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“THE EXORCISM” Interview, Part One: Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin on making meta-horror, the long road to release and more

Monday, June 24, 2024 | Interviews


Currently in release from Vertical, THE EXORCISM takes a meta approach to the possession subgenre–no surprise, since it was written by Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin of the self-referential slasher THE FINAL GIRLS, with Miller making his directorial debut. The duo talked to RUE MORGUE about the movie’s inspirations, its lengthy history and more.

THE EXORCISM first went before the cameras under the title THE GEORGETOWN PROJECT in late 2019, before THE POPE’S EXORCIST (with which it shares star Russell Crowe) and THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER had even been announced. It takes place on and around the set of “The Georgetown Project,” evidently a remake of THE EXORCIST–in which Miller’s father Jason Miller starred. Adding to the meta levels, Crowe plays an actor named Andrew Miller, whose career succumbed to his personal addictions and who is now attempting a comeback by playing the film-within-the-film’s priestly hero. Meanwhile, his estranged daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins, who discusses THE EXORCISM here) returns and attempts to help her father in his struggle to stay on the wagon. Lee begins a relationship with her father’s co-star Blake Holloway (Chloe Bailey), and the two women also wind up helping to fend off an actual demon that takes over Andrew. The queer themes were important to life partners Miller (who began his career as a child actor, in films like NEAR DARK and RIVER’S EDGE) and Fortin, who had another gay horror auteur, Kevin Williamson, on board as a producer.

Joshua, how much of the film is autobiographical, and how did you adapt your own life and experiences into the script?

JOSHUA JOHN MILLER: Autobiographical is a strong word, I would say. I think it is fair to say that a lot of it was inspired by my dad, who was an actor and was in THE EXORCIST and struggled with addiction, so there’s a lot of inspiration there for sure. And also, honestly, from some of my own challenges with those same things: Being in the movies, my own addictions, my own proverbial demons.

Did you spend any time with your father on movie sets?

MILLER: Well, where THE EXORCIST is concerned, I wasn’t born when that was made. I was probably conceived during the press tour [laughs], so the stories I had from THE EXORCIST were things my father would talk about or my mom would tell me. She had a very superstitious feeling about the movie, and sort of thought it was haunted and cursed. My dad, depending on his mood, believed in that less. He felt those were just fantastical musings that people had, and they weren’t rooted in any sort of veracity regarding what actually happened.

How did you come up with the concept for THE EXORCISM, and flesh it out from stories about the making of THE EXORCIST?

MILLER: It was very much rooted in wanting to tell a story about my father, who would be Mark’s father-in-law of sorts if he was still alive; my dad died very tragically at 62, and I believe a lot of his demons got the best of him. So in some ways this movie is a portrait of him, and making movies, and being around that experience. People ask, “Do you always choose to do projects that are meta?” and I would argue that we just make movies about stories we want to tell, and often, as of late, they’ve been about making films and creating art, so it has just sort of happened that way.

Mark, what experiences of yours did you bring to the script?

M.A. FORTIN: There were a couple of things specifically. For both of us, making any film, especially within the larger studio system, can be hellacious, and we had been through an especially hellacious experience on something before THE EXORCISM. I think we purging a few things about that, because it was kind of an abusive situation; it was demeaning. The less said about it, the better.

The other thing I personally brought to the movie was having a bone to pick with the Catholic Church about the way they, specifically evangelicals, talk about queer people, as though they are outside of God’s design. When you’re playing in the sandbox of the exorcism subgenre, the majority of the time, those movies treat the Church as Teflon; it’s gold-plated, and it’s a source of salvation, full stop and that’s that. And speaking for myself and my experiences growing up, I believe faith is a beautiful thing and I think religion can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be a weapon, and more often than not, I felt the weaponized aspect of it.

So if we were going to make a movie within the exorcism subgenre that was going to turn some things on their heads–for example, the gender of the person being taken over–it felt right to have a conversation about that. We weren’t interested in polemicizing anything, but rather in allowing for queer people to simply exist within the world of the movie, which in its own way felt radical. Maybe some people will watch it and be like, “Whatever” and just shrug, and maybe some people who are more devout are going to clutch their pearls. We don’t really know.

How did Russell Crowe wind up taking the lead role?

MILLER: He got cast in the conventional way: It was given to his agent, and I believe that in this chapter of his career, he was looking to do more villains, and stuff that felt different. He’s always been the hero, and this was a fun mix of both. I remember the first phone call we had with him was very intense [laughs]; he was very silent for a long time, and then he spoke in this deep baritone, and he was very measured with his words. He’s very methodical about his process and about how he chooses what to do, and almost microscopic about analyzing every aspect of the character and the film. I found that challenging, in a good way, because he forces you to be at your best; you’d better be on your game, or otherwise he’ll eat you for lunch. He said, “Filmmaking is in the details,” and what I learned from him was that he’s absolutely right; it’s all a mosaic, and every little piece is of value.

Obviously Kevin Williamson is well-known for meta horror, so how did he become involved, and what did he contribute creatively to THE EXORCISM?

MILLER: He was very much involved with the movie, from the beginning. The whole idea was birthed out of a conversation with Kevin; he’s a big fan of THE EXORCIST, and had just seen THE FINAL GIRLS and really liked it, and wanted to support us as storytellers. I think he also wanted to support other queer filmmakers, and help them have a moment.

There are credits at the end of the movie for shoots in New York, Los Angeles and Australia, in addition to the main production in Wilmington, NC. What did you film in all those far-flung locations?

MILLER: Well, the movie got caught up in the pandemic, so at different stages we could not get everybody together. During the postproduction, it was very complicated finishing it because of where Russell lived, where Ryan lived, where we were in Europe. We had to find a middle ground to make up some lost scenes.

The big house set used by the characters is truly impressive, and a great, meaningful visual.

MILLER: That will always remain one of my favorite parts of the movie–or favorite characters, I would say. The origins of that were rooted in a film history book I read when I was a kid studying film, at around 16 or 17. On the cover was a production still from THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK that was shot on the studio lot, and they had constructed the entire building where Anne Frank hid in the attic, from the first floor all the way up to the top. It was a bisected, open set, and I always thought that was the most magical image of filmmaking. It enchanted me–this world within a world. When we originally wrote THE EXORCISM, I always imagined that being one of the first images, and I thought it could be haunting and strange, and capture the fantasyland of the art of making film. Also, Adrian Pasdar, who’s in the opening scene with that set, is connected to me, because one of the first films I was in was Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK, so it was a bit of an Easter egg for that.

Can you talk about conceiving and staging the exorcism scene, which has a different approach than many we’ve seen before?

MILLER: Well, it’s the set of an exorcism movie, right? So that’s the way we tried to subvert the expectations of an exorcism scene. It was cool to be able to do an exorcism within an exorcism, in a sense, and to comment on the tropes. We’re telling the audience, as Lee is walking up to the set, that this is a movie exorcism, these are the rules, you’re watching a movie within a movie. We hoped, with her entrance into that space, to subvert what we normally see in movies of this kind, since you have to have an exorcism at the end of an exorcism film.

FORTIN: And given the meta-horror aspect of this movie, I believe meta-horror is inherently queer. And with a character like Lee, for us it just felt right, the idea that she had to continue stepping into further levels of the Russian nesting doll to get to the belly of the beast.

After you’d shot your film, was there a sense of concern when THE POPE’S EXORCIST and THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER came along, especially with Crowe starring in POPE’S EXORCIST?

MILLER: You know, at first you’re wanting to tear your hair out, and just go, “What the fuck is happening?” And then you’re like, “The world’s attention span is that of a gnat. I don’t think people who go to horror movies, who are under 25, will give a shit.” It’s like, who cares, right? But then the next thought I had was, “Well, this is kind of cool.” I haven’t seen THE POPE’S EXORCIST, just clips of it, and I’m sorry, I don’t think that movie has a lot on its mind other than to only entertain. There’s certainly a place for that, but our movie is serious–maybe too serious, who knows?–and is about something, and has themes. You know, you do the best you can, and you don’t look behind you. You just keep moving forward.


Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).