THE EXORCIST

Big-screen hor­ror clas­sic The EXORCIST is head­ing to TV. Joseph McCabe’s head is spin­ning al­ready...

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - The Exorcist is on Fox in the US. UK TBC.

Where will the new TV se­ries based on the film go?

With hor­ror fran­chises hit­ting TV in ever in­creas­ing num­bers, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore some­one adapted the most suc­cess­ful fright film in his­tory, direc­tor Wil­liam Fried­kin’s 1973 mas­ter­piece The Exorcist (based on the novel by Wil­liam Peter Blatty). But while re­cent shows like Bates Mo­tel and Han­ni­bal have won au­di­ences and ac­claim, se­ries like The Omen have been less for­tu­nate. So what does it take to make this tale of de­monic pos­ses­sion and those who bat­tle it a hit? And will TV’s The Exorcist fare bet­ter than the orig­i­nal film’s many se­quels?

“I’ll go to bat for III,” laughs the show’s cre­ator Jeremy Slater. “I think Exorcist III gets a bad rap. That movie’s got some great stuff in it. Is it as good as the orig­i­nal? No, but noth­ing is as good as the orig­i­nal. But yeah, the prob­lem with a lot of the se­quels was that they tried to du­pli­cate the beats of the orig­i­nal film, and that was some­thing we were very con­scious of when we were cre­at­ing this. We can’t re­make the same show that you’ve seen be­fore. The only way you can suc­ceed is by do­ing some­thing new and telling a new story with new char­ac­ters and hop­ing au­di­ences will fall in love and will re­spond to this new story the way au­di­ences did with the orig­i­nal.”

That new story is the tale of An­gela Rance (played by Oscar win­ner Geena Davis), whose daugh­ter has re­cently re­turned home from col­lege, and who has be­gun notic­ing strange things around her home. With a hus­band (Alan Ruck) suf­fer­ing from a trau­matic brain in­jury, An­gela turns to Fa­ther To­mas (Al­fonso Her­rera), a young priest – who in turn seeks the con­sul­ta­tion of Fa­ther Marcus (Ben Daniels), a sea­soned holy man who’s haunted by his own ex­pe­ri­ences with de­monic pos­ses­sion.

“When you look at the orig­i­nal film,” says pro­ducer-direc­tor Ru­pert Wy­att, “as a film­maker, Wil­liam Fried­kin, by way of his back­ground and cer­tainly the films he was mak­ing at that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment in time, they were very much grounded in a re­al­ity. It came from his doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. So he was ap­proach­ing it as an ag­nos­tic. He was ap­proach­ing it as a non­be­liever; or an am­biva­lent one, at least, in terms of the no­tion of evil in­sin­u­at­ing it­self into a sit­u­a­tion. Whether that be a de­monic pres­ence or whether that be a psy­cho­log­i­cal make-up of a per­son. That’s what made it wholly ter­ri­fy­ing – it felt plau­si­ble. The sub­se­quent films per­haps veered more in terms of the style and the genre of hor­ror. I don’t think Fried­kin ever in­tended to do that. So what we tried to do, al­though they’re huge foot­steps to fol­low in, ob­vi­ously, is go back to that ap­proach.”

While The Exorcist’s pi­lot nods to the events of Fried­kin’s film, Slater tells us the show won’t dwell on them as its own story moves for­ward.

“The rea­son we put in the scene where Fa­ther To­mas is do­ing re­search on his com­puter and you see that the Ge­orge­town ex­or­cisms took place 40 years ago was be­cause, as a hor­ror fan, noth­ing in­fu­ri­ates me faster than a re­make that comes along and says, ‘The movie that you love no longer ex­ists. The story that you were in­vested in is get­ting wiped out

of his­tory.’ It was im­por­tant to let ev­ery­one know that this is a con­tin­u­a­tion of an ex­ist­ing story. So that was our lit­tle nod to say, ‘Don’t worry. The events of the movie, the events of the book, still took place. We’re just telling a brand-new story with new char­ac­ters 40 years later.’ Hope­fully in the same tone, hope­fully in the same spirit, hope­fully do­ing jus­tice to the legacy of The Exorcist. But we didn’t want au­di­ences to sit there on the edge of their seat waiting for Fa­ther Mer­rin or Fa­ther Kar­ras to show up. We didn’t want them to think that we were telling the same story in an oblique way.”

SPIN­NING IT OUT

Per­haps the big­gest nar­ra­tive chal­lenge fac­ing Slater was turn­ing a sin­gle case of de­monic pos­ses­sion into a show that could run for mul­ti­ple sea­sons.

“Even in the script­ing phase,” says the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, “we were very con­scious of the fact that you can’t tell an on­go­ing se­ries where ev­ery sea­son, ev­ery year, it’s just an­other Amer­i­can fam­ily un­der­go­ing a pos­ses­sion. You would burn out the au­di­ence re­ally fast. I don’t know how to write that show. I wouldn’t want to watch that show. So it was im­por­tant to start lay­ing in bread crumbs right from the be­gin­ning, start in­tro­duc­ing our Dharma Ini­tia­tive, our bad guys who are out there. There’s lit­tle hints of it in the pi­lot. There’s lit­tle things that don’t quite add up. There’s a priest at St Aquinas with a dou­ble pupil. There’s a sus­pi­cious land­scap­ing truck that you see a few times. And you’re go­ing to find out a lot more about that in up­com­ing episodes.

“But the ba­sic idea is that this time around, evil has grander am­bi­tions than just tar­get­ing one eight-year-old girl in Ge­orge­town. Evil has a plan. It’s ac­tively work­ing to­wards that. And even though the pos­ses­sion of the Rance fam­ily is our way into the show, that’s our en­try point for the au­di­ence, hope­fully, by the time you get a few episodes in, you’ll look at it and you’ll say, ‘Okay, now I can see how this is a show that can run for eight sea­sons. I see that they are building a mythol­ogy that’s large and ex­pan­sive and in­ter­est­ing enough to gen­er­ate story for a long time to come.’”

Though Slater, whose back­ground is in screen­writ­ing, hadn’t pre­vi­ously worked in tele­vi­sion, it’s clear from his Lost ref­er­ence that genre TV in­forms his work on The Exorcist.

“I’m a gi­ant nerd, man,” he laughs. “I grew up on Lost, Bat­tlestar Galac­tica, Break­ing Bad, all my favourite shows go­ing back to The

X-Files. Peo­ple won’t tune in week af­ter week just for scares. You have to tell a story that au­di­ences are not go­ing to see com­ing, and it has to be about char­ac­ters that ei­ther we’ve never seen be­fore or char­ac­ters that we fall in love with. Those are the lessons that I take away from shows like Lost and Bat­tlestar

Galac­tica – you need the propul­sive twists and turns. We have plenty of big plot twists com­ing up this sea­son, but at the end of the day, it’s al­ways go­ing to be a show about a fam­ily in trou­ble and the two priests that are brought in to help them. If the au­di­ence doesn’t care about that, we haven’t done our job.”

Slater admits he’s well aware of the chal­lenge in mak­ing iconic ma­te­rial fresh and fright­en­ing once more…

“There’s been 40 years of in­fe­rior im­i­ta­tions com­ing along to kind of di­lute the source ma­te­rial. Luck­ily, we have a lot of hor­ror fans be­hind the scenes, a lot of peo­ple who are fa­mil­iar with the genre. So we can point out, ‘Yes, that’s been done be­fore.’ The CGI con­tor­tion of bend­ing over back­wards… There’s just im­ages that have been used so much in the pub­lic con­scious­ness that they’ve lost any sort of power to shock that they once had. It’s a bless­ing and a curse be­cause it forces you to be bet­ter writ­ers and bet­ter cre­ators.”

Slater says the show’s bud­get helped his writ­ers ex­er­cise the re­straint nec­es­sary to con­jure ef­fec­tive creepi­ness.

“We are learn­ing a lot about what you can and can’t ac­com­plish on a tele­vi­sion bud­get,” he ex­plains, “and es­pe­cially with the level of qual­ity that you are see­ing in the pi­lot. We re­ally are mak­ing a 43-minute film ev­ery sin­gle week, week af­ter week, and so you have to be very ju­di­cious and very smart about when you use your scares. If you try to make an episode that’s 43 min­utes of wall-to-wall hor­ror, not only will it numb and de­sen­si­tise the au­di­ence, but ev­ery­thing will kind of suf­fer as a re­sult. But if you make a great hour of tele­vi­sion with a grip­ping story and great per­for­mances and then you punc­tu­ate that with one or two big mo­ments of scares or one great scare per act, the au­di­ence knows that the hor­ror is com­ing. They will be pa­tient as long as their pa­tience is even­tu­ally re­warded.”

“So the pres­sure,” says Slater, “is to tell the best story pos­si­ble, not to tell the most shock­ing story pos­si­ble.”

Fa­ther To­mas (Al­fonso Her­rera) is hold­ing a torch for some­thing…

What ter­rors await Casey (Han­nah Ka­sulka) and Kat Rance (Bri­anne Howey)?

Fa­ther Marcus (Ben Daniels) is called to a most un­usual case. An­gela Rance (Geena Davis) discovers things more scary than Beetle­juice.

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