Guillermo del Toro may be new to TV, but he certainly isn't new to vampires; the filmmaker's been daydreaming about their biology since he was a kid, long before his directorial debut "Cronos" or "Blade II." So when his new vampire horror series "The Strain" hits FX and FX Canada on July 13, it'll be the culmination of a lifelong fascination for the director.
It'll also be the result of years of work, as del Toro first conceived the story -- about an ancient strain of vampirism spreading throughout New York City like a virus -- as a TV show, only to turn it into a trilogy of novels he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan when he couldn't find a network. Three hit books and a graphic novel series later, and "The Strain" finally came full-circle to become the TV series del Toro originally envisioned. And thanks to a very un-TV-like amount of time and money to develop his monsters according to the visionary filmmaker's specifications, and Carlton Cuse ("Lost," "Bates Motel") on board as showrunner, the result certainly looks like it'll be worth the wait for both del Toro and his devoted fans.
HuffPost Canada TV visited the set of "The Strain" in Toronto, where we spoke with the cast and crew about del Toro's vision, and why having read the books won't necessarily prepare you for what you're about to see. Here's 10 things you need to know to get up to speed on the highly-anticipated new horror series.
This is unfamiliar territory for Corey Stoll
For starters, he's got hair, which the actor credited to del Toro, saying, "He has such an incredibly specific vision for everything in the show, down to the tiniest detail."
But while Stoll was first noticed by many viewers -- and "The Strain" producers -- for his breakout role as Peter Russo on Season 1 of Netflix's "House of Cards" (sans hair, of course), he's at the top of the call sheet for the first time here as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, an epidemiologist at the head of the Center for Disease Control in New York who's originally called in to investigate the mysterious outbreak. And the self-proclaimed character actor said the new 'do helped him get comfortable in the expanded role. "It's a little bit more time in the chair," he acknowledged, laughing. "It helps to create a character. It helps to distance the character from myself."
While Stoll's hairline may have changed, his on-screen son didn't, who'll once again be played by his "House of Cards" co-star Ben Hyland. And this time, Stoll was more than willing to take credit: "I said the kid who played my son in 'House of Cards,' he's really great. I thought he was the most professional person on that set, and that continues."
"The Strain" producers are just as quick to gush about what Stoll brings too, with Cuse calling Ephraim "a thoughtful, thinking man's hero." The way the veteran showrunner sees it, TV is veering away from the Walter White/Tony Soprano era: "I think the television landscape's evolving, and I think Corey can be kind of a new breed of hero for television." Sort of an anti-anti-hero.
"Yes, he wields weapons, but primarily he's wielding his brain in service of how to solve the problems in this story," continued Cuse. Which is fine by Stoll, who said his character's unassuming route to becoming an action hero spares him from having to be an expert in Season 1. "I don't have to worry about the way I hold a gun or a dagger," laughed Stoll. "I can look like the klutz that I am." You know, only with a full head of hair.
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David Bradley gets to prove old guys can still kick ass
Instead, the title of the show's resident bad-ass goes to the 72-year-old David Bradley. Playing Abraham Setrakian, who's spent his entire life fighting "Strigoi," as he calls them, Bradley's character is the only one in New York who immediately recognizes what's going on, even though it takes him the better part of the season to convince the skeptical Eph and his partner Nora (Mia Maestro). And while it might take Bradley even longer to convince "Game of Thrones" fans to see him as a hero, he described his character in "The Strain" as "a mixture of the good and the bad. Ruthless, but for the best possible reasons."
"I just love his energy and say, 'Yeah, let's hear it for the old guys!,' " Bradley laughed. "I like the fact that someone my age is someone who's proactive, and not someone who's just a passenger or being helped through this."
"I've spent enough time onscreen lying in bed on my last legs as this frail old guy," he joked. "It's so nice to play someone who's got that vigor and that drive, and brave enough to wade in with his silver sword." But even if he didn't get to see much action, Bradley admits he would've taken the part anyway. "When I was first asked to do it, it was those three magic words: Guillermo del Toro," he explained. "I didn't really need to see a script."
Which was good, because as a late addition to the cast replacing John Hurt, Bradley had to make up his mind quickly, saying he only had a couple days before he'd have to board a plane for the Toronto set: "I just threw my lot in and said, I just know I want to do this. I want to be a part of this thing."
Del Toro would make surprise visits to set at 2 a.m.
He didn't drop in while we were on set, busy shooting his next film "Crimson Peak," but filming in Toronto gives the famously hands-on series creator a chance to swing by the "Strain" set whenever he wants -- which was usually at 2 a.m., according to the cast. (Like his vampires, del Toro apparently doesn't sleep.)
"We were shooting at a gas station, it was a really hard shoot. It was Episode 8 of the first season, shooting nights mainly and it's been cold, so shooting exteriors have been quite challenging," recalled Maestro. "And then Guillermo just popped out at 2 a.m."
"It brings production to a grinding halt for about half an hour because everybody's so excited to see him," laughed Stoll. Jonathan Hyde, who plays one of the series' main baddies in billionaire Eldritch Palmer, agreed, remembering another one of those early morning visits: "It was like Santa had come."
He was so excited about the project, he even showed up to shoot with the second unit for an autopsy scene, said Maestro: "The hand doubles were kind of nervous because it's Guillermo directing. They normally get like a tiny crew. They never get like one of the top directors in the world."
Cuse, for one, is thrilled to see del Toro remain so involved, especially in his areas of expertise, like the show's creature design and visual effects. "I think a lot of big directors kind of bail out," he said. "It's just an advantage for the show to take advantage of Guillermo's skills and talents and have him throw in ideas and contribute to the process. Guillermo's got an amazing capacity for work."
That attitude also rubs off on the rest of the cast and crew. "No matter how much energy he has, no matter how little he sleeps, he can't do everything, so he has to be a good delegator," Stoll explained. "He's incredibly good at filling people with his spirit and getting the best out of them." Natalie Brown, who plays Eph's ex-wife Kelly, agreed: "You can't help but get wrapped up in that enthusiasm and want to help bring his vision to life. You just want to be a part of that."
They spent almost a year on the vampire design alone
Walking into one of del Toro's creature shops is a little like entering another (far creepier) world. There's severed heads on the shelves, a body cast that's got del Toro regular Doug Jones' name on it (literally), a mound of small worm-like creatures on a table, and perhaps most unsettlingly, a jar of honey whose use no one could explain. Then they casually reach under the table we've been standing around to drag out a body bag containing a life-size autopsied vampire, complete with split-open chest cavity. So much for taking the tour before lunch.
Of course, you wouldn't expect anything different from del Toro. "I think Guillermo is as good as anyone in the world when it comes to monster creation," said Cuse. It's his calling card, and FX gave him free reign to see his creative vision through.
"He doesn't think in TV terms," said Steve Newburn, who runs the creature shop. "Everything is very big and very grand. We've done stuff on this that I've never done on a feature before." To accommodate those lofty ambitions, the creature shop was opened a full six months ahead of filming, according to producer Miles Dale. "Typical for TV is three or four weeks," explained Newburn. "We got six, seven months of actual physical prep." And that's not even including all the time spent sketching and developing the rough concepts beforehand.
"This show was prepped like a movie. We started out almost two years ago. We hired a series of conceptual artists to basically -- working very closely with Guillermo -- design the look of the monsters, the sets, a lot of the stylistic elements of the show. We built models, we built maquettes," said Cuse. "These are just things that you don't do for television."
Newburn agreed: "The sheer quantity, the volume of stuff we've done ... I've done a lot of TV and this is eons beyond any of it. This is beyond most feature films." And just when they think they've finally got it perfect? "The next morning, he'll go, 'I thought of something last night!' And you start tweaking again," laughed Newburn.
"It's like going to an amusement park," Maestro said of coming to set and seeing the results of all that hard work. "You just want to be at your best. You come and you have the best props and the best prop department, you just want to make those props shine."
The writers put that time to good use too
According to Cuse, "There's a certain sameness to a lot of television that really comes out of the fact that you just don't have the money or the time to do more, to expand your world." So while del Toro and his creature shop were hard at work, the veteran showrunner and his writers made the most of that extra prep time too.
"We had a 20-week writers room where I oversaw this wonderful team of writers that produced first versions of all the scripts, which was actually absolutely essential for all the planning that it took to make the first year of the show," explained Cuse. "My job in all of this was to figure out how we would take these books and turn them into an ongoing series."
So as the world was expanding in the creature shop, it was also expanding in the writers' room too. "There was a real plan," said Stoll. "And there was an enormous amount of careful thought put into it."
"In any of these stories that do deal with violence and gore and mythological creatures, there always has to be that human element," explained Brown. "That's what draws us, the characters and the humanity behind the creatures."
"Eventually we have to stop having incredible action sequences and talk. I'm sure Guillermo would love an unlimited budget, it'd just be non-stop Strigoi, but lucky for us, we get to talk a little bit," laughed Stoll.
You've never seen vampires like this on TV before (or anywhere else either)
Again, it all comes down to del Toro. "I felt like Guillermo and Chuck had invented a whole new take on vampires on the page and in the books," Cuse said of the more scientific approach to the classic monster. "There's no way I would have wanted to do another traditional vampire story. I just don't think the world needs any other incarnation of the handsome, brooding, sparkly dude with fangs and romance problems."
Dale agreed, saying that was a major point of emphasis for del Toro, "The wave of sexy vampires, we call them the 'True Blood' vampires, he wanted to get away from those and that as far as possible, and make some scary-ass vampires."
So, for instance, instead of the classic fangs, in "The Strain" they feed through long tongues called stingers. "They fire a six-foot python out of their face," explained Dale. "These vampires are not glittering in sunlight, I'll tell you that much. This is some pretty terrifying stuff," said Kevin Durand, who plays Vasiliy Fet, an exterminator whose skill set translates remarkably well to vampire hunting.
"What's really cool about the show is it's not vampires like in the 18th century, this romantic idea of them. It's actually taking the genre to the 21st century," said Maestro, to the point where her and Stoll's characters conduct a vampire autopsy. "So for the first time ever in the history of the genre you get to see what actually happens to a human being consumed by a vampire and how the organs morph." [Spoiler alert: judging from that creature shop dummy, some very important parts fall off.]
It's not just biology though; del Toro and Hogan invented a completely new mythology for their vampires too. "There is a whole hierarchy of vampires," explained Cuse. "There are some good vampires. There are some bad, bad, bad vampires."
They held a "vamp camp" for the actors
It wasn't enough for the show's vampires to look different; they had to move differently too. The main focus? That they don't shuffle along like "Walking Dead" extras, according to Roberto Campanella, the set's resident "vampire choreographer."
"There is a lot more fluidity in the movement than there would be in a zombie," he explained. It's also more complex, since newly turned vampires on "The Strain" go through a series of transformations. "There are four different stages, and the four different stages move in a different way," said Campanella. "The more evolved, the more agile you become."
So after getting in a studio with del Toro and some dancers to hammer out those movements, Campanella held a "vamp camp," where current and future vampires could be put through their paces. Sitting in on one of these training sessions with a pair of actresses, every detail was subject to scrutiny, right down to their fingers. Meanwhile, every twitchy movement has to be done with the visual effects in mind, in order to leave enough room for those six-foot stingers to unfurl.
Before we leave, Campanella locked his knees readying for an attack, highlighting the sharp, aggressive movements for his pupils by saying, "This is a Guillermo del Toro thing." It's just yet another reminder that there are no "minor details" in del Toro's world.
The network encouraged them to make the show even more disturbing
For anyone worried that del Toro might have to tone his sensibilities down for cable, Cuse put those fears to rest saying that, if anything, the notes they got from FX challenged them to push the envelope even further.
"What's wonderful about the show is that there's a lot of wonderful, nuanced character work, and that's something I work hard on with the writers: to create really interesting and hopefully engaging characters. But when the shit goes down, it's going to be pretty vivid and pretty balls-out," Cuse promised. "I mean, there's some really scary stuff." The way he sees it, Cuse said, "If you're doing something in the genre, I don't think you should hold back."
And from the looks of it, horror fans have nothing to worry about, considering they were beginning to run out of places to store all the headless bodies when we were there, stashing them in unused sets, like Kelly's living room. "It's pretty graphic," promised Cuse. "A lot of the content is pretty edgy for TV."
It doesn't follow the books to the letter
"I had read the first book just as a fanboy, just because I was intrigued by it and loved Guillermo's stuff," Cuse told us. But nothing was sacred -- to him or del Toro -- when it came to adapting the novels for the small screen. Especially not how the characters looked.
"I know when I read the first book, Kelly is blonde, and she's described as physically very different," laughed Brown. "But if Guillermo is on board to have her look like I do..." For Maestro, it was a similar experience, with del Toro changing Nora's backstory to have her hail from Argentina, like the actress herself. (Stoll, though, had to keep the wig.)
As Cuse explained, tweaks were necessary, considering the season takes place over the course of only eight days: "Guillermo's pilot is the first half of the first book, so then you have 150 pages to make 12 episodes of television. That's not a lot. So by necessity, the series is a much richer, deeper experience than the books."
"We've actually added a few new characters," Cuse revealed. Which explains some of the unfamiliar names on the call sheet, like Dutch (played by British actress Ruta Gedmintas), who he called "a complete invention." Then there's Eichorst (Richard Sammel), Cuse's pick for the season's scene-stealer: "That character kind of exists in the books, but the way he exists in the show is vastly different."
"They're very clever because they're managing to branch out from the books in interesting directions," explained Hyde. Which keeps the actors on their toes, according to Bradley: "No matter how familiar I am with the books, I'm prepared to be surprised at any time."
"We're just digging a lot deeper into the characters," said Cuse. "You're seeing this wonderful mosaic of these characters in New York -- almost like 'Bonfire of the Vanities,' if in 'Bonfire of the Vanities' there were vampires with six-foot stingers," he laughed.
"The books are an incredible read, but there's only so much you really learn about Eph within the books," explained Stoll. "What really convinced me that this was going to be a character that would be interesting for me to play for three to five years was that there was almost as much, or more, character development within that first episode."
The goal is five seasons
No matter what tweaks they make, they're never going to change how the story ends. And one of the reasons Cuse initially signed on was because of FX President John Landgraf's stated intention to have the series only run for three to five years. "One of the things that made me want to do it was that it was close-ended," he said, pointing to "True Detective" as a great example of letting the story dictate how many episodes a show runs, instead of the ratings.
"Once you get to a certain point in the storytelling, you're milking it a little too much I think," agreed Stoll. "Part of what's exciting about the project is we can start with this breakneck speed and we can keep it up."
"On CBS, you'd go from A to B to C, and then you'd reset to A. On other networks, you march forward through the alphabet a little bit further, but the fun part I think for the audience is when you get to tell the X, the Y and the Z," Cuse explained. "That's what I want to do as a storyteller, is basically tell this whole tale for five seasons, from beginning to end. It's a really good one. I think there's a great story there," Cuse said. "Fingers crossed the ratings allow us to do it."
"There's a lot of stuff in books two and three that's incredibly ambitious to do for television," he continued. "I see a lot of the big cinematic set pieces in the second and third books as just wonderful creative challenges - and the kind of thing where, if we pull them off, they will just make 'The Strain' feel really different than everything else on TV."