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'Exorcist's' twin spawn

The behind-the-scenes story of Morgan Creek's two prequels is enough to make your head spin.

May 04, 2005|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

Under normal circumstances, the marketing strategy would hardly raise an eyebrow: a trailer for one horror film turning up on the DVD of another.

But the recent Australian DVD release of director Renny Harlin's "The Exorcist: The Beginning," a prequel to William Friedkin's epochal horror classic, "The Exorcist," contained a puzzling bonus feature. It housed a movie trailer for an alternate version of "The Exorcist: The Beginning" -- the one directed by art-house auteur Paul Schrader that had been shot earlier and shelved in favor of Harlin's prequel.

"I don't know how or why it showed up there," Schrader said. "It was the same trailer they used for Renny's version but with different shots -- with shots from my film instead of Renny's."

On May 20, little more than nine months after Harlin's "Exorcist" prequel completed its underwhelming $41-million theatrical run, Schrader's film, newly retitled "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist," will roll out in limited release on 110 screens.

Morgan Creek, the company that produced both films, acknowledged the strangeness of the situation -- and that the company might have made an expensive mistake. "Right now, we're saying, 'We could have been wrong,' " said Brian Robinson, senior vice president of worldwide marketing. "That takes a big company to admit."

Both versions of the film feature Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard as Father Frank Lankester Merrin (a younger incarnation of Max von Sydow's character in "The Exorcist") battling Satan in colonial Kenya. And both were shot in Rome's Cinecitta Studios by renowned cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

Taken together, the competing versions represent one of the most torturous production tales in Hollywood history. In 2002, a version based on a script by bestselling historical novelist Caleb Carr was given the go-ahead by Morgan Creek. During pre-production, the project's first director, John Frankenheimer, suffered a stroke and died. Schrader, who is best known as the screenwriter of edgy morality thrillers including "Taxi Driver," stepped in.

Principal photography took place in Morocco and Italy, wrapping in early 2003. But Schrader's $40-million production was essentially scrapped by Morgan Creek CEO James Robinson, who concluded during the editing phase that the film was too cerebral. Schrader was dismissed and Dutch action movie ace Harlin, director of "Die Hard 2: Die Harder," was brought on to amp up the fright factor. He, in turn, persuaded Robinson to start over from scratch. Although elements of Schrader's version remain, "The Exorcist: The Beginning" was rewritten, recast (with Skarsgard persuaded to return) and re-shot -- at an additional cost of nearly $60 million.

While Schrader's film has languished at Morgan Creek since late 2003, fan interest in the project never waned, largely due to the director's tireless campaigning on horror fan websites. "Through these, I was able to keep the myth of the movie alive," he said.

The Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film proved to be a turning point. Screening there in March, Schrader's version received some flattering reviews, convincing Morgan Creek that the film's time had come. "The critical acclaim warranted a theatrical release," Brian Robinson said.

"Dominion" will be distributed by Warner Bros. and hits theaters the same weekend as the hotly anticipated "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" -- a risky but strategic counter-programming plan.

The strategy also poses an unusual marketing dilemma for Morgan Creek. In marketing two versions of the same movie, is it better to emphasize the films' shared lineage? Or their differences?

"Therein lies the problem," said Brian Robinson. "How do you make them so they're related but show their differences in a 30-second TV spot?"

Morgan Creek's marketing campaign for the movie is still being finalized, but tentative plans exist to use a blurb from Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert that pays tribute to the Schrader version while also distinguishing it from the Harlin version of the film.

Brian Robinson said Morgan Creek is not afraid of looking silly for its earlier business choices.

"If ['Dominion'] takes off and everybody goes crazy and it's the 'Exorcist' everybody wanted to see -- because a lot of people didn't like the Renny Harlin version -- then we'll have to say, 'We had it all along and didn't need to shoot the Renny Harlin version.' "

Anticipating his remarks at the press screenings of "Dominion" planned in Los Angeles tonight, Schrader made light of the whole imbroglio. "I know what I will say before the movie starts," he said, chuckling. " 'Welcome to Paul Schrader's class in comparative film at the Morgan Creek School of the Arts.' "

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