When David Gordon Green approached Ellen Burstyn about reprising her iconic role of Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist: Believer, he knew, "If I'm going to ask her to put those shoes back on, it had better be worth something." After all, it had been 50 years since the actress originated the role in 1973's The Exorcist, for which she received an Oscar nomination. (The Exorcist itself became the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture and ultimately won two Academy Awards.)
Although there have been other sequels throughout the years, Green's entry serves as a direct continuation of William Friedkin's original film. (Notably, Green was also the director and co-writer of Blumhouse's Halloween reboot trilogy.) The Exorcist: Believer sees the parents of two possessed young girls seek out Burstyn's MacNeil for help, as she famously went through the same thing with her own daughter, Regan (played in The Exorcist by Oscar nominee Linda Blair).
"I'm trying to evolve my own vernacular in the perception of this film," says Green, "to be able to say, 'Sure, if you like horror movies, we got a lot of scares for you, but if you're a fan of dramatic films and want something that's meaningful, contemporary, and has spiritual undertones, then this is a movie for you as well.'"
A.Frame: Ellen Burstyn reprising her role as Chris MacNeil is so integral to the movie. Realistically, could you have done this if she had decided not to be involved?
I could have done it without her, but it's a big relief, as someone trying to honor the original film, to have someone I'm not exactly looking for permission but who can hold my hand as I step into sacred territory. If there's any hand I want to hold here, it's Ellen Burstyn's. At first, she was very skeptical. Her immediate answer was, "Hell no." I think people have approached her many times about sequels, so I said, "If you won't be in my movie, at least be my friend."
We ended up talking about my intentions and the story I'm trying to tell, how I want to go about it, and how I can make this meaningful to me, personally. I start every project very self-indulgently. I want this to be a movie for me. I can acknowledge that there is a significant fan base, but I can't give it the tools I have unless I know that the movie needs me, and I need it. Ellen and I spoke and shared literature and philosophies and had a few social conversations. When I then sent her the script, I think she was probably, in my eyes, pleasantly surprised that I'd incorporated some of the conversations that we had, that I'd personalized it for her and taken great lengths to pay respect to the Chris MacNeil character 50 years later. We had a tremendous collaboration, and I'm very proud to have worked with her.
So that was what swung it? You'd done your research, and there was that personal connection.
I think so. For me, it was. It's a little different from bringing Laurie Strode back to fight Michael Myers in Halloween. That has an intended destiny — a fate about it — and I don't think we had that same initial conversation. But I was looking for the elegance and the intention and expectation of drama that the original film had. One of the things that I find challenging at this point is people are like, "Oh, it's the sequel to the scariest movie ever made." Yes, it is. But have you seen that film?
The perception of that movie, if you haven't seen it recently, is how scared you were, but you don't realize that it's not a movie full of tropes and tricks and jump scares. It's a movie of unnerving drama or, as The Exorcist's director William Friedkin called it, a theological thriller. Those are things that I'm very cautious of using, even the terminology of something being a horror movie, because I think there are tremendous ways to terrify you in dramatic filmmaking. Movies like In Cold Blood and Deliverance are great examples, as is Nocturnal Animals. That was the scariest movie that came out that year, and it's not a horror movie; it's just scary as hell.
Did you ever consult or have conversations with William Friedkin about the project, or was there a respectful distance?
I would've loved that. I was looking forward to showing him the film, because I never communicated with him. My understanding was that he didn't want involvement in the film production, but he would give us his thoughts after the movie. I was very curious to see what he would think, because I know he has been very critical and was very outspoken, but he was also a brilliant man. He didn't have to love my movie, but I could learn from him, because he made many of my favorite movies. Like everyone, I was saddened at his passing, and I'm excited for his new film [The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial] coming out. Everybody has to acknowledge that so many of the movies he made are monumental and will live forever and influence filmmakers like myself for years to come.
The Exorcist's landmark anniversary makes the arrival of The Exorcist: Believer even more poignant. Was the movie's release this year intentional or coincidental?
It wasn't intentional on my end, but it became a tremendous opportunity when we realized it. I think some would probably argue that you don't want to feel like The Exorcist is a movie that's 50 years old, but for me, it's a landmark film, and I want to be associated with it. I think that's a very powerful title. It's a movie that meant something tremendous when it was made and maintains that to this day.
Why do you think The Exorcist works so well as a movie? As you say, there can be a snobbery towards horror movies, but The Exorcist is seen by fans, including many of the greatest filmmakers of all time, as cinema.
Part of it is because it doesn't have those tricks and tropes I mentioned earlier, so it has never gone out of style. You see many horror movie gimmicks come and go and have their trends and fashions, but The Exorcist feels so grounded. It feels like it is on earth. It's very observational and clinical. It could happen. In many ways, the documentary approach to it inspired us in our path, and I think there's great value in that timelessness. It's ultimately a movie about what's out there and things that we'll never know, and the curiosity of the animal of man will always be asking these questions.
How did you find the right balance between getting the homages and nods in there but not feeling shoehorned and not feeling obvious or cheesy?
It's super subjective, and it was left to my discretion at the end of the day. The Exorcist: Believer is not a movie about Easter eggs and nods and winks as much as I think a lot of the Halloween movies are, in a fun way, in a popcorn way. I wanted this movie to have threads of the DNA of the original film, but I wanted to play organically into the narrative we've constructed.
I wanted to ask about the physical production aspects of the movie. When it came to the exorcisms in particular, why was it important to you to do so much of it on set rather than in post?
I just feel like you can tell. There are a lot of exorcism movies that feel like superhero movies to me, When there are a lot of artificial ingredients. I think an audience can tell. Putting that makeup on, getting the performance out, using as many practical effects as you can, it's a tangible world, and I want it to feel emotional, and I want it to feel very practical. We got Christopher Nelson and his makeup team and an incredible effects team to do their best to bring this to life. We were asking for some pretty spectacular things and using a lot of old-school effects to achieve them, but it was really fun to do.
In the climactic sequence, there's a moment we call the Opera of Pain. It was a few days on set where it's all these little art projects of hands reaching out of walls, blood cracking out of the ceiling, and those types of things that you could have done 40 or 50 years ago in the exact same manner we're doing them today. There's something really satisfying about researching how great movies achieved what they achieved and following in those footsteps — not just The Exorcist but movies of all types throughout history.
Was there one little trick or technique you used here that you thought was particularly effective?
Christopher Nelson and his makeup team were looking to Dick Smith and the greats of makeup. They were trying to make the prosthetic demonic look of these young girls something they can actually accentuate through their own performance; they don't get lost in the makeup, and there's a lot of that. That stuff is especially apparent in the emotional attributes of the film.
You didn't just have spiritual advisors on set but also a "Spiritual Coordinator" to ensure the spiritual safety and mental and emotional wellbeing of the cast and crew, right?
Yeah, there were spiritual advisors for every religion represented. We had consultants to ensure we dealt with these religions respectfully and authentically. We also had an overall advisor who would do everything from burning sage to having a priest come in and bless the set or cleanse the set after we'd done something unsettling in that room. Some of it is for specific peace of mind for some people, but maybe also a little showmanship. Still, I always find it nice to put those best feet forward at bringing calm to the storms that we're shaking around in there, because I think you rustle enough of this energy up and you never know what can happen.
As the filmmaker who has become the custodian of evolving something so iconic, the journey is almost over. Is it a relief to be able to deliver this now? How does it feel?
I finished the movie about a week and a half ago, and I've been promoting the film ever since, so it's hard to have a perspective at this point. But it's a movie I'm really proud of. In some respects, when I watch it, I can't believe I got away with it. I followed my gut, and that's the thing. When you can preserve the integrity of your initial instincts, your voice, and your point of view through the obstacles and challenges every day that face you as a filmmaker, and then the politics and evolution of the post-production process, if you look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and say, "We f**king did it," that's pretty cool.