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INTERVIEW: “THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER,” Director David Gordon Green’s unholy mission

Tuesday, October 10, 2023 | Interviews


On December 26, 1973, the face of horror cinema changed forever with the release of The Exorcist. Directed by maverick auteur William Friedkin, fresh from the critical and box office success of 1971’s The French Connection, and based on William Peter Blatty‘s bestselling novel, the film is the story of Regan MacNeil (played by Linda Blair), an innocent 12-year-old girl who is possessed by a demon, and her movie star mother’s desperate mission to save her daughter’s life.

An immediate and unexpected if not controversial hit for Warner Bros. The Exorcist set box-office records, with crowds lining up for blocks to see a shocking and unflinchingly theistic battle of good versus evil fought on the battlefield of a child’s soul. Punctuated by flawless performances by stars Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller and the nauseatingly realistic makeup effects of the legendary Dick Smith, The Exorcist left audiences shellshocked. Replete with subtext and serious themes of faith and redemption, Friedkin’s film proved that horror movies had grown up.

Fifty years later, fans and critics regard The Exorcist as one of the most frightening films ever made. However, the original film’s legacy on the big screen has been problematic. The unkindest cut (also the first) came in 1977 with the release of  John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, an unabashedly batshit sequel lambasted by William Friedkin as “the worst piece of crap I’ve ever seen.” 

The franchise lay dormant until 1990’s Exorcist III, written and directed by Blatty and based on his tangential Exorcist sequel novel Legion. A brilliant but flawed horror film, Exorcist III suffered at the hands of studio executives who demanded that Blatty tack on an entirely unmotivated (and unnecessary) exorcism sequence. The less said about the double-headed debacle of Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, released in 2004 and 2005, respectively, the better. 

Now, David Gordon Green, the director behind Blumhouse’s wildly successful yet polarizing Halloween legacy sequels finds himself as the caretaker of one of the most beloved horror properties of all time with THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER, a direct follow-up to the original film that sees Ellen Burstyn reprise her Oscar-nominated role as Chris MacNeil. Since THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER topped the North American box office, earning $27.2 million in its first weekend, Green is no doubt breathing a sigh of relief. However, in this interview conducted just over a week ago, Green was still very much in post-production mode.

Thanks for speaking with RUE MORGUE. How’s it going?

Alright. It’s kind of weird energy when this is day one of talking about a movie that I just finished a week ago. So it’s a little surreal.

So you’re cutting it close with this one.

Well, yeah. I don’t know how they come up with these release dates. Nobody asked me!

Of course, this year marks the 50th anniversary of The Exorcist – a landmark movie and also sort of a rite of passage for horror fans. Do you remember the first time you saw the film? What effect did it have on you?

Yeah, I do. I was 15 years old, and my parents had sent me to a Jesuit Catholic prep school for a year. They were very strict about the content. I was always sneaking movies. I love movies of all sorts, but this is one that they said, “hell, no.” 

You could go to the public library, and they didn’t card you. You could check out VHS tapes or watch them in the cubicles with your headphones on. That’s how I watched it. And so just to not set off any alarms, I probably watched it in 20-minute segments. It hit me at a time that was very vulnerable due to where I was going to school and the intake of movies I’d watched. I think I had a very different expectation because of the horror films that were out then, which were for me, at that time, the Elm Street and Friday the 13th and Halloween movies. So this was very different. It got under my skin, and it affected me in a different way.

Speaking of the Halloween movies, obviously, that’s a franchise you’ve been intimately involved with for the past few years. With those films and now with The Exorcist, do you have moments when the responsibility of being the caretaker of two iconic horror legacies hits you? Is that intimidating?

I don’t know that it’s intimidating. It’s definitely funny. If you told this kid in Dallas, Texas, when he was 16 years old, he’d be messing around with these iconic characters and taking them on his journey rather than theirs – I think it’s pretty cool. So for me, I always just look at these [movies] as an opportunity. And it’s fun when you can take something as iconic and internationally known as The Exorcist, and make it really personal and intimate. I can’t think of a better way to do that.

(from left) Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) and Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

How do you make a film like THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER your own while remaining true to the original film and everything that makes it legendary?

I think it’s just taking a few things like Ellen Burstyn and “Tubular Bells” – a few things that I felt were essential ingredients. I just had a weird little subjective wish list of things that I’d like to do, but trying not to necessarily emulate because I think it would be impossible to recreate what that movie meant in culture in 1973 in this day and age when everybody knows what an exorcism is. We’ve all seen The Exorcist movies. A lot of our horror audience is desensitized to some of the elements that were extraordinarily shocking in the day. So my job just becomes trying to be a steward, bridging the nostalgia and the love and respecting the monument that the original film was with a new audience – trying to create something that a new audience would see, regardless of if they’ve seen or even heard of the original film, but if you do, it makes it all the more special. 

I’m hopeful that young audiences can see this movie and then look back in time and watch a movie from 1973 that they may otherwise have missed. That’s an important part, I think, seeing where the influences are, where they come from and what creates that DNA.

Olivia O’Neill as Katherine in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

One of the really interesting elements in THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER is that much of the strictly Catholic interpretation of demonic possession is set aside for a more universal take on religion and spirituality. Tell me about that decision to go in that direction.

I grew up going to a Presbyterian church on Sunday. I think at that point in my life I started to see in sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic ways how another belief system operates. It opens your eyes and it makes you ask even more questions of who you are, where you come from and what you believe. And then, what if this is it? This is who I am? And this is what they are? Then who are they down the street? What’s that church all about? And so, at the age of 15, I was really curious. I still am just nosy and curious. And when someone has a different ideology or different theology than I do, then I always want to know more. And I always feel like, for me, as the person wondering what’s out there, and what happens when I love to hear stories and read mythologies and consider all the infinite, fantastic possibilities. This movie is kind of a response to that curiosity of what if it wasn’t just the priest or the white collar?

I detect a somewhat hidden message about religious trauma in the film. Is that a valid interpretation?

It’s certainly out there for you to read into it. And I love the ambiguity of having conversations about that type of thing because I see it in the world and the research I’ve done and in the world I inhabit and in the concept of possession and potential possession. Yeah, some of what I think this movie has to offer are these perspectives and considerations, but I also like to make sure that I’m not criticizing anyone’s faith. 

You know, I work on an HBO comedy series called The Righteous Gemstones. It also deals with religious characters. I think one of the rules that we have on that show and in this film, as well, is we can go hard at the characters, but we don’t ever want to condescend or poke fun or be disrespectful of something that someone believes, and I do feel that way – as much as conflict might bring perspective of how to deal with this possession in a dramatic narrative in a movie. That’s part of the fun. And then, we’re not going to insult somebody’s belief on the way to get there. In fact, I’m trying to [include] things like rootwork. I live in South Carolina, so it’s more of a Lowcountry type of healing practice that’s not as common and certainly not commonly used in movies. But even looking into hoodoo and voodoo cultures, as their representative movies can often be hostile or aggressive or negative. Here, I’m trying to show a little bit more of a peaceful blessing. Even the woman in the opening of the film giving the blessing of protection is a real voodoo priestess from Haiti. Integrating religious views was important to me to be able to find that authenticity and make it a movie that, regardless of your perspective, you would feel respected.

(from left) Ellen Burstyn and director David Gordon Green on the set of The Exorcist: Believer.

Ellen Burtstyn’s return as Chris McNeil is really exciting, especially since the original film was so famously traumatic, emotionally and physically, for nearly everyone involved in it but especially Ms. Burstyn. How much input did she have behind the scenes? 

We talked a lot about it. She’s an icon. She was very skeptical – as you would be. And she turned down many, many offers to recreate the role. It was a chance to sit down with her and talk to her about what’s meaningful and what her life and her path have been since the success of that original film. 

In my pitch to her, a lot of what this iteration of Chris MacNeil would be was the evolution of what happened to her in the 50 years following the exorcism in Georgetown. I think bringing her personal perspective into it was important, and keeping her as a very close creative collaborator on who Chris is at this point, and what had happened – what had befallen her relationship with Reagan. Those were fun explorations, and there were no immediate answers. 

It was a lot of consideration and a phone call. And then, “I’ll talk to you next week and think about it.” It was cool. It was a really inspiring relationship that we had. I remember pitching her ideas early before I’d written it and had a treatment for my pitch. She was like, “Wait a minute! You’re not going to kill me, are you?” Having those types of conversations makes it really fun.

(from left) Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

Did she have any insight into where Chris is 50 years after the events of the original film?

Oh, yeah. And she was very involved in the art direction of her house. In fact, we’ve kind of cut it so you barely see it, but there’s the arm of a couch that was in the original film that she thinks Chris would have carried with her that Ellen actually took from set dressing into her apartment in 1973. And we imported it to Georgia for our film. So that kept it personal, kept it meaningful – little artifacts and attributes of her life and career. That was just part of the playful fun we had.

Tell me about your cast, especially the two young actors who are at the heart of this film. What are the challenges of directing kids in these horrifying circumstances? Of course, you didn’t put them through what William Friedkin put Linda Blair through as a kid, did you?

I tried, but we had Linda Blair as a consultant! We’d all heard rumors of those stories. And for me, it was important to invite her into that conversation because I didn’t want to recreate that. I’m very different in my process. In fact, my process is very playful. We can go to dark places, but I still want to have a good time and work with collaborators I trust who have a positive energy on set. 

Lidya [Jewett] and Olivia [O’Neill] are just incredible, intuitive performers. By the time you’ve done two and a half hours of makeup and done your schooling and are adhering to the limited hours of underage actors, you have a very limited window, so you have to look at this as some sort of interpretive dance concept. You have to embrace their physicality because you go from the playful, good-natured sweetheart girls to a really dark, disturbing emotional place very quickly. So we surround them with psychologists and parents and teachers and the crew. The crew was there to embrace them. But they were actually the ones that brought levity to our set. They’re the ones that did shine through in times of our frustration and darkness. They were there with energy and joy.

(from left) Angela Fielding (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

Tell me a little bit more about Linda Blair’s input.

It began as an outreach call to say, “Hey, we’re making a movie. You’re a very big part of where this franchise began, and we want to know you.” I’m stepping into terrain that’s new for me. I’ve worked with a lot of kids in a lot of movies, but this is something that’s emotional and potentially upsetting and disturbing. I don’t want to subject anyone to the trauma that could potentially have repercussions that I hear you’ve had, and what can we do better? What can we do differently? So it was her saying, let’s get a child psychologist that has expertise with that, you know, find a safe way to go to dangerous places. She was very much our supporter and helped us get to a place where I thought we get authentic emotional performances out of these girls without torturing them too badly.

In the years since the release of the original The Exorcist, there have been prequels and sequels – some pretty bad, and one notoriously bad. However, Exorcist III, written and directed by William Peter Blatty, has been embraced as an initially overlooked masterpiece. Why ignore a film written and directed by the original’s creator?

I wouldn’t say we ignore the film. This is not like Halloween, where we erase the narrative of other movies that follow the original. We just don’t bring it into our story. I’ve seen Exorcist III half a dozen times. I love it. I’m not sure that we do anything that depletes that narrative.

This isn’t resetting, and we didn’t do that. I mean, there are things in the TV series that wouldn’t make any sense with what we’ve done. But as far as the movies, they’re big swings. I mean, say what you will, they’re all crazy and interesting. Everybody’s opinion of II, III and beyond are valid, but most people do, at this point, have a good appreciation for some of the elements – obviously, that jumpscare in three and some of the monologues that are brilliantly written and Blatty’s work. I certainly would never want to say anything negative about any of those movies where, with the Halloween movies, sometimes, I’ll roll my eyes a little bit. I didn’t even finish a couple [of them]. But I even admire what Boorman did, man. Boorman went for it, and he made something wild.

I wouldn’t know how to acknowledge that within that we did. I just thought that would make it complicated. Maybe it’s because I’m lazy, but I just thought the first one should be a clean-cut narrative. Let’s just take it from there without making it too messy.

Would you perhaps be interested in picking up some of those narrative strands from Exorcist III and using them in a future installment?

I had never thought of that,  but I did just see when I was flipping through Amazon the other day that it’s on. I might check it out. Brad Douriff is amazing in that movie – really incredible stuff.

(from left) Olivia O’Neill and director David Gordon Green on the set of The Exorcist: Believer.

Finally, Miramax has put the film rights for Halloween back on the block, so it’s likely that we haven’t reached that franchise’s end quite yet. How do you feel about that?

I just heard that today. But I’m gonna check in because I’ve got a big convention this weekend. I’m gonna get everybody in a headlock and be like, “Tell me what’s really happening!” That’s certainly been the buzz at the junket here. So I’m really curious. I did a children’s book of Halloween with the rights holders, Trancas International Films and Malek Akkad. And those guys are awesome. I think they made them pop by the hotel here today. It will be fun to see them, and I can’t wait to see what they’re cooking up. I don’t know that I’ll be involved in it, but maybe – I don’t know.

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER from Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions is now playing in theaters.


William J. Wright
William J. Wright is RUE MORGUE's online managing editor. A two-time Rondo Classic Horror Award nominee and an active member of the Horror Writers Association, William is lifelong lover of the weird and macabre. His work has appeared in many popular (and a few unpopular) publications dedicated to horror and cult film. William earned a bachelor of arts degree from East Tennessee State University in 1998, majoring in English with a minor in Film Studies. He helped establish ETSU's Film Studies minor with professor and film scholar Mary Hurd and was the program's first graduate. He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife, three sons and a recalcitrant cat.