Robert Kirkman knows television viewers love their TV zombies, but he wants you to know he’s got more fresh twists on horror genre staples — in this case, demonic possession — coming your way.
Kirkman, of course, has been at the forefront of the current golden age of horror entertainment, beginning with the staggeringly popular, imaginative reworking of traditional zombie storytelling he co-created first in “The Walking Dead” comic book, and then in the television series and spinoffs that followed.
In his other horror-themed Image Comics series “Outcast,” co-created with artist Paul Azaceta, the writer has demonstrated a similar facility for deconstructing and rebuilding the possession conventions while also delivering big scares. Now, that series has found its way to television as well, with a 10-episode season debuting June 3 on Cinemax — a network, it should be noted, with even fewer content restrictions surrounding graphic violence, gore, profanity and sexual situations in service of horror than even “TWD’s” home base of AMC.
Kirkman and the series’ day-to-day showrunner Chris Black (“Mad Men,” “Ugly Betty,” “Star Trek: Enterprise”) sat down with the press to discuss how they planned to take this particular property to the screen and layer in even more plotlines, characters arcs and, chilling scenes in which demons inhabit a succession of human forms.
On following the blueprint of the comic book series while adding flourishes specific to the TV incarnation:
Robert Kirkman: Yeah, we’ll probably be doing something similar to [the approach to “The Walking Dead”], as we’ve done with the first season. There are certain things from “Outcast” that have to be adapted to make it “Outcast.” The characters are the characters, and there are certain things in their stories that are getting adapted.
But working with Chris Black, our brilliant showrunner, and the great team of writers — if we weren’t pumping in new ideas from that side of the isle, we would burn through comic book material far too fast, and nobody wants that.
Chris Black: Yeah, I mean, if you’ve been given a piece of source material by Robert Kirkman, you’re a fool not to tell that story. I mean, that’s the narrative, that’s the story he’s pitched. It’s Kyle’s journey is what we want to tell. So obviously, as we go through the first season, and hopefully multiple seasons of the show, that is our road map, is those comics.
Part of the fun of doing it is the discovery that you bring in people from outside a room full of writers that say, “I know in the comic book, this character does this, but I was thinking, what if they don’t do that?” Robert is a wonderful collaborator in that, unless there’s something really specific, a very specific thing that he wants to tell, he’s very open to pitches from the room and trying different things and playing with the material and taking it places that even he didn’t expect to.
Kirkman: And it’s been fun at times. There have been some instances where Chris will call me and say, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this with this character.” And I’m like, “Well, these issues aren’t out yet, but I’m planning on doing this, this and this with this character, so if you do this, you won’t be able to do this in Season Two or Three.” And then we decide, “Well, we don’t need to do that in Season One.”
Black: And there are other times where I call super-excited and he just goes, “Yeah, no.”
On the possibility, given that the comic book series is relatively young one, that the series could lap the story:
Kirkman: Well, no, no, no.
Black: Well, it’s definitely been interesting. We were talking about this before: you said there were 75 issues of “Walking Dead” out when you developed that as a TV series. These were really done in parallel. So it was fun to see it sort of come into being as the comic book was being written. There was much more cross-pollination, at least on the TV side.
Kirkman: I mean, they’re pretty much neck and neck, but I think the comic will always be a little bit ahead. We’re doing ten to 12 issues a year in the comic, and we’re only going to be doing ten episodes of the show. And while the show will cover more material than the comic, than a single issue of the comic, we’re already 20 issues ahead by the time the first season launches.
Production-wise, there are times where I’m feeding Chris scripts and we’re working ahead of the schedule on scripts for the show. So there are times where we’re adapting things from comics that I haven’t written yet, but those comics do come out before the show comes out. So it’ll all work out. It is a different process, and it’s a little bit more organic, but it’s a lot of fun.
Black: It’s fun, though. I mean, there is a sense of discovery about us all sort of finding it together, that it’s not that you don’t have this big backlog of stuff that you can sort of look at and okay, which stories do we want to tell? Which characters are we going to focus on? It’s like you’re seeing them all sort of come into their own. You’re there for the painful birthing process.
On the effort to replicate aspects of Paul Azaceta’s comic book art:
Black: In the pilot, very much, yeah. Adam Wingard, who directed the pilot, and David Tattersall, the director of photography, definitely used those comics as reference material.
Kirkman: Yeah, and there’s definitely — later episodes, it goes director to director as we move through the season. Some of them use panels almost as storyboards and try and take key shots and work them into their episode, and others try to go their own way. But the comic is invaluable to pretty much every department. If you’re on set, there’s comics around.
Black: Everyone’s got one stuck in their bag and fighting over.
Kirkman: “Hey, who took my… where’s my Issue #8?”
Black: There was definitely a sense of composition where you can look in the pilot, and in subsequent episodes but particularly in the pilot, because it was really kind of being formed. This was setting the template for the show in that pilot episode. This is what the visual look of the show was going to be moving forward.
So there was a real sense of being faithful to the vision of what the comics were, and really looking at the framing and the composition, because they were so beautifully drawn and colored by Paul and Bettie [Breitwieser], like I said, as with Robert’s storytelling, you’d be foolish not to want to utilize that.
On exploring and redefining the “demonic possession” subgenre or horror:
Kirkman: The thing that excited me about the genre is how grounded it is. People have odd behavior, that’s something that’s fairly universal. The idea of losing yourself, or becoming something that you don’t recognize is something that I think is very relatable.
To be able to do something that is supernatural, and is a horror story, but keeping it in the real world with real stakes and real people, that kind of stuff really excites me. To be able to do a story that has these very fantastic, unrealistic elements, but yet is completely down to Earth, that I think is really cool.
Black: One of the things you had said to me, I remember, was about that most people actually don’t believe that the zombie apocalypse is coming.
Kirkman: Yeah, 99.9%…
Black: 99.9%. But a huge number of people believe that the devil is real, believe that demonic possession is real, that exorcism is effective, that this is something that people look at and find more legitimately terrifying, because it’s something that could happen to you, or they believe could happen to you. It’s much more intimate and personal.
Kirkman: Yeah, and I think that makes it much more scary.
Black: But in terms of what I found appealing about it really wasn’t specific to the exorcism genre. I mean, I was a genre fan. I love “The Exorcist,” the film. [But] I wasn’t yearning to do an exorcism show, it was really Robert’s script. I was sent that pilot script, but it’s true. It wasn’t so much that, “Oh, this is a cool exorcism story,” it was, I just read the script and it was so wonderfully written, and here was a character that I was invested in and wanted to be involved with.
Kirkman: I think the same way that “Walking Dead” is a zombie-adjacent survival show about people surviving after the fall of civilization, this show doesn’t hang its hat on it being an exorcism genre. I think it’s a big part of the show. It’s an undercurrent that’s in every episode. But this is, as the series progresses, you’ll see this is something very different. I like to think of it as much more of a character drama that has awesome exorcisms from time to time.
On the creative freedom provided by Cinemax:
Kirkman: Too much freedom. Far too much. But, yeah…
Black: Hey, don’t go nuts! No, they’re great. They’re really great. They really believe that the creative comes first. That it’s not a process that’s driven by schedule. It’s ready when it’s ready, and it’s ready when it’s good. And in terms of what we’re allowed to show, there really are no limits.
I mean, not that we wanted the show to be self-consciously graphic or violent, or filled with sex and profanity, [but] it’s nice that you don’t have the broadcast standards that you have to worry about when you’re writing scripts.
But to me, it’s much more liberating in the kind of storytelling you can do. It’s about, you can tell stories that might be a little too daring, or a little too shocking, or put your characters in a compromised situation that a broadcast network might not allow you to do because they would be afraid it would damage your character or alienate your audience. Cinemax’s point of view has always been, “What’s the best story?”
I think the perfect example is the pilot, is what the character of Kyle does at the end of that pilot in order to exorcise this boy. I can’t imagine it’s something that we would have gotten away with on a broadcast network. Saying, “We’re going to allow your lead character to do this.” And not worrying about the audience pulling back from him and not coming back for the second episode, was never a consideration with them. If anything, it was the opposite.
On balancing the psychological- and emotional-driven horror moments versus classic, visceral scares:
Black: We want it all.
Kirkman: Yeah, you want to have both. I mean, the jump scares are always important. To me, that’s the fun stuff, because you can’t do that in comics. So we don’t do it too often, but it’s a valuable tool in the toolbox, and you have to use it.
The real psychological stuff and the haunting horror of recognizing these situations, I kind of think that’s where the show lives. That’s really the best stuff. Seeing these people manipulate their loves ones when they’re possessed, and seeing how people that you get to know in the show are kind and welcoming and valuable members of the society, and you see them transform into these other things, and the things that they do. It’s really unsettling.
Black: There can be an emotional horror to it. It’s, like, people doing things that they shouldn’t be doing to people they supposedly care about, can I think be just as horrific as someone biting their finger off. But yeah, we want to have both. You want those shocking moments because I think people expect it, and it’s fun.
Kirkman: It’s like the “man bites dog” — that’s news. It’s like, “zombie bites a guy’s finger? That’s what a zombie does! Whatever.” “Guy bites his own finger — holy crap, now you’re talking!” That’s scarier. That kind of stuff is fun.
On opening credits and musical themes:
Kirkman: You want a guy on YouTube with an acoustic guitar playing the theme song within six months or your show’s a failure.
Black: But it was late. I mean, the show, we knew we wanted something cool, and there are a lot of talented people out there, and we went through a real process. There was a lot of back and forth with the company that did it and the artists that created it, and Robert had a lot of input about what was important for him to sell, in the mood we want to set…because it is the opening credit sequences, it’s telling a little story of something coming into this town and creeping through this world in an insidious way. I was ultimately really happy with it.
Atticus Ross did the music, and we were so lucky to get him involved with the show. I think the music is spectacular, and adds so much to the dread and the emotion of the show, and he wrote that wonderful theme that I think is just great. But it came fairly late in the process. Most of the season had been shot before we got around to…we knew it was going to be important.
Kirkman: But those things are always a great opportunity to set the stage a little, to give little hints about what the story’s actually going to be. Especially for your first episode, people that watch those title sequences kind of get a sense of kind of what’s going on in the story before they ever see one minute of the show, which is kind of cool.
On the current television renaissance in the horror genre:
Kirkman: Yeah, you can only do so many lawyer/doctor/cop shows. People are always looking for something new, whether networks recognize it or not. And I think that because of the way that cable has kind of come to the forefront and premium cable channels are able to do everything that you could do in a horror movie. So it’s all available. Those tools are there. Why not do that?
I think that the audience that’s watching TV now, and there’s this big phenomenon where people aren’t going to the movies as much. They’re just sitting down and watching television. A movie can’t really compete with a ten-hour experience that you get to watch week to week, as opposed to a two hour experience. You don’t get to know the characters. You don’t get to explore the world as much.
I think it’s just bringing these well-worn genres that everybody’s loved for decades into television in some really cool ways. Horror is the one that I think is getting the most focus right now.
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