"Martin Sheen kept insisting, 'I don't believe any of this stu" said John Schlesinger. "I told him, 'Don't say that. You never know what might happen on a film like this.' "

When director Schlesinger began shooting "The Believers" in Toronto last year, he had just one aim: to make this story of mystic deeds and murder believable.

Now his only question is, "Have I pulled it off?" It's the same question William Friedkin asked himself after shooting "The Exorcist," the same worry Roman Polanski had after making "Rosemary's Baby." Even in the hands of a skilled director, does hokum always work?

Audiences will make up their own minds when "The Believers," starring Sheen, Helen Shaver, Robert Loggia and Harley Cross, opens Wednesday.

In it, Sheen plays a psychologist brought in by the police to help solve a series of grisly murders. He finds himself thrust into the middle of a fanatical religious cult in Manhattan. Their faith, Santeria, which usually involves the positive summoning up of spirits, has been corrupted, and soon Sheen finds himself and his son in peril.

"I'd never heard of Santeria before I started this film," said Schlesinger. "But I discovered 250,000 people in New York alone practice it. I don't believe in it myself, but I can see it works for other people."

He doesn't believe in it--but. . . .

"Well, when we were filming a ceremony in the basement where a chicken is sacrificed, I did wear some beads to ward off evil spirits. Carla Pinza gave me those."

Puerto Rico-born Pinza, who has a key role in the movie and acted as technical adviser, is an initiate Santerian priestess. Until her initiation ends, she must, when not working, always wear white, avoid physical contact with others and keep her head covered.

"Such nonsense," said Sheen. "I have no interest at all in the occult, in tribal hocus-pocus. I took this movie for one reason only--because John Schlesinger is a master film maker."

Schlesinger, the director of "Darling" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," has long believed that a story that would be merely a schlock horror film if badly done can be elevated to the realms of believability if well directed and acted.

"Rosemary's Baby," he said, is a good example: "That was a compelling film, one you remembered long afterwards. Because the people were believable. Recently the genre has relied much too heavily on special effects."

In "The Believers," he has kept them to a minimum, though there is one moment when Shaver's enlarged cheek bursts open to disgorge a swarm of crawling creatures.

Two of Schlesinger's best-known movies have been set in New York--"Midnight Cowboy" and "Marathon Man." "The Believers"--written by Mark Frost from a book by Nicholas Conde--is also set in New York, but it was mostly shot in Toronto.

"When I first began working on the project with the writer, we had it at Fox," said Schlesinger. "Eventually they rejected it and we took it to Orion. They gave us the go-ahead as long as it was made in Canada, where the exchange rate was so favorable."

Only about 10 minutes of location footage was shot in New York City. "And honestly," said Schlesinger, "I don't think you'd ever know. If you're careful about what you show on the screen, people will believe it."

He speaks through experience. In 1983, he directed the award-winning "An Englishman Abroad" for the BBC (aired in the United States on the Arts & Entertainment Network and PBS). The film told the true story of an encounter in Moscow between actress Coral Browne and the defected British spy Guy Burgess. Alan Bates played Burgess.

"None of that was shot in Moscow," said Schlesinger. "We filmed it in Scotland--in Dundee and Glasgow. What made it work, I think, is that we always had Russian-speaking people on the periphery of the film. That helped give it authenticity."

Sheen was not Schlesinger's first choice for the role of the psychologist in "The Believers." He wanted Ed Harris but Harris was tied up in a play.

"Now," said Schlesinger, "I cannot imagine anyone else but Martin in the role. He's one of those actors like Finchie (Peter Finch) and Monty Clift who has an inner life."

With Sheen in place, the others followed. Malick Bowens, who played the devoted servant in "Out of Africa" and who is a member of Peter Brook's Paris repertory company, came in as a sinister priest, complete with blue and white contact lenses. Canadian-born Shaver ("Desert Hearts"), Loggia ("Jagged Edge") and Cross (Diane Keaton's son in "Mrs. Soffel") followed.

Schlesinger, 61, who works only occasionally in his native Britain where he made his reputation and where he is associate director of the National Theatre, will return to London to make a small, low-budget movie called "Madame Souzatska."

This, he said, is about a brilliant, 14-year-old pianist who is torn between two obsessive women--his mother and his music teacher.

"I've been working on it for two years now," said Schlesinger. "It's a charming story."

Whatever the reviews for "The Believers," he probably will not read them.

"I stopped doing that a long time ago," he said. "For self preservation." He smiled faintly. "Though I must admit if I'm doing something in the theater in London, I do tend to wake up a little earlier than usual on Sunday and sneak down to take a look at the papers before anyone else is up. Afterward, of course, I pretend I haven't seen them."

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