How much did you know the story of Damien Thorn prior to becoming involved with this project?
How did the project come about?
I had a development deal with Fox Television Studios, and The Omen is a Fox property. There’s a producer, Ross Finerman, who is an executive producer on our show; it was his idea. He was going through the Fox library looking for assets that could be turned into series. He came across The Omen and he thought, “We know that this material has been revisited before but could we do something based on this film?” So he brought it to me, and I thought, “Let’s tell the Damien story.”
I love that story: what happened to that little boy? I thought, “let’s put a twist on it and really look at his role as the Anti-Christ.” I started thinking about whether we could do a version of that story that mirrors the Christ story; the idea of building a church and gathering disciples, and starting from a small movement and sweeping the world… but instead of establishing the Catholic Church, Damien would establish an evil church that would bring about the apocalypse.
That sounded like enough material for a long-running series, so I jumped in and volunteered in to do it, and was excited about it and started developing the material.
Did you ever consider taking into account the events of at least the second film [Damien: Omen II, released in 1978, in which Damien reaches puberty and discovers his identity] – the third one [1982’s The Final Conflict] doesn’t even work with its own continuity, let alone with the first film…
I did. I do like the second film. I think the third film pushes the story too far down a certain path. But I felt that by the time of the second film, Damien was already a type of serial killer. He was already cognisant of his origins. He already feels to me that he is keeping a secret, and anyone who becomes suspicious, he would orchestrate a macabre death to eliminate that threat to his true identity.
I felt that that put us down a particular path, and then I was worried that that type of show would just become a serial killer show, a serial killer with supernatural powers. That seemed a very predictable, obvious route for this series, and I really wanted to do something that was surprising and different, and something that would challenge the audience.
So did you build it up from the character of Damien or the world of The Omen?
I started thinking about the character; about the character’s journey; about Damien – and really thinking about a man tasked with destroying the world: a man who has evil in him but also has humanity, and a person who may not want to do that.
When we meet Damien, I believe he’s an atheist; he doesn’t believe in God or the Devil – he’s rejecting those things. Part of that to me worked because of the original spirit of the movie. The Omen, to me, is one of those horror films where the horror is very grounded in reality; it feels like it’s taking place in this world, even though there are supernatural happenings. It’s not the same as, say, Poltergeist, where you have fiery doorways to other dimensions and you rely on special effects a lot more. I felt like it was taking place in a late-Seventies world that was interesting to me. It was grounded in character.
I see that movie as basically a family story to some degree. I see it as a story of Gregory Peck’s character, Robert Thorn, who comes to realise that his son is the Anti-Christ. The story of Damien is just taking that same dilemma and taking it to the character of Damien himself. So in the movie Gregory Peck learns his son is the Anti-Christ; in Damien, the lead character is the Anti-Christ. It’s the same story to some degree; it involves that central character, so that’s the spin.
By keeping the horror grounded, like it is in the original movie, that allowed me to focus on the character as well. We didn’t have a complicated mythology to service – most of the mythology of the original film is in the shadows. When Mrs Baylock arrives, she says “the agency sent me” and we aren’t sure if she’s making a joke. Is she from the nanny agency, or is there a larger conspiracy behind her? We get that sense, we certainly feel that the priests are in it. We’re not clear – the priest that is killed has a 666 on his thigh. We’re not sure with those followers; are there other followers that have 666 on their thighs? It was interesting. I felt there was enough to develop in a longer-running series.
And there are the dogs which are just there – you aren’t sure either in the original film, or so far in the series, exactly how they’ve got there, or who’s looking after them…
How much of the movie did you feel you had to incorporate early on in the series so that people got that connection? I noticed that by episode 5, apart from the photograph of Damien with his parents at the house, there weren’t as many links back…
My original thought was to use footage from the movie erupting from his subconscious as repressed memories. A lot of people have not really seen that – as far as I know, no other show has done that. We’re using original footage from a film, and we’re not just playing it as a reverie or as an expositional flashback – we’re actually using the material and recutting it in a way. When I wrote that into the script, a lot of people thought we were going to have to reshoot that material – we wouldn’t be able to get the rights, the material might not look right – but that was something that I intended to do right from the start. I knew that the core of the show was tied to that film.
Now I did feel that as a fan there were certain things that I loved in that film that I put in – I loved the birthday party, I do love the Rottweilers, I thought the whole Bugenhagen connection was very interesting, and the seven daggers. I put those things in as a fan, and then we built out the mythology of the seven daggers: I liked the idea of the seven daggers being scattered all over the world, and people are trying to collect them now. We created the idea that each dagger is named for one of the original churches as described in the Book of Revelation.
If you look at some of the things we’re saying, when you have the seven soldiers possessed in episode 5, in our mind, that’s the seven-headed dragon that’s alluded to in the Book of Revelation. They were speaking in tongues in a sense; at one point they were all speaking with one voice then the seven heads were speaking separately. That was something new that I hadn’t seen in a horror movie – the complicated spirit possession of a group of people. We have some real horror buffs on the show on the writing team, and we couldn’t think of that being done before.
We took what we could from the original film, and then made it our own. One of the things that people will see at the finale, when it comes together, it will put an even further twist on things. I’m excited to see how horror fans respond to the entire story, when the entire 10 episodes are released.
Is this first season a self-contained entity?
My experience is, any season of TV you work on, particularly on cable, you want it to have a satisfying conclusion, especially if you don’t know if you have a second season, so I do want this to play as a story. I see it as a film in ten parts.
If we do have a second season we wouldn’t be on until 2017 so it’s unfair to ask an audience to wait for a cliffhanger payoff. It is self-contained, but would also be chapter 1 of a larger Damien saga.
The timeframe goes slightly out of kilter – the end of the movie is set at the end of 1976…
I don’t think in the movie that it ever says it’s set in 1976.
Except that he’s in a new car, that’s got a 1976 British registration plate…
I didn’t catch that, I wasn’t aware of that plate issue, but I just felt that the audience would go with it. I fudged the timelines and expected the audience to get immersed in the story and go along and not try to pick things apart on a logical basis. It’s interesting, because you see things online where people say, “But the Anti-Christ wouldn’t do that!” or “this wouldn’t happen.” It’s a magical world, it’s a fantastical weird tale. We’re saying that Damien was born of Satan and a jackal – there’s a fantastical story to be told here. Fudging a few years seemed to be the least of my problems.
We were very careful not to overload the audience. Part of the challenge of making this show was that not everyone knows those films. Some people only know the remake from a few years ago, and obviously you want something that honoured that original film, but also something that is not contingent on that film, so that you welcome new viewers who may not have seen that film yet.
That was the balance, and that’s why early on we spent a lot of time focusing on Damien. We only introduce Barbara [Hershey’s character Ann Rutledge] – who obviously I think is a standout character – later; she only has one scene in the first episode, then we push her to the forefront and explain who she is in episodes 2 and 3. Then we slowly roll out the detective’s story; he’s up and running by episode 4. Scott Wilson is introduced in episode 3; Sister Greta, played by Robin Weigert, is introduced in episode 2, she disappears until episode 5, then comes back a few episodes later. We are very careful to thread all those stories together so that we’re not giving the audience huge information dumps that are going to take them away from the story.
It was really important to me not to get lost in all of the conspiracies and all of those pieces. I wanted to spend a lot of time establishing a tone. I think horror and psychological thrillers really need the tone to work and so I felt that that was the place to concentrate early on and then roll out the characters and the other storylines as necessary. I feel that the season really starts accelerating very soon, and I’m confident it all comes together in the finale.
In part 2, Glen Mazzara discusses details of episode 5 (Seven Curses), as well as revealing a “missing” episode, why the production team chose not to play it safe, how Bradley James was cast and much more…