Episode 5 is an incredibly powerful piece of drama, even without the supernatural elements. The scenes between Bradley James and Jose Pablo Cantillo were terrific; are we going to have more of that sort of one-on-one episode or does the scope expand again?
The scope expands. What was important there was a couple of things. I used to work in a hospital; I was a hospital administrator for 13 years. I spent a lot of time in hospital basements and know a hospital inside and out, so I’ve always wanted to do the idea of a hospital as Hell, the hospital basement as a subterranean trippy hell. That was a dream project to me, and it was fun to bring that to the screen.
As far as the character work goes, Damien is fully human, fully devil, and I think part of being human is being compassionate. I wanted a story that examined why is he a war photographer, how does he connect with people, and also to show evil already exists in this world, it’s not just something that is a future supernatural apocalypse that’s about to happen. This character of Alex is already trapped in Hell and that was something worth examining.
Fortunately we had a fantastic writer on this, K.C. Perry – this is her first television script ever – and a very accomplished director, Mikael Solomon, who I’ve worked with in the past and is obviously a talent. And I brought in Jose who I worked with on three other shows. Bradley knew exactly what to do with this role, and it was really important to us to get this right.
This was an episode that did make the network and the studio executives very very nervous. They were afraid it would be too dark, they were afraid it would be depressing, and I really wanted something that was going to be honest. They also thought it would be confusing, because we were going in and out of reality and a supernatural reality. So there was both horror and character in this. It was a big swing, and I felt it worked.
Out of all the episodes in TV that I’ve done, I really had to fight for this one like I’ve never had to fight for anything before. just because it was so out of the box. Fortunately I had talented people working on it, so they ended up making me look great! In the end, the reaction was extremely positive, everybody loved that episode, but it was something that on the page made people nervous.
The safe thing would have been to have Damien prevent Alex’s suicide, and there was actually a version of that that we had filmed and had edited that way, but everybody felt that it played as a TV cheat, and it was trying to play it safe. We really wanted to push the boundaries so we went to this version which was the original intent. We explored a safe version but everybody backed away from that – that’s something I haven’t told anyone before.
Was there ever a version where Damien consciously assists Alex with the suicide? In that final bit, I wondered if Alex was going to have a last minute qualm and Damien stepped in…
No, because Damien is there to bear witness.
One of the themes of the show is a question of fate versus free will. Damien is letting Alex make his choice, and then Damien realises that there might be a larger fate for him, as prescribed by the seven-headed demon. That’s really the first time, in the basement, that Damien encounters the supernatural directly in his face. He has seen things happen but this is the first time that the supernatural is directly reaching out to him as a messenger.. Even the old woman who grabs his face [in the opening episode], you’re not exactly sure who she is and how that plays, but this is clearly a supernatural occurrence in the basement.
Damien feels that Alex has to make a choice, and that choice is important, and who is he to stop Alex from making his choice? What’s odd about that episode is that Alex’s choice becomes Damien’s choice and then Damien attempts suicide, but his fate cuts him off, and the poor guy can’t even kill himself.
The show has a lot of themes involved, and what I want to do is not overload the audience with heady theories or things like that, so what we do is try to simplify it and just tell the story visually and cinematically, which is something I’m drawing from horror movies and The Omen in particular. It’s a complicated story, and because it’s complicated, one of the things I wanted to do, and one of the reasons I’m proud of the episode is: when Alex is attempting suicide, when Damien is attempting suicide, those are very long scenes with zero dialogue. Damien doesn’t really say anything when he’s in the basement – he says a couple of lines here or there. Most of that story does play visually but it’s packed with a lot of underlying themes and issues.
It was a tough one to make, but I’m glad it came together. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure if the audience would respond or not. I thought it might be too experimental.
I’m not surprised – it spoke on so many different levels, and I think you understand Damien a lot more at the end of the episode
And we will continue with that. The show is called Damien and I think some people expected it to be about a guy already down the road, taking action to destroy the world. That would have been following The Final Conflict model for the show. This is different; this is an exploration of a man who has been traumatised by his past, and is trying to fight and retain his humanity. I think that’s an interesting character.
So it will also be interesting to see how episode 6 plays, because I see that episode as an examination of Damien’s character, and when you get to the end of that you will understand more about Damien than you do at any other point. Just as you think we’ve pushed into his inner psyche and his inner emotion life in these first five episodes, we go even further in the next five, but the next two are pushing very deep into this character.
I’m really interested in exploring who this man is, so that when we get to the end of the season, everything comes together and hopefully bring us into other seasons, and we go along with him as he goes along this path.
I was not aware of Bradley. I’ll tell you exactly how we came to him. We were auditioning a lot of people. If you look at the original episode 1, there aren’t scenes that can be used as audition scenes, so what I did was I wrote a number of scenes that would be used for audition purposes.
I wrote a version of the scene that was like the scene in episode 3 where Damien talks about the massacre in Africa as an audition scene. There’s another scene in episode 4 where he threatens to slit Ann’s throat; I wrote a version of that. There was a version of a scene from episode 2, the Amani story: I wrote a version of Damien and Amani, about a year before the show takes place.
I wrote a number of different scenes and gave them to actors because we wanted to see all these different levels, all these different layers. A lot of talented actors came in. Bradley was doing iZombie [in Vancouver] and he videotaped his audition and sent it in. It really just popped for me. The minute I saw it, I said this guy had everything I was looking for.
He flew in and we flew in some other actors and we auditioned everybody but I was the one who really said, “that is Damien”. A lot of people had different opinions, and Bradley was always a favourite, but he was always clearly my favourite – and the network and studio agreed. Shekar Kapur loves working with him, he thinks Bradley is a huge talent and hopefully has a bright future ahead of him. He just stood out and brought a lot to that character. To me, he’s always been Damien.
Did he audition as an American?
His audition was with the American accent, and also in my mind the Damien Thorn character did go to school in London, so if a British actor did not have an American accent down completely, and some of the British accent came in, that would be fine, it would be consistent with the character.
I wasn’t concerned with the accent at all, I was really concerned with the talent and the craft that the actor was bringing to the role. The fact that Bradley has a very good American accent is just a plus, but it wasn’t really a concern of mine.
If you go to a second season, would you bring Damien back to Britain?
I would be very open to that. I would love to get the Damien character out of New York. The story takes place on the world stage: we started in Syria, we reference Africa, we talk about Alex’s injury taking place in the war, we now have Rome involved. It’s a global story. The idea of putting Damien on assignment elsewhere is very interesting to me.
As I said, some of the people making the show were concerned about episode 5. They weren’t sure about the fact that we’d just set up a story and gotten everything running by episode 4 – all the pieces are on display there – and then we do a standalone episode and break the format and go into the hospital. That felt very jarring to them. So we started to think of a way to make it less jarring. I thought, “What if we had an episode in-between that set up the hospital episode a little bit more?” We ended up not doing it.
We started to develop this script in which Damien and Amani are on assignment – Amani says in one episode that they were going to take an assignment in Ukraine. We were working on a story where they go on that assignment in Ukraine and Amani got injured. In episode 5, Amani is wearing a bandage on his arm when he’s talking to Simone. That’s because we said we’d shoot episode 5 first, and then go back and shoot this other episode, but then decided not to do that.
I thought it was so funny that he’s wearing this bandage for no reason. I was supposed to digitally erase it, and I just didn’t. I left it there because it was so funny to me – he’s wearing a bandage because he got injured in an episode that never took place! It’s a weird little thing that happened while we were shooting the series.
That didn’t air, but the intent was “Let’s get Damien out in the field, let’s get him on assignment, let’s get him in another part of the world”, and we didn’t have that opportunity at that point in the season – but it is something I would love to do in future seasons.
Very early on. I worked with Bear on The Walking Dead obviously, and we’ve become friends. He’s just a fantastic guy. As I was leaving the Fox studio one day, I called him and said, “I think I’m going to do this and if it goes I’m going to need you to be the composer for it.” He just jumped at the chance.
I loved the way that he threaded some of the Jerry Goldsmith music into the opener.
We did use the Goldsmith score; we did have to get the rights to use that. That was Bear’s decision. We’ll go back to that score at some point, you’ll see. Bear really did fantastic work – there’s some huge stuff coming up in future episodes. I thought his score in episode 5, for the two suicide scenes, was heart-breaking. I love working with him!
I find it fascinating that a series in 2016 can pick up so much of the iconography of a 40 year old movie and making it contemporary
Thank you, I’m glad to hear that. It’s surprising and really interesting how well that original film holds up. It’s a film that I find more and more in when I go back and watch it. Richard Donner did a fantastic job directing it, and there are a lot of layers. It’s a great toolbox.
I have not read the earlier scripts for it; we have now got the novelisation – I was not aware of it when I started writing the project. We have it now, and I would want to draw more of the mythology and the background around Damien if it makes sense to do that.
When might you know about a second year?
That I don’t know. That’s up to A&E and Fox. I do feel that the way people watch TV is different than how it’s been in the past. Particularly with a genre show, a lot of people wait to hear if something comes together. Now that there’s so much TV out there, people are afraid to get invested in a show unless they know it’s all going to pay off.
Hopefully when the entire season is out there and people are excited about it, and they know it comes together, and they see what we’ve done, and hopefully it’s interesting and satisfying to the audience, that word of mouth spreads, and people will binge watch. Hopefully the show will gain fans at that point. This is a show that needs to build by word of mouth, and I’m really grateful and appreciative of your support of the show. To have someone say the show isn’t just entertaining, it’s different – I don’t think shows can survive without that sort of support.
I’d love to hear about a season 2 pick up any day now but I think it’ll be after the entire season airs.
Has the reaction so far surprised you?
I’m enjoying seeing how fans are responding to it – the fact that the show is deeper and more surprising than people originally expected. I think when the show first came out there were expectations about what it was meant to be. I think we subverted all that, turned it on its head, and people are realising this is a very different kind of piece, and very different from anything else on TV. It’s satisfying to hear that people are responding to the show, particularly in a deeply emotional way. When we have our scares, people are adrenalized and freaked out, and then we are also able to cut deeper and have something that feels emotionally relevant, like the story of the veterans. Some people tweeted to me that they were from military families and hadn’t seen this sort of story told with this sort of seriousness, and thanking me. That was really satisfying and made it all worth it.
Thanks to Lauren Bienvenue, Megan Tantillo and Michelle Marron for their help in setting up this interview.
Damien continues on A&E on Mondays at 10 pm