The confessions of a phony priest

I impersonated a priest recently. Because a soul needed saving. Another priest's, as a matter of fact. Took an hour. I think I pulled it off. I got paid $335. I'd like to make a career of it. I swear on my fake priest's collar, all of this is true.

I made my film debut last spring—as a man of the cloth taking the confession of an errant fellow clergyman—in a low-budget horror flick made right here in Central Ohio. It's called “Confessions of an Exorcist.” I am not the exorcist. I'm just a guy called in to deal with the blowback. The movie was locally produced, financed, directed and shot. I'm told it's already been sold to overseas markets and might get a domestic general release.

Horror is big right now in American film. Generally, it does very well and doesn't require an expensive big-name star. Automatically, this means costs are closer to what most mere mortal filmmakers can put together financially.

So why this horror movie right here, right now? In short: the availability of top-notch post-production tech—and a man with a business plan, Chris Freeman, a 42-year-old Columbus native (“born in Grant hospital during a snowstorm,” he says) who's spent more than a decade in LA apprenticing on independent films. The bald-headed director with Quentin Tarantino-esque enthusiasm was intrigued by the cinematic resources he found in Columbus; resources such as the Ohio Film Group's post-production facility, which opened at the Columbus College of Art & Design about two years ago, and the opportunity to escape the stratospheric costs of Tinseltown and its distracting pretensions. Freeman joined forces with Keida Mascaro, a local videographer/commercial-maker and someone who seems to know every person connected even remotely to film in town, and Aaron Mack, a dentist by day and a producer-movie financier by night.

The trio began planning “Confessions” in earnest two years ago, Freeman having bought the rights to a 400-page, how-to exorcism book, excited by its depth and supposedly true, real-life exorcisms. After months of pre-production, principal shooting began in mid-May and lasted 24 days through June, with a budget of $650,000. Thanks to a fairly deep and cheap local workforce, mostly corralled through Mascaro's considerable network of cinephiles, roughly 80 percent of the talent and crew was found here.

Like me.

I've known Mascaro since he was a kid buying used records when I worked in Mole's Record Exchange in the '80s. He enlisted me a couple of years ago for his brief Armchair Report, an internet music review show run from his vintage blue Cadillac Coupe De-Ville. Pretty fun, that was.

So when “Confessions” came along with a lone good priest/bad priest scene, Keida thought of me. I mean, who wouldn't? After all the hate mail I received during my many years as the music critic for The Other Paper, the now defunct Columbus alt-weekly, I was kind of used to taking confessions and staring down demons.

My scene came about midway through the production. We were shooting at a Johns-town horse farm in late May, inside a lovely, chic summer home. Nobody was allowed to wear shoes inside.

General crew call was6 p.m.,with the priest's confessional scene slated for7:30 p.m.I knew it would be much later. I figured midnight. Turned out to be around1 a.m.Gave me time to panic.

Our director, Chris, introduced me to Nicholas Gonzalez, the star of the movie. He plays Father Felix Rojas, whose personal desires for a young woman cloud his judgment. When he acts on them, she responds and then becomes possessed—you know how that goes. Metaphysical supernatural mayhem results. Near the movie's very end, sinful Father Felix finds himself in a confessional booth talking to yours truly, done up in clerical collar and church black.

Chris, Nick and I small-talked for a few moments before I asked my fellow actor if we could rehearse my scene in one of the spare rooms. Nick—best-known for playing Santiago on Showtime's Resurrection Blvd. and currently on Netflix's Narcos—didn't say yes or no. He just expounded on heavy acting theory for a minute as Chris walked away to tend to the million details a film director must address on set.

I asked again, trying to communicate my terrible lack of confidence. I took an acting class at Ohio State, but I'd never done anything professional like this before. I'd only been given my lines late the night before, and I had no idea how they'd play against the other character's despair and self-loathing. Despite my desperation, Nick showed no mercy, offering more acting theory. I was beginning to dislike the guy. Hmmm. Maybe I could use that as he begged for God's forgiveness in the scene?

I ended up rehearsing by myself, going through my lines over and over, trying my darnedest to imprint them on my brain. I suffered alone, walking around outside on the house's wraparound porch, mumbling both Nick's lines and mine.

Finally, I turned to Chris, our crazy-busy director. He was diplomatic enough to indulge my, ahem,“discussion of my character's motivation”—something I can't believe I actually said. To Chris' credit, and my very temporary anxiety-attack relief, he indulged me—for about 60 seconds.

His advice was straight to the point. “Johnny, play it however you want.”

Here's the script for my scene (O.C. means off camera, though you can see my profile and more importantly, feel my Elvis-like presence):

PRIEST (O.C.)

So the girl is safe?

FELIX

She is.

PRIEST (O.C.)

And you?

FELIX

I have so much lust in my heart, Father. She would have been on a different path had she never known me.

PRIEST (O.C.)

And you would have all tragedy that befalls others fall on your shoulders?

FELIX

Everything I deserve.

PRIEST (O.C.)

You deserve death. As do I and every other individual who has failed God. But he has given us a wonderful thing called grace. I suggest you be thankful for that.

The last five lines are pivotal as all get-out: resolution with absolution times compassion and a little humility following a bit of a threat. (“You deserve death,”—a line I loved.) Then the moment of menace is flipped—“as do I and every other individual.” This is Man as God telling Fallen Man, “Get the heck up, ya promiscuous baby, and realize The Big Fella Upstairs is a lot more forgiving than you deserve. Now get outta here, ya knucklehead, God loves ya.”

If you think I'm kidding, I am not: I wanted to explore with Nick my understanding of my priest, but he just wouldn't go there. Maybe Nick knew what he was doing. Maybe discussion and rehearsal destroy the authenticity of the exchange. Or maybe he was just being a prima donna.

Around midnight,the grips completed construction of the bare-bones, half-a-confessional booth. Tall Tommy from Alabama held and moved the sliding, perforated screen through which sinners talk to their betters. I sat on a stool in jeans that weren't visible to the camera. In my hands I kneaded a rosary, to, you know, “get into character.”

I was center stage in a beautiful Better Homes and Gardens country house, off the kitchen in an improvised Catholic confessional booth, surrounded by 20 or 30 cast and crew who certainly did not care about my nervous shakes. Was I going to let them down? They were all staring at me as everything was readied. Chris said, “Action,” the red camera light came on, and then the funniest, gosh-darnedest thing happened.

I became a priest.

I felt a calm I hadn't felt since before the moment I got the email less than 24 hours earlier, notifying me of the scene's when, where and how. I was a real priest listening to another real priest expressing his self-loathing and desperation, feeling beyond forgiveness for the ordeal he'd put the girl through.

Quite frankly, I thought Nick was amazing. How much of my deep calm was because of him? I'm not sure. But I didn't care about anything else but being right there, right then, becoming his priestly confessor. For not being able to see Nick, I sure felt him.

The first take was well-received. So was the second. And the third, fourth and fifth. Slightly different intonations were discussed on my end. Gotcha! More takes. Felt good. No flubs.

'Round the 11th, I started messing up the “As do I” line. I then proceeded to flub it every time. I was shot.

But Chris was happy with what he got. He hugged me. So did my old friend Keida. Nick couldn't have cared less. But that was fine. I was over the moon. It felt like someone was watching over me. And perhaps someone was. Later, I realized I was paid almost exactly $6.66 per word for my scene (along with a heckuva fine salmon-and-rice catered “lunch” served at 2 a.m.).If those sixes aren't the sign of a guardian devil, I don't know what is.

I haven't viewed the finished product yet, but obviously this isn't a star turn for me. I expect all you'll see is my collared, black-smocked profile through the confessional booth screen as I take Father Felix's admission of getting frisky with the flock. And I'm OK with that, as they say in therapeutic nation.

But that's me, I promise. I've even got the after-action Screen Actors Guild invitation to prove it (currently residing in my ever-so-slender Film Career Scrapbook). Do they give Oscars for Best Ghostly Priestly Confessional Booth Profile? I'm ready to be typecast, Hollywood. I'm ready for my close-up.