1. It was approximately zero degrees when I arrived in Toronto this past March to visit the set of The Strain, FX’s highly anticipated horror series that debuts this Sunday at 10 p.m. (Did I go to the first restaurant I saw for dinner one night because it was too cold outside to walk for more than five minutes? Yes. Was that a “restaurant” a Subway? …Yes.) But inside the massive Pinewood Toronto Studios warehouse where The Strain films, well, it was still cold, but at least I couldn’t see my breath. Most of the show’s sets and props are held within this studio, including worn-down homes, rock star drug dens, a massive wooden coffin that weighs 500 pounds, and over 200 feet of tunnels, complete with artificial sunlight and graffiti. (Amusingly, we interviewed the cast in an unheated room…mere feet away from a concentration camp bunkhouse. OK, maybe “amusingly” isn’t the right word.) It’s a labyrinth of wires and wood, yet there’s a certain preciseness to the calamity — every knick-knack, whether it’s a stray Mr. Mister album or an upside-down Gloria Steinem novel, looks like it was put there for a reason.
And that reason is Guillermo del Toro.
2. In case you’ve been intentionally avoiding rats and eye-worms for the past four months, The Strain is based on a book series written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. It’s about a ridiculously named epidemiologist, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (played by House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll), who finds 200 corpses and a few stray survivors on a plane at New York’s JFK Airport. What happened? Without giving too much away, I’ll just say: SPOOKINESS. The show also stars Natalie Brown as Ephraim’s ex-wife, Mía Maestro and Sean Astin as his co-workers, Kevin Durand as an exterminator, and Game of Thrones star David Bradley as a mysterious pawn shop owner. Lost‘s Carlton Cuse is the showrunner.
3. FX has a lot riding on The Strain. Even if it’s not their priciest show, it sure looks like it — I’ve already discussed the set, but that’s nothing compared to the nearby Creature Workshop. Imagine the Muppets if they had been designed by Tobe Hooper, and you’ve got an idea of what del Toro’s laboratory looks like. There are spray bottles of “Sweat/Piss Stains,” boxes labeled “silicon wounds” and “waddles,” random body pieces including ears and half-finished heads, and a “dickless vampire,” laid out in a bag like a body at the coroner’s office. (I also wrote down “tree stump dick” in my notebook for some reason.) Another highlight: the coat belonging to the Master, the seven-foot-tall Big Bad that looks like a Dementor on steroids. I wasn’t allowed to take a photo, but I did get one of the piss bottle.
4. It needs to be mentioned: Corey Stoll’s hairpiece. It’s absurd and absurdly distracting.
It’s like someone glued Cashew the Guinea Pig to his head. Here’s his reasoning behind it.
One of questions that a lot of people are going to have who’ve seen your last few projects: advantages and disadvantages of acting with hair?
[Laughs] Well, it’s a bit more time in the chair. But it really is actually, I forget about it at this point. You know, it helps to create a character. It helps to distance the character from myself, which is particularly helpful when I’m not playing a…very character-y character. This is the most leading man part that I’ve played, and I’m a character actor, so it’s helpful for me to have as many things as I can that make it a creation and not just myself. I’m not really interested in playing myself.
Who made the decision, this is a guy with hair?
Guillermo. No, Guillermo, he has such an incredibly specific vision for everything in the show, down to the tiniest detail. It’s really incredible. Yeah, we had a lot of conversations about it, and I wasn’t totally convinced at first. But I think it makes sense in the world. Yeah.
Also, his character drinks a lot of milk. That makes more sense than the hair thing.
5. The Strain won’t run forever. It’s only meant to air for three to five seasons – the exact number will “come down to storytelling,” according to Cuse. The pilot episode covers the first half of the first book, and “then you have 150 pages to make 12 episodes of television.” How are Cuse and the writers going to pull that off? “Character, character, character.” He went on to say:
By necessity, the series is a much richer, deeper experience than the books. I think it’ll be really fun. I think you can read the books and you’ll have a general sense of what’s going on, but there’s just a ton of stuff in the show that isn’t a part of them.
6. A brief collection of nice things the cast and crew had to say about Guillermo:
Corey Stoll: He’s the pied piper, he really can get people to follow him anywhere. And he obviously has this incredible artistic vision, but I think a huge part of his genius is his ability to infuse that in other people. Because no matter how much energy he has, no matter how little he sleeps, he can’t do everything. And so he has to be a good delegator, so he’s incredibly good at filling people with his spirit. And getting the best out of them.
Natalie Brown: For such a genius, he’s such an affable, down to Earth guy. The minute I met him, he’s a hugger, and very inclusive and he really wants to invite you into his world. As was Carlton Cuse. They were both very warm and generous when I met them at the audition. He’s capable of being very not serious — he’s happy to make fun of himself. A lot of levity on set and jokes. But at the same time, he’s laser focused with vision and perfectionist with his vision. But also very relaxed to work for, and as a director, very specific. He used very specific words on me that really resonated. He knows exactly what he wants, and he’s so relaxed that there’s just an ease to work for him. It takes the pressure off working for someone of that stature.
David Bradley: I mean, it was those three magic words: Guillermo Del Toro. I’m a big fan and I think Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen, and I enjoyed Pacific Rim. And I didn’t really need to see a script. I can’t actually remember if I saw a whole script or if they just gave me a breakdown about what happens to the character, and I just knew I wanted to do it.
Mia Maestro: Yeah, the other day he came by. We were shooting at a gas station. It was a really hard shoot. It was episode eight of the first season and shooting nights mainly and it’s been cold, so shooting exteriors has been challenging. And then Guillermo just popped out at 2:00 a.m. He’s like, “Hi!” He’s like, “I like what you did there.” And he watches dailies every day. I just don’t know how he does it. He’s doing a movie, he writes scripts, he sleeps two hours yet he comes to set and he’s so sharp. He sees things that nobody would see. He sits in the monitor and he’s like, “Yeah, that point over there. Like what is that?” It’s like, “Oh my God,” they forgot to take the tape out and it’s like two blocks away. And Guillermo sees it in the monitor. I never worked with a director where everything – you’re completely transparent to him. Everything that’s happening to you, everything that’s going on, he just sees it and calls it. It felt like, “OK, I might as well just like surrender because I cannot hide,” I just couldn’t hide anything from him and that’s a really lovely feeling.
Carlton Cuse: You know, it’s a good collaboration. I’m really at the helm of the ship for the series, but Guillermo’s a wonderful collaborator and remains involved, particularly in the areas where he has tremendous expertise, like monsters, creatures, visual effects. I’m very happy that he is choosing to remain involved. I think a lot of big directors kind of bail out. I think 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. While he’s not involved every day, he’s definitely involved and contributing ideas that are benefiting the show.
I think everyone really likes working with him.
7. If the eye-worm grosses you out, The Strain isn’t for you. In the pilot, someone’s head gets violently smashed like a moldy pumpkin, and Cuse has no intention of holding back.
I feel like we want the shocking stuff to be really shocking and visceral. I think what’s kind of 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…I mean, there’s some really scary stuff and I think some really cool imagery. We’ve really tried to push the envelope. I think, again, a lot of the content is pretty edgy for TV.
8. Everyone on set wants you to know that there’s a big difference between zombies and vampires. In fact, on the day we visited, a certain member of the main cast was going through Vamp Camp, complete with an instructor straight out of Bring It On. I won’t spoil who, but the exact quote I heard was, “We don’t want zombie walk.” It’s more about bug-eyed twitching than ugly lumbering, with an emphasis on posture and a long, steady stroll before an all-out sprint that ends with a stinger attacking its prey. The irony of the Vamp Camper proclaiming they were “born for this” was seemingly lost on them.
9. It’s also worth noting that although TV vampires are mostly played out, The Strain‘s bloodsuckers are very different from, say, True Blood‘s. They’re “scary ass vampires,” according to creature supervisor Steve Newburn, inspired more by Nosferatu than Angel. Even Sookie would be turned off.
10. I’ve now seen the pilot twice, once on my laptop and another time in a packed movie theater during the Austin Television Festival. I liked it more the second time ’round, though it’s not without its faults. Del Toro is a brilliant thinker, but his dialouge could use some work, and that’s certainly the case here. I also can’t tell if the show wants to be campy, or if vampires munching on a dude while Neil Diamond plays is supposed be taken seriously. That being said, the actors do a good job of selling their lines, and the show looks great. Unlike most genre series, which increasingly rely on shoddy visual effects, much of what you see actually exists (so to speak). If it can settle into a B-movie version of The Walking Dead, The Strain should fill the FX void left by Sons of Anarchy and Justified when they’re gone.
On the next page, you can check out excerpts of interviews we conducted with the cast.