The Fox series The Exorcist, with a pilot directed by Rupert Wyatt, is a psychological thriller that follows two very different priests – Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) and Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels) – tackling one family’s case of demonic possession. Caught in the middle of the two priests is the Rance family, who seem like a normal American family, until the mother, Angela (Geena Davis), believes there to be an evil demonic presence in the house with her husband (Alan Ruck) and their two daughters (Brianne Howey and Hannah Kasulka).
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, show creator/writer/executive producer Jeremy Slater talked about what sold him on the idea of taking on The Exorcist, why he didn’t want to just do a remake or reboot, balancing giving viewers the expected and the unexpected, getting Geena Davis involved, director Rupert Wyatt’s vision for the series, figuring out how to represent demonic possession, and his future plans for the story’s mythology. He also talked about the pilot adaptation he wrote for The Umbrella Academy comic books and why it makes a better TV series than movie, and having to depart Netflix’s Death Note.
Collider: How did this come about, and what was it that got you passed the point of going, “This is crazy! We should never do The Exorcist!”?
JEREMY SLATER: That was absolutely my first reaction. I don’t want to remake The Exorcist, and no one else should either. That’s a fool’s task. From the very beginning, the rights holders were going down the path of, “How do we turn William Peter Blatty’s novel into a 10-hour mini-series, or an ongoing series?” The goal was very much to remake that story, and I thought that was just a fool’s errand. You’re never going to tell that particular story better than William Friedkin or William Blatty did. You’re just going to tell a longer inferior version of what really is a perfect film. So, I came back to them and said, “Guys, this is a mistake, but I think there’s something here. I think there’s a show. If you can get passed this idea of doing a remake or a reboot, we can do a brand new story with a brand new cast of characters that just happens to take place in the same cinematic universe of the original.
I wanted to do something closer in tone to the TV show Fargo, even though Fargo didn’t exist then ‘cause this was about four years ago. So, there’s a moment in the pilot where you actually see the main character doing research on his computer, and it pulls up a news story about the Georgetown exorcisms. That was just my little tip of the hat to let the fans know, “The story you love still exists. Nothing is being written out of existence. We’re not taking that story away from you. We’re just telling a story that happens to take place 40 years later and answers the question of, what does demonic possession and the practice of exorcism look like in 2016?” So, once everybody was on board with that idea and everyone started getting really excited, we really saw the potential of taking such an iconic brand and creating something rich and powerful and scary that hopefully does some small justice to the legacy of The Exorcist, as opposed to trying to just cash in with a cheap knock-off. We really are trying to build on the foundation of what came before and create something that hopefully brand new fans will love, and that fans of The Exorcist will see that this is a show that’s being made by fans and for fans.
Even though you are making something that’s different, how much pressure comes with taking on The Exorcist, and what aspects was that pressure most related to?
SLATER: The largest pressure for me is just the pressure I put on myself to not screw this up. I’ve been involved with productions before, with brands and IPs that have been very beloved by fans, that haven’t necessarily turned out so well. Certain superhero movies come to mind. And that’s frustrating. The only thing I can say is the difference here is that, when you’re the screenwriter on a $200 million movie, you’re a very small cog on a very big machine. You’re disposable, and the second your work is done, you’re shoved out the door and 20 more guys trample into the room after you. It really is a writing conveyor belt, and in a process like that, it’s impossible to have any ownership or creative control. No matter how much you may want to do justice to this property that you love and no matter how much you’re trying to make something for the fans, it’s really out of your hands.
On a show like this, being an executive producer and having an incredible partner in the showrunner, Rolin Jones, who’s been so supportive and such a mentor for me, we really have been able to exercise a huge amount of control and make sure that every aspect of this show, from the writing to the look to the performances to the music, is filtered through us. It really is our shared vision, and that makes all the difference, in order to be able to have a product, at the end of the day, that you’re actually proud to put your name on, proud to show people, and excited to show people. I’m losing my mind with impatience for people to see this thing.
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?
SLATER: That’s a really good question because it’s probably the single biggest challenge we face in the writers’ room. When you tell someone, “Here’s a show based on The Exorcist,” they think they know what that is and they think they know what that show looks like. They think it will be five episodes of spooky things happening in a house, and two or three episodes of crazy shit flying around, and then the last two episodes will be a couple of priests sprinkling holy water on a girl’s face and shouting, “The power of Christ compels you.” People think they know where we’re going, so it’s our job to be surprising. So, I think we’re going to be telling a story at a relentless speed that no one is expecting. We have a lot of story to get through in these first 10 hours, and we have a surprisingly large and complex mythology for our bad guys.
I’m really trying to build something that harkens back to shows like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and all of my favorite shows that have these compelling mythologies that keep you up at night, arguing with your friends. All of those things working together is hopefully going to surprise people. This show definitely starts small. It starts very focused on the case of this one American family that’s beset by supernatural forces and the two priests that are brought in to help them. But as the season progresses, you’re going to see that we’re expanding our scope quite a bit. By the time you get to the end of the season, hopefully you’ll know exactly what the show, The Exorcist, is.
How do you decide when to make references to the original movie? We hear “Tubular Bells” in the pilot. Did you want to do that right away, so that you could move past and beyond that, or will there be other references, down the road?
SLATER: When you say The Exorcist, audiences have expectations. There are a handful of iconic moments from the original film – the head spin, the pea soup and “Tubular Bells.” There are a couple of moments that everyone is expecting to be in the show, and my goal is to get them out, as soon as possible, but to do it in surprising ways, where we’re not necessarily just copying what the film did, beat for beat. We want to put our own spin on it. We also want to get them out, so that our show can stand on its own two legs and being its own unique animal, as soon as possible, so that audiences aren’t just waiting around for the next episode, for the next reference or homage. I want to find new ways to scare people, rather than just repeating what’s come before.
Aside from just The Exorcist title being something that will attract people, you have Geena Davis on this show, which is a big appeal for people. How did she come to this and what did it add to the project to bring her on?
SLATER: Geena Davis is a bad-ass. She’s amazing! She’s one of my favorite human beings on the planet. When we were casting this, we knew that we wanted Farther Marcus and Father Tomas to be discoveries. We didn’t want them to be faces you had seen on your television, on 50 failed pilots or 20 other TV shows. We didn’t want people who bring all that baggage. We wanted guys that could be Father Marcus and Father Tomas, and that’s what we found with Ben [Daniels] and Alfonso [Herrera]. I think audiences are really going to fall in love with those guys. At the same time, the studio did need a marketable face that America is familiar with.
The role of Angela Rance was the place where we could get a big star, so they gave us their list of giant movie stars and we saw Geena Davis on there, and then the conversation was over. I said, “We need to get her. There’s no one better. No one is more fun. No one is more beloved by horror audiences.” So, we called her up and pitched the entire season-long arc of where her character is going and all the fun stuff she’s gonna get to do, and she was game. She was excited by the challenge. She loves horror and she loves horror fans. Just as a fan myself, it’s so exciting and gratifying to see her make a return to this genre that she’s so damn good at.
With a show like this, it’s so important to set up the tone and feel, right from the beginning. What was it about Rupert Wyatt’s vision for the show that lined up with what you were looking for?
SLATER: Rupert has been an amazing collaborator, every step of the way. He is the third partner of our little triangle. He’s endlessly inventive and endlessly supportive. We knew that we wanted a filmmaker and storyteller. We didn’t want a TV director. We wanted this to look like a piece of cinema, and we wanted it to have a tone, a texture and a feel that harkens back to that original film, as opposed to feeling like a glossy product that you see dumped onto your average Friday night. We knew we needed a real filmmaker to do that, and Rupert was, by far, the most exciting choice on the list. We went after him, and he had the same hesitations I did, initially. He thought we were remaking The Exorcist, and we had to convince him that this is something new and special and that it’s our chance to put our stamp on one of the most definitive horror stories of the last hundred years. He really rose to the challenge and he brought on cinematographer Alex Disenhof, who is the D.P. for all 10 episodes this season to maintain that look, that feel and that texture. Rupert and Alex together are really what gave this show the visual identity that it has.
How did you decide on the way you wanted to represent demonic possession?
SLATER: That’s a good question, and that’s something we’re still figuring out, on an episode by episode basis. It’s one of the problems of telling a story like this. You can’t necessarily have someone go from zero to sixty, over the space of a single episode, because then you’re stuck with someone who’s tied to a bed and vomiting pea soup for the remainder of the year. It really has been a balancing act of how to make the progression scary and to treat it in almost a clinical way, like a disease or an infection that’s creeping into the family’s life and corrupting everything around it. We want to leave the audience rattled and unsettled. That’s been one of those challenges that we’re still trying to figure out, but I think we’re coming really damn close to cracking it. I think we’re doing some stuff in the season that exorcism fans have hopefully never seen before.
What are your bigger plans for the series? How far ahead have you thought about things?
SLATER: I definitely come from that school of filmmaking where, if you’ve got six great ideas, you put them in the first six acts of your episode. You don’t save them for the first six seasons. You throw everything you’ve got at the wall, and then you put that pressure on yourself to come up with something that tops it later, down the road, as opposed to trying to parcel out your good ideas and stringing the audience along. So, I have general rough ideas. I know which characters will be surviving this season and continuing on. This was never designed as an anthology show. This isn’t American Horror Story, where every year, you’ll get a brand new cast of characters. This will be a continuing story, where we’re following our surviving characters into the future. I’ve got some ideas of where they go, for sure, but I also have a really talented writers’ room. It’s nice to have a lot of smart brains plotting out that road map, instead of just my stupid little brain. I lean on them pretty heavily.
You recently worked on The Umbrella Academy for Universal Cable Productions. Are you still doing that and The Exorcist, or would that have to be further down the road?
SLATER: Everything depends on whether or not America likes The Exorcist. I definitely wrote the pilot for The Umbrella Academy. I think it’s really exciting. I think it’s really surprising and funny. I took the job because I’m such an immense fan of what Gerard [Way] and Gabriel [Ba] did with that book. It’s one of those things where I would rather be the guy to screw it up than sit back and let someone else come in and do the bad adaptation. So, I was really adamant about taking the job, but the only way I was going to do it was if I could make it weird and make it true to the spirit of the book. There’s a lot of weird shit in The Umbrella Academy, and it would be very easy to sand down some of those weird edges and make it more familiar to American audiences. I’m fighting very hard to not let that happen. We’re shopping around the pilot, at the moment. We’re trying to find the right home for it and trying to find someone as excited as we are. I would love to be involved in that project, in the future, if possible, but right now, The Exorcist is taking up 20 hours of my life, every single day.
They’ve tried to make The Umbrella Academy as a film before and, for whatever reason, that didn’t work out. Why do you think it’s better suited for a TV series?
SLATER: I think the relationships and the dynamics are so rich in that book that, if you tried to distill it down to 90 minutes, everyone gets reduced to a cartoon and a caricature. It really is The Royal Tenenbaums with superpowers. In order to do justice to that premise, you need time to unpack those characters, and dig into what makes them tick and the different relationships that they have with each other. There is so much fertile material there to tell really interesting, really funny, really unique stories that to compress it all into an hour and a half and throw in a bunch of giant action sequences, you’re going to wind up with some total mish-mash. It’s going to be Mystery Men. It’s going to be yet another wacky comedic superhero movie that no one really wants to see. It has its own unique DNA, and I think people should respect that DNA, or they should not do the project.
At Comic-Con, you said that you had to end your involvement with Death Note because of The Exorcist. Do you know if they’re using the work that you did on that, or did they have to move forward with that, with another writer?
SLATER: They brought on another writer, Kyle Killen, who is incredibly talented. I know he did the final production rewrites on my script. There’s an entire arbitration process on who wrote what, but I think they used quite a bit of my script, as a jumping off point. I think it’s going to be really special, not only because Adam Wingard is such a fabulously talented director, but I think we really found a cool, fun approach to Death Note where we narrowed in on what it is. It’s the movie Heat, except with teenagers, and one of those teenagers has superpowers. It’s much darker, much funnier, and much more exciting than I think people are anticipating. We’re also trying really hard to stay true to that great moral complexity of the source material.
The Exorcist airs on Friday nights on Fox.