Over the last decade, director Scott Derrickson has made a huge name for himself in the horror genre with the back-to-back successes of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister. This week, his latest supernatural genre film, Deliver Us from Evil, opens starring Eric Bana, Joel McHale, and Olivia Munn. We spoke with Derrickson about his upcoming film, the allure of true-story horror, and his knack for bending the genre.
Diabolique: Both The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister had a lot to do with the supernatural and the demonic, and I’ve read elsewhere that you are very attracted to these themes. Deliver Us from Evil seems to continue this trend. Could you explain this personal fascination with what seem to be universal themes for horror audiences?
Scott Derrickson: Yeah, you know, there aren’t a lot of kinds of stories that allow you to really explore the world as a mysterious place—[mainly] horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Sci-fi, by definition, is usually expensive. Fantasy is…hard to do well, and also, usually very expensive. There’s something about horror that—without a huge amount of money—that if you take good characters into truly mysterious territory, it makes the audience feel that the world is a truly mysterious place. Because, even if the audience are complete skeptics, they have that part of their brains that thinks maybe ghosts are real, or demons are real, or whatever…I like movies that stretch my mind, that stretch my experiences so that I feel for a few hours afterwards that there’s more to the world than we see.
Diabolique: They also seem to be—at least with Exorcism of Emily Rose and what we can see in Deliver Us from Evil—more concerned with demonic forces, and the U.S. justice system as backdrops for them: the trials [in Emily Rose], and clearly, police procedurals in the latter. Is there any particular reason, or reasons, that you tend towards these methods of storytelling?
Derrickson: Not the criminal or judicial systems specifically, but definitely the idea just of genre hybrids. The idea of a courtroom horror movie was a cool idea, the idea of a police procedural-supernatural thriller was a cool idea. And, in [Deliver Us from Evil], also blending action and some comedy and trying to crush together genre elements that normally you don’t see going together. That, for me, was a big draw in why I wanted to make the movie.
Diabolique: Likewise, both those movies are said to be based on true events. For people who aren’t too familiar with story for Deliver Us from Evil, can you give a brief background on what it’s based on, and how you came to learn about it?
Derrickson: Yeah, well, Detective Ralph Sarchie is the main character of the movie, and the real Detective Ralph Sarchie [wrote a book] of memoirs. Jerry Bruckheimer optioned that book in 2003, and I was hired to do the script adaptation of this book, and first stopped at that. I was replaced as a writer, and they brought on other writers to work on the script, [but] while I was in New York meeting with the real Ralph Sarchie in 2003, he gave me an out-of-print copy of a book called The Exorcism of Emily Michel, which I optioned for one hundred dollars. While they came to work on [the Deliver Us From Evil] script, I went on to make [The Exorcism of Emily Rose]. They continued to develop this movie for years—there were lots of writers and lots of drafts. After Sinister, they asked what I wanted to do next and I told them about this story, and they went back and read my original draft and said, “Let’s make the movie.” At which point I did a pretty sizeable rewrite to bring it up to current times—a lot had gone on in the genre since 2003—and I ended up doing the rewrite and we made the movie.
Diabolique: Are you more attracted to these sorts of horror movies that are based on real-life accounts, or are you more drawn to fictional stories?
Derrickson: I’m attracted to a good story, but there is something about—you know, any good story is worth telling—but there is something about true stories as a way into genre filmmaking that is meaningfully compelling, because it’s, by nature, grounded. By nature, you’re working with potentially interesting characters, and what makes any scary movie work, what makes any genre film work, are the characters. If an audience is invested in those characters, they’ll stay along for the scares, and they’ll get scared with the characters. So there’s a unique opportunity, too, that comes with a true story that deals with this kind of genre fare.
Diabolique: Was Detective Sarchie involved at all during the production, or was it more that he had the story and you worked on it from there?
Derrickson: He was involved the whole time. I’ve been in touch with him over the years, and then when I did my full rewrite, I contacted him. I wanted to make sure he was okay with the liberties we took with it. His book was a series of cases, these paranormal cases…and I took what I thought went best with those cases and sort of strung them together with a fictional narrative. So I wanted to make sure he was okay with how he was represented, and how the story was represented, which he loved it. And then I hired him to come to the set every day, not as an adviser for his own character, but as our NYPD police adviser. So he was there to make sure that Eric Bana and Joel McHale drew their guns properly, that the right kind of language was used on the police radios, that they break down a door and sweep through the room exactly the way real cops do. He was the guy that made sure all the cop stuff was authentic.
Diabolique: Were there instances in which you were asked to scale back the story that was given, or were you give pretty much a free reign with the source material?
Derrickson: I was pretty unrestrained. There were budget things we had to make changes for at times, but that stuff is always the case.
Diabolique: I’ve noticed when watching your movies that they are often very deeply rooted in family drama and family dynamics, and this goes from Emily Rose to Sinister, and clearly with this one, too. Does this come from personal fears, or is this, again, something that you find more universal for audiences?
Derrickson: It’s both, and it’s also what happened in the true stories. In the Emily Rose story, a lot of what was in the book that I optioned—which was written by anthropologists—a lot of that book was testimonial from the family. So, I had a lot of stories from the family and what they witnessed and all of that. In Sarchie’s case, there were weird things that happened to his youngest daughter as he was working these cases, so I put those in the movie. But I also…you know, I grew up really scared. I had a lot of fears as a kid, and so I’m always tackling that, as well—these childhood fears of the unknown and all of that. It’s all of that. And audiences appreciate that, I think.
Diabolique: Definitely. And I think what also reaches out to audiences is, on just a technical level, a lot of these effects in these films appear to practical or make-up based. Do you prefer [these techniques] to CGI?
Derrickson: They’re both useful, but as a general rule, if you shoot it real, it’s going to look better. Some things can’t be shot real, but I prefer making the effects in horror films, for sure. I’d almost always rather use that than artificial effects.
Diabolique: So for Deliver Us you have Eric Bana, Joel McHale, Ethan Hawke, and Olivia Munn—they’re not usually known for working in horror movies. The same for Emily Rose, you had Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson—great, award-winning actors and actresses—do you actively try to cast non-horror vets, or are you more just looking for talent?
Derrickson: Yeah, I’m just looking for the best actors for the roles. All of those actors were well-suited for those roles, and I think that, after letting me [direct them] or seeing the work that I do, they know that they are in good hands, that I take the performances very seriously, and that I try hard to make the characters realistic and believable and manage the nuances of an actor’s performance as well as I possibly can.
Diabolique: After Deliver Us from Evil is released, there are reports of Sinister 2. Do you have any other horror projects lined up after this one?
Derrickson: There are some that haven’t been announced yet and I can’t say anything about those, but yeah, Sinister 2 starts shooting next month…and I’m adapting The Outer Limits…but yeah, I’ll always be developing things in the horror genre.See Deliver Us from Evil, now playing in theaters nationwide.