‘The First Omen’ Director Arkasha Stevenson and Star Nell Tiger Free Detail the Scene That Nearly Earned Them an NC-17 Rating

“Ironically, I feel like they made it even more violent,” the filmmaker tells TheWrap of the ratings board

The First Omen
20th Century

Arkasha Stevenson’s “The First Omen,” now in theaters, explores the previously untold story of how Damien, the Antichrist introduced in Richard Donner’s 1976 classic, came to be.

The new film is set in 1971, with a young novitiate named Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) traveling to Rome during a time of political unrest. While there, she uncovers some true supernatural shenanigans involving a young girl named Carlita (Nicole Sorace) who is being groomed for a central role in an apocalyptic revelation.

Stevenson told TheWrap she was shown the script by her friends at Phantom Four, the production company run by David S. Goyer and Keith Levine. “I was really surprised. I’m an ‘Omen’ fan and the whole franchise is pretty manly. It’s a beefy, masculine franchise. To open the script and see that the main character was going to be this young woman was really exciting,” she said. “And especially because the whole point of doing a prequel is to answer that big question of how Damien came into the world. You’re talking about birth, you’re talking about the female body. And it felt just absolutely natural and wonderful and fresh way to enter the ‘Omen’ universe again with this female lead.”

Free was also a “big, big fan of the original.” “Figuring out where my character fit into the ‘Omen’ universe, I geeked out on it quite a lot,” the actress said. She immediately knew she wanted to do it and was intrigued by the obvious genre connections, not just to “The Omen,” but other films like Nicolas Roeg’s classic “Don’t Look Now” and “Suspiria” (Both movies released in the 1970s deal with an American in Europe encountering a malevolent psychic force). But she also felt like Margaret was a “fresh, brand-new character.” “We had a lot of wiggle room to just figure out and have fun with it,” Free said.

Although, that fun certainly had its limits.

There’s a moment in the film where Margaret is exploring an orphanage and goes down a corridor; she looks into a room where a woman is giving birth. Instead of a baby coming out of the woman’s vagina, it’s a demon’s hand, with long, spindly fingers and flesh the color of cold, grey concrete. It’s undeniably one of the most memorable scenes in the movie — and one that almost saddled “The First Omen” with the dreaded NC-17 rating; a rating that was meant to give flexibility to filmmakers, but has become a scarlet letter dooming a film before release thanks to restrictions in exhibition and advertisement.

Free said she only saw what would end up in the final film in “bits and pieces.” “Some of that scene, I’m looking at a red dot on the camera. Some of the scene, thankfully, the actress was there and she was willing to do some of her performance for me, so I could kind of see what was going on,” Free explained.

Still, she didn’t see the entire scene (“in all of its sticky glory”) until she was recording ADR for the film. Stevenson impishly asked Free if she wanted to see the scene and then played it. Later, the director said that she’d wished she had recorded Free’s reaction. “I was cheering in the ADR booth. I was like, ‘F–k yeah!’ I loved it,” Free said.

For her part, Stevenson said she was “shocked” when the film was initially awarded an NC-17 rating.

“We have a lot of gore, we have a lot of violence. We have a demon phallus, like a close-up of the demon phallus. But it was just this one shot, the shot of the vagina that was getting flagged every single time,” Stevenson said. “What I started to realize during this process, when we were creating this moment, it wasn’t the body that was what we wanted to be scary; that wasn’t the point of the scene. It was what was being done to the body.”

Stevenson had “this full frontal shot of the vagina and a hand starts to come through.” The compromise was that they would start the shot later, as the hand is already coming through the vagina. “So once the vagina has already been violated, that’s when it’s acceptable to use it. But what is just a vagina?” Stevenson posed. “I was like, ‘What is going on?’ That just made me so upset that it gave me more fuel to keep fighting with them.” And fight she did.

What Stevenson realized was that the scene was acceptable “once the labia is no longer in focus.” She described the process of dealing with the MPA ratings board as “really frustrating,” though they ultimately allowed her to keep a “profile shot” of the moment in the film. “To fill that gap in time, we added that profile shot, which to me is even more graphic because you’re really seeing the skin getting stretched and it feels much more painful,” Stevenson noted. “Ironically, I feel like they made it even more violent.”

“It’s always nice to have a little juicy feminist undertone,” Free added. “It’s always a nice color to play with. I think thematically, the film is very dark, it deals with very topical and very difficult things. But it does it in a way that we’re not trying to spoon-feed anything to you. We’re not trying to even enforce our opinions on you whatsoever.”

For Stevenson, she grew up admiring Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings and “really wanted this image to be really beautiful.” Additionally, she said she felt really supported by Disney, which owns 20th Century, the studio releasing “The First Omen.”

“This is a vagina in a Disney film. That feels wonderful,” Stevenson concluded.

“The First Omen” is now playing in theaters.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.