‘Damien’ – Glen Mazzara Interview on Following ‘The Omen’ and Casting Bradley James

Damien Cast with Bradley James
The cast of A&E’s ‘Damien’ (Photo by Art Streiber Copyright 2016)

A&E will premiere the new horror series Damien, created, written, and executive produced by Glen Mazzara, on March 7, 2016. The series is a sequel to the successful 1976 feature film, The Omen, and stars Bradley James as Damien Thorn (the son of the Devil). Mazzara’s no stranger to the horror genre having worked on The Walking Dead as a writer and executive producer, and with Damien he promises to deliver another character-driven drama audiences will be able to sink their teeth into.

During a conference call in support of season one’s premiere, Mazzara discussed how Damien ties into the 1976 The Omen, why Bradley James was the right guy to play the Anti-Christ, and creating a character who’s not 100% evil.

Glen Mazzara Interview:

What was it like to be able to bring in Scott Wilson, who you worked with on The Walking Dead, as a cast member on Damien? Will you bring in other actors you’ve previously worked with?

Glen Mazzara: “Scott and I loved working together on The Walking Dead, and I just think he’s just a huge talent. One of the best nights of my career I think was just talking to him late one night while we were filming the barn-burning scene. We had Norman [Reedus] riding around on his motorcycle shooting zombies, and I was trading Dennis Hopper stories with Scott off to the side. He’s become a great friend. I wanted him to be part of this, and I wanted him to be a power broker. He was on Walking Dead and we were talking one time and he said, ‘I’m going to be killed off the show. They just killed me off the show.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that but that’s great news because now I can have you on Damien.’ He said great and we created that character of John Lyons and brought him right in. That role was created specifically for Scott.

As far as bringing other people over, I’d be very interested in that. I had a great experience working with tremendous actors on The Walking Dead, on The Shield, Crash… I’ve been very, very lucky to work with a lot of talented people. So, it’s a matter of really finding the role and writing something that’s fun and interesting for some of these actors. I like to do that. I like to have somebody in mind and then create a role for them that I know they can just chew up. So I am interested in bringing in people that I’ve worked with. I like doing that.”

How much do you plan to introduce the supernatural elements like demons in the series?

Glen Mazzara: “Part of what I really wanted to do was to stick close to the iconography of the original film. There were no images of demons or angels in that 1976 Donner film. It’s all a sense of evil and a very threatening tone throughout the entire film. That’s tough to do on a weekly basis and it’s really the challenge that we set for ourselves. Once in a while we may throw in something in, we may throw some image in to keep the audience on their toes, but it’s really my intention to keep the show as grounded as possible, to try and stay away from special effects. I think that can kind of break the sense of reality.”

What was it about the Damien story that made you want to do a TV series? What is it about the story that makes it work as a television show?

Glen Mazzara: “I think there’s an entire journey for Damien to take. I really wanted to ground this character in his humanity and to do that, I deliberately had to ignore the two sequel films. There were actually three – one was like an attempt at a pilot – Damien: The Omen Part II and The Omen III: The Final Conflict, we’re ignoring those. So we’re just relying on the 1976 David Seltzer/Richard Donner film. In that film, you’re not really sure what’s going on with the little boy until the end when you’re aware that he’s got this nature within him. He seems to know what’s going on. So I wanted to have that that there’s something within Damien that he knows that this is his cross to bear, if you will. Maybe pun intended, I’m not sure. But, I really wanted to see a guy who is fully human and really wrestling with this. It was that idea that made me feel like this could go multiple seasons, and I do have a plan to bring him on an entire journey. I felt if we just had a guy, a man who knew he was evil and was just all power and following a very obvious path, I thought the audience would get bored with that. I thought it would just be a matter of him eliminating threats. I knew what that show was. The idea of a guy fighting against his destiny and going kicking and screaming into hell is really interesting to me. I’m not sure as a viewer, hopefully, where that’s going to go or how that’s going to be done. It will give you something to both root for and root against. It was really finding the humanity in the character that made me feel like the it would work.”

Bradley James in Damien
Bradley James stars in ‘Damien’ (Photo by Art Streiber)

Can you talk about the challenges you face trying to balance Damien’s humanity and the need for an audience to root for him as opposed to making him completely evil?

Glen Mazzara: “Well, the challenge is that you have to service both masters. I would say that he has evil in him. We all do. We all have the capacity for evil in us. Part of his religious search is how does he use the morality he has in trying times. How does that morality change? There are a lot of people who commit evil acts who are convinced they are 100% good. That’s interesting to me to examine that. I think part of the challenge is if he’s only good and has no evil, and as the story lays out we’ll see that he’s a complex character, the audience may feel that this is not directly related to The Omen. They may feel that this is not a worthy sequel. If he’s only evil, I think he’s a one-note character. That’s not as interesting to me; that’s not as complex.

Fortunately, we have a fantastic actor in Bradley James who understands all that and can sort of play all sides of the character. We have a team of talented writers who are really interested in making this not just an exciting horror show with the thrills and the scares and all those things we want on TV, but also hopefully people find it to be a sophisticated character drama. The challenge is sort of having your cake and eating it too.”

Damien is of course front and center in the story but how much are we going to learn about the backstories of characters like those played by Barbara Hershey and Scott Wilson and how they came into this whole world?

Glen Mazzara: “There’s always layers to still be peeled back. During season one, we’ll reveal the nature of everyone’s relationships, how people know each other, but there’s always secrets that still need to be revealed. And I’m interested in hopefully future seasons – I hope the show does well of course – and we get to tell the full story. And I want to go back and explore more. Barbara’s done a phenomenal job. She’s an incredible pleasure to work with and she’s really made that character incredibly complex. I sort of want to know everything about her. So I’m interested in not just the audience meeting her and learning her backstory to a certain extent, but I really want to dive into that because I think that character is complex enough that there is a lot more story to tell.”

How long was the process of creating the TV series?

Glen Mazzara: “This process started in the summer of 2013 and by the time we air our finale it will be almost three years that I was involved with season one. It really is like making a feature film. And it was a very interesting story. The concept was that Fox was interested in developing a show based on their Omen property. That idea originated with one of our executive producers, Ross Fineman. I was working on some other projects and I was asked if I would find a writer and supervise that writer and attach as an executive producer. I love that film so much that I said, ‘I’m interested in writing that myself. I would love to write that character.’ So I worked on that script. We originally sold it to Lifetime. It was moved from Lifetime to A&E the first week we were shooting. We were lucky enough to have Shekhar Kapur direct it and A&E was so excited about the first four days of footage, they called us on the Friday of the first week and said, ‘We love the show. We want to move it to A&E and we want four more episodes.’ I had never heard of that happening just off of dailies. They hadn’t even seen a cut episode.

There was just a lot of process behind it. It was growing period for the show and these networks and the studio. It was just a big team. To be able to shoot this in Toronto and we finished shooting it last summer and just cutting it, it really gave us the time to get things right. We were able to build out the story in the back half of the season. We created characters. We could go back and introduce them earlier on than we anticipated. It was like making a feature film in 10 segments. I hope I get to do this every season I ever get to make TV because it’s such a gift to have this much time to really work on the craft and the shots. Nothing got into the show because we were pressed for time.”

What qualities were you looking for when you cast the role of Damien?

Glen Mazzara: “We looked at hundreds of actors for Damien and when I saw Bradley’s tape I just realized there was something there. He had heart and intelligence and charm, but there was also something beneath it that I felt he could play somewhat threatening or menacing. You can see it in episode two when the priest questions him, he just turns and gives a look and says, ‘I don’t buy it,’ and gets into that conversation. And then he makes a turn at the end of that speech where he realizes he shot his mouth off and he went too far. To be able to make those turns, to be able to play both sides of the character, to have these flashes within him and yet he’s fighting his own inner spirit is really a challenging role.

The other thing is that we had to buy that this guy had lived a life, that he had been a war photographer and that he had grown up in boarding schools. That he had lost his father and that he was somehow responsible for his parents’ death… We have to feel that he is both youthful and an adult. It’s really a tall order. There were a lot of very, very talented actors but Bradley was the complete package. When I saw him I was like, ‘I think this is the guy.’ He came in and he’s a very charming guy. He charmed me, swept me off my feet, and we gave him the role.”

Do viewers have to know the original film to understand the series?

Glen Mazzara: “The show is designed that you can just jump in and watch the show and we’ll release the details of Damien’s backstory and his life and what he understands throughout the season and the first few episodes. But pretty much the story of his current dilemma picks up right away. I don’t think the audience will feel lost at all. We give them the information they need and he catches up and we’re off and running. If you’re a fan of the original film, hopefully you’ll enjoy seeing how we pay homage to that film. There are certain things that are said in that film that we reference. There are certain props that we have. There are certain relationships that when we comment on we’re sort of building on what was there, so we’re certainly honoring that original film which I think will add to the experience for fans. But we have designed the show to build a new fan base and I don’t believe at all that people will be lost. We give them everything they need to know right up front.”

What went into the decision to use footage from The Omen?

Glen Mazzara: “One of the things I wanted them to do was use the footage from the original film as these flashbacks, and people thought I was nuts. A lot of people involved in the creative team had never seen that done before, and I’m not sure if a TV show has done that. So the idea of doing that, I really had a vision that this original film could play as repressed memories being violently ripped from Damien’s subconscious. That sort of added emotion to that character. I could feel what he was feeling when that came out and how frightening that would be. I thought that would be a great way to incorporate the original film.”

What has it been like going from The Walking Dead to Damien to Overlook Hotel and telling character-driven horror stories?

Glen Mazzara: “What’s interesting is that the three works are all very cinematic to me. I think Frank Darabont created a very cinematic show in Walking Dead and when I was his number two I learned a lot from him about how that needs to play out. I was fortunate enough then to really learn there. And then I took some of that idea of horror being a cinematic experience and went right into Overlook Hotel. I really had to study Kubrick’s filmmaking there to understand the nature of tension and horror. If you look at The Shining, it’s an incredibly simple film. There’s not a tremendous amount of plot and yet it’s frightening as hell and it’s all tone. So that was a great learning experience.

And then to sort of apply that to another work that’s coming directly out of a classic film is kind of exciting. So I think I’ve really spent a lot of time paying attention to not only the character moments and the writing and all of that, but the rest of the filmmaking experience. That adds to the character and it makes me feel like I can take my time and we can be patient. If the characters are realistic and the world feels realistic, we can let the story develop organically. A lot of times on other shows that I’ve worked on it’s about pacing and, ‘Let’s get this information out.’ TV can feel a little hurried and on certain shows like The Shield that’s what you want. You want a frenetic pace. Here the tone needs to play out. I feel like the characters here are incredibly deep. They’re a lot deeper than I’ve been able to write elsewhere.”