As a writer and director, Scott Derrickson has distinguished himself with versatility and ambition, even when working in the same genre. From The Exorcism of Emily Rose to Sinister to now Deliver Us From Evil, there’s a sophistication and a uniqueness to these projects; in fact, the only element they really share is that they’re genuinely scary. Perhaps it’s that quality that brought Derrickson to the attention of Marvel, which has tapped him to direct Doctor Strange.
With his latest project in particular, Derrickson finds himself in the catbird seat as he is poised to take advantage of the success of last year’s The Conjuring with a film that promises to chill audiences while managing to communicate a clear, proficient voice behind the camera.
Based on a true story, Deliver Us From Evil stars Eric Bana as Ralph Sarchie, a Bronx cop who’s pulled into a case that a renegade priest (Edgar Ramirez) convinces him involves possession by evil spirits.
Speaking to Spinoff Online at WonderCon Anaheim, Derrickson offered some new details about his film, a horror story based on true events. In addition to talking about how the material’s “real” origins affected his approach to creating suspense, he discussed his collaboration with two incredible ensembles, one behind the lens and the other in front, and finally reflected on the progression of his career and where he expects, and wants for it to take him.
Spinoff Online: How did your approach to this differ from the other sort of horror projects that you did, because this comes from sort of a disbelieving point of view, based in reality?
Scott Derrickson: There’s some definite skepticism going on with the main character, and what was interesting to me about the movie from the beginning was that the real Ralph Sarchie was a complete skeptic – a lapsed Catholic and he was encountering a kind of evil in the real world every night. He worked in the most dangerous precinct in the country at the time in the South Bronx. And this foul-mouthed Italian tough undercover cop would be the guy to begin to believe in these things because of the things he was experiencing, because of the cases he was working. I just thought that was so fascinating. And that he would follow that path all the way to the point of working with an exorcist. I think that’s a story that’s worth telling, and he’s in real life a larger-than-life character. So for me it was always about that character.
How does that change the way that you characterize the actual scares? Is it all the same technique, or do you have to approach it from a different way?
You always have to approach it in a different way, because the audience gets savvy to certain tricks of the trade so you want to try to mix it up a little bit. But I think that for me I always try to build the methodology of suspense sequences out of the characters. And the characters are always different, and they’re different characters in different movies. The scenes with Sean Harris in this movie are really harrowing, and Sean Harris is unbelievably good in the movie, and because of who he was and who he was as an actor, it changed the way that I approached all of the scenes with him. Because of the kind of actor that Eric is and that Edgar is, you have to try to make sure that you’re not just stopping the character drama to then create a horror film. You have to stay with those characters and you have to stay shooting them in a style that fits the movie that you’re making about them, about those characters first. That’s always the approach that I take. And so everything’s always a little bit different.
In a more general sense, how did you approach this directorially? We’re now finally seeing from a movie like The Conjuring that there is a real appetite for a more polished approach to horror storytelling.
It’s a good question, that the horror genre of the last 10 years has been defined by extreme low-budget, and then there’s some movies where we didn’t have a big budget. But we did spend some money, and certainly Jerry [Bruckheimer, the producer] has a market-y style to his films to always being polished and kind of glossy. And we decided that we would shoot the movie in the Bronx, which is a very cinematic place, and Jerry’s contribution I think was in helping me vet the key crew members for the movie. And we got Scott Kevan, our DP, who brought a visual look to it that’s different than anything I can remember. Our production designer did Wolf of Wall Street and Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, and so we really wanted to bring a look to the movie that did drag it out of that low-budget film, scary film world and introduced you to these characters in a police world that felt like a bigger movie frankly than it even is. But I want to see horror getting a little bit more respect when it comes to the budgets than the amount of money that Hollywood is spending on them. Because they’re making great returns. We should be investing a little bit more into the production value of those movies.
Also it seems that horror directors or genre directors in general get sort of ghettoized into like continuing to do those. You’ve ventured outside of horror, but at this point in your career do you feel like you’re in your wheelhouse without sort of conceding to expectations to do this kind of material?
I used to think strategically about it. I don’t think that way anymore. My attitude now is I approach every movie as though it’s going to be my last movie. Because one day it will be! And I think that you have to follow your gut instinct from picture to picture and just make sure that the movie you’re stepping up to is something that you think you have a shot at making something great out of. And certainly it’s something that stirs passion in me as a director. If you don’t have that you shouldn’t do it. And I’ll do things that are not in the horror genre, but I’ll go back to the horror genre also. I’ll do both. I certainly think I’m going to stay within the kind of genre film – action films and thrillers and suspense movies and horror and science fiction. These are the movies I love the most – when they’re good. When they’re truly done well there’s nothing I’d rather see.
Deliver Us From Evil opens July 2.