On Movies, Exorcism & Horror – Andrew Jones
INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW JONES – HORROR DIRECTOR
I’VE BEEN A FAN of Andrew Jones’s approach to directing since I saw Robert, which was released in 2015. His films often have a sense of foreboding and eeriness, and almost always feel incredibly real and authentic, like a dark version of reality has been somehow captured. Since then, I’ve watched many of his other titles and have been impressed. When his latest release hit the shelves last week – The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund – I knew I’d want to invite Andrew here to discuss the new project. Andrew graciously accepted my invitation, and here is the result of the interview. I hope you enjoy reading his responses, as much I did. This is a frank, in-depth exchange which gives us a lot of information and insight into Andrew’s approach to horror and directing. I wish to thank him for taking the time out to share with us.
Welcome back to Study Paranormal, and thanks for taking the time out to answer a few questions. This week saw the release of your new film, The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund. Can you tell us what inspired you to create a film about this famous true-life story?
I have always wanted to make an Exorcism film so I was delighted when the distribution company I work with, 4Digital Media, said they were interested in releasing a film about possession. Of course ‘The Exorcist’ is the ultimate example of the sub genre, it’s an incredible film, but being the exploitation fan I am I have always been equally enamored with the various B-movies which sprung up in the 1970s capitalising on the success of William Friedkin’s film. Ovidio Assonitis made ‘Beyond the Door’ which had a terrifying trailer! I actually wrote a remake of that film for Ovidio back in 2008 but it didn’t get into production. William Girdler made ‘Abby’. The Spanish Lon Chaney, Paul Naschy, did ‘Exorcismo’. Alberto De Martino made ‘The Antichrist’. There have been so many! So I’ve seen and enjoyed a lot of films in the possession sub genre and I jumped at the chance to make one myself.
This project began life as a script called ‘Flight 666’ and the basic concept of that was an Exorcism occurring on a plane, possession at 30,000 feet! I thought the setting would make it a bit different to other Exorcism films, they had put zombies and snakes on a plane before so why not possession? The story followed Vatican investigator Father Lamont who is on a flight where one of the passengers is a sick girl. When the plane is in the air all hell breaks loose and it becomes clear she’s possessed and Lamont has to go against the Vatican code and conduct an unauthorized Exorcism to save the lives of the passengers. The distributors even had artwork designed for it which looked great. But ultimately when we presented the idea to the marketing team and retailers the general consensus seemed to be that an Exorcism film is an easier sell if the action happens on the ground! As a filmmaker who is always seeking to give distributors and retailers what they want I have to accept that concepts will often go through an evolution to make them more marketable and I’m all for that because I don’t want to end up making a film that doesn’t get released.
So seeking to do a more conventional Exorcism story we looked at some true life cases and discovered Anna Ecklund’s case hadn’t been adapted into a film before. What I particularly liked about the story was that Anna was taken to a convent to be exorcised. It just felt like an interesting place to take off from, the ultimate evil in the house of God. I embellished on the real life story and added new characters to the mix to give it more layers. The character of Father Lamont being a Vatican investigator struggling with the skeptical nature of his job was a part of ‘Flight 666’ and I transferred that character over to the new script because I was interested in dealing with a conflicted man struggling to rediscover his purpose. The other element which I took from ‘Flight 666’ was the idea of the various demons inside a possessed girl entering new hosts when she is exorcised. In ‘Flight 666’ the demons entered the other passengers on the plane, in ‘The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund’ they enter the priests and nuns at the convent. I enjoyed that element a lot, there aren’t many films where you get to see a priest stab a nun with a crucifix then smash her head repeatedly in a door! We kind of turned Father Lamont into Ash from the ‘Evil Dead’ in the latter part of the film!
Above, actor Lee Bane portrays Father Lamont in Exorcism of Anna Ecklund
What was the experience like of writing the script? Did it run smoothly – was it challenging?
When writing scripts I’m always working to tight deadlines which means I don’t have the time to be consumed by inhibitions and doubts, I just need to power through and whip the material into shape as best I can. The script could be considered a strange cross between the B-movie whackiness of possessed clergy and serious philosophical musings about life and religion. But I embraced the idea of mixing deeper themes with an exploitation sensibility, it’s what I’ve always tried to do really.
Although many people feel ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ pales in comparison to the original I liked that they made references in that film to the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which I’ve read. Of course in ‘Exorcist II’ they assign his ideas to the Father Merrin character and it’s done somewhat briefly so I wanted to go back to the real life man and bring his theories to the forefront of this film. Chardin was a Jesuit priest and philosopher who believed that mankind was heading towards an elevated consciousness and evil would do all it could to disrupt that. In ‘The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund’ Anna is revealed to have special healing abilities, so the greatest good has attracted the greatest evil and that provides a more interesting reason for her possession beyond the violation of innocence. It was interesting to write a character who goes from spitting obscenities at the clergy to being their final hope to fend off evil. Anna in this film is essentially two characters in one and I’m grateful to have had such a terrific actress Tiffany Ceri to bring that to life. Father Lamont’s character name is of course a reference to Richard Burton’s character name in ‘Exorcist II’ so it’s fitting that we also had a great Welsh actor Lee Bane playing the role!
Actress Tiffany Ceri, as possessed victim, Ecklund
Even at the writing stage you know that any possession film will be compared unfavourably with ‘The Exorcist’, but I didn’t get hung up on that as it’s obvious no one will ever make a film on the subject which will have more impact than William Friedkin’s movie. All possession films share familiar tropes and there have been hundreds of them, I think anyone would be hard pressed to do something completely different to what has gone before. So there’s no point trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s better to just embrace the trappings of the genre and enjoy them. You certainly can’t aim for the heights of ‘The Exorcist’ at this budget level. All you can do is have fun with the theme and try to focus on elements that interest you personally so that’s what I did.
Where there elements of the story you found hard to capture or produce on film; anything that was tricky to bring to life on screen? Anything that you had to leave off the finished product that you wished you could have used?
It’s always difficult when you’re working with limited time and resources to bring something like this to the screen. You have to accept that the gap between your unlimited imagination and what your limited budget and schedule allows you to do is always going to be pretty big. All you can do is work with the time and money you’ve got and try to make that gap as small as it can be in the circumstances. Personally I feel everyone did a great job considering the shooting schedule was just eight days. Most people wouldn’t even attempt to do this in such a short space of time so I’m very proud of the team for getting a pretty ambitious story in the can on such a tight schedule.
There were a lot of elements in the real life case which didn’t make it into the film, mainly involving a relative who practiced Witchcraft trying to keep Anna possessed and a complicated relationship with her father. That would have been interesting to deal with but when you’re trying to tailor material to a tight budget and schedule you have to scale things back to the essentials. There are a lot of elements taken straight from the real life case, particularly the dialogue and relationship between the Father Reisinger and Mother Superior characters, but I still felt the need to embellish because with most real life cases there are rarely enough twists and turns to sustain a film narrative.
There were some beautiful references to religion – did you do a lot of research, or have you studied this subject in the past?
I’ve always been fascinated by religion and spirituality so there wasn’t a lot of research involved. I’ve read various religious books out of personal interest for many years. My personal stance is that I believe in some form of higher energy or destiny, although I don’t define it as a particular God of any particular religion. I could never nail my flag to any religion’s mast because, among other things, I’m continually dismayed by religious prejudice against homosexuals. Persecution of human beings on the basis of who they sleep with is baffling to me. It’s a pity things like that happen because, whatever your personal view on faith is, religious books are fascinating literature and often touch on some deep universal truths about the human experience.
What is next for you? What does 2016 hold?
We’ve already shot and edited one film this year and we have several others in various stages of development. When we’ve completed post production on the latest one we’ll decide what we’re going to shoot next. We have about eleven projects on the slate so our output is likely to remain prolific for the foreseeable future. The aim is to shoot at least another two films this year if it proves to be possible from a financial perspective. What I’d like to do is work with different writers and directors on some projects, we’re aiming to diversify the material we produce in the future so it would be good to bring new voices into the North Bank Entertainment family. I love writing and directing myself but I also want to give new talent opportunities to get feature film experience and that’s what I hope to do more of this year and beyond.
Director Andrew Jones has been working on Robert sequel
Would you mind sharing with readers what some of your favourite horror movies have been of the last year or so?
A recent film I enjoyed is the remake of ‘The Town that Dreaded Sundown’. It was set in the modern day but created an old school feel, I really liked it. It had some really cool visuals and a great way of incorporating the original film into the modern story. I always try to pick up some independent films to support indie filmmakers. I liked the indie film ‘Eden Lodge’ which featured Georgina Blackledge who I worked with on ‘The Last House on Cemetery Lane’ and Cyd Casados who I worked with on ‘Robert’. A lot of the time I try to discover or rediscover lesser known horror films from the 70s and 80s as I really enjoy the style of filmmaking from those eras. In the 70s and 80s it seemed filmmakers were allowed to pace themselves and let characters and stories breathe, whereas now if you don’t have an explosion going off every five minutes a portion of the modern audience lose interest. All of the modern horror films I enjoy are typically those which are throwbacks to the style of 70s and 80s filmmaking.
What inspires you, in writing and directing? What spurs you on?
Simply the love of filmmaking. I love every stage of the process – writing, filming, editing. The desire to learn and improve as a filmmaker with each film spurs me on a great deal. After all, I’m only about three and a half years into a career as a filmmaker whose films are commercially released, so I’ve still got so much to learn. I’ve produced twelve films in that time but I’m still just getting started and finding my feet. To be honest, being a producer can be a pain in the arse. It’s a thankless job really, you put in a lot of work and always have the best of intentions yet most people still think you’re a prick. But I put up with that because I have a deep love for filmmaking that will never go away. I often get frustrated by the challenging business aspects of the industry but working with the amazing team of Tony Taglienti, Steve Beecham and Sally Wood at the distribution company 4Digital Media, my incredible producing partners Rob Graham, Beccy Graham and Lee Bane, as well as the fantastic crew and cast we have on each film, makes the stress that sometimes crops up worthwhile. I’m lucky enough to work with some of the nicest and most hard working people in the industry and together we overcome many obstacles and come out stronger for it.
To many people, horror and exploitation films are disposable junk. But to me they are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. I have no aspirations to be a studio filmmaker or a classy award winner, I love being a divisive exploitation filmmaker. A lot of filmmakers aspire to be David Fincher. I’d rather be David DeCoteau.
Finally, can you tell us about the upcoming sequel of the Robert film, and when this will be released?
We shot ‘The Curse of Robert the Doll’ in January 2016 and it is hands down my favourite ever filmmaking experience. We had a really atmospheric main location, an amazing cast and crew working on the film and it was great fun taking Robert to the next level and enhancing his body count! There is a reference to the earlier ‘Robert’ film in one sequence but it functions mainly as a stand alone movie which you don’t need to have seen the original to understand. The story focuses on Emily Barker a student who starts a night job cleaning a local museum. She discovers that one of the exhibits, Robert, is alive and soon the security and cleaning staff on the night shift start turning up dead. A local detective considers Emily the prime suspect in the murders so she has to convince the police that the doll is responsible in order to stay out of jail. There are lots of fun supporting characters in it like a shady museum owner, corrupt cops and a sinister old Toymaker. It’s a more traditional horror film in it’s style than the first film which was more of a psychological drama that used the doll sparingly. The doll is very much at the forefront of this one and we see a lot of him in action.
The distributors are aiming for a UK release in the third quarter, so it’ll probably be out sometime between July and September this year. I really hope it’s successful as I would love to continue making ‘Robert’ films. I’d like to at least get to the franchise entry where we shoot him up into space!
Above, Jeff Ragget portrays exorcism priest in Anna Ecklund
A big thanks to Andrew Jones for taking part in this Q & A