What was it like being on set and seeing what had been inspired by your book come to life in a different medium?

It's very surreal. In fact I'm still getting used to it, I'd have to say. I'm very disconnected here in Rome. I've heard there's lots of promotions and commercials and trailers. But I don't know if it's an advantage I have, but I have this quality of being able to dissassociate myself to looking at something from a very practical standpoint, and so I wanted this to be a good movie. I wanted to do my part. I didn't want to get caught up in "Wow, this is a Hollywood movie." But there were definitely a few times when I took a little stroll. For example, there was the set for the [exorcism] course. And that was really cool. It was a neat experience to be there in the classroom thinking that that's kind of how the whole book started. …  It was also kind of a humbling experience as well because here you are on the set of a movie, and you see how many people it takes to make a movie and everyone's working to do something. It was really neat and very satisfying to see, I have to say, because everyone was so professional about going about it, and I really have nothing but good things to say about it and everyone I worked with on the movie.

Prior to filming, back when you turned in your book proposal to the studio and you were going back and forth with them, did you ever have a particular actor in mind who you thought would be perfect to play someone in your book?

You know, I've learned that with the book when I sold the book—and I mean just the fact I was going to have a published book—that was enough for me. The movie coming out was icing on the cake. I've kind of learned in the past not to get ahead of myself and that when it comes to film when people say, "Oh, so and so is interested." That's great, but it doesn't really mean anything. I didn't necessarily have anyone in mind.

You know you never hope because you don't want to get your hopes dashed, but certainly Anthony Hopkins is at the top of probably everybody's list. I was incredibly impressed by him when I met him and when I saw him work—the way he works. He came really prepared, learning Latin, studying on his own; he really wanted to do a good job. And you know I was amazed and certainly he's reached the point in his career where he doesn't have to do those kind of things, but he is very dedicated to the role. So I didn't have anybody in mind is the short way to answer that, but I was hoping that, you know, they could get a good actor because I hadn't read the script either. Eventually I did read a script, and you don know I think this material could go either way. It can be kind of "B material" very quickly, and I think that getting talented people and trying to write the book in such a way … well, it's amazing. You get an actor like [Anthony Hopkins] and you can do so much more. 

In the film Anthony Hopkins plays the character that is based on Father Carmine in the book. But the character that's based on Father Gary (who is 52 in the book) is played by Colin O'Donoghue, an up-and-coming actor who is right on the edge of 30. What did you think about that type of change from book to film?

I don't think that there was any change where I said I wish they hadn't done that. I think I'm waiting to see the final film. I think that knowing that books and movies are so different, I really learned a lot, I have to say. I learned a ton about this whole process and again I was so very lucky that I was treated so kindly. The director, the producer, Michael Petroni, everyone was so kind with me and allowing me to participate in a way that I felt like I could contribute. 

I think in reference to Colin's character they wanted to make the protagonist a little bit younger, and that raises the stakes a little bit more because he's younger in his life and he hasn't yet made up his mind [about what he believes]. And audiences who are going to see the movie are very different than people who will read the book. I wasn't really disappointed in anything. … I didn't see the whole movie as it was shot … there were some scenes that perhaps I may have done differently myself and again that's why I was glad to distance myself away from it because the book and movie have to be kind of different in a certain light.

Father Gary's character is portrayed as more of a skeptic in the film than Father Gary was in your book. Why do you think that is?

Well, in the book you have me as I can play the Doubting Thomas and ask the hard questions that a journalist would ask. So you know they have the character of Angeline [an investigative reporter] in the film, but I think the character of the priest asking those questions is the right choice. Father Gary wasn't an out and out skeptic, but he wasn't 100 percent convinced. And I think that there's a difference. If you believe in the reality of the Devil but you're never really focused on it, then you're never thinking about how it works. It doesn't really enter into our lives and influence us in some way. So it does really heighten the stakes. But again I think the audience needs a window into understanding that, you know, there is doubt. Even the exorcists that I talked with have doubt, even after twenty-five years.

I thought it was interesting, in the book, how some of the priests you interviewed admitted that exorcism is not an exact science and that they each approached it in a different way.

I really found that really refreshing: the fact that a person is still unsure and not 100 percent. I mean there are days they wake up and think, "Hey this can't be real." And I think it's a normal process. That's what all people go through. And they are no different. And it was refreshing to hear them say that there is a lot of mystery. I'm always suspicious of those people who are 100 percent sure about this stuff, and they put it in terms that just seems too structured and too neat and ordered. I was expecting them to do that and instead they were quite honest with me and said, "Hey, I'm just a guy and I hope that I know what God is doing. But I have to rely on my faith and this is all up to him."  

It was also refreshing to read in the book when Father Gary is done with his exorcism training and is getting ready to head back to the States and he echoes one of the other priests who said now that he knew the reality of the spirit world, he felt a responsbility to help people. Would you say that you came to a similar conclusion in the writing of this book? 

Well, of course. I would like people to take a positive message away from my book. I think it was in the informing that I was trying to get people to look at this topic and in a way that it hadn't been seen before because I think with exorcism, and in the mainstream media especially, most people tend to ridicule it. And it is very easy to ridicule, because you can find those people on the fringes of any religion that are doing these kooky things and it's very easy to follow that. But then again if you hold that up as the example, then you do a disservice just like with any topic. 

The vast majority of people who are having these experiences don't know what they are, they are unsure about them and many of them perhaps have gone away from [demonic possession] because of how it's been portrayed in the past. Having said that, I think too many people are also enamored with this topic and really seem to just gravitate to it and they really they like the idea that they could be attacked by something bigger than themselves. All of us look for meaning in our own lives and what better way to do that than to be a participant in this war that's been going on since the dawn of man, you know with these creatures that are vastly superior to ourselves. And here you are you're a participant in it; you're a major player because a demon's attacking you. I think there has to be a lot of caution. And what I really hope, too, is that people take a step back and look at this with a fresh set of eyes and again how it is connected.

I think for me personally it is how it was connected to the greater picture of the sacrements and the Catholic tradition. But it's really about making this connection with God and the individual doing that. And, of course, as a Catholic it's sacrements and as a Protestant you do it through different means. The connection you're trying to make is still what's really important and  fundamentally … it's about the choices you make. Make good choices. Be a kind person. Try to be understanding and forgiving and all those kind of things that maybe some people have taken for granted. 

For me personally the most important thing I'm trying to stress in the book is this idea of personal responsibility. It is up to us to make the right choices in our lives, and we're in control and that's the free will that we have. So you can't just completely ignore the concept of evil, but you definitely don't have to let it consume you and become obsessed by it.

Why do some people seem to be obsessed with the concept of evil and with demonic possession? 

In America it's like that. In Italy as well. There's a lot of superstition over here. But people in America have an easier time believing in the extreme. And yet, then you are lazy and you're not practicing your faith and you're not listening to your spouse and you're not being a responsible adult, etc. It's very hard for people to hear. ...  They don't want to hear that. They want the magic pill and it'll all go away. … That's kind of the whole form of the fundamental struggle that these priests are having because people come to see them and again, this is another topic that I'm trying to stress is that most people think that if it wasn't for these priests we wouldn't have exoricisms or people in Hollywood trying to make these movies. But that's not true. People have, since the dawn of time in every religion, people have believed about this. And in America, people aren't going to church anymore, but they're still believing in this topic. So, you need priests or pastors who can say "Hey, don't get so worried or freaked out about that. Are you praying? Are you being a good Christian?" And all those kind of things that help people to focus on those little things again rather than "Yeah, you've got a spirit in you and I'm going to hit you on the head with this Bible and you'll be free." … I'm not trying to say that the Catholic Church is the only faith that people should be believing in. [The book] is just a story about a Catholic priest, but exorcism and prayers of deliverance are pretty much standard in every religion.

So what's next for you?  Are you working on another book?

I'm taking a step back from exorcism … and I'm doing something very different which is a graphic novel that kind of takes some of the themes of the theology of the ongoing war between good angels and fallen angels, and transposes it onto a historical tapestry. 

Will you be at the premiere of the film in the States?

Yes, I'll see the film at the premiere. I guess I'll be the only person in the theater who hasn't seen the movie. It's very surreal, but I'm big enough to know that the movie's something different than the book. So … I mean, it'll be very surreal.

American filmgoers certainly love their scary movies, but how do you think Italian filmgoers will receive the film?

I think the performance of Anthony Hopkins automatically draws interest. People, I've learned in the modern age, they have their own biases they often bring to any topic. I'm hoping that people will go into this with an open mind. Obviously they'll come to see it here in Italy. The book's been doing well here in Italy. The topic itself isn't quite as sensational as it is in the States. Exorcists go on TV, they talk a lot, they have priests who are working with the cops over here in trying to stop the occult … so it's much more mainstream. But I have high hopes [for the film].

As someone who has already screened the film, let me just say that I'm glad I read your book before I saw the movie. It really helped to prepare me and just ground me, I think. Would you agree that that's a good thing?

Yes. I would recommend that everybody read the book before seeing the movie. [Laughs].  No … but in all honesty, that is sort of my hope is that people will see the movie and they will want to learn the reality behind that as it is taught by the Catholic Church. The theology has a context, and I think it's important. I know it's hard to do in a film, because the first thing you want to do is entertain people whereas in a book you can put in all the Bible verses and references and things like that. So, yes it would be great if people read the book. It is a topic that has oftentimes been written about it in one way or the other, whether ridiculed or by a group of believers who are so 100 percent sure about everything. And I think the people in the middle kind of get left out, and so I was really trying to address those people. And again, I hope that the Protestants and mainstream Christians as well will understand and be open to the book in a way that this is not saying this is the only way or the only right way to go about this type of thing.



For more information about Matt Baglio or his book,
The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, please visit www.mattbaglio.com.  To learn more about the New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. major motion picture, The Rite, which is loosely based on this book and stars Anthony Hopkins, please visit the Crosswalk.com Movies Channel.  A full review of the film will be available upon release on January 28, 2011.

**This interview first published on January 25, 2011.