'Outcast' Boss Explains Brutal Fist-Fight Featuring 10-Year-Old Boy

Showrunner Chris Black talks with THR about the demons to come on Cinemax's exorcism drama from 'Walking Dead' creator Robert Kirkman.
Courtesy of Cinemax

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of Cinemax's Outcast.]

After all the terrifying demonic activity in Friday's Outcast series premiere, the people of Rome, West Virginia, might actually be wishing for a zombie invasion.

Cinemax's new horror thriller from The Walking Dead mastermind Robert Kirkman — based on his comic series — trades the undead for the truly evil, with brooding loner Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) taking on a rural town plagued by violent demon possession. And the premiere culminated with an admittedly uncomfortable sight: a knock-down, drag-out fist-fight between Kyle and Joshua, a possessed 10-year-old boy. (Granted, the kid had demonic super strength, but still.)

Below, Outcast executive producer Chris Black (Star Trek: Enterprise, Sliders) talks with The Hollywood Reporter about pushing boundaries with that unconventional fight scene, how child actor Gabriel Bateman handled playing an evil spirit, and what kind of demons — real or otherwise — Kyle faces the rest of the season.

In the premiere's climactic battle, Kyle's own blood seems to draw the demon out of Joshua. So it's not just a coincidence that Kyle has faced all these demons in his life. He's a born demon slayer.

It is quite literally in his blood. And that is the revelation for him at the end of the pilot. It's not random. It's something that's been drawn to him. But it's also something, more importantly, that he can exercise some control over — that he has some ability to combat and, hopefully, ultimately overcome. And the revelation of the blood is really kind of just the first step in his journey to getting a greater understanding of this: the mechanics of it, the mythology of it and continuing to get some mastery over it. And he'll enhance his understanding and refine his technique, if you will, of dealing with it. So that every confrontation doesn't need to end in battery and chaos, in the way that it does at the end of the pilot.

Speaking of "battery and chaos": That final fight with Kyle and Joshua was brutal. How do you film something like that and also protect the child actor?

Protect them physically, or psychologically? Because physically, you really see the professionalism and the precision of a modern filmmaking crew. These are people who do not mess around with people's safety. These are people who know what they're doing. We have a wonderful stunt coordinator and a stunt team who pre-visualize everything and work extensively with the actors. They're very careful to make sure things go the way they're supposed to go.

We also have a very physical lead actor in Patrick Fugit who's very engaged in that process, very interested in doing a lot of the work himself and making it right. And he and Gabriel Bateman, who plays Joshua, got along famously. If we were at all nervous about this being psychologically scarring for him in any way … for him, it was like a day at the playground. He loved it. The other actors and the stunt coordinator, they didn't treat him any differently that they would any other adult professional actor, in approaching the execution of that scene. You would be watching it on the monitors and be horrified, and then the director Adam Wingard would call "cut!" and they would be cracking up. You know, blood spattered everywhere, but just having a grand old time. It's like, where would you rather be? In school, or doing this?

Did anyone in the development process have second thoughts about that scene? Because as a viewer, you understand why Kyle's punching this 10-year-old kid, but it's still tough to watch.

Oh, yeah, no question. It was part of Robert's conception of this story from the very beginning. And there was a lot of debate about, "Is this appropriate? Is this pushing the boundaries too far?" Even though Cinemax was very encouraging for us to really not have any boundaries with our storytelling, or the explicit nature of the storytelling. To some degree, we were self-censoring ourselves. "Is this too much?" And I think we all made the decision — and Robert, principally, who really believed this is the way the story ended for this character. And it made a statement about the show: This is the show that you're going to be watching. And if the kitchen is too hot, don't stay. So there'd be no question about what you're in store for if you're going to stick with this show.

There's also that chilling opening scene with Joshua head-butting a roach and eating it, and then chewing off his own finger. What's he actually chewing on there?

(Laughs.) It's funny: One of the things I love about this business, other than the creative process, is the actual technical mechanics of filmmaking. And the bug shot was a fairly complex shot. It was a composite shot where he was sitting in the bed, and there was basically a soft pad against the wall for him to smack his head against. And he really went for it. But there was a pad there, so he wouldn't get hurt. And then that was digitally removed, and replaced with the wall and the bug.

And then the finger was a prosthetic finger. I'm not a 100 percent sure what it's made out of. It's sort of a rubbery material that he could bite into, and tear away with his teeth, with a structure built underneath that looked like bone and blood to pump out. You know, it looks so horrifying on film, and then you're standing there behind the camera, and there's a half dozen people with little tubes and pumps and stuff to make it all work. It's not nearly as gruesome when you see how the sausages are made.

You've worked on a number of sci-fi and genre TV shows before. Does Outcast being on Cinemax give you a little more freedom in depicting these demons and the depths of evil?

Yeah, I think you used the right word in "freedom." It's not that they push us to do it. It's that they liberated us to do it. And it took me a little while to accept that. Because I have done a lot of genre material, but I've also done a lot of fairly mainstream network television. In the back of your head, you're thinking, "I'm not on a broadcast network anymore." It took a while for me to take myself out of the frame of mind where you're waiting for the memo from [the Department of Standards and Practices] to come. Of what you can't do, and can't say, and can't show. It's a weird horse trading, where it's, "OK, I'll give you two 'sons of bitches,' but you can't have a 'bastard.'" It really is an interesting process. And at Cinemax, their attitude is, "No, do what works. Do what tells the story. Craft it for maximum impact." And they never pushed us to go further, but they never came to us and said, "You've gone too far."

Of course we remember Fugit from Almost Famous, but we haven't seen much of him onscreen recently. What made you and Robert decide he's the guy to play Kyle?

Patrick was an actor who I had worked with a few years before. I had done a pilot with him at ABC [Reckless] that didn't get picked up. But I had a wonderful experience with him, and I knew what a talented actor he was. And when we started the casting process for Kyle Barnes, it was a difficult role to cast, for a lot of reasons. That final exorcism scene with Joshua being one of them, but also someone who brought a sensitivity and humanity and empathy and vulnerability to this role. We saw a lot of fine actors for this role. But a lot of them came at it with anger, or ferocity. And they were good performances, but Robert, in particular, looked at them and said, "That's not quite right. That's not quite who I see Kyle as being." And Patrick came in and read, and I remember distinctly, as soon as he finished, Robert turning to me and saying, "That's it." We both sort of knew.

At the end of the pilot, Kyle challenges the demons: "Come and get me." So how does that play out over the rest of season one? Is each episode a "demon of the week"?

We don't want it to be a demon per week. We made a conscious decision, when we were figuring out what the series was going to be beyond the pilot, that we didn't want it to feel like a procedural. We didn't want it to feel like every week, there's a demon, and every week, they succeed and walk away. That was very much against what Robert has perceived as the problem with the way exorcisms had traditionally been portrayed in movies: There was one case, and the priest or pastor came in and battled the demon, and the victim was saved, and they walked away, mission accomplished. He was like, "Why does no one ever look at this as a problem that can be solved? Why is no one ever questioning where these things are coming from? Why are they here? What do they want? And how can we prevent it from happening to the next person?"

So that's what we're hoping their journey is going to be: It's going to be a longer-arc mythology story, in delving into the relationships between these characters. We hope it feels like a small-town ensemble drama first, and a horror show second, but with this mythology laid over it. Like we talked about with [Kyle's] blood: The blood is only kind of the first clue in what we hope is going to be an evolving investigation to figure out where these things are coming from, what they are, what they want and what weapons are effective against them.

Outcast is part of a trend of demons and exorcism on TV: The Omen follow-up, Damien, was just canceled after one season A&E; The Exorcist is getting a reboot on Fox. So are demons officially the new zombies?

(Laughs.) I don't know; I can't really speak to that. It certainly seems like there's something out there now. Look, these things, as we well know, become cyclical. As soon as one comes along that's really good, like The Walking Dead, that becomes popular again. But I think the hunger is always out there. With horror or supernatural or science fiction on television, my feeling is: The fans are always there. There's always been a hunger for that. People want to see science fiction, or zombies, or vampires, or exorcisms or whatever. That fan base is steady, if not growing. But now, with this massive expansion of platforms, there are many more outlets for people willing to cater to those desires. When there were only the major broadcast networks, it was a much riskier proposition to put on a zombie show or a vampire show or something that might only appeal to a really dedicated niche audience. And now you have places like Cinemax and AMC and the streaming services, who are like, "Yeah, let's take a chance on that. Let's put those shows out there, because we know people will come."

Outcast airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax. What did you think of the premiere? Sound off in the comments section below.

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