From the depths of Robert Kirkman's mind came "The Walking Dead," a striking zombie apocalypse comic that translated into a television drama that's become a cultural obsession and worldwide sensation. It's a hell of an act to follow, yet Kirkman isn't scared. But maybe you should be.
Coming to Cinemax this summer, "Outcast" spins an exorcism story of Kirkman's gripping comic into a TV series that promises to re-invent this horror genre. Patrick Fugit stars centered on Kyle Barnes, an isolated young man, heartbroken by his dark history with the possessed. With the help of the local Reverend (Philip Glenister), Kyle seeks to discover the root of this enveloping evil, and what he can do to stop it.
Ahead of the pilot's world premiere at SXSW, CBR News sat down with Kirkman and "Outcast" executive producer Chris Black for a roundtable interview. Together, we discussed the devil in the details of "Outcast," down to its online inspirations, its religious roots, and why Kirkman isn't sweating "Game of Thrones" comparisons.
CBR News: HowÂ did "Outcast" make the leap from comic to TV show?
Robert Kirkman: It was a fairly unique situation. Sharon Tal Yguado, who runs Fox International, heads up the international side of "Walking Dead." So, outside of the U.S., "Walking Dead" is a Fox International show. It's on all the Fox channels, and they do these really cool worldwide launches, where they launch their shows like a movie.
Chris Black: Like in 120 countries at the same time.
Kirkman: Yeah, all at once. And it's great! So we were at some kind of "Walking Dead" event between Seasons One and Two, and she just casually was like, "Oh, what are you working on now? You got any new things you're cooking up?" And I just thought I was at a comic book convention, talking to a fellow comic professional. So, I'm like, "Oh you know, I've got this thing I'm doing, it's about this guy Kyle Barnes. It's a sort of an exorcism thing, but not really. And it's got some cool elements to it. And this and that and blah blah blah." And she kind of interrupted me and went, "Well, I'll buy that." And I don't know what that's all about. And then the next day my people -- as they say -- called me up, "We got this deal from Fox International. What did you say? What's going on?"
Black:Â [Teasing] "What did you tell her!? What did you promise?"
Kirkman: Yeah, yeah. And so even before I had even developed it much as a comic, I just casually sold it! Which was very strange.
How did that inform writing the comic, knowing it was going to be a show?
Kirkman: From then I was just left to my own devices to do what I normally do. I started developing it as a comic book while starting to write it as a pilot. It was weird because I was writing them both concurrently. So there'd be time where I would writing the comic and I would say, "Okay I want to do this scene, but I only have four pages to do this scene. I'm going to have to take this element and this element out." And then on the pilot script side, I could put that stuff in. So there were things where scenes ended up being very different just because there are things that work really well in comics and things that work very well in TV, and those are not the same things. It was pretty cool.
So they are in the same vein, but very particular to their media?
Kirkman: Right. Just the fact that there's motion and sound (in television), it took me a long time on "Walking Dead" to get used to the fact that in television characters don't have to say things. In comics, people have to say "I feel this way" or "I want to do this." [In TV] you can do so much with gesture and movement and facial expressions. Sometimes you can do stuff with facial expressions in comics, but you can do so much more if somebody can move around without actually speaking. So that leads to a different style of writing between the two mediums.
We've seen a lot of possession stuff in horror the last five or ten years. Is that the biggest challenge in going into a project like this, finding a way to make it fresh, make it new, make it exciting for people?
Kirkman: Yeah, that's a great challenge going into it. I feel like we rose to the challenge greatly in the first season and going forward. Knock on wood I guess. But going into it, we knew that like zombie genre, this is very well-worn. There have been dozens of movies based on this subject matter. We know what the audience expects from these stories, and I'm very excited to say that we're not doing any of that. We're taking a very different tract with this storyline and we're doing very cool, very different things. We're very much looking at this like it's a solvable problem. I don't think anybody has really every handled exorcism in the way that we have. Most exorcism movies you watch, somebody calls in a priest. The priest comes in the house, he's like "I know what to do here! This guy's got a demon in him!" And he takes the demon out, and he goes, "All right, well, I'm going to go home. You guys have a good time." And that's the movie.
Black: Done and done!
That's the nicest explanation of "The Exorcist" I've ever heard!
Kirkman: Well there ya' go! And watching those movies, I always thought you don't tell them how to keep them from happening again, and you don't do any work to figure out why it happened or if it can be prevented or if it can be stopped or if you can make it so this doesn't happen to anyone ever again. The fact that the priests in these movies are like "Well, it's going to happen again and I'm going to get called and that'll be great!" Is it job security? Is that what they're after? I don't really know.
Black: Here's my card!
Kirkman: So, I don't really know. Over the long form, this is a show that's going to evolve. The exorcisms are very different. The tactics the characters use in order exorcise the demons will evolve and change as they learn more, as they figure out what this phenomena actually entails, and they learn better how to address it. And this is over the course of many many seasons, somewhere between 10 and 100.
Kirkman: I'm not nailing it down. [To Black] You'll be fine.
I like the hesitance of Chris' "Wait!"
Black: [Reacts with bulging eyes] Wait, what!?
Kirkman: Okay, just fifty. But you know, we'll actually be looking at the phenomenon of demonic possession as if it is a solvable problem. Could we actually get to that point? That's something our characters are investigating.
Robert, you've said "Outcast" was one of the few things you've done where you knew the ending when you were writing it. So in terms of the show, does that apply to the first season or the series?
Kirkman: That would be the ending of the series. The length of it varies. I don't have it issue-to-issue blocked out for the life of the series, but I do know what I'm working toward. Chris and I have been able to talk about it. We know what the end game is for both the show and the comic. I know that I have to make Paul Azaceta, the artist on the comic, draw fast enough to where it happens fast enough to where it happens in the comic before it happens in the show, so the show doesn't spoil the comic. These are the things that keep me up at night.
Black: It's not a competition.
So no "Game of Thrones" situation where the show catches up?
Kirkman: No, we don't have to worry about anything like that.
You don't read stories about George R.R. Martin missing deadlines and have panic attacks?
Kirkman: No, no, no. Although he is a much better writer working on a much more complicated project, so I don't consider myself to be in any competition with him, because I would lose.
Black: I think that knowing where you're going is important. When Robert says that, it's not like we know what every episode of the next four, five, six seasons of the show is going to be. But I think Matt Weiner knew how "Mad Men" was going to end. Vince Gilligan knew how "Breaking Bad" was going to end. Marc Cherry knew how "Desperate Housewives" was going to end. But along the way, the process is about crafting the stories. You don't know what twists and turns that road is going to take that ultimately get you there. That's the fun of it.
Kirkman: And we're open to those twists and turns and those new things that come in. Hearing you say that, I realize what an idiot I sound like in an interview because I write comics, which is a very long form storytelling medium where you don't necessarily have to have the end game in mind. Where anyone who writes a novel or a TV series or anything else definitely has to know what that ending is.
Black: Well the thing is--
Kirkman: You stop it! You stop.
Black: No, no wait -- it is a new paradigm. It's this new golden age.
Kirkman: Yeah, yeah.
Black: It didn't used to be this way where you have dueling [versions]. Like the guys who created "CSI" they just keep doing it week after week. You don't have an endgame. It's an episodic procedural, so you don't need an endgame.
Kirkman: But I realize now most writers probably hear me go, "This is the first time I've ever had an ending in mind," and think "What the hell is this guy's problem?"
Black: But you know Vince always said the pitch for "Breaking Bad" was turning Mr. Chips into Scarface. I mean, he knew what the big arc of that show was.
But even that pitch is very vague, and you can work within that.
What kind of research did you do into exorcisms? Did you talk to people claiming to be exorcists?
Kirkman: I didn't talk directly to an exorcist, but I do a lot of reading. There's actually a lot of cool Youtube videos of exorcisms, which is kind of interesting.
That's a rabbit hole I don't need to go down!
Kirkman: No no no!
Black: It's a very deep hole.
Kirkman: But you know, between that kind of stuff -- one thing we're doing with this show is that it's not Catholicism. This isn't the standard "we have our rules" thing.
Black: It's very ritualized in the Catholic church.
Kirkman: Yeah. We're coming at this from a Baptist religion and there are Baptist exorcists that do work, and they do things a little bit differently. So I had to do a little bit of research into that, and what the ins and outs of that are.
What's example of how a Baptist exorcist approaches this differently than a Catholic?
Kirkman: It's a little more energetic. It's got a bit more panache, I guess is the best way to put it. In Catholicism, the power is in the totems, the crosses and things like that. Baptists, it's more like the guy himself is empowered.
Black: I think it also goes to the larger idea of the specific exorcisms and the arc of exorcisms is that our characters have to be a little more agile in terms of, "Okay, this didn't work, I have to try something else," as opposed to traditional Roman Catholic exorcism where the rite of exorcism is very you do this, you do this, you do this. With our guys, it's a little more like we're going in there, and no battle plan lasts beyond the firing of the first shot. It all goes to hell and they're like, "We've got to do something different." And that's going to play out over the mythology, them needing to make adjustments, learning what works and what doesn't.
Kirkman: It's very much a case of two people figuring out their craft.
I'm curious how much does the idea of faith play into the story? Are we going to see Patrick's character dealing with his own crisis of faith?
Kirkman: The majority of how we address faith in the story is through Reverend Anderson, because he is a Baptist preacher. Patrick's character Kyle is secular, so he doesn't really believe in the stuff that he's experiencing. Which I think is a fun dynamic and a good place to have that character in. As the series progresses, Anderson will see Kyle's side of things, and sometimes Kyle will see Anderson's side of things. That's a good interplay between them. But also I think we try not to take a stance. There is no "this is the way religion is" or "this is the way you should believe." We try to keep things open to interpretation as much as possible. We don't ever want to come off like this show is preaching or evangelizing in any way.
Black: It's very important to us that the show not cast judgment. They are people who believe this. And it's important that within the context of our show, that the people -- with Reverend Anderson as our starting point -- that the people who resolutely have faith are not being looked down upon, not being written down to, not being mocked.
Kirkman: And that's something that happens often in television, especially in modern television, where the religious character is not respected or is played for comedic effect or something like that. That's definitely something that we are avoiding in significant ways.
Can you talk about the boundaries you'll be pushing as a Cinemax series?
Black: Well, look, it is nice to not be held back by broadcast standards and practices. I've done a lot of broadcast network television where it's like sometimes the limitations seem insane. To really be in terms of violence, where it's about the graphic nature of the violence, or sex, well there's not a ton of sex on our show, or cursing. We can do all of that [on Cinemax], but to me those aren't the boundaries that are fun to push, it's storytelling boundaries. It's telling stories that would make a broadcast network executive go "We can't have our main character do that. That'd be too much. You'll offend people. They'll be too shocked. You're damaging this character in a way we can't get him back from, that we're not going to allow that kind of storytelling." At a premium cable channel, they're like, "Great! That sounds like a bold choice. Let's do that." So to me, that's the what's truly liberating about working for a place like Cinemax, even more so than we can show as much nudity and gore as we want.
[Joking] So that's our headline: "Outcast" Promises You Nudity and Gore.
Black: We promise you boobs and instead deliver on the daring storytelling.
Kirkman: This is not a sexy show at all.
So when it came to casting, did you have any input? Were you concerned at all about how things might go over?
Kirkman: Casting was actually a unique challenge because the character of Kyle Barnes, he's an evolving character. He starts in one place, and over the course of the first season and beyond, he moves into other areas. So just looking at the pilot as a slice, you don't really get a full sense of where this character is going to go. So we had a problem with actors when we were doing casting that had a very, very extremely dark take on who Kyle Barnes was.
Black: And angry.
Kirkman: And angry, as is a fairly good of assessment as he is in the pilot. But we needed somebody who could do the pilot and also move into the areas we knew we were going to be moving into. It took a long time to find Patrick, someone who from minute one was doing the scenes that we were testing people with with a lightness to him. There was something engaging about him.
Black: He brought a humanity.
Black: There was a real empathy to him that you weren't put off by, but drawn in by.
So when auditioning for that role did you only do scenes from the pilot, or did you sketch out sides that may not necessarily be in the series but give those later inklings?
Kirkman: We did a lot of Kyle and Anderson scenes and Kyle and Megan scenes. The Kyle and Anderson scene especially ended up being in a later episode.
Black: Well, you wrote some additional scenes with Kyle and Allison, because Allison didn't appear as a speaking role in the pilot.
Black: Kyle and his ex-wife Allison are separated, so Robert wrote some extra scenes for that that we had [for the auditions].
Kirkman: Yeah, and we wanted to see people interacting. And there are characters who don't interact in the pilot, who will be later in the series. So we wanted to be sure we had all of our I's dotted and T's crossed.
Black: But pretty much we knew when Patrick walked through the door. The first scene he read, we were like, "Okay, that's him."
Kirkman: Yeah. And honestly it was the same with Wrenn Schmidt and Philip.
Black: Wrenn Schmidt who plays Megan. Philip Glenister, who plays Reverend Anderson. It's a wonderful cast. And we spent a lot of time in the casting process there, and Robert was there--
Kirkman: I was there more than I wanted to be!
Black: We went through scores of video taped submissions and sat in a room with actor after actor.
Kirkman: And honestly, Gabriel Bateman, who plays Joshua in the pilot and possibly -- I don't want to spoil anything -- shows up later in the show too, that was a very involved casting process, because we had to find a nine-year-old boy that could do all of the things.
What is the audition like when you're asking a nine-year-old to play a possessed kid?
Kirkman: With Gabriel Bateman it was amazing. A lot of times we would get the kids to come in. And I would tell Chris, "I'm watching them come into the room and when they leave to see how different they are when they are acting." Because a lot the times, the kid would come in and be comfortable and be a normal kid, and then they do the audition and they were very stiff and not great. And so you wanted a kid that could keep that throughout. But Gabriel came in and was like a little adult. It was very strange and very off-putting in ways we really liked. He would go over to Patrick and say, "I'm going to say this now because I have a demon inside of me. And this is how I'm going to do this." And he was like, "Okay, great. Let's do this." He understood so much nuance to the role that was really remarkable for a kid of his age. I think he is really going to go places. I think he's got an amazing future.
Black: He's terrifically talented. And when you get over to the other table, ask Patrick that exact same question.
Kirkman: Patrick has a lot of great stories about Gabriel.
Following its SXSW world premiere, "Outcast"Â will debut on CinemaxÂ June 3.