Guillermo Del Toro & Carlton Cuse Spill The Bloody Details of ‘The Strain’

By July 13, 2014
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Tonight, FX is premiering its highly buzzed about new genre series “The Strain.” You can count myself among the many who are excited to see Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s written work come to life on the small screen. Not only does this mark a shift in how vampires will be perceived, this is del Toro’s first time adapting and directing for television. I’ve already seen the pilot episode (which I’ll be recapping for you all tomorrow) and let me tell you, the show lives up to the hype.

Earlier this week, GeekNation had a chance to sit in on a call with Executive Producer Carlton Cuse and Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro to discuss the many facets of bringing this series to life on FX. Check out the highlights below!

Carlton Cuse discusses what drew him to the project:

I had read the first novel when it came out in 2009 and really enjoyed it, and then basically about two years ago my agent called me up and said that there was some interest in doing “The Strain” as a television series and would I be interested in it. I went and met with Guillermo and I had a really good meeting so I basically decided to get involved for two reasons. One – because I had a lot of respect for Guillermo as a filmmaker and I thought, particularly in a monster show like this, that he’s one of the most imaginative guys out there in terms of creating creatures and worlds. And I also thought that embedded in the book was this fantastic opportunity to upend the vampire genre, as the vampire genre has sort of been overrun by romance, and that we had had our fill of vampires that we’re feeling sorry for because they had romantic problems. 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 than anything that was out there on the TV landscape.

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Del Toro and Cuse discuss the planned narrative structure of the series:

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.

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.

Del Toro: 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. 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. 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.

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The two elaborate on their plans for a 5 season series:

Cuse: 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. Television has been sort of a first act and sort of an endless second act. 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.

Cuse: I think you basically choose the medium that most fits the material and I think the three books are an incredible source material. They lend themselves to a series more than a miniseries, more than a movie, and it felt like a very natural and appropriate match to look at the books as a three to five year television series experience.

Del Toro: When we started writing the books, the story of it is a little convoluted, because it was originally pegged as an arc for a series. I knew from the get-go that it was three books when I approached Chuck with the bible I had written for it, and I really wanted something that we accomplished in the books, which is the books feel very different one from another. It is my dearest hope that we can bring that evolution to, God willing, further seasons of the show.

One of the things that linked me very strongly to Carlton is when we met, he said to me, “I love the fact that you start the first book debunking the spiritual aspect and the mythical aspect of vampirism, and the second book you go into sociological aspects of the tale, chemical, biological aspects of the tale, and you come full circle on the third book recuperating a new spiritual dimension to the myth.” We knew that journey was not achievable in a single swift six episode arc, or eight episode arc of a miniseries. We knew that structurally we wanted each season to not only continue what we did on the first one, but to evolve into different and hopefully more increasingly daring territory, and I think that in that sense it really was the natural way to go creatively.

THE STRAIN -- Pictured: Mia Maestro as Nora Martinez. CR.  Frank Ockenfels/FX

The two discuss the show’s controversial advertising campaign:

Cuse: I think that the advertising was bold, imaginative and clearly not for everyone. And I think that FX does a credible job marketing their shows. I think they wanted to convey that the show was edgy and bold, and out there. I certainly understand that it might have been too far out there for some people, but I personally liked it. But I understand that it was necessary for them to make some accommodations if some people didn’t like it.

Del Toro: I feel the same way. I trust FX. I think they have a really great sense of, A) who their audience is; B) what their type of advertisement is, and they’ve generated some pretty extreme and chilling images in the past. Carlton says it’s not for everyone, and I think that as much as I think the show has many, many layers of appeal, in my opinion, and certainly the more we go into the season the more we go into developing these things we do go to territories that are pretty extreme and graphic. In the first season, we’re talking about a biological takeover, a viral takeover and a body invasion series, and we go into places that are extreme. And they are extreme because we’re dealing with a fear that is, I think, essential. It’s not a knife slicing someone open. Literally when you come to think about it, 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 at least to the most piqued sort of invasive horror that we do explore in the show.

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They both chime in on the challenges of making a horror series for TV:

Cuse: Honestly, I think that whatever aesthetic limitations exist in the show are ones that Guillermo and I came up with ourselves. We have had the full support of FX to make the show the way we wanted to.

Del Toro: I think that one of the important things on creating this is that the genre requires you to cross, at some point, almost like a hostage situation where you need to show an audience that you’re not kidding, you know? You have to show you are going to deliver either by atmosphere, creepy moments, or by visceral punch. 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 this delightful shiver that is required with the genre.

Also now and then in the series we have moments in which we have really, really sick humor. Certainly in the pilot we had the freedom to try to set up one of the most intense scenes to a pop song, and things like that I think are what defines a generic appeal for the show.

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Guillermo discusses the show’s specific use of color that helps in crafting its unique look:

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 with 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 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.

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. 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, so to speak, 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 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, sort of creatively telegraphing to, at least me, or anyone in retrospect, that they were linked to that world.

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Del Toro describes the vampire mythology and the extensive work that goes into the creature design:

I’ve been obsessed by vampires for a long, long time, since I was a very young kid and 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. 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. Most of them made it into “The Strain.”

The Master needed to look 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 and then come alive. And out of all these rags comes out this incredibly glistening and viscerally biological appendage that then drains the first victim. That’s the way we started guiding the process of designing The Master.

I knew that the older the vampires 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. 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.

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. In the series, that comes with the big splashes of ammonia infused liquid that they expel while they’re feeding. 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.

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On the role religion had in influencing Del Toro’s extensive body of work:

Del Toro: I know that as a Catholic, the main mythology I seize upon the way I understand the world, comes from my upbringing. Including “The Strain,” which goes to very definite mythological and spiritual places in the third novel, it comes all from that. 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.

As I said again and again in these interviews, one of my fascinations with the character of Corey is that he’s a character that is very certain but somewhat emotionally remote in the series. And in many ways Setrakian, who’s more outlandish, should be relatable in the way that Corey has too much certainty of himself, and little by little he goes to a place of spiritual doubt, and ultimately enlightenment, as a character. So that’s definitely inspired very specifically by Catholic lore.

And I’m thinking, one of my favorite books in the Bible, and one of the most mysterious books in the Bible that I relate to the most is the Book of Job, in which a man of faith is basically stripped of everything before finding a direct line to God’s voice. And I don’t want to sound like you’re about to step into a Catholic symposium dissertation with vampires, but ultimately that speaks very highly to the arc of Corey. So you need him to start the series on a place of full certainty, and end up in a place of spiritual discovery.

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On what makes this vampire story very different from anything recently seen on screen:

Cuse: I think “The Strain” upends the current conception of the vampire genre. As I said before, I think we’ve had our fill of romantic, brooding, sparkling, depressed vampire characters, which those are really sort of like love stories sprinkled with a genre. The idea of sort of re-imagining the vampires, going back in a way to 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 also love all the stuff that Guillermo said before about the biology and stuff. I think Guillermo’s just a master of creature creation, and so that the prospects of working with creatures that were unique and so complicated and so cleverly imagined was an enormous appeal. And that conception of them was really vastly different than what we see in other shows. That completely appealed to me.

Del Toro: I think that obviously this is a mythology I’ve been living with for many, many years. And I think that if I have to find vampires similar to what we are doing, the only other relation I can find is my own creation in Blade II. 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. And finally, as we go into it I think that we reveal to the audience that there’s more than just the way they look, the secret history of these creatures is revealed little by little.

“The Strain” premieres tonight on FX Network at 10pm. It’s about time vampires got scary again. Take that, Sookie! Have you read the books? Are you excited to check out the show? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.