We had an exciting opportunity to talk to Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) and Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) about their upcoming TV show, The Strain, which debuts on FX tonight.
While I’m not a big fan of horror, I’m really excited to see The Strain. Based on the book series written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, this is a twist on the more classic, scary vampire. In New York City, a strange virus is spreading across the city. Victims start to exhibit the traits of a vampire so the Center of Disease Control sends in a team to investigate. (Cue the scary music!)
Guillermo del Toro: I’ve been obsessed by vampires for a long, long time, since I was a very young kid, (and a very strange kid). I read about vampire mythology worldwide and I familiarized myself with the Japanese, Filipino, Malaysian, and Eastern European variations on the vampire, and many, many others. And I kept very detailed notes as a kid on where to go with the vampire myth in terms of brutality, social structure, biology, this and that, and some of those notes made it into my first feature, Cronos, some of them made it in Blade II, when I directed that, and most of them made it into The Strain.
Carlton Cuse: This was a fantastic opportunity to upend the vampire genre, as the vampire genre has sort of been overrun by romance. We had had our fill of vampires that we’re feeling sorry for because they had romantic problems. And it was time to go back to the conception of vampires as really scary, dangerous creatures, and in so doing, that there was a way to kind of make a genre show that would be different from anything that was out there on the TV landscape.
The production values on TV have certainly elevated in recent years (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead) and this will be no exception. Even with the fast-moving constraints of TV, we’ll be getting a full crazy-beautiful “Guillermo del Toro experience” when it comes to the production design and the creatures.
Guillermo del Toro: John Landgraf (president of the FX network), before starting the series, [said] to me, “We encourage creator content. We love Carlton. We love you. We want you guys to do the most idiosyncratic, best version of the series that you can.”
I asked FX to give us a long pre-production period so I could really plan out the makeup effects, the creature effects, the visual effects, all of which I have big experience with, in order to try to bring to the pilot a big scope feel to the series; doing sophisticated effects and some set pieces, while staying on a fiscally responsible budget and managing.
Guillermo’s wildly imaginative and rooted approach to creating new creatures was one of the key reasons why Carlton jumped on board The Strain:
Carlton Cuse: I really jumped at the chance to work with Guillermo. I had not done a show with creatures, and so to be able to do a show with creatures with, in my opinion, the best creative creatures out there in the world was an incredible opportunity.
Being a cable show, there are few constraints on where they can go:
Carlton Cuse: We can’t drop F-bombs, but that’s about it… And so it’s got some pretty extreme moments, but I think that that also is kind of what gives the show its octane.
Guillermo del Toro: I think there is a vicarious thrill your brain needs, the way your body needs exercise, in a way. Your brain needs to be exposed to flight and fight instincts, and you seek it through a roller coaster, or some people seek it through extreme sports, or you can seek it in genres like noir crime, horror, adventure, etc. It’s literally a biochemical mammalian biofeedback with how we are constructed to organize the storytelling in our lives.
Carlton Cuse: I completely agree with everything that Guillermo said, although I don’t discount that some reptiles will also like the show.
Guillermo del Toro: [We’re] going to be able to deliver the goods, the things that will make you feel queasy, will make you feel unsafe, will bring this delightful shiver that is required with the genre.
But don’t think this is going to be just a horror TV show!
Carlton Cuse: There are these delightful moments, shocking moments, but I think there’s a lot more to the show also. I consider it to be a thriller with horror elements…As much as these vampires are causing upheaval in the city, they’re also causing upheaval in the personal lives of the characters. We’re seeing these characters have to come to terms with the upending of the social, emotional, personal structures of their lives. And that stuff is a very important part of our storytelling.
Guillermo del Toro: I really like to think about what it is that makes you right or wrong in this world and all that moral ambivalence is in the heroes.
So how will the three books unfold as a TV show?
Carlton Cuse: We basically follow the narrative of the first book in the first season. The plan is that the show will run somewhere between three and five seasons, and as we work out the mythology and the storytelling for season two we’ll have a better idea of exactly how long our journey is going to be. But it won’t be more than five seasons, we’re definitely writing to an endpoint, and we’re following the path as established in Guillermo and Chuck’s novels.
My approach with the series was: Let’s take the best of what was in the books and let’s figure out how we can translate that into the scripted form and make that into the best version of a TV series.
Guillermo del Toro: But we literally said it needs to end when it needs to end, and that was a central part of finding a home for the series.
While Carlton, as show runner, will have overall say on the direction of the show, Guillermo and co-author Chuck Hogan are quite involved. Chuck is a part of the writing room and Guillermo directed the pilot.
Guillermo del Toro: I have made it a point to stay obsessively involved in supervising every single of the effects in the series, supervising makeup effects, color correction, this and that. I feel this is our baby, neither just Chuck or Carlton’s or myself, is the three of us. It’s like Three Men and a Baby for vampires, and I think that it will be essential for me to continue to be involved in that way.
It is with both great pleasure and great trepidation that I say I want to direct the opening one, if there is a second season. And I say trepidation because obviously directing TV is like doing cardio, and if you look at me in any picture, you know I don’t do cardio.
Casting, as always, is vital to bring the show to life in just the right way
Carlton Cuse: I used to have a lot more hubris about the power of writing, you know that it would conquer all, but I don’t anymore. I really think that as good a job as you do as a writer, you’re absolutely indebted to the actors that have to deliver that material.
And we were incredibly fortunate to get some wonderful name actors like Corey Stoll, but to also find some amazing discoveries like Miguel Gomez and Richard Sammel.
The cast includes Corey Stoll (House of Cards, Ant-Man), David Bradley (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter), Sean Astin (like I need to tell you who he is!), Mia Maestro (Alias, Twilight) and Kevin Durand (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Real Steel)
As veterans of the dialogue between creators and fans in this social media age, Carlton and Guillermo plan to listen to the fan reaction, in their own ways.
Carlton Cuse: We’ve been working on this project for almost two years, and so the idea that we’re now going to see what people think of it and get their honest, true, and complete feedback is very exciting to me.
Guillermo del Toro: I’m a social media shut-in, I don’t use Twitter, I don’t have a Facebook page, I don’t have any of those things, so I’m socially inept in that way. But I certainly am aware of the Internet reaction. I don’t respond because I don’t have the mediums to respond at hand, but I do read the feedback and I do think you have to be able to feed on it and react to it in the proper way. As the first season plays out and people find that they are listening to the real voice of the series, we can find things that we did right and connected, and we can find out things we did wrong and learn from it.
But even with the feedback from the fans, they will remain true to the overall vision.
Guillermo del Toro: I like the idea of film makers becoming an acquired taste for an audience. I think that I myself am an acquired taste, and I love being that because I’ve enjoyed, over two decades, a very close relationship with the audience that likes what I do. And I always pay close attention to their reaction, to feed from it and to go into new ventures.
This venture (adventure!) begins tonight! Watch The Strain on FX!
We’ll have more from Guillermo as he gives us some fascinating insight on the creatures and the look of the show. (There’s a reason why he’s such a great visionary when it comes to creating new worlds!)
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