Gavin Schmitt Interviews Producer Glen Mazzara
Glen Mazzara has spent the last decade knee deep in the dead. He was a producer and occasional writer for “The Walking Dead” and was able to bring many of the characters that pop cultures loves to life (or undeath).
On February 25, 2016 I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Glen. We mostly talk about “Damien”, (affiliate link) but touch on a few of his other projects. Don’t worry, no “Walking Dead” spoilers. “Damien” premieres on A&E, March 7. Check it out!
GS: You previously worked with Scott Wilson on “The Walking Dead”. What was it like to reteam with Scott, and do you plan to bring other actors you’ve worked with to “Damien”?
GM: Scott and I loved working together on “Walking Dead”, and I think he’s just a huge talent. One of the best nights of my career was just talking to him late one night while filming a barn-burning scene. Norman Reedus was riding around on his motorcycle, shooting zombies, and Scott was telling me Dennis Hopper stories. He’s become a good friend. I wanted him to be part of “Damien” and be a power broker. Then one day he told me his character was killed off on “Walking Dead”, and I said, “I’m sorry, but that’s great news, because now you can be on my new show.” We created a character specifically for him and brought him on board. As far as other actors, I worked with a lot of talented people on not just “Walking Dead”, but “The Shield” and “Crash”, so it’s really just a matter of writing something fun and interesting that would be appropriate for the right actor. I do create roles with people in mind.
GS: How heavily do you plan to introduce supernatural elements, such as demons or Heaven and Hell?
GM: I wanted to stick close to the iconography of the original film. There were no images of demons or angels in the 1976 film. It was all just a sense of evil, a very threatening tone. That’s tough to do on a weekly basis, and it’s a challenge we’ve set for ourselves. We might throw an image in to keep the audience on their toes, but my intention is to keep the show grounded and avoid special effects.
GS: What was it about Damien and “The Omen” that convinced you it was right for an ongoing show and not just another film?
GM: I think Damien (affiliate link) has a journey to make, to explore his humanity. In order to do that, we deliberately had to ignore the sequels and the attempt at a pilot. We’re ignoring those and just relying on the original film. In that one, you’re not really sure what’s going on with the little boy. We know he has this nature within him, but we never fully know what’s going on. So I wanted that something in him, his knowledge that he has a cross to bear, but I also wanted to make him fully human and attempt to wrestle with this. If we just had a man who knew he was evil and wanted to expand his power, eliminate threats, I think audiences would get bored with that. But a man who is kicking and screaming all the way to Hell and fighting his destiny, I’m not sure where that will go which is what makes it interesting.
GS: Can you expand on the challenges of creating a character audiences will root for when he is inherently evil?
GM: Well, I think he has evil in him. We all do. But he explores his morality, too. There are people who commit evil acts and convince themselves they’re doing good. As I said, if he’s only evil, he’s basically a one-note character and not interesting or complex. But if he’s only good, people are going to get upset because that’s clearly not the same Damien from the movie. The actor playing Damien, Bradley James, can play both sides and hopefully audiences will find it to be a sophisticated character drama. Maybe that’s having your cake and eating it, too.
GS: There is also an Exorcist series coming out, which will lead to inevitable comparisons…
GM: I actually love the movie “The Exorcist” (affiliate link) and I hope they make a good show. I’ll watch that show. To me, “The Omen” is its own horror story, and there are a lot of exciting horror shows on TV right now. I’m lucky we’re able to draw on an iconic film but still tell our own story. I watch a lot of these shows, wish them luck, and I think they’ll have their show and we’ll have ours. They both have the Catholic Church and the presence of the devil, and I’m interested in seeing what they’re able to do. I wish them luck.
GS: How much are we going to learn about the stories surrounding the characters played by Barbara Hershey, Scott Wilson and others?
GM: We will. In season one, we reveal the basic relationship, how people know each other. But as we go on, secrets will be revealed and we’ll peel the onion back. Barbara is a great actress and she’s made her character very complex. I really want to dive into some of that, because I think there are a lot more stories to tell.
GS: How long did “Damien” take from the beginning of the process up through now?
GM: This actually began in the summer of 2013, so by the time the finale of season one airs, I’ll have been on the project for three years. It really is like making a feature film. The concept was originated by one of our executive producers, Ross Fineman, and we brought it to Fox, because it’s their property. I was asked to seek out a writer to develop the idea, but I loved the film so much that I took on the writing myself. I worked on the script, we sold it to Lifetime. We had Shekhar Kapur direct. Lifetime was so excited about the first four days of shooting, they upgraded it from Lifetime to A&E and ordered four more episodes. They hadn’t even seen the episode, just the dailies, so I had never heard of such a thing happening. There was a lot of process, a lot of growing, and a big team. We started shooting in Toronto, then picked up some shots. We were given a lot of time, so it was like making a feature film in ten segments. Nothing was put into the show because we were pressed for time. Bear McCreary had plenty of time for the score, the sound guys had enough time. I’ve never had that kind of time before. Now, that doesn’t mean season two won’t be out until 2020…
Bear, actually, was the first call I made after I took the assignment. I was driving out of the studio, and called him up. I told him I was working on an “Omen” project and he said that Jerry Goldsmith’s score was his favorite score. He’s so busy, I wanted to book him. And I think he’s done some of his best work. Right now, I don’t think there have been discussions about a soundtrack. But if the show goes well…
GS: When casting Damien, what were you looking for?
GM: We looked as hundreds of actors, and when I saw Bradley’s take I knew there was something there. He had heart, intelligence and charm, but there was also something beneath it. I don’t know if it was threatening or menacing, but it was there. In the second episode, you’ll see a look that he gives a priest… to be playing both sides of a character, it’s a really challenging role. We also had to buy his life, that he had been to war, was raised in a boarding school. He has to be both youthful and an adult. Bradley was the complete package, he charmed me and swept me off my feet.
GS: You’ve already said you tossed out the sequels. Are viewers going to need to see the original film, or can new viewers start at this point?
GM: We designed it so people can jump right in. The story of his current dilemma picks up right away, and I don’t think the audience will be lost at all. We give them the information they need. If you’re a fan of the film, hopefully you’ll enjoy seeing how we pay homage to that original film. We reference props and lines from the original. We try to honor the film, but we have designed this show to build a new fan base and I don’t think anyone will be lost.
GS: With a theme of Damien being the Antichrist, clearly there’s an overwhelming evil. Does the show offer a counter-balance, an overwhelming force of good?
GM: The good in Damien’s life comes from the relationships he has with other characters. Some of these characters rely on their faith. Damien may want those people around him because of their goodness, but his very presence puts them in danger. The entire creative team spent a lot of time talking about evils and dangers around the world. We don’t want the show to have horror segments, character-building segments… we want it to feel like the world has been punctured by Damien’s birth and is slowly filling up with evil. He encounters goodness through other characters, but will this good counterbalance the growing evil?
GS: Going from “Walking Dead”, to “Damien” and working on “Overlook Hotel”, what has it been like going from one show to another with such strong character-driven horror stories?
GM: What’s interesting is that those three works are all very cinematic. Frank Darabont created a very cinematic show with “Walking Dead”, and as his #2 I learned how that needs to play out. I took some of that, the idea of horror being cinematic, and went right into “Overlook” with it. I went back and studied Kubrick. If you watch “The Shining”, it’s a very simple film with very little plot, but it’s still frightening as all hell. So what I’ve gotten out of that is not just the writing, but the overall film-making experience. If the world can be made realistic, it’s easier to develop characters in that setting. You don’t get to do that so much on shows where everyone is saying “Let’s go, let’s go.” That fast pace worked okay on “The Shield” because it’s sort of a frenetic show and you want that pace, but for “Damien” (affiliate link) the tone really needs to play out. The characters here are even deeper than I’ve been able to write elsewhere. Everything I’ve learned in my career, now I get to use it.
GS: Thanks so much, Glen. Looking forward to the show.
GM: Thanks, Gavin.