“Outcast” isn’t “The Walking Dead.” But anyone who’s seen the pilot of Cinemax’s new horror series may wonder how closely it hues to “The Exorcist.” The two properties share a lot in common, which could be great — if “Outcast” proves to be as universally frightening as William Friedkin’s classic film — or disappointing, if fans feel like they’ve seen it before.
Either way, that’s exactly what creator Robert Kirkman wants you to think.
Kirkman and showrunner Chris Black sat down with IndieWire to discuss how they plan to hoodwink viewers with the series’ careful set-up, other inspirations (hint: Look at the poster on Kyle’s wall), and secrets behind that chilling opening sequence.
It seems like a lot of inspiration was drawn from “The Exorcist” in the pilot, or at least you guys were very aware of that movie when you were making this.
ROBERT KIRKMAN: The idea here is that we’re playing against type when it comes to exorcism stories, and I think the biggest touchstone when it comes to exorcism stories is “The Exorcist.” This story is, in a big way, paying tribute to everything that’s come before it, but it’s also steering the audience, as much as we can, into expecting things that we’re not going to do. By paying tribute to all that stuff, we’re able to get people on a mode of saying, “Oh, here’s the part in the exorcism story where this happens,” and, “Oh, there building up to this thing that everybody does.” But we’re actually going to be doing different things.
It’s really just a matter of playing against type and trying to keep people guessing. Especially in the first episode, you’re going to be seeing a lot of touchstones from the genre. As this progresses, you’ll see that this is a very different world we’re exploring.
BLACK: We’re lulling people into their exorcism comfort zone.
With TV, it’s got to be a bit of a challenge to sustain those frights from episode to episode. As writers, how do you sustain terror?
BLACK: If you’re solely relying on the fright moments, the shock moments, things popping out and making the audience jump — that’s never going to sustain. So you have to create an ongoing sense of threat and dread that menaces these characters. If we’ve succeeded and we’ve created a group of characters that you’re invested in and you don’t want to see bad things happen to, there’s going to be that constant jeopardy that’s going to cause, we hope, dread and horror in the audience’s mind. And — in a post-“Walking Dead,” post-“Game of Thrones” world, where you’d look at the conventional rules of television where your lead characters are all safe — you can no longer apply that.
How far ahead have you mapped out?
KIRKMAN: We have a rough, rough road map for pretty much the entire series. It’s movable and updatable as we continue writing stories, but we have a pretty thorough — but general — sense of where we’re going to end up at the end of this show and where I’m going to end up at the end of the comic book series. In success, we’ll be able to make this show 100 seasons, but we always know what Season 100 or Season 80 or Season 60 — if things don’t go too well — what they’re going to be.
BLACK: We’ll be in the third or fourth generation showrunner at that point.
KIRKMAN: [laughs] Chris Black the third takes over in Season 40!
BLACK: [old man voice] “Hey son, I’m handing you the keys to the franchise.”
KIRKMAN: [old man voice] “It’s ruined my life. It’s ruined my father’s life. And now it will ruin your life.”
BLACK: [young kid voice] “But dad I don’t want to go into the family business.”
KIRKMAN: [old man voice] “No choice.”
BLACK: [old man voice] “You have no choice!”
KIRKMAN: [young kid voice] “I want to work on light, funny things like all of my friends.”
BLACK: [old man voice] “Shut up! You’ll work at ‘Outcast’ and you’ll like it.”
KIRKMAN: We are great at wasting time.
Of course, no one’s expecting that you write out an entire series. You have to have that fluctuation. You have to have as much time as possible, but it’s always curious to see how people plan.
BLACK: You’ve got to know where you’re going. In shows that don’t work — and I’ve worked on them in the past — you can tell and the audience can tell. You can see the writers flailing around. You have to have a sense of purpose. You have to know where this story is driving to. Otherwise, how do you tell these people’s stories? We surprise ourselves sometimes with the turns when you sort of go off road, off of the highway. But you have to know what the end of the journey is or you’re lost in the woods.
I couldn’t help but notice in that first episode that Kyle’s got “The X-Files” poster in his room.
KIRKMAN: Fox handles all the international business on that show and they make us put Fox properties in the background.
Well, they’ve got to keep that show alive while they figure out Season 11. But I was just curious if there specific inspirations from either film or TV that helped with a general idea of what this world would be like.
KIRKMAN: “The X-Files” is definitely a great show, and I think that if we do “Outcast” right, if we accomplish all of the things that we’re trying to set up, hopefully we’ll end up with a show that has a dense, involved mythology like what was the undercurrent of many of the episodes of “X-Files.” We’ll probably focus on that mythology a little bit more episode-to-episode and much more as we get deeper into the series, but I think that shows that have that undercurrent — which is something that ‘The Walking Dead’ doesn’t have — whether it is this sense of discovery or there is this mystery to be solved, I think is something that’s really exciting. And definitely “The X-Files” was an inspiration for that.
Your opening scene with the kid slamming his head on the wall and eating the bug; that felt like such a statement scene because it’s not something, in traditional television, a typical fan would be comfortable watching. It makes you uncomfortable that a kid is being hurt, that a bug is being eaten. Was that a statement?
BLACK: No actual bugs were hurt.
No, of course. We don’t want PETA in here.
KIRKMAN: We put baby deer on the wall and then they would crush the baby deer and they we would replace it with a bug in post.
That explains all the blood.
BLACK: Well, Robert can speak to that, but it is a statement scene. It makes a statement about the kind of storytelling Robert and I and the whole team want to do. And I think it also tells the audience, “This is what you’re going to get. If you’re not on board, you can tune out now because there’s no surprises. This is it.”
KIRKMAN: You try to put your best foot forward. In comics, you only have a couple of pages to win people over and then it’s very easy for a comic reader to get bored and put a book down and never finish. You want things to be punchy, to grab people and I always felt like that would be a good scene to start with.
But more than that, there’s actually a lot going on in that scene that you’ll be able to look back on later; like, much deeper in the show as we learn more and more about what a demon is actually doing inside a human body and how that behavior is affected. You’ll see little things in Joshua’s behavior all throughout the first episode and later we’ll know why he’s doing certain things and why certain things are affecting him the way they are.
What are you watching on TV that really scares you? What have you seen lately that stands out?
KIRKMAN: There’s an episode in the most recent season of “Louie” where he has a nightmare. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on TV. The way it just comes out of left field and the way you’re not expecting it. You’re like, “Oh, it’s going to be a joke! This is great! I love watching ‘Louie’! This is fantastic!” And then it’s just absolutely bone chilling and startling. That’s something pretty remarkable, to accomplish that on television.