NEW ORLEANS - From the days of the original avant-garde film The Exorcist in 1973, the continued theme of the horror series is still drawing crowds 40 years later, and now with a New Orleans setting.
The Last Exorcism, filmed in New Orleans, grossed nearly $70 million in 2010. But you need not be fooled by the title. CBS Films is set to release The Last Exorcism Part II, also filmed in New Orleans, this weekend.
“We had done our documentary-style film,” said executive producer Gabrielle Neimand. “That sub-genre only works if there is a valid reason for why the camera is there, and our crew died in the first film. A documentary-style film gets you in the director’s head. In this one, we wanted to tell a narrative film that got you into Nell’s.”
On the heels of her star performance in The Last Exorcism praised as Oscar worthy, 26-year-old Ashley Bell reprises her role as Nell Sweetzer, a possessed-teenage character Bell defines as a “role of a lifetime.”
“So much is demanded of you,” Bell said. “These films are almost experimental. You’re pushed so far out of your comfort zone as an actress.”
The sequel begins with Nell facing a memory lapse, save that she’s the last surviving member of her family after having experienced a terrible exorcism.
“I researched real exorcisms,” said Bell in her preparation of creating Nell. “I listened to a lot of exorcisms live, watched videos, read priests’ logs, and I was looking at the photos and videos of people contorted, people going through hysteric fits, and it inspired me. And I said, ‘I want to try that. I want to see if I can do it.’ ”
With a joking request to not judge her parents, a mother who began the renowned Groundlings in Los Angeles and a father who is a noted voice-over actor, Bell admitted she first watched the original exorcist when she was about eight years old and “got so scared.”
Of course she watched it again to prepare for this role noting, “The director of the first film Daniel Stamm had actually said to me in preparation, ‘Go watch every exorcism film and then don’t do that’ because it was so important to find something new, something that hadn’t been seen.”
One aspect that hadn’t been seen in other exorcism movies was the New Orleans setting, which Bell says lends itself well to the story.
“It was really important for Ed Gass-Donnelly, the director, and also Eli Roth, the producer who is the master of horror, to feature New Orleans,” Bell said. “It’s such a beautiful city, it’s filled with such southern gothic charm, it just glows in this film.”
Local moviegoers might recognize scenes from Audubon Park, Frenchman Street and carnival routes. “Part of this film was shot during Mardi Gras,” Bell specified. “The actual floats you see in the film are the Mardi Gras floats, you can see them every year,” she added. “We filmed live on Frenchman street walking amidst costumes and people and characters, and it was great. As an actress you don’t have to imagine when you’re thrown in to such a rich atmosphere. It’s a dream come true, you just jump.”
After filming Bell returned to New Orleans for Mardi Gras 2013 to ride on the Grand Marshal’s float with the Krewe of Okeanos. “It was incredible, it was literally the best day ever,” she said of the experience.
And while learning the difference between krewes and crews, Bell smiled as she remembered her favorite day on set as the day she was given her first snowball. She joked that the chocolate flavored ice “changed her life.” She also pointed out her favorite restaurants in the city are Dick and Jenny’s and Jacques-Imo’s.
“I would say that the best place to shoot a film would be in New Orleans because of the southern hospitality,” Bell graciously noted. “Every time I’ve come the crews have been so warm and so gracious, that Southern charm and that southern hospitality extends to everyone.
Upcoming projects for Bell include the romantic comedy The Bounceback, set to premiere in early March, and a documentary on the plight of elephants. As an animal rights activist, she partnered with the Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary and the Save Elephant Foundation to follow the rescue and transfer of two Asian elephants from a logging facility in Cambodia. “We guided them through the forest with bananas and love,” she said. Her team just launched a website where you can learn more about the project Love and Bananas.