Regan Returns Part 1: Flushing Out The Concept for my Exorcist Shoot

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When William Friedkin directed The Exorcist, he did not initially set out to make a horror film.  He thought he was making a film about the mystery of faith. This concept really intrigues me. For one, I have been an Occult enthusiast for most of my adult life, taking night classes and reading hundreds of books on the subject. The only book club I’ve ever joined was an Occult book club. I am fascinated with the concept of faith and I share this fascination with my friend, designer Michel Berandi. We have spent nights pondering the concept of free will, temptation and man’s desires that lean towards darker realms. The nature of good vs. evil, that’s a concept that we still spend hours contemplating. After our success with the Black Dahlia Betty’s Last Days shoot we knew that we had to tackle another obsession of ours: The Exorcist.

The film has been deemed the scariest movie ever made. It certainly scared me when I first saw it in 1973 when it was released. I had to sleep on the couch in the family room for a month after seeing the movie the first time. My mother was very religious and believed in Satan and demons and all that scary stuff. I was very young at the time when I first saw the film and my mother’s influence on me made the film that much more terrifying. I had been playing around with my friend’s Ouija board at the time which, after seeing the film, quickly made me throw it in the trash. I also became fascinated with Georgetown, where the story is set and the filmed was made. And, as always with my serendipitous life, wouldn’t you know it that I have had the pleasure of living in Georgetown this past year, 2 blocks from the Exorcist house and the famous Exorcist stairs. When Michel found out I was living here, he suggested the idea of doing a fashion shoot. But what exactly would the concept be? 

We shot Betty’s Last Days in January and we left that shoot discussing the idea of an Exorcist-inspired shoot, but we didn’t have a strong story idea. I returned to Georgetown and dug in deep on finding out every aspect of the film and the locations used in the film that was literally walking distance from my home. I took iPhone shots and texted them to Michel. I watched the film a half dozen times, again, making it like the 100th time I’ve seen the movie. I can quote full scenes from the movie at this point! But one day, the idea just kind of came to me. Regan was 12 when she was taken over by Captain Howdy and possessed by the demon Pazuzu. An exorcism was performed, the priest invited the demon to enter his body and he flung himself out a window to fall to his death on the steep stairs beneath Regan’s bedroom window, leaving the girl shattered but as her mother says at the very end, “she doesn’t remember a thing”. 

Here’s my twisted story plot: Regan is now 21 and well, she remembers a thing or two. How could one that was that completely possessed walk away from an experience that horrific and not have some memory of it? Even if it was deeply buried in her subconscious, part of her would be fairly aware of some inner driving force that was attracted to some fringes of darkness. I know for myself that when I was younger I was quite attracted to that dizzy edge of dancing on the fine line between light and dark.  

I ran this concept by Michel who immediately agreed that Regan, driven by some strange longing to understand herself, returns to Georgetown to revisit the house and neighborhood where her possession took place. “Regan Returns” became the production title and we then set out to flush out mood boards, location shots, and a shot list. 

The biggest challenge in story-telling through a photography shoot is to stay true to how you’re going to tell your story. I chose to work with Michel, because for the most part, we have agreed on the visual, aesthetic and esoteric arts.  And to be honest, the last thing I wanted to come up against with was someone who would start wavering, half way through production, and go in a totally different direction than what we had initially committed ourselves to.

I watched a ton of documentaries on the making of The Exorcist. This quote from Friedkin really stood out for me because it was I who was telling his story, now:

“I felt, in many ways, when I made the film, like a landscape painter. And I was very conscientious of approaching the Exorcist film in that way, with a kind of painter’s eyes. All of which was provided for by Blatty and his screenplay. I mean, I didn’t invent any of this. But he had given me a roadmap and a place in which to make shots like this. And when I saw it, it took my breath away.”

Georgetown is incredibly beautiful. It’s storybook beautiful. I had my landscape. William Friedkin adapted the movie based on William Blatty’s novel and I was adapting my shoot from William Friedkin’s movie. My thoughts were, what happened to this girl when she grew up? Did she really remember nothing and go on to be a cheerleader and Senior Vice President, dating the quarterback and raising money for the cheerleading squad by baking cupcakes? No way! This girl was damaged. She would be haunted by this experience for a long, long time. This girl would grow up a goth and be drawn to the dark for inexplicable reasons. That’s my bent thoughts, anyway.

Part 2 will explore the pre-production: hiring the right make up and hair artists for this particular shoot were key but what was even more important was the casting. I had to find the right Regan. She had to look similar to Linda Blair but now she’s 21. Find out how I accidentally found her, the drama of getting the crew to Georgetown from LA, the work that went into making the shoot happen and the results from the day we shot. Until next time………..

Melissa Rodwell