‘The Exorcist’ – Rupert Wyatt Interview on the Cast, the Story, and How It Connects to the Book

The Exorcist TV Series Cast
Hannah Kasulka, Brianne Howey, Alan Ruck, Geena Davis, Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels in ‘The Exorcist’ (Photo by Patrick Ecclesine © 2016 Fox Broadcasting)

Fox’s new horror series The Exorcist starring Geena Davis, Ben Daniels, Alfonso Herrera, Hannah Kasulka, Brianne Howey, and Alan Ruck premieres on September 23, 2016. The series is set in the same world as William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel and the 1973 horror film it inspired, but takes place 40 years after the events played out in both the book and the feature film. With the first season kicking off, executive producer and director of the show’s first episode Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) took part in a conference call to discuss what viewers can expect when they tune in to check out The Exorcist. Wyatt talked about the show’s talented cast, how the series connects to the book, and why Chicago was chosen as the series’ setting.

Rupert Wyatt Interview:

How is this series related to the novel?

Rupert Wyatt: “The inspiration derives from the source novel, the William Peter Blatty novel. What Jeremy [Slater], the creator of the show, looked to do was place the events of our show and the series into a contemporary context and of course the Friedkin original [film] film dealt with events that happened in the 1970s. So, we are 40+ years after those events, but those events exist and they occurred within the realms of our mythology. But we are dealing with totally new characters. Of course, a different location. Our story is set in Chicago. The similarities I guess are in the sense of demonic possession is an event, a sequence of events that begin to happen within the context of this small family unit and also the city, the wider city as a whole. Really, that’s where the similarities lie, specifically. Other than that, it’s a completely new narrative with new characters.”

Why is now the right time for an Exorcist television series?

Rupert Wyatt: “Well, you’d have to ask Fox that question specifically as to why they chose to greenlight, but I would say from my perspective it’s always interesting to me when the world is in a place socioeconomically, or politically, where there are I guess you could say world events that play into the notion that evil is becoming more pervasive in our society. We as a society are dealing with things in a very real-world sense up close, whereas 10, 15 years ago that was less the case. We were living in more of a golden era. I think inevitably what happens is entertainment as an art form mirrors that. The idea for me and why I was a big proponent and driver of setting the film in Chicago was because I thought it was a great ‘ground zero’ for a large, historically vibrant and American city that has a big Catholic community. The church is very powerful there, but at the same time it is a church that is dealing with modern controversies and scandals. It is not the great institution that it once was.

Then, on a political level there is a lot of corruption within Chicago, there has been historically of course going back to Al Capone. And then in terms of the violence, you only have to pick up the newspapers to see the murder rate right now in Chicago is that of Los Angeles and New York combined this year. It’s a city where if you were to say the devil were to infiltrate our world and start and look to kind of proliferate on a pandemic level, Chicago would be it for me.”

Was there a conscious effort to make it more scary and creepy than gory and violent?

Rupert Wyatt: “Yes. I mean, I think if there was ever a hope on my part is that we would be able to follow the rules of the original which is the tone. It’s being able to create a tone and a sense of the world rather than look for jump scares and the kind of contemporary type of horror, and explore something that was a bit more psychological. That’s what I’m trying to do. There’s always a pressure and a desire from certain people and certain viewers where they want that and so it’s finding that balance. But for me as a filmmaker and a storyteller I was really interested in the characters and where their stories went more so than splatter effects.”

Can you talk about the casting process?

Rupert Wyatt: “Overall I’ve got to say that the experience of making the pilot was really, really fun, and creatively really inspirational for me. That doesn’t always happen when one does a pilot. As a director, you’re coming into something that’s preconceived. It’s different to making a film, I would say, on a number of levels. With this it actually was the closest I’ve felt in a long time to making my first film. I had a real opportunity on a creative level to collaborate with the showrunner Rolin Jones and the creator, Jeremy Slater, in a really equal way. It was much to do with them that they allowed me that.

Casting-wise, the brain trust…it was us and we essentially got together and looked to kind of find really interesting character actors, like Alan Ruck, who’s a wonderful and an amazing actor. Ben Daniels, who plays Father Marcus, was an actor I’d seen on House of Cards and I checked out Flesh and Bone as well. I just loved him. We wanted an older man but at the same time a man who had a youthful physicality but a world-weariness in terms of his soul. He imbued that brilliantly. We pushed very hard for casting him.

Alfonso [Herrera] I had seen on Sense8 and really loved him. We wanted to find an actor that represented – and the character was written somewhat in this way – the modern Catholic Church. When you travel around Chicago, you see a lot of the old blue-collar immigrant neighborhoods that were, and still are, fundamentally Catholic. Whereas 40, 50 years ago they were Polish or Irish, they are now predominantly Mexican or Latino in general. We decided that would be the best face for the modern Catholic Church, so Alfonso was it.

Then, Geena [Davis] needs no introduction. It really was just incredible that she stepped up when we asked her to and said, ‘Yes.’ As an ensemble, it was actually very easy to cast. In terms of the choices that we wanted, we were lucky enough to get. But we wanted a real diversity in the ensemble.”

When the music comes in it really does convey the sense of horror.

Rupert Wyatt: “We didn’t intend to put that in, actually. When we started we thought, ‘Okay, we’re not going to use Tubular Bells.’ We didn’t want to be derivative. And when we were cutting it I went against my initial gut. I was like, ‘I wonder if we’ve earned it? I wonder if it works here?’ And it just played brilliantly. In the final moments it seemed to work. It seemed to work for the purposes of our story as much the original. So for that I felt it was justified.”

Linda Blair recently expressed interest in having a cameo in the series. Have you thought about having cameos with some of the actors from the original film?

Rupert Wyatt: “I don’t know. That’s a better question for Jeremy, our creator. If there were something that were to be relevant to Regan MacNeil, then absolutely. But I think the whole intention for the show is that we are following on from the events of the original film but we are 40 some odd years later. So, yeah, I think it’s a tough question to answer because it was never something that we discussed, to be honest.”

What’s been the greatest challenge in bringing the world of The Exorcist to the small screen?

Rupert Wyatt: “Well, I never saw it as a small screen. I kind of think the best stories these days are told on television. They’re incredibly ambitious for all good reasons and it’s a shame in many ways that modern mainstream cinema is gradually been eroded and taken over by TV, in my opinion, because I still love going to the cinema. But I do think it’s the golden age of TV and I think one reason for that is it is becoming inherently more cinematic, in terms of the making of it.

The process of making this pilot was really wonderful for me because I was given a really good amount of time. I was given a decent budget; I was given wonderful actors and an incredible crew to mount something, so I approached and shot this as if I were making a feature. The same narrative choices I would if I were making a theatrical feature played into this as well. So it was always my intention to light it and design it and shoot it in as ambitious a way as possible, because that’s what modern television audiences expect these days.”

How different is the approach of Father Tomas to exorcism to the way Father Marcus approaches it? How do they cope with what they are facing?

Rupert Wyatt: “Tomas is drawn into the world and Marcus is actually very much part of it. And you’ll see as the show develops we get a really good understanding of who they are as men and what they come from. They’re very, very different. They come into our story from very different places. Whereas Father Tomas has a recent history that deals with infidelity and, without giving too much away, just certain personal controversies that have put him in this rundown church on the south side of Chicago… He’s a bit of an embarrassment to the Church. He was at one stage a poster boy for the modern Catholic Church and he’s now been bullied out to the suburbs. He’s going through a crisis of faith. He’s trying to find out what’s important in his life and that was fascinating to be able to explore that character. He’s a fallible man, a vain man, and those are the sort of things that if one were the Devil they’d see as catnip. He’s a very attractive human to try and draw into one’s web. And Marcus is the opposite. Marcus is on a moral level very, very strong, but he comes from a very broken past. That’s ultimately what got him recruited into the Vatican to become an exorcist.”

Because this is such an interesting ensemble of characters, is there one in particular that you as a storyteller really latched onto?

Rupert Wyatt: “Yeah. The exorcist himself was I thought incredibly fascinating, not only in his backstory but also in the notion of what it means to be an exorcist and what it involves. We researched it in as grounded a way as possible. We talked to a priest who wanted to remain nameless and said he’d witnessed various exorcisms. I think he’d done some, but he wouldn’t say whether he had or not. He just talked us through the procedures and the challenges faced. A lot of exorcisms go on for weeks, something months. It’s a religious form of therapy in many ways. Ben, who plays Father Marcus, and I really got into that and dug in deep in terms of how we can relay that and put it on the screen. I think the wounds, the scars that one carries from looking to save that many people over that many years would really start to take a toll. And so in as many scenes as we could we tried to convey that with his performance.”

How are you able to spread the exorcism out over a season?

Rupert Wyatt: “I can tell you what we discussed and what to me was very appealing. One of the first questions I asked was, ‘How does one achieve a series out of The Exorcist?’ No one was ever looking or setting out to do an exorcism of the week. It’s not that whatsoever. It’s more of a slow burn build. I don’t know if you know this, and I certainly didn’t, but Catholics don’t believe in the Devil. They believe in demons. There is no such thing as one particular sentient demon who controls others, like Lucifer. Lucifer exists in their belief system, but he’s just another demon. What I thought was fascinating as the result of that is a member of the church – possibly Father Marcus – begins to consider that that is actually true, that the Catholic Church has got it wrong and there is Satan, there is such a thing as a yin to God’s yang, if you like. And Satan has intentions to basically strike now at this particular moment in mankind’s place in the world and our moment in history. It’s the perfect opportunity with the world of violence that we live in and what’s going on in the world to start to essentially expand from a ground zero. Chicago was our choice, with apologies. But it was the idea that we would start there. But if you consider a show like The Walking Dead and the pandemic that has become the walking dead itself, consider that but on a possession level.

My thinking is – and you can write this on my behalf, I’m not speaking for the show itself because I don’t know ultimately where they’re going to choose to go – but my desire and hope for the show is that we build out so that by season two we’re entering into towns and cities that have become possessed. It becomes a pandemic. This is just very much the Arab Spring spark I guess, the demonic possession.”