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Cool Conversations/Interviews

Scott Derrickson, Director and writer of
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
September 8, 2005

Scott Derrickson is a talented Hollywood writer and director ... and he also happens to be a Christian. Let's be honest ... some people wonder if the two can co-exist. That's a little of what I'll talk with Scott about in this interview.

You may not agree with everything he says, but I think you'll be interested in how he is using the horror genre to provoke people to think about spiritual issues.

Scott graduated from Biola University with a degree in Humanities, a second degree in Communications, and a minor in Theological Studies. He also graduated from the University of Southern California with a Masters Degree in Film Production.

Scott recently directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which he co-wrote with Paul Harris Boardman. Scott recently worked with Paul adapting the book Beware The Night for Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, as well as penning a science fiction epic for director Martin Scorsese. But that's not all. Derrickson (alongside Boardman) penned the screenplays for The Church of the Holy Ghost and Darkness Falling, with Derrickson attached to direct both films. Derrickson and Boardman wrote the screenplays for Disney's spiritual thriller Mystic, Ghosting for Dimension Films, Future Tense for Artist Production Group, Urban Legends: Final Cut for Phoenix Pictures; and Hellraiser: Inferno, which Derrickson also directed.

Derrickson lives in Glendale, California with his wife and two sons.

JONATHAN: First, I have to tell you, I attended a screening of your film last night and I really enjoyed it. Well ... I don't know if "enjoy" is the word. The film was excellent ... and it scared the living snot out of me. Does that connote enjoyment?

SCOTT: (laughing) I guess.

JONATHAN: Seriously. It was very good.

SCOTT: Thanks. I'm glad you liked it—that's great.

JONATHAN: Yeah, going into the theatre I really didn't know what to expect because I haven't seen any of your other pictures ... but Emily Rose was excellent. (CLICK HERE FOR JONATHAN'S REVIEW OF THE FILM) Now I'm really curious and want to rent some of your earlier stuff.

So let's talk briefly about your career in Hollywood. You're a Hollywood writer and director whose prior films that you worked on are NOT Chariots of Fire, or even Herbie or Winn Dixie ... they're Hellraiser: Inferno, one of the Urban Legends films, and now The Exorcism of Emily Rose. So ... are Christian's boycotting you yet? Are you from the spawn of "Teletubbies" as far as Falwell is concerned? How are Christian's reacting to you?

SCOTT: Well, I think early on in my career I created quite a bit of head scratching amongst Christians because I think there was an assumption that if a Christian was going to work in this industry it would be to promote family friendly entertainment, that sort of thing.

JONATHAN: Sure, I could see that being an expectation.

SCOTT: But I think that it's not hard for a lot of young Christians to understand why a Christian should be making genre movies. And the horror genre not only being an acceptable genre but the best genre for a Christian to be involved in because it is such a great genre for dealing with spiritual ideas.

JONATHAN: Yep. And I read your "2 cents" about the horror genre in some of your earlier interviews. But for those who haven't heard that, tell us. Why horror?

SCOTT: Well there's a number of things that I find uniquely compelling about the horror genre as a Christian. I think that it's definitely the most open and appropriate for religious, theological and spiritual subject matter. A lot of horror films not only allow for that, they necessitate that. I think that horror is also the best genre for identifying and defining good and evil. Almost all horror films are in some form a commentary on good and evil. I love the fact that evil is defined and taken seriously in most horror films. Even "slasher" movies—I love the fact that it's the only genre where murder is "horrific." I think that's a good thing. It reinforces our ideas of good and evil.

For me personally, my favorite thing about the genre is that I consider it the genre of non-denial. You know- I think a lot of Hollywood movies are about escaping reality. And what I love about the horror genre is that it's about confronting realities; confronting realities that are difficult to confront; facing things that frighten us. It's a genre that makes us admit to ourselves that there is evil in the world, evil in ourselves and evil in nature. And a lot of times it's evil that we can't control. And it's important for Christians to reckon with their hesitant and fearful feelings about that.

JONATHAN: So how do you balance that with "immitatable behavior." In other words, there are certain films out there that you watch many of Adrian Lynn's films (Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful) and you respond, "Wow, I never want to have an affair." You don't want to do the "bad behavior." There's a lesson to be learned from the story told. But if you watch other films where you can't even differentiate the good and the bad, the hero might be the bad guy or have terrible values and we as the audience sit in our seats going, "Cooooool! I want to kick butt like this guy." So how do you balance keeping that good and evil "black and white?"

SCOTT: I think the way I like to think of the issue is not so much in the terms of black and white but in terms of identifying evil accurately—both evil and the repercussions and consequences of evil behavior. And I think that it's important to—for the most part—portray evil as something that is repulsive. That evil acts are repulsive. That acts of violence are repulsive. They should be disturbing.

The only exception to that rule is when you are creating a character or telling a story that involves the seductive power of evil and attraction of evil, in which case I think it's important to really CAREFULLY demonstrate that. But that probably only has merits in so far as the audience is going to be able to understand that seductive evil can be attractive. When I saw Triumph of the Will, the Nazi propaganda film, it was a horror film if there ever has been one. It was a movie that was capturing the most horrific movement of the last century. And yet, when I watched it, I understood how exciting it must have been to be a Nazi at that time, the euphoria of it, the pride of it, the power of it, the seductive allure of it. And I think that movies should illuminate the fact that evil is dangerous because it's seductive or that evil is dangerous because it is horrible and repulsive.

JONATHAN: So if you're going to show the "enticement" of sin- which is realistic, sin can be enticing, if you're going to show that ... do you make sure and show the consequences?

SCOTT: I think that the way your describing it is approaching the process backwards. I think that what you have to do as a Christian writer—this is true of any writer—but is also true for a Christian writer—you can't start with your moral agenda. You can't start off with your moral intention for how you're going to instruct and direct the audience's understanding. What you have to do is tell the truth about any particular story. The truth of the matter is—and the Bible has examples of this—the truth of the matter is sometimes the bad guys win. And there have been good movies about that. And the Bible has stories like that. And yet they can be done in such a way that the audience understands what's happening. What I'm definitely against doing, what I DON'T want to do ... I don't want to ever confuse the audience's notions of good and evil. I do think that some films can do that by becoming too ironic or by making evil behavior too hip and cool. And that's bad. That's the kind of thing that I don't think I can ever do.

JONATHAN: And so what do you think of films like Sin City. So many people are saying what a wonderful piece of art Sin City is. What do you think of that?

SCOTT: I think they're right, to be honest with you. But here's what I would say about it. It's easy to criticize a movie like that because of its content. And I have issues with some of that content in the "Tarantino" movement in general. Kill Bill is a revenge movie and the revenge ethic is something that I find decidedly un-Christian. I don't believe in revenge and I think vengeance destroys the person who acts upon vengeance itself, and yet I admire those films. And the reason why I admire them is because the craft and the style is so extraordinary that I can't help but find myself in admiration of the movie. And I felt the same way about Sin City. And I think my point is that I think it's important for Christians to have a good grasp of content and to think critically about content and also think critically about craft and style. And understand that there is redemptive power and value to craft style and form as well as content.

JONATHAN: So where is the line? Because with Sin City and many of the Tarantino films, yes, no argument from me that these films are well done. Rodriguez and Quentin really are artists—they really know how to shoot films. The stories are incredibly original. You take a film like Pulp Fiction—it was groundbreaking. But where is the line of what we can watch. I mean, couldn't somebody shoot a porno that is just "wonderfully shot." A real piece of art?

SCOTT: If they shot a porno that was wonderfully done, by definition, I don't think it would be a porno. But, yeah, if that were the case ... whatever the film is, I want to be able to extract what's good from it.

JONATHAN: Yeah, but where should most Christians draw the line? I mean you might have a piece of art, but you've also got scripture saying stuff to us about not setting anything vile before our eyes. How do you go see this "art" Sin City ... isn't it vile?

SCOTT: Well I do think every Christian has the burden of responsibility for answering that question for themselves because I do think different things affect people differently. I have a good friend of mine who won't see a movie that has any kind of sexual content in it. He just won't do it. This is a really spiritual and a really intelligent guy. And I respect him for that. I don't criticize him for that because he doesn't try to push that standard on other people. He understands that for him, that's what he needs to do for his own emotional, mental and spiritual health. And I think that my response to that is "What ever is not of faith is sin. What a person can do in faith with the confidence that before God they can do for their own good ... they should do.

It's interesting because there are all these Christian watchdog periodicals out there that are trying to tell people, "Well here's what's okay to see." "Here's what's not okay to see." I always find it ironic that they're written by somebody that thinks it's okay for them to see everything. And the truth is there are some people who can see everything and who should see everything because they have been given the mental and spiritual strength to do that and stomach to do that. And there's some people who can't. I've made a number of horror films and I respect the fact that some people shouldn't watch them. There are some people who are so disturbed by them, they find them so disconcerting that they can't get anything valuable out of the experience. They shouldn't see movies like that.

JONATHAN: And I'm sure it's difficult because you're in a genre where many people, when they think of horror, think of a film that is nothing more than an excuse to show eye candy and gore. And I hope that doesn't steer people away from The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Because here's a great film with a great message and I think that if it's got that stamp "horror" on it, a lot of Christians will respond, "Oh, I just don't see those types of films."

SCOTT: I know. And there is so much more to this movie. And the marketing campaign is not really capturing the range of ideas and the fact that this is also a courtroom movie.

JONATHAN: You're right. Marketing did miss that. The previews make it look like some horror film. I think the film is really more of a courtroom drama with some incredibly real and intense "horrific" moments woven through the film. I was pleasantly surprised.

SCOTT: Well, I hope that the word gets out that there is more to this movie and there is a place for Christian audiences to come and see something they typically don't get to see in a theatre. For me as a film viewer and a person of faith, I always feel a bit robbed by the fact that religion, faith and spiritually are so profoundly important to me and so many people in the culture, yet, so few movies ever deal with it at all in any form. If you judged our culture strictly by our movies, you'd think that people don't go to church ever. It's sort of been extricated from the creative storytelling process in Hollywood. And I thought that this would be a good opportunity to get some of these spiritual and religious questions out on the table in a genre film that people will find entertaining and scary ... but also I think it's gonna speak to people's interest in the subject matter.

JONATHAN: Ten years ago I don't think anyone would have guessed that spiritual movies or spiritual content would have any audience. But even last year MTV recognized the incredible interest in "spirituality" that people have, and they created these small vignettes called "Spiritual Windows," little "universalistic" glimpses of spirituality as they might relate to us today. Even though people aren't necessarily religious, most people see themselves as spiritual. And I think ever since Passion of the Christ ... and even M. Night Shyamalan's films, we've now seen a handful of these films succeed that have raised spiritual questions. And Hollywood saw people flock to these film and they scratched their heads saying, "Hey! There might be a market for this stuff!"

SCOTT: No question. And that's one of the really wonderful things about Hollywood and the entertainment business. It's such a liberal community that they really are open minded to what other people believe. And I think they just didn't understand that there was an audience for this kind of material. That people want to include this part of human life in the stories they watch on the silver screen and I think that the Hollywood community is really starting to realize that.

JONATHAN: Well, because before hand they couldn't only gage audiences by the success—or lack there of—of Extreme Days or Left Behind. And Hollywood at that time was probably saying, "See, no one wants to see this stuff." And no one stopped to consider ... that these film-makers just didn't know what they were doing! Mel kind of conquered that with The Passion.

SCOTT: He did.

JONATHAN: People saw that and were like ... "Wow!"

SCOTT: I think that's one of the great legacies that film is going to have. I think it opened the doors for a lot of new material.

JONATHAN: So do you think you'll be sticking in the horror genre? Or do you see yourself making the next date flick? What?

SCOTT: I do love the genre—horror—and I got into it purposefully. But I love all movie genres. I don't think I'll direct another horror film next. I don't expect to. I really would like to do a science fiction movie. I've written a number of science fiction screenplays for studios. I think that's a genre that has kind of the same untapped potential and the capacity for spiritual content in the same way the horror genre does. I've read a few books that were spiritual science fiction novels that were really fascinating. I think there's some uncharted territory that I would like to do.

JONATHAN: What's next in the works?

SCOTT: I'm going to do a rewrite on a supernatural thriller/adventure movie for Universal. I'm going to start that next week. And when I'm done with that I'm going to be really looking for the next thing I'm going to make.

JONATHAN: I look forward to hearing about that. Now we have only a few more minutes. I wanted to ask you ... in the last decade or so ... what has been your favorite horror film?

SCOTT: My favorite horror film in the last decade?

JONATHAN: Yeah. I'm just curious what you like.

SCOTT: That's a great question. I've been to so many press junkets and I just really thought I'd heard everything.

JONATHAN: Then there was me.

SCOTT: You are asking very interesting and provocative questions. A number of these questions have been unexpected and it's been quite refreshing actually.

Now ... you mean the last decade?

JONATHAN: From the 90's on. Anything's fair game.

SCOTT: Okay. The best horror film from the 90's on. Hmmmm. (pause) I'm going to give you two.


SCOTT: One that's more popular and one that's lesser known. The more popular one would probably have to be 28 Days Later. I do think that was a really innovative and affective movie and I thought it was a thought provoking movie. There were some really interesting ideas in it.

JONATHAN: That's the sort of "post-apocalyptic" zombie film.

SCOTT: Yes ... a zombie film ... but even calling it a zombie film or reducing it to a zombie film I think is a disservice.

JONATHAN: I agree. It was intense ... and made you think.

SCOTT: The other one was a million dollar movie shot on digital video that was probably the scariest movie I've probably seen in 10 years. It was called Session 9. I'm a great admirer of that film. That director really captured a mood and in an effectiveness without violence or special affects or anything like that. It was really chilling. It's really a Ghost story.


SCOTT: And on top of that, just because it's one of the funniest movies I've ever scene, I thought Sean of the Dead was just unbelievably entertaining. I've laughed as hard at that movie as I believe any movie I've ever seen.

JONATHAN: It definitely was hilarious… especially his best friend/roommate that ends up becoming a zombie.

SCOTT: That was so great.

JONATHAN: Okay- but I have to ask. What do you think of M. Night? (Signs, The Sixth Sense)

SCOTT: I do like M. Night. Everybody likes the Sixth Sense. That's a classic movie. I'm a big admirer or Signs. I thought Signs was a great film. I liked Unbreakable, not as much as the other two. I thought it was okay.

JONATHAN: I'm with you there.

SCOTT: But I did not like The Villiage.

JONATHAN: Yeah, you're not alone. A lot of people didn't. It was different. But you know, I thought of Signs during that one courtroom scene in your film (Emily Rose) when Laura Linney asked, "Are we alone in this life?" I thought of the scene in Signs when Mel and Jauquin were sitting on the couch asking "Is there someone up there watching out for us in times like this?"

SCOTT: That moment is the heart of that film.

JONATHAN: I agree.

SCOTT: I really do think that is a great film. That's funny because I have a bittersweet memory of that film- I lost a very expensive pair of sunglasses at a free screening of that movie. So I sort of feel bad when I think of that movie. (Jonathan laughing) But what was great was that it was a very early screening at Disney. So I got to see that movie before any advertisements were out. I didn't know anything about it. I didn't even know that it was about crop circles.


SCOTT: And as I watched the movie I had no idea it was going to be about aliens and the impact of watching a film like that without knowing a single thing about it was amazing.

JONATHAN: Well, you're jumping out of your chair one moment—because you end up doing what you do in the dark late at night when think you might have scene a shadow outside ... but did you? Was there something out the window? But then you have a character like Juaquin Phoenix that's making you laugh throughout.

SCOTT: It was a great movie.

JONATHAN: Okay- two last questions. First. In your movie, Father Moore is determined to tell Emily's Story. So people know demons are real. "People think God is dead. But how can they say that if I show them the devil?" Was that your goal? Did you, like Father Moore, want to tell Emily's story and get people thinking about whether God and the devil are real? Was that your goal?

SCOTT: It was most definitely my goal to make them think about it. My goal wasn't to persuade them- I wanted them to think about it. I think anytime an audience feels the agenda of a filmmaker coming through a film, I think their initial reaction is resistance. That is true even if they agree with the message that the film is communicating but don't want to be preached at by a movie. And when you're talking about politics or religion, you're talking about the kind of materials that can turn into preachiness so fast, so easily, that you have to be careful with it. So with this film my agenda was not to persuade people to think the way I do, it was not to try to propagate my point of view. I did want to make a film that really forced the audience to ask really significant spiritual questions. It's not about providing the answers to those questions. But it is about asking those fundamental questions does the spiritual realm exist, does the devil exist and therefore does God exist and if so, what are the implications of that. I think that those are questions that everyone has to ask themselves and in some form, everyone lives their life based upon what they think about those questions.

JONATHAN: And that was great, because I think we as the audience definitely were in the place of the jury. We ourselves had to decide what we believe walking out of the theatre.

SCOTT: That was the goal.

JONATHAN: Last question. This film is about a very real and very scary subject matter. And frankly, I wouldn't want to pick any fights with the devil while down here on earth, where he's currently "the landlord." With that in mind, at the end of the film the character of the priest is deciding what to do, whether to return to the parish ... and he was hesitant. The reason he gave was, "Once you've looked into the darkness, I think you carry that with you the rest of your life." We all witnessed some of the freaky things that the characters in this movie went through to tell Emily's story. These people kept waking up at 3:00 a.m. to find demons bothering them. It was a spiritual battle. My immediate thought was ... I wonder if Scott's subjecting his self to the same stuff! I mean ... did you just pick a fight with the biggest bully on the block? Do you have a bull's-eye on your back now? Are you waking up at 3:00 a.m. and looking around your bedroom? Because I just saw the film ... and I'm already looking around my room when I wake up for my 3:00 a.m. potty run!

SCOTT: That actually went into the movie because it kept happening to me during the research for this film. It was pretty funny. And it was creepy enough that we ended up putting it into the movie. But, you know, I think that when it comes to dealing with the demonic as a Christian, I'm a big believer of the very basic truth of resist the devil and he will flee from you. I don't think I have a bull's eye on my back any more than any other believer. I do think though, that if you're going to be an artist, writer or entertainer ... and you're going to deal in material that's dark, yeah, you pay a price for it. Solomon said, "with much wisdom there's much sorrow." The more knowledge the more grief. And I think there's a certain weight that you carry for having seen things that are as dark as some of the things I was while doing the research for this movie. But I don't feel like I'm in some unique spiritual battle because I made this movie. I would imagine that the spiritual battle I'm in is probably not near the level of intensity that your typical church pastor is in at all times.

JONATHAN: Scott. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. It's great to hear a little more about you. I hope we'll talk again.

SCOTT: Thank you.