Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin on the Levitational Pull of “The Exorcism”

After years of writing screenplays together that they’d hand off to other filmmakers, Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin wondered just how dark they could get when it became clear that they’d have full control over “The Exorcism” with Miller in the director’s chair — in a literal sense as much as figuratively.

“All we ever talked about was Gordon Willis,” says Fortin, referencing the legendary cinematographer known as the “Prince of Darkness” for his work on “The Godfather” and “All the President’s Men.” “Early on, so many of our references were from “Klute” or even this small movie he directed himself called “Windows,” which is a totally bananas movie, but I mean, nobody did darkness better than him, and [darkness] was always part of the vision. As we were writing it, we knew we really wanted it to be something that started out light and just got darker and darker.”

While Miller and Fortin spare neither bleakness or pitch blackness in the hair-raising horror film, there is a ray of sunshine in their original spin on the genre, a story that Miller might’ve been literally born to tell when he’s the son of the late Jason Miller, the actor and playwright who famously played Father Karras in William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist.” However, that credential may be of less relevance than the savvy script that he and Fortin turned in for “The Final Girls,” which took the slasher film’s signature trope and gave it both great poignance and wit in the 2015 comedy where the daughter (Taissa Farmiga) of an actress (Malin Akerman) who suffered an untimely death gets the opportunity to help her survive when she finds herself in the thick of one of her films.

Miller’s directorial debut “The Exorcism” will instantly bring a smile to those familiar with the often cursed follow-ups that flooded theaters after the massive success of “The Exorcist,” whether they were sequels or knock-offs with greater scares often occurring behind the scenes than would make it in front of the cameras. Tony Miller (Russell Crowe) can’t care too much about the history when he’s offered a part in “The Georgetown Project” in “The Exorcism” and while it isn’t clear that he’s aware of what happened to the filmmakers’ first choice for the role who only spent a day on set, his reasoning to sign on would offer both a rare paycheck and a form of redemption after battling alcoholism, leading to an estrangement with his daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins). He’s able to get himself back in her good graces a slight bit by securing her a production assistant gig on the film after she’s suspended from school, but it’s an open question if he’ll make it through the shoot himself, at first resisting his director’s commands to completely tap into his dark side for the part of a tortured priest when it could trigger the darkest moments of his addiction and put any ground he’s made up with Lee in jeopardy, but then having to deal with the possibility that the production is haunted with satanic scrawling on the script pages and inexplicable mishaps on the set.

When nothing becomes more ominous than the title cards that announce another day of production on the film-within-a-film, “The Exorcism” actually makes anyone watching from the sidelines hope it’ll last a little longer as Miller and Fortin couple the tension of a cast and crew under pressure trying to make their days with the bewilderment at possibly inviting other devils besides unscrupulous producers onto the set, with “The Georgetown Project” filmmakers going so far as to ask the priest (David Hyde Pierce) they’ve brought in as a script consultant to start warding off evil spirits. In fact, “The Exorcism” is wicked, but only in the most entertaining of ways when Miller and Fortin’s knowledge of the genre runs deep and as much as some of the behind-the-scenes satire hits right in the gut, so too does the relationship between Tony and Lee as they look to get back on track, with Crowe and Simpkins both giving strong performances. The unusually well-crafted tonal tightrope between comedy, drama and horror is arriving in theaters this week and Miller and Fortin spoke about how they gave in to the temptation of making another meta-movie, drawing great actors to a genre not known for the juiciest parts and what fears, if any, they might’ve had to face in taking on the notorious legacy of possession films on a set of their own.

This is a very different film than “Final Girls,” but being very meta, were you at all resistant about going back into those waters?

Joshua John Miller: It was interesting. Kevin Williamson, who we first started having the conversation with about this movie, was a big fan of “Final Girls,” and it has a devout following and it continues to have a life, but we wanted to reach more people ideally, and there were some Hollywood machinations going on of, “Well, this formula worked [narratively],” so he [said], “What can we do to reach more people?” and “What would you want to do next that has the DNA of that movie?” And at first, I think to Mark that was like “uh-oh.”

M.A. Fortin: To me, it was a big no. [laughs]

Joshua John Miller: Yeah, and I said, “Well, is there a way to make them like cousins of each other, but do something that doesn’t just feel like reverse engineering, but a real story with real pathos. Once we found that there was a great interest in doing a meta movie that we could create and that we could direct, then how cool would that be to do a real dramatic story that wouldn’t just be a copy of “The Final Girls” or worse, a sad, faded facsimile.

Which you don’t usually see with meta movies since they lend themselves to comedy so well, but there’s a really moving idea at the center of this about an actor who can only perform well if he’s being honest with himself about his past failings. Was that idea there fairly early on?

Joshua John Miller: At first, we actually did think about doing a broader comedic version of it, but sitting with Kevin Williamson, it became evident that like, “Well, we’re never going to make ‘Scream.’ We can’t top that. And we also can’t top ‘The Exorcist,’ so why don’t we just lean into a more dramatic version of it?” I was connected to the original movie through my dad [Jason Miller, who played Father Karras], so it became quickly evident that that felt like the more soulful version to be in a kind of conversation with some of my own father’s demons and things that I observed as a young person and challenges he and I had in our relationship.

M.A. Fortin: And the movie has a number of moments of humor, but they’re mostly pretty dry. The tone of the movie really came to light, especially, the more we dug into research about what causes a possession and it always had to do with someone carrying around a wound. And when it became clear to us what Russell’s character’s wound was, we realized there’s certain kinds of humor that will be appropriate for this movie and others that won’t, because to a certain degree, some parts of the story have to be treated with the appropriate gravity.

The other thing that this has in common with “Final Girls” is a really deep bench of actors, and while I wouldn’t want to ask about the budget, is that something you think about structurally – both in terms of the ensemble nature and not a lot of locations?

Joshua John Miller: I don’t think we are thinking about that, but if you truly write a script that has characters that are rich and layered, you’re going to get the cast. Ultimately you will find those people because I don’t think there are that many great roles around and I think that people are hungry for it, so if people just actually commit to writing real character pieces with real pathos and layers, you can attract the talent and that’ll give you the money for the movie. Look, I don’t think we ever expected Russell Crowe to be in the movie…

M.A. Fortin: That’s for fucking sure. [laughs] When we were writing it, not a chance.

Joshua John Miller: When the studio said he read the script and wants to do it, I was like, “What?” I didn’t envision him in that role at first. And Neil Simon said this to me once when I was an actor — I worked with him a long time ago in a play — and he said, “Well, I don’t know who’s playing the role. The actor walks into the room and he tells me who I should cast. And then I know who this role should be played by.” And I think that’s real. You could have ideas, but ultimately they find you, and then you’re like, “Oh, wow, I never thought about this.”

M.A. Fortin: And the same pretty much applies to every other role. Ryan [Simpkins], Chloe [Bailey], David [Hyde Pierce], Sam [Worthington], Adam [Goldberg], all of them were just like, “Well, there it is.” We got extremely fortunate.

I always wonder with an acting background, is there anything you want to do for your actors as a director that you would’ve wanted yourself?

Joshua John Miller: I’ve been lucky to work with amazing directors as an actor — one of my first movies was “Near Dark,” with Kathryn Bigelow, so I got one of the most pleasurable experiences. [Mark] worked with some of the great theater directors and studied with [them], so what I wanted was [to create] a safe place because I think a lot of the material was sticky, especially the relationship between the young woman and her father and I wanted [Ryan] to feel safe as an actress, especially in some of the physical and emotional stuff. That was really important to me for the women to really feel that they could come to us and talk to us about anything. I didn’t always feel that in every professional situation I’ve had, not just as an actor, but as a writer and that wasn’t coddling them, but to create a place where they could create and feel free to try things and not feel that they were objects to be used for our vision.

With Russell, I think you just leave Russell alone and let him do his thing, and it was [about] a turn of the dial — modulations with him — and you don’t force him to do anything because you don’t want to see that reaction. You certainly stand up for your vision with him and you have to fight sometimes, but he likes a good debate, so [it was all about] creating a space that feels like play and people can try things creatively, that kind of Cassavetes environment where you can improvise, you can talk to us about changing a line, you can have a different way in, so it feels more like theater than film.

M.A. Fortin: Yeah, not being so married to what’s on the page to the point that it becomes dictatorial. Like Josh said, it was about letting it feel like it’s theirs, but also especially on days where some characters are doing some of the most fucked up stuff, really ensuring that there’s a sense of play and the lightness is there too and that it’s okay to laugh.

Joshua John Miller: I don’t think it’s so much the case now, but I think so many actors feel like second class citizens and that there’s some hierarchy and as the director, I try to approach it as “This is our film. We’re doing this together.”

This may be a dumb question, but I wonder when you’re shooting on a soundstage to be a soundstage in the film, does that actually make the production harder because you’ve got this entire other crew there on top of the whole apparatus you’re capturing on film?

Joshua John Miller: It was a bit weird because you had like two video villages…

M.A. Fortin: Yeah. Real crew, meta crew.

Joshua John Miller: In some ways, people in this movie bled the reality and fiction and it created this very strange atmosphere of, “Are we in the movie within the movie? Are we making a movie?” I think people were a little bit off balance and it was a bit eerie, our set, to be honest. All wonderful people, but it just was odd, more than anything, but hopefully that finds its way into the movie in some way.

Given the reputation that these films involving an exorcism have, which is touched on in your film quite a bit, did anything really spooky happen?

Joshua John Miller: I think when you make a movie in general, it’s scary enough. A movie in Hollywood is a deal with the devil and because a lot of the movie is inspired by our own horrifying experiences working in the Hollywood studio system, while nothing “demonic” happened, there’s a lot of demons. It’s just the nature of the world and navigating it, so I think the only cursed things that happened were people’s egos.

“The Exorcism” opens in theaters, including the Vista in Los Angeles, on June 21st.

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