The Arrow interviews Alexi Hawley
In case you hadn't heard, "Exorcist: The Beginning" was shot twice due to the studio's unhappiness with the first version. Once by Paul Schrader from a script by Alex Carr and William Fisher (click here to read my set visit of that shoot), and then by Renny Harlin from a script by Alexi Hawley. I had the chance to shoot the Holy Water with Hawley to get his two horns on all that was his jamboree with "Exorcist: The Beginning". Here's the scoop!
ARROW: What’s your favorite horror movie?
ALEXI: I can’t pick just one. The top five = The Exorcist. The Shining. Poltergeist. The Omen. The Ring.
ARROW: Exorcist: The Beginning was your first "produced" screenwriting credit. What type of writing background do you have?
ALEXI: I actually segued into writing from playing music in a number of bands in New York City. I was looking for a creative outlet that didn’t involve carrying drums up and down the stairs at four in the morning. My first script, Chasing Shadows, was set up at Artisan pictures a few years ago (and has since landed at Ascendant Pictures where it’s scheduled to go into production this fall). Since then, I have been steadily working on assignments from MGM, Miramax, Intermedia and, currently, 20th Century Fox.
ARROW: How did the gig of re-writing "The Exorcist: The Beginning" come to land on your lap?
ALEXI: Morgan Creek was up against a deadline for “reshoots” on the movie. The way it was described to me at the time was that the writer they had working on the script wasn’t going to have time to write the third act of the movie. So I was invited to pitch them how I would end the movie. I watched some footage, read some pages and gave them my take on how the movie should end. They liked it so much that they asked me to look at the rest of the working script. I gave them a detailed rundown of where I thought the script needed to go and, after several meetings, including a final one with Renny Harlin, I was hired.
ARROW: What kind of research did you undertake before tackling the screenplay?
ALEXI: Honestly, I watched scary movies. Obviously, the original Exorcist and Exorcist III. I also read up on the Roman Rituals and anything I could find on demonic possession. Honestly, though, the biggest challenge I thought we were facing was our setting. The movie takes place in 1949 Kenya. The original Exorcist was so terrifying because it was in your house. Upstairs in that bedroom, the devil was inside a 12 year old girl. And that is way too close for comfort for most of us. Because we were so far removed from that, I felt that we had to go out of our way to make the scares in our version identifiable. We had to ground the terror of this movie in reality. Both physically and psychologically.
ARROW: How much time did you have to do that "page 1" re-write?
ALEXI: When I was hired, there was only five or six weeks before they were scheduled to start shooting. However, the reality of movie making is that you need time beforehand for pre-production (building sets, getting props, hiring actors, etc.) So the way it played out was I was hired on a Tuesday afternoon with the understanding that I needed to rewrite the entire script, knocking 30 pages off it in the process, and could I do it by Friday? 72 mostly sleepless hours later I turned in a draft that was my vision of the movie (and 29 pages shorter). And while it wasn’t finished by any means, there was a big sigh of relief at the studio because suddenly everyone could see what the movie was. Shooting was pushed back a few more weeks for pre-production purposes; ultimately starting in December, 2003. I went to Rome a week before cameras rolled, and stayed until they broke for the holidays - fine tuning the script during that time.
ARROW: Every writer has his writing process. What was yours? Did you lock yourself in a room? Did you get acquainted with a bottle of Jack…?
ALEXI: Red Bull is more like it. Overall, my process really depends on what I’m working on. I’m pretty disciplined about sitting down to work every morning and staying there until 5 or 6. With Exorcist, though, it was pretty much eat, breath and sleep the project from October, 2003 through the beginning of 2004. I wrote at home. I wrote on the plane. I wrote at the hotel. I wrote on the set. And I loved doing it. The reality in Hollywood is that the average development process on a script is counted in years (and most of the time the movie ultimately never gets shot). To go from being hired, to being in Rome on the set of a movie I had written in six or eight weeks was a unique and incredibly exciting experience.
ARROW: How many of Caleb Carr’s ideas, if any did you retain in your Exorcist 4?
ALEXI: It’s hard for me to say how much of what we based our movie on was Caleb Carr’s, how much was William Wisher’s (who penned the original version of the script), and how much was Paul Schrader’s (who did a polish on Caleb’s script). That being said, what Morgan Creek did was (I believe) unprecedented in movie history. Usually, when a studio decides a film needs work, they do reshoots to fill in what they perceive to be holes in the film. What Morgan Creek decided (before I came on board) was that rather then put things into the film, they were going to see what they could take out of it in order to craft a brand new film around those ideas/scenes. What that means is that, when I was hired, the skeleton of the new film was already beginning to take shape based around several existing ideas from Paul Schrader’s footage. The biggest two being: the set up of a mysterious church in Africa that Father Merrin investigates (from which I created a whole mythology for why this area was so important), and Merrin’s backstory of what happened to him in the war that caused him to lose his faith (although I integrated it into the film in a different way).
However, the problems of trying to craft a new movie using scenes from the old version soon became apparent. Specifically, as I crafted a new story, with new characters and new twists and turns, the scenes we were thinking of keeping either stopped making sense or contained actors that were recast. By the time I got to Rome, we were looking at using only about ten minutes of Schrader’s film – scenes that all involved Father Francis. When the actor who played him, Gabriel Mann, was unable to make the shoot on time, James Darcy was hired to play the role literally the weekend before he was supposed to start filming. From a story standpoint, this was a blessing in disguise because Gabriel’s existing scenes had really ceased to make sense. I was, therefore, thrilled to be able to roll up my sleeves and rewrite them for James, who did a fantastic job. Ultimately, the only footage that remains from Paul Schrader’s movie is exterior establishing shots that were filmed in Morocco.
ARROW: Without giving too much away, what is your favorite “scare” set piece within your version of Exorcist 4?
ALEXI: One word. Claustrophobia.
ARROW: How would you describe the experience that was collaborating with King Renny Harlin?
ALEXI: I had a great time working with Renny. He was an absolute professional who put the quality of the movie above all else. I found him to be a generous, intelligent director who showed extreme patience in a high stress situation. To his credit, he actively wanted me in Rome when they started shooting and wanted me right next to him on the set. He had no ego about asking my advice, and I feel like he challenged me to give my best at all times.
ARROW: Have you seen Schrader’s version of Exorcist 4? If so, what did you think?
ALEXI: I have the deepest respect and admiration for Paul Schrader, both as a writer and a director. The truth of the matter is that I have not seen Schrader’s cut of the movie. I hit the ground running so fast on this project that I only had time to watch the scenes that Morgan Creek was thinking of using for Renny’s movie. It obviously wouldn’t be right for me to comment on those.
ARROW: What are your thoughts on Exorcist 2 and 3?
ALEXI: I really have no thoughts about Exorcist 2 - other than I avoided it. Exorcist 3, on the other hand, had several truly scary moments: (1) The black confessional window with the mysterious voice coming from behind it; (2) the old woman crawling on the ceiling; and (3) that incredible locked off camera shot in the hospital, where you just know something bad is going to happen but William Peter Blatty makes you wait and wait and wait and then - when it finally comes - it still scares the hell out of you.
ARROW: What’s next on your plate? I heard you have "Grimm" going on. What’s that picture about?
ALEXI: As I mentioned, Chasing Shadows is currently getting ready for pre-production. I’m also doing a rewrite for Fox on a project called Bulldog Dance that Catherine Hardwick wrote for them. Grimm is (for easiness sake) Seven with Grimm’s fairy tales. It is one of those development stories that happen far more often than what I experienced on Exorcist. It was supposed to go into production last year, but didn’t. At the moment, I have gotten the rights to it back and am currently talking to several places about setting it up.
ARROW: What do you hope audiences will get out of Exorcist 4 when it’s released?
I'd like to thank Alexi for sharing his "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy" about his experience. Only time will tell if this "second" Exorcist: The Beginning will rock or be renamed to "The Exorcist: The End of a Franchise".