For his very first feature film, longtime screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos adapted UK writer James Herbert’s novel Shrine into the latest genre offering from Screen Gems. Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, William Sadler, and newcomer Cricket Brown, The Unholy is centered around a young woman who regains her hearing after a supposed visitation by the Virgin Mary—an event that also leaves her with the ability to heal others. But when a skeptical journalist arrives to investigate, he begins to suspect that these phenomena are actually the work of sinister forces, and it’s up to him to try and stop this insidious evil from claiming the young woman before it’s too late.
During the recent press day for The Unholy, Daily Dead spoke with Spiliotopoulos about transitioning from the world of screenwriting to the world of directing for this project, how integral producer Sam Raimi was in helping him navigate this new avenue in his career, putting together the cast of The Unholy, and more.
Look for The Unholy in theaters this Friday, April 2nd.
Great to speak with you today, Evan. I know you’ve been working in Hollywood as a screenwriter for years now, and this is your first time at the helm of a feature film. Was it a natural progression for you to transition into the directorial role, and what made the timing feel right to take the leap now?
Evan Spiliotopoulos: It happened entirely by accident. I did not wish, desire, or covet to direct. I've had the good fortune to be on set for most of my screenplays getting made into movies. I've seen what the directors go through, and I didn't want any part in it. What happened was, I loved this book since I was 13. I've wanted to make this into a movie since forever. And as my career progressed in the film industry as a screenwriter, I tried to get studios to buy it for me so I could adapt it. In 2019, Screen Gems jumped in and they unexpectedly made me the offer to direct it. They paired me with Sam Raimi to produce, and you can't get much better than that, because he'll look after me, but I thought that at some point, they'll figure out that I don't know what I'm doing and they'll bring in an adult. They never did, though, and here we are.
So, when you first read this book, what was it about it that captured your imagination? Because to hold onto this idea of wanting to tell this story, in particular, for so long and getting to make it, that shows me that there's obviously something about it that really sank its hooks into you.
Evan Spiliotopoulos: I was a film buff growing up, and weirdly always wanted to get into the industry. When I read the book, I was 13, and I recognized that it was a marriage between Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole meets The Exorcist, let's say. Ace in the Hole is this great 1950s drama with Kirk Douglas about a morally compromised journalist who discovers that there are still victims of a cave-in that have survived. He knows where they're trapped, but he won't tell anyone because he wants to milk the story for his own benefit. I just love the idea of this journalism thriller meeting a supernatural thriller. I like movies that mix genres. I feel that they're very compelling. That was my initial take on it.
And then, in 2019, fake news became a big part of the zeitgeist and it made the script extremely topical, because it was how important it is for a journalist to be morally straight and incorruptible and report the truth as it is. What we've got here is Gerry Fenn, a guy who's just looking out for himself and he's twisting the story to fit his own needs. That was my entrance point. I think our film is very unique in a certain way, because it is the first film, to my knowledge, that enters the religious supernatural thriller from the Marian visitations, Marionic appearances, the Virgin Mary, as a symbol, in a supernatural thriller. That was another great entry point that I felt was different.
When you were digging into this book and translating it to the screen, what was that process like of distilling everything in there into something that would work well in a visual medium?
Evan Spiliotopoulos: Adaptation is my thing, and the big challenge, of course, was the book is fantastic, but it's 450 pages that you're translating into 105 pages in a different medium. There's a great quote from a screenwriter who said that when you read a book that you love, the scenes that will stay in your head after you're finished form the skeleton of the screenplay adaptation. That's what happened here. Now, in the book, the entire town of Banfield is a character. So there are shopkeepers, there is the mayor, there are all these supporting characters. There's actually a female journalist who comes and competes with Fenn for the story. There are all sorts of different entities and different directions that the book takes, because it's got this broad canvas. For me adapting it, I very much wanted it to be Gerry Fenn's story and his redemption.
And so, it was removing the chapters where Fenn wasn't present, and it was combining characters, like the female journalist and the town doctor, played by Katie Aselton, are one character now. That was one aspect. The other thing was how to make this thing scary. Very clearly, we wanted the story to be more of a supernatural thriller than a horror movie. It's a thin line, but it is a distinction, because we're leaning into '70s-style character and plot-driven horror movies here. So what we wanted to do was have a story which is more of a mystery, more of the peeling of the onion where, initially, things seem great, where miraculous happenings and beautiful entities appear, and suddenly things start getting darker. And Fenn, our journalist, has to investigate and figure out what is truly happening here. So, the scares were built in gradually through Fenn's uncovering of what's occurring.
You mentioned Jeffrey's character in this film, who is very much the driving force, but I also thought Cricket was just wonderful as Alice. Can you discuss putting this cast together for The Unholy? Also, I am a huge fan of whenever William Sadler shows up in anything, so I was so thrilled to see him here.
Evan Spiliotopoulos: Well, you're hitting on three people that we're very, very, very proud of. We're proud of the whole cast, but I'm going to start with Bill, because Bill is one of my favorite actors. With Bill, when you go and look at his films from The Shawshank Redemption to The Green Mile to the bad guy in Die Hard 2 to Death in the Bill & Ted movies to the hero from Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, I mean, this is a guy who is the actor's actor. He's a consummate professional and getting him was actually a lifesaver for us, because this is a guy that doesn't need direction in any way, shape, or form. He knows the character. He is that guy. He was such a sweet man and he was a pleasure to work with, as was everybody.
Now, Jeffrey, I wrote the part for him. One of the reasons is I mentioned Ace in the Hole, and when you have a morally compromised character, basically a jerk, in order for the audience to be carried through the story, and to want this character to be redeemed, you have to have an actor who is likable and charismatic. Kirk Douglas, of course, is that. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is that. And when you look at Jeffrey Dean in films like Watchmen, where The Comedian is kind of a psychopath, but he's so morally conflicted and interesting. And, of course, there’s The Walking Dead, where he's a killer, but he is everybody's favorite character because he's so charming. I wanted somebody who you loved to see him being a jerk, because you knew that deep down inside, he was going to have a redemption arc.
Cricket is our discovery. Cricket is somebody that we're all high fiving each other over. It is her first film and her first job in the medium. She's done a few short films, and she's done an off-Broadway play. I initially thought that Alice was going to be the hardest part to cast, because we wanted a young actor. But their evolution in the story from somebody who cannot speak or hear, to somebody who is addressing crowds and commanding crowds, is such a great arc, and it turned out to be the easiest part to cast. We had, actually, an abundance of riches in the audition process because there are very many talented young actresses out there. I selected Cricket because, simply, she was the best in the audition, and she has this approachable, girl-next-door feeling. You could see her living in a small town in the United States. She's from Pittsburgh, and I know it's not a small town, but still, she's not Hollywood. She has an authenticity that I think we immediately relate to. I think she's a discovery and I think we found somebody really good here.
You also mentioned Sam Raimi earlier. When you were gearing up for this project, did he give you any insights or advice as you were setting out to direct? Or did he just let you find your own way?
Evan Spiliotopoulos: Sam was very heavily involved. When the studio hired me to direct, pairing me with Sam was a critical aspect of it, because they wanted an adult in the room. Sam was intrinsically involved in the pre-production stage, the development of the screenplay, but also very specifically the technical aspects. He walked me through how to use the visual effects, how to use the practical makeup effects that we have. Our film is actually 70/30 practical effects versus CGI. Marina Mazepa, a wonderful actress and a contortionist who's up there, even when she's CG, it's her in motion capture. Sam walked me through all of that, because as I'd like to say, my strength as a filmmaker is the structure, the storytelling, the screenplay. I didn't know the first thing about visual effects, and that's where Sam was completely invaluable.
Also, he was with us in pre-production on the location in Massachusetts the first two weeks of shooting, after which he took off to direct Doctor Strange 2. And then, once we finally wrapped, which, as you may know, we did over two periods, because we got interrupted by COVID. But when we finally wrapped in October, he was on the line with me in post-production virtually during the editing stage and beyond. So Sam has been there for me every step of the way on The Unholy.