The battle between good and evil has been occurring for centuries, and there are those that answer the calling to join the fight in hopes of tipping the scale. Sister Anne is one of those who have answered such a calling and is on a path that could see her be the first female exorcist. But what is she to do when demons from her past are both haunting and hunting her, and she finds herself fighting not only for the soul of a young girl but her own?
We had the chance to speak with director Daniel Stamm (13 Sins) and actress Jacqueline Byers (Salvation) of Prey for the Devil not only about the scares in the film, but the complexity and layers of it.
Nerds & Beyond: How did preparation for this project differ where there was a horror/thriller aspect?
Daniel Stamm: I don’t think it differs on my side of things.
In this case, Robert Zappia, our screenwriter, is a practicing Catholic. He had written this draft that was all kinds of research, because he had met a real exorcist. So there was so much information in this first draft that I read, so then during development, and draft by draft, we kind of cut more and more of it out to make room for cinematic development and story over too much research to find the balance there. But I didn’t do any additional research at all.
The one thing I did was brush up on my horror craft. I sat down with James Wan’s The Conjuring with a piece of paper and a pen and was like, “Ok, let me write down every horror technique that he uses.” The Conjuring is so terrifying. By the time I was done, the length of my list had two things. Gratuitously blast horror sounds for jump scares no matter what; just create the slightest reason.
So, there are these bus doors [scary opening door sound] that makes you think that you’re in a spaceship, but it works. And the other one was to do stuff that the audience doesn’t see. Like when Annabelle sits in the hallway, we see that. Then we go back inside and come back out, and now Annabelle has written on a piece of paper, which is just terrifying, because we have to fill it in ourselves. That alone gave me a lot of confidence because I was like, “Do I have the knowledge of all these techniques that he must be using?” Then, when I was done with my list, I felt much better about my horror skills. That was my preparation.
Nerds & Beyond: What was it like being part of the film where we see the exorcism being done by the female lead, which really we haven’t seen before, and also with the little girl and the psychiatrist that is in it, the focus is on the women of the film.
Jacqueline Byers: Well, I think what’s so important about this movie is it’s not just placing a female in a male role. It’s seeing a new approach to exorcisms because she is female. It focuses on why it’s happening. She is not just going to battle in a war. It’s why this war is happening in the first place. But you’re right, it’s beyond, and it also with the Dr. I think there’s a maternal figure there that probably Anne does not expect that at the top of the movie with Dr. Peters, there is a little more of an adversarial place, and then they learn to adapt, and she learns to listen to her and then with Posy. I think the idea of maternal instinct is big in this movie.
Stamm: It’s a hard label to earn, because it’s this term that is being thrown around so much. The strong female protagonist, you know, then you watch these movies, then most of the time they just put a female actress in there and had the actor do the exact same things that a male lead would have done. Just because it’s Wonder Woman punching at that guy doesn’t make her a feminine icon, or shouldn’t.
So, we basically had two big mantras. One was, let’s earn that label; what do we have to do to have a strong female lead where it’s in the DNA of the story? You couldn’t just replace her with a male because it’s in the DNA of the story. That’s what leads to our second mantra. Find what’s fresh. How do we make this stuff different from The Exorcist? Because the world is just waiting to scream, “Oh, this is just another Exorcist rip-off.” If you make an exorcism movie, that’s the first expectation. So all the department heads were basically on the search for how can we take the set pieces and still deliver them but give them a little bit of a fresh spin.
The female protagonist is basically saying, “You priests, with your pride and your vanity, you made it all about you. You brave men battling the demon for millennia. Why don’t we, instead of shouting the same Bible verses at the demon in Latin that no one understands, why don’t we listen for a moment? Why don’t we have an eye on the victim?” That makes her more of a therapist, a profiler towards the demon, and a therapist towards the victim. Suddenly it means something that this maternal instinct that you’re talking about and the feminine approach make her a different exorcist and makes her a huge threat to the church because she is threatening the status quo. Because the church doesn’t mind having another demon attack and another, it’s almost good for PR.
But she is saying, “You’re stuck in the middle ages, move aside and close the Bible. I think my only words right now addressing the victim are going to be helping more than God’s words.” She is letting go of the male God, and with all the men in the room; she doesn’t address the demon; she addresses the victim. She doesn’t need the support of the priests. It’s such a strong act, you couldn’t tell any of that with a male priest.
Nerds & Beyond: It was amazing just to see that and be so completely into the story of it. Which brings up why you think it was important to have the demon not only have a religious aspect but a personal aspect as well, because there was also fighting off the personal demons.
Byers: Well, I think your own personal demons are scarier. The movie talks a lot about guilt and shame. I just think it’s so interesting that it’s easier to forgive others than it is to forgive yourself, and I think that is just such a human quality that, at least in good humans, maybe not all, I think battle that inner battle to accept yourself as a human being with all of your flaws which are kind of the growing pains of being a person.
The more mistakes you make, the more you have to forgive yourself, and the more you have to live with yourself. Because that’s how I approach this movie, completely as a psychological thriller, I didn’t focus on the horror because I knew the horror was going to come from the length of the camera shot or how it was framed. The way Daniel framed it. I really just focused on the psychological aspects of it and creating the fear within that.
Stamm: It’s also part of what we just talked about with the how do we make this different. To say we will reinterpret slightly how the demon gets in. We are saying the demon gets in through the things we are repressing, the things we don’t shine a spotlight on, and that is where it festers. That is basically what gives Jackie’s character the opportunity to come from a different approach. If we didn’t have that, then she couldn’t come up with a psychological therapeutic approach where one really helps the other at that moment.
Nerds & Beyond: Was the intention to have Sister Anne’s appearance in the film, all throughout and even when she was battling the demon, appear very angelic? With the lighting and coloring around her.
Stamm: It’s funny because she obviously ends up with white hair. There was a whole scene in the movie that explains that she lost all color in her hair when she was a child as a result of the confrontation with the demon. So now she has white hair, but we lost that scene, so she’s just a platinum-blonde woman.
Byers: It’s funny. The movie had a title before it was Prey for the Devil, which was Devil’s Light. I think that the idea of bringing light into the darkness was a huge part of Anne and the idea of that character visually into the film. I think her seen as an archangel of a sort. She is a nun. You know what I mean? There is an aspect of the church that she fits in a certain capacity; however, she wears Doc Martens and has this life outside. I think the duality between good versus evil. I can’t play angelic, I just look angelic, so it has to do with casting, but I think it serves the story in a way because she has this inner demon-fighting in this face that seems fairly innocent.
You have the same in Posey, who was Natalie. Here you have this angelic creature dealing with this whole demon underneath. So I think duality in general with the medical system versus the church, you have the angelic versus the good versus evil I think the juxtaposition between all of those are played within the characters and played to what you see on the screen.
Stamm: It’s interesting how one little detail affects the next. I know that usually, all decisions are rooted into the story. So I am almost ashamed to say this, but one of the only things just my aesthetic. I just think that the more you pull colors out of the production design out of the costume, the more elegant and more elevated. It looks completely independent. I would not do that if I made a movie about a circus. Like in House of Cards, you will see what is supposed to be a random crowd. All of them are wearing black coats, and you don’t even realize it. At that moment, it looked really elegant, so once you are doing that, which we did, then suddenly, of course, there are lot more meaning to the shapes.
It’s not a coincidence that we put Jackie, even though she was a nun, we didn’t put her in black. We put her in grey, which is exactly the duality, and of course, when the movie when it’s good against evil, light against darkness, you can’t escape the symbolism of it all. We put her in grey because she has her inner demons, but she is trying to fight for good. Then at the end, we put her in the priest outfit, which conveniently is black and is the male, the transgression of her character, so you kind of find those little pieces.
Byers: It felt good to wear that black outfit. To be honest, I remember putting it on and feeling kick-ass.
Stamm: It’s also an image you don’t see when we’re talking a lot about trying to make Anne iconic. I just love the idea you could come in somewhere, there is a movie that someone was watching on pause, and it’s just that one frame that you see, and you can point and go, “That is Raiders of the Lost Ark, that is E.T.” You just know there is no other frame. So here, where it obviously had the nuns and the demons, how do we make Anne recognizable as our protagonist? How do we make her iconic, so that is what the white hair was about, and then her in the priest outfit I had never seen anywhere, so that was kind of an interesting way to approach that.
Nerds & Beyond: My last question is when sister Anne interacts with the other priests when she sneaks into that first class, is there a connection or backstory with her kinship with Father Dante?
Byers: Father Dante, so we talked about this, you know, like sees like the saying? I think that they both have gone through a tremendous amount of trauma in their life, and they can recognize that in the other person. It’s kind of like, you know when you’re dating someone, or you’re close friends with someone, and you are in the room, and all of a sudden you catch eyes, you kind of feel like you are on a different plane? That there is a connection. It happens with Natalie’s character, too.
There’s this unknown connection between two people. Without the church, do I think that Father Dante and Anne would have a different type of relationship? Potentially, but there is something that is so much more personal and meaningful for them to be there in the first place. That takes precedence, and I think that they can see that in each other, so I think that is the history. That it’s not like they had this friendship or anything, it’s just kind of that immediate, “I like you, and I feel like I need to protect you.”
Stamm: Also, that lack of judgment is so big when she is walking into that room. For the one person that doesn’t judge her and even thinks that this is kick-ass of her to walk in there. There is an immediate kinship right there.
Byers: I do think it is so cool because he has a sister. I think that he, Christian Navarro, just did such a great job with the character.
Our thanks to both Daniel Stamm and Jacqueline Byers for taking the time to chat with us! You can watch Prey for the Devil in theaters if you dare, starting on October 28.