Comic-Con: Cinemax's 'Outcast' Will Build on Comics, Explore 'Walking Dead' Themes

Showrunner Chris Black talks with THR about what to expect from the cable network's adaptation of the ongoing exorcism comic from the creator of 'The Walking Dead.'
Niko Tavernise (c)2015/FOX International Studios

Cinemax hopes that lightning strikes twice for Robert Kirkman.

The premium cabler is adapting Kirkman's newest comic, Outcast, and hopes that The Walking Dead mastermind's newest series does for the exorcism genre what The Walking Dead has done for zombies — and AMC.

Outcast centers on Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit), a man who has been plagued by possession since he was a child. Now an adult, he embarks on a spiritual journey to find answers, but what he uncovers could mean the end of life on Earth as we know it.

Here, showrunner Chris Black (Star Trek: Enterprise, Sliders, Mad Men)talks with The Hollywood Reporter about his approach to adapting Outcast (now on issue 10), how that compares with adapting The Walking Dead and how the two shows are similar at their emotional center.

The Walking Dead takes a remix approach to 10 years worth of comics. How close will Outcast adhere to its source material?

Our approach is very much the same. The Walking Dead was a preexisting property and there was a deeper well of material to draw from. This is progressing along parallel tracks. We're working on the show as Robert is doing the comics. We're still trying to stick very closely to the story that Robert wants to tell. That said, any given issue of the comic doesn't have enough raw story to generate an hour of premium cable television show, so out of necessity, we're going augment the material. Robert has created a world with such an interesting group of characters that we feel we can expand upon it and make it larger and more interesting without betraying or stepping away from the story that he wants to tell. It's not like Walking Dead where there are tentpole moments that avid readers of the comics have been waiting for years to see. But at the same point, we want the audience to be satisfied when they see that what the television show is doing is also what's great and exciting and groundbreaking about the comic.

How will the 10-episode season be structured? Is this season a close-ended story or will there be a cliffhanger that sets up a second season?

I don't want to give too much away. We hope that every season ending is going to have some component of a cliffhanger element to it that will leave people wanting more and excited and ready to jump into the next season. What Robert wanted to accomplish with Outcast was what always frustrated him about exorcism movies: there would be one take, one possession, one demon that needed to be sent back to hell, and then, at the end of the movie, the exorcist would succeed and it would be over. What Robert saw as the potential of telling this story in a longform comic series and ultimately in a television show is what happens after that. How do you get to the root of the problem? Why doesn't anyone ever look at an exorcism and say, "How do we prevent this from happening again? Where are these things coming from? What do they want? How do we stop this as an epidemic?" Rather than, "Oh, we'll just put out the brush fires as they pop up." The intent with both the comic and ultimately the series is to tell a much longer form story. Though it's not a procedural, it's not exorcism of the week and it's not characters battling a demon week in, week out. It's trying to dig deeper into this methodology and the root of this problem. We hope ultimately it's going to be revealed to be something surprising that people will not have seen before in these kinds of exorcism stories.

It's similar to The Walking Dead; it's a look at survival but not the "how did this happen" sort of origin story.

How it happened isn't important. It is the ongoing drama of these characters: how they deal with the situation, how they interact with each other and how these relationships evolve. The Walking Dead is very different from this show, consciously so. Robert doesn't look at Outcast as a straight-up horror show. He sees it as a character show with horrific elements and that's really what we've been trying to embrace in the storytelling — to look at every episode and ask what is the character drama we're telling here and then step back and say, how do we make it scary? As opposed to what's the horror story and how do we inject some characters into it?

How long do you envision the series running? Robert said before that for the first time, he had a clear ending in mind for Outcast. He said that unlike Walking Dead, he started this knowing that it's a story that has a beginning, middle and end.

We've had conversations and I know what his end game is for the series. He's pitched it to me, and I understand what the larger mythology is and where it's going to end up. Whether that's going to take three, five or eight seasons to tell; I don't know. That's the fun and the challenge of doing a TV series — not knowing exactly what each twist and turn in the road is going to take.

What are some of the themes viewers can expect from Outcast?

It's really about one man's search for answers. What makes us human beings? When you're inhabited by something that isn't you, how does your humanity win out? It's about Kyle discovering his role in the world. I've often heard Robert say that this show is very much Kyle's personal journey from selfishness to selflessness. It's about him initially owning being concerned with the stakes and the threat of the show as it relates to him and impeding what he wants. Ultimately, he discovers that there's a larger battle to be waged, and he has a larger responsibility beyond getting what he wants. To some extent it's about altruism.

What would be your pitch, if I'm a Walking Dead fan and I'm just learning about this series at Comic-Con, what's your pitch to get them to watch Outcast?

It's an incredibly compelling character story about this man who's been plagued by demons his entire life and is searching for answers. It's incredibly chilling and scary and if you're a fan of the genre, I don't think there's anything that's going to disappoint you in terms of it being a show that is truly terrifying. But at the same time, it's satisfying emotionally because it is rooted in these characters, much the way Walking Dead is. I watch The Walking Dead because I'm invested in their survival, I'm invested in their relationships, in the struggle for them to cling to their humanity against this impossible situation. I'm invested in seeing that group stay together as a family and survive and emerge victorious. All of those things apply to Outcast. We've all seen exorcisms before, we've all seen Linda Blair spit up pea soup; we've seen people levitate off beds. We know what those iconic images of this genre are. Much the way Walking Dead delivers zombies, this show will deliver that. If you're a fan of that genre and that's what you want to see, it will be there. But we hope what you'll stick around for is the relationships and the odyssey that these characters go on.

So you will have the levitations and spitting up the soup and all the other iconic exorcism images?

It's a show about exorcisms, and if you are a fan of that genre, you will not be disappointed.

One of the things I like about the recent comics is that you get this family drama. How will Outcast balance being a family drama along with its mystery components?

I don't think you can separate them. The reason that Kyle is confronting these demons and fighting this fight against this supernatural force that he's confronted with is to get his family back and to heal this relationship that has been disrupted so horrifically and so tragically. All Kyle initially cares about is healing this fractured relationship with his wife, putting his family back together, seeing his daughter again and going back to the world that he had. He's not confronting demons necessarily to help the people who are possessed on a case-by-case basis. He sees it as a way to solve his own problems. But ultimately, as he goes down this road and learns more and more about what's really going on, he sees that there is a bigger, more far-reaching problem that he needs to address in order for him to get what he wants, which is his wife and his daughter.

How does Outcast compare with A&E's The Omen sequel, Damien, which also follows a man who learns he's the Antichrist?

It falls under the broader exorcism umbrella. There are certain heroic themes that are universal that you're going to find in every great heroic character, be it Kyle, be it Damien. I'm not familiar enough with what A&E is doing with that show. Obviously, we're all familiar with The Omen movies, and in The Omen movies, he's the antichrist. That's about as far from our Kyle character as you can get. It's pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum. I don't know what their plan is but what I know about The Omen mythology based on the movies, and what I know about Outcast is, they are on very different tracks. I have very little concern about these shows kind of covering the same territory.

What do you have to say to the right wingers who may protest this series?

I would say, at the end of the day, we're on the right side. If you have a heroic lead character, who is fighting against the forces of evil, with the side of righteousness, I don't see much for them to object to. We're not saying that Kyle is the devil or that he's supporting the devil in anyway.

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