From the ‘Strain’ Set: Showrunner Carlton Cuse on working with Guillermo del Toro and more

07.13.14 4 years ago


TORONTO, ON. With “Lost” (and “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr,” if you like) front and center on his resume, Carlton Cuse knows a thing or two relating to fanboys, but that's actually how he originally came to Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's “The Strain” series.

“Almost two years ago, I was approached by WME and asked whether I actually knew this property, 'The Strain' trilogy,” Cuse recalls, sitting with a small roundtable of reporters on the Toronto set of “The Strain,” which premieres on FX on July 13. “In fact, I had read the first book just as a fanboy, just because I was intrigued by it and loved Guillermo's stuff. I actually had a little bit of a relationship with Chuck Hogan. We had talked at one point about doing something else together. I really loved the book. So WME said, 'Hey, would you consider meeting with Guillermo? We're thinking about turning 'The Strain' trilogy into a television series. It's one of those things where Guillermo doesn't feel like there's a way to do this amount of storytelling as a film.' I was like, 'Yeah, absolutely.'”

Given that del Toro and Hogan were always likely to be adapting at least the pilot and del Toro was planning to direct the pilot, that meeting could have been intimidating for a fan, but Cuse says that the process was immediately collaborative. 

“I sat down with Guillermo about two years ago, and we really hit it off right out of the box,” he says. “That's always kind of the crux of the issue, as to whether you can find a collaboration that's productive, rewarding. I think we had really good overlapping skill sets. I obviously had a lot of experience in television. Guillermo had an immense amount of experience in movies. I think that the show, in a way, is hopefully the best of both worlds. We then took it out and had a lot of interest in it from different cable channels. We only pitched it for cable.”

After you see the sometimes gruesome “Strain” pilot (and even-more-gruesome subsequent episodes), you'll understand that cable choice very clearly. All reports, though, suggest that FX went above-and-beyond to make the “Strain” team feel at home.

“FX really allowed us the opportunity to prep the show like a movie.You know, if you think about pilot season right now, where six weeks ago a bunch of pilots were ordered, and now they're all shooting,” Cuse tells us (in March). “You can only prep a show in certain way in six weeks. I mean, you get whatever cast you can get that's available during that six-week period of time. 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, we employed these great model makers that I think you guys all met at the creature shop yesterday. These are just things that you don't do for television. I think Guillermo is arguably as good as any filmmaker in the world in this arena, and I think that was just a special talent that he brought to the table, but it required a lot of time. So FX gave us that amount of time. I think the other area where it really came into play was in casting. We spent well over a year casting the show. We took our time to find the actors that we wanted. During the course of that, for instance, House of Cards came out. I saw Corey Stoll and John Landgraf. Guillermo saw Corey Stoll and I think was almost immediately like, 'Wow, that's the guy we want.' If we were casting in a six-week window, we would have never aligned with Corey Stoll. So we really prepped it like a movie. I think my job in all of this was to figure out how we would take these books and turn them into an ongoing series. Guillermo's primary job was he basically took the first half of the first book and turned it into this amazing cinematic pilot. It feels much more like a movie than a TV pilot, and it was really approached like a movie. FX gave us the resources to shoot it like a movie. But it was also very calculated to be done within the context of, you know, it's not just there's a pilot and then there's chaos on the other side, which I think sometimes happens. I think we have a really strong narrative that goes right out of the pilot that carries on for the other 12 episodes of the first year of the show.”

One thing you have to know about Carlton Cuse is that all of these quotes so far were from Cuse's first answer to a reporter's question. He gives smart, considered, loooooong answers to questions. This is a trait that he shares with del Toro, making me wonder what those conversations between them are like. It sounds, though, like del Toro wasn't precious when it came to letting his book evolve for the big screen.

“I don't think there's anything particularly sacred,” Cuse claims. “I think the good news is that I like the narrative spine of the books. As a person with the responsibility of turning it into an ongoing series and sustaining the ongoing series, I feel like I'm really in alignment with — I really like the basic construct of the books — but there's a lot of stuff that's being invented by necessity. So for instance 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. 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.”

As Cuse says, the changes for the “Strain” pilot come out of necessity. FX's “The Strain” is a slow-burn, but had it stuck to the book and divided the book into 13ths, the pilot would barely introduce Corey Stoll's Dr. Ephraim Goodweather and his CDC “canary” team and the mysterious ghost plane, but it wouldn't get anywhere near vampires. And there's no point in doing “The Strain” if you're not going to get to vampires.

So what are these expansions?

“Character, character and character,” Cuse laughs. “To me, that's the key to everything. We're just digging a lot deeper into the characters. We've actually added a few new characters. So it's surprising that you guy didn't meet with Richard Sammel, who plays Eichorst who I think is the scene-stealer of the first season of the show. He's kind of an invention out of a composite of several German characters that are in the books. Richard's this wonderful German actor who's very much like Christoph Waltz. He's educated and sophisticated and menacing as hell. I mean, that character kind of exists in the books, but the way he exists in the show is vastly different. There's a character named Dutch Velders, who is a complete invention, who shows up — another female character in this season. I mean, there's a bunch of stuff that we've invented for the show that isn't in the books, and it's all significantly rooted in character.”

Don't let that “Character, character and character” thing lead you to worry that “The Strain” is going to become some sort of staid chamber piece. This is coming from the mind of Guillermo del Toro and that realization of del Toro's imagination has often been R-rated.

“[I]t's pretty graphic,” Cuse offers reassuringly. “FX has been extremely supportive about giving us a lot of freedom on a content level. I think that if you're doing something in the genre, I don't think you should hold 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 s*** 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.”

One of the things that “Strain” producers and craftspeople in the Creature Shop noted is that FX hasn't really been trying to stop them from doing anything. In fact, the network that brought us Vic Mackey and the ultra-intense SAMCRO and all of the insanity of “Nip/Tuck” has been pushing them forward.

“I think what they have done is they've been very reassuring that when we've done stuff that's kind of edgy and out there, they've been very supportive of it,” Cuse says. “They're kind of the anti-network in the sense that they're like, “Do we really need this exposition here?” Whereas most networks are like, 'Make it clearer! Make it clearer! Make it clearer!' They'll be like, 'We love this sequence. Push it far. Go for it. Be graphic. Be bold. Really make the show feel edgy, interesting and special.' So I would say they've really been encouraging, and we haven't run up against any point where they sort of freak out at all.”

Perhaps it's beneficial that Cuse serves as a balance for horror fanatic del Toro. Although he's currently working on another show with horror undertones, A&E's “Bates Motel” (as well as A&E's remake of “The Returned”), that's not where his passions lie.

“Ironically, I wouldn't say I'm a massive horror fan,” Cuse confesses. “I love thrillers. It's interesting, in the case of both these projects, I'm sort of a massive Hitchcock fan. I feel like he's made five or six movies that are just practically perfect — 'Psycho' being one of them. Each project is so specific. The idea of Norma Bates being this wonderful character who's sort of famous in cinema history but we know nothing about her, that was really intriguing to me, and the idea of reinventing her relationship with Norman. But taking it and putting it in a presence where we weren't living in the shadow of a perfect movie. That was kind of the idea there. In this project, it was very specifically — I'm a big fan of Guillermo's movies, because I feel like even though they're horror, they had other dimensions to them, particularly heart and humor and thematic resonance. I just felt innately that our sensibilities would be similar and that we wouldn't be clashing, that there was a way for us to combine what we each do as artists in a way that was additive. I really feel like that's been the case. It's much more about those things in my decisions, as opposed to, 'Oh, I love horror. I want to go do horror.' I'm a huge Stephen King, but again, you know, yes, Stephen King does horror, but what I love about Stephen King's books are the characters. I guess I think about it more in those terms than in broader genre terms.”

Continue for more highlights from our chat with Carlton Cuse, including insight into casting and the show's long-term future…

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*** Why was Corey Stoll, who generally thinks of himself as a character actor, the right guy to play Eph? “[W]hat I think is interesting is that at the core of the story, Eph is not a traditional action hero. He's an epidemiologist, and in a way it's a story about a guy who's kind of an empiricist who not only becomes a monster killer but really undertakes almost a spiritual journey of discovery where he comes to realize that science and science alone doesn't answer all the mysteries of life,” Cuse explains. “I think that Corey is completely believable as an epidemiologist. He's a very smart, thoughtful, conscientious guy. I feel like we're veering out of this era that we've just been in in television, of the antiheroes, where we've had James Gandolfini and Bryan Cranston, sort of wonderfully indelible, complex antiheroes. I think the television landscape's evolving, and I think Corey can be kind of a new breed of hero for television, almost kind of a thoughtful, thinking man's hero. I mean, yes, he wields weapons, but primarily he's wielding his brain in service of how to solve the problems in this story.”

*** What were other challenges in the casting process? Because of the latitude given by FX, casting on “The Strain” took around a year. The various actors we talked to described month-long audition and interview processes, the kind of prolonged exploration you can't possibly get on, for example, a network show in pilot season. Was the challenge in comparing characters and actors to the descriptions in the books?

“Only in a very general way did that come into play,” Cuse says. “For instance, we wanted Fet to be a big guy. Almost immediately, I thought of Kevin Durand from 'Lost.' I'd felt that Kevin was — you know, he was one of my favorite actors on 'Lost,' and I think, even though he's a big, scary guy, I think he was underrated as an actual actor. I think he's a guy who had been typecast a lot as a bad guy, and I really felt like there was a lot more to him and a lot more dimension to him. So he just felt like the perfect choice to play Fet, who could be a badass when necessary, but also, Kevin as an actor and a person has all these other qualities that would make Fet well-rounded. But Fet was meant to be a physically commanding guy, and definitely Kevin Durand is. Clearly, David Bradley, the Setrakian character, had to be an older guy, but we looked at guys from 60 to — we met with Roy Dotrice, who I think is 93. So we met with a lot of older actors. But I think everybody else — I mean, Nora we obviously wanted to cast a Latina actress. So there were sort of general parameters like that, but in terms of physically approaching — you know, did we ever throw anybody out of casting because their nose wasn't right or something? No.”

*** How will they decide how long the series should be? Since even before FX actually ordered “The Strain” to series, FX President John Landgraf has described the show of having a finite running length, somewhere between three seasons and five years. The big question is how will that length be decided? 

“Honestly, I think it comes down to the storytelling,” Cuse maintains. “John Landgraf has been very open about, 'Well, how many seasons will this show sustain?' In an ideal world, I'd love to see us get five seasons out of it, but I want to be sure that we can tell a compelling story for five seasons. The great thing about this is that one of the things that made me want to do it was that it was close-ended. I feel sort of spoiled after we'd negotiated the end date to 'Lost,' because it did allow us to tell the story we wanted to tell. When you're telling a series, normally — like telling a show 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. I mean, look at 'Breaking Bad' for instance. It really caught fire when they were doing the end of the alphabet. So I think for me, what's really engaging and intriguing as a storyteller is basically knowing right up-front, 'Okay, this is what it is.' So fingers crossed the ratings allow us to do it. 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.”

*** Want a bit more from Cuse on the changing state of the TV narrative? The industry is changing. When “Lost” premiered, it was simultaneously a cult hit and a mainstream success, a show that helped change the way both broadcast networks and cable networks told TV. But since “Lost” ended, all of Cuse's shows have been on cable, while his “Lost” cohort Damon Lindelof also returned to TV with a cable drama.

Cuse muses, “I think that certainly when we started 'Lost' in 2004, the idea of a complex, deeply serialized narrative was still frightening to a lot of people. But the technology by which people watch television now has made that completely acceptable — you know, the idea that super-complicated narrative storytelling that's highly serialized plays really well on HBOGO or on Netflix or on Amazon Prime. That's wonderful as a storyteller, because it allows you to really dig deep and to have complicated, ongoing relationships with your characters. I think in terms of making those close-ended stories, that I think is an evolution that's very much in progress. I think that Landgraf was ahead of the curve and agreeing that The Strain will be three to five seasons of storytelling. That's kind of fantastic. I hope it becomes much more a part of what's happening. I mean, I think that people were deeply engaged with 'True Detective,' because they knew that this particular story was ending in eight episodes. I think that, if you think about the velocity of fan interest with that show — I mean, 'Breaking Bad' I think took many seasons for people to get on-board. There was almost a media frenzy on 'True Detective,' and I think it was very related to this idea that it was an eight-episode narrative. Yes, there will be another show with other characters done under the anthology moniker of 'True Detective,' but it'll be different. I think that's really appealing to an audience, and I hope it becomes much more a part of — it's much more a part of how things are done in England. Somebody's happy to make six episodes of 'Life on Mars' and be like, 'Hey, we're done,' you know?”

*** What are the challenges of doing a drama about a vampire infestation on a budget that maybe isn't on the same level as “Pacific Rim” or “Blade II”?

“I think that the challenge is scope, in terms of the vampires,” Cuse says. “How many can you effectively produce at one time without killing the makeup and special effects department? The show's this kind of wonderful combination of practical effects and visual effects, which is also unusual. I think that people nowadays tend to just default to doing things with visual effects — and as I said, I think Guillermo is as good as anyone in the world when it comes to monster creation — so we're doing a lot of that practically. But it takes a lot of work to build those models you saw yesterday, create them for various characters. I think we've been up against a little bit of the practical limitations of just, on a series level, being able to make giant armies of vampires. But honestly, we've really made the show we want to make. One of the things I'm very conscious of, as a showrunner, having done this for awhile, is that I think that the constraints of time and budget kind of limit the creative limit to the subset of ideas that you can pursue as a storyteller in those cases. So there's a certain saneness 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 I really try to approach the show here from, how can we break down those walls? How can we either come up with the time or money to do things that you normally just don't do in TV? I think that's one of the reasons the show looks different and will feel, I think, inherently much more cinematic than most television.”

*** Is he worried about the future? As readers of the del Toro/Hogan “Strain” trilogy know, things only get darker and more epic in the two subsequent books. That's not a spoiler. That's what happens in trilogies. Nobody's ever said, “Yeah, for the sequel, let's lower the ante and go more intimate.” So if “The Strain” is already facing a strain of scope, what will happen as it progresses? And does it keep Cuse up at night?

“It doesn't keep me up at night,” Cuse insists. “It actually electrifies me as a challenge, because there's a lot of stuff in books two and three that's incredibly ambitious to do for television. I think the biggest solution is time. I think if you really have time to approach those problems thoughtfully and figure out how to execute them, most of those problems can be solved, I believe. We're also living in this wonderful time where the technology available for television in terms of what we can do with visual effects and stuff is kind of merging closer and closer to movies all the time. I see a lot of the big, cinematic set pieces in the second and third books as just wonderful and creative challenges — and the kind of thing where, if we pull them off, they will really, again, just make 'The Strain' feel really different than everything else on TV.”

Before we get there, “The Strain” has to premiere its first season on Sunday, July 13.

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