Boys, girls and house pets, welcome to The Arrow's "Exorcist: The Beginning" set report. Armed with my trusty bottle of "insert brand name here" and digital camera, I entered the pits of hell without fear and came out alive to talk about it (i.e. Rome, Italy). The fly company in my midst also contributed in making my trek a pleasant one. Namely one groovy Garth Franklin (Dark Horizons), Smilin' Jack Ruby (CHUD), crazy bastard (I mean that in a very good way) Alan Jones (leading horror journalist), Larry Carroll (Counting Down), as well as Aussie Captain Howdy (CaptainHowdy.com). Yes, I was well surrounded. Lastly, a BIG thanks to Brenda Falitz of Warner Brothers for making it all happen. Here are some of the bits that I'll be covering over the next few weeks.
"Now get your flashlights, your crucifixes, your JD bottles and let the adventure begin!"
Prompted by the high box office returns of the re-release of the original known as "The Exorcist" (The Version You've Never Seen), EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING has now risen from the depths of hell and will be assaulting our movie screens in July 2003. There's nothing like Satan to make summer a more "happy time". Yippee!
Late director John Frankenheimer was initially attached to helm this sequel/prequel, but he fell ill during production so the production company hired Paul Schrader to replace him. Mr. Schrader was scouting locations when Frankenheimer sadly passed on. As for the once attached Liam Neeson, who was supposed to play the young Father Merrin, he bowed out during Frankenheimer's illness and was replaced by Swedish boozer and great actor in his own right, Stellan Skarsgård. Written by Caleb Carr ("Warlords") and William Fisher ("Terminator 2"), with re-writes by director Schrader, the story itself is a prequel to the original "Exorcist". William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original and part 3 of the series ("The Legion"), had no contribution whatsoever to this entry, nor did original "Exorcist" director William Friedkin.
The plot goes something like this: Father Merrin is an archeologist who has lost his faith due to a past "German induced" trauma near the end of WW2. He eventually finds the devil's resting place during a dig, and the horned one is imminently unleashed upon us. He, of course, alters mother nature in his own "kooky" ways (I heard some crazy stuff happens here, just remember lion and cubs - cow and hyena) and also possesses a young boy. Merrin, not only has to duke it out with the Prince of Darkness, but he also has to face himself. The film tackles universal and powerful themes such as faith and redemption.
What connections does this prequel have to the previous films you may ask? Well, there's Father Merrin's presence, of course, and Beelzebub once more crashing the party. Now although the statue representing Satan has a strong likeness to "Pazuzu", the entity mentioned in the previous films, in this prequel, he's only referred to as Satan. The story also strongly echoes the exorcist mentioned in the original film, where it's stated that Father Merrin purged a young boy of the evil one in Africa. This prequel is not about that particular "exorcist". The setting and time period are similar, but it's a different exorcist all together.
Will it be scary? Will the special effects be all over the place? I can't answer that since I haven't seen it yet, but from what I got out of my set visit, it looks like they're going for subtle and low-key scares. Nothing wrong with that! A more mature, depth-filled, character-driven tale hits the spot any day and with Paul Schrader at the helm, I'm sure it will succeed in those respects. Knowing more about this "bad boy" now, I am looking forward to it. My appetite has been teased, let's hope they deliver the FULL meal!
As I stepped on set to witness the first scene of "Exorcist: The Beginning" being shot on its final week of shooting, everything was already set up for my viewing pleasure: cameras, extras, lighting, fans, a little tent for cast and crew, you name it...it was there! All that was missing was the massage parlor and I could've lived my dying days there. Soaking it all in like a virgin at a brothel, I couldn't help but be flabbergasted by the realism around me in regards to the set designs. I thought I was in Rome here, but the next thing you know...I'm in a Dutch village! Aaaaahhh, the magic of filmmaking!
The buildings, the cars, the barrels, the signs, even the church...everything felt so darn genuine right down to the more minute details like the snow on the ground. A note on the snow if I may: it looked so real and coming from a Canadian...that's saying a lot! I think it was made of "salt" or something, but whatever the case; I bought it and almost licked it off the asphalt (we do that in Canada when it's hockey season...don't ask). I was also charmed silly by the cutie playing the Dutch girl; I mean, there's nothing like a "peasant" outfit and an honest smile to crank my dial, but I guess that was my own shite going on. One interesting note in regards to the sets is that they were actually remains from the "Gangs of New York" sets which were retouched to look like a WW2 era Dutch village. Well, it worked on me because I had an uncontrollable urge to order a loaf of bread and a live lamb somewhere.
The scene that we witnessed had Father Merrin (Skarsgård) facing the "event" that would spiral his life and faith into a very dark place. Unfortunately, I can't say much about the scene in regards to content (Warner Brothers told me to shut my yap about it), so I'll do my best to be vague while giving out some basic info. This was the only scene that we were shown and even though it was fairly simple and small in scope, it did cover a very "key" moment in the film. I watched fervently as they covered the scene "wide", "medium" "reversed angles" and then shot it for close-ups up until they got to the "fun part" which they kept for last. Yep, the only "rise" in stakes when it came to this specific scene was the "special effect" eventually kicking in. I was taken in by the professionalism and the axis towards safety that the crew took when it came to that little bit of "red" tossed in. You wouldn't know how much preparation is needed for even the smaller effect to be set up and then properly executed. When the "effect" was finally presented for the cameras, my heart skipped a beat. Pretty gripping stuff. Mark my words when I say that it's going to kick ass when it's up onscreen!
At that point though, it was freaking freezing outside, even for my winter-trained bootie. But even as the abundant fake snow was smacking me in the face like an unrepentant hurricane, I still remember thinking to myself "I'm having a blast!". Watching Skarsgård looking smashing in his priest get-up (I almost asked him to bless me), being as intense as ever (the man says the word "no" like nobody's business) made me smile like a toddler knocking back Kool-Aid shooters. And seeing the man pop a cigarette into his mouth in between each single take without exception made me chain-smoke like a chimney as well. He was an inspiration in that respect that's for sure! VIVA LE SKARSGARD! Antonie Kamerling (Kessler) was also groovy as the "Nazi" duder. That uniform screamed "power" at me and yes, the lad wore it well. I was actually surprised at just how light-hearted and easy-going Kamerling was in between takes. You would think that a guy playing a Nazi would go brood in his corner to "stay in character", but not this guy. He was out and about, talking to everybody (yes, even us!) and being an all-around social butterfly. Take the outfit away and this hombre could've been a politician. PR is the word and he knew the word oh-so well. Slick moves there daddy-o!
Of course, I couldn't go on talking about this experience without mentioning the man himself: Paul Schrader. Wearing a trendy black beret, sunglasses and a red scarf that would make any fashion guru envious (see pic gallery below), Mr. Schrader was as cool as a cucumber as the captain of this ship. He would talk to his actors and his crew in a very controlled demeanor in between each takes and even kept calm when a particular "extra" ruined a take because he was looking straight at the camera. Paul didn't flinch; he got the interpreter over and told him to tell the Italian extra to STOP camera hogging. Then, they did it all over again. If Mr. Schrader wasn't on set talking to his actors in a relaxed manner, he was chilling at the monitor watching the scene unfold or kicking it in the tent (most likely keeping warm with Swedish hookers-- just kidding on that one). All that to say that it appears as though experience has taught Mr. Schrader the trait universally known as "patience". Hopefully one day I will reach the man's level of enlightenment. Being that this is $50 Million dollar production, I'd likely be shooting extras five minutes into it.
Anything interesting happen to me here on a personal level? Well, in between takes I would take the free time to wander around the studio a bit. CineCitta is a massively huge studio with in-house bars and one cafeteria-style food court (lots of cute chicks there too....hehehe). I also saw lots of props in what I liked to call the "graveyard", wandered on a few sets, one being the "Gangs of New York" harbor set (NICE!) and the other being a set for Mel Gibson's upcoming "Jesus" film called "The Passion". Needless to say that set was beyond impressive, but that's for another set report (hint hint). But the most fun I had, believe it or not, was when I hit the craft service table to get myself some fruit juice and a type of "snack" twig....which to this day, I don't have a name for.
It was quite a trip running into period-donned extras as well (one with fake blood running down her face no less) or better yet, Skarsgård himself on my way in and out of the set. The man is one tall mofo, has mucho presence and even in full priest get-up, looked like the kind of guy who can drink you under the table! I wanted to ask him to go boozing after the day was done, but that would've been out of school, so I just shut up, in awe of the man that would be a young Father Merrin. I also ran into Kamerling at the craft service table, where he stuck around and talked to all of us extensively (press, that is). You'll get more on that when the "actors" segment of my set report surfaces (actor Gabriel Mann was not on the set on the day we visited).
In the end, after watching the same shot being taken over and over again, my multitude of visits to the craft table, my "fanboy" feelings towards Skarsgård & Schrader, as well as my schoolboy crush on the Dutch girl, this is the root of what I got out of this specific scene and how it will play out in the film: It will be gripping in terms of "emotional" resonance, it will be used throughout the picture as a "flashback" and it will also be a "key" device during the last act of the film. With the talent in front and behind the camera and with the sumptuous sets coating all of it in, this scene looks like it's going to be quite a beautiful and intense watch! I'M THERE!
are a few on-set pictures for your viewing pleasure:
This next section's got some good news and bad news. The good news is that I got to see some of the main "Exorcist: The Beginning" sets, the bad news is that I wasn't allowed to take any pictures of them. I know that sucks meatballs at an Italian deli, but they gotta keep some surprises in tow for when you go see the film, right? With that in mind, I will try to stick you into my shoes through the next few paragraphs so that you will see what I saw, feel what I felt and go to the bathroom when I did. Let's do this!
Led by our fearless leader Art Designer Stefano Ortolani we were all taken inside various lots to visit some of the eerie sets. To be honest, I often felt like Indiana Jones on this adventure, hopping from set to set, facing the unknown. Yes, the kid in me was awakened on this trek. Isn't it great when that happens? You have to savor those rare moments during adulthood. There was a very "archeological vibe" to all of these places and taking into account that Father Merrin is an archeologist in the film...I would say that they definitely created the right atmosphere for me to be able to pick it up at every location.
So while the "Pazuzu wannabee" is in the middle of the room looking down at me as if I was an ant that he was about to crush with his tongue, I look around and spot long rows of steps going up on each side of him and eventually leading to his behind. Being the curious mo-mo that I am, I actually go up the steps on the left of the statue to see wassup back there. It was dark, and even though I was careful with my every move, I ultimately took a peek to the wall next to me and...THERE'S A SATANIC FACE CARVED INTO IT! <cue in "Psycho" music> I JUMP! This experience was akin to walking through one of those amusement park haunted houses. CREEEEEPY! My slow poke instinct did eventually kick in though as my pea-brain said: "Arrow, you shouldn't be going any further up these steps in case you fall down, crack your neck and died at Pazuzu's (or whatever the hell is name is) feet". When the Warner Brothers rep told me to get down from there, my instincts were proven right and I got my ass to safer grounds.
Once down, I then went on to check out the interior walls of the crypt which were extremely detailed and looked so much like they were made out of stone. Upon touching them, I realized that they were most likely made of Styrofoam. An interesting note on those stones; the art designer told me that the interior of the crypt walls were made of rock molds taken off rocks (what else?) in Africa. That definitely upped the realistic factor of the crypt, in my opinion. I know you wouldn't think it would make a difference since it's so minute, but at the end of the day, it's all about details and this crypt was on the ball when it came to that. The last particular element I saw was a big cage standing right in front of the Satan idol. Yes, you heard me...a cage. Why a cage? Harem? Meat locker? Dancing cage? Not sure, but I took one step inside the cage, turned around to see Paz's grinning face looking down at me and wisely decided not to go any further. You're not going to get my bootie! Not on my watch, Satan! When I asked what the cage was for, talk of "sacrifice" came about and I was also described two scenes involving animals going against natural instinct under the influence of the "Prince of Darkness". That's all that I'll say on that front since I don't want some WB rep choking me in my sleep.
Before we left The Crypt, the Warners' rep took a picture of all of us in front of the Satanic idol; a pic that will be sent to us once they're allowed to show it. When I get...you'll get it. I, of course, took the opportunity to whisper the word "Pazuzu" in a creepy, raspy demon voice that scared the wits out the Warners' rep. Yeah...I'm that guy!! All in good Satanic fun. In the end, the Crypt gave me the mucho heebie-jeebies and being that it's solely a set...I have to assume that it will get the job done in the film. Brrrr!
I left the tub and noticed that on the two other ends of the church, the same kinds of steps were present. Atop each of them, I eyeballed coffins. I opened one of the coffins up and to my huge surprise, my ex-girlfriend wasn't in there!! "Bummer", I thought. Leaving the coffins behind, I fell on what was, without a doubt, the most unsettling thing about this cute church and that was the many paintings gracing the walls which depicted an assortments of "angels battling demons" scenarios. These types of paintings always make me uneasy in any setting and it was no different here. After checking out the paintings, I looked up to see a mural on the ceiling sporting religious imagery. It was looking back down at me. Now was that the wind or is there a presence here? Am I getting chills again? After that lovely ceiling mural moment, I had enough of this site. A little note before we depart to our next location: the crypt that I visited earlier is actually located beneath this church in the film. Food for thought moochachos...food for thought...
VARIOUS SET PIECES:
I learn that this specific corridor set will be used to communicate Father Merrin's many dream sequences. I, of course, hop on the set, walk up to the door but....it leads nowhere. Damn! Is anything real here other than that darn Satan statue? But the icing on the cake was my last encounter. I turn around (think slow motion) and lock eyes on this weird looking statue staring me down intensely from afar (great, another one!). I move closer to it, somehow drawn to it, arrive next to it and this is what I see: There's a demon holding a dagger above his head in a stabbing motion (another day in a demon's life) and at his feet lies a poor victim. I kneel down to see how the poor sap at the end of the knife is doing-- maybe he's thirsty or something, but I'm sucker-punched when I see that the frightened, open mouth victim actually sports the face of The Exorcist "face demon" (see pic below).
I get up, take a few steps back and think these three letters: "W-T-F". Now that's a disturbing freakin' mug! It's called a makeover dude! It's under "M", look into it! I guess that face design on the victim is another subtle nod to the original flick. Well, that lovely yelping demon icon was my cue to get the hell out of dodge! So I fled to safety with thoughts of the Vatican and getting baptized a second time for good measure running through my noggin.
Once this excursion was done with, we all went to get some espressos at one of the nearest bars. As you could probably tell, I had lots of fun throughout this journey and it once more upped my confidence in the film (more coverage to come next week). The more I saw on this visit, the more I was looking forward to this baby. I guess that's a normal reaction though. I must tell you that walking through the CineCitta lot was also one of the biggest thrills I have yet to feel. It's right up there with that Playboy Pool Party I went to with JoBlo in Vegas last year. Cinema oozes out of this place and for a movie nut like me, that's an intoxicating juice to dip into. I actually heard that Dario Argento was walking this same studio on this same day, checking out special effects tests for his next film "The Card Dealer". I didn't see the bugger, but did manage to get my picture and acting resume to the man via a friend that I made on the set that day. Cross my fingers on that one, we never know. In the end, the espresso went down well, the cigarette went down better, but that long overdue trip to the Men's room was simply divine. Now I gotta look into booking a "baptizing" session at the Vatican. I feel cursed for some reason.
Check out some
CineCitta backlot pics
while you're at it:
Coming soon: Interviews with cast and crew, more pictures, notes from the trip, etc.....
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