“The Exorcist” franchise has a long and storied 40-year history of scaring audiences around the world. In 2016 “Fox” is bringing a new installment to the franchise. The new series stars Alfonso Herrera (Sense 8) as Father Thomas Ortega, Ben Daniels (House of Cards) as Father Marcus Keane, and Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis as Angela Rance.
Recently I was able to sit in on an interview with producer Rupert Wyatt. Continue reading to see what he had to say about the new TV series “The Exorcist.”
This isn’t the same story as the original. But is it sort of like a sequel, or is it just in the realm of the original story? Can you talk about that and how it’s similar to the original?
Well, the inspiration, I think, derives from the source novel. Peter Blatty’s novel. What Jeremy, 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 1970’s. So we are forty plus years after those events, but those events existed and occurred within the realms of our mythology. But we are dealing with wholly new characters.
Of course a different location, our film is set in Chicago. The similarities, I guess, are in the sense that demonic possession is something that is an event, and is a sequence of events, that begin to happen within the context of the small family unit, and also the city, 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.
Why did you guys decide that now was the time to do this rather than a year ago or a year from now?
Well, you’d have to ask Fox that question, specifically why they chose to greenlight it, but I would say from my perspective, it’s always interesting to me when the world is in a place socioeconomically or politically where there are, I guess you could say, world events that play into 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. Whereas 10, 15 years ago, that was less the case, we were living in more of a golden era. And I think, inevitably, what happens is entertainment and art form mirrors that.
So, the idea for me and why 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 is predominantly—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 and then on a political level there is aspects of corruption within Chicago. There has 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 start and look to proliferate on a pandemic level, Chicago would be it.
Was there a conscious effort to make “The Exorcist” more scary and creepy than gory and violent?
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 the tone—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, score something that was a bit more psychological. So 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 that, and so it’s finding that balance I guess. But for me as a filmmaker and a storyteller, I was really interested in the characters and where their stories went more so than the splatter effects.
Can you talk at all about the casting?
It was a really—I mean overall, I have to say just the experience of making this pilot was really, 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 you are—it’s different to making a film on a number of levels, and I would say with this, 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 to do with them that they allowed me that.
So casting wise, the brain trust that was us, essentially got together and really looked to find really interesting character actors like Alan Ruck, who’s wonderful and an amazing actor; and 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. I just loved him for—we wanted an older man, but at the same time a man that 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, I’d seen on Sense8, and really loved him, and we thought—we wanted to find an actor that represented—and the character was written somewhat in this way—but represented 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 40, 50 years ago they were Polish or Irish, they’re now predominantly Mexican or Latino in general, and so we decided that would be the best face for the modern Catholic Church. So, Alfonso was it. And then Geena needs no introduction. So, she was just—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.
It was a really great pilot, and I especially loved the ending when the music came in…
Thanks, we didn’t intend to put that in actually. When we started, we thought, well 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 gage my initial gut, I wonder if we’ve earned it, I wonder if it works here, and it just played brilliantly, in the final moments it seemed to work. It seemed to work for the purpose of our story, as much as 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 former actors and actresses from the original movies?
I don’t know. I mean Jeremy—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 we would be looking to—whilst we are following on from the events of the original film, but we are 40-some years later. So, yes, I think it’s a tough question to answer because it was never something that we discussed, to be honest.
What do you feel has been your greatest challenge bringing the world of The Exorcist from the big screen to the small screen?
Well, I never saw it as a small screen. I kind of think the best stories these days are told on television, and they’re incredibly ambitious for all good reasons and 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.
And 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. So I approached and shot this as if I was making a feature. And the same narrative tropes as I would, if I were making a theatrical feature, were played into this as well. So 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 these days.
You are also a writer and a director, so how was the topic of working on this in terms of collaboration? Did you bring in new writing as well? How was the writer’s room for a show like this in which people have preconceived notions of? How was that in terms of the writing process and working with the writers for you?
I never saw this as a reboot; I never approached it as a reboot. I came onto it—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 sort of desires to the one that one likes the best and 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. So 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 to it. Maybe I’m naive, but I never really once considered or wanted to consider the notion of anyone’s preconceived notions of The Exorcist as an intellectual prophecy. It was not—that didn’t interest me very much.
Working on a project on demonic possession or something, does that impact you in any way, your impression of—what’s your faith system about the supernatural and has working on this project influenced it in any way?
That’s interesting. I mean, 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 sort of look upon any supernatural world as something that was entirely unexplainable. So I came at it from that approach and 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 it 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 does, it sort of possesses you in a very particular way, which is 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, because 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, and his Seminarians in their gear were coming down the hall, and there was a full-on hero shot. And in this case, you’ve got guys who are fighting ultimate evil. So in a way, they’re sort of the superheroes of these movies. So, 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.
Yes, 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 they would be—and this is 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 it’s more to do with the idea that they don’t want to be hounded by people whose family member might be schizophrenic, or they might be dealing with people with alcoholic or drug problems that aren’t, in fact, in their eyes possessed but actually are more mentally ill or physically ill. And so they’re very, very fascinating people, the priests that do this job, and they are very much, 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.
What are the two different approaches with how they cope with what they’re facing?
So, yes. Tomas is drawn into the world and Marcus who’s actually already very much a part of it, and 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. So, whereas 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 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 that 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, would see as catnip. He’s a very attractive human to try and draw into one’s web and 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.
Why do you think people are so fascinated with The Exorcist story?
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, is 2016, and what I think 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 the early years of 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.
Earlier, you talked about the cinematic quality and the treatment that you gave the pilot. Was that very important to do, 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. I mean, I wanted to—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—I didn’t want any varnished 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 and so Chicago in February was perfect for that.
Carrying on in that thread, in the cinematic thread and the—any influences or artistic influences. The image of Father Merrin in the original Exorcist was inspired—where he’s standing in the beam of light, was inspired by a Greek painting. Have you drawn inspiration for your first episode from any artistic or cinematic influences?
I mean, yes, many. To be specific, I’m trying to think where we—I mean we looked at a lot of films, specifically shot in Chicago in the winter, Road to Perdition. We looked to The Wire, interestingly, for the notion of the inner cities and 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, this name escapes me, but 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…yes.
The 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 the church.
Is there one character in particular that you as a storyteller have really latched onto and you hope that audiences also find this character really fascinating?
Yes, the exorcist himself, 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.
These kind of possession series show, 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 particular 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 an exorcism of the week; it was not that whatsoever.
It was much more of a slow-burn build of the idea where if—and I don’t know if you know much about this, I didn’t actually and just—I mean I’m not Catholic. The 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.
So, Judeo-Christian lore, like a film like The Omen, for example. That deals with Satan. What I thought was fascinating as a result of that is 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 the 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 and what is going on in the world to start to essentially expand from a ground zero.
Chicago was our choice, with apologies, but it was the idea that we would start there. If you consider a show like The Walking Dead and the pandemic that has become The Walking Dead itself, consider that, but on a possession level. So my thinking is, and you can write this on my behalf, 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. 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—I’m not 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 this vast favela.
Yes, we shot in this vast favela in the suburbs of Mexico City and there’s a lot of challenges, both 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 just very, very steep climbs and long drops and things like that because we found this great house that worked perfectly for the building of the possessed child.
So, that was great. 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. I know that doesn’t really answer your question.
You can watch “The Exorcist” on Friday nights at 9 pm eastern, 8 pm central on Fox.