2016-06-30
Scott Derrickson co-wrote and directed the horror films "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," and "Hellraiser: Inferno," and his artistic vision is largely guided by his faith. Derrickson was once a fundamentalist Christian, which is where he said he experienced the fear that he now instills in his films. In this interview he talks about breaking free of fundamentalism, the confluence of faith and art, demons, the significance of blood, and the reason he thinks American Christians don't want to talk about evil.

How did you become interested in the horror genre? Isn't this an unlikely focus for a Christian filmmaker?

When I was in film school and thinking about how I was going to break into the industry and actually get to make films, I pondered that. I knew I needed to find a commercial genre to work in, and have a commercial sensibility if I wanted to make films for a living. I also wanted to have some integration of my faith to the creative process because it's so important to me. It's not really in the cards for me to not involve that in the creative process. I was looking instinctively for a place where my spiritual interests and the marketplace could meet.

The revelation I had came when I reread "The Screwtape Letters" [by Christian author C.S. Lewis]. When I reread it and watched the reaction of some of my peers as they were reading it, what struck me was that the book was as didactic a book of moral instruction as anything you could ever read, and yet here it was speaking to these jaded film students at USC. I realized there was something in that. By approaching spiritual issues and religious questions through the window of the horrific or the dark side of life, you suddenly had free reign to deal with spirituality in a way that was not going to be preachy or come off as propaganda.

I think I saw within the horror genre the potential to create things that would be of great personal interest to me, and yet would have commercial value and marketability as well. And by combining those two things, I felt if I could combine them well, that I also might make something that was original and had great artistic merit. I think that's what happened with "Emily Rose," because that film is very much what I had set out to try to do from the beginning. I really hit the target with ["The Exorcism of Emily Rose"] in terms of the ambition I had and what I had hoped to do with the genre.

How did your faith evolve from its fundamentalist roots?

Fundamentalism is rooted in fear, and it's another reason I'm interested in the horror genre, because I know the fear that fundamentalism is built upon. I think that fundamentalists instruct their children and their converts to be afraid of the world and to be afraid of those who are different from them. I'm talking about the kind of fear that is paralyzing. When you start to question that, when you really begin to doubt that as I did as an undergrad, the result is catastrophic. I underwent a crisis of faith that was severe, that lasted for probably six or seven years. It took different forms, but it came to the place when I was a senior where I had basically lost my faith, but was still holding onto it for various reasons-but that's another topic. I had so scrutinized it and questioned it and ardently put it up on the chopping block. and it held up in the end. I think that I never would have done that had I not had my roots in fundamentalism.

"Blood has profoundly significant meaning to me."
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  • It's as though fundamentalism packs your brain into such a tight space that if it starts to break out, the breaking out is explosive. Your mind just continues to expand and search. The momentum of my creative life and intellectual growth is still the momentum of me breaking out of fundamentalism. Because of that I'm very grateful for it. But I'm also grateful that at the center of it was something that I still believe to be true-those fundamentals of faith. The very basic orthodox truths of Christianity were things I learned and was trained in at that time of my life that I still hold to.

    How would you classify your Christianity at this point in your life?

    I'm an orthodox Christian. When people ask me if I'm a Christian I always want to qualify and know what they mean by that. I'm not a Republican and I'm not right wing. I'm not a dispensationalist. I don't think the world's about to end.What it is to me is sufficiently stated in the Apostle's creed, and anyone who can embrace the totality of that statement is an orthodox Christian in my view.

    Blood is obviously a prominent part of horror films, and it also has theological importance. Does the theological significance of blood have any relation to your commitment to the horror genre?

    Most definitely. Blood has profoundly significant meaning to me. I think it has profoundly significant meaning to God. The role that blood plays in Christian iconography is huge-the washing of the blood, the shedding of blood, the blood of the cross, the crucifixion, the violence of that imagery. These are horrific and yet they are at the center of the Christian faith. There is a place where beauty and terror merge and it's at the cross. I think the horror genre, when it's done well, is always just that. A blending of terror and beauty where good aesthetics combine with what really is frightening to us, and disturbing and violent, and the blending of those two things together enlightens us about the nature of the world and ourselves and God.

    You don't hide the fact that you're a Christian, and yet you're a successful filmmaker. Is there any discrimination in Hollywood against Christians?

    I think the only discrimination that I've experienced is that which is the result of the Christian tendency to be close-minded and judgmental. People in Hollywood, when they find out you're a Christian, have different associations with that terms that are not entirely unwarranted. With some people you have to do a little more work to get around that. I've found that Christian material and Christian subject matter is not something that Hollywood is afraid of. They're increasingly interested in it because they see that it's of interest to the public and that this is a Christian country for the most part. I don't see any kind of bias against that.

    Is there any tension between your commitments to your faith and your art?

    My faith sometimes burdens me with the responsibility to think very deeply and long and hard about the choices I make creatively. There are projects I turn down because the material is too much a violation of what I believe. But that's true of anybody.

    What kind of projects have you turned down? Are there basic principles you follow to guide you to projects that align with your values?

    Themes that are contrary to what I believe about the world. I read a horror script that was very good, but the message was very anti-marriage. I believe marriage is a sacrament. I had to turn it down for that reason. Every artist in the business turns projects down because they are a violation of their perspective or points of view. I'm not special in that respect.

    "The American church is becoming sadly addicted to its own comfort."
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  • I don't turn things down based on the quantity of sex, violence or profanity they contain. That's never been a consideration.. My only question is how appropriate is it to that particular story.

    Some conservative Christian film critics gauge a movie's acceptability by its number of curse words, sexual content, or violence. What do you think about this approach?

    My view is that those gatekeepers better not apply those same standards to the Bible, because if they do they'll have to throw it out along with all their R-rated films. It's a very profane, sexual, violent book. It doesn't flinch at any of those things. But it portrays them and portrays those things for wonderfully moral purposes.

    Most churches don't spend much time talking about evil, the demonic or hell. Do Christians have a responsibility to communicate these themes more effectively?

    You don't hear sermons or read books about evil or hell or damnation or sin, and these were thing that were on the lips of Jesus constantly, not to mention the other writers of scripture. I believe it's because we're afraid of them and they make us uncomfortable and they take us out of our comfort zone. The American church is becoming sadly addicted to its own comfort, wanting only its own protection, and I think it's unwilling to live with the discomfort that comes with reckoning with those dark subjects. By considering everything dark and horrific to be off limits, the church has really resigned a lot of ground to the secular arts and secular artists, which is really tragic, because it wasn't that way through most of Church history.

    Are you using films like "Hellraiser: Inferno" and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" to depict evil so people better understand it?

    The basic answer I suppose has to be yes. I'm trying to portray human life in its totality. I'm trying to get at moral and spiritual subjects from a different point of view than most Christians usually take creatively. In the case of Emily Rose, my goal with the film was not to propagate any particular point of view. I just really saw that story as a great opportunity to usher the audience into a mental space where they would have to ask themselves some very significant questions, no matter what they believe.

    You believe in demons, so what was it like writing "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"?

    Doing the research for this movie was really horrible, it was very scary, and I felt very oppressed by it. I'll never do that again. I'll never dive into research in this kind of material again. It was the least enjoyable experience I've ever had working on anything. I read about two dozen books on this subject matter and it was just oppressive.. Once I got out of the research phase and got writing, then that became very different. It became energizing. I think the idea that you sort of take a good hard look at the things that really scare you, and by doing that one of two things is going to happen: you'll be either more scared because you're not finished dealing with it, which isn't necessarily bad either. Or you're going to leave a little more equipped so you can deal with it.

    I think this movie is going to do both. Some people will probably be even more freaked out by the subject matter when they leave, but that's not bad. I think that people ought to be afraid. If they haven't reckoned with what they believe about the demonic they should be afraid. As Christians, we don't need to be afraid of the devil or the demonic. I do think that the power of God and the power of Christ is greater. But that doesn't mean they're not out there and they're not working on us. I think they're out there.

    "Once you start asking yourself what does God think of me, you have a burden."
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  • I think that until we as individuals answer for ourselves what we believe about God, what we believe about ourselves in relationship to God; what we believe about good and evil; what we believe about our responsibility to good, to become good and resist evil-until we answer these questions, we lack human definition. People are who they are based on how they answer those questions.

    I just think that to think about those things is so important. It's so important for people to not ignore them and not have haphazard answers to them, and to not think that they're not important; and to not take second hand answers that have been handed down from their parents, but to really dig in and personally reckon with them. Because if God does exist and God has interests in each human being, then there's nothing more important for us to figure out what that interest is and respond to it.

    I also think that if you're not spiritually inclined, but you're a real humanitarian, a real humanist, then the biggest questions you can ask from that level of life are questions of good and evil. I really, genuinely don't understand why everyone isn't obsessed with good and evil; obsessed with wanting to understand what is good and right, and how can goodness and rightness take reign in the world.These are the most important things that we can think about.

    But obviously, people aren't thinking about these things. In mainstream society, the goal is quite the opposite. Have we become too focused on the comfort and happiness and pleasure of being an American?

    Jesus said it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. I don't think he was talking about rich people getting into heaven. I think he was saying it's very, very difficult for someone who has all of their needs met in excess to care about these things the way they ought to; to care about what God thinks about them; to care about how goodness and rightness can be spread throughout the world.

    Once you start asking yourself what does God think of me, you have a burden. Once you start thinking: "What is my responsibility in the world? How can I make the world better?"-you have a burden. These questions are important but they're burdensome. But it's my belief that we are meant to be burdened. If we don't carry those burdens we are missing the wholeness of life.

    What's the root of that belief for you? Why are you willing to be obsessed with these things?

    Grace. I think anyone who doesn't act entirely selfishly does so because God has smiled on them. The idea of real grace is not just that God forgives us for what we do wrong, and God loves us despite our shortcomings, but that God even gives us the desire to want his forgiveness; that God gives us the desire to want to be good. Why is it that I have a desire to be good? Why do I have a desire to be in good standing with God? Because God gave me that desire. I do think that we are all prone to great selfishness but in the end we're rescued by the grace to care about these things. And I think there's a measure of that grace out there for everyone. I try to respond to it.

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