When The Last Exorcism Part 2 hit cinemas three years after the original found footage shocker that caused quite a stir and made a tidy profit off a very small budget, I got to sit down with the director of the sequel Ed Gass-Donelly and chat to himus about the influence of Rosemary’s Baby and working with star in the making Ashley Bell whose Nell is the only returning character from the original film.
Nell’s been through hell in The Last Exorcism already. What does The Last Exorcism Part 2 throw at her?
It starts directly after the events of the first movie and we find her out in the woods and nobody knows what happened to her. She’s put into a half way home and starts settling in and discovering who she is as a person. As she had such a strict religious upbringing and was home schooled, now she’s suddenly in New Orleans and can decide for herself what she’s going to wear or get tempted by things from make up to boys. It becomes this seduction where these seemingly innocent temptations start evolving and becoming darker. She starts slowly realising that whatever the force was that had a hold on her before is still with her and has darker plans in store for her.
You moved away from found footage for this sequel. Is this a statement on the sub-genre or just a better way to tell this story?
It’s less a statement about found footage in general but certainly I’m not a huge fan of that as a genre. I find it very limiting. I think it can be an effective tool for part of the movie. For me the biggest thing was the camera crew got killed at the end of the last movie. That style ended and now we’re into traditional cinema and following this character’s journey. Otherwise the whole plot would have had to be about another camera crew and it probably wouldn’t have been a movie I’d want to do.
You shot during the real Mardi Gras with a skeleton crew. Was there still a documentary vibe then when shooting?
We did like a splinter unit. Early on I spoke with the producer about doing the movie and we talked about there being no way we could be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and not film it! Knowing roughly when the schedule was I wrote it into the script. We got a little delayed initially. We’d only been in prep for a week or two but we specifically planned it that we would use a skeleton crew and try and be a bit more indie in our approach so we could embrace all the production value. The story is so much about Nell discovering the world and herself. To have her actually walking through these crowds of people and we’d do these things like where she’s literally walking through and touching these peoples costumes and it’s a very like sensual experience of her having this tactile relationship with the world she’s never seen before. To actually throw ourselves hard core into the real thing was like harking back to my first film which was very guerrilla and we would just shoot without permits and throw ourselves into the real world. So that was definitely in my comfort zone. Then once we get into the actual movie, we had full crew and proper gear.
You write, edit and direct your films. Is that cost restrictions or a desire to keep control?
It started out initially that I was the best editor that I could afford. When I was doing completely no budget stuff, I didn’t know great editors that would come and work on the movie for free. More importantly, why I can do the multiple jobs is that at a certain point, I really don’t give a shit what Ed the director wanted. I’m like well how can I make the best movie out of what I have. There’s all these times when you make mistakes in any of your films and it’s like well how do I turn this into something completely different or how do I discover meaning that was never there. I’m willing to throw out my favourite scene if it makes the movie better. On Small Town Murder Songs I completely changed the ending in the edit suite. That just came out of being honest with myself. The ending I shot didn’t quite work and didn’t quite follow through on the thematic promise so I looked at it objectively and tried to make the best movie. Some people can get so caught up in something being exactly the way they had originally intended it. I think on my next movie I might work with another editor, hopefully with a budget to get an editor whose work I really love. So certainly initially financial limitations can be a big part of doing all those jobs.
Small Town Murder Songs was compared to the Coen Brothers’ films. Roman Polanski is one of your favourite directors. Who influenced The Last Exorcism Part 2?
Rosemary’s Baby was definitely a reference for us for this. We tried to make a very restrained, coming of age character driven story that is scary as opposed to a straight up horror movie. I really love Polanski and The Tenant and the sense of restraint and dread that he does so well. Rosemary’s Baby really is about dread and fear and holding back. I find that personally much scarier and more interesting than just straight up gore. When I agreed to do the movie I bought three original one-sheet posters and had them put on my wall and they were The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. You know even The Exorcist has 45 minutes go by before shit really hits the fan. I like the idea of restraint.
It’s a much bigger role for leading lady Ashley Bell, how was it working with her?
She was great! For me one of the key discoveries when writing the script was that we really didn’t get to know from the first movie who the character of Nell was. She was a supporting character in the first movie and also we never knew objectively whether what we saw was actually her or was the demon controlling her and putting on an act. So when Ash and I started talking, we were really just trying to get down to figure out who this girl is and just embrace this idea of this girl with such a big heart but who lived such a sheltered life and just experiencing this whole other world. Ash loves that character so much and just really wanted to do right by her. She worked so hard, it was really quite an amazing commitment. She’s in practically every scene of the movie so it was physically and emotionally draining but she was really such a trooper and a joy to work with. She was always throwing herself into it.