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Interview with Cole Burgett on “The Lost Son” Series
Exploring Creativity, Inspiration & Werewolves!
My introduction to “The Lost Son” was in a post for Christ and Pop Culture (CAPC) staff as an opportunity to write a review. The podcast was created by CAPC writer Cole Burgett as a limited audio series, reminiscent of classic horror radio plays. Unfortunately, just because we both write for the same magazine doesn’t mean we sit around the news desk hammering away at typewriters, getting to know each other.
I liked the series (making writing the review a lot easier!) and asked Cole about the creative process. Because a review needs to stick with a theme and has a word limit, I had to restrict my use of Cole’s feedback. You can read my review here but I’m excited to publish the exclusive behind-the-scenes interview here:
Gentlemen and ladies, there are spoilers ahead. You may desire to listen to the series before proceeding.
Chris Fogle: Tell me a little about yourself and what you do creatively.
Cole Burgett: My life is something of an absurdity, because I work so many different jobs, but all of them are more or less related to my fields of study, which are primarily Bible exposition, hermeneutics, and theology. But I have also maintained a lifelong love affair with storytelling that I just can't get away from, and in some ways the great struggle of my life is finding a way to make all of my interests coalesce into something that I can do full time.
I wrote and directed a short film last year, and wrote and produced another short film that wrapped production in Toronto just a few weeks ago.
I've also written a couple of books that will never see the light of day and published a few short stories, mostly westerns and one fantasy that's more in the vein of Robert E. Howard (a criminally underrated writer) than Tolkien. But the horror genre is really my niche, I think. My tastes, though, are very old school and not modern at all. I think that comes more from my love of literature, and the books we now classify as “gothic horror,” which are actually deeply religious, even mythic, works. The horror genre today, like fantasy, and like a lot of science fiction, has really lost its moral center. And that doesn't mean you have to start telling these very sentimental and light stories to recover that, it just means moral relativism as a philosophy has to go.
Stoker's Dracula is one of the most strikingly moral and religious books ever written, but there is a moral core to that story. Dracula is evil and there is never any question about that. Seductive, sure, but truly evil at the end of the day. Stoker's vision of the character isn't this sympathetic figure you can't help but fall in love with, which is the characterization that so many portrayals tend toward in modern retellings of that story.
I'm just over deconstructionism in storytelling in general. Monster stories are tragic because there is a clear sense of right and wrong there, and a kind of violation of moral order, and that violation often comes at the hands of the humans in those stories, that's what makes them interesting. They can really challenge our perceptions of right and wrong because their moral center is so clear, and that kind of clarity often causes wrinkles in a sea of relativism, especially when dealing with the monstrous or the grotesque. In many ways, the Enlightenment and the ever forward march of progress in society, and the unmooring of traditional moral values, are what put these stories into motion in the first place, the old romances dropped into the era of modernity. So, these stories by nature are meant to be challenging on philosophical and even theological levels and invite interaction, and as a creative, I'm still interested in those kinds of stories, which we see less and less of as time goes on.
Chris: I can definitely relate. How did “The Lost Son” come about?
Cole: What I haven't really advertised in the mainstream marketing is just how influenced the story is by Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. The narrative got a ton of mileage out of the question: “What if, in the parable, the father had rejected the prodigal son upon his return?” The story is a kind of twist on that idea, which becomes more evident as the story unfolds. Back in 2019 when we were first breaking the story sitting in a little study room at Dallas Theological Seminary, that idea became the focal point of the narrative we wanted to tell.
Chris: What were your inspirations?
Cole: Ultimately, I would say that all stories by any creative are personal; it's not so much writing what you know, but drawing from your own experiences to help shape the characters. I think developing the narrative helped me to work through certain relationships, to come at them from another angle and explore them through a different pair of eyes. So, in that respect it's a very personal story.
The original screenplay of The Wolf Man by Curt Siodmak was a huge inspiration, as well. That screenplay was originally titled "Destiny" and the question of whether the monster was real or not permeated the script. It was more about the power of suggestion, and a man who became so lost in his own mind that he came to believe things that weren't necessarily true; I really wanted to draw from that well because I thought it was fascinating and deeply psychological (and even theological, in some ways).
Chris: Were there any favorite scenes in “The Lost Son” you had to cut and why?
Cole: Ah, yes! There is one that comes to mind, and it wasn't so much cut as never materialized, but it's a scene I've played over a hundred times in my head and always intended to write, but in the end it just wasn't appropriate.
And what I mean by that is it wasn't going to fit into the narrative naturally without breaking the tension. It was a scene that was actually suggested to me by an early reader. This will get into spoiler territory, but I think it will be interesting to talk about.
The reveal at the end of The Lost Son is that the man you're led to believe is the detective investigating John Ballard's death is actually his “lost” son, and it's implied that John Ballard actually visited the witch who might or might not have been responsible for originally cursing the Ballard line with lycanthropy in the first place, which is where the son comes from. And in the mythology we built for the story, the curse passes from father to firstborn son, so John would pass the curse to his son, and so on. But John's plan is to broker a deal with the witch to conceive and give birth to his firstborn, which he will then kill in infancy, ending the curse and freeing him to go lead a normal life. Now, he can't kill the child and leaves the witch to do it herself, and he goes on with his life, not realizing the witch cannot kill the child either, and that she instead raises him in secret, teaching him to control the monster he inherited from his father. The scenes that was cut were these interactions between John and the witch.
And these are really beautiful and haunting scenes as they play out in my head, and I honestly toyed with doing an entire flashback episode that would have been this story, and that flashback would have started when Emily finds John Ballard's journal in episode three, and carried through to a fourth and final episode. But I'll tell you why that didn't happen, and that's because it's not John Ballard's story. It's Emily's and Andrew's and Arthur's and Weaver's. And no matter how I worked it, those scenes between John and the witch, beautiful and disturbing though they were, absolutely hijacked the story and destroyed any sort of tension.
Having that story be told by the lost son to Emily, with all of the rich emotion that Ethan [Goff] and Bonnie [Bogovich] brought to those roles, was just better for maintaining the tension, and keeping the narrative focus on the main players, especially Emily, who is the main character. But there is a version of The Lost Son that is bigger and more expansive, that is this generational story of the Ballard family that leads up to John Ballard's death and Andrew's uncovering of the truth. Maybe I'll write that saga one day.
Chris: I can see why you didn’t develop those scenes, but they sound cool. So I love using double entendres in my article subheadings. Your first episode is called “The Letter” so I called my review section “The Body of ‘The Letter,’” as in what the message of a physical letter is called, but also noting John Ballard’s remains. (Speaking of killing your darlings I initially called it “The Letter (of Destiny)” as a shoutout to The Wolf Man, but my editor rightfully said that didn’t work.) I called the second heading “The (Incredible) Stranger” after an 1890’s book by that title and my third section is “‘The (Duty of the) Confession’ (of Faith)” because there is an 1890’s theological book called “The Duty of Confession”…and I liked the idea of “The Lost Son” in some ways being your confession of faith. Did you add any double entendres or layers to this series?
Cole: Yes, there are layers to this series, that was very important to us as we began to think about the title and the story. I was very hesitant at first about titling the series The Lost Son, simply because that is an alternative title to Jesus's parable of the prodigal son, and I didn't want that to be too on the nose. But as the story developed, I realized that title, The Lost Son, is actually quite nuanced for the story we wanted to tell. Andrew is set up to be the red herring in the story, he's really written to play the audience's expectations against them. He is the character you sort of expect to be revealed to be the monster. But then there is the reveal of the "lost" son of John Ballard, the prodigal son of sorts who returns to his father only to end up rejected, and the drama of the story is his revenge. That's the obvious connection between the title and the parable, but it's the parable flipped on its head and shook up. It's the inverse of Jesus's story.
But there is another layer here, which is that Andrew is himself a lost son. He's lost in the mazes of his own mind, a danger discussed by Arthur and Emily in the first episode. He is bereft and alone, but it is an isolation and a loneliness that is very much chosen, and that's what makes his character tragic. Carter [Calahan], who voices Andrew, said to me as we were finding the character's voice, that he envisioned him as something of a tragic Shakespearean character like King Lear, and I thought that was a very interesting idea, so Andrew has this almost regal sound that was never there when I originally wrote him but really works in the final product. His tragedy is one of mythic proportions, in that sense. This is where I looked to Curt Siodmak for how to write that character's fall.
So, in a sense, Andrew is more "lost" than the other son, because he never finds a purpose, and is more or less led by the power of suggestion to all the wrong conclusions about himself and his family. This is what belies Emily's line at the very end of the finale, when she wonders who will remember "the lost sons of the house of Ballard.” Bonnie just nailed the delivery of that line in particular, and it's a fitting note to end on because it makes those layers in the title clear. Both of the Ballard sons are lost in some way.
Chris: Have you thought about doing any other monsters and mystery stories? Can I interest you in a little Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff?
Cole: Oh lord, there are too many to count. When I'm dead, and someone has the unholy task of digging through my files, they will undoubtedly lose their minds by the time they reach the hundredth outline, and that's not even counting the quite literally thousands of prologues and first chapters and snippets of story ideas I've accumulated over the years. I really do live a Spartan existence, everything I own can fit inside of one car, but I never throw any of these ideas away, and it's a problem I have, I'm aware of this.
I'm sort of my own worst enemy when it comes to actually finishing one of these stories, because I have to get to a point where I truly, madly, deeply believe in the strength of the story being told. As much as I like these older sorts of stories, I never like to feel like I'm only writing pastiche or am repeating myself or just doing what someone else has already done. One of the things that I really became attached to with The Lost Son is that it sort of rewrites traditional werewolf mythology to tell it quite differently. As I mentioned, it pulls from the original The Wolf Man, to tell its story, but the way we developed the werewolf mythology is distinctly different and, at least to me, felt fresh and new.
The monstrous is always that much more powerful when it works metaphorically, and in The Lost Son, the curse of the werewolf becomes a kind of metaphor for a darkness passed through generations, sort of a hereditary problem that goes deeper than sickness or disease, to matters of the heart. The opportunity to reimagine the werewolf myth, which has always been my favorite “classic” monster, was very appealing to me.
So, yes, I'm always up to do more monster stories, I think they're some of the most brilliantly complex and moral stories out there, but only if I find a way to do it that I feel is unique and worthwhile. There is enough trash and lazy writing out there, and I agonize over every story I have to make sure I don't fall into those terrible patterns.
Chris: I’m a TV/film guy so, as a bonus, what’s your favorite horror movie?
Cole: This is a tough one. But I'm going to have to say the 1941 Universal classic, The Wolf Man. I think it's just a beautifully written and tragic film that is so unconventional in so many ways. And the story of how it came to life is tremendous, from Siodmak's personal experiences in Germany, to the early drafts of the screenplay and his original ideas for the story, then Jack Pierce's absolutely iconic make-up which sort of changed the direction of the whole thing. And that performance by Lon Chaney, Jr. is so full of pathos and irony, he's this huge lumbering man with this gentle disposition who just loses himself to fate and powers beyond his control. It's very scary in that sense, and it's quite powerful. Good stuff.
Chris: I appreciate you doing the interview and being transparent on the origin of “The Lost Son.” I hope you get a lot of listens because I think horror fans and non-fans will really enjoy it.
Cole: Thank you so much for reviewing the series!