Damien’s creators and cast on remaking The Omen for TV

Back at Wondercon 2016, we chatted to the cast and creators of The Owen TV series, Damien, including Bradley James and more...

At this year’s Wondercon, Den of Geek participated in several roundtables with the cast and the creator and executive producer of A&E’s Damien. Here’s what they had to say…

Photography credit: Gary Richardson 

A question you’ve probably been asked a million times, but who had the idea to bring The Omen to TV?

Glen Mazzara: Fox came to me and said “We have this property of The Omen,” this classic film, and they actually asked if I would … I was developing some other material for them, some other pilots, and they said, “Will you find a writer and supervise that writer and maybe develop a take?” or something. It was very early. I said, “I love the film. I’ll write it myself.”

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I spent some time thinking about what I would do with it, and I thought, “Let’s…”, although I enjoyed the second and third films, I wanted to go back to that character of Damien Thorn and say, “What happens if he’s a perverted version of Christ, he’s the Antichrist? Can we hit that religious mythology a little harder and really examine what does that mean, to be a person who, if Christ is fully divine and fully human, what if we had a character who was fully human and fully evil?” That, right away” you get a conflict right there, who wants that? That, I felt, was a way to create a character that would allow us hopefully many seasons to examine that journey as he crosses, as he embraces one or the other. It was an opportunity that I jumped at.

Barbara and Bradley, were both of you big fans of the original Omen and in either case, have you been drawn from that source in building your characters?

Barbara Hershey: Yes, and yes. I was, and one of the things I liked was, my favorite kind of horror is character-based horror, reality-based horror. Because if you care about the people and relate to the characters, then you care about what happens to them, and therefore you are very frightened. The Exorcist is really good about that because they spend a good portion of the film just showing us this little girl and her life before. And The Omen is that kind of film too. One of the things that got me that Glen said is that we’re honouring that, this isn’t about effects, this is about these human beings that these things are happening to. So it was very important to me to hear that.

Bradley James: I loved the film and I think it is great. I had seen in a couple times before we got going, and, it provides the first five years of the back story for Damien so in that respect, I was able to use that.

Hershey: Some people have said to me, [to James] I don’t know if you heard this, but you know some people ask “How is he forgotten where he was, that little boy at the end of the film who knew so much?” And I wanted to bring it up because I wanted to say the human part of him—because he’s half-human, just like Christ was half-human–blanked it out because he couldn’t deal with it and yet he was always drawn to these places where pain was, like war and things like that and he always pushed the way those things in his head.

James: And, you know, there’s loads of stuff from when I was five that I don’t remember…

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Hershey: I just wanted to point out that it is a phenomenon of human beings that they erase those sorts of things and suppress them, and to answer that question.

Omid and Megalyn, one of the things I think is very interesting is both of your characters at this point are fully in the human realm. Damien, of course, is half human, half devil. Everyone that’s currently surrounding him he thinks, he knows Ana’s not necessarily to be trusted, but the other people that he’s been searching out for help he thinks are friends, but now we know are enemies at least by episode 3. Not necessarily enemies, but people he cannot trust. Your two characters are people that are good people who he can trust. Can you talk a little bit about your influence on him and your relationship and how that’s going to be push and pull with these darker forces in his life?

Omid Abtahi: Yes.

Can you? Without giving away too much?

Abtahi: Just give it all away. I’m kidding.

You can trust us.

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Megalyn Echikunwoke: If you are asking me if she is going to be going deeper into that realm…Yeah, I mean, it is a show about the anti-Christ, so I think to a degree it’s safe to say we are all going to be brought into this world. But Damien and Simone, not deliberately. They do get closer–they end up getting closer for better or for worst.

Abtahi: As for my character, I think he stays pretty consistent. He knows Damien is going through a lot, having lost someone who was really close to him, Kelly, who was her (Simone’s) sister. He gets into this whole 666 anti-Christ business. I feel like my character’s there to ground him. You know, if you told me you were the anti-Christ, I’d be like, “Come on, let’s be real for a minute, does this stuff really exist?” It’s someone who wants to bring down his level of paranoia and just be, he’s just a good friend throughout for him, or he tries to be. Not to say that there’s isn’t a point where he has to question everyone in his life. I try to be the anchor to his life.

David Seltzer, when he wrote The Omen, had done incredible amounts of research, Biblical research. How much of that do you guys have to do for the show?

Mazzara: I have done a tremendous amount of Biblical research. About twelve years ago, I walked into my agent’s, and I said, “I would love to write a show about the building of the Catholic Church,” and they said, “No one’s ever going to make that. It’s already been on and all of this.” It was basically A.D. or whatever, but I wanted to do that version. But I’ve read all those texts, I’ve done a tremendous amount of research, I have books, I have an entire bookshelf filled with that sort of stuff.

In a way, this is my passion project. It’s the building of an evil church, okay, but those dynamics are the same. Watch, but we’ve done that research. One of our writers, her husband is a theologian, and he actually had not read the script or seen early cuts, and he’s watching the show on air, and he felt that the theology was pretty tight. So I was proud of that, because we did take it seriously, and that’s one of the reasons why… I haven’t heard anybody, any backlash from religious groups about the show. They’re probably not watching it, but if they were, they would see we’re taking that stuff seriously. We’re not just doing a pastiche or throwing things together. We’re really being very thoughtful and respectful, and saying “Let’s examine those things that we’re taught, particularly as a Catholic, and how do they play and resonate in today’s world?”

Scott, how much fun do you have playing Damian’s friend in some ways, and yet you have this whole other thing going on at the same time?

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Scott Wilson: It’s a hoot. I love it. I love the way John Lyons was introduced, sitting there…what was the line? Something about “There comes a moment when if something doesn’t fall apart, everything can fall apart.” I loved the way he’s introduced to the show, and I think Damien is…Bradley James is doing a terrific job as Damien, so it’s fun. And having worked with Glen before, it was an easy choice to work with him again. Not a choice, but thankful that he…

Mazzara: I didn’t give you a choice. I said, “You got to do this.”

One of the things about Ann is that a lot of the things that she does towards Damien come out of genuine care and love for him, and even though we may worry about what she is pushing him towards–becoming the Antichrist and what that means. And a lot of what is happening around Damien, including the killing of people, it also seems to be coming out of a place of love because there are people around him that could be injuring him on his path. In the Scriptures, a lot of what the Devil does seems to be a twisted form of love…

Hershey: You know she does love him, on lots of different levels and it’s a huge factor for her. But she also has a belief system and in her belief system it is if you had a very religious catholic person who believed something fervently and is the same way except is on the other side you know she’s very passionate about it. Anyways what was the question?

James: You essentially expanded on her question and just nailed it.

Hershey: Oh, well good!

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To sort of refine that: how does one love in the agent of destruction?

Hershey: It depends. Those words are very stacked. The definition of the word “apocalypse” is revelation. “Lucifer” means the bringer of light. Demons in Roman times were muses and bringers of knowledge, and the apple in the Adam and Eve story was knowledge. So she believes that this is an age of enlightenment and that the Christian version of the story—the Bible–is their PR. But the reality is something else. It brings it all this to a different level. [pauses] I have never explained this before. It is really interesting to look at all this from a different door, which is what I am doing, and if we can unhook ourselves from the adamancy of the story and examine at it from this different perspective, it’s very interesting and kind of fascinating.

This was originally a six-episode story for Lifetime and then it moved to A&E, how did both of your characters begin to flesh out more once it expanded to ten episodes?

Abtahi: I never got to read… I just read the pilot. I think it was after 2 days of shooting they were like, “Oh, we’re changing this to 10 episodes and changing networks.”

Echikunwoke: The changes happened really quickly, and so we didn’t really, we don’t know what our characters are going to do from episode to episode…. We’re learning as we read them. We’re done with one episode as we’re reading the next one, that’s when we find out what’s happening.

Abtahi: A lot changes though, we know that. We knew that the original art…

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Echikunwoke: Right. Yes, a lot did change.

Abtahi: Without getting into specifics… There was definitely, there was changes, but I think there were changes for the better, right?

Echikunwoke: Absolutely.

Abtahi: When they gave us four more episodes they gave us more to breathe and to get to these characters more, you get to know our characters a lot more.

Echikunwoke: Yeah, there’s only so much you can do in six episodes. Especially with a new show that has a very rich history.

Glen, how did it change by going from the six episodes into ten from your point of view? Did you feel like you were able to open up certain stories?

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Mazzara: Yeah, we were able to open up the world, and so if you look at the first few episodes, we’re really focused on Damien and a tight circle of people around him. Starting with episode six and particularly episode seven, all of a sudden, the world just opens up. We have people coming at Damien, all of this, and it was a gift. It was great. The show develops and reinvents itself in the back half, so whereas before we put all our efforts on developing the characters, now that those characters were up and running, we could sort of develop the story in surprising ways.

But I will say the show gets dark, okay? We’ve had some dark episodes already in three, three episodes, and we’re dealing with dark–at the end of episode three he’s describing this massacre that he witnessed–and you can see he’s traumatized. That’s a really dark story. Wait until you see what we do in episode five, or episode six is dark.

I didn’t realize I was such a dark person until a couple days ago. Are you coming to the panel to see what we’re doing? Because we’re going to show something that when we, we’re going to show you a scene that when my wife watched it, she actually walked off and said, “You’re sick,” and my kids were like, “Dad…” and I was like, “I thought it was entertaining,” so I have a high bar for horror.

Is there any room for any levity at this point now?

Mazzara: You know what? It’s funny, because there’s a dark humor in it now. I also thought The Shield was very funny, and maybe people didn’t, but what I think is funny is probably not what anyone else on the planet thinks is funny. But a lot of it has to do with Ann’s character and her delivery, and she has just a way to cut things down, and she’s so much fun to write for. So it’s about that. Once Damien I think sort of embraces this darkness, there’s absurdity around him. People start realizing “Okay, this world is absurd. This makes no sense. What is happening here? Everything’s been turned upside down.” So I won’t say that there’s levity, but there’s little flashes of, hopefully, wit, maybe. But I don’t want to say as a writer I have wit, but I’ll say my other writers have wit.

If you could play different characters in this series, who would you pick? And why?

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Echikunwoke: Ann Rutledge, definitely,

Abtahi: Damien, definitely. I would pick Damien.

Is there any particular reason you would chose them or is it the dynamics of the characters?

Abtahi: It is the dynamics of the characters, I think we all have good and evil in us. I don’t want to say evil, but good parts of us and bad parts of us. Just that struggle is, for me as an actor, is interesting to have in any kind of character, whether you’re the anti-Christ or not. It just happens that in this case the consequences are go beyond yourself and affect the world. It seems like a great struggle to play as an actor. Bradley does a great job, I’m not trying to…you know…

Echikunwoke: I think with Ann, she’s really naughty. It’s always fun to be naughty.

Abtahi: Yes, very, very naughty.

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Was it tough to figure out, at what point do we have Damien believe and show that–that he believes?

Mazzara: There’s different levels of belief. You’ll see that in every episode, he starts getting more and more information. Sometimes it’s an external type of information, when Ann explains to him there are these conspiracies, there’s factions, there’s this, there’s these different groups. That seems narcissistic, to believe that the whole world revolves around him, so he’s always got to think he’s part crazy, but then there’s an internal thing as well. Is this really me? Is what they’re saying true? That’s the dilemma, and you’ll see, that is the central question: what does Damien believe internally? I guess, I’m thinking about it now, I would say that’s probably the central question of every single episode from now until the end of the season.

As far as you’re saying that Damien is part human, part evil, as the season goes on would you say he becomes less human and more evil?

Mazzara: He’s always fully both. It’s kind of interesting, but it depends on, as we were saying, what suits his agenda? Right now he’s the victim of other people’s agendas, and we’ll see that, and it’ll be interesting to see what action he takes and how does he try to get ahead of it? He doesn’t want to be just a patsy for John Lyons and Ann Rutledge. He wants to be his own man, and this is the story of his dealing with extraordinary circumstances in his life and trying to figure out how, “How do I have a life?” He can’t have a relationship. If he does, the person’s at risk. If he sends that person away, they die anyway. Look at episode one. So he’s under a lot of pressure, and it’s a matter of him trying to figure out, how can he get through this? There’s really no way through it. That’s the pressure he’s under.

Damien season one aired on A&E in the US. No UK broadcaster has yet been confirmed.