TORONTO, ON. The set is neat and tidy, a two-level suburban home ready for guests.
On the ground floor, there's an orderly living room and an adjacent kitchen. The rugs are flat and properly placed, the chairs and tables laid out to encourage openness, the couch looks comfortable. The pictures on the walls and in leaning frames are spic-and-span. You could practically eat off the floors, were it not for the unfortunately mutilated body.
The corpse looks almost restful. And when I say “almost restful,” I mean “as restful as a decapitated corpse could possibly look.” It's just there. On its back. Without a head.
There are no signs of struggle. And for good reason. The corpse has nothing to do with the scene that will next be shot in this house on the Toronto set of FX's “The Strain.” Or at least that's what the group of reporters wandering around the “Strain” stages is told. Normally, you'd be suspicious of such a contention, but the chances of an idling, unaffiliated cadaver is distinctly more possible on the set of “The Strain” than on most shows.
This is a set where squirt-bottles marked “Sweat/Piss Stains” are often nearby for giving costumes that weathered “apocalyptic” look you'll surely be seeing at Abercrombie by August.
This is a set where the Creature Shop allegedly should have a box full of rubbery genitals, but nobody can locate the box.
This is a set where the decrepit titan of industry — Jonathan Hyde's Eldritch Palmer — has a wall dedicated to proper display of the bottled organs his body has processed or rejected over the years.
So if there's a stiff taking up space in the wrong house on this particular afternoon, that's as logical a place as any for it. If somebody hasn't died in this house, it's just a matter of “when,” rather than “if,” because as readers of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's vampire trilogy know, nobody is safe and the locations that seem the most benign and domestic are the ones most likely to be marred by carnage.
I was on the Toronto set of “The Strain” back in March and, over two days, we sat in small groups with most of the show's stars, including Corey Stoll, Mia Maestro and David Bradley, as well as showrunner Carlton Cuse.
Over the next few days, I'll be running highlights from those interviews as we get closer to the July 13 premiere of “The Strain.”
In addition to speaking with the core “Strain” participants, we got to wander around many of the elaborate sets. In some, we were encouraged to take pictures and you'll see that gallery at the bottom of the story. In some, we're probably not allowed to mention where we are or which actors were filming. We see the filming of one major stunt and several minor conversations and nothing in this article will be especially spoiler-y, unless you want to know nothing at all about “The Strain.” But why are you reading this blog post in the first place if that's the case?
What follows in this post are a few literary snapshots of places and moments experienced on the “Strain” set. Some will be only a couple sentences. Some will be a bit longer.
“The Strain” producer J. Miles Dale points around the vast expanse at Pinewood Toronto, gesturing to Eldritch Palmer's Stoneheart Group offices, Gabriel Bolivar's occult strewn loft and several free-standing homes.
“The indie vibe is alive, as we like to say,” Dale says.
He's taking us around and pointing out the various structures and stages that have already been repurposed on “The Strain” or were repurposed from other Toronto-based productions.
There are 200-plus feet of winding tunnels on the “Strain” set. Most are arched and composed of simulated brick or stonework. You probably won't recognize them, but these exact sections of tunnel previously appeared in the historical dud “Pompeii,” the stillborn fantasy franchise-starter “Mortal Instruments” and in The CW's “Beauty and the Beast” which, like “Reign,” shares studio space with “The Strain.”
Right now, the tunnels are doubling as either sewers, which play a big role in “The Strain,” or New York City Transit-emblazoned subway tunnels, which help the series pretend to be set in the Big Apple. More enclosed segments of tunnel also played German World War II bunkers for flashbacks.
Speaking of the World War II flashbacks, we're conducting interviews in a chilly warehouse that includes three long folding tables separated just enough to prevent overlapping audio when the talent arrives, a couple woefully under-equipped space-heaters, a single toilet (not connected to any plumbing, a couple coolers of soft drinks and one of the barracks from Treblinka.
Yes, it's a rather distressing, but there's a concentration camp bunkhouse taking up half of the warehouse space. The ominous residence hall relates to Abraham Setrakian's (David Bradley) backstory and its scale is no illusion, sporting row after row after row of triple-tiered bunks. Each palette is accompanied by a single metal pan, which likely would have been used for both eating and to preclude late-night latrine visits. The occasional thin mattress and sturdy blanket look shoddy, unless you stop to think about how much better they are than what would have been strictly historically accurate. Of course, it's generally better not to think of real life when you're doing interviews for a vampire show next to a set evoking the Holocaust.
Through the door next to the Treblinka set is a spare room that serves as workshop space for Vamp Camp, the regular classes taught by Roberto Campanella, resident vampire choreographer or “vampographer” on “The Strain.” A trained dancer, Campanella has helped with the movement in productions as disparate as “Silent Hill” — he also played Pyramid-Head — and “Kurt Browning's Gotta Skate III.”
On our second day on-set, we got to attend Vamp Camp and see two newly birthed vampires learn how to become the show's unique version of strigoi, or The Undead. It's a mixture of modern dance, lurching and Guillermo del Toro's personal inspirations on vampire ballet. While del Toro isn't on-set either day we're there — He's directing the Victorian haunted house drama “Crimson Peak,” also in Toronto — the “Pan's Labyrinth” auteur has been known to make surprise visits to the set, sometimes in the wee small hours of the morning, and it wouldn't do to have him pop up and witness a nosferatu violating the laws of basic creature locomotion.
I'll have an amusing report from Vamp Camp, but I shouldn't post it for another couple months, because then I'd have to tell you which actors were there. And that would be spoiling.
The “Strain” Creature Shop is a wasteland.
The heat broke down and while some pieces of the “Strain” machine can compensate with jackets or the aforementioned space-heaters, those are insufficient when your livelihood depends on the ability to work clay or putty.
“Too cold,” reads a note on one work bench. “Took ears home to work on them.”
If the corpse from the house lost his head, chances are good that it's somewhere in the Creature Shop, which has more than its share of busts being molded to different stages of vampire evolution, as well as already completed prosthetic masks, either stretched out over mannequins or slumped in lifeless piles.
The “Strain” vampires feed with the help of long, phallic stingers that shoot out when they unhinge their jaws. A smaller, rubbery version of the stinger is laying out on a table lewdly, like the featured extra from “Boogie Nights.”
“The big ones are all on set,” says practical effects mastermind Steve Newburn, braving the cold to show us his lair.
Over to one side, there's an animatronic version of The Master, a monstrous character I can't describe because he isn't seen fully at least through the first four episodes of “The Strain.” None of the vampires in “The Strain” will be wholly CG, though their stingers and other viscera will get a CG assist. It's unclear if the animatronic Master will even be used in the series, but Newburn explains that del Toro is prone to issuing challenges to the effects team, either to test their limits or because he thinks it would be cool. [The “Hellboy” director has also been famous or notorious for making a personal investment in certain key props which then go into his home/museum after production.]
Most of what's happening in the Creature Shop is in bits and pieces. There's one jar marked “Waddles,” another marked “Cheek Pieces,” a third labeled “Vampire Sun Burns.” Like the sanctuary of a rogue orthodontist, there are dental molds strewn everywhere, some identified by character name, others by actor, some only slightly more feral than your average overbite, some sporting trademark fangs.
As I mentioned earlier, the box of genitals never emerges, but a black body bag under one table contains… You guessed it… A body, one that has recently been autopsied, chest sawed open and organs exposed.
It's that kind of set.
People leave the oddest things sitting around the “Strain” set.
Take, for example, The Master's Coffin.
It's a huge prop and its just sitting out in a passageway next to the sewer set. Was it placed here because they knew reporters would be visiting and we'd want to see? Or has The Box just been there for two months because it's too difficult to move?
According to J. Miles Dale, the coffin weights “500 pounds or something completely ridiculous.” It's made out of fiberglass and it is covered in intricate and macabre carving.
While integral to the narrative of the first season — it's introduced in the first episode, so don't worry about me spoiling anything — it's probably too distinctive a prop to get reused on any future productions.
“Keep your eyes on eBay in about three years,” Dale cracks.
And good luck with the shipping costs.
Vampires get cold too.
It's an outdoor night shoot at the Gold Star gas station and things have become bad enough in New York City that the vampires have begun to accumulate. In this scene, they're causing trouble for Kevin Durand's Vasiliy Fet, an exterminator who rapidly realizes that his problems go beyond rodents.
Durand is in a good mood. He's wearing layers and those layers are topped with overalls. Audiences will have varying responses to Durand's accent work when it comes to the Ukrainian rat-catcher, but nobody will quibble with the “Lost” veteran's physical embodiment of the massive Vasiliy. At his moment, Durand is large and larger than life, trying to keep energy up on the set. Mostly, though, Durand is playing to the crew and various doubles as the director tries to set up a scene that includes as many as four headless bodies. So many headless bodies.
The actual vampires have yet to arrive and that's because, at this moment, they're trying hard to stay warm.
Most of these vampires will only be featured extras, which means they aren't buried in prosthetics and we don't need to see whether or not they have fangs. Fangs would get in the way of one of the major sources of warmth, bowls of craft-service chili, bathing pale, crater-eyed extras in plumes of hot steam. Some of the vampires are getting their heat from coffee. And others are just sitting slouched in tight rows of chairs, playing Candy Crush or reading or talking on their phones. A few vamps who know they'll be seen on-camera are getting instruction from Roberto Campanella, but most will just be part of an indistinguishable, ravenous mass, so they're killing time the way we all kill time, waiting for the call of “Action!” under the gas station's yellowish tungsten lights.
Why would a vampire need a cleaver? I mean, he's a vampire…
Oh right. A vampire might use a cleaver if his former occupation was chef.
In the world of “The Strain,” there is a transitional process from human to vampire and in that time of transition, they retain vestigial ties to their former lives. Not only are vampires drawn to the people they used to love, but apparently they're drawn to the professional implements they used to rely upon.
And no matter what tools the vampires can use, that doesn't mean they're the sharpest tools in the shed.
According to my phone, the temperature is 19 degrees Fahrenheit, which means negative-7 Celsius and that's before we get into windchill.
Bottom Line? It's cold.
The “Strain” set visitors are bouncing up and down to keep warm as we wait for a vampire to do a very stupid thing. This vampire chef is determined to knock out the electrical grid by climbing a utility pole and taking out a transformer. With his cleaver.
I don't know the context of this scene at all and we're about to witness why this individual vampire isn't going to be a major character in the series. The dead dude isn't very clever.
Fortunately, the people on the “Strain” crew are much smarter. The vampire is starting at the base of the pole and he's connected to wires which are, in turn, attached to a towering blue Dwight crane.
The pyrotechnics crew keeps fiddling and they keep adjusting expectations for observers.
“There will be sparks,” we're initially warned. We're told to stand behind a line at least 20 yards from the stunt.
Ten minutes later, after more fiddling, we're moved back another 20 yards.
“Sparks will rain down,” we're warned now.
Holding the cleaver in his mouth, the vampire begins to ascend, with a member of the crew serving as a counter-balance to his weight. He gets to the transformer, takes out the cleaver and…
Sparks do, indeed, fly. The vampire goes flying back, controlled by the counter-weight. The actor lands safely on a padded mat.
I'll have to wait until August or September to find out what happens to the vampire.
Stay tuned for interview highlights and, a bit later, Vamp Camp.
Check out my set pictures below.
“The Strain” premieres on Sunday, July 13 on FX.