December 2, 2014
Corey Stoll and David Bradley in Season One
The first season of “The Strain,” FX’s apocalyptic vampire series based on the novels by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan, was a hit by most measures. Critics generally liked the show, it managed to hold on to strong ratings in its 10 p.m. Eastern slot on Sundays, even when the NFL season kicked off, and it was renewed for a second season.
But while Del Toro was largely satisfied with “The Strain’s” maiden run, he is the first to admit that some aspects of the show didn’t work quite as well as he had hoped, at least at first. Still, the show managed to find its footing over time as it struck a better balance between character and action, the director told Speakeasy in an interview.
Now that “The Strain” — whose first season is out on Blu-ray and DVD today — has found its groove, Del Toro will be even more hands-on in the production, even if he won’t be directing an episode for season two. His presence will be felt more in special vignettes and second-unit work, as well as on the cinematography and the overall look of things. (The story responsibilities are largely handled by showrunner Carlton Cuse and Hogan.)
Del Toro will also have more time to focus on “The Strain” this time around, too, as he’s had to postpone a small, black-and-white film project he had planned to make between wrapping up one project and starting production on “Pacific Rim 2,” which he’s currently re-writing.
Del Toro shared with Speakeasy his musings on the first season, including his favorite episode, as well as his hopes for the second season and beyond — including an update on “Crimson Peak,” his upcoming Gothic romance starring Charlie Hunnam, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
Overall, how satisfied were you with the first season of “The Strain”?
You know, I think that it was a very steep learning curve in a way. We were very ambitious with the production values and visual aspects of it, and I think finding a balance between character and set pieces was, I think, was one of the things I feel we learned as we went along. I’m very satisfied. I love the response of the audience. I think that some traits or character storylines that seemed to … I’ll give you an example: the custody battle with Eph that, in the beginning, for the people that didn’t know the books, seemed to be a character trait that you see in other shows. When you get to episode 10, Kelly is taken. It took 10 episodes for people to know we’re not just doing this for another character trait. It’s going to become part of the backbone of the series. That episode for me, particularly, was very poignant, the ending of it. Finding the different strengths of the characters as played by the actors when they’re revealed … for example, David Bradley as Setrakian is a much harder, tougher, almost-relentless Setrakian than the Setrakian in the books, so we needed to start writing differently for him.
It was a huge learning curve for all of us, but we had fun, and we watch with great relief and gratitude and happiness that we have a very steady, very strong viewership. We were especially very daunted by the football season, and remained very strong and steady during that. For me, it was a particularly exhausting experience, because in movies you work for two years, three years, and then, basically, it all comes down to one or two weekends. You release the movie, there’s a box office return, there’s a critical consensus, and then that’s the end of it. With a TV series, you kind of learn week by week. You have certain dramatic arcs as life lines in the series that became quite intense for me at times.
If you had to pick a favorite episode from the season, what would it be?
The one the that has lived with me for the longest as an idea was the attack on the convenience store because it’s something that I wanted to do a long time ago, and we tried to find a way to write it into the books, and we couldn’t. So I love that idea. I love that characters come together, and one of them dies that way. Carlton and Chuck came up with the idea of killing Jim in that episode, and it’s a very satisfying moment, in that you’re eight episodes in, and you’re seeing the strands and you’re wondering when they’re going to connect. And when they connect it’s very satisfying for me. That is probably one of my favorite episodes. I like very much the backstory of Eichorst and Setrakian. One of my favorite moments happens in episode two when they talk through the plexiglass barrier. All of them are tethered with ideas and moments that we riffed on that were a lot of fun to see. I love the killing room moment with Eichorst and his victim. I live inside this all. I love many of my children.
What did you think of the creation of the character Dutch, the hacker?
During dinner with Carlton one day, we were talking about that character, and originally it was going to be this sort of Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network” kind of character. We were having dinner, and we said why don’t we make it a woman, why don’t we make it a woman that is really strong and really sort of a loner that has some sort of hard edge, that doesn’t get along with most people. We thought it would be a great idea, great energy for the series. We started seeing how she riffed off Kevin, Fet, you know, and it was quite a great addition. Going off book for me in the series, I think has proved effortless. Carlton runs the writers room and runs, basically, the scripts for the series. I contribute ideas for set pieces and riff on it with him, but ultimately for the series to be run the way it’s been run, he needs to be the arbiter of that part of the content. Going off novel, proved very effortless for me. I actually enjoyed the fact that we burned the Master at the end of the season, when we actually burn the Master at the end of book two.
How long do you foresee being involved in the second season before other responsibilities pull you away?
My hope is that I remain in that capability for the entire season. I originally was going to do a very small project around April or May, but there are some issues in the family that I have to take care of. So I decided that staying put was the best idea for the family, and “The Strain” allows me to do that, allows me to basically 20 minutes away from home. I’ll be shooting the pre-credit prologue of the pilot, I’ll be shooting the Silver Angel black and white Mexican movies, and I’ve been doing second unit last week, and I’ll continue to do it, God willing, through the season.
That project you mentioned, that was the small, black and white film you were looking to do?
Yeah, I have to postpone it until later notice. Life has a way of telling what you need to do instead of what you’re planning.
What do you think the most important thing “The Strain” will have to do in the second season to broaden what’s going on?
First of all, the easiest part, the one that comes naturally, is that we have such a wealth of mythology and biology to unfold. The one thing the first season was short of was all the biological talk that occurred in the first book. It ended up being more driven by set pieces or by character interaction than the actual way the epidemic is dealt with. The other thing that I need to do is expand the epidemic more in terms of social consequence and scope. The way the epidemic starts to grow quadrant by quadrant and starts affecting the lives of people in the city, in the country, in the world — that’s part of the growth of season two. We need to lay the seeds for the apocalypse, essentially. So, there’s plenty of work, and not only plenty of work, but plenty of things that make it naturally: A. a growth season and B: a different season than the first one. I love that thing that Carlton came up with about Palmer throwing the secretary of Health over the balcony. (laughs) Reading it, I thought it was completely brutal, but watching it, I absolutely loved it. (laughs) It’s one of my favorite moments in the series. It’s completely unexpected, but let me go back on track. What we need to deal with now is that the Master has control of many more strings and to grow the epidemic disproportionately this season.
Generally speaking, people tended to like the creature design, but when the Master’s face was revealed, there were a lot of fans who weren’t quite happy about that. Did you hear any of that? Do you have any comment about the Master’s look?
I think that, honestly, half of a creature is the way it’s lit, and I think that the reveal of the Master, in retrospect, was done in a lighting circumstance that was not the one I would have gone with. I was shooting “Crimson Peak” during those episodes, so all I could do was keep up with the dailies and the VFX load that is my share of the package. VFX cannot do anything about cinematography, and I thought that the reveal of the Master should have been more moody, lit in a far more … in a way that is not so flat. The rest of it, I think that’s the way I saw him. I didn’t see him as the usual gaunt vampire. He’s a 7’3″ giant, so he needed to have this very brutish face, and I think that I will stand by that. At least I will assume responsibility over that part. I do think that the cinematography suffered in that particular reveal.
Season two is filming already, is that correct?
Yeah, we’ve been shooting for a week. And I can say that the first appearance of the Master in season two is far more moody.
Where does postproduction stand on “Crimson Peak”? How is everything coming along?
Well, since we have the luxury of time because the movie doesn’t come out until October next year … originally, I was going to deliver it in December, and I’d been able to try different things, different cuts, tweak the effects, tweak the music, probably more than any movie I’ve ever done. I have the license now to deliver the movie in January or February. It’s frankly addictive to have that much time. I’m not sure it will not be too addictive. I’m working with the same VFX company that does “The Strain,” so we can tweak every shot. Every time we meet for “The Strain,” we meet for “Crimson Peak,” too. I think it’s the most beautifully designed movie I’ve done, and the one that, because of this very distended preproduction and postproduction, I’ve been able to design basically every part of the visuals on it. I’m very enamored. Hopefully people will find it a rewarding Gothic romance when it comes out.