Tales from the Script: Exorcist: The Beginning

ExorcistBeginningSquareAs an experienced journalist and author, but only a fledgling screenwriter, I leapt at the opportunity to go in and pitch to the head of development at Morgan Creek, the company behind numerous good films, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The executive in question had read of of my scripts: an action-comedy about two teenagers who have to drive the world’s most valuable sports car, a 1962 250 GTO, 2,400 miles across America in 24 hours. To my surprise, this apparently qualified me to rewrite a prequel to one of the most respected, successful, controversial and genuinely terrifying horror films in history: The Exorcist.
At that time, Morgan Creek was wondering what to do with writer-director Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Beginning, which dealt with Father Merrin’s first encounter with evil. On paper, it had looked good: Schrader had written Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, and directed several well-received films, notably Affliction. His script for the Exorcist prequel, set in the 1940s, sees Merrin fighting personal demons in Africa — including a rejection of his faith brought on by a Nazi atrocity in which he was forced to participate — when archaeologists unearth a long-buried Satanic church, unleashing the Devil, or a close relation. So far, so good. Best of all, Schrader had cast Stellan Skarsgard, a dead ringer for the original film’s Max Von Sydow, in the lead.
The trouble, according to the studio, was that Schrader had delivered a film with one major flaw which, while problematic for a regular horror film, was disastrous for an Exorcist movie: It wasn’t scary. What could be done? Well, they reasoned, Paul Schrader could be fired, for a start. (Check.) Director Renny Harlin — best known for Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, and whose contribution to the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise had its moments — could be drafted in to direct re-shoots which would hopefully ‘bring the scary’. (Check.) You could then bring in an untried screenwriter with no experience of horror films except a lifelong obsession with them — yours truly. (Check.) What they needed, they said, was a whole new ending — and maybe a few small scenes to sprinkle throughout the film to crank up the fear. I sat down and began to read…ExorcistBeginningWideRoughly fifty pages into the hundred page script, the fear set in. Pages turned with increasing speed. Nails were bitten down. Sweat broke out on my forehead. Not because it was scary — although, if directed and edited properly, it should have been — but because it was good. What were they thinking, I wondered? How was I supposed to fix something that wasn’t broken? Then — thank God — I got to page 75, at which point the story fell apart so quickly it was as though the script had been passed through a shredder. Schrader had dropped the ball — proving, yet again, that the best writers in the world are rubbish when it comes to endings. I immediately knew what to do. How to fix it. How to save it. How to, in essence, cast out its demons — whatever had possessed Schrader to ruin his own film. By way of research, I rented The Exorcist (exceptional), Exorcist II: The Heretic (excrement) and Exorcist III (excellent), watched them back to back, and sat down to write my notes.
The script had posited the idea that the demonic church had been built in Derati, Africa, on the spot where Lucifer himself was rumoured to have landed when he was cast out of heaven. My idea was to take this a step further — to have it not only the location of the Devil’s descent, but of his mortal remains: the bones of the very Devil himself! Not only would this explain the various manifestations and possessions which were occurring as the church was excavated, but would also tie in nicely to the prologue of The Exorcist, in which Merrin’s face grows ashen as he looks at a small idol carved in the image of the demon Pazuzu. We could, I suggested, add a line of dialogue explaining the African tradition (of my own devising) by which certain tribes carve idols from one of the bones of their dead, in order to keep the spirit of a lost love one closer to the tribe, setting up the idea that one of the Devil’s bones has been carved into an idol.
This would also serve to create a more powerful ending: in order to defeat the Devil, who has possessed Merrin’s lover, Sarah, he must not only regain his faith (as in Schrader’s draft), but also give Lucifer’s bones a proper Christian burial. This becomes the key element of the film’s climax, and puts Merrin firmly in the driving seat: not only must he perform an exorcism on Sarah while she is possessed, he must also perform a burial ceremony to consecrate the Devil’s mortal remains. Except, of course, that one of the bones is missing… This could, I reasoned, be discovered as he begins the burial ceremony, setting up a new ending whereby the Devil’s skeleton — complete with vestigial tail bones and, of course, skeletal wings like those of a bat — comes temporarily back to life, re-animating and screaming hideously as it first grows flesh and muscle and leathery skin — and is ultimately destroyed, crumbling to dust as Merrin performs the last rites upon it. When the Devil’s bones are re-animated, Merrin will realise that there is a bone missing — and we can presume he spent the next 24 years (between the events of Exorcist: The Beginning and The Exorcist) searching for the missing bone, which has been carved into the form of an idol. I knew the new ending would be expensive. But I also knew that Renny Harlin was looking for a kick-ass climax with plenty of action and special effects. What could be more climactic than a final showdown between Father Merrin and the Devil himself? But I also had a coup de theatre up my sleeve: a nifty coda which would serve to undercut the relatively “happy” ending.

ExorcistBeginning2WideAfter the putative ending, I suggested, we would fade to black for a few moments… but then fade up to an African dawn, much like the beginning of both The Exorcist and Exorcist: The Beginning. The audience would assume they were still in the past — until a Hummer pulls into shot, stopping in the middle of what has now become an oil field. A big oil company man — a Joe Don Baker type, I casually suggested, in a ten gallon hat — gets out of the giant car, mad as hell because the drilling has been shut down. The oil man is told that this has occurred because workers have made a find of great archaeological and religious significance — a church dating back to the 6th century, possibly older (as per the events of the film thus far). He curses, spits, and says, “Here we go again” — presumably a reference to other occasions when his company’s oil exploration has been frustrated by one thing or another. But the audience would also know that the drilling has probably disturbed the Devil’s remains, and that the next sequel in the series will be set in the present day. Exorcist: the Next Generation anyone?
I had the weekend to work out the details: my follow-up meeting was on Monday morning. I pitched my notes to the same executive, who showed much enthusiasm for my ideas, thanked me for my efforts, and told me she would pass the ideas on to Mr Harlin. Although he, or they, ultimately passed on my ideas, they liked them enough to invite me to pitch on other projects, one of which was a supernatural thriller in the Exorcist vein. It was another year before Exorcist: The Beginning hit cinemas, shortly before the surprising announcement that Warner Bros would make the unprecedented move of releasing both versions of the film — Schrader’s and Harlin’s — to DVD simultaneously. Whether or not any of my ideas made it to the film — or if they would have improved either version if they had — I couldn’t say.
I still can’t bring myself to watch either of them.

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