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Exorcist: How Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master inspired TV series

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Chuck Hodes/FOX; Phil Bray

If you watch the original Exorcist film, you might be surprised how little actual exorcising there is, but once Fathers Karras and Merrin enter the room, almost everything that follows is iconic. “The power of Christ compels you” is an indelible part of the film’s place in our cultural memory, and it posed a bit of a challenge for Jeremy Slater, the creator the TV series based on the film, the second episode of which airs tonight. 

Not only does the series have to contend with the towering legacy, but also every rip-off that came after it. This forced Slater and the series showrunner Rolin Jones to ask and answer some questions. “I don’t just want this show to run for 10 episodes this first season,” Slater said. “I want this show to run for 10 seasons, so how do you do that if every exorcism looks the same? Because you’re always reading from the same Latin rights. If you’re always standing over the body and chanting the same words, how do you vary that? How do you make that different and frightening and cinematic?”

The answer came from an unexpected place: Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master, in particular the intense interview sequence between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix

The scene is a searing examination of Phoenix’s character’s inner-most fears and insecurities on the part of Hoffman’s, possibly to exploit. It’s a surprising source of inspiration, but once you think about it, the similarities are easy to see. “We really used that scene as our jumping off point for what an exorcism should look like,” Slater said. “This is what it should feel like. It should be less about chanting words and going through ritual, and it should be more about how do you draw the demon out psychologically and engage it in battle.”