Cable network FX is already home to some of the most creative and compelling drama on television, with critically acclaimed hits like Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and The Americans captivating viewers on a weekly basis. Never content to rest on their laurels, the network is continuing to expand its horizons and dabble in other genres, and their latest experiment finds them teaming up with one of the most fascinating minds in science fiction and horror: Guillermo del Toro.
The Strain, based on a series of novels by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, follows the rapid spread of a virus whose symptoms bear a striking resemblance to ancient tales of vampirism, while CDC doctor Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and his team are tasked with containing the virus before humanity is all but extinguished.
Del Toro himself co-wrote and directed the pilot episode, and serves as executive producer on the series along with showrunner Carlton Cuse (Lost). Last week, in a conference call with journalists, the duo were happy to answer questions about their experiences working together to bring The Strain from page to screen.
Since you have the books as your source material, will the series be sticking closely to the same structure?
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.
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… but we view the TV show as its own creation.
Guillermo 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… 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.
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. 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 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.
It’s interesting how popular police procedurals, and murder, and gore, and blood, and pain, and death are in our culture. Why do you think these themes are so popular?
del Toro: From my end, what I think is very apparent is that we’ve come to the point where socially, as we are mammalian creatures we are territorial, we are built to fight and fend off territorial challenges, reproduce, and sit a sedentary life. Ultimately that’s the way 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 them in entertainment. And I think there is a vicarious thrill your brain needs, the way your body needs the 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, et cetera. It’s literally a biochemical mammalian biofeedback with how we are constructed to organize the storytelling in our lives, I think.
Cuse: I completely agree with everything that Guillermo said, although I don’t discount that some reptiles will also like the show.
Guillermo, how was the transition been from feature films to cable television, and what have you and Carlton learned from working together?
del Toro: For me as a producer and director, it was about having some of the quirks that come from a feature film. 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 and feel… And that pre-planning was crucial, but 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.
Cuse: And for me I really jumped at the chance to work with Guillermo. I had not done a show with creatures, and so it’s been a great learning experience for me really to collaborate with Guillermo, and I think the show has been a really great combination of both our processes, in that we have a very complementary set of skills. And I will echo what Guillermo said, we approached the making of a television show with a lot of the things that you do when you make a feature, and I think that there are inherent limitations in television if you think about the network model, where a series might get greenlit and then you would literally be in production six weeks later. It would have been impossible to make this show under a normal network production schedule. And so we’re incredibly grateful to FX for being so supportive in allowing us our process.
We’re starting to see this big proliferation of genre stuff, which is obviously not new, but the comic book stuff has really been invading TV. What do you think is behind that proliferation?
del Toro: When you talk about the baby boomer generation, or a second generation of filmmakers 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. It’s always the interaction of genre and media in mainstream movie making, and media that is alternative to that has always existed.
We’ve seen a lot of movies and television shows where they deal with an outbreak or a contagion and they usually have this very bleak, very gloomy, washed out color palette. The Strain goes in the completely opposite direction; everything is very saturated, it’s very rich, the colors are very vivid. Was this a conscious choice to make the show stand out a little bit more?
del Toro: One of the reasons we asked FX for a long lead time for the show was that I spent a long time working out line and saturation patterns, coordinating [with the] 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 very few colors in the show. We are going for a palette that limits itself to basically cyan and amber in clash with each other, and then they make room for red to exist. And red is only in connection with the vampires.
The other thing that I wanted for the show was that if you’re channel surfing, the show would almost pop out and demand your attention visually. I wanted it to have a very strong inception from comic book form and illustration. But when people think about it they need to think about it as an orchestration of wardrobe, set, cinematography, and ultimately the way you texture the clothing, the walls, the sets, to giving it a unique look. And I went for this color palette because the clash in the show, you’re talking about daylight and nighttime, so it’s a clash between gold and blue basically, night and day. And that led me to cyan, which is a color in the spectrum between blue and green, and that is the night world, and then the amber, which is the day world, clashing.
And in between those colors, every time you see red – with the exception of a police siren or a fire extinguisher, something causally in 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, sort of creatively telegraphing that they were linked to that world.
Obviously, today’s pop culture is inundated with vampire stories. What makes The Strain special for each of you?
Cuse: I think The Strain upends the current conception of the vampire genre. I think we’ve had our fill of romantic, brooding, sparkling, depressed vampire characters. The idea of sort of re-imagining the vampires, going back in a way that the roots of what vampires are, that they are scary, dangerous creatures, that was something that was incredibly compelling for me. That was something that really drew me to the project, and the idea that when you see these things, it’s not good.
I think one of the things that’s really interesting about this story, that really inspired me as a show runner and storyteller, is the layers of mythology. And 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 then there’s a history to these vampires, and there’s a mythology behind the existence of these vampires. And as that unfolds and as we began 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.
del Toro: Yes, I think that obviously this is a mythology I’ve been living with for many, many years. But very rarely do we get to see a savage form of vampirism in either film or TV, or basically any other medium, so I think the degree to which this mythology and biology, and basically lore of this type of vampire, is laid out is really quite unique and evolving. And we make it very clear from the first few hours of content that these creatures are not the romantic version of vampirism, or the glamorous version of how fun it could be to live forever, but a very painful, very biologically challenging species.
Guillermo, you directed the pilot. Is there any chance you’ll be returning to direct future episodes?
del Toro: 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 directing TV is like doing cardio, and if you look at me in any picture you know I don’t do cardio. But I think that the beauty of the show is we have developed a really good, increasingly fluid relationship – Carlton, Chuck, and myself – and I think now and then in the first season I would go and shoot additional material with a Saturday second unit, or Carlton and I could increasingly jab each other into coming up with sick ideas in the middle of the season.
And I think that I really would like that, because it is such a pleasurable experience. It is incredibly intense on a day to day basis, because each day on a TV series it seems like a week on a feature. As it is, I have made it a point to stay obsessively involved in supervising every single one of the effects in the series, supervising makeup effects, color correction, this and that. And I feel this is our baby, neither just Chuck or Carlton’s or myself, it’s 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.
The Strain airs Sunday nights at 10pm, exclusively on FX.