Behind the Scenes of ‘The Strain’ with Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse

Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse The Strain Interview
Corey Stoll, Mia Maestro, and Executive Producer/Director Guillermo del Toro attend the premiere party for ‘The Strain’, presented by FX Networks (Photo by Tonya Wise/PictureGroup)
FX’s The Strain proves there’s not only room for yet another vampire story, but that now is also the right time for the return of vampires as lethal creatures who aren’t sexy or sparkling and who don’t walk around in leather coats looking all broody. Airing on Sunday nights at 10pm ET/PT only on FX, The Strain is based on the book series by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan and is executive produced by writers del Toro and Hogan, writer/showrunner Carlton Cuse, and Gary Ungar.

Teaming up to discuss the series during a conference call, del Toro and Cuse provided a glimpse behind the scenes at what’s coming up this season, how the books were adapted for the series, and what sets these vampires apart.

Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse The Strain Interview

How did you get involved and what drew you to The Strain?

Carlton Cuse: “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. 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.

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. 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.”

Has being on cable really opened up what you can do with a series as a producer?

Carlton Cuse: “Oh, absolutely. Look, I can’t speak broadly to all cable channels, but I will say that FX has been fantastic. 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. 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. So it’s got some pretty extreme moments, but I think that that also is kind of what gives the show its octane.”

How closely does the TV series follow the book’s mythology? And is season one going to be book one?

Carlton Cuse: “Book one is season one, yes. 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.

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, ‘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.”

Guillermo 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 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. 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.”

Guillermo, how was the transition from feature films to cable television? How has the collaborative process been?

Guillermo del Toro: “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.

Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse The Strain Interview
Poster for ‘The Strain’ (Copyright 2014, FX Networks. All rights reserved.)

From a director’s point of view it was the same on the pilot. 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. It was both some fiscal constraints, but creative absolute freedom which was a huge thrill for me to get a phone call from John Landgraf before starting the series, saying to me, ‘We encourage creator content. We love Carlton, we love you, and we want you guys to do the most idiosyncratic, best version of the series that you can.’”

Carlton Cuse: “For me, I really jumped at the chance to work with Guillermo. I had not done a show with creatures, and so to be able to do a show with creatures with, in my opinion, the best creative creatures out there in the world was an incredible opportunity. So it’s been a great learning experience for me really to collaborate with Guillermo, and I think the show has been a really great combination of both our processes, in that we have a very complementary set of skills.

And I will echo what Guillermo said, we approached the making of a television show with a lot of the things that you do when you make a feature. I think that there are inherent limitations in television if you think about the network model, where a series might get greenlit and then you would literally be in production six weeks later. It would have been impossible to make this show under a normal network production schedule. 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.”

You said that five seasons would be the most. Is there any thought of extending it beyond that if the public response is huge?

Carlton Cuse: “I don’t think so. I think that we’re moving into this new phase of television where I think audiences are really embracing stories with a beginning, middle, and end. And 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. And 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. I think that that’s what we want to do with our show.”

Guillermo 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 said we are not going to be extending beyond the…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.”

Why did you decide to do a full blown series versus doing a TV miniseries or a movie?

Carlton Cuse: “I think for us, I’ll let Guillermo speak as well, but I think certainly for me the material, I think you basically choose the medium that most fits the material, and I think the three books are an incredible source material. I think they lend themselves to a series more than a miniseries, more than a movie, and it felt like a very natural and appropriate match to look at the books as a three to five year television series experience.”

Guillermo del Toro: “When we started writing the books, the story of it is a little convoluted because it was originally pegged as an arc for a series. I knew from the get-go that it was three books when I approached Chuck with the bible I had written for it, and I really wanted something that we accomplished in the books, which is the books feel very different one from another. It is my dearest hope that we can bring that evolution to, God willing, further seasons of the show.

One of the things that linked me very strongly to Carlton is when we met, we met one fateful morning for breakfast, and he 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.’ We 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.”

Guillermo, after directing the pilot do you think there’s a chance you’ll be back to direct any more episodes in the future?

Guillermo 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. But I think that the beauty of the show is we have developed a really good, increasingly fluid relationship, Carlton, Chuck, myself, 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, but I do hope that. 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, and I think that it will be essential for me to continue to be involved in that way.”

Can you talk a little bit about casting Lance Henriksen and also about the creature design?

Guillermo del Toro: “Yes, the thing that we know is that The Master, the character, encompasses many voices, so he’s a character made of many voices over the centuries. He overtakes bodies and he stays alive that way. So we wanted to meld several voices, and one of the voices that we wanted to use was Lance because of its power and authority and the way it sounds, and then mix it with other voices as the base for The Master’s voice, for the authority and the power it has.

And in terms of creature creation, we really went into it trying to, little by little, reveal the biological traits and the design traits of these creatures to make sense to an audience, not just from a looking terrifying, looking good point of view, but to make them feel organic, to make them feel like almost a different breed in the evolutionary history of this planet. You get to see them as a species, in a way, the more you advance in the plot and in this series. So, designing it took approximately six months of just purely conceptual and sculpture and draftsmanship design, and executing it took a very long, long time. But it was as complex and as demanding as designing creatures for a feature film.”

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. Everything is very saturated; it’s very rich, the colors are very vivid. Was this a conscious choice to make the show stand out a little bit more?

Guillermo 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.”

Carlton 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.”

Can you give us some idea of how the concept of these characters developed in your mind?

Guillermo del Toro: “I’ve been obsessed by vampires for a long, long time, since I was a very young kid – and a very strange kid. 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. 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, and 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. And 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.

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. 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.”

And what about the other characters?

Guillermo del Toro: “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 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. And in the series that comes with the big splashes of ammonia infused liquid that they expel while they’re feeding. 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.

And you notice they lose their hair because their body heat is so big 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 Carlton and I have the most fun in writing the novels is Carlton would call me any time he needed a biological angle or an explanation. We would talk about it for a while, because I really love and know these vampires well.”

How involved were both of you in casting the series?

Carlton Cuse: “Guillermo and I cast the entire show together over almost a year. And again, it was another one of those advantages of having a lot of time to prep the show. We had a lot of time to thoughtfully consider who was going to be in our cast. Also we have to give a lot of credit to the wonderful April Webster, our casting director, she cast Lost and she came and did our show. She has wonderful taste and a wonderful ability to find actors.

We met a lot of actors and we spent a lot of time discussing and considering who would be right for these roles, and as I said, we did it thoughtfully over a long period of time. It’s just a hugely important part of the process. The longer I’ve done television – I used to have a lot more hubris about the power of writing, you know that it would conquer all, but I don’t anymore. I really think that as good a job as you do as a writer, you’re absolutely indebted to the actors that have to deliver that material. And we were incredibly fortunate to get some wonderful name actors like Corey Stoll, but to also find some amazing discoveries like Miguel Gomez and Richard Sammel.”

Guillermo del Toro: “Yes. I think that we have a great collaboration with April, and we cast everything together. Literally we had sessions of casting in the same office, and in the case of at least two or three of the parts we basically didn’t cast a wide net, we knew who we wanted, and when meeting the actors proceeded to offer them the role right there on the first meeting. And it happened again and again. We saw the casting as a mixture of going for the unexpected. Or, like in the case of Sean Astin, we said, ‘I think his character and the turn of his character is really feeding on his persona and his baggage in a great way. He’s so reliable, so adorable, and his character has to do things that are ambivalent.’ In the case of Corey, and almost more cases than I have ever seen in a project, we were completely in sync in the casting.”

How do you plan to maintain the balance between the supernatural elements and the characters’ personal lives and how they’re handling what’s going on throughout the season?

Carlton Cuse: “I think that the personal lives of the characters are very important. I think that television is about forming a bond between the audience and the characters that exist in the world of the show, and 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. I think that that’s why the show was more popular than being just a narrow niche genre show, and 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. I think 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. And that stuff is a very important part of our storytelling.

And, again, 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, and I think 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.”

Guillermo del Toro: “Well, I think that 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, for example, the moment where Eichorst, the German vampire, meets with Setrakian through a pane of glass in the visitation booth, or the moment the father receives his lost daughter coming back home, with bigger action set pieces. Now, that balance continues throughout the series. I think 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. But we also go to characters that normally you don’t get in a series like this, a case in point, for example, Miguel Gomez as Gus, a character that seems to be on the fringe of the tale and gains his own footing, the very character of Setrakian, which 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.”

What’s it been like to see this story you’ve worked on come to life on the screen?

Guillermo 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. I think 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, and this partnership has required truly growth and opening into, wow, 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 to write a four-handed novel is just as strong and balanced as the balance that I think Carlton and I have at this stage.

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 filmmaker and director, or a writer, is that you domineer basically what happens. You want the character to go right and crash a car. 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.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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