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Julius Avery’s bucket list is now a little bit shorter.
The Australian director behind The Pope’s Exorcist has wanted to work with the New Zealand-born, Australian-raised Russell Crowe since he first saw the actor’s breakout performance in Romper Stomper (1992). The Australian drama earned Crowe the attention of Hollywood, and he’s since gone on to have a storied career that includes an Oscar win for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2001).
Crowe’s latest role as Father Gabriele Amorth in Avery’s The Pope’s Exorcist is based on the real Father Amorth’s memoirs that chronicle his time as the Chief Exorcist to the Vatican. But similar to James Wan’s The Conjuring franchise, Avery merely used real life as a jumping-off point for his heightened genre picture about a young boy’s possession.
Avery, who’s perhaps best known for directing Bad Robot’s World War II action-horror film Overlord (2018), was less interested in the conventions of the exorcism movie, opting instead to approach Amorth as more of a super-powered demon hunter.
“If you’re coming into this to see a serious biopic, you’re gonna walk away pretty disappointed. That was never the intention of the movie, and it’s probably got more in common with Indiana Jones than it does the original Exorcist,” Avery tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Avery adds: “Russell is gonna hate me for saying this, but who doesn’t want to see the Gladiator take on the Devil?”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Avery also discusses his interest in returning to the world of Overlord.
Well, I know that Russell may not technically be an Australian citizen, but as an Australian yourself, has directing him always been a bucket list item for you?
Yeah, Russell is this amazing powerhouse that I’ve been following ever since he played Hando in Romper Stomper. He has this raw magnetism that really draws you in, and both on screen and off, he’s this amazing storyteller. He’s always spinning a great yarn or getting his guitar out, and he just loves to tell stories. He really lights up when he does it, and there’s this real warmth and generosity to him in real life that I wanted to tap into in The Pope’s Exorcist. He’s playing the character of Father Amorth, and he was a very funny guy in real life. He used a lot of humor against demons and the Devil, and one of his favorite sayings was “The Devil doesn’t like jokes.” And so Russell really wanted to embody the spirit of Father Amorth even though this is not a serious biopic or a documentary at all. He still wanted to really ground himself in that real-life character, and I think that really comes across on screen. Russell is very much known as a serious actor, and so seeing the more fun, lovable and warm side to him is something that I think people will love.
Did the real Father Amorth rock a Vespa in the same iconic fashion as Russell’s Father Amorth?
(Laughs.) He’s from Rome so he very well could have had a scooter. But I do have to correct you because it’s a Lambretta, not a Vespa. Russell really wanted to put some Easter eggs in there for the real person. Father Amorth was originally from the town of Modena where they built Ferrari, so he wears Ferrari socks and has a Ferrari sticker on the Lambretta. He wanted to ground the performance with a bit of real life because, at the end of the day, there’s a lot of fantastical elements and poetic license going on in the movie. So he just wanted to remain grounded and embody the spirit of Father Amorth.
So you came on board this film when it was already in motion to some degree. Did you end up reconceiving the entire movie?
I was sent the script, but didn’t read it for ages, because I thought the exorcist genre was done to death. But I started reading it, and the more I read it, the more I loved this character of Father Amorth. He felt like Dirty Harry and Columbo, a real rogue within the church. He is this flawed character, which I love. He can thumb his nose at the new ways of the Church, but he’s also this super faithful servant of God where his faith is unquestionable. So I just love that contradiction, but again, I never saw this as a serious biopic. It’s more like what James Wan did with The Conjuring. It uses a real person as a launching pad for something a lot more fantastical. In a way, I saw Father Amorth as sort of a badass demon-hunting superhero, and Father Esquibel [Daniel Zovatto] is his sidekick-in-training, within this Da Vinci Code world.
So when I was brought on, I leaned into the more pulpy side of things. I love smashing real and grounded with over-the-top, bonkers stuff, and I probably started that with Overlord. Good or bad, I enjoy how it subverts people’s expectations. But if you’re coming into this to see a serious biopic, you’re gonna walk away pretty disappointed. That was never the intention of the movie, and it’s probably got more in common with Indiana Jones than it does the original Exorcist. I’m not a really big buff on exorcist movies by any means. I’ve seen parts of the original Exorcist on TV, but I remember seeing Exorcist III on videotape as a kid and loving it. It had a lot more over-the-top action and fantastical elements than the original had.
Whether you believe in demons or exorcisms or not, it was really interesting that [the Pope’s exorcist] was a real job. There was actually a guy at the Vatican who was the Chief Exorcist. When I read the title of The Pope’s Exorcist, I was like, “Some writer in Hollywood came up with that.” So I was pretty blown away by it being real, but I’m not sure how much I believe in all the possession stuff. What I did find fascinating is that scientists can explain 98% of cases, but there’s 2% they can’t explain. And we explore that in the movie when Father Amorth explains the 2% that’s confounded science. But if 2% of possessions are real, that’s pretty scary. I also love the idea of watching a battle between two apex predators, Father Amorth versus the Devil, and that was something that was interesting in the original script. Russell is gonna hate me for saying this, but who doesn’t want to see the Gladiator take on the Devil? (Laughs.)
Was the casting process rather eventful since you had to look at countless tapes of actors playing demonically possessed?
Yeah, Peter [DeSouza-Feighoney], who plays Henry, gets possessed by a demon, and he was only 10 years old at the time. I wanted the kid to be young because demons tend to come after the more vulnerable. And at that age, actors usually haven’t been trained to be a certain way. They’re just very raw and have a lot of natural instincts. So we saw a bunch of kids, but Peter just stood out as this beautifully natured kid. And when he turned into the demon, he was just terrifying. The most unnerving thing was watching Peter transform into the demon. It was terrifying not only for me, but also the other actors and the crew. So we translated some of that into the movie, but just on set, it was very scary.
Ralph Ineson has the best voice in Hollywood right now. He’s his own special effect. That said, he probably wasn’t available to read on set, so would the actors just do their best demon voices on the day?
So the intention was always to cast someone to play the demon voice, and we needed someone that felt ancient and had a gravelly voice. Mixing that with the image of Henry’s innocent face was interesting and quite terrifying. And Ralph was someone that I have known for a while, and he was immediately someone that I was drawn to for this. So I went over to London for five days, and we recorded his voice. Peter laid all the foundation and he did an amazing job, but Ralph was the ancient demon that we needed.
What did you learn about your film during test screenings?
The good thing about test screenings is that people don’t really know what they’re walking into and so they’re able to have a raw experience. So it was nice to know what was working and what wasn’t working, and we finessed a few things. But what really made me excited was just how great the response was to Russell. Everyone just loved the Father Amorth character. So it was exciting to learn that the story of Father Amorth was working.
Overlord was one of my favorite genre films of the last decade. Did sequel talk ever get very far?
I always like it when a movie lives or dies on being a standalone, but it’s such a cool universe. The idea of D-Day being the beginning of the Allied Forces joining up and taking on evil, the Nazis, is just a cool launching pad. In this world, if those guys went on to other parts of Europe, I’m sure they would’ve found more dark and evil shit to take down. And hopefully, that feeling lives on in people’s heads and they’re building that out and exploring that in their heads. But I’d love to explore something like this in future films, or if a sequel or prequel comes along. But it’s a really cool universe and world to play in.
The end of The Pope’s Exorcist also teases the potential for more stories. Was franchise setup the goal, or did you again just want to leave something to the audience’s imagination?
As I mentioned, I saw Father Amorth as this badass demon-hunting superhero with his sidekick, Father Esquibel, and personally, I would love to see more of them together. In the movie, we set up that there’s 200 evil places where God is not welcome, and so there’s 199 more movies to go. (Laughs.) So that would be fun to see. It’d also be fun to see Russell again on his Lambretta, with Father Esquibel by his side on a Vespa. (Laughs.)
The Pope’s Exorcist is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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