“We all must make our little deals with the devil” | Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

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The story of Dominion is one of the stranger ones in modern Hollywood. It’s a film that was made, and then shelved, and then entirely replaced, only to be resurrected and released to film festivals and home video. It is a god-send for film students, since it illustrates beautifully with two complete feature films – Paul Schrader’s Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) and Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) – how different directors’ visions of the same screenplay can inspire such contrasting results. Exorcist: The Beginning, shot second but released first, is a terrible film. Dominion, shot first but released second, is altogether different – and I think genuinely good.

To talk about the prequel to The Exorcist, it’s probably worth starting with the original film. When it was released in 1973, it became an instant international sensation. This confrontational horror movie, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, was one of the first modern-day blockbusters: a must-see studio movie, heavily marketed across the USA and around the world, and earning more than $66 million dollars in the USA alone. The film was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for William Friedkin, Best Supporting Actor for Jason Miller, Best Actress for Ellen Burstyn, Best Supporting Actress for Linda Blair and Best Adapted Screenplay (which it won).

With such an enormous commercial success and acclaim, it is unsurprising that Warner Bros – which had produced and distributed the film – followed The Exorcist with a sequel. Released in 1977, The Exorcist II: The Heretic did not share its predecessor’s good fortune. Directed by John Boorman, the film underperformed at the cinema and received scathing reviews. Exorcist director William Friedkin called Boorman’s follow-up ‘as bad as seeing a traffic accident in the street.’ [1]

William Peter Blatty conceived his own sequel, which he initially developed with Friedkin at Warner Bros. When the project was cancelled, Blatty adapted it into a bestselling novel titled Legion (1983). Both Carolco Pictures and Morgan Creek Productions approached Blatty about adapting that novel back into a feature film. When Carolco representatives suggested a Legion adaptation that featured Regan, the possessed girl from The Exorcist, giving birth to possessed twins, Blatty rejected their offer and signed with Morgan Creek.

After a brief period when John Carpenter was set to direct Legion, Blatty took control of the project himself. After shooting the film, however, Morgan Creek owner and producer James Robinson forced a reshoot to incorporate more visual effects and a climactic exorcism sequence. The re-edited, re-titled film was released as The Exorcist III in August 1990, and despite receiving better reviews than The Exorcist II failed to interest audiences. Blatty all but disowned the theatrical edit of the film, and sadly his own director’s cut was lost before it could be publicly released.
Despite the film’s failure Morgan Creek retained the rights to produce further Exorcist movies in the future.

An Exorcist prequel was first mooted in 1997, when Morgan Creek hired William Wisher (Terminator 2) to write a screenplay detailing Lankester Merrin’s first battle with a demon in colonial Africa. The project fell by the wayside, however, until 2000.

Merrin confronts the possessed Cheche, in Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist.

Merrin confronts the possessed Cheche, in Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist.

That year Warner Bros re-released William Friedkin’s original Exorcist into cinemas in a digitally re-mastered and extended edition. When this re-release earned more than $40 million dollars, it convinced James Robinson that there remained strong commercial potential in a new Exorcist instalment. A new version of the script was commissioned from novelist Caleb Carr, and Exorcist: The Beginning entered into pre-production. Veteran Hollywood director John Frankenheimer was signed on to direct the film, and he in turn hired Liam Neeson to portray Merrin (played by Max Von Sydow in the original film). In mid-2002 pre-production stalled when Frankenheimer underwent back surgery. A few weeks later complications from the surgery caused a stroke, leading to the director’s death on 6 July. While Morgan Creek searched for a replacement, Neeson quietly withdrew from the part. He had accepted the role to work with Frankenheimer, and with the director gone there was no reason for him to remain.

To replace Frankenheimer, Morgan Creek zeroed in on writer/director Paul Schrader. Paul Schrader started his career as a screenwriter; Sydney Pollack directed his first screenplay, The Yakuza, in 1975. It was with Martin Scorsese, however, that Schrader established his career: writing the screenplays to a string of acclaimed films including Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Since 1978 Schrader had also started directing his own screenplays, beginning with Blue Collar and subsequently with Cat People (1982), Mishima (1985) and Patty Hearst (1988). His 1997 drama Affliction received considerable acclaim, as did his 2002 biographical film Autofocus. While not particularly known as a director of horror, Schrader brought with him a unique sense of depth and existential doubt that could be applied very well to the Exorcist franchise. He was a director with the potential to return The Exorcist to the intellectual, mature style of horror that had made the original so widely acclaimed and successful.

With the film well into pre-production and a script already in place, it was an easy choice for Schrader to accept Morgan Creek’s offer. ‘The train had left the station,’ he said, ‘and I loved the fact that it was going to get made in a second. For someone who spends years and years trying to get films financed, to hear that “We’re going to be shooting in three months” is a powerful enticement.’ [2]
Schrader also made it clear from the outset that he was not interested in making a traditional Hollywood horror movie. ‘I was more attracted to The Exorcist’s mythos rather than wanting to duplicate its shocks. I am a big fan of Friedkin’s original and its metaphorical purity. That’s why my story has an old-fashioned feel – it’s set in the 1940s, and I hope it feels like that.’ [3]

To replace Liam Neeson in the lead role of Father Merrin, Schrader turned to Stellan Skarsgård. Skarsgård was already an incredibly popular actor in his own country, and had been gradually performing in more and more Hollywood features – including The Hunt for Red October (1990), Good Will Hunting (1997) and Ronin (1998). Like Max Von Sydow before him, Stellan Skarsgård was Swedish. ‘I’ve given my own take on the character,’ said Skarsgård. ‘In The Exorcist, Max portrayed the character of Merrin as an old man who was nearing the end of his life. You can’t tell what he may have been like when he was younger, so I had the freedom to approach the character in my own way.’ [4]

In one of those strange quirks of film production, Skarsgård was actually seven years older than Max Von Sydow was at the time of The Exorcist’s shooting – despite playing a version of the character who was more than 20 years younger.

French actress Clara Bellar was cast in the role of Rachel. Her highest profile role before being cast was playing a robotic nanny in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).
Gabriel Mann played Father Francis, the naïve young priest who works with a reluctant Merrin in exploring the church. At the time Mann was best known for a string of supporting roles in Hollywood comedies and thrillers, including Josie and the Pussycats (2001), Summer Catch (2001) and The Bourne Identity (2002).

Cheche (Billy Joe Crawford) in Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist

Cheche (Billy Joe Crawford) in Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist

In the crucial role of African youth Cheche Schrader cast Filipino-American Billy Joe Crawford, then a popular singer in France. During the location shoot Crawford had two singles in the French pop music charts, at number #1 and #5. While he had appeared in several Filipino movies in the past, The Exorcist: The Beginning was Crawford’s first major movie role.

Supporting roles were filled by such actors as Ralph Brown (Withnail and I, Alien 3), Julian Wadham (The Madness of King George, The English Patient), Israel Aduramo (Dirty Pretty Things, Pirates of the Carribbean) and Andrew French (The Tailor of Panama, Beyond Borders).

The Exorcist: The Beginning commenced shooting in late 2002 on location in Morocco. Two outdoor sets were constructed 30 minutes outside of Marrakesh, one representing a British army garrison in Kenya and the other a half-buried fifth-century church. The shoot went entirely undisturbed by tourists and onlookers: since the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York American tourists in particular had been avoiding the Middle East and North Africa. The location shoot was plagued by bad weather. ‘It was cold,’ said Skarsgård. ‘It hadn’t rained for ten years and when we got there, it started to rain immediately. It was very cold and it was supposed to be Kenya, so we didn’t wear much clothes either… shorts!’ [5]

Once the location shoot was complete, the shoot transferred to the Cinecittà studio complex in Rome. The film had a production budget of approximately $40 million dollars – easily the largest of Schrader’s career.

Even during the location shoot, the relationship between Schrader and Robinson was beginning to fray. Schrader explained: ‘When Jim came to Morocco, he started saying to me, “It isn’t scary enough,” which became a mantra. We had to get out of Morocco by Christmas, and we only had two weeks left in Morocco before Christmas. So I told him there was nothing we could really do with the Morocco stuff anyway, but let’s add some more stuff when we get to Rome.’ [6]

Michael Kamen (Highlander, Lethal Weapon) was initially hired to compose the film’s orchestral score; however in September Schrader replaced him with Christopher Young (Hellraiser).

The demon Pazuzu - one of the few direct visual references to the original Exorcist included in Schrader's film.

The demon Pazuzu – one of the few direct visual references to the original Exorcist included in Schrader’s film.

Schrader screened a rough edit of the film to Morgan Creek’s executive producer, James Robinson, and had a five-minute discussion with the executive on changes he would make in the next edit. For the second screening, Robinson ominously did not show. Shortly afterwards Schrader was informed by a third party that he was no longer directing Exorcist: The Beginning. ‘Morgan Creek is one man,’ said Schrader, ‘it’s a one-man operation, it’s James Robinson. If he decides something, that’s it – everything comes out of his pocket, so I think that somewhere in the shooting, he started to change his mind about having made this film, and he started to feel that he was making the wrong movie.’ [7]

When interviewed by Entertainment Weekly on the matter, Robinson said ‘Paul’s version was very cerebral. I had concerns as to how well it would play to the mass audience.’ [8]

Robinson’s initial plan was to have a new director re-shoots select scenes from the film, to beef up the amount of horror and provide a few old-fashioned Hollywood scares. He settled on Finnish director Renny Harlin who, despite a few career missteps, had established himself as a talented director of action thrillers including Cliffhanger (1993), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and Deep Blue Sea (1999). Harlin said: ‘I am a huge fan of the horror genre. I’m known for my action films, but I started in horror and it is a genre that I’ve always loved and admired. And obviously the original Exorcist is one of the most famous horror films ever made. It’s one of my favourite films, so when this opportunity came across my path, I just couldn’t pass it by.’ [9]

Harlin started work on Exorcist: The Beginning in October 2003. It rapidly became clear that James Robinson’s reshoot plan would be unworkable. In order to provide the kind of mainstream horror film Robinson was seeking, almost the entire production would need to be re-written and filmed all over again. It was a near-unthinkable and almost unprecedented proposition.
‘Let’s not kid ourselves,’ Robinson said. ‘This is the entertainment business. Realising we could not get the movie we thought we were going to get, the one Frankenheimer would have given us in a heartbeat, I said, “We can just throw the thing at video and walk away, or we can make another movie.”’ [10]

Morgan Creek was still committed to a revised release date in August 2004, giving Harlin just 10 months to undertake the necessary rewrites, the production shoot and post-production. He worked extensively with first-time screenwriter Alexi Hawley to redevelop and transform the previous Wisher/Carr production draft. This process took approximately six weeks while the sets were re-erected back in Rome and the cast and crew were urgently brought back under contract.

A key priority for Harlin was drawing the film closer to the original Exorcist. ‘We wanted to give background to the film,’ he explained, ‘and to the main themes of the film, that being the eternal battle between good and evil.’ [11] Numerous images and motifs from The Exorcist were incorporated into the film, notably the small statuette of the demon Pazuzu handled by Merrin in The Exorcist’s opening but also subliminal demonic images, possession make-up effects and other elements.

The rewrite transformed Exorcist: The Beginning enormously. The earlier themes regarding the human nature of evil, which had been integral to Schrader’s version, were abandoned in favour of a superficial story of demonic possession. Cheche was replaced with a bait-and-switch antagonist, strongly implying a young African boy named Joseph is possessed before revealing it was the fort’s doctor Sarah all along.

Dr Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco), in Exorcist: The Beginning

Dr Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco), in Exorcist: The Beginning

The character of Dr Sarah Novack was an entirely new creation by Hawley and Harlin, replacing Clara Bellar’s Rachel entirely. Izabella Scorupco (Goldeneye, Vertical Limit) was hired on short notice and flown to Rome. ‘What convinced me to fly to Rome with a four month-old baby was the chance to work with Stellan Skarsgård,’ said Scorupco. ‘I am from Sweden and he’s one of our biggest, most respected actors. It is just the most beautiful gift to be a part of the production where he is and be around him and his energy.’ [12]

Due to scheduling conflicts, Gabriel Mann was unable to return to shoot new scenes as Father Francis. He was replaced by James D’Arcy.

Due to the limitations of time, Renny Harlin’s entire shoot took place in Rome. The Cinecittà backlot stood in for both Africa and flashbacks set during World War II. To achieve the African landscape a 262 foot-wide fibreglass canyon was constructed and enhanced, shot by shot, using computer-generated images (CGI). Despite Harlin’s claim to the contrary (in the film’s production notes he was quoted saying ‘it’s not filled with fancy special effects and tricks of the trade of today’ [13]) Exorcist: The Beginning was filled with computer-generated enhancements, notably the addition of a pack of wild (and, it must be said, hopelessly unconvincing) hyenas that invade the camp in an early suspenseful sequence.

All up, Renny Harlin’s take on the film cost Morgan Creek roughly $50 million dollars. On top of the $30 million spent making Schrader’s version, and the film was significantly over its original budget with a lot of pressure to earn back its costs.

Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) in Exorcist: The Beginning.

Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) in Exorcist: The Beginning.

For better or worse, Exorcist: The Beginning opened in American cinemas on 18 August 2004, right on schedule. It was met with a relatively lukewarm box office, ultimately pulling in $78 million worldwide. Even with additional revenues from home video and TV sales, it would take the film a long time to pay back its inflated budget.

‘I was surprised he took the job,’ said Paul Schrader, of Harlin’s decision to take over the film when he did, ‘because it’s not a very desirable job. You know, being second in line, being restrained by the scandal, the nature of Morgan Creek, not going back to Morocco.’ [14]

Schrader did see Harlin’s version of the film, watching a cinema screening of the film with Exorcist creator William Peter Blatty in Washington D.C. While Blatty was outraged by the theatrical edit of the film (a similar fate befell his own The Exorcist III), Schrader was growing happier by the minute: ‘During the course of the screening, I just kept feeling better and better. Because I was saying, “Boy, this is really bad. If this gets much worse, maybe my film has a chance. Maybe there will be a curiosity about what my film was like.” Because what would have been the worst scenario for me was if Renny’s film was pretty good.’ [15]

‘Everything is now so driven by CGI and gore,’ said Schrader, ‘rather than suspense and storytelling. And so, it makes it kind of hard to get a good suspenseful story going, because you are competing with people who are throwing heavy metal instruments at the viewer from the moment the movie starts.’ [16]

Even after Exorcist: The Beginning had been and gone, there were still rumblings about what to do with Schrader’s cut. Film festivals had started to enquire about the possibility of screening Schrader’s edit, while fans of the Exorcist saga were setting up web sites and writing e-mail campaigns for the film to be released. Morgan Creek was ambivalent about granting their wish. On the one hand, for comparatively little money they could allow the director to complete his original film and release it for a tidy profit. On the other hand, releasing the original version would give audiences an opportunity to judge whether or not they had made the right decision in firing him. Faced with a choice between potential profits or potential embarrassment, Morgan Creek went for the money.

The company’s first strategy to complete the Schrader edit was to simply hire an editor, Tim Silano, to cut together the available footage. It was Silano who personally contacted Schrader to let him know what was going on and to request to Morgan Creek that Schrader be brought back in to supervise the process. Schrader agreed, if for no other reason than to help salvage his own reputation. ‘If you’ve made an expensive film,’ he said, ‘that has been thrown away and described as so badly made that it can’t be released, you can convince no one – not your wife, not your best friend – that it was any good. So the assumption is that it was just a piece of crap. And then you have to spend the rest of your life trying to explain that maybe it was good, as people look at you with their disbelieving eyes and imagine you in all sorts of denial.’ [17]

Schrader received an extremely limited budget with which to edit his final version of the film. Only $35,000 was available to complete the film, including money for editing, music, audio work and visual effects. Faced without sufficient money to give the film a proper musical score, Schrader did his best editing sections of Trevor Rabin’s score for Renny Harlin’s version. As a favour to the director, acclaimed composer Angelo Badalamenti provided a 14-minute climactic section of music for free. When Morgan Creek refused to pay for director of photography Vittorio Storaro to supervise the colour corrections of the film, Silano and Schrader undertook the task together.

One shot from Renny Harlin’s version was incorporated into Schrader’s, depicted the maggot-ridden corpse of a baby being born. The shot was always intended to be produced for Schrader’s version but had never been completed.

‘The fact that this film exists,’ explained Schrader, ‘owes itself to two phenomena that were not present 10 years ago. The first is DVD. We were able to say to the financier, “Don’t throw away that film: there is money to be made down the road in DVD.” The other thing is the Internet, whereby through use of fan-based Web sites you can keep talk about the film alive so that the subject never quite dies. Were it not for the Internet, it would have been forgotten.’ [18]

Initial festival screenings of the Schrader cut were made under the title Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Original Prequel and, in one early case, Exorcist IV. When Warner Bros agreed to distribute a DVD release of the film, they insisted on a more distinctive title: Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist.

When looking over his experience on the Exorcist prequel, Schrader said: ‘I wouldn’t do it again. There’s no doubt about that. It’s a lot of time out of your life, and I’ve spent more hours agonizing over Morgan Creek and James G. Robinson than any human being should ever be forced to in any number of lifetimes.’ [19]

Nazi atrocities in World War II, as seen in Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist.

Nazi atrocities in World War II, as seen in Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist.

So for all of the frustration and delays, how does Dominion actually hold up?

It’s not unexpected to note that it is vastly superior to Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning. While that film was a shock-a-minute horror movie filled with visual effects and visual throwbacks to the Friedkin original, Dominion is a much slower, much more meditative film. It takes its time, and seems much more concerned with slowly building tension than startling its audience with loud noises and gore. Even elements that are shared between the films – Merrin’s loss of faith due to the events of World War II – are handled in a far more subtle and nuanced fashion.

The film is set in Kenya in 1947. Lankester Merrin, a one-time priest, now works as an archaeologist uncovering a strange early Christian church that was buried in the side of a mountain. Inside the church is in pristine condition, as if it was built and then immediately buried beneath the sand. Underneath the church Merrin and his companions, the idealistic Father Francis and the local guide Chuma, discover an even older temple, clearly intended for worshipping a much darker, more malevolent religion. Once this temple is uncovered, events in the film head towards the realm of supernatural horror.

Where Schrader’s version excels, however, is in the way this evil is expressed. There are in essence two evils developing alongside each other. There is certainly a strong element of the demonic in the story – possession, plagues, cows going mad and eating a pack of hyenas – and they’re expressed in fashion rather reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth: something terrible has been unleashed, and the natural world is turned upside down because of it.

Then there is the other kind of evil. Merrin’s early experiences in World War II haunt him, and the brutal execution in which a Nazi commander forced him to participate. The supernatural events in Kenya create friction between the local Africans and the British army regiment stationed nearby. Things start to turn violent. Granville (Julian Wadham), the Major commanding the regiment, visibly begins to turn insane. By the time the film reaches its expected priest versus demon climax, it’s almost irrelevant: the Africans and the British are murdering each other with such reckless abandon that the supernatural evil almost feels irrelevant.

The more naturalistic tone of the Schrader film allows Stellan Skarsgård to deliver a considerably more impressive performance. In the Harlin film he is something akin to a Catholic Indiana Jones, drawn to Kenya by the promise of treasure and much more breathlessly driven to fight evil. Here he’s a broken man, who wants no part of religion any more, and has to be dragged almost kicking and screaming back to the fold. This portrayal of the character, while never intended by Skarsgård to seamlessly fit into Max von Sydow’s version in the original Exorcist, nevertheless intersects much more smoothly. You can believe it is the same man, and that the events seen here echo through von Sydow’s measured, experienced version of the character.

Billy Joe Crawford is almost excellent as Cheche, creating a much more distinctive presence than the young boy seemingly possessed in Exorcist: The Beginning. Similarly, his eerie performance while possessed carries a lot more weight – not to mention originality – than the cheap copy of the original Exorcist that Izabella Scorupco was forced to perform.

This is not a perfect film, but given the conditions under which it was finally edited together that’s not necessarily a surprise. It is by far the best of the sequels/prequels to Friedkin’s original work: it maintains a similar tone, but also manages to do new things with the material. Most critically, Schrader has made an adult film for intelligent viewers. Morgan Creek desired something filled with sound and fury; constant jolts and shocks and scary images. Schrader rightfully recognised that it’s human beings, in all their petty, paranoid and selfish glory, are possibly the scariest things of all.

REFERENCES

  1. Bob McCabe, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows, Omnibus Press, 1999.
  2. Associated Press (AP), “Schrader’s Exorcist finally sees daylight”, Associated Press, 17 May 2005.
  3. James Drew, “Paul Schrader: Exorcising his demons”, The Independent, 11 March 2005.
  4. Quoted in The Exorcist: The Beginning production notes, Morgan Creek Productions, August 2004.
  5. Quoted at http://www.stellanonline.com/pexorcist1.html
  6. Quoted in “Hell hath no fury”, L.A. Weekly, 13 August 2004.
  7. Drew, 11 March 2005.
  8. Quoted in “Exorcise Plan”, Entertainment Weekly, 22 April 2005.
  9. The Exorcist: The Beginning production notes
  10. L.A. Weekly, 13 August 2004.
  11. Quoted in Exorcist: The Beginning DVD audio commentary, Morgan Creek Productions, 2005.
  12. The Exorcist: The Beginning production notes
  13. The Exorcist: The Beginning production notes
  14. Erik Kristopher Myers, “Exclusive interview with Paul Schrader”, Captain Howdy, 24 March 2005.
  15. Associated Press (AP), “Schrader’s Exorcist finally sees daylight”, Associated Press, 17 May 2005.
  16. Drew, 11 March 2005.
  17. Associated Press (AP), 17 May 2005.
  18. Quoted in “Schrader puts Exorcist tale in perspective”, Hollywood Reporter, 29 March 2005.
  19. Myers, 24 March 2005.

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