It’s cliché to say it, but with The Walking Dead comic and the television series, Robert Kirkman changed our collective idea of what a zombie story has to be. Now he’s trying to do the same thing — first in comics and now on television — with Outcast and the exorcism story. But while the aim may be similar, Kirkman clearly set out to make sure that the shows were not.
We had a chance to speak with Robert Kirkman recently about what he learned from the process of bringing The Walking Dead to the screen, building toward a bigger story with Outcast, scary kids, his exorcism research, the fan response to the Walking Dead season finale, and more.
What are some lessons you learned from The Walking Dead that you applied to Outcast?
I think one thing that’s really great that I’ve learned on The Walking Dead is that scenes that are adapted from comics tend to get a lot of… when you take them to television, you get a lot of a room to breathe. I had to learn a lot of stuff moving from writing comics to writing television, because in comics, there’s not a lot you can do if people aren’t speaking. There are things where you can get something across with a certain look or a certain movement or some kind of gesture that just doesn’t work in comics because there is no movement. I think that’s something that I’ve honed a little bit over the course of working on Walking Dead, that I feel like I’ve gotten a little better at, that works a little better on Outcast.
Working on the comic really shines a light on exactly how different things have to be. I know you can read the comic and then watch the pilot of Outcast and go, “Oh, you know, these things are pretty similar.” But to me, there’s so much more dialogue and a little bit more back and forth between the characters and a lot more that’s plugged into the scenes that the timing will allow you to do that. I love both mediums, but it is a lot of fun seeing the strengths and weakness of both on display in the way I’ve been able to with Outcast.
There’s a really jarring moment with a child in the pilot, and in the pilot for The Walking Dead, there’s the same kind of thing — a jarring moment with a child. Can you talk a little bit about using that device to try to kickstart people’s interest in the show?
Well, I promise that the next show I do is not going to start with a jarring moment involving a child because I don’t want to prove that I’m in a rut. I’m probably in a rut, but it is what it is.
It’s effective. It gets you right into the story.
[Laughs.] One of the things about Outcast is that the threat can come from anywhere. We’ll see all kinds of different people dealing with this demonic possession situation over the course of the show, and we’re always trying to keep it as unexpected as possible. A lot of exorcism stories deal with possessed children, and we kind of wanted to get that out of the way with the first episode, before we moved into different territory. I don’t know. I’d like to say it’s a little bit of playing to the genre.
One of those things that we’re trying to do with Outcast is that there’s such a narrative language with demonic possession stories that people kind of know what they’re going to get. They kind of know how these things go. They know how scenes are staged. They know what the outcome usually is, and being able to do a long-form exploration of these kind of stories, we’re going to get to subvert that so much and change things as we go, so that we can play with those expectations and steer people into thinking, “Oh, I know how this goes. I’ve seen this story a thousand times,” and then completely veer off to the left and do something completely different, and hopefully really jar the audience and show them that is something that we’re going to be doing something a little bit different with, and keep them excited and invested as we move on.
Was that part of the appeal of telling this story, of taking on a possession story — trying to subvert the established idea of what an exorcism show or comic story is?
Yeah. Something I really like to do is, like with zombies… What I did on Walking Dead was… Yeah, I love zombie fiction and zombie movies, and I just noticed that none of them ever really continue long-term and watch where people go for years and years and years. They always destroy the world, and then they go, “Well, let’s see a couple weeks of it and never see this again.” I really had a lot of questions, and I wanted to see what corners of this amazing genre haven’t really been explored. I think those same opportunities exist with exorcism stories. I think it’s kind of remarkable that most exorcism stories just kinda deal with one case. The person comes in and solves that case and then goes home, and it’s like, “Well, we won,” and it’s like, “You didn’t win. Those demons are still out there. More people are getting possessed. This is just going to happen again. It could happen to this same person again. You really haven’t done anything.”
It may not be apparent from the first episode, but this is a series that’s going to be taking that head-on, having a group of characters that say, “This has been going on for a while.” We have this Kyle Barnes character, and he’s got this journey that he’s on. He wants to figure more out about this. “Maybe this isn’t solving the problem. Maybe we can work over a long period of time to try and abolish this scourge of demonic possession forever. Wouldn’t that be something?” It’s these people going out on this journey. It’s honoring the genre, paying tribute to the genre, but also trying to kick the tires a little bit and put a fresh coat of paint on it.
So the intention is for Kyle to be an entry point for a larger story on demonic possession?
Oh, definitely. I think starting in this small town and having these characters be in the story the way they are, this is a bigger threat than how we’re currently portraying it. Over time — I’m happy that we’ve already been picked up for a second season — we are going to see the story expand and grow in some interesting ways, and definitely see how large this problem actually is.
Can you tell me a little bit about fleshing out this small town in West Virginia and making it into its own character?
Yeah. When you’re dealing with a situation where people are getting possessed, it’s kind of fun to be in a community like a small town in West Virginia. This is a town where everybody knows everybody. There’s a great gossip chain, and everybody knows who’s dating who, and whose marriage is falling apart, and where this person lives and where that person lives. In the first episode, they’re like, “Oh yeah, the Austin boy, he’s possessed.” And Kyle’s like, “Oh, okay, I know where that house is. I’ll go there.” That’s fairly strange if you’re not living in a very small town. When you’re dealing with people who are becoming something that they aren’t, it’s kinda more interesting if everybody knows everybody. I felt like that was a perfect setting for this kind of story.
What kind of research did you do to get into this world?
I have a slightly religious upbringing, I like to say, so there’s definitely a lot of research that was done over the years of my life. Then I watched… I think the main thing that I wanted to bone up on was non-Catholic exorcisms because most exorcism stories are so steeped in Catholicism. To me, there are so many rules and methods that everything’s kind of set in stone. There’s not a lot of room for discovery in that. You have a guy walk in who’s been studying this at the Vatican for 20 years and knows exactly what to do. That’s interesting in a movie, and you want to know more about that guy, but I think the process of making it a little bit more uncertain and a little bit more down and dirty… I think Baptist exorcisms, and there’s actually a surprising number of these on YouTube, are pretty interesting and much different. So, I did a lot of research in trying to find out exactly what the ins and outs of those were and what the differences are between the traditional Catholic exorcisms and the Baptist stuff.
Do you have a viewpoint with regard to exorcism, yourself?
It’s pretty far-fetched, I guess, when it gets down to it. But there’s a lot of evidence, and there’s a large number of the population that does believe it is a real phenomenon. I try to keep an open mind about all things, but until my neighbor is possessed, I probably won’t buy into it too much. It’s definitely interesting subject matter, and whatever it is, there’s something going on, which is kind of a fun thing to explore.
Will we see any exploration into cults, as well?
I think as we get into it, there’s… I don’t want to reveal too much, but there is certainly some cultish aspects once we get deeper into the world that will start to emerge. Maybe I’ve already said too much.
How far out do you have this story mapped out in your head?
This has been an oddity for me because I had a lot of time to develop it while I was working on Walking Dead because I kept pushing back the launch of the comic. I continued working on that, so I actually figured out what the entire story is. I know where this ends up and how we get there. It’s a pretty tight arc, which is not how Walking Dead went. It took me many years to figure out what was going on with Walking Dead, but it was a much longer story.
The thing about Outcast is, even though I know what the ending is, one of the most fun things for me in writing is being able to discover things in the writing. I love having the freedom to come up with new avenues and new current takes on the road to that ending. This could go on for many, many years, or it could go on for many, many decades. I know exactly what the journey is going to be and where we’re going to end up, but I’m hoping to take some detours on the way. I don’t know exactly how long the story will be, but I do know what the final resolution will be.
I saw the “I Want to Believe” poster in Kyle’s bedroom in the second episode. Of course, I’m starting to think, “Well, wait. Does that mean anything?” With The Walking Dead, it happens all the time, these fan theories that pop up. Do you use something like that to kind of chum the waters, or is that just incidental that there’s an X-Files Easter egg?
Nothing’s by accident. That’s all I’ll say. There’s a Youngblood poster in his room, too, so there could be something going on there, as well…
That’s what that was. I was trying to see what that was. The attention to detail on the show, I just love the little bits and pieces.
The He-Man figures are from [Outcast director] Adam Wingard.
With The Walking Dead, the fan response to the season finale, the fan response to the Glenn cliffhanger with the Dumpster — does that fan response weigh on the writers room in terms of what you’re doing for the next season? Does it give you pause about any future cliffhangers?
The timing works out that we’re already… I think that’s why there’s a confidence when you see Scott Gimple on Talking Dead and when you hear me in interviews saying, “Well, look. I know that you guys are unhappy, but listen. Things are going to work out. Season seven’s going to be great. You guys are going to be really happy with the premiere. It’ll form a two-part story that’ll make sense when you see it.” That kind of stuff sounds dismissive, and it sounds arrogant, or like we’re not recognizing that people are unhappy. And that’s unfortunate, but that’s because we started writing season seven in January. When people were watching the finale in April, we were already many, many episodes beyond that. There’s a certain amount of reassurance and… When people are saying, “Oh my god, I hope they don’t do this,” and we haven’t done that, then it’s like, “Okay, well, that’s great.” Now they’re all, “Well, you know that since the finale went like this, now they’re going to do this,” and we didn’t do that.
Again, we’re fine. We’re very comfortable, but if the people that are extremely unhappy do get around to watching the premiere of season seven, they’ll probably like it. We’ve been at this for six years, and I’d hate for somebody who’s invested six years of a show to suddenly throw their hands up and go, “Well, that moment was not to my liking. I’m not going to watch this show anymore.” That would be unfortunate, but it is going to happen. That’s fine. Everybody’s completely allowed to have their own opinion and make their own decisions.
But season seven is going to be pretty great. I think people are … One of the side effects, and I’m going to stop talking about this because I know that’s going to be a whole other article on its own, but one of the side effects that I’m upset about is that people aren’t talking about Jeffrey Dean Morgan enough. I think that he is absolutely amazing as Negan. I think that his presence in that finale adds so much to the show. I know people don’t like the cliffhanger aspect of it, but I like to think that everything up to that moment was pretty amazing, and people were digging it. I think people are discounting the fact that Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Negan are in the show now, so you’re going to be seeing stuff like that pretty much every episode of season seven. Not necessarily cliffhangers. I don’t want to worry people, but Negan is going to be an ever-present, constant threat that is going to change everything moving forward. And maybe I’ve said things like that before, but I promise you, Negan is going to be different. Season seven is going to be really cool. I couldn’t be more excited about it.
I’m also excited about Outcast. I think it’s also going to be great, but it’ll be season four or five before we’ve got a guy running around with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. Outcast will get that deep eventually.
Outcast premieres Friday, June 3, on Cinemax. Its pilot episode is available to watch online for free.