Director Daniel Stamm on Exorcisms
ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Daniel Stamm, the director of Prey for the Devil. Stamm discussed why he returned for a new exorcism film and his method of creating a strong female character. Prey for the Devil is now playing in theaters.
“Sister Ann believes she is answering a calling to be the first female exorcist … but who, or what, called her? In response to a global rise in demonic possessions, Ann seeks out a place at an exorcism school reopened by the Catholic Church,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Until now, these schools have only trained priests in the Rite of Exorcism — but a professor recognizes Sister Ann’s gifts and agrees to train her. Thrust onto the spiritual frontline with fellow student Father Dante, Sister Ann finds herself in a battle for the soul of a young girl, who Sister Ann believes is possessed by the same demon that tormented her own mother years ago. Determined to root out the evil, Ann soon realizes the Devil has her right where he wants her.”
Tyler Treese: You previously did The Last Exorcism. What about the script for Prey for the Devil made you want to return to this specific subgenre of horror?
Daniel Stamm: I never wanted to do another exorcism movie because I felt I had done everything. All ideas that I ever had in my head about exorcism, I had put into that one movie, and I never got sent other exorcism scripts because my agents knew that. Then 12 years later, Prey for the Devil shows up, and I’m calling them saying, “This is a mistake; this is an exorcism movie.” And they said, “Yes, but this you should read,” and it is so true because The Last Exorcism was very specific in that it was a movie about the question “is this girl crazy or is she possessed,” and it takes 90 minutes until you get the answer. So we could never do anything supernatural that would’ve given away that she was possessed. Whereas Prey for the Devil cuts all that out and cuts right to the chase and says, “We don’t have to spend 45 minutes with the audience wondering if they are in a possession movie or not. They’re in a possession movie; let’s go from there.”
So suddenly, you have a whole different movie that has time for story and characters and set pieces and to put all that together. Then, obviously, to have a female character in there changes everything because she doesn’t just have to battle the demon — she has to battle the patriarchy for the right to even be allowed to battle the demon. Then she brings in this whole new approach that she basically says, “Okay, it’s time for the patriarchy to change their ways. It can’t be about the priest as the knight in shining armor anymore. We have to focus on the victim. We can’t just treat them as a battlefield. We can’t just scream the same Latin Bible verses at the demon, no matter what the demon is. We have to see ourselves in a whole different position and be a coach for the afflicted who is fighting for their soul.” It’s totally different.
Having the school be such a large part of the film was really interesting. It shocked me that they actually do courses and classes on exorcisms. What kind of research did you do for this film?
Our screenwriter, Robert Zappia, is a practicing Catholic, and he has a friend who is a deacon. I guess the whole movie started with that, with a dinner between him and the deacon. The deacon set him up with a real exorcist and they had dinner, and the exorcist told him all these things, everything that he was allowed to tell him and always drew the line and said, “That’s as much as I’m allowed to tell you.” But everything that is in the script is totally true, we didn’t have to make up any of it. The first draft that I read was so full of information and so full of facts and we had to thin that out a little bit for the end version of the movie. But there is not anything made up in there. The Vatican really did open up exorcism schools in 2018 worldwide. We do live in the golden age of reported possessions in every religion — in Christianity just as much as in Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism. Exorcisms are performed all over the world. It’s crazy.
You talked about having that time to spend with the characters and I thought this film has such great themes of coming to terms with your trauma and accepting it. Can you speak about that theme of the movie and what you’re able to do with Sister Ann?
It came from that desire that we wanted to make a movie with a strong female character, which is such a buzzword, you know? “Oh, the feminist icon,” and films rarely ever deliver it. So we were like, “we want that label. We think it’s a valuable label, but we have to earn it. What do we do?” So it was important that she came in with a very different approach to the whole thing.
So then we said, “okay, her approach is that she has a therapeutic approach and she is concentrating on the victim.” So what is it about the victim that she can actually work with therapeutically? And because we wanted to set ourselves apart from movies like The Exorcist by reinventing and redefining the details in our mythology. So we basically said, “okay, the way the demon enters a victim is through their shame and guilt. It’s through the dark spots and their psyche that they don’t dare to shine a light on.” So suddenly we were in that world. Then of course the circle should be that that comes right back to our protagonist. You don’t want it to be a procedural where a cop is coming in doing the job and is walking back out. You want the personal connection, which immediately heightens the stakes so that Sister Ann might think for a long time that she’s just working on the victim, but of course, the demon is always one step ahead of her. It very quickly turns that around to use against her.
All the possession scenes are so intense. What was your approach to raising the tension and delivering these thrills?
It’s such a detailed thing. I’m always asked, “was it scary to shoot this and that?” The answer is no. It’s never scary because every scare is made of so many layers of so many departments coordinating and trying to do their best work and it all coming together in one moment, that it’s just a lot of work on the details and a lot of pride. We worked with a great Bulgarian team where everybody was just excellent at their job. Then the groundwork for it all is just the acting. That’s something that people often misunderstand. Genre movie doesn’t mean “I will do scares instead of the acting.” The acting is what makes you care about the characters and then you do scary things to them. It’s scary because you care about these characters.
If you just cut someone’s head off but you don’t care, then it’s not scary. But if you are terrified for someone, then it’s a whole different thing. If you watch the movie now, we start with Sister Ann in a psychiatrist’s office talking about her backstory. That’s a scene that originally happened on page 80 of the script. So technically 80 minutes into the script. And it was this moment where I was like, “She is so vulnerable in that moment. We have to give that to the audience right away. Minute one.” We had to restructure whatever needs to be restructured about the movie, which is months of work, basically, to rejig a complete, total movie. But I was like, “that is the moment that the audience hooks into that character and falls in love with her, ideally.”If you don’t, then there’s nothing more I can give you about the character that will make you fall in love with her. So this is our one shot and we have to give it to the audience immediately because they will experience every moment in this movie differently. So really, it’s the human connection that is the base for everything.
We see Father Dante’s family’s trauma and grief throughout. Can you speak to the importance of having a male character in the film that’s pretty open with his vulnerabilities and his insecurities?
That’s amazing that you point that out, because that is exactly what the most important thing was. If we have a strong female character, then we can’t have a strong male character that is the superior in physicality or in courage because we don’t want her to hide behind any of that. She has to be at the forefront of it all. So what we were looking for in Father Dante was empathy and friendship and intensity. Christian Navarro just brings that stuff completely fearlessly, you know? It’s such a brilliant performance. You just care for his character and then you care for his sister so much that he suddenly becomes a team with Sister Ann that you could never have done with a hunk of a male character that we could’ve put in there.
The ending sets up a tease for more possessions for Sister Ann. Would you like to continue working with the character?
The sequel thing, to me, is always really dangerous because if it makes you keep stuff from the audience in the original movie, then it’s a mistake. I’m always at you, “99% of the time, you won’t get a sequel. Put everything you you have into the original movie and then deal with it if that ever comes up,” and that’s what we did with this movie. But of course at the same time, we tried to create an exorcist that is so iconic — as Sister Ann hopefully is — that ideally the audience comes out of the movie craving more of that character and craving to be told more stories about that character. So that was always our goal, but not necessarily to literally make a sequel out of it. I, first of all, hope that the audience will just love her so much that they will want to hear more. Then I’d be excited to tell more stories with her for sure.