By M. Sellers Johnson.

I wanted to address the horror of watching somebody slowly becoming disfigured and losing their grip on sanity…. To me, that was the scary part of the movie and what we really wanted to do.”

—Joshua John Miller

At the time of its release, the iconic horror film, The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), invoked a renewed appreciation for the horror genre. While studio investments in horror sequels had declined by the late 1960s, The Exorcist set the tone for further commercial interests in other supernatural horror works of the 1970s, such as The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976) and The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979), both of which would go on to have larger franchises of their own. Independent and slasher subgenres would begin to figure more prominently not long after The Exorcist premiere, with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas both debuting the following year. And while The Exorcist continues to have a loosely connected franchise of its own, none of its sequels or manifestations are quite as personal to the original, as Joshua John Miller’s The Exorcism (2024).

As son to Jason Miller (John Anthony Miller Jr.), who famously played Father Damien Karras in the original film, Joshua imbues his own exorcism film with themes of legacy, fatherhood, and faith. As The Exorcism zooms out to present a narrative about filmmaking itself and a haunted production—echoing the rumors and horrors that surrounded the original production—the story is really one of familial affirmation amidst interpersonal trauma. In Miller’s new film, he explores how horrors of guilt and the demons of one’s past, manifest in ways both traumatic and supernatural. In addition to certain innate horrors of filmmaking, itself.

The Exorcism held its early June premiere in Thalian Hall, a notable historic theater of the Southeast—itself contained in haunted histories and rumored apparitions. In this interview, held shortly thereafter, Miller and his partner M.A. Fortin delve deeper into creative processes surrounding the film, including topics of how trauma can manifest within cinematic narratives, creative writing, studio interference, and the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. While there will inevitably be conjecture on this release of this film, not long after The Pope’s Exorcist (Julius Avery, 2023), both starring Russell Crowe, any connection between these two projects would appear, more or less, incidental. (Production began on The Exorcism in late 2019, whereas The Pope’s Exorcist was filmed in the fall of 2022.) This, and the notable differences in Crowe’s characters (despite the respective films’ ostensible similarities) points to The Exorcism as a singular venture in Fortin and Miller’ collective vision, which approaches this supernatural material in a manner more subtextual than one may at first expect.

M. Sellers Johnson: Your film, The Exorcism, is in dialogue with Friedkin’s film in an interesting way. Considering that your father played such a seminal role in the inaugural film, your approach to this story has a uniquely personalized connection. This seems most relevant in the fact that Russell Crowe’s character shares your father’s name. Tell us about this perspective and how growing up with The Exorcist shaped your approach to this story.

Joshua John Miller: So, the genesis of the movie was based on a conversation we were having with Kevin Williamson about doing something meta-related, similar to The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015), or sort of a companion piece to that film, which was a meta-horror comedy. Mark (M.A.) and I were talking about the exorcism subgenre and if there was something to do around the world of The Exorcist. Out of that conversation came an exorcism movie which we were both thinking about, partly because of personal reasons and also because the “original” one is often referred to as the “gold standard” of those types of films. The idea came about of consciously making a “love letter” to the original movie. Mark and I began talking about the idea of making a reboot, and to let it be about the horrors of making movies, the “cursed” movies, and how it’s a cursed venture in itself to do a remake. It’s best to leave remakes alone and stop franchising movies. We had all these fun ideas that we wanted to bury in there.

But part of the challenge of talking about this, sometimes, is that we started a long time ago. Now we’re different people and the movie’s very different because we did some additional editing on it. They gave us an opportunity to cut a little bit, recently. There would be a lot more that we’d like to recut, but the studio had a very specific vision that we didn’t particularly agree with, nor with many of the choices that they had. But what was nice about Vertical coming on board, was they were interested in what we had to say, more, and wanted to incorporate some of our ideas back into our original vision. It’s been a very interesting journey, so to try and think about what happened a long time ago, in a way, is sometimes challenging. But if I look at the movie now, I think about what the genesis of it was, returning to the movie back in January when we recut it. As a filmmaker, it’s always a very challenging situation to have the movie be “possessed” by the studio, and for you to really not get to have your vision in there. But what was good about Vertical was that they gave us an opportunity to do some work on it, though I wish we could have had a lot longer to work on the movie. I know a lot of filmmakers say that, but there is a lot that I still want to do in the movie. But when I look at the film now, it’s also interesting because I see a lot of things that I didn’t initially see as clearly as I do now. Some of the ideas of this are rooted in the notion of trauma. So, to me, trauma really centers around the idea of childhood trauma. But in hindsight, Mark and I have realized that the movie is also a metaphoric tale of just making films and the horror of making art and films within the Hollywood system or dealing with franchises. The kind of powder keg of making films, especially in the studio system. I think that feels like it’s really there and at the roots of what we were trying to address, as well. You know, it’s also obviously a love letter to my dad. But in ten years maybe there’ll be another reason why we made it, we just don’t know yet.

MJ: The Exorcism centers around a father-daughter relationship, which remains at the heart of the story. What core themes, surrounding Anthony and Lee Miller’s relationship, were you hoping to evoke?

JM: What did you experience watching the relationship? I’m curious.

MJ: Well, there’s a push and pull with them, you know? She obviously goes back to visit her dad and is somewhat hesitant about it. They’re also compelled to be there because of an incident at school, but there’s this want for reconciliation from both sides and different kinds of trauma that are keeping that from becoming a whole.

M.A. Fortin: That’s what we had intended.

JM: Yeah, and I think that’s definitely a big part of it. And there’s something that’s really hard when you watch your loved one fall apart in front of you. I wanted to address the horror of watching somebody slowly becoming disfigured and losing their grip on sanity. That’s a very hard thing for a young person, or really anybody, to witness. To me, that was the scary part of the movie and what we really wanted to do.

MJ: The supernatural antagonist appears to be the demon Molech, who is often attributed to child sacrifice. How does this play into Anthony’s haunted past and his attempts to reconcile with his faith?

MF: I don’t think it’s really all that buried. It seems pretty apparent that whatever is coming for him now was present in some way, shape, or form in his younger years. It was fun to play around in this kind of angelical arcana and use it in some way to reflect an issue that persists to this day within the institution. I think that whether you as an audience decide to view it as specifically supernatural, more metaphorical, or as a symbol for that kind of abuse, then I guess it’s really in the eye of the beholder. Part of the goal, originally, was to not lean so hard into the supernatural that it becomes unimpeachable or impossible to deny that Anthony was possessed, but rather, how much of this is the psychodrama of untreated “stuff,” for lack of a better term.

I think that whether you as an audience decide to view it as specifically supernatural, more metaphorical, or as a symbol for that kind of abuse, then I guess it’s really in the eye of the beholder.”

—Joshua John Miller

MJ: Ryan Simpkins and their brother Ty are other young actors who have grown up in the world of horror film. What was it like working with Ryan? How did they get along with Russell, since they share a lot of screen time together?

JM: Russell is a very formidable character and carries a lot of weight in his presence on the set. Everyone is a bit intimidated. Which is silly to be, really, about anybody, and directors should not be intimidated by their actors. But I think that there was a healthy amount of tension between them that probably Russell was generating to create that conflict. From what I gathered, there was a bit of a natural tension. But that could also just be the tension that Russell carries, by his presence. He’s very much into his role when he’s in it; this mono-focus when he’s in the moment in a scene. That’s part of what I feel his strengths are, as a performer. And Ryan held her own against that tidal wave.

MF: I love Ryan in the film, she’s terrific.

JM: Ryan is an extraordinary talent and I really love watching her in the movie because she’s kind of this blank canvas sometimes and the whole story sort of plays across her face, like an undeveloped photograph. You just watch this horror play out for her and things become more fraught in the story. She ends up in this kind of psychological maze of her own father, who’s like this minotaur that she has to either slay or save.

MJ: Speaking of other actors, Adrian Pasdar has a nice cameo in the opening sequence. You two famously starred in Kathryn Bigelow’s cult horror film, Near Dark (1987). This casting seems to suggest a continuing friendship. How would you say that your early acting experiences inform your work today?

JM: The movie, here, is having a conversation with some of the work I’ve done before and work I’ve admired and looked up to. The other day, a friend called me an archivist, of sorts, and a lot of work is addressing the things that have existed before me, such as The Final Girls, which addresses both our love of the genre of horror, but also our family’s relationship to that genre and B-film. You know, my mom was a final girl in some of her movies, such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer, 1965). So, part of The Final Girls came out of that. But I think in terms of The Exorcism, the film is definitely in conversation with Near Dark, and obviously The Exorcist. I thought it would be cool to have Adrian in the movie and be a part of the history of the story. Woven into the tapestry of it all.

MJ: You have worn a lot of different creative hats over your career. Beginning as a young actor and dancer, you’ve gone on to write two novels. One of which, The Mao Game (1997), was later adapted into a film. M.A. Fortin and yourself co-developed the pilot for the network series Queen of the South (2016-2021), which you also produced. And you also co-wrote the comedy slasher film The Finals Girls. Of these different roles in production, writing, and acting, which do you find yourself most drawn to?

Chloe Bailey as Blake Holloway

JM: What’s nice about books is that there’s no one really telling you what to do. You know, we’re both actually writing right now. I’m finishing my new novel, called I’ll Be Your Mirror. It’s kind of a sequel-ish to The Mao Game. And Mark is working on this cool book, which we can’t talk about quite yet. But it’s really, really good and Quentin Tarantino told him to write it, and “You listen to what Quentin tells you,” is what I told Mark. It’s really brilliant and reminds me to keep writing when I don’t always want to. With writing there’s a lot of freedom and I just love the craft itself with writing prose. It’s really nice as there’s this free form to it and there’s no end, or no commerce attached to it, per se. you can just be on your own and do it. There’s a kind of exuberance that I feel because it’s purely just you and I think there’s something about just writing words and sentences on a blank page that is a really great way to find a story, whereas I feel like when you’re writing a script it’s very structured. It feels like you’re creating these ingredients for a dish and that’s all a script really is which I find kind of dull sometimes. Truth be told, Mark does a lot of the heavy lifting in our screenwriting collaborations. I feel like I get my best ideas by writing fiction and prose. So, while writing Queen of the South, for example, we were expanding on some characters from the novel and I remember writing this, sort of, a prose adaptation of the novel and writing scenes of the characters and who they might be and their backstory. We would then transition that into screenplay material, and I remember that being very fun because I think that prose is very personal for me, so I’m able to tap into the characters and bring my own personal history that way, whereas screenplays can seem very impersonal to me, or very architectural. I think that prose is a good place to start, but I do love cinema, so it’s a nice place to end up and it would be nice to see the new book become a movie in my hands or someone else’s. I would like to continue to use prose as a starting point for a lot of our work. Actually, Quentin and other people encouraged me to read the first screenplay for My Own Private Idaho, which Gus Van Sant showed me, and it’s like a short story or a novella, really, in the way that he formatted it and the way that it’s written.

MJ: As a performer and writer who has grown up in the world of horror cinema, do you have any favorite films from the genre?

JM: Recently, I haven’t watched as much horror, as I used to. I feel my current viewing gets shifted, based on whatever project I’m working on. For example, the book that I’m writing now is sort of a love triangle set in the nineties, that’s not a specific genre. So, I tend to watch movies, read, or listen to music that’s more interconnected to the themes and vibe of that. Which is interesting because speaking for both of us, I think we want to do something that’s not a genre movie next and that doesn’t feel like having to balance multiple genres and doesn’t feel like a huge juggernaut of any sort. But rather, a smaller and more intimate character piece. Something with a simple tone to it, without having to balance too many things. The movie that I watched recently at the New Beverly Cinema was Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). It’s one of Mark’s favorites from Fassbinder, and I was so deeply moved by the film. There’s such an ache in the movie, such a heartache. The main character and her journey of being a woman alone and of a certain age who finds love with this younger man. The actor was also extraordinary. There was almost no acting as if you believed she was this character. It’s also a very political movie and it really says something about the German bourgeoisie in post-World War II, and how inherent those Germanic roots of racism could be. How they were embedded in the culture, at that time, and how “the other” is always othered by German society. What’s also beautiful about that movie is the sweet spot between sadness, drama, and dark humor. She even says at one point that she wants to take Ali to a beautiful and special restaurant after their wedding, saying how Hitler had dined there. Which says so much about her and her blind spots, and then they’re just sitting there in the restaurant and it’s this great master shot of the both of them sitting adjacent to each other, facing out in this empty, hollow piece of history. And it’s strange and weird and sad, but still sweet because they just got married.

MF: They’re totally out of place and so brave. But at the same time, your heart just breaks for them because they’re up against so much. It’s almost the most obvious film to talk about when you talk about Fassbinder but it’s also just one of the greatest. That one and Beware of the Holy Whore (1971).

MJ: Are there any prospective projects that you have in mind for the future?

JM: I think we like to keep things exciting and in different mediums. Part of what’s fun about having different mediums is that, let’s say, you’re writing a book but then you go back to movies, and you bring something fresh or a new energy to it. Maybe something you’ve learned. We’re also involved in a multitude of book projects and some film and TV stuff. There are a couple of things that are on the precipice of being announced, but I should probably be discrete, for now. Some very exciting things that, I think, reflect things we want to do. And moving forward we want to make sure we match creatively with the people we work with, and that’s always a process. Because it’s very easy to get excited when someone wants to make your work, and you may feel inclined to say yes from that initial excitement, but that doesn’t mean that you all really see the same things, so we’re being careful about those kinds of choices.

M. Sellers Johnson is an independent scholar and editor whose research interests include French art cinema, transnationalism, historiography, and aesthetics. He received his MA from Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University of Wellington) in 2021 and his BA at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2018. His work has appeared in Afterimage, Film International, Film Quarterly, Media Peripheries, Mise-en-scène, Offscreen, and sabah ülkesi, among other outlets. He is the founding Citation Ethics Editor for Film Matters, and the current Book Reviews Editor for New Review of Film and Television Studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *