The Rite

The Rite

The Rite

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue, Alice Braga, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Rutger Hauer
Director: Mikael Håfström
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Rated: M
Running Time: 113 minutes

Synopsis: Inspired by true events, "The Rite" follows skeptical seminary student Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), who reluctantly attends exorcism school at the Vatican. While he's in Rome, Michael meets an unorthodox priest, Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), who introduces him to the darker side of his faith, uncovering the devil's reach even to one of the holiest places on Earth.

"The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the Archangel, is still being fought today, because the Devil is still alive and active in the world." -Pope John Paul II

Release Date: 10th of March, 2011

About the Production

"Choosing not to believe in the Devil won't protect you from him." - Father Lucas
Exorcists and the darkness they witness firsthand have long held a cultural fascination, regardless of one's faith or background. Director Mikael Håfström attests ?There is universal interest in the rite of exorcism. Much of it comes from religion, but a lot also comes from popular culture, with The Exorcist, from back in the '70s, still being the most famous film about this phenomenon. All over the world, people are drawn to the subject, despite the fact-or perhaps even because-it can't be proven or entirely understood. The more you look into it, the more you see there are no easy answers.

As an actor, Anthony Hopkins has delved into the nature of evil, most notably with his embodiment of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Of The Rite he says, "There is a debate at play within the film: Is it the Devil? Is there such a personification? Or is it psychology? Is it Freud or God? Who can say?"

Irish actor Colin O'Donoghue, who stars alongside Anthony Hopkins in the film, notes that the story poses universal questions about how we deal with the unexplained. "There's the psychological argument the idea that possession is a cause and effect of mental illness and there is the belief in demons and possession. And these are discussions that have been around for thousands of years. The film depicts some pretty unsettling scenarios, and the fact that it's inspired by real life makes you believe there's really something to this."

The story of The Rite began as a book proposal by Matt Baglio, a reporter living in Rome, who was struck by the Vatican's 2007 announcement of its initiative to reinstruct the clergy on the rite of exorcism with the goal of installing an exorcist in every diocese worldwide.

When Matt Baglio's 10-page proposal found its way to the producers, they were immediately intrigued. Producer Beau Flynn relates, "Matt Baglio heard about an exorcism school that was opening in the Vatican and became fascinated by that concept. And in the course of his investigation, he met an American priest who was undergoing this training. So, rather than an article, Matt Baglio decided to write a book."

The result was The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, which chronicles the events that inspired the film. "Exorcism itself is something that few people are privy to," says Matt Baglio. "I wanted to not only understand it myself but also to unlock the mystery for others. I met an American priest, Father Gary Thomas, who'd come to the Regina Apostolorum Seminary in Rome to learn and become an exorcist, and his experiences informed the central character of Michael Kovak in the script."

Producer Tripp Vinson offers, "When you make a movie like this, you need to treat the subject seriously and with absolute respect. Dealing with really big themes like good and evil, you don't have to add a lot of bells and whistles. The truth is more compelling than anything we can make up."

The producers enlisted screenwriter Michael Petroni to adapt the concept into a screenplay, even as Matt Baglio was writing his book. "People are fascinated by the subject of possession because its existence remains an unanswered question," says Michael Petroni. "The story was thoroughly researched through interviews with priests and chronicles of real experiences, and what they witnessed was frightening."

Father Gary, now a Northern California pastor and exorcist who served as a consultant on the film, explains, "The rite of exorcism has been in effect since 1614. And yet, many bishops and priests have no idea what to expect in an exorcism, except that it has to do with Satan. The opportunity that I had to train in Rome provided me with great grounding, insofar as I was able to work alongside an experienced exorcist and ask clarifying questions. What really resonated with me is the fact that it is a healing ministry and gives priests like me an opportunity to help people who are truly suffering."

Mikael Håfström was intrigued by the notion of exploring the subject of exorcism with such a solid basis in fact. "It's not a straightforward horror movie," he notes. "It's a fictional film but within a very real and factual framework. When I read the script, I felt it approached the whole idea of demonic possession from an angle we haven't really seen before, and it draws you into this world in such a suspenseful, powerful and entertaining way."

The Story and Characters of 'The Rite'

The interesting thing about skeptics is that we're always looking for proof. The question is what on Earth would we do if we found it? - Father Lucas
Anthony Hopkins plays Father Lucas, a controversial exorcist known for pushing the darkest edges of his spirituality in the service of God. "Father Lucas is somewhat infamous among the clergy," describes Tripp Vinson. "He has performed thousands of exorcisms and is the one priest who has been in the trenches fighting the Devil for many, many years. This is not your average priest. There's a sense of ambiguity and danger about him. To some, he seems crazy, but at the same time, he has genuine warmth and kindness. Anthony Hopkins plays that duality brilliantly."

"What intrigued me about Father Lucas was wondering what his own position is in the world of theology," comments Anthony Hopkins. "He's a Jesuit, but he's multi-dimensional. When Michael meets him, he doesn't know what to make of him because the older priest is just an irascible and impatient man. And when this young man challenges his beliefs, Father Lucas says, "Relish your doubts. Nurture them. Be friends with your doubts because those are the things that will drive you on." Father Lucas holds doubts of his own, until terrifying things begin to happen to him."

As Father Lucas, Hopkins provided a tremendous center of gravity for the story and its characters. "Obviously, he brings a lot," Mikael Håfström confirms. "He's the heart and soul of this movie. This character of Father Lucas is fascinating in that we don't really know who he is and what his beliefs are; if he's just a simple magician or if he is the real thing. There are so many sides to him, and Anthony Hopkins captured them all in a very compelling way. To get the opportunity to work with a great actor like him was fantastic."

Though Michael is sent to Father Lucas's rectory to better understand the dark side of his faith, the seminary student seems to have more faith in psychiatry than the power of exorcism. "To be an effective exorcist requires absolute certainty that you're going into battle with an awesome force behind you," says Tripp Vinson. It's not something you can take on alone. So, as Michael follows Father Lucas into the world of exorcism, he is confronted with some very scary and evil things that push him to look within and reconcile what he really believes.

The Rite explores the mysteries of exorcism through the eyes of an expert and a novice. Mirroring that relationship, Colin O'Donoghue makes his feature film debut as Michael Kovak, opposite the veteran Anthony Hopkins.

The young actor from Drogheda, Ireland, did not have any feature experience but sent an audition tape to the filmmakers. "I did a self-taping in my best friend's back garden, but I didn't know if anyone would ever watch it. Thank God they did," he says with a smile. "It was a dream come true for me because I really felt a connection with Michael Kovak. Whether or not you believe in God or a higher power, whether you believe that your life is predestined or that you are in control of absolutely everything-these are all questions that Michael ponders."

"I think Colin is somebody that you just innately trust and, therefore, he serves as a very good guide into this world," the director notes.

Recognising those qualities in Colin O'Donoghue his depth beyond his years and his introspective nature, led the filmmakers to fly him to Los Angeles to screen-test with Anthony Hopkins. His chemistry with the accomplished actor sealed the deal. This is Colin O'Donoghue's first movie, and he is in virtually every scene, much of the time opposite the great Anthony Hopkins, so he was understandably nervous that first day," Mikael Håfström remembers. "But Anthony was, as a person and as an actor, generous to Colin O'Donoghue and helped him in many ways. They became good friends, which was essential because, in a certain aspect, this is a buddy movie between the younger priest and the older priest. There's also a father and son dynamic that plays out between them. At the same time, it was important to create a situation where we could feel disharmony in the relationship. I think both these actors created that tension in a great way."

"I think Colin O'Donoghue is extraordinary," Anthony Hopkins remarks. "It was wonderful to work with him. He's an exceptional actor, not to mention a very nice person."

Father Lucas is not the only person Michael is drawn to while in Rome. On his first day of exorcism school, he catches the eye of another visitor, Angeline, a reporter investigating the Vatican's new initiative. "Michael is very compelling to Angeline because, as a journalist, she's trained to look at things objectively," Tripp Vinson says. "She's not necessarily someone of faith who's going to accept everything she hears, so when she sees Michael questioning these things, she knows he's a kindred spirit and can maybe help her with her work."

For this role, the filmmakers cast Brazilian actress Alice Braga, who was captivated by the script, though she admits it kept her up at night. "After I read it, I couldn't sleep," she says. "It's a fictional film, but the phenomenon is real, and the characters get deeper and deeper into it as they try to figure out what it is. Everyone fears the idea of possession, even if they don't agree on what to call it. I fell in love with my character, Angeline, because she is this strong, straightforward woman who has an agenda, which you begin to discover as it becomes clear why she's looking for answers in an exorcism course."

"Alice Braga had done a lot of films, but her breakout was in the independent 'City of God,' and it's a performance that never left me," Beau Flynn reveals. "This film required her to create intimacy with Colin O'Donoghue without romantic connotations, and Alice Braga has so much complexity and warmth to her that she was able to communicate that in an amazing way. She's a very talented actor.

Like Michael, Angeline too is pushed to confront her own doubts and fears by what she sees with her own eyes. "She discovers herself through this journey in many of the same ways that Michael discovers himself," Alice Braga says. "It's a really interesting way to talk about religion because you're seeing it from the perspective of different human beings."

Michael's self-reflection takes him back to his childhood with his father, Istvan, a Hungarian immigrant who is a constant source of complex emotions. The role is played by Rutger Hauer, who observes, "The father works hard; he's very religious, a bit strict. He's an undertaker who wants his son to take over the family business. Of course, his son is dying to get out, literally. Theirs is a strong relationship, although it's difficult. Perhaps the son hates his father a little."

The figure of Istvan Kovak looms in his son's psyche throughout his experiences in Rome, largely, says Mikael Håfström, because of Rutger Hauer's performance. "Rutger Hauer has tremendous presence, which gave the character great impact in a limited amount of screen time."

At seminary school, Michael finds a mentor in Father Matthew, played by Toby Jones. A contemporary priest dealing with the dropping numbers of clergy, he sees uncommon potential in his student. "Father Matthew knows that Michael is struggling with his ideas and what he believes in, but he senses something greater inside himmaybe even that he's touched by God," Beau Flynn says. "But Michael doesn't see that in himself, so Father Matthew is basically trying to hold up a mirror to show Michael that he is actually blessed. Toby Toby was able to convey all that in a really humane, intelligent manner."

"Father Matthew witnesses an accident in which Michael behaves so extraordinarily that Father Matthew realises he has the potential to fulfill the need for exorcists," adds Toby Jones. There's something in his personality and his background that he recognises.

Toby Jones' Father Matthew is balanced by the character's counterpart at the Vatican, Father Xavier, played by Ciarán Hinds. It's Father Xavier's job to pass on the tried and tested methods of dealing with exorcism, and the necessary balance between the psychiatric and pastoral implications of their work.

"It's not a battle of wills between them," notes Ciaran Hinds. "I think Father Xavier understands that Michael has a lot to offer the church, but his doubts have to be dealt with. Eventually, he suggests that Michael should see Father Lucas, who can pass on to him the unorthodox side of demon possession. And they have one hell of a rollercoaster ride together."

"I was drawn to this project because it's not a frivolous story," reflects Ciarán Hinds. "It's not just meant to be scary. It's about something more profound for all of us-not only our worries or doubts or faith, but that side that can be completely in darkness, and how you fight your way out of that."

When Michael is dispatched to visit Father Lucas in his small rectory on the outskirts of Rome, the exorcist is embroiled in an ongoing case of a pregnant teenage girl named Rosaria, whom Father Lucas has determined is afflicted with demonic possession. This crucial role fell on the shoulders of 21-year-old newcomer Marta Gastini. "Marta Gastini has maybe the most physically demanding part in the film," Mikael Håfström states. "She's a young actor with very little experience, a totally new face, and I think she did a tremendous job."

The director worked with stunt coordinator Charlie Croughwell and Marta Gastini herself to choreograph the critical exorcism sequences. "I wanted to make sure that everything was physically possible and could actually happen to a person in great despair," the director states.

"Marta Gastini had to portray a girl who is possessed by this entity," says Charlie Croughwell, who tested Mata Gastini prior to shooting to explore the kinds of movements she would be capable of performing. "Every move she does had to be completely physical, yet sometimes so subtle that you feel it more than see it. It took a lot of core strength, and Marta Gastini's performance just sent shivers down my spine."

Rosaria's main interactions are with Father Lucas, which was both a challenge and a joy for the young actress. "I was really happy because I found that he's not only, I think, the best living actor, but he's also a wonderful person. Even when he was out of frame, he always acted with the same energy to help me with my performance. I admire him so much. It was really amazing to have the opportunity to work with him."

In preparation for the exorcism sequences, Marta Gastini and Colin O'Donoghue accompanied Matt Baglio to witness several exorcisms-listening just outside the door out of respect.

Marta Gastini recalls that the contrast between what was happening on the two sides of the door was striking. "Outside, the world was going on normally with tourists in Rome, traffic, everything, but in that little room, something was happening that you cannot explain, such a strong and terrible fight in the spirit between good and evil."

O'Donoghue was equally affected. ?What I thought was especially remarkable about it was that to the exorcists, it was all very matter-of-fact. It's what they face all the time. But to us it was an extraordinary thing to experience.

"With exorcisms and possession, regardless of what you believe, you're still watching someone in incredible pain," comments Beau Flynn. "And, I'll tell you, they had a hard time kind of shaking that off, because once you start to examine that world, again, regardless of what you believe, it's intense and dark, and it's very scary."

The Devil in the Details

Does a thief or a burglar turn on the lights when he's robbing your house? No.
He prefers you to believe he's not there. Like the Devil.
- Father Lucas
Prior to the start of an extensive shoot that would encompass the great European cities of Rome and Budapest, key department heads visited Matt Baglio in Rome to tour some of the places he explored over the course of his research, including the Vatican. "No matter what the environment was, whether it was ancient or contemporary, we wanted to get a sense that you could fully expect to walk into any of these spaces and not feel that there was anything immediately strange about it," states production designer Andrew Laws.

For Mikael Håfström, the key to the film's physical spaces was to create a sense of extraordinary events unfolding within an environment that was palpably real. He clarifies, "To use what was effective, and then layer that with our own reality."

"The look of the film evolved during production," says director of photography Benjamin Davis. "We're both fans of '70s filmmaking, and Mikael Håfström wanted the movie to have that verité, naturalistic style. We wanted to ensure that the imagery felt true to life."

Following detailed research and preparation, production began with a 10-day shoot in Rome, filming on its busy streets and at landmarks at the height of tourist season.

Some of the locations included the Piazza della Republicca; Piazza Pio XI; Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps); Ponte Sant'Angelo, overlooking the Tiber River; and in the Via della Conciliazione, which connects with Piazza san Pietro (St. Peter's Square), where Michael Kovac arrives at Vatican City.

We did all the bigger exteriors in Rome, which is such a cinematic city, Mikael Håfström notes. "It has a look and feel that is hard to find anywhere else in the world. We then traveled to Budapest for stage work and to find Rome on a smaller scale, in some of its churches and cobblestone streets, which worked out really well."

Adds location manager Marco Giacalone, "We were able to find in Budapest very similar architecture to what you find in Rome, as well as some vast empty buildings where large scale sets could easily be constructed."

In Budapest, Andrew Laws' team constructed interiors to represent key locations throughout the story, including the Vatican Courtyard, which was created within the empty Báv auction house; a rundown apartment courtyard where Father Lucas brings Michael at Damjanich; and a hospital set built within Hungary's historic Ludovica building, a former military academy and more recent home to the city's Museum of Natural History. Rome's famous Caffé Santo Staccio was recreated at a coffee bar in St. Stephen's Basilica Square, and the unique, cobblestoned location called The Narrow Street provided an evocative setting for a dash through the rain.

Perhaps the most critical design challenge for the production was capturing the Vatican as Michael experiences it when he attends his first exorcism lecture by Father Xavier. "The Catholic Church is rightfully very sensitive about filming on Vatican grounds," reveals Marco Giacalone.

Andrew Laws' team built the older section of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy, as well as Father Xavier's office, within the Ethnographic Museum in Budapest. "Our idea was that the traditional architecture of the museum would resemble what many people would expect the Pontifical to be," he explains.

Standing in stark contrast, the bright contemporary lecture hall catches Michael Kovac off guard. The atrium and the auditorium itself were constructed on a stage at Astra Filmstudios near Budapest.

"The Vatican auditorium sets a precedent for Michael Kovac," the production designer notes. "He comes to Rome with certain cynical expectations about what he thinks he's going to find. Entering the auditorium is one of the first moments where he comes into an environment that is not in any way what he imagined. Our Vatican Academy is meant to be quite modern, very up-to-date, very representative of a more scientific academy, which throws him off a little bit because his preconceptions were that it was going to be all quite mystical and historically leaden. "

Andrew Laws structured the auditorium with the theme of overlapping leaves and simple colors. "In our Vatican Academy, there's the sense that they're not hiding anything," says Mikael Håfström. "Their work is out in the open, as demonstrated by Alice Braga's character, a reporter, being given full access to their exorcism courses."

The oval-shaped auditorium space is marked by modern rows for seating, a sophisticated touch-screen monitor, and what Andrew Laws calls the room's signature piece: its gracefully structured ceiling. "We wanted something quite dramatic to finish the space," Andrew Laws says. "It had to be something that really made a statement. So we went through a few iterations of a light-based ceiling and ended up with this rather beautiful sculpted, scalloped, shell-like ceiling with a light element between each fin. It was not the easiest thing to hang up there, but in the end, it paid off.

Michael's assumptions are also challenged when he enters the rectory and home of Father Lucas just outside Rome. This key location was broken up into two parts: Gül Baba, which closely resembles Rome's Rocca di Papi, for the street outside; and the courtyard, apartment, rectory and exorcism room, which were built at Astra Filmstudios.

At the rectory, Michael glimpses another side of Father Lucas-from the motorcycle being worked on in the courtyard, to the potentially blasphemous books on his bookshelves, to the simple yet modern furnishings in the house itself.

Father Lucas's clothes also reflect his unconventional nature. When designing for Father Lucas, costume designer Carlo Pogglioli initially looked to more traditional clerical dress. Then he met with Anthony Hopkins himself. "When he came to the first fitting, he said, I want to mix these traditional things with something more modern, and he was completely right," Carlo Pogglioli notes. "We see him in an old cassock, which I made from scratch because you can't find those old fabrics anymore, but then suddenly we see he has a t-shirt underneath it and a cell phone in his pocket."

Carlo Pogglioli relished the opportunity to research the clerical costumes the film would require. "There was no better thing to show Mikael Håfström, our director, than the real life Vatican," says the costume designer. "We went to see the Pope when he had an audience with the people. That was amazing because we had a hundred different kinds of monks, nuns, priests from all over the world. And that was the reference we used throughout the movie."

For Michael Kovac, Carlo Pogglioli created a very American look at the beginning of the film, which grows darker and more serious as his journey unfolds. "We go through exactly what he goes through in his mind as he begins to encounter this possible demonic possession," Carlo Pogglioli explains. "So, we start with bright color in his home town Illinois, and then move to colder colors in Rome."

The sense of coldness in the environment permeates everything as Michael ventures further into the dark side with Father Lucas. "The sun rarely shines in this film," says director of photography Benjamin Davis. "And the darker the story gets, the colder the daylight feels, like it would never be warm. It would always feel cold and oppressive. Imagine a November afternoon when it's raining and you're not quite sure when you step outside whether it's day or night. That's the feeling we wanted for the tone of the film."

As the demonic possession accelerates and Michael begins to lose control of his solidly held beliefs, his world literally begins to break apart. For these later scenes, the director wanted to project the idea that demonic possession was like a black hole that drains energy and life out of everything it touches.

"We wanted to avoid any overtly supernatural effects, like things flying through the air, but in the environments throughout the film, there's an increase in rain, a decay in the architecture, an increase in mold and mildew in walls," Andrew Laws describes.

We saw as a function of demonic possession the idea of crumbling whether it's the crumbling of a person, of the environment that they're in, or of their lives.

The exorcism room itself represents the nadir of this effect. From a round window far above eye-level, surrounded by two shaded dormer windows, the light Benjamin Davis projected into this desolate space was the coldest imaginable. "The idea was always that there's no real joy to be found there" the cinematographer states.

The director's sober yet visceral approach to bringing to life the world of exorcists and demons made a profound impression on many in his cast and crew. Mikael Håfström doesn't overstate things, praises Anthony Hopkins. "He wants to make it very mundane where you're in broad daylight and everything is normal, except that underneath the normality something really horrifying is happening. He moves his camera very quietly through the room, as if somebody is witnessing this."

"I think all of us have had an odd moment or two when something happens to us that seems slightly strange, and have questions about what it could be," says Matt Baglio.

A feeling of being touched by something spiritual, whether it's dark or light, or a moment when we question whether or not we're completely in control of the decisions we make. I think for many people there's something atavistic about this topic. It really goes back to our roots, and trying to better understand and have control over our lives.

As with many of the cast and crew, for Mikael Håfström, making The Rite, was in some ways a mirror to the journey of its central character. "We all search for certain things in life, and as a filmmaker, you have a chance to investigate subjects in a unique way," he says. "It can be an historic time or special place, or it can be a phenomenon, like exorcism. I found myself more and more intrigued by this exploration. It was a way for me to venture into this fascinating world."