Arkasha Stevenson On ‘The First Omen’ And The Scene That Got Her An NC-17

Here’s something you should know before seeing Arkasha Stevenson’s The First Omen: it really is a true prequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 The Omen. It’s not one of those things where it’s set decades before, so there’s room for an infinite amount of sequels before we get to the Donner version. And it’s also not one of those things where there’s a plan to remake the original The Omen after this film. If you watch 1976’s The Omen, The First Omen leads directly into it. The First Omen is the Rogue One of The Omen movies.

Though, it’s hard to get a read on how many people have seen the original three The Omen movies these days. If you haven’t, oh, I highly recommend them. The first one stars Gregory Peck(!) as a US ambassador who learns his son Damien is the Antichrist. Damien: Omen II is also terrific as Damien, now in military school, lives with his uncle, played by William Holden(!). And then in Omen III: The Final Conflict, Damien is played by Sam Neill(!) who, as the Antichrist, decides he should get involved in politics. These are great movies! Also, a big difference between the Omen movies and its contemporaries is that Damien isn’t possessed. Damien knows exactly who he is and what he’s doing.

As stated, The First Omen takes place right before the events of The Omen and gets into how Damien (aka the Antichrist) came to be in the first place. Nell Tiger Free plays Margaret, a young American women who works at a Rome orphanage and plans on becoming a nun. But, a lot of sinister things seem to happen at this orphanage, overseen by the seemingly kindly Cardinal Lawrence, played by Bill Nighy(!). In fact, one scene is so sinister – a very graphic shot of a woman giving birth to a demon – Stevenson had her film slapped with an NC-17 rating and, as she explains, the last several months of her life have been spent trying to change the MPAA’s mind about that (which, she did).

So what is your relationship with The Omen movies?

On Valentine’s Day, 20 years back, A&E used to do a double feature of The Shining and The Exorcist. That was my Valentine’s Day. And my mom saw me watching those. So she showed me Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. But the thing is, I was too young to understand what genre meant. That this was the horror genre and it was on A&E. So I was like, oh, this is life. This is human life. This is history. So I was always watching. I was introduced to these films so young that I was watching them almost like just dramas, family dramas.

Especially with The Exorcist and the original The Omen movie, it’s William Friedkin and Richard Donner. So they have this aspect of almost action movies to them, too, where they’re both very entertaining outside of the horror.

Yeah. And then with Friedkin, you get the documentary realism from them. So you really do feel like certain aspects of the movie are real.

I know it’s a weird comparison, but this movie reminds me a lot of Rogue One, in that it leads right into the original The Omen movie from the ’70s.

Wait, you’ve seen the movie?

I have seen the movie.

That’s really exciting! Sorry, this is a very new part of the process, people starting to see it.

This is your first interview in which you’re talking to someone who’s actually seen the movie?

Oh, yeah. Yeah. I’m not nervous at all.

But this going straight into the original The Omen is really great. I was worried it wouldn’t.

Yeah, absolutely. Which is really nice because when I read the script and that part was there, I was like, oh, this is great. This is our hook-in, which means that we can really play the character on the front end. I just thought it was just so clever how it dovetailed. And then, just on a personal note, I know that this prequel was made to answer a few questions. But almost making the prequel gave birth to all these new questions for me. Where did the jackal come from? And I have all these stories brewing in my head about where they found it. I had seen all The Omen films and you start to really realize how expansive this universe can be. Because you really are just playing with heaven and hell and earth. And it could really go anywhere. It’s exciting prospects.

Here’s what I think. People don’t have to see the original movie first. But I kind of think they should if they haven’t seen it.

And you know what? I’m the kind of girl who watched Fire Walk with Me before I watch Twin Peaks.

Oh wow.

Yeah, which actually was a really wonderful experience and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But we were really excited to make a movie that could stand on its own because our team was worried about just cashing in on nostalgia and we didn’t want to remake The Omen because you can’t remake The Omen. It’s such a beautiful film. It’s so elegant. It has its own thing to say. And so what was really important to us was figuring out how we fit into the conversation with the 1976 version.

And you’re hitting on this idea of possessed children, which in the family of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, people were so clearly terrified of their children. And I think that that really spoke to what was going on culturally at the time with counterculture and children rebelling from tradition and their parents. And so that was really what inspired us with this film, was to say our side of that story. You know, I’m afraid of my parents’ generation right now. And we flew out to shoot this film on the day that the Dobbs decision.

Oh, so that’s on your mind while shooting a lot of these scenes. I mean, obviously you can’t not see that subtext in there, but it was literally that day.

My partner is Tim Smith and he co-wrote this with me and is an EP on the project, and we actually pitched the studio. We were in Texas at the time and we pitched when the six-week ban was passed. Yeah, that was a big motivation.

On a lighter note, Twin Peaks


That’s how bad a subject is when the words, “on a lighter note, Twin Peaks,” is spoken. I’ve never said that before in my life. But starting with Fire Walk with Me

It was such a special treat because you’re just watching it through a totally different lens where you’re really watching the father the whole time and really getting to understand his character arc. I feel like if I hadn’t watched Fire Walk with Me, it would’ve been a completely different experience where I would’ve missed him falling prey to evil. Being possessed. This is not a lighter note, but you’re watching Twin Peaks through the lens of knowing that incest is happening. Some people say watch out when you watch Twin Peaks because if you love Fire Walk with Me, Twin Peaks is going to feel like a PG-rated version of Fire Walk with Me. It absolutely is not if you’ve watched Fire Walk with Me.

I love that in the third Omen movie Sam Neill plays Damien.

Calling Sam Neill to the stage. Yeah, it was amazing. I think one of the things that I love about Omen 2 and Omen 3 is that they’re a little bit body-count movies, right? But the kills are so insanely creative. And so insanely well executed.

There’s one I’m specifically thinking of.

Which one’s your favorite?

The journalist who figures out who Damien is in Omen II gets her eyes pecked out by a crow, then wanders in front of a semi-truck.

Man, that one’s amazing. I mean, the one that I love the most for some reason, sorry, this is not lighter subjects, but I just love the ambassador shooting himself in the third one.

Right, he calls the press conference to say he’s not the ambassador anymore and then kills himself.

Then entering the room, literally pulls the trigger. And I was just thinking like, man. And what’s so eerie about it is that you just kind of see him leave his body after he sees the dog in the park and then has a mission. And you don’t know what’s going to happen. Yeah, it’s very clever. Very well done.

Damien holds a grudge.

Damien holds a grudge. I know, but you know what’s so interesting is that in the second film, he’s actually quite lovely.

Damien doesn’t like it when people start to figure him out. He gets rid of them.

But he doesn’t start acting violently until people tell him he’s the Antichrist. Before people say you are Satan’s son, he’s just a lovely little boy. He’s snowmobiling around with William Holden.

I feel there’s a life lesson there. Even if you suspect a kid is the Antichrist, don’t call him that.

Yeah, it’s a really a commentary on the corruption of children. It’s like, he didn’t start acting bad until he was told he’s bad. I mean, honestly, we do that a bit in our film as well, infiltrating young people’s brains by telling them that they’re not worthy or they’re doing something wrong. They’re dirty.

Your movie goes to some dark places. The scene of the woman giving birth to a demon truly shocked me. I’ve never seen a scene like that.

You actually want to hear the story?

I do want to hear it.

We fought for that. I mean, that was the battle of the movie, was that shot.

I bet.

And for me, that shot is the theme of the film. It’s like a woman’s body being violated: mind, body, soul from the inside out. And we had an NC-17 rating for quite a while. And really we went back and forth maybe four or five times with the ratings board. You know there’s that frontal shot, right?


And then there’s the side angle. And the compromise was to go to the side angle for part of the time, which I think actually made it more graphic, ironically.


That’s been the last year and a half. Fighting for the vagina because it’s just… Yeah, it’s interesting because at the end of the day, we’re making a movie about female body autonomy and you have to show what it is you’re talking about. And I think it was a hard image to get through the ratings board because yes, we’re showing a vagina, but we’re also showing it in a non-sexualized manner. So that is hyper-offensive to people. And for a lot of people, it wasn’t what was coming out of the vagina, it was just the vagina itself that was confronting. Which I think it’s just absolutely amazing and why I think the image was so important.

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