Michael Petroni interview - The Rite Screenwriter Talks Adlibs and Sir Anthony

Michael Petroni interview - The Rite Screenwriter Talks Adlibs and Sir Anthony
Interview with Michael Petroni, screenwriter for the exorcism horror movie, The Rite. The Rite stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, Colin McDonoghue, and Alice Braga.
Updated: 01-24-2011
Q: What were your views on exorcism going into this? Did they get to change when the writing was going on?
Michael Petroni: Yes. My views on exorcism were I was not convinced because I had not seen anything for myself. But I was also afraid of the possibility, being a catholic and having been terrified by the movie The Exorcist as a child. I definitely went in with a lot of preconceptions, but I was very curious and I was invited to witness a few exorcisms, which I was at first reluctant to do because I didn't know how much I wanted to invite all that into my life. But then, what I witnessed in the exorcisms was mostly just pastoral care. It was really a priest looking after someone who is not in good shape. I didn't witness anything that I couldn't put down to psychological. That's not to say that I didn't see some weird things. I saw a woman talking in the voice of a dog, which is hard to explain and hard to describe other than that. But even that, the scientific part of me, can explain that away. So I didn't see anything personally. But I have no reason to doubt that the priests that I interviewed would lie to me, since they were really open about all that stuff and letting me see all that. And they seemed so very casual about all that phenomena that, when they told me in the same tone of voice about other things that they had witnessed, I believed them. At least I believe their experiences. I can say that much.
Q: How true to the real story is the movie, actually?
Michael Petroni: The characterization of father Gary is different because I wanted the character to be younger so that we had a main character that a younger audience could identify with. And also a character who is skeptical, because I think that provided a better window, an easy window for people to enter the movie's view. Besides that, everything that happens in the movie was reported to me in one sense or another. By either father Gary; or other priests; or priests that met (Matt) Baglio, the author of the book, that he had interviewed; or I had read other books on people of the clergy. So I didn't take anything from anything from anyone other than people from the clergy and their experiences. The order of events and all that is obviously constructed to fit into a screenplay.
Q: Did you know that you were writing for Sir Anthony Hopkins?
Michael Petroni: No.
Staci Layne Wilson: How was it to have him reading your words?
Michael Petroni: It was fantastic. Is what a screenwriter kind of dreams about. You gotta kind of stop yourself in having those dreams, when you are writing it. I'm actually thankful that I didn't know that, because I think you can also fool yourself. You think: “Oh, Anthony Hopkins would say that so well,” and end up writing crap. It was good that he... I was so pleased when he signed on and it was great to see him turn the role into something very good and very human I think.
Staci Layne Wilson: As a screenwriter, how do you find the balance between having an entertaining screenplay and yet not being dismissive of the subject matter?
Michael Petroni: Actually the things that I was dismissive of were probably the most sensationalist stories that were true, that I thought would either repulse an audience or would make them not believe that we are telling a story based on truth. In that sense there was an interesting situation for a screenwriter to be in. Because usually you are kind of scrapping around for the most sensationalistic part of the story, but in this I was actually trying to modify them and curve that whole sensationalistic side of it, to make it as authentic as possible.
Staci Layne Wilson: You are a moviegoer too, whenever you see that credit that says: “Suggested by a true story”, it's always “Oh, yes. Right!”...
Michael Petroni: I know. That's the way it is writing those things (laughs).
Q: Are you entertained also by sort of these thrillers, horror movies?
Michael Petroni: Absolutely.
Q: You said you were scared by The Exorcist. Did you like it too?
Michael Petroni: Oh yes. Definitely it is in my canon of great movies. And I think everyone felt the presence of that filmmaking. She can't ignore it. You have to kind of acknowledge it because it's so present in people's psychic.
Q: What is your favorite kind of movie when you go to the movies?
Michael Petroni: That's kind of like a question people like to ask me: “What kind of movies do you like to write?,” and I Like to say: “Good ones.” (laughs). That's all I can say: a good one. One that has a good story to it. I think as long as the story is good and it somehow engages me and it doesn't ask me to believe in something that is too hard to believe in.
Q: Was there a lot of improvisation or adlibs?
Michael Petroni: There were some add lips mostly for character reasons and I didn't want any of them, but they helped humanize the characters. But the script is surprisingly intact from the first draft almost. It was a very unusual experience for a screenwriter to have his first draft to kind of... It's hard that the studio and all of that almost immediately was thinking about putting it into preproduction. So in that sense it also didn't leave a lot of time to screw around with it that much because no one was sitting on their hands or sitting on their ass trying to justify their jobs. Everyone was certainly doing something. We were on a track, which is great for the screenplay I think.
Q: How much did you go back those sort of stories that you thought people wouldn't believe?
Michael Petroni: Actually there were things that were shot and didn't end up in the movie because they became too sensationalist. Like, this we didn't shoot, but there was a thing I knew that wouldn't end up in the movie. It was a really truly disgusting thing that a woman apparently vomited up an entire bucket of semen, in one of this exorcisms. No one needs to see that but, nonetheless just to hear that is quite revolting. It's kind of hitch in the face. How extreme these cases can be? And one that we did shoot that didn't end up in the film was a priest had told me that he had some glass rosary beads that he found on his back porch that had been crushed up and somehow organized into a cylindrical cone. And what was left of the string from the rosary beads was placed neatly around it. He just found that inexplicably in his back doorstep. I don't know. They are kind of creepy things. But putting that in the film. We tried and then it looked too conceited, looked like we were trying to think of things. But it's what happened.
Q: What about the nails?
Michael Petroni: That's true.
Staci Layne Wilson: What about the toads? Is there any kind of satanic connection to using frogs, toads?
Michael Petroni: They sometimes do find frogs in pillows and there's another case of a woman vomiting up frogs that then kind of disappeared in front of the priest's eyes. It was inspired by that. But definitely a manifestation of certain animals is associated, almost traditionally, is associated with evil. Cats, frogs, even donkeys and goats. They all somehow do manifest themselves and evil seems to, at least from the perspective of these priests that I interviewed, seems to manifest itself that way.
Q: Are you excited to be terrifying your audience?
(laughs) Yes, I liked that idea. I did (laughs).


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