lot of them aren’t that, though. Some of the most sanctimonious and hypocritical people I’ve met are priests and pastors, also. [Laughs.] So the reputation is kind of earned there.

There’s a certain person who dedicates their life to God and to the service of others that’s deeply fascinating. Edgar and I really wanted to portray a guy like that, who had his own personal demons, who had battled through addictions, and who was flawed. He’d made mistakes and even broken his vows in the past, and is wildly imperfect and drinks and smokes. And yet, his dedication is to helping other people. That’s what he’s about.

The movie never actually says this, but I think the key to what makes him work as an exorcist is that he’s not the kind of exorcist that you always see in movies, which is the priest-warrior who battles the demons and the demonic—he’s not that. His character isn’t interested in demons or the demonic. He helps people, and it just so happens that this is the way he’s ended up helping people.

You said you’ve known a bunch of priests, and you actually have a degree in theological studies. All three of your horror movies deal with demons and the demonic, too. Does that stem from your collegiate days, or have you always been fascinated by the demonic, even before college?
Yeah, I’ve always been fascinated by not so much the darker side of religion but the darker side of the mystical world that we live in. I’ve never been a materialist, I’ve never been somebody who believes in only what we can see and measure. I continue to be a student of religious philosophy, and I continue to take those ideas very seriously. There’s something about this genre of filmmaking and these kinds of stories that’s an opportunity to not only process these things for myself and put something out for the audience to process, but to ultimately deepen your sense of the dark mystery of the world we live in. I think that’s a healthy thing to feel and embrace.

There are a lot of things in the world, from corporate salesmanship and voices from religion and science, telling you they’ve got what you need and how big the universe really is, and saying, “We’ve got it all figured out.” But that’s not true. We need movies to remind us what we know is less than we don’t know. For me, when I embrace that fact, the world becomes a much more magical place. It’s one of the roles that horror has played in my life: It reminds of that and makes me feel things more deeply.

Which, I think, makes you consider horror tropes more deeply and find ways to subvert them and make them seem more grounded. Another thing that’s unique about Deliver Us From Evil is how your portray the possessed people. In most movies, when someone gets possessed by a demon, they either become raving lunatics or catatonic creeps, but the possessed characters in Deliver Us From Evil think cognitively and have a thought-out plan, and their actions work towards that grand scheme.
I’m really glad you picked up on that. It’s something I’m really proud of but I don’t think a lot of people will consciously notice. [Laughs.] The movie does have an exorcism in it, but you know what it’s not? It’s not a demon possession film. You never go through that process. There’s usually a structure to it: It’s usually a girl being taken over by something, and first there’s the oppression and then she gets all twisty, and then the priest comes in. There’s a certain formula, and this movie doesn’t stick to that at all. I was really interested the possessed character who is calculated.

Part of what spawned that thinking, by the way, was seeing William Friedkin present The Exorcist many years ago at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. After the screening, he was asked if he believe demonic, and his answer was, “Yes, and I’ll tell you why,” and he said he knew more about Nazi Germany than anybody in the room. He’d spent so much of his life studying it and trying to make sense of it. He said, “If you don’t believe in supernatural evil, then you can’t explain what happened. It’s impossible to find a rational explanation of any kind, whether psychiatric or philosophical.”

I was so surprised by that answer. The idea of evil being calculating, deliberate, and strategic—you put it in that context and suddenly it’s a very serious subject matter.

Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who can't switch away from Sinister whenever he catches it airing on cable, which is quite often. He tweets here.

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