FX’s new series THE STRAIN, Sundays at 10 PM, brings horror back to the vampire mythology. Forget the charmers of TRUE BLOOD, BEING HUMAN, et al, or even Bela Lugosi – these things are hideous, terrifying and breeding like Ebola virus. Worse, they’re in New York City. Center for Disease Control researchers Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) want to combat the plague, but so far aren’t sure how to do so; pawn shop owner Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), who’s had experience with the creatures before, and city exterminator Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand) may have some ideas.
THE STRAIN has been developed by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan from their trilogy of novels, with Carlton Cuse coming aboard the series as fellow executive producer and show runner.
Del Toro, who directed the pilot and two other first-season episodes, is a legendary feature filmmaker (PAN’S LABYRINTH, the HELLBOY movies and PACIFIC RIM are among the highlights), who is perhaps as renowned for his personal warmth and joy in his work as for his astonishing visual aesthetics and artistic vision. He’s present at FX’s Q&A session for THE STRAIN for the Television Critics Association and remains for a few follow-up questions, at least until PACIFIC RIM star Charlie Hunnam, who’s here for the SONS OF ANARCHY panel, takes del Toro aside for a bit of between-panel talk.
AX: Does doing a television series allow you to do things that you don’t get to do in feature films?
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Yes, of course. Anything with genre in movies, I think that you are either restricted by the fact that you think that you’re going to be ghettoized into a niche that requires a quotient of budget versus the freedom of certain extreme scenes or going to places that are a little more taboo, whereas I felt this gave me enough of a scale, but also enough freedom to try stuff that would have been deemed dangerous on a big screen. It’s all about risk versus cost in many ways, and I think that when you try to do idiosyncrasies in a movie, sometimes you find yourself monitored more or less according to the budget. Here it was great that the week before we started shooting, I get a call from [FX CEO] John Landgraf, and he says, “We want you to know that we’re not hiring just the guy that does the big blockbusters, we’re hiring the guy that does CRONOS, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH, and we want you to be free, crazy and extreme. Whatever you want.” He said, “You should be guided [to make THE STRAIN the way you want.” And of course, there were two or three moments in the pilot where I could test that, and I did [laughs]. I tested it and it came out exactly as advertised.
AX: So you can produce and direct and realize your vision without a huge budget …
DEL TORO: If you see what I do, I can do PACIFIC RIM, or I can produce [the low-budget horror features] MAMA, or I can produce THE ORPHANAGE, or I can do DEVIL’S BACKBONE or PAN’S LABYRINTH. One of the points I was doing for myself was to go from the biggest movie I’ve done, which was PACIFIC RIM, to THE STRAIN, and stay on the budget, on the schedule and deliver as big a scope as I could for the exact budget and the exact schedule.
I think if I have to choose money or freedom, I choose freedom. It’s the thing that you enjoy the most. Money, you’re not going to take it with you. The smiles that you get with freedom are fantastic. On THE STRAIN, many, many times I wouldn’t run anything by anyone. One example is the Neil Diamond scene in the pilot. I didn’t clear it with anyone. I thought about it, they had told me “Go crazy,” I said, “Okay.” So I took my iPod, I listened to the song, I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it. I storyboarded it to the song, shot it, edited it, musicalized it, sent it, they said, “That’s great.” I said, “Oh, then it’s real. They really are giving me freedom.”
AX: You work a lot with actor Doug Jones, who played Pan and the Pale Man for you in PAN’S LABYRINTH and Abe Sapien in the HELLBOY movies. Is he in THE STRAIN somewhere?
DEL TORO: Of course. He is in the last episode of the season. But he will hopefully be playing two or more characters next season, if there is a next season. I try to put him in anything I do, as much as I can.
AX: Speaking of people who are in anything you do, is Ron Perlman going to show up?
DEL TORO: I don’t know. Ron is such a big presence that either we find a killer cameo – it’s easier in a feature, because he can be Hannibal Chow [in PACIFIC RIM] and get eaten [laughs], but it’s harder for me to [create a small, showy role in a TV series]. When we wrote the novels, we were inspired by him for Vasily Fet But I think that cameo that he can do will be determined by what we do with the show, but I would like that. I just had dinner with him on Friday, and I love him as a brother. We’ll find a way if there is one.
AX: Is THE STRAIN TV series going to end, presumably after five seasons, where the book trilogy ends?
DEL TORO: This was clear from the start. We said, we start where the books start, we hit the marks of the books, and we finish where the books finish. I don’t think that kind of thing [stretching an adaptation past a clear end in the source material] is desirable – I think as an audience member, I don’t like it when it happens. I love a series to have a shape. Whatever your plans are for the series, I think we need to consider from Episode One. This is especially delicate with a horror series and the way the books evolved. We know where we’re going and we know the second book is very different from the first one, and the third one is even more different than the other two, so that gives you an evolution. People may like it, not like it, like it less, like it more. But you’re evolving. You’re not doing the same show year after year. And that is the only reward. For me, I’m forty-nine, and I’ve only done projects that keep me passionate. So I think [if the story were to be stretched] past the books, I don’t see what story you’re telling.
AX: You’ve said that you were very influenced early on by certain comic books …
DEL TORO: Look, to me, my childhood was spent with monsters. Kids were dreaming of being this hero or that hero – I was dreaming of Swamp Thing and Daemon and Deadman. When I became a teenager, Alan Moore’s run of SWAMP THING was philosophically important for me. Alan Moore expanded the horizon of what the culture of comics could do for me, and it really intersected two things that were not intersectable for me. I grew in my teenage years with a huge [array] of underground comics – Gilbert Shelton, Richard Corben, Robert Crumb – and they seemed irreconcilable with the comics that I loved as a kid. And then Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, they started saying these are reconcilable.
AX: What’s going on with PACIFIC RIM 2 right now?
DEL TORO: Well, we’re writing, with Zak [Penn]. It [takes place] a few months after the first one. We open the design room in August, we start designing in August. We’re going to design for about nine months. We start shooting end of next year, probably November, and in the meantime, I’m trying to do a small movie in between.
AX: Will the Kaiji monsters come from the same rift as in the first film, or is it a different rift?
DEL TORO: I am not at liberty to divulge that.
AX: Can you say anything about DC’s JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK film?
DEL TORO: We have hired a writer and DC needs to make it official, to say “This is who is writing it” and so forth. I did a document that was about seventy pages on it, and it’s being developed into the screenplay. As to how it fits [into the DC Comics mythology] is entirely outside of my jurisdiction, those are above my pay grade, as they say. And it’s something they have to determine.
AX: To be absolutely clear on this, you have said you are not doing anything with DOCTOR WHO, but do you have any favorite DOCTOR WHO monsters?
DEL TORO: I’m a huge fan of the show, I’m a huge fan of the character. But there is nothing going on. There’s nothing happening. I love the that everybody loved – the Cybermen, the Daleks, the angels are so scary on “Blink.” It’s a show that allows you to go into really dark, scary places, almost sci-fi horror, and then you can go pure sci-fi in a beautiful way. I’m a big fan of that universe, of that character, but there’s nothing going on.
AX: For someone so immersed in horror, you have a very jovial demeanor, both talking to the press and, by reputation, on the set …
DEL TORO: To me, there are two sides of any storyteller. The private side, where I could be having lunch and I’m imagining how many people could be carrying some tragedy in them. Every time I go to the bank, I’m thinking, how would I rob the bank? I’m looking at how many security cameras, where are the exits. So you know, really, I think what I find is, I made peace with my dark side a long time ago and channeled it into the movies I do. I really have the most positive outlook and all that, but my imaginary world is very dark. And I’ve made it a point now – I’ve been exercising for twenty years the right to tackle in an earnest, not post-modern, way the craziest premises possible. In my features, in my books, in my shows – whatever I do, I, as they say in SCARFACE, I get high on my own supply. I’m completely in love with what I do, I know it backwards and forwards, I take things that are the tropes of a genre, and I take them not because I cannot take something better, I take them because I love them, and hopefully, in the course of a project, we evolve them into ways that are different. It’s a genre that requires you to be madly in love with what you’re doing.
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Article: THE STRAIN creator Guillermo del Toro on his new nasty vamp series