Carlton Cuse Exhumes the Horror, and Science, of ‘The Strain’s’ Vampires
Carlton Cuse has one of the most impressive pedigrees in modern television. After working on the cult series The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., he helped launch Nash Bridges and Martial Law before landing at Lost, one of the most popular series of the past decade. But even with Bates Motel under his belt since leaving the island in 2010, Cuse is showing no sign of slowing down as the executive producer of The Strain, FX’s new vampire-themed drama. Particularly if he gets to make all five seasons of the series, as he intends to do.
The horror thriller stars Corey Stoll as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, whose team from the Centers for Disease Control is called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism.
In March, Spinoff Online visited the Toronto set of The Strain, where Cuse sat down to discuss his involvement in the adaptation of the bestselling novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. In addition to detailing his plans to tell the entire story on which the show is based – notwithstanding some digressions to accommodate audience tastes – Cuse talked about his collaboration with del Toro, and offered some insights into the lessons he learned from series like Lost as he embarks on another project with the same promising sort of mystery and excitement.
Spinoff Online: Talk about how you and Guillermo teamed up for this and what, if anything, you felt you needed in this material to connect with audiences in order to make it work.
Carlton Cuse: We’ve been working on the show, by the time it debuts, it will have been two years, so it’s an incredibly long lead time for a television project. I think it’s been one of the real virtues of the project because it wasn’t like we were in that state of advance where you don’t know if things are going to get made or not. Right from the get-go, when we got in the business with FX, they were super-enthusiastic. But the time table was really driven more by us than by them. We really wanted to have a lot of lead time to do the prep work. We really prepped this in the way you would prep a movie much more than a television series. We hired conceptual artists to come up with renderings and drawings of our creatures, of our main sets. Guillermo worked very closely with those guys in creating a visual look and style for the show. Then we went another step and we made models and maquettes. All of these things were things that you don’t do in television. We also contracted a group of … you guys went to the creature shop yesterday. Those types of guys — you don’t see that in television. The lead time it requires to actually make all those things, it takes a lot of time to do all that. We really approached this thing really thoughtfully. Obviously, I’m pretty experienced in the television realm and Guillermo is similarly experienced in the movie realm. It was a great combination of our skill sets. I was driving all of this to fit within the construct of how one makes a series. Meanwhile, Guillermo was bringing this immensely cinematic style and perspective from the film business. Right from the get-go, we really hit it off. That’s the part you can never really predict when you have two fairly strong-willed guys who are both experienced. Is there going to be an alchemy? Is it going to work? And it really has. We got along really well and we see the show very similarly.
In the creature shop, they told us a story about how Guillermo woke up one morning and said, “I don’t want the Master to have a nose anymore.” As one of the two people that are both running the show, how does that go down for you?
Really when it comes to monster creation, I defer to Guillermo. On the narrative side of the show creation, I think Guillermo defers to me. We each weigh in and we each have our opinions, but I think we have our areas of interest and expertise and they overlap very comfortably.
Can you talk more about what kind of discussions you had about the vampires, creating them so they’d be scary and maybe a little more grounded than we’ve seen in a while?
The thing that really interested me after reading the books, and I had read the first book really just as a fan well before I had any kind of a meeting with Guillermo. I also had a passing acquaintance with Chuck Hogan, because we had been talking about doing something else together. So, it was a really interesting confluence of events. When I read the books, the thing I really liked was this was a very different take on the vampire legend. We’ve been inundated with these sparkling, handsome, pretty vampires. Guillermo and Chuck’s books depict a decidedly different type of vampire. That was very exciting to me. I didn’t think the world needed another handsome, brooding vampire show. The idea of going back to the ancient narrative roots of the vampire legend … Guillermo has really seeped in a lot of old mythological stories. This idea of vampires as strigoi, which is the Romanian word for vampire, that they were really scary and deadly and dangerous … that was really appealing to me. Before I got involved, Guillermo had a very clear concept of what the vampires were. Once that has been articulated in the first couple of graphic novels, and he was very clear about how he wanted to do it, I was completely on board. I thought it was really great and fresh and interesting. For me, the other thing that really was appealing was from a narrative perspective, the force of antagonism is a very layered and complicated one that has an elaborate mythology. As opposed to The Walking Dead, for instance, where you just have homogenous zombies, all of whom can do the same thing, they are not controlled by any central intelligence. They don’t report to a hierarchy or chain of command. The forces of antagonism in The Strain are wildly different than a show like The Walking Dead. That also, particularly as a storyteller, was really appealing to me that we would be able, in the course of the series, to peel back the onion and see that what we’re witnessing with this strain of vampirism is a very layered, complex, mythologically rooted force of antagonism.
What was the thought behind the mix of practical and CGI effects? There’s going to more practical effects than we usually see in television.
The reason there are more practical effects is because of Guillermo’s expertise in practical effects. There aren’t a lot of people that know how to do this stuff. I would dare to say I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who does monster-as-creature creation better than Guillermo. That’s why we actually are doing quite a bit of it practically. I think the best versions of these kinds of stories combine whatever you can use in order to make a great story. Star Wars famously combined everything from miniatures to puppets to models to visual effects. I think we have hit on a way to do some stuff practically and some stuff with CG. I think that’s just the best version of the storytelling. We created a mix that would be the best version of it.
Marrying science and the supernatural isn’t something that’s new to you. What have you learned about that balance that you can apply to The Strain?
In any kind of storytelling like this, you try to have it rooted enough in reality that the audience willingly suspends their disbelief. Innately, the audience watching this show comes in with a gimme, which is, “OK, this is a vampire show. I get it. I’m buying into that. That’s what I’m doing.” Still, as a storyteller, you have an obligation to try and bolster that and support it with enough narrative evidence to make it credible. In the case of The Strain, there’s a lot of great stuff in the first book about the biology of the vampire that was really interesting that we do in the series. It’s not like these are random stinger-shooting vampire creatures. There’s a whole biological underpinning to what makes them work and tick. As I said at the TCAs, we’ve discussed that down elaborately as, “What organs do they shed? What organs do they create? How like a tick these vampires eat and shit at the same time.” They are rooted in a lot of the same biological constructs as other parasites. All that kind of stuff gets explicated in the show.
Given your background on Lost, what have you learned and applied on an ongoing basis of what level of mystery to implement in storytelling to keep audiences interested without ultimately making it impossible for yourself to live up to that mystery with the answer?
I think it just comes down to what’s the essential DNA of any given show that you’re doing. Like on Bates Motel, there’s a pretty clear ending. The movie suggests it. That show will end with some version of Norma Bates’ demise and Norman Bates turning into the dude in the movies. That’s pretty clear where that’s going. Lost was a mystery. The Strain, I would say, is a horror thriller. It just has a different set of bones to it. I don’t think the storytelling emphasis in The Strain is really on some grand mystery. There’s the unfolding mystery for our characters as they try to decipher what the hell are these vampires. How do they work? Where do they come from? Who is charge of them? What is this all about? Basically, the series focused on a war between good and evil, and the efforts of a small band of humans to ultimately try to overcome this overwhelming strain of vampires. It has a different narrative form, so therefore I feel like I don’t have the same issues of storytelling that we faced on Lost.
The Strain is a cable show. What kind of conversations did you have about the gore level? Are you trying to push the envelope a little bit or can you get away with more?
I think even cable has a bandwidth of what’s tolerable. FX fortunately is a very mature network. and they have a high degree of tolerance for content. John Landgraf and the people at FX have been amazing partners and have placed virtually no restrictions on us in terms of what we’re doing content wise. Obviously there’s certain limitations in terms of words you can say and there’s not graphic nudity. We’ve really had the ability to tell the story we want to tell. Some of the vampire stuff is pretty graphic.
You said people go into The Strain knowing it’s a vampire series, so you guys can get away with some forms of magic. But how much fun do you have with the conventions, the mythology of vampires, in the course of the show?
There’s some dialogue reference to the fact that Setrakian, who is David Bradley’s character, basically does say at one point, “You need to shed yourself of all your previous expectations of what vampires are.” The characters do react skeptically when they are told that these are vampires because I think the context we have for vampires is the pretty guy in the cape with the fangs and the brooding thing. That’s not what this is. That’s actually literally said in one of the episodes.
Mia Maestro said she sort of sympathized with the vampires as a parasite that just wants to survive as much as the humans what to survive. Are we aligned 100 percent against the vampires or will we be empathetic?
It concerns me that Mia sympathized with the vampires.
I think she was suggesting that you take a look at a virus and it’s trying to survive.
I get it, I get it. I think again what’s interesting about the story is the vampire mythology is very complicated. If you read the books, you’ll discover that downstream in the story there actually are vampires that are hunting other vampires. In some form, there are sympathetic vampires that are part of the narrative as the story unfolds. That’s a spoiler that occurs deep in the first season of the show. This guy Quinlan, who is also known as Mr. Q in the books, shows up and he’s basically killing the vampires that are the consequence of the Master. That’s a big surprising turn in the story. We’re like, “Who’s he? What’s he up to? Why is he doing this?” Then he ultimately recruits a couple of our other characters to help him. It is layered. Your basic, bottom-line vampire wants to eat and feed, but that vampire can also be controlled by the Master. I’m not sure they are really super-nice. There’s not just one simple answer to, “Well, are these vampires good or bad?” That’s cool.
Does making the vampires more science-oriented, does that make them more or less scary?
I think fundamental to the story is this exact notion of, “How far does an empirical view of the world get you?” Ephraim Goodweather and Norma Martinez are epidemiologists with the Center for Disease Control. Their entire approach is to look at problems, plagues and issues from a scientific perspective. Pretty quickly that starts to break down. As I was just saying, they learn, for instance, that the Master can communicate telepathically with these other vampires. That is something which is very much out of the realm of science. Over the course of the trilogy of books, Eph’s character really undergoes this kind of faith journey. His faith is in question and he has to actually broaden his view and understanding of what makes the world tick. I think that’s really interesting. There are spiritual and religious overtones at the root of the mythology of this story that we are very much exploring. That’s a constant issue for the characters. “How do we as people, who have grown up and are used to a very empirical and scientific world, deal with something that doesn’t fit into nice, neat boxes?”
When you turn these vampires into a sort of hive-minded zombie, it feels like you are flipping these monsters’ mythologies. Is Ephraim now becoming the Dracula figure of this series?
I don’t know if I would say that. I think he is on a practical quest, which is to try and eradicate this spread of vampirism, but he’s also on this spiritual quest to understand what’s behind it. That takes him outside of the realm of what he’s used to considering in explaining the phenomenon of the world. It would be hard to categorize. The vampires don’t fit into a nice, neat box of prior stories, which is what I think makes them cool. I’ll leave it to you downstream to watch some episodes and then probably you’ll come up with a much more salient way to discern what it’s all about thematically than I can sitting right here.
How long does it take for you to get past the necessary world-building, and actually find a narrative groove that communicates to the audience what the pacing and tone will constantly be?
There’s a lot of details in terms of how the vampires work and what they’re all about. We’ve tried on a writing level to parse that out over a bunch of episodes and not just do some big expositional dump in Episode 2. I think we’ve done a pretty good jump of that. FX has seen the first three episodes after the pilot. I’m working on editing the other ones. I think they’re really happy with them. We’ve tried to make sure that the storytelling stays entertaining and also we’re trying to prevent the characters from getting … you don’t want to be frustrated when you know a lot more than the characters. That’s a big part of the art of figuring out how to tell the story as a series. We put a lot of energy into your exact question. It’s a great question, and hopefully I’ve done a good job of guiding that process.
When Lost came out, ABC really wanted you guys to downplay the supernatural elements. How do you ensure this show appeals to a broad audience?
I think ABC was misguided in thinking the audience wouldn’t accept supernatural elements in Lost. If you go back to that time in 2004, Lost was such a different show in the television landscape. Everyone is afraid of things that are too different, or usually they are. We had to take our narrative territory in chunks with Lost, and we finally got to a place where the show had been successful and they really understood and accepted there were clearly supernatural elements that work in this story. Right from the get-go, this is a different type of story. When you see that little bit of the Master’s coffin flipping up in the video, you recognize there’s something unworldly happening here. I think some of the biggest and most successful movies obviously have supernatural elements to them. FX has been unbelievably supportive in terms of wanting that to be bold with the storytelling. They have no desire to play it safe. They really want us to push the envelope and make sure what we’re doing is really edgy and feels fresh and original.
How many traditional spiritual means of fighting a vampires work their way into the fight against the vampires?
There are certain elements that are part of the vampire lore, like silver. These vampires do not like silver. We’re shooting silver nails at them out of an automatic nail gun. That might be a little bit different than the traditional lore. Setrakian wields a silver sword. That’s a pretty traditional element. Vampires vibrate if you look at them in a silver-back mirror. That’s something that is more part of vampire lore. Holy water and crosses don’t work. So, yeah, there are some elements that are part of it and other ones aren’t. That is what Guillermo and Chuck explicated in the books and I kind of liked it.
How much can you, or do you, anticipate what the audience reaction would be? How far into the narrative do you want to delve, as opposed to maybe digress or explore something else?
If you just look at it simply, the first book, which is 300-odd pages, half of it is the pilot. That leaves 150 pages out of which we’ve now made 12 hours of television. By necessity, that’s required a lot of creation and invention. The series is a much richer tapestry of storytelling than the books. The series goes further and deeper than Guillermo and Chuck were able to do in the books. Chuck has been working with me on the show and has been a part of the writing process. Nobody’s been precious about anything, which is great. I sort of see the books as a wonderful spine for the show, but there’s just a ton of stuff that is in the series that doesn’t exist at all in the books, including major characters. I think some of the other characters are recombined and intensified. Eichorst is a combination of two characters from the book, but in neither event is he as fully realized in the books as he is in the series. He’s a wonderful scene-stealing … he will emerge as being not only a huge star, but a wonderfully delightful character that people are going to be super engaged by in the show. As I said, he’s a composite of several characters from the books.
Now that you’ve worked completely without a net with an original show like Lost, and you’ve also worked with somewhat of a framework going in with Bates Motel and The Strain, what are the relative rewards or challenges of the two?
I actually don’t think of it in terms of … I don’t think of it that way. In any story that I do as a series, it’s really about, “What is its potential for rich and engaging storytelling over 50-plus episodes?” That’s sort of the common element of those three projects. The tragedy of this mother/son story unfolding and this mother’s desperate attempt to keep her son from becoming the guy that he’s going to become, is a wonderful character arc and journey. That’s why I am so engaged by Bates Motel. In the case of The Strain, there’s just a fantastic narrative here. And it’s also one which we have an agreement with FX, to go from A to Z, most likely in five seasons. We’re going to tell this entire story. It really unfolds and expands and it becomes worldwide in scale and massive in its narrative implications. That really engaged me as a storyteller. It’s not really that much easier to write an adaptation than it is to write an original. As I said, in the case of this, while there is a spine of the narrative, the individual episodes have to be constructed and invented and written and there’s new characters. It’s just as hard to come up with a good script working in a completely originally medium like Lost as it is in a place like this. You have certain elements that you inherit, but it still takes a lot of work to make a good episode.
How did you guys find Corey?
I had seen House of Cards and had fallen for him, as had John Landgraf. And then Guillermo watched it and very quickly there was a consensus between the three of us that he was the perfect guy for the show. It’s kind of a rare thing when you find someone who sort of emerges. He wasn’t particularly well-known before House of Cards, but he was so good. He was so good in Midnight in Paris. It was just a wonderful opportunity that just presented itself. He was available when we were looking. He had all the qualities we wanted this character to have. We had met with a number of actors. Again, because we had a long development process, it was a huge advantage for us when it came to casting because we were not under the gun to rush and jump. Look at pilot season right now. A lot of these pilots were greenlit six weeks ago and then in six weeks, they have to cast whoever they can get. This was much more like a feature where in this slow, deliberate process over a year, we were meeting with actors, talking about it and discussing it. Really, when House of Cards came out and we all saw Corey, there was this collective sense that, “He’s the guy. He’s the guy we want for Ephraim.” You have those little moments. Good fortune fell in our lap that the timing was right, that that show came out when we were in the middle of our hunt.
For Game of Thrones, the producers said, “As long as we can get to the Red Wedding, we’ll be happy if we don’t go any further than that.” Do you have a threshold in mind in one of the books or the storytelling that if nothing else, you guys want to at least get to that point in the story?
To be completely candid, my ambitions are to tell the whole story. I’ll be extremely disappointed if we don’t get to do the five seasons of the show. That’s what I want to do. That’s why I engage in a project. I sincerely hope the ratings sustain that so we can realize that vision. What I like was the totality of it. I like the fact that right from the get-go, John Landgraf was open to it being a close-ended experience. We negotiated three to five years, but I think we can make five seasons of the show. But that’s it, and then it’s over. That’s a wonderful thing to be writing towards an ending.
So, you’re not going to change it, the ending, because it’s a pretty finite ending?
There’s a cool ending in the book, but on a character level, it will probably be significantly different in the sense that over the course of telling a story for five years, you get to know the characters. You have other ideas. You’re creatively enriching the world all the time as you tell stories in that world. I’m sure there will be elements that aren’t in the book, but what’s in the book is pretty cool too.
The Strain premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.