The inspiration, I think, derives from the source novel, William Peter Blatty’s  novel. What Jeremy Slater, the creator of this show, looked to do was place the events of our show and the series into a contemporary context and, of course, the Friedkin original dealt with events that happened in the early 1970s. So we are forty plus years after those events, but those events exist and occurred within the realms of our mythology. But we are dealing with wholly new characters.
Of course it’s a different location: our series is set in Chicago [rather than Georgetown]. The similarities, I guess, are in the sense that demonic possession is something that begins to happen within the context of the small family unit, and also the wider city as a whole. So, really, that’s where the similarities lie, specifically. Other than that, it’s a completely new narrative with new characters.
Well, you’d have to ask Fox that question, specifically why they chose to greenlight it. I would say from my perspective it’s always interesting when the world is in a place socioeconomically or politically where there are, I guess you could say, world events that play in to the notion that evil is becoming more pervasive in our society and we as a society are dealing with things in a very real-world sense up close. Ten, fifteen years ago, that was less the case; we were living in more of a golden era. I think, inevitably, what happens is entertainment and art form mirrors that.
I was a big proponent and driver of setting the film in Chicago, because I thought it was a great Ground Zero for a large, historically vibrant American city that has a big Catholic community. The church is very powerful there, but at the same time it is a church that is dealing with modern controversies and scandals. It is not the great institution that it once was.
Then on a political level there are aspects of corruption within Chicago. There have been historically, of course, going back to Al Capone. And then in terms of the violence, you only had to pick up the newspapers to see the murder rate right now is that of Los Angeles and New York combined this year.
So, it’s a city where, if you were to say the devil were to infiltrate our world and look to proliferate on a pandemic level, Chicago would be it.
Yes, I mean, I think if there was ever a hope on my part it was that we would be able to follow the rules of the original, which is being able to create a tone and a sense of the worlds rather than look for jump scares and the more contemporary forms of horror. And actually, scare with something that was a bit more psychological. That’s what I was trying to do.
There’s always, I guess, a pressure and a desire from certain people or a percentage of the audience where they want [the jump scares], and so it’s finding that balance. But for me as a filmmaker and a story teller, I was really interested in the characters and where their stories went moreso than the splatter effects.
You have a great cast…
Thank you. Overall, I have to say the experience of making this pilot was really fun and, creatively, really inspirational for me. And that doesn’t always happen when one does a pilot. As a director, you’re coming into something that’s preconceived and it’s different to making a film on a number of levels. Interestingly, it actually was the closest I’ve felt for a long time to making my first film. I had a real opportunity on a creative level to collaborate with the showrunner, Rolin Jones and the creator, Jeremy Slater in a really equal way, and it was much kudos to them that they allowed me that.
So casting wise, the brain trust that was us essentially got together and looked to find really interesting character actors like Alan Ruck, who’s wonderful and an amazing actor. Ben Daniels, who plays Father Marcus, was an actor I’d seen on House of Cards and I checked out Flesh and Bone as well. We wanted an older man, but at the same time a man who had a youthful physicality but a world weariness in terms of his soul and he kind of imbued that brilliantly. So, we pushed very hard to cast for him.
Alfonso [Herrara], I’d seen on Sense8, and really loved him and we wanted to find an actor that represented—and the character was written somewhat in this way—the modern Catholic Church. When you travel around Chicago, you see a lot of the old blue collar, immigrant neighborhoods that were, and still are, fundamentally Catholic. And whereas forty, fifty years ago they were Polish or Irish, they’re now predominantly Mexican or Latino in general, so we decided that would be the best face for the modern Catholic Church. So, Alfonso was it.
Geena [Davis] needs no introduction. Geena was just incredible that she stepped up when we asked her to and said yes.
So, yes, as an ensemble, it was actually very easy to cast in terms of the choices that we wanted, we were lucky enough to get. But, yes, we wanted a real diversity in an ensemble.
I especially loved the [moment] when the music came in…
We didn’t intend to put that in actually. When we started, we thought we’re not going to use “Tubular Bells” because we didn’t want to be derivative.
And when we were cutting it, it was actually me, and I went to gauge my initial gut. “I wonder if we’ve earned it, I wonder if it works here,” and it just played brilliantly. It seemed to work [where we placed it] for the purpose of our story, as much as [it did in] the original. So, for that I felt like it was justified.
Linda Blair has recently expressed interest in having a cameo in the TV series. Have you thought about doing cameos with some of the past actors and actresses from the original movies?
I don’t know. That’s a better question for Jeremy Slater, our creator, because he’s more across that. If there were something that were to be relevant to Regan MacNeil, then absolutely. But I think the whole intention for this show was that whilst we are following on from the events of the original film, we are 40-some years later.
I think it’s a tough question to answer because it was never something that we discussed, to be honest.
I never saw it as a small screen. I f think the best stories these days are told on television and they’re incredibly ambitious for all good reasons. It’s a shame, in many ways, that modern, mainstream cinema is gradually being eroded and taken over by TV, in my opinion, because I still love going to the cinema. But I do think it’s the golden age of TV.
I think one reason for that is it’s becoming inherently more cinematic in terms of the making of it, and so the process of making this pilot was really wonderful for me because I was given a really good amount of time, and I was given a decent budget, and I was given wonderful actors and an incredible crew to mount something. I approached and shot this as if I was making a feature.
The same narrative tropes as I would if I were making a theatrical feature were played into this as well. It was always my intention to light it and design it and shoot it in as ambitious a way as possible because I think that’s what modern television audiences expect.
I was looking to do a television pilot this year and the way the process works as a director is one gets sent the scripts that are looking to be greenlit or are greenlit and one reads them and one pins one’s desires to the one that one likes the best. If you’re lucky enough to get the job, then that’s great and that’s exactly what happened with this.
I read it and found it to be, in my opinion, by far and away the strongest piece of writing from all of the other scripts.
I was reading and it was a story that I could visualize and that’s key, obviously, if I’m going to be approaching it as a filmmaker. It just inspired me so for better or for worse, that’s what drew me into it.
That’s interesting. I’m an agnostic personally and I approached it as one when making this. I didn’t ever want the characters in the story to react to anything supernatural in a way that they had any sense that it was normal. I wanted them to look upon any supernatural world as something that was entirely unexplainable. I came at it from that approach. As far as how it affected me, I think if you immerse yourself in any subject matter, and then obviously in this case it was demonic possession, it can’t help but not affect you in some way. It’s funny, when I started working on it, a few friends of mine joked about the curse of The Exorcist and that I better watch out.
I think it cannot help but affect you in some ways because, of course, you’re looking over your shoulder a little bit. But I think what’s interesting to me is it sort of possesses you in a very particular way: when you spend a lot of time researching and immersing yourself into a subject matter like this, then of course you start to have nightmares, of course you start to have certain thoughts – it’s like being a homicide cop and dealing with that on a day-to-day basis. It starts to affect you psychologically, but that’s the extent of it, I would say.
A few years ago, there was a movie made for Showtime about the original Exorcist story and I remember seeing Timothy Dalton in his full gear as the priest coming down the hall and there was a full-on hero shot. In this case you’ve got guys who are fighting ultimate evil so in a way, they’re the superheroes of these movies. So, can you talk about the idea of conceptualizing the priest as the hero, with whatever powers he can bring to bear, fighting against evil and how you want that to look and feel.
I think what you’re saying has some relevance for sure in terms of how we approached it, particularly in terms of Father Marcus. We explored the idea that those that work for the Vatican and train within the Catholic Canon and become immersed in the whole notion of exorcism and start to actually carry it out, they are recruited individuals, whether it be orphan boys like Father Marcus, or people from different walks of life. And they would be trained to carry out these actions and, in keeping with real life, a lot of these people that do that job are very secretive people. They keep themselves to themselves, they don’t advertise what they do. It’s a bit like working for the secret service, I guess, in some ways.
They do that, specifically, not because there’s any supernatural repercussions, but more that they don’t want to be hounded by people whose family member might be schizophrenic or they might be dealing with people with alcohol or drug problems who aren’t, in fact, in their eyes possessed but actually are more mentally ill or physically ill. They’re very fascinating people, the priests that do this job. They are very often lonely people who live very solitary lives and they travel the world, or their diocese rather, carrying out these acts. So, yes, we approached it a little bit like a religious James Bond, if you know what I mean.
You have Father Marcus, who we think at some point probably volunteered to become an exorcist. So, he’s a volunteer, but on the other hand you have Father Tomas, who’s kind of a conscript. He wasn’t walking around going, “Gosh I think I’ll deal with demonic possession,” it just kind of fell on him.
Tomas is drawn into the world and Marcus is already very much a part of it. You’ll see as the show develops, we get a really good and better understanding of who they are as men and where they come from. And they’re very, very different. They come into our story from very, very different places.
Father Tomas has a recent history that deals with infidelity, without giving too much away, just certain personal controversies that have put him in this rather rundown church on the South Side of Chicago. He’s a bit of an embarrassment to the church. He was, at one stage, the poster boy for the modern Catholic Church and he’s now been sent out to the suburbs and he’s going through a crisis of faith. He’s trying to find out what’s important in his life and it was fascinating to be able to explore that character. He’s a fallible man, he’s a very vain man, and he’s all of the sort of things that, if one were the devil, you would see as catnip. He’s a very attractive human to try and draw into one’s web.
Marcus is the opposite. Marcus is, on a moral level, very, very strong, but he comes from a very broken past and that’s ultimately what got him recruited into the Vatican to become an exorcist.
I think just like all great stories, it’s a great reflection of us as a species and also us as a society. We’re telling a story that is very much of the now, of 2016, and what I was saying earlier about a city that has a great history, a very rich and varied history, but ultimately a city that is somewhat coming apart at the seams. It seemed wholly relevant to start from that place and then grow from there.
When Friedkin made the original film, the United States was going through various financial crises and was going through Vietnam. It wasn’t a totally different world, it was similar in many ways, and I think the people sort of look inward to that particular moment in time and, of course, the notion of good and evil becomes very prevalent for a lot of people. So it’s appealing.
You talked about the cinematic quality and the treatment that you gave the pilot. Was that very important, seeing that many people’s first experience with the story was through film?
I guess so. I certainly didn’t look to engineer it for that reason alone. Like any film or piece of television that I’m looking to be involved in, it’s utilizing every aspect of the medium, from sound design to who one casts, who is to be the cinematographer and the lighting. I wanted to find a city in the middle of winter to give it an unvarnished look. I think a lot of network television can sometimes have a gloss to it, for better or for worse, but certainly in the case of The Exorcist, I did not want that. I wanted to find something that was really unvarnished and light it in that way so Chicago in February was perfect for that.
Have you drawn inspiration for your first episode from any artistic or cinematic influences?
Yes, many. We looked to a lot of films, specifically ones shot in Chicago in the winter, Road to Perdition. We looked to The Wire, interestingly, for the notion of the inner cities – Baltimore, obviously in that case – but just the more rundown nature of the modern society or the more low income neighborhoods. Specifically for around the church, that was helpful for me when I was scouting.
Then, there was a Pablo Larrain film, [The Club], made relatively recently about some defrocked Catholic priests that are living down in Chile on the coast. I referenced that from a costume point of view, just for the retreats where the priests [are sent]
Those priests were sent there because they’ve abused people.
Not all of them, but that was yes, certainly those places exist. Catholic seminary retreats where those that commit those acts, that in a normal civilian life would possibly put them in prison – they get sent there when they’re in the church.
What were your references in the horror genre in films and TV shows?
I would say Don’t Look Now was a very big reference for me, the Nicholas Roeg film with Donald Sutherland, in terms of the atmosphere. I would say Jacob’s Ladder, to an extent, was a big influence to how we approached this film, in terms of, again, the grounded nature of the setting. Yes, those two.
This is such an interesting ensemble of characters; is there one in particular that you as a storyteller really latched onto and you hope that audiences maybe also find this character really fascinating?
Yes, the exorcist himself [Fr. Marcus], I thought, was incredibly fascinating. Not only in his back-story but also just in the notion of what it means to be an exorcist and what it involves.
We researched it in as grounded a way as possible. We talked to a priest who wanted to remain nameless and said he’d witnessed various exorcisms. I think he had, himself, done some but he wouldn’t say whether he had or not. He just talked us through the procedures and the challenges faced. A lot of exorcisms go on for weeks, sometimes months. It’s a religious form of therapy in many ways.
Ben, who played Father Marcus, and I, we really got into that and dug in deep in terms of how we could then relay that and put that on the screen. I think the war wounds, the scars that one carries from the experiences of looking to save that many people over that many years, would really start to take their toll. So, in as many sequences as we could, we tried to convey that with his performance.
In these kind of possession shows, a lot of times it’s a single possession and they get stuck in the bedroom or the house or whatever. I was wondering if you could talk about how you’re going to get out of the Rance household, and how did you evolve this into a show that could run multiple seasons? Will there be more than one specific possession?
I can only tell you what I would like and feel as a director of the pilot, first and foremost, and for anything else you need to talk to the showrunner, Rolin and the creator, Jeremy, to get more specific thoughts on where they’re going to go.
I can tell you what we discussed and what to me was very appealing because it’s a good question. One of the first questions I asked was, how does one achieve a series out of The Exorcist? Certainly no one was ever looking or setting out to do exorcism of the week, it was not that whatsoever.
It was much more of a slow burn build of the idea that Catholics don’t believe in the devil. They believe in demons. There is no such thing as one particular sentient demon that controls others, like Lucifer. Lucifer exists in their belief system, but he was just another demon. But Judeo-Christian lore [does], like in a film like The Omen that deals with Satan. What I thought was fascinating as a result of that [was what if] a member of the church, possibly Father Marcus, begins to believe and consider that that is actually true, that the Catholic Church has got it wrong, there is Satan, there is such a thing as a yang to God’s ying, if you like. Satan has intention to basically strike now, at this particular moment in mankind’s place in the world and our moment in history. It’s the perfect opportunity, with the world of violence that we live in and with what is going on in the world, to start to essentially expand from a ground zero.
Chicago was our choice, but it was the idea that we would start there. Consider a show like The Walking Dead and the pandemic that has become The Walking Dead itself, but on a possession level. I’m not speaking for the show itself because I don’t know, ultimately, where they’re going to choose to go, but my desire and hope for the show is where we build out so that by season two we’re entering into towns or cities that have become possessed. It becomes a pandemic.
This is just very much the Arab Spring spark, I guess, of demonic possession.
What was your favorite scene to film in the pilot?
Good question. They’re not always the most interesting scenes, my favorite ones to shoot. The most challenging, the most satisfactory was actually—well they all were. I’m not being glib, but I would say that the entire shoot was a pleasure and a lot of fun to shoot.
Shooting in Mexico City was very interesting for me. I’d never been to Mexico before and we shot in this vast favela in the suburbs of Mexico City. There’s a lot of challenges, in terms of just personal safety – and I don’t mean that because we were going to get mugged, but more because just the place itself is very dangerous in terms of lots of very steep climbs and long drops and things like that. We found this great house that worked perfectly for the building of the possessed child. That was two night shoots we did right at the end of our shoot. I had a great time down there.
I love Chicago, as a city, I fell in love with it. The light there, in the winter, was great
There will be some that don’t listen to me whatever I say! What I would say is, we’re not repeating, we’re not going over old ground, we’re not remaking anything, we’re not rebooting anything. I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it if that had been the case. This is a completely original story set in the modern day that happens to be forty years after the events of the original.
I personally, as a fan of the original, am interested to explore and get to know more stories that deal with the world that was created back in the early Seventies with the Friedkin film.
I think, frankly, the best storytelling these days, like I said earlier, it mostly on TV now. Long form television has become the new novel in many ways. It’s a great way to really explore characters over a period of time and get into complex narratives that one can’t always achieve, certainly in mainstream cinema, over the course of two hours.
I think there’s no show now – and I can’t think of a contemporary film – that’s recently explored demonic possession in a grounded, real-world sense, and that’s what we were attempting to do.
The Exorcist begins on Syfy UK on October 19, and continues on FOX in the US on Friday evenings.
Photo of Rupert Wyatt by Joe Viles/FOX (c) 2016 Fox Broadcasting Co
Thanks to Mark Pitchford and Erin Moody for their assistance with this piece