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Hot Nights With Swamp Rats and Demons

Hot Nights With Swamp Rats and Demons
Photo Source: Frazer Harrison
Like the changing seasons, the cycle of tides, or even Lindsay Lohan's court dates, there are few events with more regularity than Hollywood's obsession with exorcism movies. Without fail, another film about foulmouthed demons, hard-edged priests and barf-blasting girls crawls its way onto the movie screen nearly every year. In the 36 years since William Friedkin's masterpiece, few have approached the masterful suspense of the original. Imitation isn't always flattery.

Then there's "The Last Exorcism," the low-budget, Southern gothic creepfest about a film crew that follows sham exorcist Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) for what he thinks is an ordinary expulsion on a seemingly possessed girl (Ashley Bell). But when his over-the-top routine turns up unexplainable results, Marcus and the film crew embark on a terrifying trip to the dark side.

"The Last Exorcism" eschews the usual special-effect saturation for the engrossing voyeurism of just a handheld camera—manned by cinematographer Zoltan Honti—that helps capture the exhilarating terror of this documentary gone wrong. But the film would never succeed without the stellar performance of Fabian, who animates the boisterous Marcus with energy, vulnerability, and, most important, believability. 

Back Stage recently met with Fabian for a discussion of real exorcisms, chaining up Bell, and things that go bump in the New Orleans night.

Back Stage: In many films, the environment almost becomes a character itself. What was it like playing a scene with the character of the backwoods of Louisiana?

Patrick Fabian: New Orleans did almost half the work for me. I'd never been there, and it really is spooky, sweaty, moody, and atmospheric in all the ways you want. We shot down in the Lower Ninth Ward, so it was still devastated from Hurricane Katrina, and we were, like, the last plantation down the road on the left. We were 45 minutes from the heart of New Orleans, and we could have been a million miles away. So that sense of isolation that you feel in the film is real. The swamp, well, it feels like a swamp, because there's swamp there on the left, you know? And it feels hot because it is, it's God-awful hot.

But [German director Daniel Stamm] helped me out a lot by giving me books to read, movies to watch. There were some exorcism books, and I read some things that were written by some priests that hadn't been written with the idea of somebody reading them. They were just merely documenting what they knew. And those were the things that really creep me out, because I knew they weren't written with the intent to tantalize.

Back Stage: It's that space between science and religion, where both are simultaneously true.

Fabian: Right, they are the religious scientists. The books actually said, "Then at 4 a.m. the head turned around and at 6 a.m. he spoke Latin backwards," so reading that was creepy. Read that late at night! Granted, I'm not playing a Catholic priest, I'm not trying to play the exorcist or Max von Sydow or that kind of noise, you know. As a matter of fact, I tried to stay away from anything that smacked of "The power of Christ compels you!" because that's so iconic and so great—we all love that; it still scares the shit out of me. But I wanted to stay away from walking down that path because I don't think that's who Cotton was, and I think you don't go to that well again.

Back Stage: Did shooting in the backwoods of Louisiana freak you out?

Fabian: Halfway through the film, we switched from days to nights. So now we're there at night, and now all the bugs who'd been sleeping all day not only come up to bite you but they make this cacophony. And there's swamp rats and there's alligators, and we're tired. And we're working long hours and we're running around with a single camera in the dark, stumbling over roots, chasing the girl with the bloody dress. Yeah, I was creeped out, absolutely.

Back Stage: You don't really have to act at that point, you're really in those environments.

Fabian: I'll say this again and again and again: Without Ashley Bell being as professional and as good and as committed as she is, you don't have a movie in the end. She creeped me out. There's no CGI with her work. So I'd go to work and she's doing that stuff and bending her neck and I'm trying to talk to her and it creeps me out. I mean, it really did, legitimately: We were spooked out and scared. At times I was like, I got to walk away from this.

Back Stage: The computer graphics are almost nonexistent. As an actor, is that easier, to not be talking to a tennis ball on a string in a studio somewhere?

Fabian: There's no green screen in the exorcism scene. I got Ashley chained to the floor. And she's hot and she's sweaty and it's take 16. And I think that comes across: You can feel the sweat in the film.

Back Stage: Your scenes with Bell get pretty physical. How did the two of you prepare?

Fabian: I've done stunt stuff. You get punched or you punch somebody in bar fights, and it's always by the numbers. It's always, "Look me in the eye, and you know I'm coming here, and then you feint," and it's all clinical, and that's the way you sell it. We did a little bit of this, but it was more wild and wooly. Since I was so much bigger, the first take, I'm like, "Oh, I don't want to hurt the poor girl." And of course, she comes at me like a bat out of hell, and I'm like, "Fuck! This will hurt me." So those are real emotions going on, and I felt that honesty. For a horror film with all that sort of weirdness and uncomfortability, we still had a blast.

Back Stage: What was your audition process like?

Fabian: This came from Lauren Bass Casting Office. She was wonderful. She's a great person to audition for. She's the kind of place, as an actor, you go in and she's made it comfortable and set the table for you. You don't feel like there's an antagonistic thing. So I love going to her room. The requirement for this audition was to come in, and I didn't have to have anything prepared, so it was improv. Ashley was actually in the room, and [Daniel Stamm] sat there, rather mercurially, you know. He's German, and he's tall and blond and says, "Ya, Patrick, I want you to, to, to convince Ashley that she should go see a doctor." And honestly, in my brain, I'm like, "What?" But, like a good actor, I'm like, "All right, how high do I have to jump? Let's do it." So we started doing it, I tried different ways of persuasion with her. We played around with that for a little while, for about 15 minutes, and then that's it, I'm released.

Back Stage
: That's it?

And then he calls me back, only this time he wants me to bring in a 10-minute sermon on anything I want.

Back Stage: No pressure, right?

Fabian: Which makes sense, because, you know, it's a preacher role. And I thought, you got to be able to bring the goods, right? So I start working on creating a sermon, and it's funny: Actor-brain-wise, I start going, "All right, I need to look at the Bible, and I need to figure out what's real and blah, blah, blah." And then I hit a wall. I don't really know religious stuff well enough, and then finally I was like, "Wait a second, I don't have to know anything; I can make anything up."

So as soon as I did that, I started making up quotes out of the Bible, I made up books out of the Bible, and then I started drawing on, like, just things that are in my brain, song titles, book passages, Shakespeare, and I just created something, and I revved it up. Like a good director, he dialed me up, dialed me down, adjusted me, and then I left, and I got the part. Then we read the script and we talked about what was going on. So it was very sort of bass-ackwards in a lot of ways. However, that really came to bear when we were working. Because Daniel likes to shoot 20 and 30 takes a pop.

Back Stage: That seems intense.

Fabian: Yeah, and unfortunately, having been around for a while, I get into habits as an actor. My first choice is my best choice, and you have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands. But by doing multiple takes, you start to wear that down. I stop having that sort of artifice where I'm the director and the actor at the same time, and I start trying to show what I think is a finished product. By doing multiple takes, it strips that away, and I think what you see at the end of the film is a real, natural, clean truth. Daniel said, "The way we're going to be shooting in this, it's going to be so intimate the audience will sniff it in a minute if you are showing me, if you are acting for me."

Back Stage: Those auditions where you just made up books of the Bible isn't too far off from what your character does.

Fabian: It ends up being pretty prophetic. Pardon the pun.

Back Stage: And you hadn't even read the script at that point.

Fabian: Yeah. So when we finally got down to doing it, it's like the Rev. Cotton is somebody who's well-versed in doing all of this but doesn't necessarily have the faith to light it up anymore. I talk about him being in the family business, and he could have been a plumber, but his dad wasn't a plumber; his dad was a preacher, so he's a preacher instead. He's paying the rent doing that, so he's reached this point midlife going, "I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know if I have any faith."

Back Stage: The movie was originally called "Cotton." Why the change in name?

Fabian: Okay, let me ask you. "Hey man, I'm going to go see this film called 'Cotton.' " What do you think?

Back Stage: Not scary.

Fabian: Yeah, and you think, "What's that about?" I had a friend actually say, "Oh, are you playing Eli Whitney?" Thank God that the powers that be said, "You know, regardless of how good this is, 'Cotton' is not going to sell."

Back Stage: A lot of the success in your character has to do with manufacturing naturalness. What seem like line flubs or mistakes actually give the film a sense of realness. How does one go about making accidents on purpose?

Fabian: Wow. Well, you know what, I was going to say it's all genius work, but a lot of it sometimes was just happy accidents. And once you find happy accidents, that's a gift and you do move on.

Back Stage: What are the qualities of a good horror movie?

Fabian: It has to have a sense of believability, that this awful horribleness could actually happen. I want people to come out of the theater being creeped out and looking over their shoulder like something might be there.

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