The Rite's Mikael Hafstrom on His Exorcism Thriller and the Still-Shelved Shanghai
Director Mikael Hafstrom (1408, Derailed) was initially skeptical of taking on the exorcism thriller The Rite, about a young priest (Colin O'Donoghue) who learns the craft of ghost -- okay, demon -- busting from Sir Anthony Hopkins in Rome. Then he read the non-fiction book which provided the basis for its story based from American priest (and guest Movieline critic) Father Gary Thomas, and found that he could bring more to the table than the schlocky thrills found in most other genre offerings.
Movieline caught up with Hafstrom to talk about his Catholic thriller and get to know the Swedish transplant, from his influences (American New Wave), to his childhood (raised by a film critic single mom), to how he got Sir Anthony Hopkins to fly to Budapest to play an eccentric man of the cloth (philosophical chats over breakfast).
And for those wondering what happened to Hafstrom's epic WWII mystery Shanghai, starring John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun Fat, Ken Watanabe, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Movieline gets an update on when -- if ever -- the star-studded period piece will ever get a North American release.
Before we launch into The Rite I must tell you that I've seen Shanghai, which was beautifully shot.
I loved doing Shanghai. I always loved that time in history, but obviously when it comes to the second World War we usually deal with other parts of the world. So it was something that was great to investigate. I spent a lot of time in Shanghai. We ended up shooting in Bangkok, actually. It was a struggle, to do that film, but it was great to work with all these great Asian actors.
What's been holding up the domestic release?
There have been a lot of problems, but one thing is that it was a Chinese co-production so we had to open in China before we opened here or anywhere else. So it opened in China, and it's open in Asia and in other countries. But it's really a question light of day in this country, but I'm glad it's seeing the light of day in other countries.
Can you just call up Bob and Harvey Weinstein and say, 'Let's do this!'?
It's not that easy. It's about money. And you know, I'm sure if they wanted to release it now, they would; but they have their strategy and their politics and their money issues, so it's out of my hands, really, at this point. If I had the money myself, I'd release it myself. But I can't, so I have to rely on other people. But let's see; the film is there. Just because it's not been shown here yet, which is sad, but people are seeing it in a lot of countries so that's good for now.
It sounds like you weren't sure initially that you wanted to make The Rite, but in the development and filming process you were able to explore a lot of personal ideas.
Yeah, when I came to the point when I decided I wanted to make it, I was sure I wanted to make it, but I didn't feel the subject matter for starters. There's been a lot of films, not-so-good films, in this genre, but then I read it and the characters surprised me. They drew me into this world. Then I read the book it was based on and it all came together; Tony [Hopkins] came onboard and it just happened, as things do. It was a great opportunity to venture into a world that I didn't know that much about. But again, like with Shanghai, you had to learn all these things about the situation in Shanghai in 1941 during the Japanese occupation and all of these things. This demanded new knowledge about completely different things. It's good to know, it's good to learn.
Anthony Hopkins said he was unsure he wanted to take on another scary character until he had breakfast with you. What was that discussion like, and how did you convince him to sign on?
I don't know. I think he understood that I didn't set out to make a conventional mainstream horror movie, using his fame as a scary guy to sell tickets. It was more a philosophical approach to the character, it was more a character thriller, or whatever you want to call it, than a horror movie. So he saw that, and we had an interesting discussion about life and death and the past and the future and things like that, and I think he felt that we connected. This is my guess. But I think he felt I was sincere in my ambitions with this film and what it could be, and I think he felt this was an interesting character for him to do at his age. I'm guessing they're not raining scripts on him with meaty characters to play at that age group. But I think he really liked that the troubles and questions about faith were very much his own questions. That's what happened, and I'm very glad it did.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of telling this sort of story, with its resonating personal and spiritual themes, in the context of a genre film?
It's challenging, but I think it's interesting because I think you can. This is, as you say, very much a genre movie; it's a Hollywood studio movie. But I think you can blend in personality and big questions about life and faith in the context of something that should be entertaining, it's not a bad thing. If you can combine this, it's good for everybody, I think. I like these kinds of films, so I think there's an audience out there, too.
Do you consider yourself a genre filmmaker?
I think of myself as a filmmaker, really. Every film can belong to a genre, so that means that everybody is a genre filmmaker in a way. But to be perfectly honest with you, obviously some films are more genre than others, so sometimes I'm more of a genre filmmaker than at other times.
Obviously filmmaking is a visual medium in itself, but do you feel that you have a particularly visual approach to your work? We get a rich sense of the world of The Rite just through images and texture alone.
Thank you. Yes, I mean it's nothing that I think about, but I come from a family of painters, and my mother was also a film critic, so I saw more films than the usual kid did and I definitely saw a lot more art. Because I come from that environment. But that came naturally, I can't describe it. When I started out making films, I think like a lot of young filmmakers do, you overwork it. You just make it too complicated because you want to show off, and you try to do all these fancy camera moves. But I think the older you get, you get more sparse in a way. But I don't think about it that much anymore. I'm just trying to go with my gut and see how it feels.
What sorts of films and filmmakers were you exposed to at that early age?
I would say international films, in general. French New Wave, Truffaut and so on, and American films from the '70s, absolutely were a main source of inspiration. Meaning those guys that are still around - Spielberg and De Palma and Scorsese, that generation of great filmmakers. Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, Coppola's -- not just the Godfather films, but The Conversation. Those were the famous ones but there were a lot of great films that were made here in Hollywood, so those are the films I usually come back to.
Not exactly the norm for any kid growing up. Did you go with your mother when she reviewed films?
She was a single mom at the time, so she took me to cinemas when she couldn't find a bartender -- I mean, babysitter. [Laughs] Or a bartender. Well, I found a bartender later in life.
Having come from Swedish filmmaking and earned an Oscar nomination early on for Ondskan (Evil), then transitioning into Hollywood filmmaking, where do you see your place in the filmmaking world?
I'm a director. I'm a guy who's like other directors here trying to make movies. Obviously I've made a few movies here so that makes life possibly a bit easier because I now know people and I've learned a lot, but it's a different system, coming from Sweden to here. Actually making a movie and working with actors and shooting, that's quite similar but the whole structure, and the whole economical structure is very difficult. And you have to learn by doing, and I've done that. But now, you know, it's very much an international arena for filmmaking today. There's no such thing as Hollywood. The money comes from here, maybe, but The Rite we shot in Rome and Budapest with a highly international crew. That's the fun part. Hopefully, it's very simple -- if you make films that work, you get another chance and you can continue doing what you chose as your profession. But you know, in my work it's hard because there are a lot of people out there trying to do the same thing, fighting for the same money. I'm not that worried anymore; what happens, happens. I'm happy that I can do what I do, as long as I can do it. It's been a good run. Let's hope it continues.