‘The Exorcist’ Executive Producer on Creating Smart Scares for the Modern TV Viewer, Future Seasons

'The Exorcist' Creator on Smart Scares for Modern TV Viewers
Courtesy Fox

There are terrifying images in the Fox drama “The Exorcist,” but many of the most disquieting developments are a product of its atmosphere. In one recent episode, Angela Rance (Geena Davis) noticed a slimy substance dripping down her kitchen wall as she obsessively cleaned her house in order to distract herself. In another room, two priests were attempting to perform an exorcism on one of her daughters, and while that aspect of the recent episode contained some expected moments (the possessed person used the priests’ pasts against them in order to get inside their heads), the show is often most effective when depicting its characters’ spiritual and emotional unrest. The look on Angela’s face as she observed that physical manifestation of her family’s distress spoke volumes. 

Tonight’s episode of the Fox drama, which features guest star Sharon Gless, will fill in a lot of the blanks about the background of the Rances, and it also supplies a bit more information about the powerful forces that are arrayed against the Chicago family. As Jeremy Slater, the creator and an executive producer of “The Exorcist” explains in an interview, one of the ideas behind the show was to depict the larger ambitions of the evil forces using the family for their own ends, but without losing focus on the individuals at the heart of the case.

As I noted in my review of the pilot, I was surprised by how much I liked the first episode of the Fox drama; it effectively created an eerie atmosphere and intelligently drew upon some of the elements that made the 1973 film a classic. Though not all subsequent episodes have lived up to the promise of the pilot, the show’s admirable dedication to psychological realism and the abilities of its cast (especially Davis, Ben Daniels, and the surprisingly versatile Hannah Kasulka) have kept it on my viewing rotation.

The show’s directors have also ably followed in executive producer/director Rupert Wyatt’s footsteps; there’s one image from the Oct. 21 episode, a moment in which a character escapes into a park at night, that is truly haunting in all the right ways. Even if the narrative occasionally wobbles and relies on exposition a little more than I’d like, “The Exorcist” is undoubtedly one of broadcast TV’s most visually accomplished shows. As the first season heads into the home stretch, I do hope for more momentum on the storytelling front, as well as a bit more specificity for some of the core characters. But one entertaining scene in Friday’s episode, set among a collection of supporting players, made some intriguing progress on the mythology front. 

In any event, Slater’s comments on the goals of the TV series indicate that “The Exorcist’s” brain trust has an admirable set of ambitions. In this interview, Slater talked about the thinking behind the 10 episodes of Season 1 without giving away any major plot points (in case you’re thinking of catching up).

I have to say, I had a lot of trepidation about any kind of venture into “The Exorcist,” not just because it’s a great movie but because a lot of TV reboots and remakes have been sketchy.

I think a lot of horror fans are in the same boat you are, which is, we have been burned enough times and there have been enough cynical cash grabs and terrible reboots and remakes, where they ruin [your relationship with the original] or they write the original film out of existence. When the idea was first broached to me three years ago, of doing “The Exorcist,” of retelling the same story as a miniseries or a remake, my inclination was, “I don’t want to do that and you shouldn’t either. That sounds terrible.”

It wasn’t until I’d hung up the phone with my agent and sat there and thought about it for a while [that a different approach became appealing]. I called him back and said, “You know what, the idea of a remake is suicide. You’re never going to tell this story better, you’re only going to tell it longer. But please get me in the room with the producers, because I would love to tell a brand-new story with new characters that takes place in the same continuity.”

“Fargo” — that show didn’t exist three years ago, but that was the same sort of model that I pitched them. I said, “Let’s do something with the same tone and sensibility of the original film, and if you love the original film, hopefully you’ll find things to love here.” But it was so important to me to have a scene specifically in the pilot where Tomas is doing research and you see a news clipping about the Georgetown exorcism — that was to let fans know, “The story you loved still exists. It wasn’t written out of history.”

I’m more of a sci-fi person than a horror fan, but I do definitely respond to horror that is psychologically and emotionally driven. Is that the idea here?

Yeah. The goal was always to make this a psychological thriller, to make this a character study and then punctuate that with moments of horror. Choose your scare scenes carefully. The reality is that to deliver the level of quality that Rupert Wyatt and [director of photography] Alex Disenhof established in that first episode [is a challenge]. We’re essentially making a 43-minute horror film every week. So to try to make a show where it’s 43 minutes of wall-to-wall horror and cats jumping out of closets and everything shattering and heads spinning and exploding — it would be a fool’s errand. It would be numbing for the audience, and it would give you no reason to tune in on a weekly basis.

You have to love the characters. You have to be hooked into their struggles, and that’s the reason you’re going to tune in. That’s the biggest lesson that I took away from my favorite shows of all time, like “Lost,” like “Battlestar Galactica,” like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” and everything else. That if you’re not invested in the characters and their plights, then all the dynamic scenes and crazy plot twists in the world won’t matter.

Yeah, I see that all too often, where the premise is more important than the people. But if I’m not interested in what happens to these particular people, why would I spend any time on any of it?

Exactly. Who cares? If the sword hanging over your head in the last episode of the season are whether or not the gates of hell are going to be opened and hellfire and demons will rain from the sky and the entire world is going to burn, as an audience member, [if the characters at risk don’t matter,] I don’t care, because those stakes are so nebulous and impersonal.

But if the stakes are, are these two priests going to save this one 18-year-old girl who I’ve hopefully come to love over the last nine hours of TV? Is this child either going to live or die based on the choices made? Then that becomes personal, then I have a stake in it as an audience member. Our biggest lesson is to always keep the horror personal and to never sacrifice the story or the characters in exchange for a cheap and easy scare or a bit of gratuitous gore. That stuff is interchangeable and forgettable. It’s the characters that keep you coming back.

Even so as you get deeper into the season, you are expanding the world of the characters, right? 

I always saw the Rance family possession as our gateway. It’s our entry point into this world. It gives you very clear-cut, very personal stakes. This season is absolutely going to have a definitive beginning, middle, and end. It’s going to tell the entire story of this Rance family possession.

But while we’re doing that, we’re dropping in bread crumbs and building a larger mythology, as we start to introduce our villains, our Dharma Initiative, and say, this time around, evil has ambition. Evil has larger designs than just getting its hooks into one 8-year-old girl in Georgetown. It’s actively working towards a goal.

The idea of doing a serialized show where every single year is just another possession and next season, we’re moving one block down and a different family is having this happen to them — your eyes would glaze over so fast. I don’t know how to write that show and I don’t know who would want to watch that show. In this first year we’re giving the audience something recognizable and relatable, but hopefully by the time a few episodes have gone by, you’ll start to understand how we’re creating an engine that can run for several years.

One of the things that really struck me about this story is that the women are not subsidiary to the male characters. The women are sort of driving a lot of it.

Yeah, that was important to us. If you look at the original film, it’s a perfect movie in a lot of ways, but the treatment of Chris MacNeil [Ellen Burstyn’s character] — she feels like a protagonist for the first half of the movie, and then once the s— hits the fan, she very quickly becomes hysterical, and her only purpose is to kind of stand outside the room and wring her hands while the two men come in and save the day.

The first thing we said when we got Geena Davis on the phone was, we’re not going to do that to you. This is not someone who would pass off the life and safety of her daughter on to someone else. She’s the one taking an active role in investigating this and trying to save her family. When you meet her, she’s holding this family together through sheer force of will. They’ve had so many catastrophes happen in a short amount of time, and she really is the glue and the spine of that family. So to reduce her to a shrinking violet who’s just standing by would be such a disservice to the character, and it would be under-utilizing Geena’s talents.

We’ve got someone who’s bringing these acting chops to play, then why not turn her loose? Why not give her big, meaty scenes to sink her teeth into? That’s been our goal from the beginning with all our characters, to avoid the tropes of “This is the girlfriend” or “This is the love interest” or “This is the femme fatale.”

To me what works best about the “Exorcist” as a story is that it gets at deeper psychological issues that are real — and that are seen through the lens of this possession. Angela fears that her family is falling apart. There’s a real worry about family members growing apart and keeping secrets, and that undercurrent is also part of what made “Stranger Things” effective. Was it hard to get Fox to let you push it into that psychological realm?

It really wasn’t. They’ve been collaborative, supportive partners from the start. They got the show the second I pitched it to them. And it was always pitched as, “This is not a network show. This is not a procedural. We are sneaking a cable show onto network television.”

Because there’s no procedural elements here. We’re telling a single 10-hour story that is just divided up into installments, and you can take it or leave it. They were excited to tell a story with psychological depth that really tackled some of those big, weighty moral grey areas, and some of the issues of faith and spirituality and the nature of good and evil.

You talk about what makes something like “Stranger Things” resonate, and I feel like the appeal and the gift of genre in general is that it really holds up a sort of mirror to the world we’re living in. And I think right now, the world’s a scary place. Every time you turn on the news, there’s something terrible happening or someone terrible saying something. There are a lot of people out there that are understandably frightened by that. Part of the appeal of genre is to say, “You know what, you’re right. There are dark forces at work in the world and maybe that’s the reason the world is a scary place sometimes.” But the flip side of that is saying that there are still good people out there that are still agents of light who are there to push back against the darkness, which is a comforting thought.

You referenced “Fargo,” which changes it up each year — with “The Exorcist,” is the goal to tell a new story each season?

It could be. The goal is not to tell an anthology story, because I don’t think this is “American Horror Story.” The characters who survive this first season and still have story left to tell, you will absolutely see them again going into Season 2. I think our two priests, Marcus and Tomas, are probably going to be the spine of the show going forward. But the idea is to aggressively tell a new story every single season.

That builds layer upon layer?

Right. And hopefully escalating both the scope of the world and the stakes in that world as you go on.

“The Exorcist” airs at 9 p.m. Fridays on Fox.