Carlton Cuse and Guillermo del Toro Get Us Ready for The Strain

The series premiere of The Strain is nearly here (yay!), so while we count down the final hours until “Night Zero,” let’s check out some highlights from a recent press call with Executive Producers Carlton Cuse and Guillermo del Toro.

How closely is the TV series going to follow the books, and does one book basically equal one season?

Cuse: Book one is Season 1. 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 2, 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. 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.

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. Guillermo, Chuck, myself, all of us involved have basically said, okay, 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: 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 retrospect, it made perfect sense as a game plan to, for example, leave the origins of The Master, which we opened book one with, for a second season, if we go that way, and, for example, bringing a set piece from book two to bookend the story of one character on Season 1. 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. 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.

What sets The Strain apart from all of the other vampire stories that we have recently seen?

Cuse: I think The Strain upends the current conception of the vampire genre. I think we’ve had our fill of romantic, brooding, sparkling, depressed vampire characters, which those are really sort of like love stories sprinkled with a genre. The idea of sort of re-imagining the vampires, going back in a way that the roots of what vampires are, that they are scary, dangerous creatures, that was something that was incredibly compelling for me. That was something that really drew me to the project, and the idea that when you see these things it’s not good.

Guillermo’s just a master of creature creation, and so that the prospects of working with creatures that were unique and so complicated and so cleverly imagined was an enormous appeal, and that conception of them was really vastly different than what we see in other shows. And that completely appealed to me.

And then I would just add one other layer, which is that on a show like The Walking Dead they have zombies, and those zombies are capable of doing a few limited things. I think one of the things that’s really interesting about this story, that really inspired me as a show runner and storyteller, is the layers of mythology. As the show goes on we not only learn about the functioning of these vampires, but we also come to understand that there’s a hierarchy of vampires, and then there’s a history to these vampires, and there’s a mythology behind the existence of these vampires. As that unfolds and as we began to understand that these creatures are not only scary and dangerous but also sentient and smart, that adds just a whole other layer to the forces of antagonism, which just makes for great storytelling.

del Toro: Yes, I think that obviously this is a mythology I’ve been living with for many, many years. 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. 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.

And I think that, God willing, 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. 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. 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.

Has FX given you any limitations on how graphic the series can be? Did any issues arise with in the making of the first season?

del Toro: Obviously not yet.

Cuse: No. Honestly, I think that whatever aesthetic limitations exist in the show are ones that Guillermo and I came up with ourselves. We have had the full support of FX to make the show the way we wanted to.

del Toro: And 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? 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. 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.

How do plan to maintain the balance between the supernatural aspects, the crisis at hand, and the personal lives of the characters?

Cuse: I think that the personal lives of the characters are very important, and I think that television is about forming a bond between the audience and the characters that exist in the world of the show. I would say that on Lost we spent 80% of the time talking about the characters and maybe 20% of the time talking about the mythology, at the most, and I think that that’s why the show was more popular than being just a narrow niche genre show. The audience was concerned about whether Kate was going to end up with Jack or Sawyer as much as they were about whether they were going to get eaten by the smoke monster.

In this show, I think we’ve tried to take the same approach. We want the audience to engage in our characters, we want to understand who they are, what their lives are like, where they came from. As much as these vampires are causing upheaval in the city, they’re also causing upheaval in the personal lives of the characters, and we’re seeing these characters have to come to terms with the upending of the social, emotional, personal structures of their lives.

We spend a lot of time in the writers’ room talking about who these characters are, what they want, apart from just getting rid of the vampire plague. As we go downstream with the show one of the things that excites me, and I know excites the other writers, is getting a chance to even get further into who these characters are and watch their relationships unfold with each other as they’re in the middle of this incredible crisis.

del Toro: It’s very hard to define the dynamic of a show until you are five or six episodes into it, but I can say that we tried to balance very hard small moments with bigger action set pieces. That balance continues throughout the series. We are in some degree completed all the way through Episode 13, and we’ve seen that we have successfully maintained quiet character moments with bigger moments. How successful they are obviously is dependent on your empathy with those characters, but the fact is as a genre piece we need to have identifiable characters, the scientist, the sidekick, this and that. We also go to characters that normally you don’t get in a series like this. For example, Miguel Gomez as Gus, [is] a character that seems to be on the fringe of the tale and gains his own footing. The character of Setrakian is a character you’ve seen before but has a twist that you haven’t seen. It is my hope that in the evolution of the series, Corey Stoll — which is the square-jawed, troubled hero that you may identify from other series — evolves into places that are much darker and challenging, both for the character and the actor. But that balance occurs over time, and I can say with great pride and great hope that we have made it a point to maintain the balance through the series and hopefully take it even further as we go along.

Compared to other series in this genre that have a more bleak overall look, The Strain has a very bright color palette. Was this an intentional choice, and why did you choose this approach?

del Toro: One of the 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. And 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, something causally of the real world, every time you see red, 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.

Cuse: One of the things that we talked a lot about was trying to make the show look, sound, and feel different than other shows on TV. It was one of the things that I think we achieved pretty well with Lost. When you flipped around on the channel and you heard Michael Giacchino’s music and you saw the lush, verdant Technicolor jungle you knew where you were and that it was a different destination than other places on television. I think Guillermo’s, again, I think deeply imaginative and is a visual creator, and we have a show that I think really looks unlike anything else on TV.

You’ve mentioned that you don’t want this to go beyond five seasons. If it’s well received and in demand, would you consider a longer run?

Cuse: I don’t think so. We’re moving into this new phase of television where I think audiences are really embracing stories with a beginning, middle, and end. If you look at the success this season, for instance, of True Detective and Fargo, as well as the kind of incredible response that the end of Breaking Bad got, I think that you have to recognize that the audience wants to see stories that come to a conclusion. They want the full and rounded experience. Television has been sort of a first act and sort of an endless second act, and I think that the best television now is giving you a three act experience. That’s what we want to do with our show.

del Toro: I agree with Carlton. 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 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.

Can you share what it was like to see the book come to life on the screen?

del Toro: It was really beautiful to go through the process with new partnerships. I think that it’s great to do it with a partner that has been so close to the books, like Chuck, and someone that seems to have such a strong and revitalizing take as Carlton. I think it has really been quite energizing for me to see that. Carlton and I both come from a world where partnerships are basically a single-minded approach to storytelling. Carlton and myself are used to storytelling on the audiovisual universe in an absolute way. Our views are enriched by both of us having really strong points of view, which is not unlike the partnership I have with Chuck Hogan.

It has been, quite frankly, great to hear “No” from Carlton, to say, “No, now listen this is why we’re not going to do this.” And to learn from that, to say, wow, I never thought about it in that way. The idiosyncrasies of being a film maker and director, or a writer is that you domineer basically what happens, you want the character to go right and crash a car. And this is truly one of the most complete collaboration processes I’ve experienced with the triumvirate that is Chuck, Carlton, and myself. It’s hard to define where every territory ends, but it’s not hard at all to know that each of us brings a different strength to the project, and we trust each other. So, that process has been the most beautiful difference between putting the project on the page and seeing it fortify as a series, that you don’t exactly land where you thought you would land but you land on a place that feels incredibly right.

Guillermo, after directing the pilot, do you think you may return to the director’s chair on the series?

del Toro: It is with both great pleasure and great trepidation that I say I want to direct the opening one if there is a 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. I think that the beauty of the show is we have developed a really good, increasingly fluid relationship, Carlton, Chuck, and I think now and then in the first season I would go and shoot additional material with a Saturday second unit, or Carlton and I could increasingly jab each other into coming up with sick ideas in the middle of the season.

I think that I really would like that, because it is such a pleasurable experience. 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,. 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, 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, and I think that it will be essential for me to continue to be involved in that way.

Tune in tonight at 10pm on FX and FX Canada.

Photo by Jennifer Bragg. Copyright © 2014

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