Exclusive Interview: The Rite Director Mikael Hafstrom

It’s fairly easy to see why exorcisms films show every few years. It’s terrifying to discover that there is something out there in the unknown that you have absolutely no power over, but the idea that the unknown is pure evil and can take absolute control of you is something else. Enter Mikael Hafstrom’s entry to the genre: The Rite.

I was recently given the opportunity to sit down with the director to talk about his most recent film, discussing the nature of faith, working with Sir Anthony Hopkins, and having a real-life exorcist at your disposal. Check out my one-on-one interview with Mikael Hafstrom below.

To start, I wanted to ask: do you consider yourself a religious person?

That’s a big question. I grew up in Sweden, which is a Protestant country, and my mother is Jewish from Hungary. I have a lot of different sources. I didn’t grow up in a religious home, per se, but I’ve always been interested in those questions, obviously, of belief. Whatever works for you, if it’s going to church, or yoga, or whatever you need to do to find your inner peace, but I’m not religious in the sense that I am a church-goer. I think we all create our own sort of universe, and that can definitely change, also, when you grow up. I think this is what drew me to this material in a way. The Rite is very much a coming of age story, it’s about a young man trying to find his way in life, regardless of beliefs. I’m interested in those questions, about memory and loss and things that makes us, us. We all have our own personal baggage that we have to deal with; our own demons that we have to fight. I’m sure you do too [laughs].

In the making of this film, did your perception of exorcisms change? And not only in the production, but in your research and your conversations with real life exorcists.

What I know about exorcisms, or what I think most people know, we learn from popular culture and Hollywood movies, and I obviously read Matt Baglio’s book [which served as suggestion for The Rite] which is a journalistic piece and not a novel. And that was a great foundation to understand, to get knowledge about the world of exorcists. And spending time in Rome I also learned that it doesn’t have to be so dramatic, as we see it in films. Going to an exorcist in Rome can be like us going to a psychiatrist or shrink. We went to see this famous exorcist, and they had a little thing on the door saying, “Open 9 to 5” and all of that. And there could be a queue outside and people waiting on line. I learned a lot about that aspect of exorcism during pre-production, and that was very useful and important all the same.

When it came to Father Gary Thomas, who Matt Baglio’s book is about, how involved was he with the making of the film?

He was involved to the extent that he met Matthew Baglio in Rome and he was the foundation for Matt’s book. He wasn’t involved in the script or anything, but we invited him to Budapest where we were shooting a lot of the interiors and stage, to be there and take a look at what we were doing. And, also, he was a great source, obviously, of knowledge. So he spent a little bit of time there and I think, according to him, he was really happy with the exorcist scenes and how they came out and the certain amount of reality built into this. And he was a great guy to hang out with, he’s a fun, intelligent person, so I’m glad he came by.

Colin O'Donoghue, your films star, said that he actually got to sit in on a real life exorcism. Did you get to have the same opportunity?

I didn’t, but I know Colin did. I was never inside the actual room when a exorcist happened, but I saw a lot of areas and rooms and they’re so eerie because they’re so sparse. And that was what inspired our set, obviously, it’s just a chair and a random crucifix on the wall and it’s very eerie in a sparse way. But I was never inside. It’s a very private situation – again, it’s like going to a psychiatrist or a shrink. I heard some voices and some strange… but, again, there’s a little bit of drama out of this thing because it’s not always like we see in the movies where people are acting extremely over the top. It can be in different ways.

When making movies about possession and demons and exorcisms it’s not uncommon that some spooky, weird stuff happens on set. Was that the case with this film?

Well, Colin was in Rome for costumes and exactly like Father Michael goes to Rome, he gets stuck there when he wants to go home. In the script it was because of bad weather but then the volcano happened and Colin actually became stuck in Rome for days and days and weeks. So I actually changed that in the film, I put the volcano into the movie because forces from underground are interfering. So that was an example how reality can definitely… and Colin saw a couple of bicycle accidents, one in Rome and one in Budapest, and in an eerie way it’s reminiscent of the bicycle accident that we have in the film and so on. Otherwise it was pretty calm, we created a calm atmosphere – tried to keep the devils outside.

Obviously a major presence in this film is Anthony Hopkins, and there are a couple instances in the film where he puts on that famous stare that just sends chills down your spine. What was it like working with him and did he ever use that stare to his advantage behind the scenes?

[laughs] He knows that stare very well. He can definitely joke about his past as a person and as an actor. He’s great to work with, a great actor to get the opportunity to work with one of the greatest actors around, like Tony definitely is, because you get to look back. It’s not just what’s on the script page or what you figure out the day before you shoot it. You try to create an opportunity where he feels free to give all these things that you hope for when you have a guy like him. But he’s also very much a team player and he doesn’t see it as his show and he wants to be directed and he wants to be a part of professional movie making in the best sense of the word. It was really a pleasure to do that. You learn a lot when you work with someone like him. I felt Anthony was perfect for the part, a man of his age. I don’t think it sort of rains down scripts with meaty parts for a man his age and I felt Tony the man and Father Lucas, they had a lot of things in common – debating with themselves about faith and different important questions when you are at that stage of life, looking back at a long life.

In recent years we’ve seen an incredible increase in Scandinavian, and particularly Swedish, filmmakers and films, like yourself, Tomas Alfredson and Noomi Rapace and movies like Let The Right One In and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, find their way to the States. What do you think that can be attributed to?

I think it’s a combination of coincidence, really. When it comes to the Stieg Larsson books, that’s kind of a phenomenon in itself, and now they’re doing the remake and actually shooting it in Sweden, which I think is interesting. And Noomi Rapace, the actress that you mentioned came from that film; Tomas Alfredson, who is a friend for many, many years, has always been this extremely talented director. I was always waiting for Tomas’ big break and I knew it was going to come because he always had it in him, and he made his film. And it so well earned its success. It’s a little bit of coincidence, because we’re really talking about a handful of people. But Swedish actors, since Greta Garbo and so forth that have had the ability to work their way over here, and we have Stellan Skarsgard and Peter Stormare and now Stellan’s son, Alexander Skarsgard and [his brother] Gustaf, who I worked with in Sweden a couple times.

The world is getting smaller, also. When they see someone else manage to do it they realize that, “Yes, I come from a little country in the north somewhere that nobody knows where it is, but you can do it if you believe in yourself.” And yeah, believing in yourself, there’s opportunity out there. I think that’s part of it too, in an immigrant way. But it’s too early to talk about it in a major way.

I don’t know. It’s pretty significant.

It’s pretty significant. It’s just ten million people in Sweden so I guess percentage-wise it’s pretty significant. The guy who started it in modern times was obviously Lasse Hallstrom, who has been here for many years. But he was pretty much alone here, being a Swedish director. I made a couple of films here and Daniel Espinosa, Swedish guy who is doing this film with Denzel Washington. So yeah, things are happening.

What kind of projects are you currently looking at? Do you know what your next project is going to be?

I honestly don’t know what my next film is going to be. I’m reading a lot. You want to surprise yourself. I’m trying to read a lot of different things right now and I’m trying not to have a very clear idea of what I want to do. The hope is that you read something that tells you what you want to do. But you look for certain things, and every director looks for different things or the same things. It could be a character, it could be a character arc, it could just be something that just makes you think, that just makes you sort of invest that amount of work in something. I would like to do a dark comedy at some point because I’m a funny guy [laughs]. It’s important to me, even when I make a film like The Rite, that there are spots of humor in it, and I think that’s really, really important because otherwise it can get very heavy handed and it could be a lot of things. That was very important and a lot of stuff that I do, like 1408, which is also sort of a stronger horror movie, if you want, a thriller, but there were a lot of laughs in that movie and so on. Let’s see. I don’t know right now.

Could you see yourself working with John Cusack again?

Absolutely, we’re good friends and, you know, we’re doing different things. So let’s see what happens in the future, but I could definitely do something with John again or my new friend Tony, or whatever. It depends on the project and what happens. Some sort of continuity can be found when you work with the same… you always change a lot because when it comes to your crew also, it’s good to have a few people around who are the same because you build up a relationship and that’s important. You also have to expect to change a lot of people because that’s the nature of it. You get used to it, but sometimes it’s good to see a familiar face around.

I look forward to the dark comedy with John Cusack and Anthony Hopkins.

[laughs] Yeah, that’s actually not a bad one. I could see that. I’ll work on that, for sure.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.