The Rite - Exclusive interview with director Mikael Håfström

The Rite - Exclusive interview with director Mikael Håfström
The Rite movie interview with director Mikael Håfström. The film stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue & Alice Braga
Updated: 01-24-2011

Staci Layne Wilson reporting

The Rite is the latest in sort of a spate of demonic horror movies -- think: The Exorcism of Emily Rose, House of the Devil, The Last Exorcism -- and it's helmed by Swedish director Mikael Håfström (who brought us a haunted hotel room in 1408) caught up with the helmer at the Los Angeles press junket, and here's what he had to say about what makes his movie different.



check out our interviews with...

Sir Anthony Hopkins
Colin O'Donoghue & Alice Braga
Michael Petroni, screenwriter





THE RITE Interview: Mikael Håfström

QUESTION: I want to ask about Colin; he’s not very well known over here in the States. He’s seemed to have been plucked from nowhere. How did you find him, and what was it about him?
Mikael Håfström: He’s not very known anywhere, right? (Laughter) When Anthony Hopkins signed on to do the film, everyone seemed to be happy having somebody there. He didn’t have to be famous for that part, or well known. It’s always good when you can find a new face that doesn’t come with any baggage. We obviously met a lot of young guys, and we saw Colin. He had sent in a tape from Ireland from a little village that no one can pronounce. And there was sincerity with Colin. He’s a young man, but there was something oddly mature about him, and I thought he could be a great guide into this world. It’s a difficult part (Michael’s part); it’s a lot of observing, reacting. I felt there was something about his eyes and the way that he looked at things in the world that made him a good guide. And also he’s in an age where you try (just like Michael) to find your way in life, and you try to find your path. That’s very much what this story is about. It’s a coming-of-age story in many ways. It’s about finding your way. That’s an individual thing, but we need to do that.
QUESTION: Do you believe in exorcisms?
Mikael Håfström: Well, it’s not a matter of believing in exorcisms or exorcists. An exorcism is something very common if you go to Rome, if you go to Italy and those countries. People go to their exorcist the same way that we may go to a psychotherapist or a shrink here. And that was interesting to learn. I mean an exorcist have a sign on the door saying “Opening Hours”, and there could a line outside waiting. It’s really like going to your dentist or to your doctor. So, it’s not about believing in exorcist, because exorcists exist. It’s more about believing or what kind of help these people get. But it’s the same question you might ask – maybe, in this country – what kind of help do you get when you go to a psychotherapist. For many of these people, it’s the same thing. Really. We have seen exorcist and Satan in Hollywood mainstream films and in popular culture. And it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as that. It doesn’t have to be lying on the floor, screaming, or spinning heads. It can be very much as a session with a shrink. You know, we all have demons in different ways that we need to get rid of once in a while, and I think we can deal with that in very different ways. Some of us go to God, some of us go to yoga; or some of us go to a shrink, or whatever we feel individually that is necessary for us to deal with life. I’m open to any way. It’s up to any individual to take responsibility for your inner peace, however you find that. So, it’s an interesting subject matter for sure. And I know a lot more about it than I did a year ago when we started this.
QUESTION: Do you think you have to believe in something to be involved in something like this?
Mikael Håfström: I think you make films in a lot of subject matters. You can’t say make a film about UFOs; you do that because you’re fascinated, but not necessarily because you believe in UFOs. Or you make films about aliens coming to Earth. Fascinating again, but do I believe that will happen? Not necessarily. Do I believe there is a Devil, or a lot of little Devil guys walking around possessing people? Maybe not in that way. As I said before, I think we all have demons inside us – our own personal demons – that we need to handle, to keep track on. That’s highly individual, and it’s personal. So to answer your question in short, “No.” You don’t have to believe, per say, in every aspect of what you’re doing in film. I think I believe in believing. And I’m interested, fascinated by these things as everybody else is. So, I think that’s enough to venture in, to investigate a little bit.
QUESTION: What is the most difficult part in doing a film like this? About beliefs; about exorcisms; about religion? Which is the most difficult part for you as a director?
Mikael Håfström: All the aspects out there is not the most important, because we had interesting discussions about what we believe in, and what we individually feel is the right path, and so and so on. It’s always the most simplest things that I find the most complicated. I mean it’s complicated to make these exorcist scenes, because they’re very demanding for the actors. They have to put themselves in a physical and psychological point of view and a very special situation and circumstances. Difficult is a boring word. You do these things – not because they are difficult – but because they are interesting. It’s more difficult to make a goddamn rain machine work where you want, because you the rain to look real. That could be difficult. Doing what you do with actors is interesting and challenging, and should be. Again, it’s a story about characters; it’s character-driven. You discuss with your actors the right tone and so on and so on. We can’t take responsibility for all of the beliefs in the world. We can just make a story about our characters and then the individual audience member has to react to that.
QUESTION: I thought that Mr. Hopkins was so low key in the beginning to the center part of the movie. Was it difficult for you to portray it like this?
Mikael Håfström: No. I gave him a Welsh background, because he’s Welsh, and we decided that he should come from somewhere else than Italy. I think he modeled him after people he knew or grew up with in Wales. They are very so matter-of-fact and low key. But for Lucas, he’s a professional exorcist. So that’s why it was important to get the set-up right within the first scene with the girl, when the phone rings in the middle of it. It’s so everyday life and not spectacular. It’s like, “okay”, that’s it. Again, it is matter-of-fact. It’s a job.
QUESTION: He’s at the extreme end of it? He doesn’t get little demons?
Mikael Håfström: No. He gets the big boys. But we only see a couple of these cases. I’m sure he has a lot of different cases that he has to deal with that are not as dramatic as this poor girl whom we meet in the film.
QUESTION: Did Mr. Hopkins share with you what the allure was to do this film? Because he can pick and choose just about anything. Did you guys discuss that?
Mikael Håfström: Yeah. He can pick and choose. Absolutely. But maybe meaty parts rarely come for a man at his age. It’s not raining down scripts like that, I think. It was an interesting character at his age, who has lived for quite a few years. And that was debating and doubting about very essential questions in life – about faith; about life in general; about the past, and maybe also about death. So, I think the character in the script summed up what any person his age would deal with.
QUESTION: Did you discuss that prior?
Mikael Håfström: Yes. Absolutely. This material really invites you to discuss a lot of these things, because you can’t escape that. It makes it very personal. And when you work together you’re close. You become friends. You get to know each other and discuss life, history, good times and bad times, and that’s a great thing.
QUESTION: And how exhilarating for you. What a great thing to have that experience in life?
Mikael Håfström: Yeah. Definitely. And then obviously working with the actor Tony. It’s great to work with great actors, because you get a lot of respect. And that’s your job as a director. You see that they are in an environment where they can give all of these great things that makes them great actors. But Tony is a true professional. He also likes to be directed. It’s not his show. He’s a team player. He’s a piece of a bigger puzzle. He knows that very well, since he’s made so many films. He’s a very interesting collaborator.
QUESTION: Did you advice him on the exorcism scenes? Or did you just let him be.
Mikael Håfström: No. We employed Matt Baglio who wrote the book, The Rite and he had great knowledge about these things on the film as an advisor. So, with him came a lot of knowledge. There’s a lot of things – simple things – how you put down your stool; how you do things with your hands; how you walk about in the room. A lot of little details like that Matt could give us. Also from a professional point of view, being a catholic priest. So, there were a lot of things to know. And then besides those things, it’s about being a human being. Tony had to make this character his and obviously blend a lot of himself and his own past.
QUESTION: And when he goes into the other side? I don’t want to reveal the plot, of course. But…
Mikael Håfström: But when Tony is possessed?
Mikael Håfström: Well, I think the irony of it all is that the possessed Tony is a very good psychotherapist to both of these young actors, because he really pushes them to confront their big traumas in their lives, like Colin’s Michael. And Tony, the demon is very much the sayer of the truth, and that could be a very tough thing. But I think it’s necessary. So, I think the possessed for Lucas is a really good psychotherapist for these young people. And that may be the final irony of this story.
QUESTION: The Devil tells the truth and helps you deal with it.
Mikael Håfström: Yeah. The truth, if you want to deal with the truth, you have to confront it, and he makes them confront it. He definitely pushes Michael in the right direction.
QUESTION: What is your religion?
Mikael Håfström: I come from Sweden, which is a Protestant country. My mother is a Jewish Hungarian, who came to Sweden during the war. So, I have a lot of different sources. So, funny enough, interesting enough, we were shooting a scene in Budapest, where part of my roots are. So, it gave me a good chance to actually investigate my own background also. My grandparents fled to Sweden during the war and yeah…
QUESTION: What preferences did you have in mind when you decided to do this project? What kind of other movies did you think you could draw from?
Mikael Håfström: One of the reasons that I felt that it was right project for me was the subject matter exorcism. At first, I didn’t want to do another film about exorcists, because it doesn’t seem necessary. But then I read it, and again, I really liked the character. I felt it was another take on this subject matter. But I saw a lot of films, obviously films that deal with this subject matter, like THE EXORCIST and some other films. But I film I really liked was DON’T LOOK NOW by Nicholas Roeg, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and is set in Venice, Italy, which really shows Venice from a very different light. It just has an eeriness to it, sort of dream-like quality to it, that even if you don’t see it concrete in the film, that’s the film I got a lot of energy from, and other stuff… you know, life in general.
QUESTION: Were you surprised about working with Sir Anthony?
Mikael Håfström: He really lived up to the hopes that I had. Not just being a great actor, but also being a great man, a great human being and great friend in his generosity and all of that. And I’m not saying that because I’m supposed to say that. I’m really happy that he was so generous towards Colin, because it’s not easy for someone who’s never done a film, and have every scene with this great actor. But he was extremely generous with Colin and he understood the prefer Colin was under, and really helped him to have self-confidence, and all of these important things. So, he really lived up to all the good things that are said about him and what others will continue to say.




check out our interviews with...

Sir Anthony Hopkins and Colin O'Donoghue & Alice Braga

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