Copyright thedigitalcinema.info SMB 8/8/2001

INTERVIEW: Marcel Vercoutere Mechanical Effects Supervisor on THE EXORCIST

September 19, 2017

 

Scott - What was your first reaction to reading the script?

 

Marcel -

Well, when I first got the call the director’s main concern was to see if he  could pull off this   exorcism with all the different gags and everything.  He felt they were very, very difficult.  He got hold of a guy in New York, that  was supposed to be a levitation expert.  He was supposed to be the best in  the world.  So they told me I was going to work with him.  My first  reaction was wow!  I was going to get a chance to get in on all this magic  stuff.  So I jumped on a plane and went out there to (NY) talk to him.  I  found out that he wasn’t really all that up to it.  I came back to LA and  started to put some stuff together in the prop shop.  Then the director said  he wouldn’t start the film unless the exorcism sequence was up to his  standards.  Then I got a hold of Dick Smith in New York.  I built a bunch of stuff here, and went to NY and worked on 54th street, down in the old Pathe Studio.  I went down in the basement and had a big workshop.  Down there Dick and I started putting the stuff together.  Dick worked on   make-up things and I started gigging the beds and all the other things for  the exorcism sequences.  Then when I felt that I was ready and Dick felt he was ready, we set up Linda Blair’s bedroom on stage and called in some actors.  We shot a test of the whole thing, the whole exorcism sequence,  for about oh, three days.  Then Friedkin saw everything on film and said, “I’m happy.  Lets go for it.”  I really made no changes.  I was very lucky that everything worked out the way I thought it would.

 

Scott - Which was the most difficult effect to achieve for the exorcism?

 

Marcel -

Well the hardest one to achieve I think wasn’t really the way the gags, the gimmicks, and everything were set up.  It was trying to achieve the realism. With Linda not being an actress of course - I think that’s one of the reasons Billy picked her - you get up to a point when you ask yourself, where does  the acting start and realism begin?  To say she is being possessed and thrown and picked up,

jiggled and bumped, and get that horror and not go  too far - not to hurt her or bruise her.  Up to a certain point, it’s for fun,  then it starts to get more violent.  Then she starts to say, “Okay, I had   enough.  But that’s when you start!

 

Scott - When did she start saying that?

Marcel -

The bed thrashing. I had her strapped in there, and I was throwing her back and forth. I had three beds. There were so many things involved with the bed that I couldn’t involve all the gags and gimmicks in just one bed. So I would put in whatever that bed needed. Some with number two, some with three. Whatever the sequence would be for, that one day I would bring in that bed. I had one bed for the levitating. One for the bounce and tap dance, one for thrashing and one with a mattress that went back and forth. Everything was hooked up inside the bed itself. I’d just lace Linda (Blair) into it. She had no control of herself whatsoever. If I wanted her to lay down, she’d lay down. She had no control of herself. I WAS THE DEVIL!

 

Scott - What was she in?  A harness?

 

Marcel

       Yeah.  We cast a mold of her body and then I shaped out of it a very thin body metal that actually fit all the ripples and muscles in her back, so when was laying there, it couldn’t be seen.  It was so thin it looked like it was  part of her.  Once we got her in she couldn’t move.  But she was a good  gal.  She accepted it as part of the bit.

I did the same basic thing for that because the shots were underneath, sideways and everywhere.  The thing I made was actually like an eggshell.  I kept going down to a thinner piano wire till I used, oh, I think it was a   number 8.  Three threads thick almost.  Then I rigged the bed so that it recessed like her weight was coming down onto it.  I could take her up and  pull her around.  It was all done with counter weights.  I had her same weight off stage so I could work it with one hand.  The object was to keep it as smoothly as possible.

 

Scott - How was the bed levitated?

 

Marcel -

          That was done by weights and a beam that went from the back of the headboard through the wall.  It was all counter-weights on the other side. Of course the bed was reinforced.  Then we had a piece of wall paper that covered up the crack in the wall like a roll-up shade.

 

Scott - Were the wires air brushed out later?

 

Marcel -

         No.  I just kept experimenting with how fine a wire I could fly her on.

 

Scott - A real nice touch that added realism was the vapor coming from the actors mouths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marcel

       Oh yeah!  I brought in two 15-ton compressors and put them up on the stage roof.  I made a cocoon that fit around her bedroom that was 40-feet   square and 20-feet high.  Then we refrigerated it.  In the morning we  would go in there to shoot it and it would be about 10 degrees below zero.  We shot at zero.

 

Scott - I remember hearing that the set of the bedroom was balanced on top of a bowling ball in order to make it rock.  Was that true?

 

Marcel -

         That was the original concept.  But I didn’t like that because we just got a rocking motion like being on a ship.  Being from California I know what an earthquake feels like.  So We put the entire thing on pneumatic wheels.    We could put the whole crew, camera dollys and everything on there and the room wouldn’t move.  If you put it on the bowling ball and shock- loaded the corners you would have a weight problem.  When we switched  to pneumatic wheels it went sideways, like an earthquake.  I could start  slowly, or knock everybody down just with a violent pull.

 

Scott - Was there more than one set built of the room?

 

Marcel -

         We had one stage with her bedroom on a complete set. Then we had the stairway coming up and the hallway, and then that led into the cocoon.  So  we could do all the cold and exorcism on that one set.

 

Scott - What was the cocoon made of?

 

Marcel -

         I used eight inches of fiberglass insulation.

 

Scott - You and Dick Smith (Make-up)  had to really work in conjunction I suppose?

 

Marcel -

         Oh we worked together all through it.  Like with the dummy used.  That really turned out fine.

 

Scott - Did the dummy have problems operating in the extreme cold?

 

Marcel -

         Not really.  But we had a lot of problems with it throwing up.  I had to keep it a warm temperature so it would steam when it came out.

 

Scott -  ... the pea soup.

 

Marcel -

         I started out with pea soup.  Then I added a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  I put in things so it looked like there was stuff in there.

 

Scott - Did you work on the effect where she urinates on the rug?

 

Marcel -

        I did that using an airplane remote-control system.  I used a thin tank that went on her back, since all the shots were straight on.  She had to come straight down the stairs, then through a little alcove and walk into the living room where they were playing the piano and singing.  So all she had to do  was to do her number.  When I wanted, I just kicked on the switch and started it.

 

Scott - ... and the water fell!

 

Marcel -

         No, I used beer.  Warm beer.

 

Scott - Beer!  Why beer?

 

Marcel -

        Well, beer has a nice brownish color.  And it also foams when it hits.

 

Scott - I guess the tubing was hidden underneath her nightgown?

 

Marcel -

        Yeah, it went down her nightgown and was strapped right between her legs.  I used a thin piece of copper tubing.  Then I flattened it out a little so it would give a swirl.

 

Scott - When I first saw the film a simple but effective scene that made me jump was the candle that flares up.

 

Marcel -

         I used the same thing for Ellen Burstyn that I used on Linda, for that candle.  It went on her back and used butane.  Then I wanted it to flair up - I turned it on high. It hit the ceiling.

 

Scott - How about the moving furniture in Regan’s bedroom?

 

Marcel

       ... did that with piano wire.  All underneath the carpet.  It was pre-rigged.  One chair would fly across the room and at the last minute it would tip and lock underneath the door handle.

 

Scott - Were you responsible for the stuff flying around the room as well?

 

Marcel -

         Yes.  I built two troughs, about 18 inches wide, about 6 inches high and they were about 4 feet long.  I put tempered Masonite on them to make them very slick.  Then I brought in compressed air tanks.  They were about 22 to 24 hundred pounds per square inch.  I piped indirectly, with quick action valves to the back of these slides.  Then I  aimed them both at the window.  Now we could take anything we wanted to - books, records, dolls, and put them on the chutes.  I had prop men standing by on both sides.  Just before Ellen Burstyn opened the door, I hit the quick-action valves and now you have an air stream that is just tremendous.  You throw anything in those troughs and it would just pick it up and sail it.  It went straight as an arrow, because the troughs had sides on them it acted like a  funnel. 

 

Scott - How were the cracking ceiling and doors done?

 

Marcel -

         I used regular plaster and laid it in with wire mesh.  Then I went on top of the ceiling with a rounded lever bar. When I pushed down on it the wire mesh would just stretch and the plaster would crack.  We had full control over it when we wanted it to crack, or how much.  I made the doors out of balsa wood, then I basically did the same.  Only we put in sheets of rubber behind so we could get a tremendous stretch out of it.

 

Scott - There was a scene in the book where Regan walks down the stairs like a spider.

 

Marcel -

         It was all filmed.  But they never put it in.  Maybe Friedkin felt it was too heavy.  You see, she gets out of bed and goes to the top of the stairs then upside-down!  Then she runs down the stairs on her hand and legs - but upside-down!  All the way down the stairs then into an alcove and bites somebody in the leg.

 

Scott - How did you do that?

 

Marcel -

          I built a gag that was on the same level as the staircase, coming down. Then I rigged her up with a belt and two fine piano wires so she could turn over.  When she started at the top I could go down at the same level as she was.  So actually the only thing she did was move her arms and her legs: I could make her move at any speed I wanted to.  As soon as I got her down at the bottom I released her.  Then she ran around the room and she bit  somebody.

 

Scott - Too bad that didn’t make it into the film.

 

Marcel -

         Well, like I said, I think it was too much.  Friedkin didn’t know how far to take it.  He didn’t want a film people would laugh at.  Besides, that scene was kind bloody, when she bites somebody.  Blood was running down all over her face because she was upside-down at the time.  Beside, I think that would have clinched it for the audience that she was possessed.  It was planned to be in the film before any of the other really bad stuff is used, so you see, Friedkin wanted to keep the audience guessing whether she was possessed or not at that point.

 

Scott - Were there any other sequences you worked on?

 

Marcel

       The only other sequence I remember working on was that big “fall” with Father Karras in Georgetown and when Father Merrin drives up and  everything is in a fog.  It was a really big job.  We had to get permits to fog in three city blocks.  I remember even though we had permits and everyone was alerted, on the other side of the Markee bridge, which is Virginia - lo and behold, they thought Georgetown was on fire because of all the arc lights!  So they came from another state across the bridge with their hook and ladders and fire trucks.  We were lit up so bright they could see us for miles. 

 

Scott - When I was in Georgetown I saw the house used and was surprised to see it was smaller than it appears in the film.

 

Marcel -

         In the first place, the lady that owned the house didn’t want us inside.  Which we had to be, because we had to put the light behind the windows.  Also the side of the house was not close enough to the top of the outside stairway to logically have Father Karras jump out the window and end up going down the steps.  So we added extended it.  Photographically the exterior looked just like the house itself but behind there was only our fake stuff.  We built a fake bedroom and rigged it so it logically looked like he  leaped out the window.

 

Scott - Was the fall done on a mock-up stairway?

 

 

Marcel

       No that was the real one.  Ninety-four steps!  I lined everyone of those steps with black foam rubber.  Then we built ramps for him so he could take off and leap up through the air and hit the stairs.  In three different cuts he actually went all the way down to the bottom.  That was a long ways down!

 

Scott - Looking back, what are your feelings working on the film?

 

Marcel -

I loved it.  I just thought it was one of those things that went together just beautifully.

 

 

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March 19, 2019