21CF Chats: ‘The Exorcist’ exec producer Jeremy Slater on why he’s making the TV show, learning about exorcisms, good vs. evil

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More than 40 years after its theatrical release, “The Exorcist” remains one of the most memorable and recognized horror films of all time. Adapting a film of that stature into a television show comes with its fair share of risks, but Jeremy Slater, executive producer of FOX’s new show “The Exorcist” (series premiere this Friday, Sept. 23, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FOX), is not so easily scared.

I spoke with Jeremy about why he took on this challenge, the research he did in preparation for the new TV series and the themes he hopes will resonate with audiences, among other topics.

What drew you to the opportunity of turning “The Exorcist” into a television series?

I’m not a fan of remakes, particularly in the horror genre, where the practice usually translates to a quick, soulless cash grab. “The Exorcist” is such an iconic title that I knew it was only a matter of time before someone tried to remake it, and the thought of anyone trying to recreate such a perfect film drove me a little nuts. So in essence, I took the job to prevent anyone else from screwing it up. I knew that in my hands, at the very least, we would be telling an original story with a brand new cast of characters instead of simply coasting on the legacy of other artists’ hard work.

The pilot tips its hat to the 1973 horror film, but you’ve made it clear that the TV series isn’t a retelling of the film. How do you try to keep that balance between paying respect to the original and forging a new path? Is it hard to maintain?

It’s always tricky to find the right balance between telling new stories and paying respect to what has come before. In the case of “The Exorcist,” there are obviously a handful of homages and references that horror fans are expecting to see. Our approach has always been to include those references but to do so in a way where we’re putting our own unique twist on the material. That means if someone’s going to vomit pea soup or have their head spin around, they damn well better do it in a way you’ve never seen before.

Besides going back to the film and novel, what kind of research and preparation were involved before Day 1 of shooting?

I actually spoke with a few different Catholic exorcists, who only agreed to meet under the condition of anonymity. We spent a lot of time ensuring that our details and rituals were accurate and appropriate, but also talked with the priests about some of the forces they had encountered, and the nature of demons and demonic possession. Some of those details made their way into the show, while others didn’t. In order to turn a contained story like “The Exorcist” into an ongoing series, we needed to build a larger mythology for our world, particularly in regards to what the demons are and how they operate. So we assimilated all the creepiest, juiciest details, while ignoring the elements that didn’t fit with the story we were trying to tell.

L-R: Hannah Kasulka, Brianne Howey, Alan Ruck, Geena Davis, Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels in “The Exorcist,” premiering Friday, Sept. 23 (9 p.m. ET/PT) on FOX.

Photo credit: Patrick Ecclesine/FOX

Speaking of telling stories, you have experience writing horror films. What are the differences between writing for a horror film and writing for a horror TV series?

Making a television series – particularly when you’re trying to emulate the quality of the original film – basically means that you’re producing a complete 43-minute feature film every single week (whereas a theatrical horror film may shoot for anywhere from 25-50 days). And the reality is that nothing takes longer to film than horror sequences, because they rely so heavily on pacing and atmosphere. That means we have to be extremely smart about where we spend our resources, because every single horror set piece is taking away at least one of your precious filming days. You really have to choose your moments to scare the audience because if you flub even a single scene, the entire episode suffers. It’s definitely a learning curve, but the good news is that our scares are getting better and better with every single episode.

How do you try to ensure that the show isn’t “just another” horror TV series?

I’m not interested in creating a show that only appeals to niche horror fans or genre gore hounds. “The Exorcist” was always designed as a character-based psychological thriller, first and foremost. I’m a lifelong horror fan, so of course I want to create something that the horror community loves and embraces. But at the end of the day, if we can’t reach beyond that community, then I’ve failed, because I want this to be a show that can be enjoyed by a much larger audience. So as far as I’m concerned, we’re not in competition with other horror shows – we’re in competition with other shows, period.

It’s been nearly 43 years since “The Exorcist” was released in theaters. Are you counting on younger viewers recognizing the franchise? What kind of fan base are you hoping to build on?

It would be a mistake to assume that audiences will show up just because we have the “Exorcist” name; we have to give them a compelling reason to come back, week after week. Part of the challenge is reaching a younger audience who may not be familiar with the original film or may have seen its impact diluted by all of the lousy knockoffs that have followed in the last four decades. I’m sure it’s a challenge for the marketing folks, but creatively it’s almost a blessing.

How so?

The fact that we’re not beholden to the source material and have the leeway to create something fun and original is our single best chance to survive and flourish. Ultimately, no one is going to tune in to a show that’s just a slavish recreation of a 40-year-old movie, regardless of our pedigree. We have to prove to audiences that this is a story worth telling and that these are characters worth following. Nothing else matters.

You recently tweeted a nice homage to the cast and crew of the show, and you mentioned “some of the most daunting, complicated shots, stunts and effects that you can imagine.” What’s an example of a shot, stunt or effect that you hope viewers will appreciate?

One sequence that stands out is the climax of our third episode, which takes place on an elevated train car. We actually rented an entire L train and spent several nights speeding through the city, while inside the carriage our poor actors were being hurled through the air and doused in all sorts of bodily fluids. Shooting something that massive and complicated was a logistical nightmare, but the end result is – I hope, anyway – going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen before on television.

Does the show have themes or ideas that you hope will resonate with audiences?

I think all you have to do is turn on the nightly news to know that the world is a dark, scary place at the moment. Sometimes it feels like we’ve reached some sort of cultural tipping point, and now everything is spiraling into chaos and anger. There’s something strangely reassuring about positing the idea that maybe all of this darkness and rage can be traced back to a single source, that maybe we aren’t necessarily the architects of everything that has gone wrong with the world. And the flip side of that coin is the idea that if evil is an actual, active presence in our lives, then good must be also. And it’s comforting to think that there are still decent people out there, doing their best to push back against the darkness.

What do you hope the watercooler conversations about “The Exorcist” will be like?

My goal was to create a propulsive, serialized story, filled with giant twists and turns. I’d love to do for horror what “Lost” did for desert islands or “Breaking Bad” did for crystal meth. As a storyteller, there’s no better feeling than surprising your audience. And we’ve got some big surprises on the way!

The Exorcist” premieres this Friday, Sept. 23, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.