Outcast’s Robert Kirkman and Chris Black on Adapting the Comic to TV and the Rise of Occult-Themed Dramas

Photo: HBO/HBO

The new Cinemax series Outcast is based on the graphic novels by The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman and illustrator Paul Azaceta and, at first glance, it may sound similar to the AMC juggernaut adaptation of Kirkman’s other work. Both follow a man (this time a character named Kyle Barnes played by Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit) who is an upstanding guy. Both leads have lost their families as a result of some not-quite-understood otherworldly scenario. But whereas Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has an almost-daily life-or-death battle with flesh-eating zombies overtaking his world, Kyle is grappling with more personal demons (literally).

For reasons he is not entirely clear on, Kyle can zap out the evil from those who are possessed, an ability that takes a toll both on those he exorcises and on his own life and relationships. Outcast, which screened at SXSW earlier this year and has already been renewed for a second season, premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Cinemax. Vulture sat down with Kirkman and series showrunner Chris Black to talk about making damaged characters likeable, the rise in occult-themed dramas, and why comics make for such good TV source material.

Robert, you started working on the TV adaptation of Outcast even before the book was out.

RK: Yeah, before The Walking Dead seasons one and two.

That’s a lot of pressure.

RK: I just work quickly.

CB: Quickly and relentlessly. I remember when we were shooting the pilot, he would be on set behind the monitors in his director’s chair with his laptop on his knees. And it’d be like what are you working on? Ah, new issue of The Walking Dead.

Why did you want to adapt Outcast for TV, and why did you move so fast on it?

RK: I think that comics and television, as mediums, go hand in hand. Both tell long-form, continuing stories that are parsed out into little chapters and, if are successful, continue for years and years. What that means to me, as a writer, is it tells stories of transformation and evolution as characters. I don’t really think of things as being mutually exclusive like, oh is this a comic or is it a show? If it works as a comic, it works as a show, and vice versa.

How did you decide to air your show on Cinemax?

RK: There’s a lot of freedom that comes with working at Cinemax. I knew that this was a show that could definitely benefit from not having boundaries in place. And Cinemax as a network has a lot of exciting stuff going on in a rebranding effort with shows like Banshee and The Knick, and it seemed like an exciting time to be at a burgeoning network the same way The Walking Dead was at AMC at the time.

The dialogue in the show is very similar to what’s used in the comics. What was the reasoning for that?

RK: Just for saving time, really.

CB: If you’re given source material that’s as special and well-written such as the new project from Robert Kirkman, you would be foolish not to want to do that and not to be faithful to that to some degree.

There was never a sense of — and certainly not a sense from Robert — that it has to be this way. We only used it if it worked, and it was a testament to how good the comics were that you looked at a lot of it and saw no real reason to change it. That said, as you watch the show over time, you will see it diverge a little more. I think that’s a natural evolution. It happened in The Walking Dead [as well]. As the television characters begin to take a life on their own separate from the comics …

RK: We’re always exploring new ideas in the writers room, and those kinds of ideas snowball from season to season and drive the show in a different direction.

CB: Some of it is out of practical necessity. An issue of the comic is 22 or 24 pages, and sometimes there is [enough]. But sometimes you just find there’s not enough narrative story to fill a full hour of premium cable television. A good example is the Chief Giles character, which in the first dozen issues of the comics, I think appears twice. And then we cast Reg E. Cathey to play that part. We couldn’t have an actor of that talent and caliber sit around for a dozen episodes and not do anything. We wound up building a whole backstory for him with his family and [more]; stuff that had not yet come out in the comics.

The casting of minor characters, like using Twin Peaks actress Grace Zabriskie as churchgoer Mildred, is also interesting.

CB: Howie Deutch, who was our producing director on the show, said, “You know who would be perfect for this is Grace Zabriskie.” He had worked with her on Big Love. And we said, “Oh, yes she would.”

RK: My process is always, who from The Wire and Star Trek is available? Getting Brent Spiner [who plays Sidney] and Reg E Cathey, well there’s two checkmarks right there.

CB: The casting process to me is one of the most fun parts of the process, but it’s also one of the scariest because it’s the first time you’re actually hearing the words acted and performed. If it’s not working then suddenly you’re just going, This whole thing is going to fall apart. This is a disaster this script is terrible. And then the right person walks through the door and you go, “Oh, thank God! This is going to be great!”

Can you talk about casting Patrick Fugit as Kyle Barnes?

RK: It took awhile to find Patrick, but he was the first person we cast.

CB: It was still at the end of quite a long process of looking at actors.

RK: The thing about Outcast, and the pilot specifically, is you’re meeting Kyle Barnes at his lowest point. You’re not meeting him the way he was before that, and you’re not meeting him after he starts this journey we set him on in the first episode. So there’s not a really good indication to who that person really is.

A lot of the actors who were coming in were playing it very angry, very distant, and just being very unlikeable. We need a character who is interesting, first and foremost, but there was just something so repellent about a lot of the ways that they were interpreting this character. And Patrick came in and there was an optimism that he brought to the role and such a sensibility and warmness that made you invested in him almost immediately.

We go into a lot of dark places, especially in the pilot, with this character while we are trying to get you to be invested in him so that you will want to come back and keep watching the show. You have to have somebody that can do so many things at once and remain appealing. Seeing that Patrick was able to do that was enlightening because there were times where we were like, “Oh, we’re going to have to rewrite this show because it doesn’t work.”

CB: We knew the material was dark and we knew it was going to be challenging, but it could never be hopeless. If the show feels hopeless, people won’t watch it. And we wouldn’t want to watch it and we wouldn’t want to write it. There was such humanity and empathy in this guy that you pulled for him, and that there was hope that he could get what he wanted.

RK: And that carried onto almost every character. We needed a Reverend Anderson who could bring a light to the show that had a funness to him while having this authority and doing these things that he had to do. Philip Glenister brought that. The Megan character, [who is Kyle’s sister], she’s on Kyle’s case and that can seem unlikeable. But Wrenn Schmidt was able to do that in such a fun, warm way that made her character endearing as opposed to shrew-y.

Robert, have you ever vetoed any of the ideas from the writers?

RK: Absolutely.

CB: The vast majority of the time, it’s because he has something planned that we don’t know about. We’ll pitch him something, and there’s one idea that he keeps rejecting. I can’t tell you what it is. But it’s never “I think that’s a bad idea.” It’s generally “I applaud your initiative, but I have a different road I want to take with that character” or “I have something that I’m planning three issues from now that that will screw that up.”

What do you think about the fact that there are so many shows that show a darker side of religion on right now?

RK: Preacher, Penny Dreadful, The Exorcist, and this — those are all four shows that, in a way, are dancing with the same kind of subject matter but exploring it in completely different ways. Each one of those four shows are going to have, to a certain extent, some overlap in the audience but I think a very different audience will get very different things from each one of those shows.

While there is a lot of exorcist material being explored right now, we’re very confident that this show is a character drama at its heart. There’s an undercurrent of exorcism and demonic possession, but we’re just trying to tell our own stories in our own universe. There’s a dense mythology that we’re going to be getting to as the series progresses that I think will make us stand apart. We’re going to be a much different exorcism show.

CB: We don’t see those shows as competition. A rising tide lifts all boats. There’s a hunger and an enthusiasm for these kinds of shows, and it’s a big enough pool for us all to swim in. It is a show with a supernatural component. It is about possession and exorcisms, and we’re not going to shy away from that, but it’s something we’ve talked about from the very beginning — it’s a character show first and a horror show second. It’s not exorcism of the week.