Do you believe in demonic possession? It was a frequent question bandied about during the roundtable interviews for Warner Bros.’ upcoming film The Rite, about a young American priest who travels to the Vatican to attend exorcism school and is introduced to the darker side of the Catholic faith by an elder priest. Check inside to see what stars Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, and Alice Braga had to say on the topic, as well as director Mikael Hafstrom (‘1408’), screenwriter Michael Petroni, and real-life exorcist Gary Thomas, whose story the film was based on. ‘The Rite’ opens nationwide on January 28th.
Do you believe in demonic possession? I certainly don’t – I mean, that’s what shrinks are for right? But hey, you don’t have to believe in something to enjoy its representation in a work of fiction, nor do you have to believe in it if you’re involved in ‘creating’ that work of fiction. This fact was borne out during the roundtable interviews I took part in for Warner Bros.’ exorcism film ‘The Rite’, releasing January 28th, in a sunny meeting room at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Indeed, the majority of the talent involved didn’t seem particularly convinced of the possibility that demons exist – or at least that they’re capable of possessing humans.
“I’m interested in these films. I’m interested in UFOs too. But I don’t necessarily believe in them“, responded Hafstrom when asked about his own inclinations. “I’m drawn to it because it’s fascinating, like a lot of these things are. I think the way we…the way we read this is depending [on] if we believe in God, or a god, or if we go to church or if we’d rather go to yoga to find some inner peace, to find our way. I respect any way [of doing that]. I’m not a churchgoing guy. I don’t come from a religious home.”
Even an individual skeptical of the supernatural, however, often possesses a real buried fear of its possibility, a key reason why many who count themselves as disbelievers can nevertheless be frightened by the prospect of demons or evil spirits when faced with it in the confines of a darkened movie theater.
“I think that deep down we all fear“, intoned screenwriter Michael Petroni, who has written in the horror genre before, most notably the 2002 Anne Rice adaptation ‘Queen of the Damned’. “I mean, no one knows anything is for certain. So I think it’s tapping into that uncertainty that everyone has, the `what if’. Which is I think what’s appealing about all movies about dark subject matter, or supernatural or spiritual movies. I think they always pose a question, `what if?’ And that’s intriguing to any human.”
It certainly worked for that granddaddy of all supernatural horror movies, William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ – though it should be noted that ‘The Rite’, based on a non-fiction book by journalist Matt Baglio about a priest who decides to attend exorcism school in Rome, is quite a bit more grounded in it approach than that film was. Nevertheless, the comparison was bound to arise.
“I love that film“, replied the thoughtful Hafstrom, speaking in a soft Swedish accent, when asked for his thoughts on the 1973 horror masterpiece. “It’s just striking how well made it is. Especially…the first hour before really something starts to happen, the set-up, the build-up. You can’t make films anymore, in this climate, and take an hour to set something up. The audience will go crazy, and the studio too. But it’s a very well-made film, very well-shot, well-acted and all of those things…If this was a very similar story, I would definitely have backed away [from the project], but I saw this as something very different and a different take. Yes, it’s about exorcism in a way, but it’s a different story. And I would never put myself in a position to compete with this great movie. That would be silly. It’s a classic and everybody knows it.”
Hafstrom was hesitant to take on the project for this very reason; it was only when he read Petroni’s script that he realized it was a different type of film.
“I really didn’t bother reading it at first because I felt that it was maybe not something I was completely interested in doing“, he said. “There have been a lot of films about exorcism. But after awhile I read it, and actually it surprised me. I was drawn into it in a way that I didn’t expect. I think it had to do with the characters…those characters really interested me. It was about memory, and loss and things that I am interested in, besides the subject matter of exorcism…[which] I had to do a lot of research to dig into.”
As part of this research, Hafstrom traveled to Rome to interview a few real-life exorcists and was struck by how commonplace the ritual seemed to be there.
“In Rome, and in Italy in general, it’s much more simple than we learn from popular culture“, he told us. “You know, you go to your exorcist [like] going to your local doctor, or your dentist. It’s a queue outside, it’s a waiting room. `Exorcists 9-5′. And there can be people waiting outside. It’s like going to your shrink, you know?…for many of these people, it’s not as dramatic as we see in movies.”
Star Colin O’Donoghue – a near-unknown Irish actor who won the lead role of “Michael Kovak” after sending an audition tape to the studio – engaged in his own first-hand research while preparing for the film.
“I went to some exorcisms in Rome, and the level of faith people have is fascinating“, said the handsome star, speaking in a sing-songy Irish brogue. “And to see the exorcists at work, just silently praying and stuff…it’s not a big brouhaha sort of thing. People are there because they’re genuinely concerned about their family members. It tends to be the family members who bring somebody in to get exorcised, because obviously if they’re possessed, or if they feel they’re possessed, they definitely wouldn’t want to go in a church, do you know what I mean? So that level of commitment I think was fascinating.”
Joining O’Donoghue was co-star Alice Braga, playing the role of a journalist who has traveled to Rome to research the exorcism school Kovak is attending. The luminous actress – who seems to radiate a glow capable of lighting up a room – admitted she’d never put much thought into the subject previously, but began delving into the subject after being cast.
“I never thought about it before, but once you get involved in a project that talks about it, you end up questioning yourself and trying to figure out if it’s real or not“, she remarked.
One person involved in the project who most definitely believes is Father Gary Thomas, the real-life priest featured in Baglio’s book. The talkative clergyman, who’s been an exorcist for about four years now, went on at length about his experiences in the field and claimed that the film is actually quite accurate to many real-life cases he’s taken on.
“All of those exorcism scenes, in one way or another they’ve been part of my experience“, he asserted. “Maybe not to the degree [that they happen in the film]…the scene in which Michael gets attacked by Rosaria [a possessed woman played by the terrific Marta Gastini], now that has happened. But probably not to that intensity. I didn’t have an individual with their hands around my throat. But you can get attacked sometimes physically by the demon. It’s really not the person, it’s the demon.”
Right. So how does he feel about Hollywood’s previous treatment of the subject? Thomas claimed not to have seen many possession films, though funnily enough he did manage to catch last year’s Daniel Stamm-directed ‘The Last Exorcism’.
“I actually thought that movie was well done“, he said, while conceding it was very “Hollywood-ized“. “[But] Hollywood is going to jazz things up…it’s an entertainment business.”
A business well-known to Sir Anthony Hopkins (though he prefers “Tony“, as one publicist had earlier informed us), who made a huge impression on the horror genre with his portrayal as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and its two sequels. In ‘The Rite’ he plays elder priest “Father Lucas Trevant“, who serves as Kovak’s guide into the world of the exorcist.
“I don’t mind being a commodity“, said the actor half-jokingly, in response to a question about maintaining his artistic integrity in a business where his name holds considerable commercial value. “It’s given me a good life…I have no illusions about my position in this world as an actor or anything like that. No illusions at all. I’m very realistic. Reality is a very liberating thing.”
Hopkins himself, who confessed he’d hesitated before taking on the role (“I don’t want to play another spooky guy“, he admitted thinking), seemed rather less-than-convinced of the existence of demons. To illustrate his skepticism, he described for us a conversation that occurred between himself and Father Thomas.
“I said, `you believe?’” he recounted with some amusement. “He said, `oh yeah’. I said, `okay…how do you know?’ He said, `well, you can tell’.”
Not exactly a resounding argument, though the actor nevertheless admitted he prefers keeping his mind open to any possibility.
“I don’t know what my beliefs are about any of it, really“, he told us, an uncertainty he strove to imbue his character with by writing a few lines of dialogue into the script (with Petroni and Hafstrom’s blessing) to illustrate Trevant’s underlying skepticism. “Nobody knows. It gives a semblance of humanity to somebody who says they don’t know. Anyone who says they know, like Colin, the young priest, says `I believe in the truth’. Well, the truth…all the trouble that got us into the last thousand years. Hitler knew the truth, so did Stalin, so did Mao Tse Tung…they all knew the truth, and that caused such horror.”
“Certainty is the enemy“, he continued. “It’s like anyone saying, you know, `the debate is over’. Who says it’s over?…human beings, we know nothing…I don’t know what I believe, but who would I be to refute somebody…who sacrificed his life for his church…or the great martyrs who died at the stake or were destroyed for their personal beliefs. So who am I to refute anything?…I would hate to live in a world of certainty, of a closed-circuit, of a windowless room where I know for certain…whatever the Devil is or is not, I think when we turn our backs on our own frailty and our own humanity and say we know for certain, we know the truth, we’re in trouble.”
A pretty profound statement for a Hollywood press junket, but then Hopkins is a pretty profound guy. Like the headlining rock band at a concert he was the last of the talent to be interviewed, and on that level he didn’t disappoint, particularly in a bit near the end after someone in the group asked how he was able to play scary so well (alluding in particular to his famous performances as Hannibal Lecter).
“I just know how to scare people, [but] I don’t know how I do it“, he confessed. “It’s a look, it’s a trick I guess. Mikael Hafstrom was a great audience for me, because when we started the exorcism scenes, we were just rehearsing, and as Colin walks in I just look at him [at this point Hopkins does the `Hannibal Lecter’ look, his pale blue eyes instantly turning glassy]. And Mikael says, `you’re crazy’. It’s like [he does the look again, this time growling slightly in his throat, before reverting back to normal instantaneously]. I don’t know, it’s only a look. I think you deaden the eyes. It’s a trick, that’s all it is. But I know it scares because I can sense inside what it does. So I’m tapping into something that’s the shadow part of myself, I guess.”
Like the metaphorical rock band at a concert, expertly duplicating the tight riffs from their latest album in a live setting, Hopkins ‘nailed’ the `Lecter’ look there in that sun-filled room, and it chilled my blood. If the devil does exist, that’s what I imagine his eyes might look like.