Rupert Wyatt on Directing The Exorcist Pilot, How Modern Evil Makes the Story More Relevant Than Ever

There’s a recent trend to try to revitalize old properties with new TV shows. We’ve got “Scream,” “Damien,” “Fargo,” even a “Lethal Weapon” series; and starting tonight we’ll also have “The Exorcist.” It’s a bit of a grey area for fans. No matter how much we want to see new stories set in our favorite fictional universes, even the most accepting of viewers has to raise an eyebrow.

The real question isn’t whether the source material is great; it’s why this, and why now? Is it an original story that deserves to be told, or is it just using the name to try to rake in a few extra dollars?

It’s a cynical way to approach a show about priests fighting demons, but it’s honest. This is the kind of stuff fans want to know. And you don’t find horror fans bigger than those here at Dread Central. So when I recently had a chance to watch the pilot and speak to its director, Rupert Wyatt, these questions were in the forefront of my mind.

First and foremost, why now? What was the point of rebooting The Exorcist today? He was quick to correct me:

Wyatt: “’The Exorcist’ series is not a reboot. We never approached it as a reboot. The events of the original are referenced, but it’s not the premise of the new narrative. We aren’t just retelling Regan’s possession. It takes place in the same fictional universe, but what happens in the show is entirely original.”

So don’t expect this to be the same beats with a modern trend. Having seen the pilot, I can definitely attest that this is a whole different beast.

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That doesn’t mean that the soul of the source material is lost. Wyatt said that the series took more inspiration from the novel, with the battle between good and evil as the foundation. He found the story to be particularly poignant in a modern setting, as we live in a society where we feel evil is more pervasive than ever. Given that you can hardly turn on the news nowadays without hearing of some new mass shooting or ISIS attack, it’s hard to disagree.

Beyond that, Wyatt elaborated that there are other factors that make a modern telling unique. Primarily, our view on the Catholic Church has changed significantly. Once a monolithic institution devoted to hard conservative religious ideology, it has been brought low by scandal after scandal. It’s no longer trusted to be universally good and righteous. It’s a fall from grace compounded by the setting of Chicago, a.k.a. the Mecca of political corruption. There’s an intermingling of beauty and decay to the snowy city, a soot that permeates icy blankets. It’s a very bleak and muddy line between evil and righteous.

This blurring of good and evil is what drew Wyatt to the characters of Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera) and Father Marcus (Ben Daniels). On the one hand you have Tomas, a charismatic priest with good looks and a sexy accent. Once one of the church’s rising stars, a personal scandal has sent him out of the limelight and into this small Chicago parish. He’s a vain man, often more interested in being liked than spreading faith, but has for some reason been called into this life of exorcism.

On the other hand is Father Marcus, a bristly man with a dark past. He’s hard for a reason. He’s seen and experienced horrible things but remains steadfast in his convictions. They’re complicated men, complete with their own flaws, and don’t match the storybook description of a hero.

The Exorcist

Grounding these characters in the real world is integral to the identity of “The Exorcist.” There are a lot of exorcism stories out there, such as the recent Cinemax series “Outcast.” Wyatt said that to create a unique identity for the pilot, he had to make these characters feel as close to real as possible.

Wyatt: “In ‘The Exorcist’ there is the normal world and the supernatural world. To people the supernatural world is completely unexplainable. There isn’t anyone in the show that has special powers or knowledge. No one can explain what is happening or thinks this is all normal. That isn’t really something anyone else is doing now.”

Rupert Wyatt

Wyatt spoke more on what he envisions for the future of the show. He couldn’t comment on the specific directions it would take, but in his mind it’s the beginning of a pattern of events. It starts with this family, but it doesn’t end there. A pandemic of possession is upon us. It’s a family today, but it could be the city tomorrow. As for why? Well, in Catholic teaching, demons are all their own separate creatures. The Devil is just another demon; no one is in charge. “The Exorcist” challenges that assumption:

Wyatt: “What if there is someone in charge? With all of the evil in the world, now is the perfect time to strike. As the show goes on, our characters learn that this is just the beginning of something much bigger. This isn’t random; evil has a plan.”

It’s quite the foreboding statement, even if he couldn’t explain exactly what was in store. It’s subject to change of course; this is television after all. With what I saw in the pilot, series writer Jeremy Slater has a very interesting world in the works. The already promising premise is made even more so with a talented cast, including Daniels, Herrera, Geena Davis, and Alan Ruck (you can read about Ruck’s take on things here).

But hey, don’t take my word for it! Check it out yourself when “The Exorcist” premieres tonight at 9-10PM ET/PT on FOX.  I can definitely say that this is an event you won’t want to miss. Whether you’re a fan of the original or new to “The Exorcist,” it’s creepy as hell.

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Ted Hentschke

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