Interview: 'The Exorcist' TV Series Creator Jeremy Slater Explains Why He Decided To Take On A Classic

The Exorcist is the latest classic movie getting the TV treatment. Executive producer Jeremy Slater, who already experienced a different sort of franchise in 2015's Fantastic Four, got out ahead of the fall premiere on Twitter. He tweeted that one reason he took on The Exorcist was so no one else would remake it. He also shared Deadline's report that Alan Ruck had been bumped up to series regular.

Last week, Fox screened the pilot for The Exorcist to press. The show takes place in present day, though Google searches show that the Father Merrin exorcism still happened. Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) is helping the Rance family in his church. Angela Rance (Geena Davis) thinks there's more than just a degenerative head trauma plaguing her husband (Ruck), and her daughters are manifesting symptoms too. Ortega has vivid dreams of another exorcist, Father Marcus Lang (Ben Daniels), and the pilot features some new twists on classic Exorcist images.

We had a chance to speak with Slater during the reception for the pilot screening. Some spoilers follow, but most likely things that will be hyped up in the trailers for the show anyway.

I saw your tweets that the reason you took the job was you didn't want anybody else to remake The Exorcist, and I know every project is different and has different levels of scrutiny. Was this any more or less scrutinized than your experience on Fantastic Four?

A different kind of scrutiny. Fantastic Four I didn't feel the same pressure because I really believed that the right version of Fantastic Four hadn't been done before. The Tim Story movies have their fans but that wasn't the Fantastic Four that I grew up reading and loving. They weren't the characters I was excited to write about, where Exorcist is a perfect film. I still think it's the scariest movie ever made so it's really big shoes to fill. When they brought up the idea trying to pitch me over the phone, at the time it was a 10-episode miniseries, I said, "That's the worst idea I've ever heard because you're never going to be better than the original film. You're just going to be longer than the original film. So I shouldn't do it and you shouldn't do it either." Then I hung up the phone and sat down. I'm like, "It's too bad that they're dead set on remaking the original film because there would be a great story if you set it in modern day and you did this and you did this." I thought about it for about half an hour and I called them up and said, "Let me just see if I can go in and pitch another take and see if they'll change their mind." I really kind of pitched it, this is like three or four years ago so Fargo didn't exist at the time, but I pitched it a lot like the TV show Fargo. Let's tell a story that exists in the same universe, it exists 40 years later so you're not rebooting or remaking the original. You're not saying it didn't exist. You're just telling a different story with different characters in the same universe but you're hopefully trying to recapture the tone and the complexity of the original.

We've seen both approaches. Limitless is also in the world of the film. Bates Motel is a retelling. Does each franchise just require a different take?

I think so, yeah. I don't think The Exorcist would lend itself to a prequel the way something like Bates Motel does. The idea of trying to do a sequel with the same characters didn't hold a lot of appeal. You don't want to follow up Exorcist II: The Heretic and say, "Here's the next one of those."

Come on, Exorcist III: Legion!

Look, I am a big fan of Legion. I think there's amazing stuff in that movie. The nurse scare, I'll go down on record, that's one of if not the best jump scare in movie history. I saw that thing at New Beverly with a crowd full of jaded horror fans who had seen that thing 100 times before. They still screamed when that nurse came out. Yeah, the appeal was really: Can we tell something new, something that has more legs and something that's going to surprise audiences? I don't think there's any surprise to saying we're going to remake the original story and it's going to be Regan MacNeil with her head spinning around and the first eight hours of the season are spooky shit is going wrong in the walls and weird sounds in the attic. Then you get to the exorcism in the last two episodes and everyone goes home. There's not a show there. There's nothing that would get me excited as a viewer. The challenge here was to take the shows that I love of Breaking Bad and Lost and all my favorite shows, and can I do the horror version of those? Can I do something with a rich mythology that can for hopefully years to come and characters you maybe haven't seen on TV before and big questions about faith and moral complexity that you may not see on your average procedural I guess? That's really what drew me to the project.

The Exorcist

It opens with a priest looking up at a window. Is that just how an Exorcist story begins?

I think so. There were some hat tip moments that we knew we had to incorporate. The priest looking up, the head spin we obviously have a version in there. At some point in the season there will probably be a little bit of pea soup somewhere. We had Tubular Bells in there at the end. There are things the audience is going to be expecting to see in a show like this. Our approach is, let's have some fun with them in the pilot but let's get them out there in the open so that you can move on and so you can start doing new things and get out from underneath the shadow of the original movie as quickly as you can and let the show become its own thing.

Can you use the theme every week?

I think that's a one time [only]. I think it's 40 grand every time we use it. [Our composer] Daniel Hart just did that amazing Pete's Dragon.

I didn't expect to hear the theme at all so I was happy to hear it once.

Yeah, we had to get it in there. It's not The Exorcist if you don't have Tubular Bells. That's the ring tone on my phone for the last five years before I even got this project. Look, I'm a hardcore Exorcist fan. I saw it when I was 13 and it messed me up for weeks afterwards. So yeah, I'm hoping that we get the chance to mess up some new viewers.

I've never seen anything like the eye effect during the exorcism. Is that based on any research?

It's not. That was an image that came from Rupert Wyatt, our fabulous director. We were really trying to find a way to signify demonic possession out in the open because as you saw, with the priest at the convent who has the eye roll again, we have more than just one possessed person in this show going forward. There's going to be a much larger conspiracy and a much larger mythology. We needed a way to signify that. Rupert found some image on some graphic site of two pupils kinda fighting for each other, and got really excited about that. So yeah, that was all him but we love it.

You said you hadn't intended Alan Ruck to be a regular originally. Watching the pilot, how was he ever not going to be a major character?

That character was originally written as a man suffering early onset dementia, Alzheimer's, something like that and it was written a bit older. I'd been such an enormous fan of Alan Ruck. Obviously Ferris Bueller but also he really blew me away in an episode of Justified in the first season. He played a dentist on the run and it's just a phenomenal dramatic performance. The second we had the chance to cast, I just saw him on the list of potential Henrys. I said, "Okay, we don't need to audition anyone. If I can get Alan Ruck, we're casting Alan Ruck." Then it immediately became a story of there's not a lot of story to tell with someone who has Alzheimer's because it's such a progressive disease that the longer the show goes on, the less things you can do with his character because the more he's going to disappear. We kind of just changed it on the fly and made it a traumatic brain injury instead of Alzheimer's. It's obviously something we'll get into in later episodes but it gives a nice parallel of making him a man who's kind of a prisoner inside his own body and is kind of fighting to get back to normal, which nicely parallels what his daughter is going through. It really worked out for the best.

How far have you mapped out so far?

Our writers room actually just started about three weeks ago. We have an amazingly talented [room]. I am by far the worst writer on our staff.

But it's unusual for show runners to not have 5-7 seasons at least outlined.

Yeah, when I pitched the show I had a very rough seven years plan of where this goes and what happens to our main guys. Who knows how much of that will stay set in stone because the worst thing you can do is be protective of your ideas at this stage of the game. We've got a lot of really smart people in there. I definitely know where the first season goes and we're building to something much larger than just a simple exorcism. Hopefully by the time you get to the end of the first season, you'll see that the show is probably a lot bigger than anyone would suspect after watching this pilot.

With Death Note, has anything changed with its move to Netflix?

I don't think so. Unfortunately I had to step away from the project because there wasn't time to do the final pass of rewrites and I had to be in Chicago and Mexico City to shoot this. Unfortunately I wasn't able to be there but I think it's in really good hands with Adam Wingard. He's an amazingly talented director and I think Netflix, with Warner Bros. they were really excited about it. I think at the end of the day it just came down to a matter of budget. I don't think Netflix blinked twice at the budget because I don't think it was a prohibitively expensive movie. Netflix was really, really enthusiastic about the script. They saw the potential in it. It sounds like they just want to make the best possible version. I'm excited for people. I think it's a lot darker and funnier and scarier than people are going to be expecting, so I'm really excited for people to see it. I'm excited to see it. I have no idea who's cast in it or where it's shooting or anything like that. I've been so out of the loop.

Is there any talk or any interest at Fox in assembling a cut of Fantastic Four that's close to the original script? I know they didn't get to shoot all of it.

I have no idea. Everyone says there was another version but I did my last draft of that and then two years later I saw it at the premiere and I really had no contact in between those periods. If there's more versions out there, I never saw them. I'd be curious to see.

***

The Exorcist premieres Friday, September 23 on Fox.