Director William Brent Bell and his writing partner, producer Matthew Peterman, have been working together on low-budget film and TV projects for over a decade; but the duo is poised to have the next Paranormal Activity with their latest film, The Devil Inside. Due out on January 6, this faux documentary from Paramount's new micro-budget label Insurge Pictures tells the story of a young woman on a mission to learn all she can about exorcisms in order to discover what happened to her mother; who, in the process of being exorcized, killed three people. I caught up with Bell and Peterman earlier this week (on no less a day than Halloween), and the two told me about the long creation of their film, which was in pre-production before the first Paranormal Activity even came out. Read our conversation after the jump.
How did The Devil Inside come about?
Peterman: We read an article in 2006 maybe where the Vatican had actually started a school for exorcism that was open not just to priests but to regular people. That kind of got us started on the whole story. It was pretty amazing that they were actually teaching this, when for the longest time they had pushed exorcism away from the Catholic Church. So they were finally reintroducing it into the lexicon of what they did. And so we kind of wanted to do a story about these people that go to this school – some of who are young priests and what their point of view is, and some who aren't involved in religion at all.
Bell: That was a pretty interesting facet to it. Any of us could have gone and taken this class. It wasn't just the clergy. That's not saying you can go and get trained as an exorcist, but it's interesting that lay people could go and learn about this stuff.
We had the movie up and running and we thought we were going to make it – this was around the time the WGA strike happened; it kind of was a big stumbling block, as it was for so many movies. One of our good friends, who is our third partner on this film, his name's Morris Paulson, he kind of said, "Listen, if you guys are interested in trying to do this movie for a price, I have an idea that maybe we can take a step back and reinvent it as a documentary style film. So we went back and thought about it, because we weren't interested in just doing a single camera Cloverfield or some kind of really, raw movie…
Peterman: Or even found footage, like Blair Witch was or what Paranormal is now.
Bell: Yeah, we wanted to do something different. So we kind of came up with the idea to reinvent it as, at least for part of the movie, a pretty good semi-professional documentary that you might see on The History Channel. It was great for the story, because it allowed us to fine tune and focus on one character and show her story, about what happened to her mother.
Regarding the exorcism class… I'm curious about this because I was raised Catholic, and when I was a kid I was taught in school that exorcism a very rare, archaic ritual that hardly anyone in the Church knew anything about. Yet in the course of covering The Rite earlier this year, I was surprised to learn how the Church is now openly educating people about the subject.
Peterman: For a while it seemed the Church was trying to get away from that kind of stuff, because a lot of people looked at it as witchcraft and voodoo, and maybe it made the Church look a little stupid, that they were practicing these kinds of things. We interviewed a lot of priests and exorcists, and the thing about our movie is that after you see it, you'll notice we do interviews with experts. They're not actors – they're actually real people. We had a board-certified neurologist talk about stuff, and a metaphysicists and all those kinds of people. But the one person we couldn't get to come on camera was an exorcist. We talked to a bunch of them, and it's funny – how they're kind of even shunned within the Church now. You say it's widely accepted, and it is -- the Church has this class, and people can learn about it, and they're trying to get it out into the ether that the Devil is real and the Devil is present in society, and they're trying to get people to believe that. But at the same time, exorcists, even within the Catholic Church, are still kind of fighting that battle for respectability. So it's an interesting contrast within that community.
Bell: One thing that was kind of cool around this time was that a lot of the articles talking about that school kind of said part of the reason they took exorcism out from under a rock was because movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose came out, and were so well received it painted it in a pretty heroic light that the Church kind of felt they could be more open about exorcism again. Just like back during The Exorcist there was a big push, and it's kind of like they seem to react to the ebb and flow of public opinion towards what exorcism is. It's kind of funny that it was a horror film that had something to do with it.
Peterman: One of the things that we found interesting was that a lot of these movies… When you talk about exorcism there's always a big debate – is it mental illness or is it demonic possession. We're kind of used to that debate now and we try to take it one step further in our film. But what's also interesting about it, aside from whether it's mental illness or demonic possession, is who's even believing that within the Church. So people who are supposed to believe in exorcism and handle it and take care of it, aren't doing what they're supposed to do. So there's even a battle going on within the religious community, with the Catholic community. And we kind of touch on that as well, which we found unique and interesting.
Bell: One more little thing about that was in 1999 the Catholic Church changed the exorcism rite for the first time in four hundred years. So now they say that a priest, to be properly ordained, to be allowed to do an exorcism by a bishop, has to know unequivocally that the person who is supposedly possessed is possessed. But you can't really find out sometimes if somebody's really possessed until you start to perform an exorcism to find ways to instigate the demon. So it's really frustrating for priests because they kind of have one hand tied behind their back now.
Last year saw the release of The Last Exorcism, another found footage film about the topic; it was almost a kind of intimate, two-character play. Would you say your film is distinguished by its broader scope?
Peterman: Yeah, we of course had this up and going before The Last Exorcism or even before Paranormal Activity. And for the most part we wanted to take it outside the studio system or the Hollywood system altogether. We didn't even show our agents or managers the script, and wouldn't accept phone calls when people wanted to maybe help us. Because we had a bad experience on our last film, and we wanted this to be at least something we believed in a hundred percent. So in that respect I think that when we decided to do something that was like a real documentary – and we took a lot from Michael Moore's documentaries to some extent – we realized that right before we started going into production that Paranormal took off, and then we saw The Last Exorcism was getting made, and we just decided to keep our heads down and make this film and make it as good as possible so it would stand up on its own if it turns out the way we wanted it to. Which is hopefully what's happening to it; it looks like.
But yeah, we really, really get into what it is between religion and science. Even these exorcists in the film that perform these exorcisms, they also take a lot of care in monitoring these people with different types of medical apparatus. And in the scope of it, it's not a film that is set in America with a straightforward American cast. It's set in Rome; it's an international cast for the most part, and it lives within the Vatican. For us that's where exorcism really comes from. For me, America is more small church stuff, prayers of deliverance, that kind of thing. So we wanted to really hone in on what the real thing was, and instead of just having a sixty-five-year-old priest spouting off Latin, we want to help audiences understand what these guys are really saying and what it all meant. There's a lot of that in there, even more that's not in the film, which will be in other stuff. Hours and hours of things that explain the differences and the different types of things – it could be possession when it's really a mental illness and vice versa. It's a super deep topic.
How did you get involved with Paramount and come to be the first film under their Insurge Pictures banner?
Bell: We held onto the film; we really wanted it to be a pretty good cut. It was the first cut still, so it was pretty long before we showed it to our managers or anyone. So when we showed it to them, they said, "Let us show it to two guys." [One of which was Steven Schneider.] But we never really heard anything. And it was kind of a back and forth. They never really gave us a straight answer as to whether they liked it or not, but they were about to go into production on Paranormal Activity 2, and we found out later that they didn't take a good look at the movie actually. So that was in May, before the second Paranormal, so like a year and a half ago. That kind of frustrated us, because we said, "Wait a minute. Let's make sure the movie is perfect, or as perfect as we can make it." So we went back in and we kept editing for another four or five months, and then we had somebody on board, a foreign sales agent, who was great, and we were about ready to sign the deal with them, and this was the weekend Paranormal 2 came out. We had never met Steven Schneider face to face; we only had a couple of phone conversations. We'd really quit talking. So we texted him and said, "Congrats on breaking the record for Paranormal 2 for all time opening weekend," or whatever it was. He said, "Thanks! Whatever happened to your film?" We said, "We're about ready to make a deal with a foreign sales agent and try to do something with it." He said, "Can I look at it?" I said, "Well, we're making this deal quick and we don't have any time to show it to you. You have to do it before Wednesday, and this is Sunday." He was like, "I want to show it to a producer friend of mine." The producer friend was Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Of course we knew who he was, because he ran Warner Brothers and did amazing films. Now he's doing these huge films today, but he wanted to get into this small space – and do a film about exorcism evidently, that took place in Rome. So basically Steven called him up and said, "I have the movie you've been looking for." So we drove the movie over to Lorenzo's house that Monday, and he watched and then we were at Paramount the next day, and they both were on board as producers. Which was crazy, because we literally were about to make a deal just to get this thing out there and all of the sudden we had the guy behind Paranormal Activity and the guy behind Transformers. So we worked really closely with them for like three or four months, over the winter – it was a really great experience, very collaborative – on pulling together the film; we took about eight minutes out and really tightened the cut. Then in February of this year we did a big screening. We had to recruit an audience, and brought the Paramount people in, and they loved it and they bought it that week. Then we've been working with them ever since. Literally we're still doing tweaks with the movie today. It's great, because everybody just wants the best movie possible. Right now it's like arguing over the tiniest little cuts, but it's turned into a really good process.
Thank you both for your time.
Peterman: Thank you!