The exorcists

Worried that your film set is cursed? Then do as Hollywood does, and get it blessed. Just don't expect it to translate into big box office, says Jennifer Rodger
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When the production of Ring 2 hit some spooky problems, the producers turned to a higher power - religion. The ceremonial blessing, it seems, has become as big a part of the film-making process as lights, cameras, action.

These days, actors and crew are more likely to find themselves invited to a religious ceremony than to an awards dinner. Whether the blessings - be they Shinto, Buddhist or a simple "Big Luck" ceremony - reflect the beliefs of the director or the customs of the country in which filming is taking place, or they're a response to rather more disturbing spiritual events on set, they are becoming more and more widespread on location.

For Hideo Nakata, the director of the horror film Ring 2, it was a disturbing event that led him to seek the intervention of a Shinto priest. On the seventh day of production he was beset by curious phenomena. First, the water pipes burst. Then a swarm of bees invaded the set. Finally, he had to contend with a fractious deer running amok. Understandably, given the tenor of his film, the people working on it reacted very badly. "Because we were making a film about cursed water, evil spirited water, when we had the floods the crew freaked out," Nakata says.

He didn't want to take the chance that it was just bad plumbing. Midway through the shoot, a Japanese Shinto minister was flown in to perform a blessing. "I'm from Japan and my assistant is from Japan so we arranged a Shintoist. It's a traditional way of purification in Japan," says Nakata.

The producer, Walter Parkes, recalls: "I looked at the call sheet, and it said '8.30pm - Purification Ceremony.' I said, 'I'll be there for that.' It was great. I think it bonded the cast and crew."

Given the dark territory in which Nakata's film moves, the blessing also had the effect - like The Exorcist's 1973 production blessing by Reverend Thomas Bermingham - of raising the film's profile. However, the Shinto priest has been quietly playing a part in Japanese films for years.

"In Japan, there is always a purification ceremony to ensure the safety of the filming and the crew," says the prolific Japanese producer, Takashige Ichise, who made the recent US remake of the Japanese film Ju-On, The Grudge. "We also pray for the success of the film. It is all part of the process of making movies here." Even when Ichise worked with an American cast, he found that the ceremony served to bond the film's team together. "There's something wonderful about everyone paying their respects on set," says Sarah Michelle Gellar, who starred in The Grudge.

The director Ang Lee, meanwhile, has taken the Buddhist ritual of the "Big Luck" ceremony to his cast and crew on movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense and Sensibility. At the beginning of each production, fruit, red flowers and incense sticks are placed on a table while the group bow to the four points of the compass. A camera and a symbolic length of film are blessed. Emma Thompson recalls it as a high point of the production of Sense and Sensibility. She recorded in her diary: "Arrived for the opening 'Big Luck' ceremony. Ang struck the gongs, we all cheered and planted incense in the rice bowls. I cried. Al Watson, one of the electricians, passed Ang and said, 'Is this going to happen every day, guv?'"

Fortunately, all the gaffers on the Lama Khyentse Norbu's 2003 film Travellers and Magicians were sympathetic to Buddhism. He chose cast, crew, and even film stock by using Mo, a method of divination. "Many ceremonies were conducted before, during and after filming," says the producer Mal Watson. Ceremonies included lighting fires and burning precious substances like grains, expensive liquor and special herbs and then getting the crew to howl and whoop and yell. "Even 'letters' were sent to particular temples believed to be the seats of these deities requesting permission and assistance," says Watson. It produced startling results says Khyentse's assistant, Noa Jones. "After one [ceremony] a big rainbow came. And after dancing to some trance music one night, the rain stopped. Very magical."

Gurinder Chadha, the director of Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice, believes that the Indian film industry tradition of performing a "puja" is an important part of giving the set a good atmosphere. A puja celebrates the successful completion of a film's opening shot - and will often be a lavish affair. "In India they'll worship anything," says the director. "I've seen actors in India, as soon as they walk on set, touching the camera and blessing themselves. It's nice, it's spiritual and it's a way of being more at one with forces bigger than yourself."

One reason for the religious ceremony remains commercially motivated, however. Some film-makers turn to a higher power when all human efforts to save their movie have been exhausted. Production on Kevin Costner's Waterworld was a disaster, for example: there were so many problems with seasickness and jellyfish attacks that 300 members of the cast and crew decided to gather on the pier overlooking the Kawaihae harbour in Hawaii, and make their own attempts to appease the deities. "We wanted the ceremony because we thought it would be a good omen," says Wayne Awai, a local crew member. As it turned out, even a blessing from a kahuna (Hawaiian high priest) couldn't save Waterworld from sinking at the box office.

Joel Silver, too, had the set of Hudson Hawk (1991) blessed - to no avail, as everyone who's seen it will know. And when Tony Kaye was trying to get his own cut of American History X approved, the director took a priest, a Rabbi and a Buddhist monk to the meeting with him - again, to no avail. God may have been on Kaye's side, but he still didn't get the cut he wanted - he later tried to get his name removed from the credits.

But good luck sometimes strikes even without religious sanction. Mel Gibson tried to get a blessing from the Pope for his film The Passion Of The Christ last year, but was given short shrift. The film went on to gross $370m £200m) in the US alone.