Guillermo Del Toro and Carlton Cuse Are the Masters of ‘The Strain’
Vampire fiction has long hewed to its Gothic roots, with rare deviations from the stake-fearing, sunlight-avoiding cornerstones.
But with their new FX series The Strain, based on the bestselling novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, executive producers del Toro and Carlton Cuse hope to take a more modern – and more scientific – approach to bloodsuckers without losing the visceral thrill of bloody horror. Ahead of tonight’s premiere, Spinoff Online participated in a press call in which the two discusses their uncompromising view of vampire biology, the benefit to working on cable television, the design of their master vampire and the series’ five-year plan.
“I’ve been obsessed by vampires for a long, long time, since I was a very young kid, and a very strange kid,” explained del Toro, who directed and co-wrote tonight’s pilot episode. “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. 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.”
The director of such films as Pacific Rim and Hellboy explained that vampire biology became the guiding force for how the secret sect of creatures lives in our world today. “The older the vampires stay alive, the more they lose their humanity,” he said. “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,” del Toro continued. “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.”
As with many of the creatures he’s created for his films, design became central in making The Strain work for del Toro – particularly when it came to the shadowy leader of vampire society known as the Master. “The Master needed to be hidden for at least half the season or more to not make him that accessible,” he said. “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.”
But when it came time to design the shape of the show, Cuse – the writer-producer behind such hits as Lost and Bates Motel – undertook disassembling the original novels and making them fit television. “I had read the first Strain novel as a fan of both Guillermo’s work, and also independently I knew Chuck Hogan, and so I was very curious to see what this collaboration would look like,” Cuse said. “And I was just intrigued by the subject matter. 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.
“And I went and met with Guillermo and I had a really good meeting, and 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. And 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.”
“The transition came from both Chuck and I, it was very smooth in many ways because we had the chance to adapt the novels to comic book form with Dark Horse,” del Toro added. “Coming in we really sought Carlton’s guidance into this new form. I think there never has been an occasion in which our dialogue has seen anyone read the books and say, ‘This is not the way it’s in the books.’ So that much was very satisfactory. 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 feel to the series doing sophisticated effects and some set pieces, while staying on a fiscally responsible budget and managing.
“And from a director’s point of view it was the same on the pilot,” he explained. “I didn’t want to go back and say, ‘Can I get one day more? Can I do many extra hours?’ I wanted to fit in the sandbox what I was hoping would feel like a big pilot episode for a big series. And that pre-planning was crucial, but also adjusting the way I staged, the way I approach coverage, or storytelling, and yet not sacrificing anything … obviously we have to choose what stories and what quirks you tell and not tell from the book. There are, believe it or not, far more disturbing moments in the book, here and there, than there are in the series, because some of them are very powerful when you read about them, but they are almost unbearable if you were going to stage them the way they are described in the book. So, believe it or not we did exercise restraint.”
For readers already familiar with the story, more surprises were planned, though the pair said that they do have a super structure in place for the entire series should Season 1 prove successful. “Book 1 is Season 1, yes,” Cuse said. “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. And I think Guillermo, Chuck, myself, all of us involved have basically said, OK, 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 said making The Strain successful required them to be willing to go over the edge of what is typically seen on television. “I think that one of the important things on creating this is that the genre requires you to cross, at some point. It’s almost like a hostage situation, where you need to show an audience that you’re not kidding, you know?” he laughed. “You have to show you are going to deliver either by atmospheric, creepy moments, or by visceral punch, hopefully both. 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.
“And you can execute it both atmospherically and by simply making the emotional relationship of a father welcoming a daughter long after he knows she’s dead, or by making it a shock moment. Or, hopefully 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.”
For his part, the broadcast network veteran Cuse remains pleasantly surprised by what he’s able to accomplish on cable. “I will say that this show really represents my and Guillermo’s version of the story. It’s really unadulterated. I mean, yes, sure, we can’t drop F-bombs, but that’s about it. We really were able to put our unadulterated version of the story on screen, and FX has been enormously supportive, and I think very aware when you’re competing with films and also with pay cable, you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’re doing an adulterated version of the story. And that was something that we were very conscious of and concerned about, and John Landgraf and his team were immensely supportive and really gave us the latitude to tell the story the way we wanted to. And so it’s got some pretty extreme moments, but I think that that also is kind of what gives the show its octane.
“It would have been impossible to make this show under a normal network production schedule,” the writer added. “We needed a vast amount of lead time to not only do creature creation, but to do a significant amount of the writing so that we could plan and organize things, because obviously we were working within certain fiscal limitations, but by having all this planning time I think we were able to bring something to television that you just wouldn’t be able to do under normal circumstances. And so we’re incredibly grateful to FX for being so supportive in allowing us our process.”
Ultimately for del Toro, The Strain gets back to the core appeal of horror that has driven so much of his work. “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,” he said. “You know, 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, etc. It’s literally a biochemical mammalian biofeedback with how we are constructed to organize the storytelling in our lives.”
The Strain premieres tonight at 10 ET/PT on FX.