Hannah Kasulka, Brianne Howey, Alan Ruck, Geena Davis, Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels in THE EXORCIST TV Series - Season 1 | ©2016 Fox/Patrick Ecclesine

Hannah Kasulka, Brianne Howey, Alan Ruck, Geena Davis, Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels in THE EXORCIST TV Series – Season 1 | ©2016 Fox/Patrick Ecclesine

Fox Network’s new Friday-night series THE EXORCIST is based on William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel, which was adapted into the hit 1973 feature film. In the TV version, we’re in present-day Chicago, where Angela Rance (Geena Davis) believes one of her daughters may be demonically possessed. Her priest, Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Hereira), finds evidence of the case from forty years ago (covered in the book and the film), and approaches exorcist Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels) for help.

Executive producer Jeremy Slater, writer of THE LAZARUS EFFECT, developed THE EXORCIST for television. He talks about revisiting familiar demons during a sit-down discussion.

ASSIGNMENT X: How did you become involved in the television version of THE EXORCIST?

JEREMY SLATER: The show was first pitched to me by my agents. The producers were looking for someone to basically reboot or remake the original William Peter Blatty’s novel as an ongoing TV show, or as a miniseries, and I initially passed on the project, because I wasn’t interested in trying to tell the same story that had already been done once before, and done perfectly. It felt like a losing assignment, where you were never going to top what had come before. But I told them I would be interested in taking the EXORCIST legacy and telling a brand-new story and brand-new characters that just happens to take place in the same continuity. So we’re not writing the original film out of existence, we’re not pretending it never happened, the way a lot of horror reboots tend to do. We’re saying, “This is a brand-new story that takes place [now, and the original took place] forty years ago, and this is what a case of demonic possession looks like in 2016.”

AX: In the premiere episode, there is a big surprise about the identity of the possessed person. When did that idea come along?

SLATER: That idea was there fairly early on. My initial pitch was much more of a slow burn than the show that you’re probably watching, because for the first several episodes in the original pitch, you weren’t sure which member of the family was actually possessed. Once we realized that we were going to be a network show, and that you really need to hit the ground running, you need to hook audiences early on, you can’t necessarily assume that people will give you four weeks of their time to really develop a show and build an audience, so you have to be really aggressive in terms of telling the most propulsive, most interesting story possible. So those first four episodes got condensed, and the reveal of which member of the family is possessed, which originally took place in the third episode, winds up now being at the end of the pilot. But it was always in the DNA of the show that we were going to try to do a little misdirection in terms of the demons don’t necessarily target the people that you would expect them to go after. They tend to get their hooks in you when you’re not looking, and when your back is turned.

AX: Is the fact that the possessed person turns out not to be the non-religious daughter a bit of a validation of an independent lifestyle? It seems like some exorcism stories are so staunchly pro-Catholic that it suggests all non-Catholics are going to Hell, whereas this show does not …

SLATER: Yeah. I think our goal has always been to tell a story that was nonjudgmental in terms of faith, but also in terms of understanding and empathizing with your characters. So it was important to me that the decision of who was being targeted and who was being possessed, that it didn’t feel misogynistic or like she was being shamed or punished for her behavior. [She] is a good Catholic. She is someone who believes in God. But essentially every human being on the planet, we all have darkness in our hearts to some extent. We all have our weaknesses, we all have our flaws. And the demons are very smart in how they target you, and how they find that crack in your armor, that one weakness, and exploit it. So in the case of the person who’s possessed in the pilot, it’s not that she’s a bad person or was asking for it, but she was a lonely, neglected girl, she was never the one who got all of the attention, and she always craved a bit of the spotlight, she always wanted to be the perfect one. And so something came along one day and whispered in her ears, “Wouldn’t you like the chance to stand in the sun for a little while? Wouldn’t you like to be the perfect one for a change?” And she said, “Yes.” And that’s kind of what started everything.

AX: Your EXORCIST is also multi-national and multi-cultural. Was that your vision for it, was that part of Fox’s vision for it …?

SLATER: Father Marcus was always conceived as a British priest. But the decision to cast Father Tomas as Hispanic came from Fox. They are very aware for the need for more diversity on television, they’ve been a huge proponent of that. All of my roles are always written colorblind. I figure out who the character is first, and then I figure out things like nationalities and ethnicities afterwards.

So when they first pitched the idea of casting a Latin actor for Tomas, it made a lot of sense, because you look at how prevalent Catholicism is in Latin America, and I feel like no horror fan base that’s more passionate than Hispanics. And it makes sense, because faith is such a part of their culture, and such a part of who they are. I think THE EXORCIST is scarier when you believe. People who lock into that movie or that novel, who genuinely believe in demonic possession and that kind of battle between good and evil are much more frightened of the movie than people who are atheists or skeptics, I feel like.

AX: Well, no matter what you think is causing it, it’s still pretty scary when the children start to change …

SLATER: Look, I don’t know how you watch that movie and you’re not scared, but it’s definitely more effective when you have, if not belief, at least a little sense that, “You know what? Some of this seems crazy on the outside, but …” Once you start digging into these stories, these cases of real-life demonic possession, once you start talking to these Catholic priests who have actually been out in the field and have performed some of these ceremonies, it becomes hard to discount some of the stuff they’re saying. You start to realize pretty early on that, “Wow, either this is a giant conspiracy and everyone is in on it, or there might actually be something here.”

AX: Can you and/or will you explore possession in other religions and cultures?

SLATER: I think so. I think one of the things that is fun about the show going forward is, at some point, in order to tell new stories, and in order to avoid having every season just be a retread of what came before, you’re going to have to expand this world. You’re going to have to go to new places. And a large part of the appeal there is saying, “What does demonic possession look like in other faiths? How do other faiths confront this problem? What does an exorcism look like in the Jewish faith, or in voodoo or in the Muslim faith, with the concept of djinns and things like that?” There are way too many similarities between all the different creation myths, between every religion. The same stories show up time and time again, with just certain details changed. And it does feel like possessions and demonic entities are [some] of those constants across every sort of major religion. And that’s absolutely something that I think would be really fun to explore some day.

AX: If THE EXORCIST is renewed for a second season, can this have continuing characters from one season to the next?

SLATER: If we’re lucky enough to get a second season, you will definitely see the continuing adventures of whichever characters have survived by the end. I don’t think I would be suited for doing a sort of Ryan Murphy anthology show, where every year, you’re introducing a brand-new cast of characters, and a brand-new cast of actors. It doesn’t play to my strengths as a storyteller. I’m much more interested in taking characters on a journey and seeing how they change and grow and develop over the course of several years. I think you will be saying goodbye to multiple characters by the end of the first season, because this season has always been designed as a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end. You will get a definitive answer to the case of demonic possession that’s taking place by the end of this first year. But I think our hero priests in particular, Father Tomas and Father Marcus, are probably going to have larger parts to play and larger stories to tell, hopefully outside of this one season.

AX: Given the fact that there’s obviously a big story arc, can the episodes be standalone at all?

SLATER: They can, but they probably won’t. The goal is to make every episode satisfying on its own, where it feels like each episode is telling its own story and having some sort of conclusion or a turn in a character arc. You always want to feel like the story has progressed in some way. But I don’t think you would ever see standalone episodes in THE EXORCIST the way you would in something like FRINGE or THE X-FILES, where at some point, you could take a break and have your priests go off and investigate the mystery of the Jersey Devil. That doesn’t seem right for the DNA, for the pedigree of our show. But there is a balance between telling one long ten-hour serialized story [and] making sure each week that each episode is individually satisfying on its own. And we’re still trying to find that perfect balance.

AX: How big is your writers’ room?

SLATER: We have nine writers, and it’s a pretty phenomenal room. It actually took us a very long time to hire everyone, because we were very particular about who we brought into that room. My goal right from the beginning was to be the least talented writer on the entire staff. I read probably hundreds of scripts that were very good scripts, very competent scripts. But each time, I said, “You know what? I could write this same script if I wanted to. I want the person who’s going to blow my mind, where I say, ‘I couldn’t have done this in a thousand years.’” So there aren’t a lot of television veterans in there, but there are a lot of fresh, exciting voices – there are a lot of New York City playwrights, there are a lot of young and hungry authors, and then there are a couple of television vets who have really exciting backgrounds in genre television on shows like WALKING DEAD and BOARDWALK EMPIRE and things like that.

AX: Is pilot director/executive producer Rupert Wyatt still involved with the show?

SLATER: He is. Rupert has been an incredible collaborative partner throughout this entire process. He obviously did a phenomenal job on the pilot, but he’s also been very involved going forward in helping us find the right directors and hire the right crew. Our director of photography from the pilot, Alex Disenhof, is going to be doing all ten episodes this season to maintain a consistent tone and make sure every episode looks and feels like that pilot.

AX: Are the performances what you envision when you write them, especially in the exorcism scenes?

SLATER: They are, definitely. I think Rupert did a tremendous job. I think everyone involved is learning as quickly as possible what we can and can’t do well on a television budget and a television schedule. You’re essentially making a forty-three-minute feature film every single week, which means you have to be very judicious in how you use your scares, what sort of scares are effective, because there’s a large difference in what’s going to make audiences jump out of their seats in a movie theatre, when you can blast them with music and sound effects and things like that, versus when someone’s watching an episode on their iPad, or on their twenty-seven-inch television at home. So yeah. It’s a constant learning process, and I think we’re already getting better at figuring out, what should an episode of THE EXORCIST feel like, where should our scares come from, how should we try to scare people. Those questions are coming into focus the more we work on the season.

It seems like the things that are most effective in the pilot are tone and mood and atmosphere and finding haunting visuals that will unsettle you and stick with you and hopefully give you nightmares for days to come. There are things that, by the nature of doing a network television show, are just harder to accomplish, things like jump scares, which rely really heavily on sharp blasts of loud music. [They] actually become kind of impossible on television show, because as we found out the hard way, on episodes of TV, the sound levels have to be equalized for every single scene in every single act, so you’re actually legally not allowed to have those massive blasts of sound. Which means things like traditional jump scares become that much harder to pull off. At the end of the day, it’s more of a blessing than a curse, because it just forces the creators to be more creative in finding new ways to scare people, and you can’t rely on the old horror tropes of cats jumping out of closets and people knocking on a door really quickly. You have to become more ambitious.

AX: Are you doing anything else we should know about?

SLATER: I wrote the script for DEATH NOTE, which Netflix is filming in Vancouver, with Adam Wingard directing. I sadly can’t be there on set, because I’m here working on the show, but I can’t wait to see what Adam comes up with. And then I wrote an independent horror movie called PET, which stars Dominic Monaghan and Ksenia Solo that’s currently making the festival rounds.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about THE EXORCIST?

SLATER: I hope people know that this is a show being made by horror fans for horror fans. There’s no one who loves the original film more than me; there’s no one who’s more protective of its legacy. I promise you, this is not a cheap and easy cash-in. This is a labor of love, and I hope people check it out.

This interview was conducted during Fox Networks’ portion of the 2016 summer Television Critics Association press tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

Related: Exclusive Interview with THE EXORCIST TV series director Rupert Wyatt

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Article: Exclusive Interview with THE EXORCIST TV series developer and executive producer Jeremy Slater

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