With the juggernaut success of The Walking Dead, comics creator and writer Robert Kirkman has found himself much in demand, and not just for spinoffs of his groundbreaking undead series. This weekend sees the premiere of Outcast, the new supernatural horror drama based on his comic of the same name. (It’s airing June 3 on Cinemax, which means you’ve got another reason beyond The Knick and Banshee to subscribe.) The A.V. Club sat down with Kirkman, showrunner Chris Black, director Adam Wingard, and star Patrick Fugit to talk about filming the pilot, developing a story about demonic possessions, and how to shoot an exorcism in a way we’ve never seen before.
AVC: The opening sequence of Outcast is startling. Between that and Walking Dead, which had an equally iconic shock opening, at what point do these striking moments occur to you? Do they lead your brain into the story, or are these events that come to you after you’ve been writing for a while?
Robert Kirkman: It happens at different times. I mean, if you see the comic book, that first scene is not in the comic. And that’s because him biting his finger and all that kind of stuff was kind of baked in. Over time, I can add to them a little bit. I mean, I always like to start things with a punch. I have had concepts before—Outcast is not one of them—where I come up with this really cool opening scene and then I just kind of build the thing after that.
AVC: This is the second time that you’ve adapted your own work for television. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from doing The Walking Dead that can apply to this?
RK: I think the main lessons just come down to what the different mediums offer. There are certain things you can do in comics that give a scene a lot of punch that you just can’t accomplish in TV. One of the best things about TV is that you can let a scene breathe in ways that you can’t in comics. In comics, you add two, three, four pages to a scene. But television being able to have motion and sound, and [being able to] move things, without it having to be this page-turning function that you have to keep in mind, allows you to expand. Which is something I think Chris and I have been able to take great advantage of in moving forward with this show, because a whole lot of what you do is taking what I like to call “bullshit scenes” and expanding them in interesting ways and punching new things into the nooks and crannies.
Chris Black: Robert is incredibly collaborative. He created this material. He created these characters. He knows the mythology. He demands, and we respect, a certain amount of fidelity to that. But, that said, he also really understands that the comic medium and the television medium are very different. You can’t take a 22-page issue of a comic… there’s just simply not enough material there to fill 60 minutes of premium cable television. So, he fully encourages myself and the writers, “Okay, you’ve got to build this. This you’ve got to run with this. You’ve got to flesh it out, fill it out.”
RK: I feel like I’ve done my work. They have to do theirs.
CB: The great thing about working with Robert is he’s so encouraging of us to take what he’s created and run with it, you know? There are times when we’ve come back to him and said, “Hey, we came up with this great idea. We have to have this character do this, this, and this.” And he goes, “Ah, no.” But to be honest, that’s pretty rare. That doesn’t happen often. Nine times out of 10, the response is, “That’s fantastic. I love that. do that.”
RK: A lot of times, when that happens, it’s because I know what is happening in issue 35, but issue 35 unfortunately isn’t out yet. And it’s not really a hard, “No, you can’t do that,” although sometimes…
CB: Sometimes it is.
RK: I’m a very firm believer in the fact that the comic book exists and it’s not getting tampered with. I have this avenue where everything I want to do without any kind of interference exists. At the end of the day, if we get into a huge fight over the show—which luckily has never happened—if Chris really strongly believed in something that I really, really didn’t want to do, I can go, “Well, the comic did it better in that instance. So you have fun with that.”
AVC: Or, you just name a character Chris Black and then kill him.
RK: And I’m fine with that. [Laughs.] Chris is extremely talented and brings a lot to the table himself. I never want to be in a position where I feel like me wanting to hold true to this comic book that I’m intimately familiar with restricts other people who may not necessarily see all the things I see or want the story to go in the direction I want it to go in. I don’t want to hold him back, you know? I want him to also feel an investment in this as a show and be 100 percent in control of where he wants the story to go.
CB: I don’t feel that I or any of the members of the writing staff have been held back in any way. It’s always the opposite. It feels in a way like the two things feed on each other. Walking Dead was so many issues ahead of the show, whereas we’re running almost concurrently with what issues are coming out as we’re trying to figure out what’s going on and eagerly waiting. We ask Robert: “Send it as soon as you have it. We don’t even need to see the art yet. Just show us what the script is because we want to know what’s going to happen,” because it really stokes the furnace in the writers’ room. We may not do exactly what he wants to do, but it drives the story in that direction.
AVC: Chris, you have experience with this kind of story: You actually wrote for Poltergeist: The Legacy.
CB: Oh, my God.
RK: That’s a deep pull.
CB: The funny thing is, I didn’t work on that show on staff. I did a couple freelance episodes. It had nothing to do with Poltergeist the movie franchise. It was a poor anthology show about a bunch of people on an island in San Francisco Bay fighting evil.
RK: Is that a Lost reference?
CB: No, that was a very deep pull.
AVC: When it comes to your relationship to the source material as a director, Adam, how did you end up using the original comic?
Adam Wingard: The most obvious starting point that I asked myself was, visually, how much do I want to stay in the same world as the comic book? It has a very colorful look to it, and I knew I didn’t want this thing to have that. I wanted it to be more grounded in reality. At the same time, the comic does have this great, gritty appeal to it. The world feels very lived-in and worn. It was more from a production design angle that we said, “Let’s try to emulate this. Let’s try to get these same type of houses, the same type of messiness in Kyle’s home.” Fortunately for me, the pilot sticks pretty close to the very first issue. The first issue is a really short version of the pilot. So I had a really great starting point.
I didn’t treat it necessarily like storyboards in that sense, but there were certain key shots I tried to emulate. Because I knew that, for fans of the comic book, if you didn’t get any kind of direct translation over, I think you’d be disappointed. For me, whenever I’m thinking in terms of adapting something based on preexisting material, I always try to think back to when I was a kid and whenever I watched stuff like Masters Of The Universe or something, and I’m disappointed because… you just feel like the people in charge didn’t care about the source material, you know? Although Masters Of The Universe, I love that. [Laughs.] So, I always try to kind of think back to if I was a kid and was geeking out on this stuff. What would my expectations be? What would be fun or disappointing to me? At the same time, it’s its own thing as well.
At the end of the day, my responsibility wasn’t just toward the script or the comic book. It was also toward setting up something that was going to be followed by nine other directors on nine other episodes, you know? It was pretty complicated in that sense, where I’m trying to think in terms of the look and feel being something that’s achievable in every episode, and won’t get boring. That was a challenge in itself, because I have never done TV before. It was a learning experience in that sense. It’s funny how these things, once you really commit toward a look and feel, everything just flows together. When the right creative team is there, then it works.
AVC: Patrick, to picture your character, you can literally look at the comics page and go, “Oh, this is what he is.” Once the script arrives, did you set aside the comics and say, “I can’t think about this too much?”
Patrick Fugit: When we were initially revving up to go, I got however many of the issues were out at that point. I went through them and read them to sort of prepare. After I did that prep, a lot of the life of the show and the language of Kyle Barnes as a character within the show was guided by the tone I found in that initial reading of the comics. But it also took on a life of its own, because there’s a lot more room to breathe for the character. There’s a lot more time to tell this story. The issues get like 20 pages, and everything has to be very efficient. In the show, you’re watching a character move and live. For me, once we got into that, it was more paying attention to what was actually happening; figuring out what the cinematic language for each director coming on set was going to be, and trying to get across whatever Kyle’s story was in their sort of style.
AVC: It seems like an unusual form of collaboration to have the creator involved. What are the ways in which it’s different from a normal project?
PF: I feel like if you were doing something more in line with the Sin City movies, that might mean having the graphic artist on set really communicating what they needed. [Gestures to Adam.] It seems like you guys established a cinematic show vocabulary and then expressed it, and Robert was very comfortable with letting the show be what it’s going to be. He obviously cares about the tone and the overview, but the way that it’s accomplished, he’s handing it off to the people he considers experts, like Chris.
AW: As soon as I got hired on to this thing, I sat down with Kirkman and Chris Black and had a meeting where I just picked their brain about [stuff] like, “Okay, what’s the underlying meaning behind this motivation with this character?” And also, the mythology in this thing is so complicated. Robert had written a bible that kind of explained where things were going and that kind of stuff. For me, it was really important to be like, “Okay, what do I need to know when I’m approaching this?” To me, it was even important things like this kid, is he sweaty? Are his eyes red? What are the physical characteristics involved? I felt like I was really trying to bring Robert’s vision to life as much as possible because, like I said, other directors are going to have to follow these same types of rules, within reason. We wanted it to be fairly well established from the get-go.
AVC: Robert, what surprised you creatively about that collaborative process? Things they did that you were like, “Wow, I would not have thought of that in a million years.”
RK: There’s definitely a lot. It would be spoiler-y things, but you’ll see it when you watch the season. There’s—geez, I want to say four or five very involved storylines over the course of the first season alone. Just very big character-affecting arcs that are unique to the show. It’s something that I’ve gotten used to because of Walking Dead, where I’m often going, “Oh, well. Didn’t think of that. Ugh, I wish I had.” That to me shows that we’re doing something great and everything is working the way it should work. As the creator of the original material, I should be sitting there going, [Sighs.] “Damn it. I missed that beat. I could have played off of that in a certain way. The story could have gone in this direction. Maybe it should have gone in this direction.” That’s the way I want to feel.
AVC: When you were writing about exorcisms, did you have the cinematic or television iconography in your head of exorcisms past?
RK: Yeah, definitely. You want to pay tribute to all of the great stuff that came before, but at the same time, you want to do something that is a fresh take. Walking Dead has always been the zombie movie that never ends, but I like to think that there are elements to it that you’ve never seen in a zombie movie before. That’s definitely what we’re trying to accomplish here. I came into this with certain ideas of how the exorcisms would look and how we would handle them. One of the coolest things about this show is that—and I hope you get a sense of this watching the pilot—there’s a lot going on. There’s a mythology to the show. There are rules and things that apply to every exorcism that we don’t know yet but in the series will be revealed.
A lot of what we did in that pilot was setting up a lot of reveals and Easter eggs where we’ll find out more and more, as we go through our show, how exorcism actually works and what is involved in demonic possession. And you’ll be able to go, “Oh, they were totally setting that thing up, and this all works. What is the way that that works?” And you’ll see why different techniques that characters use are effective and why they’re effective. To a certain extent, it’ll be like a scientific exploration of how exorcism could work, but in an interesting way. [Pause.] That sounds kind of boring.
PF: If this interview ends up being terrible, at the end, we can be like, “So, season two of The Leftovers. Did you watch?”
AVC: Adam and Patrick, when you were reading either Kirkman’s comics or the script for the first time, what moments stood out?
AW: I read the script very skeptical because of the fact that the exorcism subgenre has been done to death, and there hasn’t been anything new with it. But that pilot starts immediately with a kid smashing his head against a wall with a cockroach. That was promising to start. What really got me was, this possession scene, where instead of throwing holy water and yelling at this kid, it goes a completely different direction. That’s when I was like, “Okay. Yeah. I’m 100 percent on board because this is going to be shocking and exciting and something totally new.” And that’s all that mattered to me. If you’re going to do an exorcism story, it’s got to be something I haven’t seen before, you know? And that’s what this is.
PF: I think during the audition process, when I read it, it was obviously the higher intensity beats, but as we went through, I was fleshing out what it was that drives Kyle and what it is he means to me and the story and everything: what it is when we’re watching Kyle, what it is that’s going to help us be on his side. And it was the connection to this family life. This picture he has in his head of what he’s wanted his life to be for so long. It’s just been taken away from him. That, and the possession scene.
AVC: Robert and Chris, are there things that you can identify as far as what you need for a television pilot versus a first issue?
RK: I mean, [Sarcastic voice.] my pilot script was amazing top to bottom, don’t get me wrong. [Laughs.] I always feel like I’m the least experienced person in the room. I don’t really consider myself to be a TV writer. I consider myself to be a comic book writer first and foremost, so there are certain things I feel like I have blindspots about, and the team as a whole was able to help plug those things in and help guide me into punching up the script as best I could.
CB: He’s being very modest, uncharacteristically so, about the pilot script. That script is a remarkable script. It’s a wonderful piece of writing. It’s one of the best pieces of television writing I had ever read. It’s the reason I wanted so desperately to be a part of this project was when they sent me that script. That opening scene, for me, is almost as chilling on the page as it wound up being on the screen. When I got that and started reading it, I was like, “Holy shit!”
AVC: When that kid…
CB: That whole sequence is called out in Robert’s script. “This is what’s going to happen, and this what this kid is doing, and this is the impact of it, and this is how it feels.” To go to his further point, it really was one of the reasons that the pilot episode did turn out so well is; it was a great team. We got a great director in Adam Wingard. The casting process was incredibly meticulous. We knew the actor had to work, and getting Patrick was a real coup. Seeing him read that part for the first time in the casting office, it was a revelation. It was like, “Oh, there he is. There’s the guy. There’s Kyle Barnes.” It really was a wonderful collaboration.
RK: We let him hang for a couple weeks after that audition before we let him know he was Kyle Barnes.
AVC: You want to show him who’s boss.
RK: Yeah. But we knew from second one.
AVC: Between Outcast and The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman shows are one of the few places on TV where you see Southern working-class people in narrative storytelling. Was that part of the appeal to you as well?
PF: Yeah, like Rustbelt American storytelling. It’s always interesting, and having a character like Kyle Barnes who is in extraordinary circumstances but is sort of an ordinary man.
AVC: He’s kind of a mess.
PF: Yeah, and he wants the family life. He wants to be with his wife and daughter. He wants to work and be happy. And obviously…[Laughs.]
AVC: Everything goes perfectly smoothly.
PF: The characters and the audience have to believe that it’s set in a realistic world, so that anything supernatural feels very out of context and ominous, freaky. I always feel like the more the characters treat their context or the setting of their story as reality, the more I can get on with the fact that crazy stuff is happening and that it could be really scary.
AVC: That’s not surprising, as both you and Adam come from a background of small, character-driven stuff. Even when you’re doing something really intense, you don’t usually do supernatural, crazy, over-the-top material. You both do more grounded work.
PF: I think I kind of naturally steer toward that [style]. It’s what I always appreciate, and it’s a skill set that I really admire—it’s what I’ve tried to develop over my career. I think that when they’re looking for somebody that fits that grounded style, then that’s probably how I ended up getting in the room in the first place.
AW: I think good horror has intimacy with the characters and the story in general. I guess that goes for any film or any genre: It’s only going to be as effective as your empathy toward the characters you’re watching. That was always the commitment from the start: Let’s set up these characters, and then any situation we put them in will be varying degrees of creepy and scary and stuff, more so than if it was just like a scare per second, where you’re numb by the end of it.
AVC: Robert, watching the first episode of this completed version versus the first time you watched that first episode of Walking Dead, having the intervening years, how did you experience it differently?
RK: Well, I didn’t write the pilot for Walking Dead. That was Frank [Darabont].
AVC: But he kept you pretty abreast of what he was doing.
RK: He barely changed the comic, so most of it is my work. Let’s be honest. [Pause.] I’m kidding.
CB: Sort of.
AVC: Huge humblebrag.
RK: Yikes, sorry.
AVC: I’m also kidding.
RK: Don’t use that part of the interview. That’ll be the headline.
CB: “Kirkman Slams Darabont.”
RK: [Laughs.] No! Not at all. It’s nerve-wracking because I’m still not quite used to hearing my dialogue said aloud, things like that, although I’ve been doing this for many years. But also it kind of speaks to the collaborative process. I think the actors did such an amazing job from top to bottom. [Adam] Wingard over there, just the way he framed shots, and the way he did things that directors do that I can’t really verbalize because I’m a moron.
CB: And [cinematographer] David Tattersall…
RK: I’m getting to Tattersall! But yeah, and Tattersall, having him, it was amazing because he was the DP on The Walking Dead pilot. So having him back, so that we had some visual continuity and had somebody that we knew and Chris knew really well.
CB: I had worked with him as well, so it was a real coup to get him.
AVC: Are you planning on having a similar level of involvement in this show as you do with Walking Dead in terms of occasionally doing scripts?
RK: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the exact same level of involvement.
CB: But what is your involvement with Walking Dead? Just so I know what your level is going to be.
RK: I’ve been very involved, you know. Season six [Smiles, shrugs.]… I mean, whatever. That train is driving itself.
CB: I’m kidding.
RK: I’m almost more involved at times on this just because there aren’t as many comics.
CB: It’s still being formed.
RK: Especially, you know, first season and all. Explaining how I see certain things and working out the facts and stuff like that. I don’t do a lot of noting zombie effects on Walking Dead at this point, you know?
CB: But, for instance, just the design of the black creature that you see in the pilot, getting that right was a really long and meticulous process. Robert has been really engaged in the visual design components of the show, and trying to translate the way Paul Azaceta drew something to invoke the spirit of that working with the visual effects people. It’s really important to us that Robert and Paul feel we accurately conveyed their vision of what the world should look like and what the entity should look like.
RK: That was actually a fairly involved process because you get a sense of what that entity looks like in the comic, but there is no motion. How it moves and what kind of movement there is within it… it’s hard to describe. You could take that panel of a comic and you could interpret it 500 different ways in a show, and it would be different 500 times. So, finding exactly what it is that we wanted that works was a very involved process.
CB: And finding the language to convey that to the digital effects…
RK: “It’s too… it needs to be a little more… can it be a little…”
AVC: Having done the pilot now, Adam, are you doing individual episodes as well?
PF: Yes, he’s coming back for every episode. [Laughs.]
AW: I was originally going to come back to do the finale, but I was shooting another movie in Vancouver, and the schedule kept getting pushed, so I wasn’t able to do it. I did help on editing some of the episodes, so I didn’t just abandon the guy.
AVC: And you’ll be back for season two, presumably?
AW: I mean, if I can.
PF: Every single episode.
AW: The problem is scheduling this stuff out. If it were up to me, I would have done the pilot, episodes two, three, and then the finale, but you just got to go with the flow, you know? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do it. Sorry, I gave you a lame answer for your last question.
PF: Should we drop a couple F-bombs or something?
AW: Spice it the fuck up.