From show creator Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead) the new A&E drama series Damien follows the adult life of Damien Thorn (Bradley James), the mysterious child from the 1976 motion picture, now grown up and seemingly unaware of the satanic forces around him. Haunted by his past, Damien must come to terms with his true destiny as the Antichrist and learn what that means for those in his life. The show also stars Barbara Hershey, Scott Wilson, Omid Abtahi, Megalyn Echikunwoke and David Meunier.
During this exclusive in-depth interview with Collider, showrunner/executive producer/writer Glen Mazzara talked about how this show evolved into what it is now, feeling like there’s at least five seasons of material to explore, referencing the original movie, managing fan expectations, the role of horror in the story, that no one is safe in this world, bringing this cast together, finding the right directors, Bear McCreary’s musical score, leaving the audience satisfied at the end of the season, and what it’s like to be the showrunner of a TV series. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How did this come about?
GLEN MAZZARA: Our executive producer, Ross Fineman, was looking at the Fox library. There had been success with Hannibal and Bates Motel, so he was thinking about the possibility of creating a show based on The Omen. That was all he had. I had a deal with Fox and they came to me and asked me to find a writer and surprise that writer. I said, “Well, I’m a fan of that film. I’d love to take this on. I’ll write it myself. But, I want to do it my way. I don’t want to just have a character who is committed to evil, right from the beginning. I want to have a character that has some humanity and that has a journey.” I felt that could give me the most opportunity for stories to explore. Otherwise, I just have a supernatural Dexter, if you will, and that wasn’t interesting to me. So, I wrote the script and as I started developing the material, I spent a lot of time thinking about the character’s entire journey. I wrote a bible, no pun intended, for the first season and for the entire life of the series, really thinking about it, and that was what we brought to Lifetime, originally, and then A&E.
So, how far do you see the series going?
MAZZARA: I think we’ve got a good five seasons, or more. You’re always finding more story. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to go for multiple seasons. I think there’s a lot of story to tell. It’s a complex character in a complex world. We were originally picked up for six episodes, and then they wanted four additional episodes. What was really fun about this was that we had really developed a character for the six episodes, and then we could build out the world and go back and figure out how to throw all that stuff in. We introduced characters and storylines, and then we were able to go back and add that material up front. That was a great opportunity. With most TV shows I’ve done, you don’t have a lot of time. The first episode is locked, and then the second episode is locked. With this, we had 10 episodes to move material around, and we moved storylines and scenes from one episode to another. The very last episode we finished was the first episode. It was really a unique experience.
Will you be making references to the original movie throughout the series?
MAZZARA: Yes. We’re trying to do a fresh take on it, but the events of the 1976 movie are part of Damien’s life. So, there are things from that movie that you’ll see play out. We also expand that mythology, so who those characters are and what their relationships were in the movie, we start playing with. It is a pretty surprisingly deep basis to base a show on, and we add our own mythology and twist it. It’s been fun to build on that foundation.
With a show like this, you want to meet fan expectations, but you also want to keep fans on their toes. How do you balance giving viewers the expected and the unexpected?
MAZZARA: That’s the trick. Fortunately, we have a really talented team of writers who know horror, inside and out. I think it’s pretty clear, looking at that original film, what’s enjoyable about it. It’s grounded, it feels like it’s taking place in our world, and it feels plausible. There’s not a tremendous amount of special effects. That was where we started. We wanted it to really feel like the events of Damien were tied to the same world in The Omen, but given the fact that hopefully it will be a long-running show, you have to keep throwing curve balls at the audience and trying to find different types of horror. That’s why we have a staff that really understands horror, and we have directors that know how to shoot horror. We’ve had to use a much bigger toolbox.
What is the role of horror in this show? Is it the face-of-evil horror, or is it more thriller than horror?
MAZZARA: That’s interesting. I could say that Damien is a psychological thriller, and that’s true. But I could also say that The Omen has a type of very specific horror in it, in which you have these macabre accidents take place. They are very well-designed horror sequences that are thrilling and suspenseful. Richard Donner directed that original film, and that’s something that we use, as well. And then, we have some good old types of horror. One of the things I was careful about was to bring on writers that enjoy horror films, like I do. We’ll get into a sequence and say, “Okay, has this been done in any movie?,” and people would say, “No, we can do it.” Hopefully, horror fans will find a lot of different types of horror throughout the entire series. We keep changing that and expanding what’s possible in this world, but we do start with the type of horror from the original film.
Is Damien the hero of his own story, is he an anti-hero, or will we see him as a villain?
MAZZARA: Yes. I don’t believe, in real life, evil people believe they’re evil and they commit evil acts because they enjoy committing evil acts. Most of the time, people find a way to rationalize what they’re doing. That’s what we call moral complexity. The evil is shown in circumstance and we see the consequences, but there’s no devil with a tail and horns, sitting him down and explaining what’s going on. He’s looking for a rational explanation for events that can’t be explained. At first, he doesn’t believe it, but in his gut, he somehow does believe it, and then has to question why he believes it. That’s where we get a very complex storytelling that will always keep the audience guessing.
Initially, the viewers will be with Damien, rooting for him and hoping that he’ll find some way to escape what’s happening to him. But will we reach a point where we will really question whether we should be rooting for him?
MAZZARA: That’s a good question. I think that if we ever get to a point where we’re questioning if we should be rooting for Damien, that would be a very interesting point. That means that the audience has gone on a journey and suddenly finds themselves in a dangerous situation. I like that idea. My goal is to provide a show that keeps the audience guessing. That’s why I love horror. It’s thrilling and it makes you scream at the TV. I want people to have that type of excitement, where they never know what’s going to come next and they never really know how they’re supposed to feel. We want people to go through a journey with Damien, and then really have to think about what it means for us, as audience members. We don’t want this to be easy. If we have a character that’s supposed to bring about the apocalypse, do we want that character to really succeed?
As hard as it is for Damien to believe he’s the Antichrist, he does find “666″ tattooed on his body, which is harder for him to deny.
MAZZARA: He has, over these past 25 years, developed a life which gives a context. As a war journalist, he’s been able to live in extraordinary circumstances and seen horrible things, and he just attributes it to war and mass suffering. The goal with the show was always to make it feel like The Omen, but it takes place in our world. This is not the kind of show where someone is gonna get some ancient text, read it backwards, and stop something before midnight. We want this show to really feel grounded in today’s world.
Can Damien have friendships and relationships, or is no one around him safe?
MAZZARA: That’s a good question. No one is safe in this world. I’ve made quite of a career out of making sure that no one’s safe. I think he’s lonely. I think he’s tired of running. He’s in extraordinary circumstances and he needs help figuring this out, but it puts everyone at risk. Everyone in his life is always at risk. Who wants that burden? It’s very isolating, and it will make him more desperate.
Is there anyone Damien can rely on as an ally?
MAZZARA: I think all of the characters on the show present themselves as an ally, and it’s up to Damien to pick and choose who he can trust, who he wants to put at risk, who he wants to save and who he can’t save. He has that knowledge, and everybody else just has a little bit of the picture.
What was it about Bradley James that made him the perfect actor to bring Damien to life with all of his complexities?
MAZZARA: That is a great question. We really did look at hundreds of actors, and Bradley sent in a self-tape. He really just stuck out for me and I felt he had something. He was natural and he was charming without being arch. He really felt like he was present in the moment of the scene, and not playing what we think this character should be. He really inhabited that character. It was just remarkable. And he was filming a few episodes of iZombie in Vancouver, so he flew down to meet us and come in and read for the executives, and he just nailed it. He did a great job. Once he got the role, he just threw himself into it and really prepared. He asked really, really sharp questions and found some new layers to the writing. I’m really happy and consider myself very lucky that he decided to take on this role.
What can you say about the people who rotate into and out of Damien’s life this season?
MAZZARA: Developing the material, one of the things that was interesting was that not only is it a process for Damien to learn about his circumstances and what this means, but all the other characters are learning, as well. Omid Abtahi plays Amani, who is a friend that’s out in the field with him as a war photographer, but they haven’t really knows each other that long. He meets Megalyn E.K.’s character, Simone, and he meets Barbara Hershey’s character, Ann Rutledge, within the context. The events of the first episode complicate his life and open up a new world, so he’s meeting all of these characters. And then, there are characters that are involved who go way back, some that he’s been aware of and some that he hasn’t. We took our time. We know that genre fans can like a slow burn. They have their expectations about what the show is, I’m sure, given that it’s based on The Omen, and hopefully we meet those expectations. But then, we take our time. We roll out the story and we roll out the character. By the end of the season, it all comes together and makes sense. It’s been a real pleasure to approach this season in a way I haven’t been able to do on any other TV show. We really did get to make one film in 10 parts. I have not been able to do that before, and I hope I get to do it again.
Obviously, with all of the people dying is tragic or bizarre ways, just by being around Damien, it’s only natural for somebody to start questioning that. Is that why you wanted to bring in a cop and have him questioning what’s going on?
MAZZARA: Yeah. The character of Detective Shay is played by David Meunier, who has just done a wonderful job. That was always a character that we wanted to bring in. Before I hired the staff, when I was thinking about who would be in Damien’s orbit, given the body count, I knew that the police certainly had to be involved. What I am happy about, with the show, is that every character is trying to figure out what’s going on around Damien, and they all have different perspectives. It’s interesting because the audience has all of that information, so hopefully every character’s perspective makes sense and feels true to their character. So, that was really something that emerged, as we started writing. I didn’t expect to enjoy that as much as we did. We were able to bring those different characters to life and make them unique.
How did Barbara Hershey come to this show?
MAZZARA: Barbara has been an absolute dream to work with, and I’m not just saying that. She’s such a professional, and I’ve been a fan of hers, for a long time. We started thinking about the complexity of that character because there’s a mysterious quality, a sexual quality and a motherly quality. Many things need to be played at once. When you think of great character actors, I think of Barbara, so I wrote her a letter, believe it or not, and asked her if she would do this. She was only in one scene in the first episode, so I really had to explain what the role was, and also what my approach is to showrunning and what I wanted the show to be, and she was interested. She also played Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ, so she’s no stranger to complex religious stories. She was interested in something that had a deeper spiritual theme to it, and not just something that was the expected version. So, she really goes over every word that she says and we talk it through. Working with her has been one of the highlights of my career.
The people who know about Damien seem to want to manipulate him for their own gain without him even knowing about it. As he starts to realize that he’s being manipulated, how dangerous will that get?
MAZZARA: You’ll see a lot of that, throughout the season. Damien has a growing awareness of the factors around him. Just as he thinks one thing is true, it turns out that another thing may be true. That’s really the game that’s afoot. He has to try to take control of something that really cannot be controlled by anybody. That’s really the lifeblood of the series.
You have such a great line-up of directors on this show. How did you decide who you wanted to initially set up the look and feel of the aesthetic of it, and how did you decide who you wanted to bring in for the rest of the season?
MAZZARA: Great question. Shekhar Kapur and I met through our agents at CAA. He came in and I just thought it was a general meeting to get to know each other and maybe do something down the road. He had read Damien, which surprised me, and he was really interested. He felt that he had read a character that complex since Elizabeth, the film with Cate Blanchett, and I was honored and surprised to hear that. So, we talked about how he shot Elizabeth, and camera movements and mood, and I felt like he was describing how he would shoot Damien. And it turns out he was. He asked if he could shoot it and I actually said to him, “Why would you do that? You’re a real director? Why would you want to direct one of my scripts?” We just hit it off. He came in and just really established the look of the show. And then, when we went into series, I knew I wanted Ernest Dickerson. I’ve done a number of really complex episodes on The Walking Dead with Ernest, and he and I can sort of read each other’s minds. So, he came in and did a great job. And then, there were a lot of directors I hadn’t worked with before, but I had been fans of their work. We really leaned on the filmmaking, so our first few directors – Ernest Dickerson, Mikael Salomon and Guillermo Navarro – all started as cinematographers, and we really wanted to lay out the look fo the show. And then, Nick Copus joined us as a director-producer. Once Nick came in, he really elevated the show. He understood exactly what I wanted to do. There were some things that I just wasn’t able to execute by myself, and he came in and was just a tremendous partner. He did Episode 6, which is insane, and the finale, which is one of the best episodes of TV that I’ve worked on. We were just lucky to have so many great directors. We also had Jen Lynch and Bronwen Hughes, who did a great job with Episode 4.
You have such a great musical score on this show, as well. Why was that important to you?
MAZZARA: I think we’re really lucky that we have Bear McCreary as the composer. I worked with Bear on The Walking Dead, and I’ve been a fan of his since Battlestar Galactica. His music just adds so much. One of the first calls I made, after I decided to do this, was to Bear because The Omen’s score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is such an iconic score. He won an Oscar for it. So, I called Bear because I know he’s busy and I wanted to give him a heads up that this might be coming together, and he said, “Done! No problem! I’m in!” I think his music has just added so much to the tone and feel of the show that I hope people love his work as much as I do.
With a show like this, do you want viewers to walk away from the season feeling like they have some answers with an idea of what could come next, or do you want to leave them with a cliffhanger that makes them desperate for more?
MAZZARA: Both, actually. One of the things I’ve learned from working on other shows is that, when you’re doing these shorter seasons on cable, your next season might not be on for 10 or 12 months. So, to leave people on a real cliffhanger, it can feel like a cheat. It can frustrate the audience, and you never want to do that. The way we designed this season is that we have certain questions about Damien, and you’ll get those answers. You’ll go on that journey and you’ll get to a point, but then that point needs to serve as a cliffhanger that resets and throws everything up in the air, so that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. But, I’m sure the audience will not feel cheated. They’ll feel satisfied because we are taking this as Book 1 of Damien’s story, so there’s a complete story to be told for this season. Hopefully, if we tell it well, people will want more.
When you bring up questions in the story, do you always know what the answers will ultimately be, or do you sometimes bring up questions that you don’t have the answers for, and then find them along the way?
MAZZARA: That’s why I’m a writer. I constantly pose questions that I have to work out the answers for. I don’t want to ask a question, and then answer it easily. I’m not that smart. If I don’t have the answer, the audience is going to know it before I do. I need to really develop the material and keep asking questions and surprise myself. If I’m surprised then I believe the audience will be, too. That’s something I want, and I think that’s a process. TV is an odd marriage of knowing where you want to go and having a vision for the show, and making it up as you go. You have to be able to respond and say, “Oh, this is really interesting,” or “This character is popping,” or “I didn’t see this relationship developing, but these people have chemistry on screen, so let’s develop that.” You get to make adjustments as you go.
Being a showrunner is an interesting job because it’s such an all-encompassing thing, but if you’re doing it right, it seems easy. What do you remember about the first day you were on set for the first show you were a showrunner on, with everyone looking to you for all the answers?
MAZZARA: The very first time I was a showrunner was on Crash, and I remember waking up at about 5am, excited to go to the set, and I read some emails and I realized that every single thing that could go wrong had gone wrong that day, and I was filled with dread and panic and was immediately thrown into crisis control. I just could not believe that that was my very first day of showrunning. On this show, this is the fourth time that I’m a showrunner, and I was a lot more relaxed. I think it’s because I knew what to expect, but I also had a lot of people that I had selected around me. We had a great team, we had a lot of time to prepare, and we had worked up the first six scripts, so we knew where we were going and we knew what the story was. That was the beauty of Season 1 of Damien. It took so long to do. By the time it aired, I had been working on the show for three years. There was a lot of preparation and a lot of discussions, and we were able to bring in a lot of talented people and everybody had time to get on the same page. That was really special and unique to this particular show.
Damien airs on Monday nights on A&E.