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Interview: Guillermo del Toro & Carlton Cuse Infect TV With ‘The Strain’

Interview: Guillermo del Toro & Carlton Cuse Infect TV With ‘The Strain’

Interview: Guillermo del Toro & Carlton Cuse Infect TV With ‘The Strain’
July 12
17:16 2014

Preston Barta // Film Critic

THE STRAIN | 60 min. | TV-MA | Creator: Guillermo del ToroChuck Hogan | Stars: Corey Stoll, David Bradley, Mía Maestro, Sean Astin, Kevin Durand, Richard SammelJonathan HydeMiguel Gomez, Natalie Brown, Ben Hyland, Jack Kesy, Anne Betancourt, Jonathan Potts, Nikolai Witschl and Regina King

Ever since “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” put the nail in the series’ coffin over a decade ago, creativity in the vampire department has long been absent. Enter Guillermo del Toro, whose wonderfully inventive mind has brought us such works as “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy” and “Blade II.”

His dark, poetic view of the sci-fi fantasy world is a treasure to behold. So you can imagine we got very excited when they announced that he was adapting his books about vampires into a television series. Well, now, the moment has arrived.

The Strain” premieres tomorrow night and it’s exactly what the genre doctor ordered. It’s fun, engaging and gore-tastic!

We had the opportunity to speak with del Toro and showrunner/executive producer/writer Carlton Cuse (“Bates Motel“) about bringing back the genre to its sinister roots, the mythology behind the series and the creature design.

For those who haven’t read the books that this show is based on, how closely is the mythology going to follow that? How is the material spaced? Is season one all of book one?

Executive Producer Carlton Cuse at the Premiere Event for "The Strain," presented by FX Networks at the Directors Guild of America on July 10, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Scott Kirkland/PictureGroup).

Carlton Cuse: “Book one is season one, yes. 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 Hogan’s novels. But 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 each be separately enjoyed.

And I think that the goal is not to 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. And I think Guillermo, Chuck, myself, all of us involved have basically said, ‘okay, here’s the book, now how do we take the best stuff in here and then use that as elements and then make the best TV show we can?’ But we view the TV show as its own creation.”

Premiere Event for The Strain Presented by FX NetworksGuillermo del Toro: “And it was very clear from the start that we had the three books to plunder, but we also had the chance of inventing. We talked about milestones, that we want the milestones and the characters that are in the book to be hit, but with that it became very malleable. Carlton decided, I think very wisely in retrospect, it made perfect sense as a game plan to, for example, leave the origins of The Master (the show’s villain), which we opened book one with for a second season, if we go that way, and, for example, bringing a set piece from book two to bookend the story of one character on season one. So, 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 feel as seamless. And I think the decisions we have to understand when Carlton is guiding us through this new medium for the story, to trust and know that his decisions are guided by huge experience and a prestigious career.”

You said that the series will probably only go to about five season. Any chance it will go longer than that if the series does as well as I think it will, or do you want the story to finish where it needs to finish?

Cuse: “I don’t think so. I think that we’re moving into this new phase of television where I think audiences are really embracing stories with a beginning, middle, and end. And if you look at the success this season, for instance, of ‘True Detective’ and ‘Fargo,’ as well as the kind of incredible response that the end of ‘Breaking Bad’ got, I think that you have to recognize that the audience wants to see stories that come to a conclusion. They want the full and rounded experience. And television has been sort of a first act and sort of an endless second act, and I think that the best television now is giving you a three-act experience. And I think that that’s what we want to do with our show.”

Del Toro: “I agree with Carlton. I think one of the things that we made essential when we pitched the series everywhere, and certainly at FX, is we came in and we said we are not going to be extending beyond the—we presented two arcs, one that can fulfill three or four seasons, and hopefully the second or third book are complex enough that they can generate a fifth one. 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.”

We’re starting to see this big proliferation of genre stuff, which is obviously not new, but the comic book stuff that really has been invading TV. Just on broadcast alone there’s five new shows based on comics. What do you think is behind that proliferation, and Carlton, you tried this before with ‘The Sixth Gun,’ what goes wrong, and what do you think could be next?

Cuse: “I think as a creative person, as a show runner I don’t really think about the larger trends. I think about what I connect to emotionally. And so for me I connected to this story, I felt there was a way to upend the vampire genre here. I felt like there was, as I said before, for me kind of a wonderful collaboration to be had, as well as the bones in this story, of a way to, I think, to tell a great monster story for television that would find its own unique footing in the television landscape. I really think our show is different than anything else that’s out there.

I think 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, but there also are, I think there’s an incredible mosaic of characters engaged in all sorts of interesting, dramatic conflicts, and I believe that the show will appeal to a broader range of people. It’s not a show just for horror aficionados. So, I think while it is a genre show, I think we’ve made a genre show that I think is more than just being a straight genre show.”

Del Toro: “I think that the way we have, and when you talk about the baby boomer generation, or a second generation of film makers raised in Hollywood, every generation brings with them the media in which they were raised as part of the narrative leap in what is acceptable or not in mainstream entertainment.

In the case of the generation presently dominating the landscape, you have a huge acceptance of pop elements in culture. The viability of comic books, video games, or other forms of entertainment is not something new, but it’s pervasive right now because it came with a generation that have a pervasive influence of those mediums in the way they shape their narrative about their fiction. But everybody knows the first ‘Batman’ was a black-and-white ‘Batman’ right at the time that the comic book strip was in vogue. It’s always the interaction of genre and media in mainstream movie making, and media that is alternative to that has always existed.

I think that the only thing I feel has changed lately is very often myself as a comic book collector and reader, find out that many comic books feel almost like a trial for a movie or a TV series. And I gravitate more towards comic books that remain idiosyncratic and strange.”

How did you choose your writing staff for this show considering the elements involved with the genre, the sprawling worlds, the source book, etc.?

Cuse: “The job of putting together a writing staff is always something that I think of as akin to assembling an orchestra. You need to find people who have different voices but who all can harmonize together and create a single sound. So, first and foremost, I was very happy that Chuck Hogan wanted to engage not just as the co-writer of the books but also as a writer on the show.

And so having Chuck on staff has been a hugely wonderful thing. I hired these two wonderful writers from ‘Battlestar Galatica,’ David Weddle and Brad Thompson; and then I hired Regina Corrado, who was on ‘Deadwood’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy;’ and Jennifer Hutchinson, who was on ‘Breaking Bad;’ and a wonderful young writer named Jason Brigg Gibson. And we had this wonderful combination of different voices and writers with different interests; all of whom I think brought something really unique to the very complicated and arduous process of adapting a book into a brand new creation as a show. And there’s lots of new stuff in the show, there are new characters in the show, there are lots of new situations, and each of these writers really contributed to that process.”

Del Toro: “I think that in this I completely rely on Carlton. When the charge of a show runner is applied, you know who’s running the show, and Carlton has the experience and the knowledge and the capacity to cast the writers’ room in the way that he thinks is appropriate for the show. And we jibe, we veto ideas and so forth, but ultimately he’s the arbiter of how that part of the show goes and the direction the show takes, and who gets to participate as a writer. I think we have a great sampler of different disciplines and different points of view into the story that he needs to orchestrate into something seamless.”

Lastly, Guillermo, something that has always fascinated me about your films is your creature design. You put a lot of thought into how they are going to look and make us feel when we see them. And I was so stunned when I saw your first creature, with the powers they have, the tongues they have and their overall appearance. Can you give me some idea of how the concept of these characters developed in your mind.

Del Toro: “Oh, yes! 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.’ And designing them, we knew and we had it very clear that, for example, The Master needed to be hidden for at least half the season or more to not make him that accessible.

And 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 9 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 false sense of security.

And The Master needed to look that ancient, so we decided that he was going to become his wardrobe and that 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 an accumulation of clothes over the 1800s, 1900s, 21st century, he’s just accumulating rags, and he needed to look like a lump, like a bunch of rags thrown on the floor, then come alive, and out of all these rags comes out this incredibly glistening and viscerally biological appendage that then drains the first victim. And that’s the way we started guiding the process of designing The Master. And the more we go into the season, the more you see of him and the more you discover layer after layer of that creature design.”

What about the other creatures?

Del Toro: “Well, I knew that the older the vampires stay alive, the older that they stay alive, the more they lose their humanity. They start literally by losing their heart. Their heart is suffocated by a vampire heart that overtakes the functions. And this was important metaphorically for me because the beacon that guides these vampires to their victims is love. Love is what makes them seek their victims. They go to the people they love the most. So they turn their instinct that is most innately human into the most inhuman feeding mechanism, so their heart is dead.

Then shortly thereafter their digestive system is overtaken. Then, as we do in an early episode, their genitals fall off. And their excretion system becomes really, really efficient in the way that ticks, or lower forms of life that feed on blood do, a tick in order to feed needs to eliquate itself, and they are eliquating while they are feeding. And in the series that comes with the big splashes of ammonia infused liquid that they expel while they’re feeding. And then I know that they lose their soft tissue, their ears start falling off, their nose, if they’ve been alive for several years their nose rots and falls away, and they develop a tracheal opening to vent the extra heat from the metabolism and to project the stinger. So, 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.”

Wow. That’s incredible. Thank you for sharing.

Del Toro: “No, thank you! And you notice they lose their hair because their body heat is so big it consumes the fat in the scalp, burns the roots, and they then change color because they lose their red cells. One of the things Carlton and I have the most fun in writing the novels is Carlton would call me any time he needed a biological angle or an explanation. And we would talk about it for a while, because I really love and know these vampires well.”

“The Strain” premieres tomorrow night at 10 p.m. PT on FX.

Feature Photo: “The Strain” premieres tomorrow night on FX. Photo courtesy of FX Networks.
Photo 2: Showrunner/Executive Producer/Writer Carlton Cuse at the premiere event for “The Strain.” Photo courtesy of FX Networks.
Photo 3: Executive Producer/Director Guillermo del Toro arrives at the premiere event for “The Strain.” Photo courtesy of FX Networks.
Photo 4: Corey Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather. Photo courtesy of Michael Gibson/FX.
Photo 5: (L-R) Sean Astin as Jim Kent, Mia Maestro as Nora Martinez, Cory Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather. Photo courtesy of Michael Gibson/FX.

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