The Exorcist: Executive Producer Rupert Wyatt on Casting, Demonic Possession, and The Golden Age of TV

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We are coming up on the Halloween season really quickly, and Fox has their finger on the trigger with The Exorcist.

The new series continues the mythology of the William Peter Blatty novel, and keeps up the creepy mystique of the original movie with a new family and a new exorcist.

Rupert Wyatt, Director and Executive Producer of The Exorcist, recently spoke with reporters about what to expect from the series and where he pulled some of his inspiration from.

“What Jeremy [Slater], the creator of this show, looked to do was place the events of our show and the series into a contemporary context and, of course, the Friedkin original dealt with events that happened in the early 1970’s,” Wyatt explained.

“We are forty plus years after those events, but those events exist and occurred within the realms of our mythology. But we are dealing with wholly new characters.”

He also stressed that the show wasn’t formatted to be an “exorcism of the week” procedural. During the course of this season, we will be following one family as they deal with the demon possessing their daughter.

“One of the first questions I asked was, how does one achieve a series out of The Exorcist? Certainly no one was ever looking, or setting out, to do exorcism of the week, it was not that whatsoever,” said Wyatt.

The pilot episode, entitled “Chapter 1: And Let My Cry Come Unto Thee” introduces viewers to The Rances, a Catholic family living in Chicago in a house where strange things are afoot.

Angela is a powerful businesswoman with 400 employees under her. Her husband Henry is slowly losing his mind, Her older daughter Kat just suffered a career ending ballet injury, and her younger daughter Casey is just making her way through this somewhat dysfunctional family that is managing to hold it together.

Although the characters are different, Wyatt mentioned that there is a similar narrative structure to the 1973 film, but that’s where the similarities end.

“The similarities, I guess, are in the sense that demonic possession is something that is an event, and is a sequence of events, that begin to happen within the context of the small family unit, and also the city, the wider city as a whole,” said Wyatt.

“So, really, that’s where the similarities lie, specifically. Other than that, it’s a completely new narrative with new characters.”

The fact that The Exorcist is a well-known movie didn’t discourage him at all. While some fans may look at the series and consider it a reboot for the small screen, Wyatt never saw the series that way.

“I never saw it as a small screen. I kind of think the best stories these days are told on television, and they’re incredibly ambitious for all good reasons. And it’s a shame, in many ways, that modern, mainstream cinema is gradually being 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,” said Wyatt.

“I think one reason for that is it’s becoming inherently more cinematic in terms of the making of [television]. And so the process of making this pilot was really wonderful for me because I was given a really good amount of time, and I was given a decent budget, and I was given wonderful actors and an incredible crew to mount something,” he explained.

“I approached and shot this as if I was making a feature. And the same narrative tropes as I would if I were making a theatrical feature were 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 I think that’s what modern television audiences expect these days.”

One of the things that Wyatt really wanted to replicate from the original film was the tone.

“I think if there was ever a hope on my part, it was that we would be able to follow the rules of the original, which is the tone—is being able to create a tone and a sense of the worlds rather than look for jump scares and the more contemporary forms of horror. And actually, score something that was a bit more psychological. So that’s what I was trying to do,” said Wyatt.

THE EXORCIST: Alfonso Herrera in THE EXORCIST premiering Friday, Sept. 23 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Chuck Hodes/FOX
THE EXORCIST: Alfonso Herrera in THE EXORCIST Cr: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Of course, the pilot does have its fair share of spooky moments that punctuate the psychological tension, like a crow flying through the window while Angela is meeting with Father Tomas.

“There’s always, I guess, a pressure and a desire from certain people or a percentage of the audience where they want that, and so it’s finding that balance I guess. But for me as a filmmaker and a storyteller, I was really interested in the characters and where their stories went more so than the splatter effects,” Wyatt elaborated.

The Exorcist had an outstanding cast attached to it, and Wyatt discussed how amazing it was to be able to work with them.

“Overall, I have to say just the experience of making this pilot was really, really fun and, creatively, really inspirational for me. And that doesn’t always happen when one does a pilot. As a director, you’re coming into something that’s preconceived and you are—it’s different to making a film on a number of levels, and I would say with this, interestingly, it actually was the closest I’ve felt for a long time to making my first film.”

The cast includes Geena Davis, Alan Ruck, Ben Daniels, and Alfonso Herrera, each of whom are really embracing their roles.

“Casting wise, the brain trust that was us, essentially got together and really looked to find really interesting character actors like Alan Ruck, who’s wonderful and an amazing actor; and 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 for—we wanted an older man, but at the same time a man that had a youthful physicality, but a world weariness in terms of his soul and he kind of imbued that brilliantly. So, we pushed very hard to cast for him,” Wyatt explained.

“Alfonso, I’d seen on Sense8, and really loved him and we thought—we wanted to find an actor that represented—and the character was written somewhat in this way—but represented 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,” he said.

“And whereas 40, 50 years ago they were Polish or Irish, they’re now predominantly Mexican or Latino in general and so we decided that would be the best face for the modern Catholic Church. So, Alfonso was it. And then Geena needs no introduction. So, she was just—Geena was just incredible that she stepped up when we asked her to and said yes,” Wyatt continued.

“So, 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, yes, we wanted a real diversity in an ensemble.”

THE EXORCIST: Geena Davis in THE EXORCIST premiering Friday, Sept. 23 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Chuck Hodes/FOX
THE EXORCIST: Geena Davis in THE EXORCIST Cr: Chuck Hodes/FOX

As far as the cast of characters, Wyatt is hoping that the audience gravitates towards Fathers Marcus and Thomas and their roles as exorcists. He also discussed the research they did into the role of the exorcist in the Catholic Church.

“The exorcist himself, I thought, was incredibly fascinating. Not only in his back-story but also just 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 had, himself, done some but he wouldn’t say whether he had or not,” Wyatt said.

“He just talked us through the procedures and the challenges faced. A lot of exorcisms go on for weeks, sometimes months. It’s a religious form of therapy in many ways,” he explained.

“Ben, who played Father Marcus, and I, we really got into that and dug in deep in terms of how we could then relay that and put that on the screen. I think the war wounds, the scars that one carries from the experiences of looking to save that many people over that many years would really start to take their toll. So, in as many sequences as we could, we tried to convey that with his performance.”

Wyatt also talked a bit about the decision to set this version of The Exorcist in Chicago instead of D.C., where the original film takes place.

“The world is in a place socioeconomically or politically where there are, I guess you could say, world events that play in to the notion that evil is becoming more pervasive in our society and 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. And I think, inevitably, what happens is entertainment and art form mirrors that,” Wyatt stated.

“So, 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 American city that is predominantly—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,” he said.

“It is not the great institution that it once was and then on a political level there is aspects of corruption within Chicago. There has been historically, of course, going back to Al Capone. And then in terms of the violence, you only had to pick up the newspapers to see the murder rate right now is that of Los Angeles and New York combined this year.”

“So, it’s a city where, if you were to say the devil were to infiltrate our world and start and look to proliferate on a pandemic level, Chicago would be it,” explained Wyatt.

One of the final touches that unites the film with its roots is the use of “Tubular Bells,” the song that essentially became the theme music for The Exorcist.

“We didn’t intend to put that in actually. When we started, we thought, well we’re not going to use “Tubular Bells” because we didn’t want to be derivative,” explained Wyatt.

“And when we were cutting it, it was actually me, and I went to gauge my initial gut, 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 purpose of our story, as much as the original. So, for that I felt like it was justified.

The Exorcist airs Fridays at 9/8c on Fox. 

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Lauren Busser is a senior writer at Tell-Tale TV. Her work has also appeared on Bitch Media and The Hartford Courant. She has also been a dog sitter, worked front end at a bakery, and helped out in a kindergarten classroom. She learned to knit when she was five-years-old and thus, can now complete sweaters at a superhuman speed. She’s currently nursing a novel she’s been making slow progress on for the last six years.

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