Scott Derrickson on how faith equips filmmakers

Filmmaker and Biola alumnus Scott Derrickson shares how faith enhances storytelling.


Mike Villa

Scott Derrickson. | Kelsey Heng/THE CHIMES

Emily Arnold, Writer

Scott Derrickson has landed himself a unique role in Hollywood as a Christian filmmaker who writes and directs thrillers about exorcisms, sadism, and murder — subjects many expect believers to stray away from. Through his art and genuine lifestyle, he impacts an industry lacking in professionals who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

Filmmaker, husband, father, and Biola alumnus, Scott Derrickson, came to campus Friday, March 4 to share his insight on the art of film-making as well as wisdom about being light in this dark world.

Bringing a Christian perspective to film

Through filmmaking, Derrickson practically lives out the Biola mission statement as his Christian perspective influences each film he makes, including “Hellraiser: Inferno,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

44-year-old Derrickson is currently working for Reality Entertainment on a new movie called “Goliath,” which he predicts to be a huge hit.

“I think the world is waiting for a movie like this,” said Derrickson at the first Q&A session of the day.

Biola’s influence on Derrickson

Derrickson became a Christian in junior high and later attended Biola University, which seemed like a liberal school to him, considering the culture of conservative fundamentalism he grew up in.

After being exposed to a world of new ideas at Biola, he experienced what he described as a “spiritual and emotional big bang.” Derrickson recalls that the most profound issue for him was the problem of evil, and in the midst of all his doubts, he struggled to find an intellectual justification for his faith in God.

In chapel, he expanded on his journey of discovering personal peace with the problem of evil.

Part of Derrickson’s philosophy as to why God chose to allow evil in this world hinges upon a personal belief that God is a story-teller, that He is telling an incredible story through human history. He explained how in a perfect world where everyone lived perfectly forever, there would be no story to tell.

Derrickson’s time at Biola led him to a place where he was able to firmly plant his feet on a foundation of faith. He entered the USC School of Cinematic Arts with a strong point of view and graduated in 1996 with a Masters Degree in Film Production.

Story behind “Exorcism of Emily Rose”

In 1995, he co-wrote and directed the 35-minute film “Love in the Ruins,” and in 2000, directed “Hellraiser: Inferno.” Shortly after, he began writing a movie based on “The Wear of the Night,” a book of memoirs compiled by a tough, Italian South Bronx police officer named Ralph who accompanied an exorcist in order to investigate cases.

Ralph gave Derrickson an out-of-print story called “Exorcism of Anneliese Michel,” who died during an exorcism in 1976. He read over it and realized this story was much more compelling than the one he had been writing. He contacted the author and auctioned the book from her for $100.

Committed to telling the story of Anneliese Michel, he continued to research and read all the way through 20 books on the subject of possession, exorcisms and the like, which he said was “unpleasant and oppressive.” He was given 43 “gnarly and awful” audio clips of the exorcisms of Anneliese Michel, which are still tucked away in his garage. However, once he got through the research process and began writing what would become “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” he did not feel as strange and oppressed.

“I strongly recommend that you don’t read or investigate that kind of material unless you have an extraordinary reason to do so, because it is a kind of darkness that is darker than dark,” said Derrickson. “Once you start creating, writing, that’s all just great and fun. I had people praying for me and I certainly had worked out my own theology about what I believed about the demonic and I felt I was coming from a place of real spiritual strength.”

Using horror films to spark conversation

In 2005, he released “Emily Rose,” with the desire to make people talk. He knew “Emily Rose” was the type of movie that viewers would have a conversation about as they walked out of the theater.

“It’s a great kick-off point for people to talk about things they often don’t,” said Derrickson. “If horror is done with some artistic ability and class, it has that effect.”

“He understands more than any other director that I’ve seen thus far that to have an important impactful film, it must appeal to universal truths that people recognize and tap into things that resonate with someone’s conscience,” senior Isaac Svenson said.

When asked how a Christian can do horror films, his response is quite simple: “How can a Christian not do horror films? No one is more equipped to do horror films than a Christian.”

Horror is the genre that deals most with good and evil; it is nearly impossible to make an amoral horror film, and to Derrickson, “Horror is the genre of non-denial — the genre about confrontation of what we’re most afraid of.”

How film integrates faith with culture

Regardless of what genre Derrickson is working within, his faith impacts his art. He attributes much of his philosophy on what it looks like to incorporate his faith into his career to Flannery O’Connor. From her book titled “Mystery and Manners,” in which she shares how creativity should be a dangerous venture, Derrickson gleaned that impacting culture for Christ rarely starts from the attitude: “I’m going to go teach the world what it needs to know,” calling that kind of attitude the starting point for propaganda.

“With ‘Emily Rose,’ I wasn’t setting out to intentionally impact the culture, I was just trying to tell a story well,” said Derrickson. “If you want to be a filmmaker, an artist, your job is not to impact the culture — your job is to make good art. What that does is God’s business. It’s the work’s business.”

The movies that Hollywood puts out both reflect and inform culture, allowing a Christian presence in this media epicenter to make a large impact.

About his own personal influence on Hollywood, Derrickson said, “To try and go out there and change Hollywood is just not my attitude. Except that I am Hollywood. I’ve changed Hollywood because I’m in it, so what I work on is changing myself. I work hard to behave ethically and be different than a lot of people who are out doing what I’m doing. With more people doing that Hollywood would inevitably change.”

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