The Devil Inside: Filmmaker Joshua John Miller Brings Horror Back to B Movie Roots with THE EXORCISM

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Joshua John Miller’s film debut saw him wearing a cursed Silver Shamrock skull mask as Daniel Challis’ son Willie in 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch. In addition to numerous TV appearances, Miller has featured in Tim Hunter’s polarizing teen crime drama River’s Edge, Kathryn Bigelow’s often overlooked vampire western Near Dark, and other cult classics like Teen Witch and The Willies. In 2015, alongside writing and life partner M.A. Fortin, Miller made his feature directorial debut with the celebrated meta horror-thriller The Final Girls. Now, the duo is back for a meta look at the making of a B horror movie, something that Miller has close proximity to. His mother was Susan Bernard, star of such B and horror movies as Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, The Witchmaker, and Necromancy. His father, Jason Miller, wrote and directed the screen adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play That Championship Season, but is perhaps best known for his iconic performance as Father Damien Karras in the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist, a role he reprised in The Exorcist III.   

Following Universal’s 2021 announcement of a $400 million megadeal to make a trilogy of The Exorcist films and the lackluster box office of David Gordon Green’s The Exorcist: Believer, Mike Flanagan is set to take the franchise in a new direction. Ever since the 1973 horror hit landed in theaters, Hollywood has tried to recapture the success and paranoia of William Friedkin’s original across five sequels and prequels, and an endless list of imitations. It’s within that Hollywood landscape that Fortin and Miller’s The Exorcism takes place. Troubled actor Anthony Miller (Russell Crowe) begins unraveling while filming a remake of The Exorcist. As his mental state declines, his daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins) begins to wonder if his past addictions are resurfacing, or if something much darker is at work. As The Exorcism arrives in theaters June 21st from Vertical Entertainment, Boxoffice Pro spoke with writer/director Joshua John Miller about his personal connections to psychological horror and the genre’s B movie background.

Horror films are often inspired by personal fears or experiences. In the case of The Exorcism, from your own observations of an actor, who was in some ways haunted by a film. 

[Laughs.] Yes, literally and figuratively. I’ve had the opportunity to do some really cool psychological horror through the years, whether as an actor or writer. Making Near Dark, weird stuff happened on the set, but I only thought about that because my dad had been in The Exorcist. There was always this looming sense of drama or ‘Uh oh, a cursed movie.’ I never believed in any of that. I always thought that was a bunch of hokum. It just seems invented. I think a lot of studios would invent stories like that to help promote their movies. My mom believed in it, but I took the opposite tack. Ultimately, I was more interested in the psychological traumas that I observed in Hollywood or in my dad, which were really the inspiration for the movie. Actors become other people and lose themselves in a role and sometimes never come back from it. All of these things intrigued me, because I witnessed it my whole life as a person making movies. I even observed it in myself.       

What makes horror such a good genre to explore psychology and family dynamics?

It’s changed, and that’s sort of my issue–but the horror space has always existed as a basement genre; it’s a B movie. A teacher I had, Werner Herzog, talked about how B films are the true American genre. You could say a lot of other genres belong to other countries and places, but in America we own the B. We were really part of helping to create and perpetuate B films. When people were not making films to make money, but making their weird passion projects–whether it’s John Waters in Baltimore or Warhol in the studio in New York in the ’60s. All of those are underground cinema, and horror is a cousin of that. Those are looked upon as dirty movies, as pornographic. So you’re kind of in that weird borderland between legitimacy and porn. I prefer to lean more towards the porn than Blumhouse, for example. I don’t mean just gore, but in subject matter; things that are uncomfortable, things that are strange, things that are too ‘weird’ for the mainstream. In that space, as the result of what I would call a Queer space, I think you’re able to really address psychology in interesting ways that maybe standard American films won’t address. You can address themes that are subversive and other transgressive things. They’re incredibly visceral, so you can also deal with those strange ideas, but in a really cool way that feels, well, I don’t want to say entertaining, but maybe. Thrilling? Possibly. When you can sneak them in.

Along those lines, why was it important for The Exorcism to subvert some of the tropes associated with the possession film?

For all the obvious reasons, I don’t think you can ever touch The Exorcist. I think it is the movie about an exorcism. Have there been other ones that have been good since? Sure, but for personal reasons, I would never want to compete with my dad’s movie, in which he played the priest. It would just be harming myself, which I’m probably doing anyway by making a movie about making an exorcism movie. When I used to pitch the movie to Mark, my co-writer and collaborator throughout the entire process, I would say “Let’s do John Cassavetes Opening Night, but as a horror film. Let’s just make this a drama and the horror is the psychological trauma that these characters have unresolved within themselves and each other. Let’s just live in this atmospheric, liminal space. And make it a man possessed by a demon.” All we see, mostly, is women possessed and saved by men. We really felt that was important [to change], especially when we were conceiving this movie, where men seemed to be the most violent and erratic.

There’s a remarkable set within the film. How did you work with your production designer to establish what that would look like?

I really appreciate you acknowledging that, because at one point, they said, “It’s too expensive to do, and we won’t even be using all these sets.” I was like, “No, it’s everything in this movie.” It just felt like it was a character in the movie and that was important to me. You could argue that a lot of the cosmology of the movie, the supernatural, exists in that space. I had seen a textbook in junior high or high school that was a director’s handbook or history of cinema. On the cover, was the bisected set of The Diary of Anne Frank. They built the whole four stories, all the way to the attic. I remembered thinking how cool that was. That was such an amazing image. To look and see people who were existing in the middle, in the attic, and then on another floor. It just seemed like an interesting mirror for life. You get to recreate what we’re doing right now [in this chat.] I thought, I want to do that with this. I showed people pictures of it and here we are. I’m really glad it made it into the movie, because it’s one of my favorite parts. 

Like the head spin of The Exorcist, this film has its own unique manifestation of possession. Technically, what tools were you using to create those moments? 

Well, my biggest tool was Russell. He’s a human volcano, a living creature on Earth. That’s Russell. I don’t think you have to do much with him. We didn’t have to do a lot of CGI, and we didn’t have to do a lot of special effects and make-up. I look at it now and I would even do less than what we have. I’m always wanting to make changes to the movie and I think that I’ll be doing that for the rest of my life. He’s just this dangerous and vulnerable presence that moves through the movie. To me, he was one of the best tools we had; a human. That’s what I loved about The Exorcist. It was not CGI, they weren’t doing that back then, and most of it was all practical, with Dick Smith doing that phenomenal make-up. We wanted to keep the movie as much as we could in the realm of practical [effects]. Nothing that felt synthetic. To me, that feels more human, and hopefully, the audience feels it more. Whereas I went to a movie recently that I really loved, but I felt really at a distance from it because there was so much CGI. I never quite entered the movie and it never quite entered me. 

Horror is one of the best genres to experience with strangers in a movie theater. Do you remember any of your first experiences with horror? 

I think I was nine or ten. We lived in Los Angeles and my grandmother lived in Hancock Park. There was the Fairfax Cinema Odeon. I don’t know if it was even the Odeon at that point, but it was a triplex. They would play second- and third-run movies. As we were talking earlier, this is where horror movies often ended up—or even opened, in some cases. My grandmother was losing her eyesight because of glaucoma, so we would take the bus from her house all the way to the Fairfax cinemas. She couldn’t quite see all the names of the movies…but I could. I saw Friday the 13th in 3D and I convinced her to take me to that movie. She could barely see it, but she liked it. It was getting to see 3D, which was really cool, but it was also, despite being Queer, the first time that I saw a naked woman on screen. I went, ‘Ooo this is dangerous, this is pornographic.’ Then there was blood, and I was like, ‘Ooo, that’s taboo.’ There was that combination, that sweet spot, of sexuality, of death, all on a screen for my ten-year-old eyes. I just thought, ‘I feel like I’m doing something bad by being here. Like a peep show.’ Ever since then, horror has had that sort of fun, dirty, exciting feeling inside of me. I think that’s why a lot of Queer people like horror, because we can relate to those feelings very easily.

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
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