Sympathy for the Antichrist: Glen Mazzara on ‘Damien’

Tonight is the Season 1 finale of A&E horror series Damien, and we were lucky enough to speak with Creator and Executive Producer Glen Mazzara during the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. We chatted about what really sets Damien apart from other horror series following Mazzara’s session about “The Antihero on TV” that kicked off the conference. Mazzara is also a champion of diversity within the screenwriting industry, which we also discussed and will share in a follow-up piece next week.

I’ve read some reviews of Damien and found that I disagreed with most of them. It was fascinating from the first episode, and although Damien has this destined path, I found myself asking if he has to be evil because he’s the antichrist. It’s a refreshing take on the story.

I think there’s an expectation of what the show is supposed to be, and I think a lot of critics are measuring it against their expectations, and not looking at what’s actually on the screen. What’s on the screen is a surprisingly new, different take for this material and also a different type of storytelling, because the first episode is not indicative of what every episode is. In fact, we don’t even introduce many of our main characters until episodes 2, 3 and 4. That’s very unusual. Usually you cram way too much story into the pilot, and I really felt it’s a longer story to tell and I wanted to take my time. Fortunately, fans are very excited about it. They get it and they realize how different it is.

For an epic, fantastical story, Damien’s struggles when he learns who he is are very human and relatable.

He’s holding onto his humanity, but he’s running out of places to hide and places to run. When we first meet this character, he’s been in denial. He’s been running and there’s a real process. In the first four [episodes], he denies it. He then pulls back and tries to figure it out. He does his research. He’s doing surveillance, and then he starts to push back when he’s questioned by the cop. “I can’t explain what this is, but you don’t want to mess with me. Strange things happen around me.”

When Ann Rutledge (Barbara Hershey) confronts him with, “Your entire work, there’s evil around you. You’re the source of that evil,” he says, “No, I don’t want to accept that.” In Episodes 5 and 6, he starts to take action — very surprising action — and he doesn’t get what he wants when he takes those actions. Events are pushing him down the road, so he is becoming more desperate, more needy and the things is, there is no possible way anyone can predict where this is going. I’m watching the Twitter feed. I’m seeing what people are saying. No one has been able to make a single, correct prediction.

I kept finding myself questioning my reactions to the show because I felt sympathy for Damien and what he’s going through.

You feel weird for feeling sympathy for the antichrist, but what people seem to have forgotten, or may not be aware of, is that the book of Revelation promises that the beast will be seen as a messiah. We said that in Episode 1. I think if he was just an evil dictator, you could understand how he could control evil. The trick is, the bottom of any religion, it’s not hard to get people to kill for you — it’s hard to get people to die for you. You would die for a messiah because you would think that messiah was saving you. That’s the path we’re on and there’s a number of fans who are getting that.

Damien really tests my limits when it comes to horror, but the story is told in such a compelling way that I have to keep watching. I watched four episodes in a row and had to chase it with some comedy because I found it to be a bit intense.

Obviously, I know what’s coming, what the story is, but I was watching Episode 6 with my son who is 12, and he just could not sit still. He was like, “I don’t understand what’s going on.” He was really agitated. Then we watched Episode 8 last week with my sister, who was visiting from New York, and she woke up in the middle of the night and could not get back to sleep. She had these horrible nightmares. She doesn’t watch horror, so she woke up and said, “That show really affected me.”

I’ve been surprised with that. People [online] are saying, “This is disturbing my sleep. This is really getting under my skin.” It’s really affecting the audience in a more visceral way than I anticipated. That’s why early reviews, where some people were saying, “This is slow,” or “This isn’t right,” were so shocking because now, eight episodes in, people are obsessed. It gets under the skin and kind of sits there. People go back and watch the episodes multiple times. It’s been interesting and gratifying because I want to have that type of connection, but I am surprised at how disturbing it is to people. I am a horror fan, and I do want that horror experience, and I guess we got it.

Some people may not realize that Damien is filmed in Toronto, which plays New York. What can you share about your first experience working on a production in Toronto?

There’s a tremendous amount of depth as far as the talent pool goes with Toronto. There are really great crews. Part of the issue was that Toronto was so busy that sometimes it was difficult to find people, or people had choices, or we had some people who left the crew at certain points to take other jobs. We sometimes had trouble booking locations because other productions wanted to use them. It’s a very competitive market. It’s very healthy and very robust which I think is good, because then the people we had on our crew were immensely talented.

There are some departments that on other crews can be challenging, and here I had no problems. I’ve never, ever done a show in my entire career where I had not a single sound problem. These guys were phenomenal. Our stunts, our hair, our makeup, costumes … every department just worked. I love shooting here. If we get picked up [for Season 2], I’d love to be back here again.

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