Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios’ THE FIRST OMEN
Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios’ THE FIRST OMEN. Photo credit: Moris Puccio/20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The First Omen is the sixth film in the longstanding franchise and prequel to The Omen (1976). It was directed by Arkasha Stevenson, whose credits include Syfy’s Channel Zero, with a screenplay by Stevenson, Tim Smith, and Keith Thomas. The film stars Nell Tiger Free as Margaret, an American woman “sent to Rome to begin a life of service to the church, but encounters a darkness that causes her to question her faith and uncovers a terrifying conspiracy that hopes to bring about the birth of evil incarnate.”

In anticipation of the film’s release, we talked with Arkasha Stevenson and Tim Smith about taking on such an iconic franchise. The First Omen will open in theaters on April 5th.

Horror Geek Life: While it is rare for a mainstream theatrical release to receive an NC-17 rating, that was almost a reality for your film. Can you talk about what that fight meant for you as a filmmaker?

Arkasha Stevenson: Thank you so much for asking about this because this has been such a huge part of our lives for the past, what, like a year and a half. And it’s just specifically this one shot which I can talk about.

The horror in our film, I think, might be a little bit different than what people are expecting because we’re not so much of a jump-scare movie. We’re a bit more of a psychological thriller mixed with body horror. And a lot of the body horror has to do with female body autonomy. I feel like in order to talk about that in this movie, it was really important to us to show the female body through a lens where it wasn’t objectified or fetishized at all. It was really important for us to show this one image, which is the vagina.

When it came to the ratings board, I’m sure maybe this image doesn’t pop up a lot for them. But it was important for us to show this piece of a woman in a non-sexualized light. We had to get this shot because this is the theme of our movie — a woman’s mind and body being completely violated from the inside outward. So it was worth a year and a half, I think.

HGL: Nell Tiger Free is such a wonderfully bold performer; could you tell us what she brought to the character of Margaret?

Tim Smith: Nell’s fearless, and I think she’s willing to go anywhere the character needs to go. This role required so much of her emotionally and stamina-wise, beyond just being incredibly talented. It’s really a journey that her character goes on, and we needed somebody who was kind of game for anything. She just elevated the film beyond what we could have ever imagined. She’s so talented, so willing to get down and dirty.

Yeah, and she can just do it at the drop of a hat, which is incredible. It’s like her superpower. She’s just the kindest, sweetest person ever, and then you call action, and she’s in it and will slip right out of it. We were super lucky because the film really rests on her shoulders and we needed somebody who could bring it every day and she was perfect for that.

Arkasha Stevenson: Yeah, and what’s so amazing is that you can see that switch Tim is talking about in the monitor. When you’re watching, and you’re about to call action, and then you hear that word, all of a sudden, there’s something in her eyes that just switches, and it’s so exciting, spooky, and powerful to watch. She’s got the precision of a scalpel but the power of a hammer. It’s just, it’s really rare, I think.

Director Arkasha Stevenson and Nell Tiger Free as Margaret on the set of 20th Century Studios' 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.

HGL: In the trailer, we see one of the most iconic scenes recreated: the nanny jumping to her death after shouting, “Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you!” Was it challenging to get right?

Arkasha Stevenson: Yeah, that’s because it’s such an iconic moment for the franchise. That’s what made it probably one of the trickier scenes, I think, because you don’t want to just recreate what the 1976 version did because what they did was so impactful, so perfect, and really, the violence is so effective because it comes out of nowhere. It’s truly bizarre at first and then turns into sheer terror, and I think for us, we couldn’t just rely on horror coming out of nowhere because the second somebody goes up to height in an Omen movie, you know exactly what’s going to happen.

We spent a lot of time talking to our actress, Ishtar (Currie-Wilson), and she said something really interesting, which is, “I don’t know if this character actually wants to do this. I think she’s really terrified.” The character she plays is very sweet and slightly childish, so finding that almost childlike fear in her in that moment was really key to making this an homage but also our own version of it, which is finding the horror in tragedy.

RELATED: How ‘Saw’ Set the Tone for a New Generation of Horror Movies

Tim Smith: Yeah, exactly. We really wanted to lean into the psychological effect of somebody committing an act like that and people witnessing that act and really kind of ground it in the character’s journey. I think the mantra throughout all of this was to exist in the world of The Omen but to do our own thing with it.

That’s a perfect example where you definitely don’t want to do a one-for-one because I think that’s a disservice to the moment, but you certainly want to pay homage to it in a way that feels like it’s kind of our own. So that was the goal.

HGL: Modern prequels can sometimes lose the authenticity of the original film, especially after decades. How did you ensure The First Omen has that classic feel?

Arkasha Stevenson: There were a lot of aesthetic choices that we made. We had really fantastic collaborators who are just intimidatingly talented. We had Eve Stewart, Aaron Morton, and Paco Delgado as our keys. A huge part of that also is shooting in Rome and getting that timelessness of Rome. And then Eve, Paco, and Aaron finding their ways to really make sure it felt like we weren’t filming 1971, but we were filming in 1971, if that makes sense.

One of the things with the camera that we were talking a lot about is that we really love how grounded the original ’76 version is. There’s not a lot of stylistic flair. It treats it like a drama. The camera doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself, and that’s something that we tried to replicate.

Bill Nighy as Lawrence in 20th Century Studios’ THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

HGL: Was it intimidating to helm the prequel of such an iconic horror film franchise?

Tim Smith: Yeah, hugely intimidating. We are such huge horror fans that anytime you’re dealing with a sacred text like The Omen or a franchise like The Omen, we were very mindful of the responsibility we had and knew that we didn’t want to take anything like this on unless we felt like we had something to say and contribute to that world and to the franchise.

We know it’s a huge responsibility and that horror fans would be discerning. Certainly, we would of anybody taking on a historic franchise like this. So it was definitely a challenge that we understood, and we’re really excited about it because we felt like we had something to say with the story.

HGL: As a fan of religious horror films, I would love to know your favorites besides The Omen

Arkasha Stevenson: Well, this is a totally trite answer and I think you know what I’m going to say, but it’s just very true that The Exorcist is one of my all-time favorite films. I think one of the reasons why it’s so effective is because it feels like more than just a movie was created if that makes sense. There’s so much lore to what happened during filming and the effects it has on people that you almost wonder if something was conjured up in the creation of that film.

That speaks to what I love about religious horror, which is that religious war rarely is about religion but speaks very purely to the core of the human heart and what the human heart is capable of. And what it can manifest sometimes is so great that it’s easier to think of that power as supernatural.

RELATED: ‘Late Night With the Devil’ Review: Add This to Your Halloween Watchlist

Tim Smith: For me, the Ken Russell film The Devils (1971), just from a style perspective and kind of visceral horror, I’ve never seen anything like this. And another one that might feel strange is Black Narcissus (1947). That’s another one that I’m just in love with, and I think the way that captures a psychological horror and kind of a slow-burn horror is really, really impressive.

What’s so interesting about all of them is they talk about female sexuality and how dangerous it is and how scary it can be, which is really the crux of our film. To get even more obscure, there’s a movie called Vampyr (1932), which I don’t necessarily put in religious horror, but that was a huge inspiration. It’s a Carl Dreyer film from the 1930s. We’re getting super hip now. (Laughs) That movie is incredible if you haven’t seen it. It is such a beautiful, gorgeous, affecting, scary, weird movie.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

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