The Omen-courting controversy

Posted: Jun 05, 2006 12:01 AM

It should have been a standard Q & A session following a typical film screening for the press. But from The Da Vinci Code denouncements by the Vatican to cries that United 93 portrayed events too raw and recent to be recalled on screen, these days it seems like every other movie released contains some controversial element of the religious or 9/11-related variety.

The Omen, opening in theaters across the country tomorrow, managed to stir up ire on both counts. So instead of politely answering how he liked working with Mia Farrow or whether he was nervous about updating a 1970s horror classic, the film’s director, John Moore, faced this line of inquiry:

Audience Member: I have a question ... Are you a New Yorker? John?

John Moore: No, I'm Irish.

Audience Member: Why did you think it is okay, since the events of 9/11, to manipulate the audience's emotions for your horror movie?

John Moore: Well, I didn't manipulate them. The role of response that an individual has is not necessarily up to me. I believe that ... [Audience member attempts to interrupt]

John Moore: Can I answer the question or do you want to come up here and take the microphone? Cause I can see your anger, sir. I can see it from here. Well, let me answer the question you asked me. What happened on 9/11 was a world event. I can understand that it's particularly sensitive to New Yorkers. What happened on 9/11 deeply affected me also. I happened to be in America when it happened. It left a lasting impression on my mind and the impression that I had when it happened was that we were in a very dark time. It seemed as if we were dealing with a very dark series of events and that's why it became part of the movie.

Audience Member: It's a good thing that the movie is such a piece of **** and nobody's going to see it. [Audience Member starts to leave]

John Moore: You know what, you want to come back and actually finish your thought, or are you going to be like most thugs? Make your statement and then leave before anyone has a chance to talk about it?

Audience Member: There's nothing more to be said.

John Moore: Well then, can you expand on why you think the movie is a piece of ****?

Audience Member: You lost me in the very beginning because you used something [the World Trade Center attack] that hurt a lot of people to manipulate our emotions. That's what I think you were doing.

John Moore: All art will manipulate your emotions.

Audience Member: What's that?

John Moore: The point of art is to manipulate and stimulate emotions.

Audience Member: I don't think your movie is art.

Phew! Quite a little hubbub over a remake that, while it boasts a talented cast, can’t claim a single one who would make the cover of Star even with a major breakup. It certainly woke an apathetic press audience up to the idea that they might have more interesting material on their hands than film junkets usually provide.

The next day, at the Regency Hotel in downtown Manhattan, Moore and his actors tried to address the embarrassing accusations from the night before head-on. They also tried to tackle a few others potential landmines before they could become the focus of their interviews.

Said Julia Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You, The Bourne Supremacy) of Moore’s decision to use footage of the Twin Towers burning, “The best kind of horror films are the kind that don’t just scare you in the moment—they use imagery that lives on … I don’t think it’s exploitative … And I think it makes the point, if you really want to be scared you can just turn on the news.”

Stiles, who is reprising the famed Lee Remick role of world’s most put-upon mom, even tied the questionable scenes to issues of faith: “Ever since that day [9/11], religious rhetoric is used a lot in public discourse. That was an intense tragedy that has since made people cling to faith and look for answers and explanations as to why that happened. In this film, we sort of play out what would happen when people look to this sort of prophecy as an answer about the state of the world.”

Mia Farrow similarly stood by her director and the movie commenting, “It [the 9/11 footage] shows a connection to the demonic.”

Far more than anyone else in the production, Farrow was able to expand on this point of view: “I was brought up a Catholic, and in my early catechism books, the devil was portrayed as a little character with horns, and a tail and a pitchfork—and he’d be whispering in your ear, and if you were lucky you’d have an angel whispering in the other ear. Well, what’s more interesting and accurate is the dual nature of humankind and our—I’m stating the obvious, but—our capacity for altruism and tremendous good, and our capacity for evil and the terrible... I mean, you don’t have to look further than the Darfur region of Sudan as we sit at this table. Four-hundred thousand people dead. And counting. That we have the capacity for both of these things is the representation of evil in this film …

“Unfortunately, the devil is us,” she finished.

For his part, Moore largely echoed his leading ladies, “It was used as a demonstration of evil. We wanted to show acts perpetrated by evil doers…including of planes hitting towers.”

Asked whether he thought the 9/11 attacks could, as the film implies, actually be some fulfillment of biblical prophecy, Moore deflected. “Revelations is effective as a fable—a metaphor, as all biblical stories are.”

Whether Moore’s choice to juxtapose images of the most painful day in America’s recent memory with an interpretation of Armageddon doctrine will help or hurt the movie’s box office remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: if it helps, we can expect studios will arrange for a lot more heckling at film screenings in the future.