ONE OF CINEMA’S MOST TERRIFYING BLOCKBUSTERS, RICHARD DONNER’S THE OMEN GROUNDED ITSELF IN REALISM. AS HE AND WRITER DAVID SELTZER TELL US, CREATING SCARES WAS A SERIOUS BUSINESS
Director Richard Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer on the spooky goings-on behind the scenes of one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
ROMAN POLANSKI’S ROSEMARY’S Baby and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist were big-budget studio movies that had scared up both massive box office and the odd Oscar. Released in 1976, The Omen would be another blockbuster, helping popularise 666, aka “the number of the beast”, with Satanists and heavy-metal types, as well as making The Book Of Revelation required reading. And yet its director, Richard Donner, says he never saw The Omen as a horror film, despite a storyline revolving around the birth and early years of the Antichrist.
To Donner, The Omen was, and remains, “a mystery-suspense thriller”; all the tragedy that befalls Gregory Peck’s Robert Thorn, his family, and those in his orbit can be chalked up to “coincidence” rather than diabolical intervention. “Even the three sixes could have been a birthmark,” insists the now 90-year-old director, who had writer David Seltzer exorcise anything overtly supernatural or demonic from his screenplay before they began filming, opting for a more pragmatic approach. “Dick was very instrumental in shaping the script, keeping the tone down to reality,” says Seltzer. “Clovenhooved creatures could not be real. The credit goes to him for the movie being as brilliant as it was.” The key was keeping it real.
CINEMATIC LEGEND HAS it that the idea for The Omen was hatched over lunch by its producer, Harvey Bernhard, and Robert L. Munger, an advertising executive who would later be credited as the film’s religious advisor. Munger asked Bernhard if he’d ever read The Book Of Revelation, then pitched him the idea of the Antichrist walking among us. Knowing a cool concept when he heard one, Bernhard rushed back to his office and bashed out a ten-page treatment which Seltzer turned into a script. At least, that’s the tale Bernhard, who died in 2014, liked to tell. Not so, according to
Seltzer. “You mind if I debunk that and tell you the true story?” says the 80-year-old writer on the phone from Los Angeles. “That’s Harvey Bernhard’s story, trying to suck up as much credit as he can. There was no treatment. And his friend sent me a page of research.”
At the time, Seltzer was “becoming known as that guy who wrote weepy Hollywood romances and children’s pictures”, he says, having worked, uncredited, on Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. “Doing horror pictures was the furthest thing from my mind. So when Harvey called me after he saw The Exorcist and said, ‘I want you to do one like that,’ I said, ‘I don’t do that kind of thing.’ He reminded me he had done me a favour at one point in my career, so I thought, ‘Let me give it a try.’” As a former documentarian, Seltzer dived headlong into research, approaching his Satanic subject with forensic rigour. “I was from a family of very fundamental Orthodox Jews,” he reveals. “There is no Devil in that religion, there is no place that the Devil dwells, so it was all very foreign to me.”
In fact, Seltzer had never even opened the Christian Bible. “It was like reading Shakespeare. I loved the language, I loved the characters, I loved how preposterous it was, because it’s told in such a strait-laced manner. I got a lot of different versions and saw people had added to those original tales, rewriting the Bible over the years, so it gave me a very free hand with it.” So much so that the film’s most quoted passage
— “When the Jews return to Zion/and a comet rips the sky/and the Holy Roman Empire rises/ Then You and I must die/from the eternal sea he rises/creating armies on either shore/ Turning man against his brother/’til man exists no more” — he made up.
“I had seen Jaws and I thought, ‘Everybody knows fish don’t eat boats, but it sure did play in a movie theatre,’” he says. “I decided to write a story about the Devil as though it was real, and could happen to people we relate to.” But perhaps Seltzer’s greatest cultural impact was in introducing something that is in the Bible — the number 666 — to the masses. “Which you now see written on walls, tattoos, and T-shirts,” he says, proudly. “I take quiet credit for bringing it to the attention of people.”
SELTZER KNOCKED OUT a first draft in five weeks. Entitled ‘The Antichrist’, it centred on the US Ambassador to London, Robert Thorn, who deceives his wife by substituting another baby for their own stillborn son, unaware he’s the spawn of Satan. The script was turned down by everyone, before Warner Bros., who’d enjoyed massive success with The Exorcist, picked it up. “Chuck Bale, a stuntman, was supposed to direct. Charles Bronson was going to play the lead, so it was being envisioned as something preposterous,” says Seltzer, who accompanied
IN EARLY 1970S HOLLYWOOD, HORROR WASN’T CONSIDERED A DIRTY WORD.
Bale on a location scout to Europe. “We came back to find we were dumped. And Warners were well underway with their sequel to The Exorcist.”
With ‘The Antichrist’ due to be put into turnaround on the upcoming Monday, the script found its way to Donner, then best-known for directing TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive. “It was a Friday night and I was going to dinner at Ian Mcshane’s house,” Donner recalls. “Eddie Rosen, a manager, called me and said, ‘Dick, I’ve just finished reading a script. It’s been passed by every single studio in town, but it’s something you should read.’ And he sent it over.” As Donner got ready, he “smoked a doobie” and started reading. “The script was on the sink in my bathroom. As I was shaving, I opened the first page, looked at it, shaved a bit more, read the next page. All of a sudden I stopped shaving, and read the whole thing.” By now, Donner was late, but another dinner guest that fateful evening was Alan Ladd Jr, his former agent and then head of production at 20th Century Fox. Donner took Ladd aside and asked him to read the script. Late Sunday, Ladd telephoned Donner to say
Fox was in. “I couldn’t believe it,” remembers Donner. “I was jumping with joy. The next morning, I called Harvey Bernhard to tell him that I’d sold the picture.”
James Coburn, Roy Scheider, Charlton Heston, Dick Van Dyke and William Holden (who would star in the sequel) all passed on the role of Robert Thorn, before Bernhard suggested Hollywood legend Gregory Peck, who’d won a Best Actor Oscar for playing all-round nice guy Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Peck had recently retired from acting, following the suicide of his 31-year-old son, Jonathan, although his agent was keen for him to go back to work. Casting such a beloved icon in the lead added a degree of respectability to the project, with Donner figuring if Atticus Finch was convinced his son was the Antichrist, so, too, would audiences. “It was the gravity of his face that made this believable,” says Seltzer. “Honestly, if it hadn’t had somebody with that kind of stentorian authority, it would not have worked.”
Donner searched high and low for his Damien, auditioning hundreds of kids before casting cherubic four-year-old Harvey Stephens, whose blond locks had to be dyed black. “The Antichrist is prophesied to be beautiful, so I described him as ‘clear-eyed, fair-faced with an angelic smile, but it is understood that there is a lot going on behind his eyes’,” says Seltzer. “And they absolutely captured it with Harvey.” During auditions, Donner asked each child to beat him up, so Stephens laid into him, punching him in the gonads and scoring the part.
As Thorn’s wife Kathy, Donner cast Lee Remick, an American living in England; David Warner played ill-fated photographer Keith Jennings, whose blemished prints foretell several deaths; former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton co-starred as Father Brennan, the Catholic priest in league with Satan; Leo Mckern played the archaeologist who provides Thorn with the Seven Daggers of Megiddo, with which he tries to kill Damien. For the diabolical Mrs Baylock, who steps in as Damien’s nanny after his former carer kills herself during his fifth birthday party, Donner cast British theatre veteran Billie Whitelaw — much to Seltzer’s initial dismay. “I envisioned her as a robust Irish woman, and I was angry about it at the time because she was so clearly evil. I thought she violated Dick’s entire premise that you don’t want somebody on the set who looks like living death. Of course, Dick was right. Billie was brilliant.” With the cast assembled, cameras — and heads — were ready to roll.
The project took over a maternity unit and put up signs that read: “Please be quiet, ‘Birthmark’ being filmed.” “All of the women were desperate to get out when they saw the word birthmark, because it was a bad omen. Hello,” laughs Seltzer. “It was an assistant director who said, ‘Just call it The Omen,’ and it stuck.”
Throughout filming, cast and crew were plagued by so many strange and mysterious events that the press claimed the production was cursed. Lightning struck planes carrying Seltzer, Peck, Bernhard and executive producer Mace Neufeld. A London restaurant frequented by Peck was bombed by the IRA — on the one night he didn’t dine there — as was Neufeld’s hotel. The production cancelled a booking on a private plane which then crashed the day they had been due to film, killing everyone on board. A warden at Windsor Safari Park, where they shot the scene of baboons attacking a car with Kathy and Damien inside, was mauled by, according to varying reports, a lion or a tiger, and later died from his injuries.
Bernhard took the idea of the curse seriously. Unlike Donner. “I had arguments with him about it,” recalls the director. “When these things started happening, a friend of his, [who] was very active in the Catholic Church, had it in his mind that a demonic being was trying to stop this film being made. To me, it was coincidence. Nothing more, nothing less. People would say to me, ‘We’re cursed,’ and, ‘This thing is dangerous.’ I would do everything I could to laugh them through it, because, quite honestly, I needed these people to make my movie, and a lot of them were afraid to come to work.” As far as Seltzer was concerned, the curse was “all BS. If the Devil can’t stop a movie from being made, we have nothing to fear.”
While The Exorcist pushed boundaries of taste and physiology with its demon-possessed child, pea-soup vomit and spinning head, The Omen went for a series of spectacular and disturbing deaths that were the handiwork of Oscar-winning special-effects supervisor John Richardson. In addition to the nanny’s suicide, Troughton’s priest is speared by a lightning rod that breaks loose from a church roof during an electrical storm; Remick plummets, head-first, from a balcony at home and, later, out of a hospital window onto an ambulance; while Warner’s photographer is decapitated by a sheet of glass that originally fell from a crane like a guillotine. All, hewing to the filmmakers’ original philosophy, incidents that could be explained away as just unrelated accidents.
Alas Richardson, whose credits include six Bonds and eight Harry Potters, couldn’t get the glass for the latter stunt to fall properly — “Every time the wind would interfere and it would start to leaf,” says Donner — so he suggested having the glass slide off the back of a truck instead. Donner covered the sequence with multiple cameras, cutting together every second of footage to prolong the horrific effect, figuring if audiences shut their eyes for a moment or two, when they looked back, Warner’s head would still be rolling. The actor couldn’t bear to look at his severed noggin, which Donner kept in his car. “I passed David on the motorway going home one day,” remembers the director. “I waved at him and he waved back. Then I picked his head up. And I think he passed out in the back seat.”
THE OMEN OPENED, fittingly, on 6 June 1976, and grossed almost $80 million from a budget of $2.2 million, helping put a cash-strapped Fox back in the black. (Ladd Jr ploughed the profits into another movie he had shooting in London, then known as ‘The Star Wars’.) Donner, aged 46, suddenly found himself on Hollywood’s A list. “The Omen changed my life. And opened up my career,” he says. Composer Jerry Goldsmith won his only Oscar for The Omen’s hugely influential Black Mass-derived score. “I was on stage when they recorded it. When this choral
THE MOVIE’S 11-WEEK SHOOT BEGAN PRODUCTION IN OCTOBER 1975, SOON BEING RETITLED ‘THE BIRTHMARK’.
group started to go, ‘Antichristo… Antichristo…’, well, I had to go change my pants,” says Donner. “It was brilliant, unbelievable. And that was Jerry Goldsmith. He was a special man. I miss him dearly.”
Somewhat surprisingly, The Omen was lauded by the Catholic Church. “They embraced it,” says Seltzer. “I got awards from Catholic organisations for popularising scripture.” There were some, however, who deemed it blasphemous, directing their ire at Donner, who’s an atheist. “I had a lot of threats. How dare I allow the Antichrist to live? It was a little unnerving,” he notes. “I wasn’t anxious to have somebody tell me my blood would be running in the street.”
A sequel was quickly put into development. Seltzer wasn’t asked back, he says, because the producers got no royalties from the Omen novelisation he wrote and “were angry”. Initially, Donner planned to return. “I started to help write it, then got an offer for Superman and I told Harvey I would appreciate it if he let me out.”
Damien: Omen II, directed by Don Taylor, featured a teenage Damien now in military school, and eschewed Donner’s sense of ambiguity. “I saw 20 minutes and realised they had missed the point,” recalls Seltzer. “The point was an innocent villain. The second one started out with this kid being told he was the Devil’s son. After that it was just a slasher movie. How many ways can you piss him off and he kills you?” Omen III: The Final Conflict, with Damien (Sam Neill) now US Ambassador to London and braced for Christ’s second coming, was released in 1981, followed by the made-for-tv Omen IV: The Awakening.
While both Omen II and III have their moments, neither sequel nor spin-off come close to capturing the power of the original which, 44 years later, is widely acknowledged as a classic of the horror genre, thanks, in no small part, to Donner’s realistic approach, which is one of the few things not replicated by 2006’s slick reboot. “I couldn’t believe it,” sighs Donner of John Moore’s virtual carbon copy. “It was a frame-for-frame remake. Shouldn’t there be a new approach?”
The answer, evidently, was no. “Same words, same situations, but unbearably false,” adds Seltzer who, nevertheless, had to fight for screenplay credit “even though it was my script. It really goes to show what a director can do.”
Indeed, Donner worked that same magic again with 1978’s Superman, which made us believe a man could fly. With The Omen, he made us believe the Devil was real.
Left to right: Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), his wife Kathy (Lee Remick) and Damien (Harvey Stephens) after the nanny’s death; Remick gets plastered; The Antichrist takes his tricycle for a deadly spin.
Here: Director Richard Donner with Stephens. Right: Photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), whose prints foretell several deaths.
Clockwise from far left: Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) gets skewered; Donner and Peck on set; Kathy Thorn clings on in vain; The baboon attack begins; Keith Jennings loses his head; Robert Thorn attempts the impossible.