Interview: Daniel Stamm Finds Devilish Inspiration in ‘The Last Exorcism’

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CHICAGO – Daniel Stamm makes films that, to quote a character from his first drama, “Play with the boundaries of what is comfortable to document.” His first work was a dark character piece called “A Necessary Death” about a filmmaker’s efforts to film an actual suicide. He’s back with the much more high-profile “The Last Exorcism,” a unique horror film about a Pentecostal Minister who doesn’t believe in demonic possession and could learn a deadly lesson.

Patrick Fabian (“Big Love”) stars as Cotton Marcus in this “fake documentary” about his efforts to expose his own practices in the name of exorcism. Cotton doesn’t believe he’s doing any harm by relieving the pain of people who think their loved one is actually possessed. Of course, he runs into some difficulty with the case of Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), a seemingly normal girl who has been waking up covered in blood. Where “The Last Exorcism” goes from there is unexpected, but you should be warned that one of the more interesting sections of my discussion with Daniel involved the controversial ending — so while we will tread very lightly, consider yourself aware of potential spoilers ahead.

Stamm’s first drama, which played the festival circuit and is sadly unavailable on DVD, “A Necessary Death,” is about an overly confident man brought to his knees by the flaws in his own beliefs. “The Last Exorcism” follows a similar pattern. As Stamm says, “In both films you have men who don’t know what they’re in for and pay the price in the end. And it’s also two men who are in charge and are leading a team into disaster with their charisma.”

The Last Exorcism
The Last Exorcism
Photo credit: Lionsgate

“The camera is used for different things in Last Exorcism,” Stamm says. “It’s all about making the viewer vulnerable. They are aware that there are 360 degrees around them but they only see this tiny square. And they have a representative in the film that could be attacked at any moment, which is what I kind of like about the ending, which I know is controversial. Some people say the ending is too sudden. People either love it or have a problem with it. It seems if people have a problem with the movie, it’s about the ending. The ending changes gears so drastically and it’s…well, it’s not a different genre, but in the last minute we realize what kind of movie we’ve been watching. The way we got there for 89 minutes was leading us away from it so it comes as kind of a surprise.”

The history of how Daniel Stamm got to “The Last Exorcism” is a great story about being in the right place at the right time. Production company Strike Entertainment was working on Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland’s script but couldn’t get the money together until Eli Roth read the script and fell in love with it. By the time that happened, the writers had attached themselves to “The Virginity Hit” and so a search for a director was needed. A friend of Daniel’s from the American Film Institute overheard a conversation about a need for a “fake documentary” director and gave the producers a screener of “A Necessary Death.” “It was so fast. Two days later I had the job.”

From there, Daniel began doing research about the practice of exorcism. “We read everything there is to read. Watched everything there is to watch also to avoid doing the same thing. The Exorcist is such a classic and people remember it off the top of their heads and so you don’t want to repeat anything. Again, it’s a balance because, to a certain degree, people expect certain things from an exorcism movie but then you want to tell a completely original story with completely new characters.”

The Last Exorcism
The Last Exorcism
Photo credit: Lionsgate

As for concerns that religious viewers might find the film offensive, Stamm points out that “The Exorcist is one of the favorite films of The Vatican. We were careful. It was important that it work for believers and non-believers because that’s the question throughout the movie and the ending is open enough that it could go either way.”

Eli Roth brought on makeup specialist Greg Nicotero and the man who has composed all of his films. He also worked heavily in rewrites in pre-production and was in the editing room almost every day, but the shoot was Daniel’s. He knew the importance of first finding the right cast.

“When I came on-board, Strike said, “The crucial character and the one that’s going to be tough to find is Cotton.” I thought, “I’m not sure.” I knew Cotton can do all of this extroverted stuff but the whole movie is based on if Nell is possessed or crazy so we will have our eyes on HER. And then I put off casting for Nell because I was worried and the second girl we saw was Ashley Bell. She just NAILED it. I saw a tape of her and I noticed that I had stopped breathing. She’s so intense. She can be very fragile but there’s some darkness that I don’t know where it came from. She can do 30 takes and every one of them is spectacular. She was brilliant. We did an exorcism in the audition and she just went up the walls. The energy. She’s got something that makes you protective of her.”

To get the right atmosphere and intensity from his actors, Stamm turned to an unlikely inspiration — Lars Von Trier. “It’s the intensity of the emotions. To me, he’s making horror movies. It’s just that there are no creatures. He creates moments…it’s like the unfunny version of The Office. You cringe and you just can’t take it anymore. He does the dark version. It’s masterful. I don’t know if that turns people off…I don’t know if it’s a great marketing campaign for The Last Exorcism. (Laughs.) ‘Inspired by Lars Von Trier’”

The Last Exorcism
The Last Exorcism
Photo credit: Lionsgate

“My favorite is Breaking the Waves,” Stamm continues. “That woman…every time it screens somewhere…I will travel four or five hours to see it on the big screen. And every time I think “This time she’s going to make it.” And I’m devastated at the end every time. I don’t know how he does it.”

Stamm renamed most of his characters with that of his actors, denied them all their cushy trailers, and pushed them with dozens of takes. It’s all very Von Trier. As he says, “Yes. Getting them to the breaking point. I like to run things 30 times until they get angry and pissy at me and that translates to the screen. They stop acting. They act for the first 5 or 6 takes and then…you get great moments there.”

Daniel faced technical challenges as well merely due to the restrictions of his format. He explains, “In a conventional movie, you have all these different angles and you can cover everything and create rhythm in editing. We had to make it work in camera in that one frame, so you have a much smaller toolkit.”

As most of our interviews do, we closed with a discussion of advice for upcoming filmmakers, something Daniel Stamm was just before the luckiest eavesdropping of his life. Like a lot of young filmmakers, his advice can be simply summed up in “Just do it.” — “A Necessary Death didn’t cost anything. We shot on tapes that had been previously used on borrowed DV cameras. A lot of people who are coming out of film school are making the mistake of waiting because they want the money. They don’t shoot another frame probably ever. We came out of film school and said, “No matter what, let’s just shoot something.” And that’s how A Necessary Death happened. Focus on the resources you have and just make a film. It’s a real digital revolution.”

A very effective movement in the revolution starts when “The Last Exorcism” opens Friday, August 27th, 2010.

‘The Last Exorcism’ stars Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Louis Herthum, and Caleb Landry Jones. It was written by Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland and directed by Daniel Stamm. It opens on August 27th, 2010. It is rated PG-13. content director Brian Tallerico

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Cory's picture

"The Last Exorcist" was HORRIBLE!!!

The Last Exorcism” was one of the WORST movies I have EVER seen. That ending was just thrown-together-at-the-last-minute dribble! It made ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE!!! The only portions of the film that were well thought-out and well-done were the Christian-bashing portions. That is CLEARLY where the brunt of the film-maker’s creativity and energy went. I mean, okay…the film-maker is no fan of Christianity, I get it. But, when he is NOT Christian-bashing, could the guy at least TRY to give us a movie worth the price of admission?

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