By Michael Salia
July 7, 2014
Guillermo Del Toro has been obsessed with vampires since he was a kid, when he started studying the mythology and biology of the supernatural bloodsuckers. His upcoming horror series for FX, “The Strain,” is the culmination of his ghoulish hobby.
Del Toro, who was raised in Mexico with a Catholic education, is widely acclaimed for directing elegant, Spanish-language supernatural tales such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” but he’s also known for pulpier, more outrageous entertainments such as “Pacific Rim” and the “Hellboy” movies. “The Strain,” with its buckets of gore and terrifying vampires, is definitely more of the latter, although Del Toro, along with series co-creator and novelist Chuck Hogan, invested it with themes of love, family and spirituality.
The filmmaker — who directed the pilot episode of “The Strain,” which will air July 13, and co-wrote the novels on which it’s based — shared his thoughts about making the series and the ideas behind it in an exclusive telephone interview with Speakeasy.
Between “The Strain,” “Cronos” and “Blade II,” you seem to have a thing for vampires. What keeps drawing you back to them?
I did a bunch of notes when I was a kid about vampiric biology. I was very much into the research into vampirism in all the countries … all the species of vampires through the ages, and through the different geographies. I found really interesting stuff about, for example, that the strigoi of Eastern Europe have a stinger under the tongue, Mexican vampires were hairless, you name it. The [Southeast Asian] penanggalan is a floating head with intestines underneath it that leaves the body behind. So reading the formidable mythology about the vampire, I made a lot of notes about how it would come about biologically as a kid. And I also made notes about social, religious connotations, what it meant to me. How, in Eastern Europe, for example, the myth is that the vampire returns to the center of the family first, and then it destroys that family, and then it goes on expanding destruction through the world. And I found it really eerie and creepy. (…) These are the roots of all my notes. Some notes made it into “Cronos,” a lot of notes made it into “Blade II,” and a lot more made it into the series. I think “The Strain” is the final time I’ve been able to bring all that mythology and research to fruition.
How did you and co-author and co-creator Chuck Hogan work to put all this this together in the novels?
It started with a little bible I wrote that was basically cracking the arc for the three books and what the characters would be, and Chuck and I set out to write the first novel. I took about half the chapters, and he took half the other chapters. For example, I said, “Let me write all the concentration camp flashbacks on my own, and let me write this or that character.” Then Chuck wrote, on the first level, Vasiliy Fet [played by Kevin Durand in "The Strain"] and his arc, on his own. We divided it like that, and what we did was we swapped chapters. We said, well, now you take my chapters and savage them, and I take your chapters and savage them. Then, at the end of the whole process, we ended up with a really great collaboration.
Why did “The Strain” become a TV series instead of a movie?
From the beginning it was pitched as a TV series. And then when we couldn’t do it, I knew I wouldn’t want to make a movie because I would have huge censorship problems with the fact that you are spending so much money that they wanted to make it a commercial and acceptable — even if it’s a horror movie — they tried to make it conform a lot to canons that could cripple the essence of the story, which is the painful loss and destruction of a family, one by one, and then the vampirization of society through the family nucleus. I went and re-wrote the three books, and we knew we didn’t want to sell the rights for film. The genesis of it all was when I started to fall in love with long-form TV in the early days with “Deadwood” and “The Wire” and “The Sopranos.” I was so enamored of being able to do a bottle episode, like, you know, when Christopher gets lost in the woods [in "The Sopranos"]. And I like the idea of doing a series that was as much procedural as it was horror, and hopefully as much melodrama as it was horror. We tried to do that with the books. What I said to Chuck when we started the books was to promise the audience — some of which were disappointed — that the three books were going to be very different from one another. The first book is going to be basically the scientific aspect of the plague, the second book is going to be the sociological aspect of the plague, and the final one is going to be the spiritual, religious, mythological aspect of the plague. We did just that with the books. The TV series is going to be a lot less clear-cut; we can combine and mix and match. We tried to make the books completely different from each other, which to some readers was joyful, to others it was frustrating.
How did you reconcile religious concepts you might not believe in personally with writing good, effective fiction?
I am not a member of any organized religion, but I’m a deeply spiritual guy. I am very concerned with the spiritual, and I have my own little mishmash of ideas of what makes my religious belief. My basic substance is Catholic. Not only Catholic, as a boy I was an altar boy, I was a spokesman for the Society of the Virgin Mary. All of my life I was in Jesuit school. (…) It was very much intertwined with the way I wrote the book. It is an incredibly powerful way of mythologizing about good and evil. Not to spoil it — the third book is probably the one that I am least happy with the style, the one you can see more of the Frankenstein aspect of Chuck and my styles being put together — but it is the one I’m happiest about in terms of the story. It’s the most controversial one, but I’m happiest with the fact that third book, I’m basically trying to tell the story about how — if we were to go to biblical times — sometimes the chosen guys, the prophets and the people that were to bring about momentous things into our lives, were people that were really, deeply imperfect. People that were full of doubt, people that were really not just spiritual superheroes that never had an iota of doubt. One of my favorite books, and one of the most mysterious books in the Bible, is the Book of Job. I thought it would be great for the character of [Ephraim Goodweather, played by Corey Stoll] to be sort of the chosen one, but to be taken apart by destiny, point by point, until he finds the voice of God in ways that are very subtle. I tried to bring that about in the book, where God is manifested in a tiny, tiny, little miracle at the end, that brings that spiritual aspect to the book.
How do you think “The Strain” will compare to other acclaimed horror TV series, such as “The Walking Dead” or “Hannibal”? What audiences do you think it’ll reach?
I’m not really objective, but I think the first season was all about finding our footing and seeing where we want to go, and what makes the show the show and not the book. So, we took out things I would like to bring back, we included things I would like to take out. My experience with every series that I’ve come to love is that you fall in love with the first season, you stay faithful to it for a while and see how it gains its footing and what changes. This is true of almost every show I’ve loved. I really think that, as a person that loves TV and watches a lot of TV, I can only gauge with me as the audience. I think that we have many things that makes us [appeal to audiences]. … It is my hope that people will connect. We tried to be very bold visually and to create a strong pattern for the color palette and the visuals of the series from the pilot on, and even then, the pilot has such a strong visual template that it took us a couple episodes to regain it again. I think now we’re in full swing. The only thing you know for sure in any business that is entertainment, is you’ll know if it connects when it comes out. It’s very hard to predict.
There are 13 episodes in the season, right?
Yes, 13 episodes. I’ve seen all the cuts, I’ve color timed all the way to episode eight so far. We are mixed, right now, all the way to episode five. We’re expecting episode seven next week. I’ve seen most of the bits and pieces, and I’m very happy with the whole first season.
Read part one of Speakeasy’s interview with Guillermo Del Toro.
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