SXSW 2023 Interview: Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams Talk Satan Wants You (Exclusive)

Sean Harlor (left) and Steve J. Adams (right), the writers-directors-executive producers of the crime documentary, ‘Satan Wants You’

Films that fully delve into all emotional aspects of an international cultural phenomenon several decades after it occurs offer powerful and thought-provoking insight into its causes and effects. The gripping new crime documentary, ‘Satan Wants You,’ is a compelling investigation into the roots of moral panics, cult conspiracies and the making of contemporary legends. It also reveals how these events still impact and distort society’s reality in modern times.

Sean Harlor and Steve J. Adams wrote, directed and executive produced the movie. Their new project comes after they previously scribed and helmed the 2021 documentary, ‘Someone Like You,’ together.

‘Satan Wants You’ is having its World Premiere Screening tonight in the Documentary Spotlight section of SXSW at 9pm CT at Alamo Lamar A in Austin. The film is also screening this Monday, March 13 at12:30pm CT at Violet Crown Cinema 1 and then1:00pm at Violet Crown Cinema 3. The movie will also play on Wednesday, March 15 at 9:00pm at Satellite Venue: AFS Cinema.

‘Satan Wants You’ showcases how the world was gripped by the cultural hysteria known as the Satanic Panic during the 1980s and ‘90s. Ignited by ‘Michelle Remembers,’ a lurid memoir by psychiatrist Larry Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith, rumors of Satanic Ritual Abuse spread through panic-stricken communities around the world.

Although Dr. Pazder’s methodology relied on controversial re-covered-memory therapy to expose Smith’s childhood abduction by satanists, the book became a best-seller. However, it also left a wave of destruction and wrongful convictions in its wake.

The film dives deep into the untold story of how Dr. Pazder and Smith became international sensations, supported by the Catholic Church and amplified by law enforcement and America’s daytime talk show boom. The documentary also features shocking, never-before-heard audio recordings of the pair’s original therapy sessions and interviews with a high priestess of the Church of Satan, a Wiccan police detective, an FBI ‘Mind Hunter’ and the devastated families of both Dr. Pazder and Smith.

Horlor and Smith generously took the time last week to talk about helming and producing ‘Satan Wants You’ during an exclusive Zoom interview. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed that they were in part interested in making the movie because Horlor has a personal connection to Dr. Pazder and Smith’s story and how they helped inspire the Satanic Panic craze. The helmers-producers also mentioned that it’s exciting for them that the feature is having its World Premiere at SXSW.

Film Factual (FF): Together, you wrote the new documentary, ‘Satan Wants You.’ What inspired you both to make the film together, and how did development on the project begin?

Sean Horlor (SH): Well, for me, I have a personal connection to the story. I’m from the same city as Michelle Smith and Larry Pazder, who are the authors of ‘Michelle Remembers.’

Growing up in Victoria, Canda, this was something that everyone talked about. The weird thing for me is that my Auntie Cindy trained under Larry when she was completing her nursing degree. So this is layers upon layers of a connection.

It’s also so weird to have this local story affect millions of people around the world. so that was an interesting thing when we started making the film. It was also interesting to see how big it blew up for myself.

Steve J. Adams (SJA): So you were familiar with the book and story, Sean, but like everything else, it kind of disappeared into your past.

We were doing a doc series on books and authors in 2018, and as part of our research list, we got ‘Michelle Remembers’ as one of the books that we should look at. (Adams turns to Horlor and says,) You saw it and said, “Oh my God! Ghost from the past!” (Both filmmakers laugh.)

So we started to look into it. We realized that nobody had told this story yet in a film yet, but since it’s been mentioned so many in the media since the ‘80s, we knew we had to make a film about it. Whenever anyone talks about the Satanic Panic, ‘Michelle Remembers’ is always mentioned, so we thought, this is a prime subject for a documentary.

FF: Speaking about doing research for your projects, how much preparation did you do into Michelle and Larry’s lives, as well as the entire Satanic Panic movement in North America, as you started making the documentary?

SH: It started with the book, since it had been 40 years since it was released, and it had been a long time since I read it. So for me, rereading the book and experience it again, and for Steve to read it for the first time, offered us a lot of insight.

This is a horror book. A therapist did two years of intense work with his patient, and her memories slowly came forward. They reveal that her parents are a member of a Satanic cult, and they give her to the cult. The cult gives her to Satan, and Satan eventually comes to Earth in a giant ceremony to claim her.

We started our research there, and found that New York tabloids called Michelle The Bride of Satan. So this wasn’t a small story; it went all around the world. So for us to learn that really inspired us in how we approached making the film.

The family members who appear in the film, including Larry’s ex-wife and their daughter, as well as Michelle’s sister, have never been interviewed. They’ve never told their side of what happened in this story that blew up and went around the world. When we realized that they were willing to talk to us and be a part of the film, we also realized that we had something new and different.

SJA: When you talk about research, when we figured this all out, it was an incredible find. There were new pieces of information after new pieces of information that we were learning as we were going through the process. It was a super fascinating time to be doing that all.

FF: Speaking about the interviews that you feature in ‘Satan Wants You,’ how did you decide who you would speak to and what you would discuss with them?

SH: What was interesting as we got deeper and deeper into the research was discovering that at one point, there were four investigative teams investigating Michelle’s story. They were trying to investigate what exactly happened and what was true.

So for us, it was about contacting the investigators, including the FBI Special Agent who was a part of the Mind Hunter group that Netflix made the series about a few years ago.

There’s also a Wiccan police detective here in Canada who had also investigated the book and met the family. He was also fighting for religious freedom, as he was the first open Wiccan police officer in North America. He stood up and said that all the Satanic conspiracies are false, so we felt it was important to include him in the film.

There’s also an investigative journalist, Debbie Nathan, who appears in the film. She had also written a book (1995’s ‘Satan’s Silence’) that covers ‘Michelle Remembers,’ as well as the McMartin preschool trial in the U.S.

So these were all interesting people who had kept their archive material. So that made it really made sense for us to reach out to them and see if they’d participate in the film. They came ready with receipts!

FF: You both also served as directors on the film. How did you approach helming the movie together?

SJA: Sean and I have been working together for 10 years, so we have a really symbiotic relationship. We’re able to work through story elements together, and working with Sean is a joy. (Adams turns to Horlor.) This was a great project to work with you on.

SH: It was great to work with you on this film, too! Filmmaking’s collaborative, so for us, it starts with building our collaborative team. Everyone has an input, so it was a really fun film to do.

FF: Besides directing ‘Satan Wants You,’ you both also served as producers on the project. How did you balance your helming and producing duties throughout the production?

SJA: We’re really hands-on filmmakers. We’re involved in a lot of different processes throughout the whole filmmaking experience. It was a tricky thing, though, because we started filming in November and then started editing it in March, while we were still filming. So we were really going one foot after the other, and it was a big push to get it done. It was a super intense period, but I’m really proud of what we were able to make during that time.

FF: Speaking about the editing process, what was your experience like of collaborating with the film’s editor, Graham Kew, to put the final version of the feature together?

SH: It was an experience. I think we spent about seven months in total with Graham.

SJA: He’s super talented, and one of the best editors.

SH: One of our producers, Melissa James, was also our archival producer. We also had our assistant editor. This film has a lot of archive footage. (Turns to Adam.) Do you remember how much we had?

SJA: Out of the 1,800 clips we have in the film, 1,300 of them are archive.

SH: So it’s a lot of research, investigation and tracking things down. With Graham, we spent a lot of time in his studio.

SJA: It was Monday through Saturday for about six months. Graham was pulling 10-12-hour days. We were pushing as hard as we could. We did an incredible amount of work in a short amount of time. (Adams laughs.)

SH: It’s our second film with Graham, who has a really unique way of approaching editing stories. The response to the film so far has been amazing; he hit it out of the park. We couldn’t be happier with how the editing process turned out.

FF: Speaking of the archive footage, how did you approach showcasing the clips, and working with ‘Satan Wants You’s cinematographer, Blake Davey, to determine how to visually tell Michelle’s story?

SJA: Blake is a master cinematographer. He’s a master of creating a really beautiful image. We love creating beautiful movies, so working with him was a no-brainer.

We wanted everything we were shooting to have a really high cinematic value to it. So all of the interviews we set up were shot beautifully.

We also really love mixed format movies. So being able to switch between motion graphics, newspaper footage and the archive footage, we just wanted it to feel really full and have a great style to it.

SH: Also, you see the therapy sessions early on in the film. Larry and Michelle had also recorded video of those therapy sessions. But as we heard from Michelle’s friend in the film, they burned it all. So for us, it was like, oh no.

But it ultimately gave us a creative opportunity to bring that part of the story to live with our cinematographer and entire production team. We hired actors to film those scenes, and it was a really fun part of the film to shoot.

FF: ‘Satan Wants You’ is having its World Premiere Screening in the Documentary Spotlight section of this month’s SXSW. What does it mean to you both that the movie is playing at the festival?

SJA: Preparing for it has been insane! It’s been a dream for us to be in a festival like SXSW, so when we finally got that call from them, it was life changing. We’re supper excited!

SH: Yes, we can’t wait! We haven’t watched the movie in a big theater with an audience yet, so our premiere at SXSW will be our very first time watching it with a live audience. So I can’t wait to see how people react!

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