How The Exorcist Prequel Became One Of Warner Bros.' Messiest Film Releases

When the news dropped about Warner Bros. deciding to shelve "Batgirl," "Scoob!: Holiday Haunt," and potentially other projects being produced for HBO Max, it struck a lot of us as a fairly unprecedented move. For "Batgirl" in particular, the size of the budget (a reported $90 million) and its connection to a popular franchise make it an even more startling that this decision has happened. The implications of using productions that artists spend years working on as mere tax loophole fodder sets a fairly depressing precedent for how studios can operate in the future.

However, this is not the first time a nearly completed film has been shelved by a studio. It's not even the first one shelved by Warner Bros. since the turn of the 21st Century. In fact, one shelved production also happened to connect to a very well-known franchise, and next year, we will see a new entry in that series from director David Gordon Green. I am talking about "The Exorcist" and the bizarre saga that led to the release of not one but two prequels within the span of nine months of each other.

August 20, 2004 saw the release of "Exorcist: The Beginning," directed by Renny Harlin. And in May of the following year, "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist," directed by Paul Schrader, hit cinemas. Both films star Stellan Skarsgård as a young Father Merrin, played by Max von Sydow in the original film. 

So, how did we get here? Well, it's a classic Hollywood story of executives really having no idea what they want.

Clashing with Schrader

The idea for a prequel to "The Exorcist" emerged in the late 1990s, with "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" screenwriter William Wisher Jr. and "The Alienist" author Caleb Carr taking cracks at the script. John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Ronin") signed onto the picture in 2001, but after spinal surgery, he dropped out of the project. At that point, Paul Schrader was brought on board to direct, as he too like the screenplay Wisher and Carr cooked up. Although we know Schrader to be a singular transgressive filmmaker, he was ready to make the movie the studio wanted to make (via Captain Howdy) :

"They weren't saying, 'The script needs work. You rewrite it, we'll decide whether to make it or not.' No, they said, 'We want to make it.' So, it was just a case of making certain changes that I felt made the story better, more interesting, more fun. I wasn't hired to fix the script. It wasn't thought to be broken."

And that's what was made and slated to come out in the summer of 2003. That didn't happen. In April, Schrader screened his cut of the film for the folks at Morgan Creek, who produced the film, and they were none too pleased. According to the New York Times, producer James G. Robinson recalled that "The movie was plain not scary enough." Schrader made another cut, which was also disliked. Another editor was brought in, and that went nowhere. The animosity between Schrader and Robinson continued to grow, and eventually, Schrader was kicked off the project.

The film was deemed unsalvageable, and instead of bringing in a director to oversee reshoots, Renny Harlin ("Cliffhanger") came aboard to make an entirely new film, with Schrader's work being completely shelved.

A whole new movie

Just about everything except a few exterior establishing shots were thrown out from Paul Schrader's version of the film. Alexi Hawley, who would go on to create the television show "The Rookie," was brought on to write an entirely new screenplay, though the original screenplay was used as a guide. This version does feature some of the same plot points as the original iteration, but they do diverge in rather major ways. Most notably, the character of Cheche (Billy Crawford), a disabled man who gets possessed by Pazuzu and becomes a perfect physical being, has been completely excised from the picture.

Also excised are a number of cast members in favor of new ones. Gabriel Mann was replaced by James D'Arcy as Merrin's companion Father Francis. The character of Dr. Rachel Lesno (Clara Bellar) was replaced with another female doctor character named Sarah Novak, played by Izabella Scorupco. Finally, as the voice of the demon, the great Mary Beth Hurt, who also happens to be married to Paul Schrader, was replaced by veteran voice actor Rupert Degas.

The two movies cost over $75 million to produce, and when "Exorcist: The Beginning" was released, it was lambasted by critics and audiences alike, not even grossing its budget at the worldwide box office. Warner Bros. and Morgan Creek made two full movies and had nothing to show for it. So ... why not try to see what else they could milk out of it?

Grabbing it off the shelf

Two people who knew that "Exorcist: The Beginning" was a turkey were Paul Schrader and William Peter Blatty, writer of the original "The Exorcist" novel and screenplay. The two saw the film together and, according to The Independent, Schrader said to Blatty, "This is really bad. If it stays this bad, I bet there's a chance I can get mine resurrected." As it turns out, Morgan Creek reached back out to Schrader with the opportunity to finish and release his version of the movie. After all, they needed to make some cash off this in some way.

But it couldn't be just as simple as that. They allotted him just $35,000 to work on the film, which meant he had to beg for use of post-production facilities, was unable to bring in his cinematographer to properly color time the picture or record any additional ADR, and had to convince Angelo Badalamenti and the band Dog Fashion Disco to do the score for free. But he got it done, and Warner Bros. gave "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" a limited theatrical run on May 20, 2005. It made just $250,000, never showing beyond 110 screens. While it fared slightly better critically than "Exorcist: The Beginning," this was still a roundly rejected picture.

Producer James G. Robinson said to the New York Times about this whole disastrous scenario:

"Sometimes you don't know what you want ... So you have to learn what you don't want."

As it turns out, what they never realized was that the public did not want a prequel to "The Exorcist," whether it was the high-minded Paul Schrader version or the "schlock and awe" Renny Harlin one. Well, in 2023, they're going back to the well. Let's hope it goes more smoothly this time.