The Following is set to premiere on Monday, January 21 at 9/8c on FOX, and creator Kevin Williamson was on hand with stars Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy (Rome) at today's TCA (Television Critics Association) tour to talk about creating the latest fictionalized serial killer, real-world and televised violence and finding a core of love in the midst of brutality and gore.
With the show, creator Williamson enters the world of adult-themed horror. Having penned Scream (and two of its sequels) and developed and executive produced The Vampire Diaries for The CW, Williamson was ready to move into a more mature exploration of the tropes of the genre.
The creator had the initial idea for The Following when he was researching the Gainesville murders while writing Scream. He has said that he thought, "wouldn't it be terrifying if rather than a drifter, this was a charming professor who was killing these women."
The series stars Bacon as Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent who is damaged and haunted by the last case he worked. Enter Joe Carroll (Purefoy), a charismatic literature professor turned serial killer that Hardy brought to justice in 2004.
When Carroll escapes eight-years later, Hardy is called in to consult. It becomes clear that while in jail Hardy has been able to amass a following of lost souls, would-be killers and sociopaths to do his long distance bidding.
Carroll, a failed suspense writer who is obsessed with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, explored Poe’s thesis that "there is nothing so fascinating in the world as a beautiful woman dying" by slaughtering 14 co-eds at the university where he taught.
He now intends to create a living work of art by “casting” former agent Hardy as the reluctant hero in a story of his own design. The “story” will include a widespread outbreak of slaughter, with legions of murderers all looking to Carroll for their marching orders.
Williamson combines several of his lifelong fascinations in the series, including a very early introduction to Poe's work, and an interest in the creation and psychology of cults.
"My mom took me to a Richmond Poe museum," Williamson recalled. "And the walls were red and looked like blood, and they had The Raven written on the wall, and you had to follow around to read it. I remember it being most magical day. When I went home my mom had bought me the collective works of Poe and I became fascinated with him, he was a very damaged writer."
A very damaged writer is, of course, at the center of The Following. The Carroll character exists more as a puppet master in this world, though. By the time we meet him, his killing days are nearly done.
"Carroll is this magnetic character, he can pinpoint what's missing in your life and he can fill it," Williamson said. "And if you can find someone who can warm you, and fill that missing place in your life, you might be willing to follow them to some really dark places."
"These are people that don’t need the slightest bit of convincing to do the things they do," Purefoy said, dispelling the notion that cult leaders are somehow able to transform otherwise rational people into mindless killing automatons. "They join with him because he offers them a non-judgmental space to do the things that they do. These are very wiling participants."
A show which features a legion of serial killers is sure to inspire a barrage of questions about violence on television, and how that may or may not influence real world events.
"We all worry about it," Williamson said. "Who wasn’t affected by Aurora? We sit in a writer's room and are all traumatized. It reaches a moment where that just gets too real. But I'm writing fiction, I'm a storyteller. I know the real world affects me when I take pen to paper, but I don’t know how, it just happens."
As to the variety of "kills", given the numerous sociopaths on tap in the series, Williamson said, "Well that's a two fold answer: The options for [fictionalized] serial killers was traditionally, stab or stab, so there is a question of how you change it up. This is a madman challenging people to 'tell their own story.'" In other words, Carroll encourages his followers to kill in a manner that befits their own personality.
"I don’t sit around thinking of ways to kill people, though" he added. "I’m sitting around thinking of drama."
"The physical violence on the show is all surrounded by character interaction," Bacon said. "That’s the thing that I always go back to. The plot is interesting, but when I pick up the script I go 'what’s going to happen to this guy's life today and his relationship with Carroll and Claire?' You know Kevin Williamson is kind of a softie, he's interested in the love story of the show, and the personal struggles that my character has had before this relationship began...It has to do with the human aspect of the show."
One of the actor's playing a "follower" (who we will not reveal at this time) said, "It's interesting to me to watch the show with people. They'll say [my character] is a monster., but the core of everything [my character] does is this devotion and love for Joe Carroll. Everything else is a means to an end, and a way of getting closer to him. That's scarier to me, that it's about love."
"Ryan Hardy is surrounded by death and carries the weight of every victim," Williamson added. "He has a compulsion to save lives. That's what was interesting to me. On the one hand we have this heroic amazing do-gooder and I tired to pair him with the most evil, crazed, brilliant psychopath possible. And that to me is the nature of the show."
The Following will premiere Monday, January 21 at 9/8c on FOX.
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