Scott Derrickson is a member of an elite group in Hollywood-a professed Christian working within the studio system and achieving commercial success. Perhaps even more surprising: This writer/director's genre of choice-at least so far-is horror. Mr. Derrickson's latest film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, uses horror as a springboard to tackle some serious spiritual issues (see movie review, Sept. 10). The film garnered over $30 million in its opening weekend, Sept. 9-11, topping the box office and surprising industry analysts.
WORLD: Why did you bring the story of Emily Rose to the screen?
Derrickson: I first heard about the true story when I was in New York doing research for a script I was writing for Jerry Bruckheimer. I met with a guy who was very familiar with the story, and after learning about it, I knew that it would make a great basis for a movie because it involved both courtroom drama and horror-two genres that I had never seen blended before.
WORLD: Was this a story you were set on directing yourself?
Derrickson: Yes. I was only willing to sell the screenplay if I was the director. I felt that the subject matter was so unique, it needed to be handled just right. It would have been very easy for another director to push the story in the wrong direction.
WORLD: You're obviously very much attracted to the horror genre. Why?
Derrickson: Horror is the genre with the most sensitive moral compass. No other genre defines good and evil better. No other genre allows for spiritual and religious content more than horror. And it's perhaps the most cinematically explosive genre-it really allows you to use sounds and images in an aggressive way. Thematically, I love the fact that horror can so easily blend with the issues of faith that interest me. Dante's Inferno and C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters are big inspirations for me-they both show how gothic storytelling can convey deep and provocative ideas. . . . The danger of the genre is that it can easily cross over into exploitation. It's easy for the graphic nature of the genre to go way beyond what is needed to effectively tell the story.
WORLD: Why is Emily Rose much more serious than most horror films?
Derrickson: I want people to walk away from the film asking themselves (and whomever they attended the film with) serious spiritual and theological questions. Do I believe in demons? Is there a spiritual realm? Does the Devil exist, and if so does God exist? What are the implications of that belief? I'm not trying to propagate my own point of view with this film-it's not about providing metaphysical answers, but rather it's about asking the right questions. . . . I know that everyone who pays to see the film is going to want to get scared, so I made a very scary movie-but beyond that, I hope they are pleased with the unexpected elements of the film.
WORLD: One of the remarkable elements of the film is that an agnostic (attorney Erin Bruner) defends the priest and ultimately makes the case for a spiritual understanding of Emily's life, while a Christian (prosecutor Ethan Thomas) acts as the skeptic. Can you describe the development of these two characters?
Derrickson: The important thing to me was to portray spiritual progress in a realistic way. Those of us who believe often came to belief through a process, not a single transforming experience. I was interested in seeing a slice of Erin's journey, not her final destination.
I'm very proud of how complex the Ethan Thomas character became in the script. The strategy of having the Christian act as the skeptic, and the agnostic argue for faith-that was all to avoid the clichés that you usually get in courtroom and horror films. I didn't want the atheist antagonist arguing the scientific perspective while the believer defends mystery. That's just boring and it would limit the audience's choices to an oversimplified either/or. I wanted to show that unbelievers can grow spiritually, and that Christians can be intelligent. . . . I don't want people leaving the film feeling that they've been preached at. I want them feeling that the movie has left the issues on the table, and that it's up to them to choose what they believe.
WORLD: The film strongly reflects a Catholic understanding of our engagement with the spiritual world. How do you expect religious and nonreligious audiences will respond?
Derrickson: Well, I'm not Catholic, I'm a Protestant like you, and I identify quite a bit with Ethan Thomas. But the truth is, I don't think there is any way to look at this case-regardless of your beliefs-without feeling challenged in some way. That's the point, I suppose: that there is no easy answer to the questions this film raises. It's meant to pull everybody a bit out of their comfort zone. My hope is that it causes people to consider what they believe, and to discuss that belief more often. There can never be too much spiritual and theological conversation as far as I'm concerned, and when it comes to cinema, we have far too little of it.
WORLD: Shifting gears: Why make movies? How does your faith play a role in your profession?
Derrickson: I knew I wanted to be involved in the arts, but it wasn't until college that I realized that cinema is the combination of all great art forms. When I came to realize this, I knew that filmmaking would be the only thing I could do that would be totally satisfying. My faith has had the most impact on my work in that much of the work I have done has been about issues of faith. I have not felt that this was a requirement to justify my desire to make films, I just happen to be interested in issues of faith and belief more than anything else.
WORLD: What does it mean to be doing your job well as a Christian in Hollywood?
Derrickson: Many Christians who want to be filmmakers are unnecessarily burdened by guilt feelings that suggest that to work on something with no decidedly Christian or moral content may be meaningless or even unjustifiable. The truth is, God is honored by quality, and quality for the artist can be purely a matter of craft and not content. I'm not suggesting that content doesn't matter, or that a Christian is free to work on anything, I'm simply saying that the value of a person's work isn't determined by its quantity of moral or spiritual content. . . . Excellence should be the mark of the Christian in any field.
I came to this realization when I began to work within the studio system. It was then that it dawned on me that I wasn't just an artist, I was an employee working for somebody else. And any Christian employee must work to please both God and his employer.
WORLD: What are some of the greatest challenges you face to this task?
Derrickson: I think the real difficulty in Hollywood is not becoming obsessed with commercial and financial success. And it's hard to not be disrespectful sometimes. There are a lot of aggressive, hostile personalities in Hollywood, and I hate to say it, but I'm probably thought of as one of them. The business brings out my temper quite often, and as a Christian, I should be much more patient and gracious.
WORLD: Who are the biggest influences on your engagement with culture?
Derrickson: I owe a lot to Francis Schaeffer for first opening my mind to the possibility that Christians can enjoy and participate in culture. [Also] Musicians Steve Taylor and Sam Phillips. . . . Ralph Winter (producer of the X-Men films) is an influence by his outspokenness about his faith, and his astonishing work ethic. And Bono is the beacon, I suppose-the only guy who's really done it right. When it comes to Christian engagement with the culture, I think he's the gold standard.