A&E gave us the opportunity to speak with Glen Mazzara, the creator, executive producer, and showrunner of their new program Damien. The series follows Damien Thorn, the young boy from The Omen who is adopted by an American Diplomat. In the film, as well as the 2006 remake, Damien is followed by misfortune and death as the boy’s adoptive parents begin to believe he is actually The Antichrist. In the new series, Damien Thorn must confront his past and come to terms with his destiny.
Glen Mazzara won numerous awards for his work on The Walking Dead and The Shield, so we were eager to discuss plans for this new spin on one of horror’s most beloved classics.
Mazzara revealed that the process to bring Damien to A&E was no small feat, and that it has actually been in the works since the summer of 2013. He compared the experience to working on a feature film, saying that initially the concept came from Fox wanting to do a show based on their Omen property. Initially, Mazzara’s role was to simply find a writer and supervise him or her. Since he was such a huge Omen fan himself, Mazzara worked on the script in lieu of finding another writer. Initially, as you may have read in earlier reports, the series was sold to Lifetime. (That’s right. The network apparently wanted a show about the anti-christ.) Damien was ultimately moved to sister network A&E during the first week of shooting because the network loved the footage after reviewing it. They also chose to add four more episodes to the originally planned six–Mazzara says he’s never heard of that happening based solely on the dailies. The network execs hadn’t even seen a full episode!
A great deal of their enthusiasm likely comes from Mazzara’s approach to the Damien Thorn character. It was his interest in the character that led Mazzara to take on writing responsibilities in the first place rather than delegating them, and he has unique plans for young Damien. “I think there’s an entire journey for Damien to take,” explained Mazzara. “I really wanted to ground this character in his humanity. And to do that, I deliberately had to ignore the two sequel films—there were actually three, one was an attempt at a pilot—Damien: The Omen Part II and Omen III: The Final Conflict, we’re ignoring those. So we’re just relying on the 1976 David Seltzer/Richard Donner film. In that film, you’re not really sure what’s going on with the little boy until the end, when you’re aware that he’s got this nature within him. He seems to know what’s going on. So I wanted to have that, where there’s something within Damien that he knows that this is his cross to bear, if you will. Maybe pun intended, I’m not sure. But I really wanted to see a guy who is fully human, who is wrestling with this. It was that idea that made me feel like this could go multiple seasons, and I do have a plan to bring him on an entire journey. I felt that if we just had a guy who knew he was evil and was just all power and following a very obvious path, I thought the audience would get bored with that, I thought it would just be a matter of him eliminating threats, I knew what that show was. The idea of a guy fighting against his destiny and going kicking and screaming into Hell is really interesting to me.”
It’s obvious from the pilot that storytelling is going to be a huge part of Damien. With a plot which so heavily features topics like good and evil, and the history of the Catholic Church, research had to be an integral part of the process. Mazzara shared what it was like to prepare for the series, and how his own personal interest in early Catholicism has helped him to better portray the antichrist. “…as far as the biblical stuff goes, I actually am very interested in the development of the early Catholic Church. I’ve done a lot of reading and listening to different podcasts and college courses on tape. …I have bookshelves full of studies of the development of the early church, early Christianity—the first 300 years before the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. So that’s sort of been a dream project—”could I write something about that?” …[Now] I’m using all of that research to talk about Damien building an evil church. And all those dynamics that Christ and St. Paul and St. Peter and the church fathers went through to build the Roman Catholic Church— …I’ve spent years studying that and now I finally have a show in which it makes sense to reference that stuff. So all of the references are accurate and come from many years of me just being interested in that material.”
Fantastic storytelling aside, an issue that plagues adaptations of horror classics is accessibility and how much new audiences can relate. Mazzara went out of his way to design the show so that viewers would not need to be familiar with The Omen to enjoy Damien, and said plainly that they have designed the show to build a new fan base where newcomers won’t be lost. “…you can just jump in and watch the show and we’ll release the details of Damien’s backstory and his life and what he understands throughout the season and the first few episodes. But pretty much the story of his current dilemma picks up right away, and I don’t think the audience will feel lost at all. We give them the information they need and he catches up and we’re off and running.” For die-hard fans of the original film and of the franchise, Mazzaro hopes they will appreciate his attempts to honor the original content. “If you’re a fan of the original film, hopefully you’ll enjoy seeing how we pay homage to the original film, and there are certain things that are said in that film that we reference, there are certain props that we have, there are certain relationships that when we comment on we’re sort of building on what was there, so we’re certainly honoring that original film, which I think will add to the experience for fans…”It’s no accident that Mazzara continues to be drawn to horror-themed projects. He told us that his love for the genre started when he was a teenager. “I’ve always loved horror. I do love horror movies. I’m a big Stephen King fan, I’ve read maybe two dozen of his works. …I think we end up loving what we experience when we’re thirteen or fourteen. An American Werewolf in London was my first R-rated movie. I was so terrified, I stood up and said I was calling my mother to pick me up.” That early fear didn’t deter Mazzara, though. He has gone on to work on a series of horror projects like The Walking Dead, Overlook Hotel, and Damien. He reflected on the experiences, what he had learned, and found a unique commonality. “…I think Frank Darabont created a very cinematic show in The Walking Dead, and when I was his number two, I learned a lot from him about how that needs to play out… I was fortunate enough then to really learn there. …I took some of that idea of horror being a cinematic experience and went right into Overlook Hotel. …[I] had to study Kubrick’s filmmaking there to understand the nature of tension and horror. If you look at The Shining, it’s an incredibly simple film. There’s not a tremendous amount of plot, and yet it’s frightening as hell. And it’s all tone. So that was a great learning experience.”
In addition to drawing heavily on the original film for inspiration and paying homage to the source material, Mazzara chose to feature footage from The Omen for the flashback sequences in Damien. The filmmaker said that when he had the initial idea, “…people thought I was nuts. A lot of people involved in the creative team had never seen that done before, and I’m not sure if a TV show has done that. So the idea of doing that, I really had a vision that this original film could play as repressed memories being violently ripped from Damien’s subconscious. And that sort of added emotion to that character. I could feel what he was feeling when that came out and how frightening that would be. And I thought that would be a great way to incorporate the original film.”
The combined desire to incorporate the original film and further examine the characters he was creating prompted further analysis on Mazzara’s part. “…when Mrs. Baylock says in the original film…[to Damien’s parents] “The agency sent me.” I wondered, “What does she mean?” — We just think she’s lying, that there’s a nanny agency that she’s lying about. What if there is an agency? What if there’s a bigger group? Who is sending her? And you get the sense that she’s coming from some type of conspiracy.” That prompted him to imagine deeper possibilities for Ms. Rutledge. “…we started thinking about, “Where does Barbara Hershey’s character come from? Did they know each other?” And that was really a lot of fun to work on with the writers.”
With promises of conspiracies, character development, and evil churches–there is a great deal to expect from Damien. You can check it out for yourself when it premieres on A&E March 7 at 10pm.