Chatting with Guillermo del Toro & Carlton Cuse About ‘The Strain’
After all of the billboard hoopla, The Strain finally premieres this Sunday night on FX at 10pm. I had the chance to sit in on a phone press interview with fantastical creature mastermind and the show’s co-creator, executive producer, and director Guillermo Del Toro and Carlton Cuse, showrunner, executive producer, and writer (yes, of Lost) about the science behind creating the vampires, adapting the novels into a television series, creating a color scheme, overturning the idea of the romantic brooding vampire, and more.
On the draw of vampires
Carlton Cuse: The Strain upends the current conception of the vampire genre. We’ve had our fill of romantic, brooding, sparkling, depressed vampire characters. Those are really love stories sprinkled with genre. The idea of reimagining the vampires going back to the roots of what vampires are, that they are scary dangerous creatures, that was something that was incredibly compelling for me. You know, on a show like The Walking Dead, those zombies are capable of doing a few limited things. One of the things that is really interesting about this story is the layers of mythology. As the show goes on, we not only learn about the functioning of these vampires, but we also come to understand that there’s a hierarchy of vampires, and there’s the history to the vampires, and there’s a mythology behind the existence of these vampires. As that unfolds and as we begin to understand that these creatures are not only scary and dangerous, but also sentient and smart, that adds just a whole other layer to the forces of antagonism which just makes for great storytelling.
On how far they could go on the show
Cuse: This show represents mine and Guillermo’s version of the story. Yeah, sure, we can’t drop f-bombs but that’s about it. We really were able to put our unadulterated version of the story on screen and FX has been enormously supportive. It’s got some pretty extreme moments, but I think that that also what gives the show its octane.
Guillermo del Toro: The genre requires you to cross at some point, it’s almost like a hostage situation where you need to show an audience that you you’re not kidding. You have to show you are going to deliver either by atmospheric creepy moments or by visceral punch, hopefully both, you’re going to be able to deliver the goods. The things that will make you feel queasy, will make you feel unsafe, will bring a sort of delightful shiver, you know? That is required with the genre. You can execute it both atmospherically and by simply making the emotional relationships, or by making it a shock moment or, hopefully also, now and then, we have moments in which we have really, really sick humour. Certainly, in the pilot, we had the freedom to try to set up one of the most intense scenes to a pop song.
On adapting the book and how long the show will run for
Cuse: We 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. As we work out the mythology and the storytelling for the season 2, we will 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 end point and we’re following the path as established in Guillermo and Chuck Hogan’s [co-writer] novels. Obviously, there’s a lot that’s also going to be added. The television show is its own experience and there are new characters and new situations, different dramatic developments. So the show and the book can be each separately enjoyed. When you convert, the goal is not to just literally translate the book into a television show. You want to take the book as a source of inspiration and then make the best possible television show that you can make.
del Toro: We had the three books to plunder, but we also have the chance of inventing. We talked about milestones, that we want the milestones and the characters that are in the book to hit them, but with that, it became very malleable. It’s a very elastic relationship that the series has with the book, but by that same token, it’s very respectful and mindful of the things that will not alienate someone that likes the books. It should be feel seamless.
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 from the pilot on, the big scope feel to the series doing sophisticated effects and some set pieces, while staying on a fiscally responsible budget. I wanted to fit in the sandbox what I was hoping would feel like a big pilot episode for a big series and that pre-planning was crucial. Also adjusting the way I staged, the way I approached coverage or storytelling, and yet not sacrificing anything. It was both some fiscal constraints, but creative absolute freedom.
On the appeal of gorey television
del Toro: We come to the point where, socially we are mammalian creatures. We are territorial, we are built to fight, and fend off territorial challenges, reproduce and set a sedentary life. We’re socially and animalistically geared, and yet we live in a society that, the more it isolates itself from its natural instincts, the more it seeks it in the entertainment. I think there is a vicarious thrill where your brain needs, the way your body needs the exercise, your brain needs to be exposed to flight or fight instinct, and you seek it through a rollercoaster, or you seek it through extreme sports, or you can seek it in genres like noir, crime, horror. It’s literally biochemical mammalian biofeedback with how we are constructed to organize the storytelling in our lives.
On knowing the show will end after five seasons
Cuse We’re moving into this new phase of television where audiences are really embracing stories with a beginning, middle, and end. If you look at the success this season, for instance, of True Detective and Fargo, as well as the incredible response at the end of Breaking Bad got, you have to recognize the audience wants to see stories that come to a conclusion. They want the full and rounded experience. Television has been a first act, and an endless second act, and the best television now is giving you a three act experience and that’s what we want to do with our show.
On directing The Strain
Guillermo: It is with both great pleasure and great intripediation that I say I want to direct the opening one if there is a second season. I say intripediation because directing TV is like doing cardio, and if you look at me in any picture, you know I don’t do cardio. Each day on a TV series feels like a week on a feature, but I have made it a point to stay obsessively involved in supervising every single effects. supervising every single makeup effects, the color correction, this and that. I feel this is is like three men and a baby for vampires. It would be essential for me to continue involving that way.
On creating the vampire creatures
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 world wide, and I familiarized myself with the Japanese, Filipino, Malaysian, 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 myths in terms of spirituality, social structure, biology. Some of those notes made it into my first feature Chronos, some of them made it on Blade 2 when I directed that, and most of them made it into The Strain.
We really went into it trying to, little by little, reveal the biological traits and the design traits of these creatures, to make sense to an audience not just from a looking terrifying, looking good point of view, but to make them feel organic, make them feel like an almost different breed in the evolutionary history of this planet. You get to see them as a species in a way the more you advance in the plot and in the series. Designing it took approximately six months of just purely conception and sculptural and craftsmanship design, and executing it took a very long, long time ,but it was as complex and as demanding as designing creatures for a feature film.
The Master needed to be hidden for at least half the season or more to not make him accessible. I came up with the idea that this guy that has been alive for centuries and essentially is an apex of the Dark Ages in the middle of a world of imminent modernity. You have people with cell phones, jet airplanes, iPads, texting, internet, all of that, and in the middle of it, there is a nine foot tall hand carved coffin with a creature that has been alive for centuries and it’s ancient and that’s what makes it powerful: that it doesn’t care about any of the modern accoutrements of mankind that gives mankind such a full sense of security. The Master needed to look that ancient, so we decided that he was going to become his wardrobe. Eventually, when he reveals himself, you have a second layer. So we designed the wardrobe, the cape, and the multiple layers of clothes that are falling apart because he has the same accumulation of clothes over the 1800s, 1900s, 21st century, he’s just accumulating rags. He needed to look like a lump like a bunch of rags thrown on the floor, then comes alive, and out of all these rags, comes out this incredibly glistening and viscerally biological appendage that then drains the first victim. I take a very biological approach. It’s not just, ‘Oh that looks cool, I try to have it make sense biologically in the design.
On the color palette of the show
del Toro: One of the reasons we asked FX for a long lead time for the show was because I spent a long time working out light and saturation patterns, coordinating art department, wardrobe department, set design, and cinematography, to give the show a very strong look. I was jokingly calling it saturated monochrome, because we have a very few colors in the show. You’re talking about daylight and night time. It’s a clash between gold and blue, night and day. That led me to cyan which is a color in the spectrum between blue and green, and that is the night world. Then the amber, which is the day world, clashing. In between those colors, every time you see red, with the exception of police sirens or fire extinguishers or something causally of the real world, every time you see red, you know it’s linked in some way to the vampires. So some of the characters that are going to turn in the pilot are coded even from the beginning to have a little bit of red, creatively telegraphing to, at least me or anyone retrospective, that they were linked to that world.
On the billboard controversy
del Toro: FX has a really great sense of a) who their audience is, b) what their type of advertisement is. I think the show has many many layers of appeal. The more we go into the series, and the more we go into developing these things, we do go to territories that are pretty extreme and graphic. We’re talking about a biological takeover and a viral takeover and a body invasion series. We go into places that are extreme and they are extreme because we’re dealing with a fear that is I think essential, which is biological invasion. It’s not a knife slicing someone open. It is the concept that is disturbing: the worm with the eye. The juxtaposition of those two things is very powerful and it is representative of at least to the most peaked, invasive horror that we do explore in the show.
On balancing the supernatural with the personal lives of the characters
Cuse: Television is about forming a bond between the audience and the characters that exist in the world of the show. On Lost, we spent 80 percent of the time talking about the characters and maybe 20 percent of the time talking about the mythology at the most. That’s why the show was more popular than just being a narrowish genre show. The audience was concerned about whether Kate was going to end up with Jack or Sawyer as much as they were about whether they were going to get eaten by the smoke monster. In this show, we’ve tried to take the same approach. As much as these vampires are causing upheaval in the city, there also causing upheaval in the personal lives of the characters, and we’re seeing these characters have to come to terms with this sort of upending of the social emotional personal structures of their lives.
del Toro: We have successfully maintained quiet character moments with bigger moments. How successful they are will depend on your empathy with those characters. As a genre piece, we need to have identifiable characters. It is my hope that in the evolution of the series, Corey Stahl, which is the square jawed troubled hero that you may identify from other series, evolves into places that are much darker and challenging both for the character and the actor but that balance occurs over time.
(Photo of Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse taken by Nadia Chaudhury)
FX sent Nadia Chaudhury and her husband a replica of the heart from the show. It’s terrifying.