Exclusive Interview: Last Exorcism’s Daniel Stamm

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The director tackles the exorcist genre

When the producers from Strike and Eli Roth set out to find a director for The Last Exorcism, they found their champion in Daniel Stamm. The German director had only two credits to his name: The documentary A Necessary Death and the short film Off Hollywood & Vine. Shock Till You Drop met up with the director briefly in Los Angeles to talk about his Hollywood debut and his approach to the material. The strikingly tall Stamm was soft spoken but very excitable as he talked about the process of making Exorcism. Our conversation began the second I walked into the room, the interview below begins as I hit start on my recorder.

Daniel Stamm: I did an internship with Mali Finn – who cast The Matrix movies and Elephant – and she always said don’t cast people because of what they’re capable of doing as actors, cast people for who they really are as people. Because they will always go back to that point. Whether they get stressed out, or are shooting for ten hours, they’ll always go back to that point. That was the case with Patrick.

Shock Till You Drop: In the wake of films like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity, do you think the time was right for a similar approach to be applied to the exorcism sub-genre? The last Hollywood offering we got was The Exorcism of Emily Rose which was half horror, half courtroom drama.

Daniel Stamm: Which I loved. What’s so special about exorcisms is that no one knows if it’s true. That’s a bit different from Godzilla, you pretty much know that’s not going to happen. So it was natural to lending this approach exorcisms.

Shock: A daunting task, no?

Stamm: Sure. I always thought we had to make this a drama first and spend as much time as we needed with the characters to make you care for them, or else we could chop off heads as much as we wanted and no one would care. The guys at Strike were completely on board with that. If the drama works and is strong, everything else would fall into place. It wasn’t about which sub-genre am I reinvigorating, how do we fade out the humor when the darkness starts coming in, I didn’t want to interweave anything… I wasn’t worried about the fake documentary aspect, because they’re all different. I love Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity, which is all about timing and rhythm. If you see that movie with an audience, it’s all about panic.

Shock: Patrick told me you would deny him some direction during the exorcism scenes…

Stamm: I wanted to throw him off balance, because he shouldn’t know what’s going on. The great thing about the format is that you don’t have to wait for the lighting and the crane and all of that. You have all of the time in the world to work with the actors. To me, a lot of directors for them that means telling the actors what to do. This format is the wrong approach. You want to hear what the actors have to say, you have to keep them insecure, because you want to experiment, you want to see that on screen because that’s where the authenticity comes in. On set, you might get a few takes. On this film, we’d be there getting 30 takes and seeing the actors getting exhausted and angry, sometimes angry at me, and suddenly that energy shows on screen. It’s tension, that works really well. The fewer I could say to them, the better.

Shock: Some films of this nature move forward without a script and derived from scant direction and improvisation. Could you have done Exorcism this way?

Stamm: Probably. I don’t know if I could have pulled it off. [laughs] There are so many layers to the script, how it would all come together – you’d be in for a long, long project. That’s how it was with my other movie that didn’t have a script. It was three years of shooting. The trick here was to have a great script to fall back on, but not be afraid to experiment and go in different directions.

Shock: Did you do any tinkering with the third act until you found the right way to end it?

Stamm: There was a lot of experimentation with how open ended we could make it. It seems pretty open ended to people right now. But that’s what we need, because if you close the door, you’re making a statement on what faith is. I don’t know if I’m arrogant enough to tell America what faith is. So you send these two forces – atheism and faith – out there, have them clash but make an intelligent case for both of their arguments. Don’t patronize them, but have them state their case eloquently, have their clash, but offer no solution to them.

Shock: What do you have planned for the DVD?

Stamm: I hope to have a real exorcist’s commentary track. Because we did have a real exorcist on set. Which is much less spectacular than you think, because it’s a job. He was great to have there as a consultant to keep the realism. He was the brother of our driver.

Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor