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Birth, Fear, and Femininity: Exploring THE FIRST OMEN with Arkasha Stevenson and Tim Smith

BTS photo of Arkasha Stevenson directing Nell Tiger Free outside in Rome
(L-R): Director Arkasha Stevenson and Nell Tiger Free as Margaret on the set of 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo by Moris Puccio. © 2024 All Rights Reserved.

By Shannon McGrew

In THE FIRST OMEN, when a young American woman is sent to Rome to begin a life of service to the church, she encounters a darkness that causes her to question her own faith and uncovers a terrifying conspiracy that hopes to bring about the birth of evil incarnate.

For the release of THE FIRST OMEN, Creepy Kingdom's Shannon McGrew chatted with director Arkasha Stevenson and writer Tim Smith. During their chat, they discussed everything from the challenges and opportunities of working within an established franchise to approaching the story from a female perspective.

Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with me today about THE FIRST OMEN. How did this project come to be?

Arkasha Stevenson: It was so weird and lucky the timing because I had just been talking with a friend, Gracie Wheelan, who works at the production company that produced this movie. She sent us the script, and it caught us off guard. We're so used to The Omen stories being told from a male perspective, so when we read it and found out it would be a woman's story, we were really into it.

Tim Smith: It had a long history before we came on board. It was really exciting because, as Arkasha said, having this story told through Margaret's POV was so special to us and gave us a chance to reconceive all the horror through her perspective and anchor it in female body horror and centering on this theme of birth and autonomy of your body and a lot of themes that we had been working on in other projects that we were trying to get off the ground. It felt really special, the timing of it all.

Taking on an already-established franchise is never easy. As horror fans, what was that experience like?

Tim Smith: Our natural impulse with sacred horror properties is to stay as far away as possible. We're so protective of horror films. But the good thing about this one is, as Arkasha said, we saw it was from Margaret's POV and that it's a prequel. We told ourselves, okay, it will naturally dovetail with the original. We want to exist in the world of The Omen, but this gave us the freedom to do our own thing and relieve the pressure of trying to equal or recreate the original Omen, which is a fool's errand. You can't recreate the magic of that. It gave us the freedom to take it on, understanding the challenge of it fully and just how seriously we had to take it.

How did you create this film so it felt new and fresh?

Arkasha Stevenson: That's a really good question. We were having this constant conversation and kind of a balancing act. The worst thing you can do is piss off horror fans. So it was like, okay, what story are we telling, and how do we want to speak back to the '76 version? What kind of conversation do we want to have with it? Then, what are the homages that intrinsically come out from there? We were challenging ourselves to do something: any time there was an Easter egg, a callback, or an homage; we would approach it from a different angle and give it a new context or perspective.

Tim Smith: There were some pretty straightforward things, too, like filming in Rome, which was essential to us. Back in the '70s, they were getting out of those studio films and were going on location a lot more. Going to Rome, it's like, you can't fake that; you have to go to Rome. Gregory Peck being cast in the original elevated that movie's stature, and having talented actors in horror films legitimizes that genre. So, we wanted to cast the movie with that in mind and try to bring as talented a cast as possible to the film. There were all kinds of challenges we set out to try to pay homage to the original in all sorts of ways.

Director Arkasha Stevenson directs Nell Tiger Free in a scene for THE FIRST OMEN
(L-R): Director Arkasha Stevenson and Nell Tiger Free as Margaret on the set of 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo by Moris Puccio. © 2024 All Rights Reserved.

I love how graphic the film is and how it shows the horrors of childbirth. How difficult was navigating what you could and could not show with the MPAA to maintain the R-rating?

Arkasha Stevenson: Some of that comes out of the film's themes. Having this female protagonist talking about the big question that everybody has going into The Omen prequel is, where does Damien come from? You're talking about Earth and forced reproduction and the female body, so a lot of our body horror pertains to the female form. The worst thing we could do was have gratuitous body horror when it came to women. There's this one scene that was a huge battle - the way that we wanted to portray the female body, which I hadn't seen, and the images that I wanted to see on screen for myself. We have a lot of gore, a lot of violence, but it was just this one piece of the female anatomy that was flagging an NC-17 rating.

Were you able to achieve most of those body horror moments through practical effects?

Tim Smith: Everything is grounded in a practical approach, but some things need to be enhanced. It's great for us to do practical work because a) it's better for the actors on set, and then b) it doesn't age the movie, and it just feels tactile, which makes for better horror.

Circling back to Nell, I'm a big fan of her work in "Servant" and thought she was the perfect casting choice for Margaret. When did you know she was the right one for the role?

Tim Smith: We were developing this project for a bit, and out of nowhere, the studio was like, you're greenlit, you're going to Rome right now, and we were totally unprepared. We were existing in this world of maybe it's going to happen, maybe it's not. And suddenly, they said it's happening, and you're going to film in ten weeks; we're sending you to Rome to do this.

I knew about Nell, and we took off for Rome, and I rewatched "Servant." When I landed, I was like, okay, cool, it's her [Laughs]. I talked to her, and she was so cool, and she was like, hey, I'll read one of the scenes. She read, without spoiling anything, an incredibly devastating, emotionally taxing scene towards the end, and she was incredible. She has this uncanny talent to turn it on like a light switch. She's the kindest, sweetest, most approachable person, and then suddenly, she'll go to the darkest place possible, flip a switch, and start conversing with you. She's incredibly talented but can also compartmentalize and be this amazing person between performances.

Arkasha Stevenson: It created an atmosphere where she could perform but then come back for us to collaborate and talk about things, and then she would dive back in. It was great. She became such a huge part of the partnership and was a true collaborator on everything.

Now that the film is out for everyone to see, is there anything you hope they take away from THE FIRST OMEN?

Arkasha Stevenson: Growing up, I wish I had seen more female filmmakers in the horror space. I love horror movies but it's stereotypically a man's genre, but women love horror, we live horror. It's a very natural genre for women to express themselves. So many new, unique female voices are coming to the table right now, with so many radical visions blowing minds. I'm excited for that to continue and to see the female anatomy not be taboo to see unless it's in a sexualized light. I think that was a big goal of this film.

Tim Smith: It's also a studio film, a Disney film. That's a real badge of honor, taking on a franchise that's a Disney movie. In that case, hopefully, people will walk away saying you can do something different from a female perspective and see imagery you haven't seen before. Do something different and take big swings. It's also something super personal that Arkasha saw through, and it shows you can make a personal film with a studio and Disney behind you.

THE FIRST OMEN is now in theaters. To learn more about the film, check out our review.


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