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article imageGuillermo del Toro spreads the infectious secrets of 'The Strain' Special

By Earl Dittman     Aug 23, 2014 in Entertainment
The visionary Mexican filmmaker behind FX Network's 'The Strain' — a unique, chilling examination of vampirism as a contagion — discusses its evolution from a bestselling trilogy of novels to a massive hit cable series.
Even while he was collaborating with Chuck Hogan on the 2009 novel The Strain, and its subsequent sequels (The Fall and The Night Eternal), internationally acclaimed horror/sci-fi/fantasy director Guillermo del Toro had already determined that his biological vampire tale should be transformed into more than just a feature film. "The Strain books were originally pegged as an arc for a series," explains the creator of such iconic films as Hellboy, Blade II, Pan's Labyrinth and last summer's Pacific Rim. "I knew from the get-go that it was three books that had incredible visual storytelling potential. If we were going to film The Strain, I really wanted something that we had accomplished in the books, which is the books feel very different one from another. It was my dearest hope that we could bring that evolution to, God willing, some kind of series."
To assist del Toro is bringing his vision to fruition, he enlisted the expertise of Emmy Award-winning producer/screenwriter/showrunner Carlton Cuse, who has enjoyed success as one of television's most exciting producers (Lost, Bates Motel). Guillermo del Toro (born in Guadalajara, Mexico) was sold on the idea of teaming with Cuse in transforming The Strain into a multi-season series after one single, fateful breakfast meeting. "When we met, Carlton 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,'" he remembers. "We both 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 you 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. So, we all decided to give it a try."
Guillermo del Toro and executive producer/showrunner/writer Carlton Cuse at a fan event for  The Str...
Guillermo del Toro and executive producer/showrunner/writer Carlton Cuse at a fan event for 'The Strain'
It appears as if the combined intuitions of executive producer/showrunner/writer Carlton Cuse and co-creators, executive producers and writers Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (who co-wrote the pilot script) ended up paying off beyond their wildest expectations. Now its seventh week on FX, The Strain has become one of the cable network's most popular series — scoring an estimated 12.7 viewers for its July 13 premiere episode. The series is so popular that halfway through its inaugural season, FX has announced it has been already renewed for a second. "I am thrilled. Another season to spread the virus," del Toro, said in a press release, last week. "Working with Carlton, Chuck and FX has been immensely rewarding and we have such sights to unveil in the upcoming episodes — the blood hits the fan on this one, mankind becomes an endangered species."
For the handful of you who have yet to be infected by the series, in a few short, measured words, The Strain is a high concept thriller that tells the story of Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), the head of the Center for Disease Control Canary Team in New York City. He and his team (portrayed by actors Sean Astin and Mia Maestro) are called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism. As the strain spreads, Eph, his team, and an assembly of everyday New Yorkers, including city pest controller Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand) and the mysterious "pawnbroker" Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), begin to wage a war — led by former Nazi Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Samuel) — against a plague that appears to be infecting even rock stars like Gabriel Bolivar (Jack Kesy). Ultimately, Dr. Goodweather and his team end up battling for the fate of humanity itself.
Visually arresting and brilliantly penned, The Strain, is another incredible accomplishment for Guillermo del Toro, one of the most creative and visionary artists of his generation whose distinctive style is showcased through his work as a filmmaker, screenwriter, producer and author. A former special effects makeup artist, del Toro — who first gained worldwide recognition for the 1993 Mexican-American co-production Cronos, a supernatural vampire thriller — has won over 20 international awards, including eight Ariel Awards from the Mexican Academy of Film. With The Strain, he is sure to be taking home a handful of Emmys next year at this time.
Del Toro chuckles at the thought. He declares he never consciously intended on making The Strain a cable TV sensation, he was just hoping to please his loyal legion of film and book devotees. "I always say jokingly about myself that I do not like the idea of filmmaking as a brand," del Toro muses. "I like the idea of filmmakers becoming an acquired taste for an audience. I think of I, myself, as an acquired taste. I love being that because I've enjoyed, over two decades, a very close relationship with the audience that likes what I do. I just wanted to continue that with this series."
Charming, affable and passionate, Guillermo del Toro (who directed the pilot episode for The Strain) recently sat down, for close to an hour, to talk about his infectious new FX series.
Corey Stoll in a scene from  The Strain
Corey Stoll in a scene from 'The Strain'
First off, Guillermo, I have a stylistic question about The Strain for you. We've seen a lot of movies and television shows where they deal with an outbreak or a contagion and they usually have this very bleak, very gloomy, washed-out color palette. The Strain goes in the completely opposite direction. It is stunning. Everything is very saturated, it's very rich and the colors are very vivid. Was it a conscious choice to make the show stand out a little bit more, particularly visually?
"One of the main 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. Red is only in connection with the vampires.
"The other thing that I wanted for the show was that if you're channel surfing, the show would almost pop out and demand your attention visually. 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, and to giving it a unique look. 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.
"In between those colors, every time you see red — with the exception of a police siren or a fire extinguisher or something causally in the real world — 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."
Richard Samuel plays former Nazi Thomas Eichhorst in  The Strain
Richard Samuel plays former Nazi Thomas Eichhorst in 'The Strain'
Can you talk a little about what went behind you character development for The Strain? Can you give me some idea of how the concept of these characters developed in your mind?
"I've been obsessed by vampires for a long, long time, since I was a very young kid — and I was a very strange kid. (laughs) 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 about 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. In designing them, we knew and we had it very clear that, for example, The Master needed to be hidden for at least half the season or more to not make him that accessible.
The Master  as he first appears  in  The Strain
The Master, as he first appears, in 'The Strain'
"So, 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 nine-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 us such a false sense of security.
"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 and 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. 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. As we go more into the season, the more you see of him and the more you discover layer after layer of that creature design."
A creature from  The Strain
A creature from 'The Strain'
What about the other characters?
"Well, I knew that the older the vampires stay alive, the older that they 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 their 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. Then comes 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, and if they've been alive for several years their nose rots and falls away,. 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.
"And you'll notice they lose their hair because their body heat is so big that it consumes the fat in the scalp, burns the roots, and they then change color because they lose their red cells. One of the things Chuck and I have the most fun in writing the novels is Chuck would call me any time he needed a biological angle or an explanation. And we would talk about it for a while, because I really love and know these vampires well."
How much of the religion you grew up with has influenced your storytelling over your extensive body of work?
"I think very much. I do. I know that as a Catholic, the main mythology I seize upon, the way I understand the world, comes from that 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 interviews, one of my fascinations with Corey Stoll's character, Eph, 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 Eph has too much certainty of himself, and little by little he goes to a place of spiritual doubt, and ultimately enlightenment, in my opinion, as a character. So that's definitely inspired very specifically by Catholic lore.
Corey Stoll stars as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather in  The Strain
Corey Stoll stars as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather in 'The Strain'
"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. I don't want to sound like you're about to step into a Catholic symposium dissertation with vampires (laughs) but ultimately that speaks very highly to the arc of Eph. So you need him to start the series on a place of full certainty, and end up in a place of spiritual discovery."
How closely is the entire series for The Strain going to mirror the mythology from the trilogy of books? For instance, is Season One based on the first book, and so on?
"It was very clear from the start that we had the three books to plunder, but we also had the chance of inventing. 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. Carlton decided, I think very wisely in made perfect sense as a game plan to, for example, leave the origins of The Master — which we opened book one with, for the second season. For example, we will bring a set piece from book two to bookend the story of one character on Season One. So, 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. And I think the decisions 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."
Both you and Carlton Cuse have said you hope to do The Strain over five seasons and then it's done. Would extend beyond that if the public response demands it?
"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 said we are not going to be extending beyond...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."
In revisiting the books while you were making this series, were there elements from the trilogy that you wanted to preserve for the book experience only? Was there conscious effort to keep some elements out of the series?
"As far as myself, obviously we have to choose what stories, 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. (laughs) The other one is that we have in the three books at least one or two instances of an epistolary device, being a diary, or a letter, or a document being part of the narrative. And we threw that away to have a right here, right now type of narrative that I think lends itself much better to the TV series."
From police procedurals to horror films, as a viewing audience why do you think we enjoy all the death, gore, blood and mayhem?
"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. 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. 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. So, 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, I think."
David Bradley portrays Abraham Setrakian in  The Strain
David Bradley portrays Abraham Setrakian in 'The Strain'
The FX Network is the home of such massive cable hits as The Americans, American Horror Story and Sons of Anarchy. FX attracts audiences that have come to expect watching shows that blow them away. Did you feel any kind of pressure to conform to those expectations or to perform to them? Because FX viewers already have sort of a set expectation of a show they're going to see on this network.
"I understand what you mean. I think that the FX brand, of which I am a consumer, I love it, as evidenced by the way I cast my movies (Pacific Rim). Be it with (SOA's) Charlie Hunnam or Charlie Day (It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia) or appearing as a guest actor in Sunny in Philadelphia, I know the FX brand."
Mia Maestro  Corey Stoll and Sean Astin in a scene from  The Strain
Mia Maestro, Corey Stoll and Sean Astin in a scene from 'The Strain'
So, FX was the perfect home for The Strain?
"Completely. I'm a follower of the brand, I'm a big FX fan, and they give you time to find your footing. They give you time to establish, especially in a genre like this, you know you cannot just do everything at once, reinvent everything at once. You either reinvent the characters in a genre story, or you reinvent the generic traits with characters that you're able to place in the normal canon of the genre and then little by little evolve those characters, and that needs time. And FX has been known to be supportive of series that find their footing and creatively allow them to explore anything from characters you've seen before that then transform into things that are new, or concepts that are very new that go to daring places. So, it made it a unique place for the show.
"I think that what we got from our meetings with (FX president) John Landgraf, is that he said, "Look, we are a very, very creator content driven network,' and I know that you need to have an edge to belong in the FX brand. But I think that at the same time we are bringing viscerally and in terms of scope new stuff to the brand, helping it define what the breadth of what they do is. And we wanted to bring big production value and a sense of visceral aesthetics that feels manicured and very actively designed. As opposed to more reality based and viscerally of this world, we needed very extreme aesthetics in order to fit a storyline and characters and things that you cannot safely just toss into the real world and expect them to stick. So, I think that we do belong, in a beautiful way, in content that is creator driven, or encouraging the creation of individual voices in the sense that we keep a very manicured and carefully designed look, but we go to very edgy places with the content."
So many people view TV viewing as an online social event and are constantly reviewing and tweeting about shows in real time as they happen. As we get further and further into Season One, will you be going on Twitter or any other social media? I mean, how do you measure the audience reactions?
"I think that when we started the journey on the screen early in the novels we started in 2006, and you really don't get an immediate reaction that is a dialogue that fast with the books or the comic adaptation. I think that the fact that we can see the audience reacting to it in an immediate way is going to be in the mid-to-long term incredibly useful. I'm a social media shut-in, I don't use Twitter, I don't have a Facebook page, I don't have any of those things, so I'm socially inept in that way. (laughs) But I certainly am aware of the Internet reaction. I don't respond because I don't have the mediums to respond at hand, but I do read the feedback and I do think you have to be able to feed on it and react to it in the proper way. Obviously, on a chapter to chapter engaging, it can be as disorienting as a super fast tennis match, like it, not like it, like it, not like it. But ultimately as the first season plays out and people find that they are listening to the real voice of the series, we can find things that we did right and connected, and we can find out things we did wrong and learn from it."
 The Strain s  executive producer and writer Chuck Hogan
'The Strain's' executive producer and writer Chuck Hogan
Overall, how has the transition from feature films to cable television been for you and Chuck? What did the two of you learn working together on this as you made the tremendous trilogy turn into a series?
"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. And 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."
After directing the pilot, do you think there's a chance that you'll be back to direct any more episodes in the next season?
"It is with both great pleasure and great trepidation that I say I want to direct the opening one in the second season. And I say trepidation because obviously it is always almost like doing cardio. Directing TV is like doing cardio, and if you look at me in any picture you know I don't do cardio. (laughs) But I think that the beauty of the show is we have developed a really good, increasingly fluid relationship, Carlton, Chuck, myself. When you come in, it is incredibly intense on a day-to-day basis, because each day on a TV series it seems like a week on a feature. As it is, I have made it a point to stay obsessively involved in supervising every single of the effects in the series, supervising makeup effects, color correction, this and that, and I feel this is our baby, neither just Chuck or Carlton's or myself, is the three of us. It's like Three Men and a Baby for vampires. (laughs). I think that it will be essential for me to continue to be involved in that way."
Jack Kesy is Gabriel Bolivar in  The Strain
Jack Kesy is Gabriel Bolivar in 'The Strain'
Today's pop culture is really inundated with all kinds of vampire stories, but this story is incredible and so different than anything we've seen before. So, at the end of the day, what makes doing The Strain special for you?
"I think that obviously this is a mythology I've been living with for many, many years. 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, which comes from the same set of concepts, albeit a much more limited number of ideas we're able to go into to fit that universe. But 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.
"As we continue on from season to season, I think we have the chance to continue finding our footing and expanding and correcting and continue to develop what we do in the first season, but I think there is a lot of that breadth to what we're attempting here. 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."
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