Last July, Screen Gems invited us on the Bronx, New York set of their supernatural horror film Deliver Us from Evil. Originally titled "Beware the Night", the film is based on a book by former NYPD Detective Ralph Sarchie. Sarchie was a sixteen year veteran of the forty-sixth precinct in the South Bronx, one of the most virulently crime-ridden areas in the seventies and eighties. Sarchie was a chronicler of the occult, participating in numerous exorcisms and cases of demonic possessions. Deliver Us from Evil takes place in modern times with Eric Bana starring as Sarchie. The film is written and directed by Scott Derrickson, who has had tremendous success in the horror genre with his previous films, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister. Deliver Us from Evil costars Édgar Ramírez as Mendoza - a Catholic priest, and Joel McHale as Butler, Sarchie's NYPD partner.
We arrive on set during the middle of the night in a torrential downpour. The film was shooting where the I-95 intersects Bruckner Boulevard in the South Bronx. A crane with a lighting rig was illuminating an entire block. The cast and crew were absolutely soaked by the massive storm hitting New York City. People were huddling under tents, hiding in doorways, doing their best to set up shots in the deluge. The movie business may seem glamorous, but the reality is a lot of hard work in sometimes terrible conditions. This night was a textbook example. I felt so bad for the gaffers and production assistants running around in the freezing rain.
The on set publicists led us to a small church across the brownstone where filming was taking place. This area of the Bronx is fairly old. Many of these buildings where built over a hundred years ago. The row houses and small yards leads to a relatively cramped, urban setting. Inside the church, the extras and crew huddled by the craft table to escape the weather. The whole setting was eerie, especially with the lightning and thunder crackling above us. It seemed the perfect location to film a horror movie.
The team of journalists camped out on church pews while they set up a table for the first interview. In walks Scott Derrickson, the film's director and screenwriter. Scott was really upbeat considering how the rain was affecting the shooting schedule:
Are you regretting shooting in the Bronx because of all the rain?
Scott Derrickson: (laughs) No, although the rain has been hard on us. We've lost a lot of time because of the rain. It has been an unusually rainy summer. But no, I have no regrets. There's just no place that looks like the Bronx. Shooting here, there's no place in the world that looks like it. And it's where the real guy - Ralph Sarchie - did his work. Ralph was a cop in the 46 precinct for over a decade. It's all authentic and it feels cool. It's free production design. It's so cinematic. It makes the movie look bigger and more expensive than it is.
You've been doing rural and suburban horror with Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. How's the adjustment been to an urban setting?
Scott Derrickson: That was the interesting thing to me. Taking into a different environment. We're crossing into two genres that don't normally go together. But that's not my idea, it's just who the guy is, the real Ralph Sarchie. There's a lot in the script that's fictionalized, but it's all based on real cases that he had and things that happened to him. The character is very true to who he was. He was in the 46 precinct. When he was there, the FBI called it the most dangerous square mile in America. It had more arrests for violent crime than any other precinct in the country. He was an undercover cop doing special ops with a team of guys. These were street crimes. He was out there stopping violent crime every night. So take a guy like that and have him in a story that involves the paranormal, supernatural and possession. It's interesting.
It's set in the present day right?
Scott Derrickson: Yes.
Does this tip its hat to previous supernatural detective stories like Night Stalker or X-Files?
Scott Derrickson: Yes, certainly Night Stalker. Night Stalker was my first introduction to gothic stories. That was the first thing that I saw as a kid. I was too young to be seeing that, but Night Stalker and old William Castle movies. I remember that me and all of the kids in elementary school were always talking about Night Stalker. I have a lot of love for the two genres, horror, and the New York cop procedural, when it has real detective work and action. That's what was interesting to me. Putting together two genres that you don't really ever get.
What's the emotional core of this story?
Scott Derrickson: It really is a story about this character. It's about this guy. That's not always true about genre films. And definitely about the movies that I've done. This is about a particular guy and he is a hardcore guy. He's a hardcore cop with a lot of anger. He's violent. He's good at his job, but that takes its toll. He's the least likely guy in the world to do what he ends up doing by the end of the movie. It's a story about that transformation, him running into things that he can't explain. And then entering into a relationship, a friendship with a Catholic priest, who's a very atypical priest. He's a priest like the religious people that I've known in my life. He's a complicated guy with a dark past. Emotionally, it's about those two people as individuals, what's happened to them in the past, and how coming together...something very explosive happens. Within that, there's action, and horror, possession, all of the things that you want out of a genre film.
How about the visual core?
Scott Derrickson: Visually, it's the Bronx. Shooting here is so cinematic. The exterior of the building is the obvious part. But the interiors, the hallways, the basements, the spaces we found, these one hundred and fifty year old buildings with these crevices and pipes. I'd go into places and think, I could look in LA for a year and never find a space like this. For making a tonally and visually dark movie, the Bronx just became a character, more than I expected. At first, I wanted to shoot here because Ralph lives here and he's our cop advisor for the movie. This is where it happened. It made sense, but I got a lot more than I was expecting.
Can you talk about casting your primary leads?
Scott Derrickson: I cast them in order of priority, I guess from the script. I started with Eric. It's always the same when you have a lead character for a movie. Everyone starts throwing out A-listers, maybe Leo DiCaprio, (laughs) he's not going to do this. So when you get past the unrealistic DiCaprio and Will Smith kind of names, then you get to A level actors that do interesting films. I have to give him credit. Clint Culpepper, the head of Screen Gems, called me one day and asked me who do I like for this film. I told him I was compiling a list, but haven't really settled on anyone. So I asked him, who do you think? He said, I really like Eric Bana for this. I remember this long silence, because I knew Ralph Sarchie. They look alike. I've seen what Eric can do with accents, his physicality. I didn't want to overreact. But I said he'd be perfect. It was an instant decision. We went after him. He read the script. We met a couple of times and it was on. Édgar Ramírez, everyone really wanted him. And it took some persuading. Joel McHale's character I actually wrote for him. Joel's my best friend. The Joel McHale in this movie is much more like the real Joel McHale, than the guy on Talk Soup and Community. I was having a hard time with the character. Then was thinking maybe I should ask Joel. Then decided to just write him as Joel.
Scott was hustled away to set up a shot. Then we had our first real look at the area and what the filmmakers were trying to achieve. Creepy is the first word that comes to mind. The publicist took us into the brownstone building where they had been shooting. The place was just old, funky, paint peeling off the walls, really decrepit. We were led into the basement. It was dark, damp, extremely confining. I could only imagine the difficulty in shooting scenes in a space this small. The set and prop decorator had lined the basement with all kids of weird objects. The entire atmosphere was perfect for horror. I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to find a demon lurking in this space. The last few set visits I've done were primarily on sound stages and constructed sets. Here, being in an actual building, on location, really adds to the mood.
We went back across the street to the church. Eric Bana had become available and was brought in to talk to us. I really like Bana, as an actor and personally. He's got this thick Australian accent and is a very funny guy. Bana plays it so serious in most of his roles. This is pretty opposite to his personality. He's also this tall, lean, incredibly fit guy. Bana had a huge, prosthetic cut on his hand:
That's a very fashionable open wound you have there.
Eric Bana: (laughs) That's how we roll.
You've been dealing with quite a bit of prosthetics and effects on this film. How has that experience been?
Eric Bana: No, not for me. It's not too bad. I have a reoccurring stitch that comes on and off. My prosthetic load is nothing compared to what some of the other characters have. There is a load on that department, but not for me.
We were just speaking to Ralph Sarchie. He's said that he's just been consulting on the police work and not on the character. How have you been getting into this real live person's skin?
Eric Bana: Scott wrote a character filled script. That's why I signed on to the film. The character was so strong on the page. He was really there. I came out a couple of months before we started shooting and spent some time with him. I selfishly cherry picked what I thought would work well for film. So I have stolen some bits and pieces, but it wasn't entirely essential. There are certain elements to the police that work in the 46 and in the Bronx. They have a way about them that you can't get a way with not playing. Getting time with those guys was really helpful.
What interests you most about this story? What's the meat on the bone?
Eric Bana: A character who is so complex, and at the same time, he's very elegantly written. I remember years ago...I read a lot of stuff that I could never even do...I read Man on Fire. It was a great script, but the central character was like, wow, how am I going to follow this guy, doing all this stuff. Then Denzel Washington, who's my favorite actor, I saw the film and it was one of the greatest acting lessons. He was so good as that character. You never questioned whether you had to like him or not. You experienced his trajectory and that's what it's about. The character of Ralph Sarchie in this movie reminds me of him, in some ways. Whether it be likeability or complexity, not every thing we see him do, we're going to enjoy. But it's a great challenge as an actor. Scott's films, the characters are very strong. When I saw Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, I was really intrigued. I thought this character was keeping at the center of these really interesting, scary events. Selfishly for me, it was really Ralph that jumped off the page. Scott's previous work and I've never worked in this genre. I'm really excited about it.
Ralph is very much a true believer in the supernatural and the occult. Does your character have a skeptical edge or is he very much the same?
Eric Bana: He's very skeptical. I like that arc. Without giving too much away, for the majority of the film, you're not playing someone who's selling the supernatural to everyone he comes across. It's the beginning of that characters journey. He's just a 46 precinct, tough as hell cop. That's who he is. He has no predetermined belief.
What takes him through the gateway to this world?
Eric Bana: Well, I don't want to insinuate or give away that he get's there in the end.
This film is hard R, with very gory and graphic content. When you read the script, was there anything that concerned you?
Eric Bana: Definitely, but at the end of the day, you have to put your total faith in the director. Tonally and visually, that's really in the edit. They get a smorgasbord of material, it's up to them to assemble that. It's really all in the edit how that stuff plays out; how brutal or non-brutal, how gory or non-gory. I've got complete faith in Scott. We've gotten along extremely well. We've seen things very similar. I have total trust in him.
As an actor, how do you prepare for the extreme scenes, where you have to be frightened, where you're seeing a demon or something like that?
Eric Bana: Have you seen our locations? (laughs) The first question I asked when I met with Scott was, tell me you're not shooting in Toronto? And he said no, we're shooting this in the Bronx. This is a great, early, actor and director conversation. Quite often these movies go where it's best on paper, not best for the movie. This move was right from the go. The producers and director said we're shooting in the Bronx. It's absolutely essential cinematically. It doesn't let the production design department off the hook completely. They've had to work really hard as well. This is not where you come to work and just chill. Every night, it's full on for the crew. We're out on the street at night. There's a certain level of tension everyday when we come to work without even thinking about it. Based on locations, that I think will really help the film.
Where you familiar with the Bronx before.
Eric Bana: No, well in movies, Warriors is one of my favorite films. I was really excited when they signed off on every location. There's not just one. We were in Long Island at a real jail. We have a tiny bit of stage work in the last week. But basically we're out here every night.
You're pretty tall. Every location we've seen so far has been cramped. Has it been difficult to get around?
Eric Bana: My brother is 6' 7", so I'm getting a taste of what life is like for him. And Joel McHale is taller than me, so it's tough. Tight spaces are really bothersome for me. How does it help? It just helps when you pare it down to the bare essentials. You have the A camera operator, the focus puller, and the way Scott is shooting the film, it's very dark. So much of it is with flash lights. We sort of self light ourselves through scenes. Scott will also be running around in the rooms with a torch while we're in there. I really like it. That stuff never distracts me. I enjoy having another job to do, like is it possible for you to light that part in the corner? It doesn't take me out of the moment. I really enjoy that stuff. The shooting style of the film really adds to the experience.
Joel is a really funny guy, and you have that comedy background, will there be a gag reel on this film?
Eric Bana: Oh yeah, there'll definitely be a gag reel on this film.
How much fun are you guys having?
Eric Bana: There's one night we're driving around in a car. We're shooting for three or four hours, this long scene. We got to about 4 AM, we had another hour before sunrise. We're in the process car on a trailer, the crew is all at the front, because we're shooting digital and we don't have to change mags. Scott was like, do whatever you guys want. Joel and I just went at each other for forty minutes without the script. That was a lot of fun. We're both comfortable because of our backgrounds. And you couldn't do that if we were shooting on film.
But the tone is straightforward right?
Eric Bana: Well, when you hang around with cops, all they do is put sh*t on each other. It's gallows humor all the way, no matter what country you're in. For our characters to be believable, that has to be there. Otherwise it's just two guys trying to act tough and it's bullshit. I hear them on the set every night. They're always saying how fat they are, or how big pussies they are. That's part of the job. It's not a comedy, but it's unrealistic to not try and play some of those moments. That was really important to Scott.
You said this was the first horror genre film you've done. Why is that?
Eric Bana: There had been a few offers over the years, but I never responded yes. But nothing to this level. I hate to use the word sophistication, but that is the case. Scott's movies are just more interesting than the others I've seen. The script was too good. You couldn't compare this to the stuff that's been presented to me in the past.
We took a break for a late night lunch. I love chatting with extras and the crew. Everything is strictly off the record with these guys, but they are the true barometers of a film. Everyone was pretty psyched about the film. Scott and his team ran a fairly loose set. And the primary leads were not prima donnas or unapproachable. This is good praise from a crew soaked and chilled to the bone.
The reporters went outside to watch an action scene being filmed. Chris Coy, shirtless and barefoot, with this huge, painted on back tattoo is running down the street. He's being chased by Joel McHale, tatted up and wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. Coy then runs into a unmarked police car that pulls in front of him. Once again, there's no glamour of filmmaking here. These poor actors, not stuntmen, are shooting this scene, repeatedly in the rain. I thought Chris Coy might get pneumonia doing this scene shirtless. Chris and Joel took a break and came to speak with us for a few minutes. The reporters linked our umbrellas so we could all get some cover from the downpour. This weather really, really sucked. I give these guys credit for being pretty upbeat and funny. Here's an excerpt of what Joel McHale said. Chris Coy didn't reveal much, but his character and what happens to him was said, so I'm cutting that part out. The fun of this film is in the shocking twists and turns. Here's Joel McHale, spoiler free:
What did you take this role, which is your first in a horror film?
Joel McHale: It's an incredible script. I think the script is just fantastic. I get cast in films that are mostly comedies. When this opportunity came up, it's not funny at all. It's f***ing tragic. It's sad. I jumped at the chance. And to work with Scott Derrickson.
Scott said that you two are really old friends and that he wrote the part for you, in your voice? What new aspect of you are we going to see?
Joel McHale: You haven't seen my penis yet. (laughs) That's featured prominently, no special effects, it's magnificent. You will se the more violent side of me, which I would only unleash on an attacking bear. It's not a comedic role but I do tell jokes. It's not like I'm hiding anything. Scott did write this with me in mind. I'm still surprised I got it. You will see my obsession with knives on camera. As evidenced by me running after Chris Coy with a knife.
Can you tell us about this scene you guys are both shooting?
Joel McHale: We're out for a night jog and motivate each other by switching knives. (laughs)
Alright, so you can't give anything away, how about prepping for the scene?
Joel McHale: Well, we meet at five in the morning and just start beating the sh*t out of each other for like three hours. We've both been doing fight training out at Kaufman Studious. Chris Coy is also a master of numerous martial arts. He's in great shape. I am not. I just lift weights.