‘Outcast’: Robert Kirkman Discusses Trading Zombies for Demons in New Cinemax Thriller

outcast cinemax premiere robert kirkman adam
Courtesy of Cinemax

The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman is already responsible for making a show about zombies one of the most popular series on television, and now he’s turning his attention to another facet of the horror genre: demonic possession.

In addition to his continuing work on the “Walking Dead” comics — and executive producing the series and its spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead” — Kirkman has also created “Outcast,” which centers around Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit), a young man who has been plagued by possession since he was a child. The Cinemax series, produced by Fox International Studios, was developed concurrently with Kirkman’s comic book iteration of the tale, unlike “The Walking Dead,” which got a head start in print long before AMC adapted it for the small screen.

Ahead of the show’s premiere, Variety sat down with Kirkman, Fugit, executive producer Chris Black and pilot director Adam Wingard (“The Guest,” “You’re Next”) to discuss the genesis of “Outcast” and the process of adapting it for screen.

Robert, how did the show initially come about?

Kirkman: It was a very unique process. Sharon Tal Yguado who runs Fox International, they handle the international side of “Walking Dead” and they’re handling the international side of this show and doing a very big global launch, just like “Walking Dead,” so it’s going to be a great big deal — we’re all very excited about that. But we were at a press event in between “Walking Dead” Season 1 and Season 2 and she just kind of asked me casually like, “Oh, this ‘Walking Dead’ thing’s going really great. Are you working on anything else?” And I kind of felt like I was at a comic book convention talking to another comic book writer and oftentimes you’ll just go, “Oh, I’m going to do this project,” and then they’re, “Oh, yeah. Well, I’m going to do this project.”

And so I kind of went into this whole, “Well, I do have this idea for this exorcism show,” and told her the story of Kyle Barnes, and I had a lot of it worked out, but it was just kind of a casual like, “Oh, it’s going to be like this and this and this and I’m going to explore this kind of thing. This is going to be a lot of fun,” and I was just telling her about this other thing I was doing, and when I got done talking she said, “Well, I want to do that with you.” And I was like, “What? Huh? What’s going on?” And then the next week my managers and agents started calling me, and it’s like “oh…”

Wingard: You realized the autograph you signed for her was actually a contract?

Kirkman: Yeah, yeah. I had no idea. [Laughs.] But no, like the next week we were in contract negotiations on this thing that I had just casually mentioned, and so I was like, “Oh, crap. I really need to write this comic now.” And so through that, it led to this process of writing the comic and writing the show pretty much concurrently and that was a pretty unique experience.

I think you’ve previously said that this was one of the first concepts you’ve come up with where you had an ending in mind?

Kirkman: Yeah, it’s the first time, comic book-wise, that I’ve ever seen pretty much a complete picture of where I want to go, so it’s much more a process of making sure I hit the right notes and reach the right benchmarks on the way to the endgame — the endgame which is variable and could be further away or closer depending on what we end up doing along the way. But I do know what is on the road ahead of us, which is pretty exciting, and I think is probably the way you’re supposed to do it, but it’s a new experience for me.

“Walking Dead” as a series has made significant deviations from the comics over the years — despite writing them simultaneously, are you trying to stick to that model with “Outcast” to keep the fans guessing?

Kirkman: Yeah, we never want to be in a situation where people can just go, “I want to find out what happens next week. Let me go buy this comic,” although we want everyone to go buy the comic! But Chris and his team were all working together to expand what we had.

Black: If you have a Robert Kirkman property, if you have a Robert Kirkman comic book and something that’s his singular vision in a world that he’s created, you’re an idiot not to want to follow that. That said, Robert is very aware — and he’s been very collaborative in developing the show — that a comic book and a TV show are very different things and they are going to evolve differently. They’re going to be different kinds of storytelling and at a very basic level there simply isn’t usually enough narrative storyline in a single issue of a comic to generate an hour of television. So it just naturally grows and expands and I think that allows you to both maintain the integrity of the comic book narrative but keep adding and weaving additional new material into it that will be surprising even to readers of the comics — stuff that they’re not going to see coming because it was created wholly for the show, but still grew out of the vision and the characters and the foundation of what the comics are.

Why did Adam feel like the best choice to helm the pilot?

Kirkman: We wanted somebody that would bring a sense of style to it, that would have a voice, that would do something unique, that knew the horror aspects of it, but could also do the more dramatic things. We didn’t want somebody that was just a straight horror [director], and watching “The Guest,” we were like “okay, this guy definitely has a lot of range and can bring a lot of different things to a project,” and that was really what we needed.

Black: In “The Guest” there was a sense of great respect and enthusiasm and affection for the genre, for classic horror. There was a slight slyness to it that it didn’t take itself so seriously. There was a lot of stuff that we knew we wanted — a filmmaker who would recognize and embrace it in this project as well.

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TV Review: ‘Outcast’

In terms of conceptualizing the aesthetic of the show, Adam, did you have fairly free rein with that, or was it more collaborative?

Wingard: Right when I got hired, I sat down with Chris and Robert immediately and I just wanted to pick their brains about “what are the rules of this world,” because as a director, it’s really exciting for me to approach different sub-genres and put my own stamp on it, and what I like is that Robert had set out a very clear, unique mythology that I wanted to follow.

But in terms of the look and feel, that was one of my first questions, too, “how close do you want this to look like the comic,” and things of that nature, and it was really important, especially for me, that it wasn’t about like getting the lighting of the comic down. Because the comic book is much more colorful in a lot of ways than the show is; I wanted to ground it in a little bit more of a reality in terms of that lighting. But from a production design standpoint, from a character standpoint, from a costume standpoint, it was really important that those are the elements that we focus in on and try to get as close as possible.

And sometimes there’s deviations that are kind of unexpected, like for instance with Phil Glenister who plays Reverend Anderson; he’s one of the characters that looks almost the closest to the comic book. He’s got the same kind of look and the hair… he looks spot on to the way the comic is. So we were able to get the same costume and everything. But then we found that whenever you’re putting that in reality, one thing would be weird. If you took the same glasses — which, we found the same type of glasses that were in the comic book, and we put them on Phil, he just looked like a sleazy Jeffrey Dahmer type, you know what I mean? [Laughs.]

So it was like okay, the glasses have to be slightly different but then everything else is the same. I think with Patrick, we took quite a different approach from a costume standpoint, but we tried to keep certain aspects to it — it’s very iconic, the way the character always has a hood on and stuff like that, so we tried to find elements that fit. So it was back and forth on a lot of different things. It was always trying to respond to the reality of the situation.

Black: And one of the things that you did in working with Dave Tattersall, who’s the Director of Photography, compositionally, it felt like a lot of times you guys looked at the comic books, like the frames, like the shots of the farm house and stuff like that, and there was a sense of the tableau. It was very painterly, in a way.

Wingard: Yeah, absolutely. The show’s set in West Virginia but we shot in South Carolina, but it was very important that we find the right landscapes that would fit that area, the right type of houses, the siding and everything, and the comic book has a great, gritty, dirty real-world kind of feel to it, so those were the things that we really focused on, because ultimately I felt like the horror elements were going to work better if we ground everything in a believable reality, so that whenever the more fantastical things start happening with possessions and things of that nature, that you believe it and you believe the characters are in that situation.

Any show that’s based on an existing property comes with its own set of expectations, so what was the audition process like, from both sides?

Kirkman: Well, the audition process was pretty difficult, just because when you looked at the pilot itself, there was a picture of Kyle Barnes that you would get, but we weren’t necessarily looking for someone who could just portray that picture, because in the series Kyle Barnes goes into a lot of different areas and grows as a character and expands in a lot of different ways. And we were finding that actors were coming in and just speaking to what we had in the pilot and there was a darkness to that character — because the pilot is a very dark story — that was really kind of overbearing and was not at all what we were looking for.

And it wasn’t until Patrick came in where he was able to show the light of this character and really give you a sense that this is someone you’d actually want to go on a journey with. From the first minute of the audition, we were like, “oh, okay.” I’ll admit that through the audition process we were kind of worried, I was like, “What have I done, have I written a character that no one’s going to like, what’s going on? This is not working, it’s a disaster. Oh, my God, I don’t know what happened.”

Black: People were bringing such pain and hostility and anger to the part that we were watching the scenes being played — [with] good actors, really talented actors — but we were like, “This just doesn’t feel right. This isn’t who we want this character to be. This isn’t who we’re going to go on this journey with in this series,” and then he walked in and we were like “oh, yeah, there it is.”

Fugit: It was weird because the whole time I was doing the monologue, Robert was just sitting there going, “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.” So I just kept changing what I was doing until he stopped saying that, and then I got the part. [Laughs.] When I read it, obviously anything that’s too downtrodden or too obnoxious or any specific flavor, too much of it is not very interesting and so whenever I look at something, I try to find what I can contribute in terms of being natural, being believable, and also being watchable. If you’re telling a story about characters, they should be watchable even if they’re scumbags, and so I tried to find a duality with Kyle … Something that I find interesting is when a character outwardly appears as one thing but is something else inside and maybe can’t express it or won’t express it or is holding back in some way. I find that archetype compelling, and so I tried to basically think of what I could bring to that and contribute the ideas that I had, and fortunately they went for it.

Kirkman: Boy, did we!

Were you tempted to go back to the comics and draw from them, or did you try to just stick to what was on the page?

Fugit: Part of the initial read on the character involved reading however many issues were out at the time. There were only like five out at the time, and that was before the audition, and that communicated some things in terms of physicality and tone, like overall tone and character tone, but really the writing was self explanatory. It was good enough and deep enough on its own that it communicated what it was that it wanted to be, and at a certain point I read a few after, I think I’m on issue eight or something like that… I got to a certain point where I would read the script and then I would read the issues that were coming out and there was so much more happening in the script that that’s what was communicating what I needed to be doing.

And there’s a limitation with the amount of pages you have and the format of the comic; you express as much as you can in that time, but then you change templates and you have more opportunities and a lot more space to let the characters live and breathe and develop. And at a certain point I also just didn’t want to spoil the writing of the show. I would read the episodes and sort of experience them as the audience, which is also an important step, because if I knew what was going to happen in the episodes, I probably wouldn’t respond the same way and that might change what I’m doing. So it is kind of important to get the audience’s perspective of what’s going on in the episode and then figure out how to express it.

“Preacher” also deals with themes of possession, and Fox has an adaptation of “The Exorcist” in the works. What do you think “Outcast” adds to the genre or does differently?

Kirkman: I feel like one, there’s plenty of room in the genre just like there’s plenty of room in the zombie genre. I think when you compare “Walking Dead” to something like “iZombie,” it’s like are they both zombie shows, they both tell completely different kinds of stories, and I feel like [“The Exorcist”] will be the same situation. I think that “Outcast” is an exorcism story, it deals with demonic possession, but I think that it’s got its own mythology; it’s got its own different kind of angles that it takes into that story matter, and is definitely going to be telling much different stories than you would expect us to tell, so I think there’s room for all this stuff.

“Outcast” Season 1, Episode 1 premieres Friday, June 3 at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.

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