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On August 14, 1972, the production began what was to be several weeks of shooting on various locations and at the old 20th Century Fox/Movietone Stages, located near 10th Avenue and 52nd Street in New York City. Weeks turned into several months, though, as Friedkin reasoned that if the film was not absolutely perfect in its execution, audiences would immediately dismiss the supernatural storys more outlandish elements. Scheduled for just over 70 days, the U.S. portion of the production shot for more than 180, going well over budget.
The sets at Fox were designed to match the films generally realistic visual approach, and primarily depicted various spaces in the upscale MacNeil household. "We didnt want to create a Psycho-type house," Roizman states. "All of the rooms were basically designed to be elegant and well-furnished a warm and moody house. We approached the lighting as we would a location, especially in dealing with the windows, which we would always allow to softly blow out. But we then tried to give the house a kind of ominous feeling, as if some lurking, mysterious thing were hanging over it." With a smile, he adds that several furnishings from these sets now adorn his own home, including a large wooden wardrobe and an infamously stained carpet.
There was room for more overt lighting when it was necessary, however. "When Father Merrin arrives at the house and Chris opens the front door to let him in, we first see him completely in silhouette," Roizman notes. "Hes just this shadow, and its not until he comes into the light that we see his face and realize who he is. Thats stylized. I also went more expressionistic for a sequence during the exorcism when Merrin and Karras are sitting on the staircase outside of Regans room the light comes through the handrail and shadows break across Jason Millers face. There are some other shots where we took license, but it was usually done in such a way that it didnt draw too much attention, primarily because it was just enhancing what was going on in the story."
A sudden change in lighting strategies made a scene set in the homes attic unexpectedly difficult. As staged, Chris was to search the spooky space by candlelight, seeking out the source of some strange and disturbing sounds. Suddenly, her candle erupts in a burst of flame. "In preproduction, we hollowed out a candle and built in a little gas flame that would create that effect," Roizman details. "Inside, near the top, we cut out a space for a little peanut bulb, which we would control on a dimmer for a nicely fluctuating light on Ellens face. By holding the candle correctly, she would be lighting her own face. Well, we got ready to do the shot, running a wire down the sleeve of her nightgown, and I said to Billy, Please just ask Ellen not to turn the candle, so we wont see the bulb in there. He said, I cant ask the actor to do that! We have to light the scene in some different way. We were just about to roll, but he insisted, although I knew Ellen would have done it. Besides her wonderful acting talent, she was very good about the technical side of filmmaking."
As a result, Roizman and his crew began quickly rigging the attic set with inky-dinks on dimmers, setting up a choreography to simulate the traveling candlelight effect. "Every time Id seen that technique used in a movie I thought it looked phony and I hated it," the cinematographer attests. "I hated it in this picture too. But I was caught by surprise and we had to do it in a hurry."
In the days before the Steadicam, cinematographers were often compelled to devise complicated ways to gracefully traverse uneven terrain, and The Exorcist contains a perfect illustration of this dilemma. Late in the second act, a pair of doctors arrive at the MacNeil house to examine Regan. Entering the front door, they hear loud thumping sounds and screaming from her second-story room and race up a half-winding staircase to get there. While the coverage could have been done in any number of ways, it was determined that a single unbroken shot would enhance the audiences connection to the action. Roizman details, "We wanted to take the actors from the front door and stay in front of them as they went all the way up the stairs and around the curve, and then back up and let them pass by us. Wed then swing in behind and follow them into Regans room."
In order to accomplish the move, key grip Eddie Quinn built a small platform seat that was suspended from tracks mounted to the ceiling and capable of carrying both the "Panavized" Arriflex camera and operator Enrique Bravo. The platform was smoothly raised through the stairwell by means of an electric hoist and pulley system, pacing the actors as they climbed upward. Because there would be no way to hide lights or the shadows cast by the "floating" rig since the camera would reveal virtually 360 degrees of the space Roizman lit the stairwell entirely with Photofloods and strip lights aimed down through a draped muslin ceiling to create an overall soft-light effect.
The Exorcist was the fifth feature that Bravo, camera assistant Tom Priestly Jr., and second assistant Gary Miller had worked on with Roizman, and the cinematographer attests, "we knew each other like the backs of our own hands. Ricky, who had been a cameraman in Cuba before he came to the States, had the exact same sense of composition that I did. I never had to explain anything to him. Priestly was a great assistant, and wanted to be a cinematographer himself. I used to push him all the time, asking, When are you going to become an operator? Stop being so lazy! Having such experienced guys on the film was very helpful."
The set depicting Regans bedroom was constructed with a removable ceiling and flyaway walls on a raised gimbal (to allow for the various effects mechanics), and its appearance parallels the characters ghastly transformation. Beginning as a typically cheery girls room, it later becomes a grim torture chamber. During the films lengthy exorcism finalé, as Karras and Merrin challenge the force of evil within the girl, the room was sparsely dressed, with careful art direction providing subliminal dread. "The room was designed to be very monochromatic by that point," Roizman explains. "The walls were a gray-taupe color and the bedsheets were neutral beige. The priests were dressed in black, which helped, but we stayed away from any pure white because it would have jumped out too much. In toning everything down like that, the only real color in the room became the skin tones an effect I personally like very much. This sequence has an almost black-and-white feeling, yet there is subtle color there. In the rest of the picture we let the colors play normally."
Heat and lighting became key issues throughout the exorcism sequence. In the story, the paranormal activities leave the bedroom frighteningly frigid, and since the authenticity-obsessed Friedkin wanted to see the performers breath vapor, the set was built in a refrigerated room ironically dubbed "The Cocoon." The crew kept the room at a temperature of about -20°F, making heavy coats a necessity for anyone working in the space. "We did some tests with the temperature at about 25 degrees, and you could see some breath, but it wasnt really enough," Roizman says. "When the lights were turned on, their heat warmed the room so quickly that we couldnt even get a single take. The breath showed up fine at zero, but Friedkin wanted the actors to really feel the cold because he thought it would help their acting. An actor on his knees for 20 minutes at minus 20 degrees is really going to feel the cold."
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