How to find a good foil, by Guillermo del Toro: On ‘The Strain’

TORONTO, ONTARIO. Like a body finding itself overrun with squiggly bloodworms and going from human to vampire, FX's “The Strain” is undergoing a transformation.

The series launched last summer with a pilot directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Chuck Hogan from the literary trilogy by Chuck Hogan. In the early rounds of promotion, “The Strain” had few cheerleaders more jovial and engaged than Guillermo del Toro and there are few cheerleaders more engaged and engaging than Guillermo del Toro.

But as “The Strain” moved deeper into its first season, deviations from the books became larger and larger. Thomas Eichhorst, pretty much an afterthought stooge in the book, became perhaps the TV show's defining villain in the hands of breakout star Richard Sammel. Nora's (Mia Maestro) unstable mother, a character whose importance stretches into the third book, was killed off with minimal emotional impact. And who the heck is “Dutch”?

On the Season 2 set of “The Strain” in Toronto, the first person to praise the deviation from Guillermo del Toro's books is, of course, Guillermo del Toro, who arrives in a room full of reporters eager to salute showrunner Carlton Cuse.

“From the beginning, even in season one, Carlton was going off-book and it's very clear to me that 'The Strain' needed to be run by the showrunner,” del Toro tells us. “Carlton has always been responsible for the screenplay and development of the story. I try to be unobtrusive and not keep quoting the book. I do when it gets really to a point where I say 'This does not work for this reason' but you cannot say 'It's because the book.' Carlton is very respectful of the areas that are controlled by me and I'm very respectful of that. This season we knew that if we stayed on-book we would have less discoveries. There's stuff with Fet that wasn't in the book that's been really, really good. The Master, the finale of the first season was not in the books, and it's really one of my favorite episodes, the final episode. So it's about saying let these things have a life of their own. There are characters in the book that live and die and characters that could be dead six episodes ago are now alive, and characters that were minor are now gaining a footing. It”s a very different medium, so I watch it with curiosity. So it's Carlton and Chuck running this season much more than the books.”

One person who agrees, not surprisingly, is Carlton Cuse, who soon joins del Toro in our roundtable chat.

“The process is just a very intuitive one. I sort of feel like we”re feeling our way along here. There was sort of a general construct when Guillermo and I first sat down and started talking about the project, that there were three books and… the first construct was that the first book could be one season of the show and then when we started talking about it more and realizing the possibility for expanding the storytelling, then it seemed like we could take each of the – the first book would be the first season, which it was, and each of the other two books could each be two seasons of the show and so that became the general construct. But I would say somewhere around 80 percent of the creative material in the show this season is invented. It follows the spine of the book but what I think is great there”s two very different experiences: you can read the books, which are one wonderful storytelling experience, and then the adaptation into the show is a different one. We have lots of different storylines, different characters, lots of stuff that we”ve added, rearranged, invented and I think that”s given us the ability to make the show last five seasons.”

Indeed, months after the April set visit, having watched the first three episodes of the new season, I can vouch for that 80 percent figure being accurate. In addition to changes like the mere ongoing existence of Eichhorst and Dutch, Season 2 delves into borough politics with a Staten Island official played by Samantha Mathis, introduces another new character to add shadings to Eldritch Palmer and puts Nora and Ephraim on an investigative adventure of their own. There is a lot of new stuff and, fortunately, del Toro is happy to give his seal of approval to the changes.

“There are new characters, like Dutch. I like that character very much because it makes Vasiliy [Fet] find a foil that is not just Ephraim. He really has repartee with her that is very strong. She really has interesting angles. I like that character,” del Toro says. “But the other actors, I couldn't be happier to see them exactly or variations that are more interesting than I thought. David Bradley, I think the way Carlton writes Setrakian is more interesting for me than the Setrakian in the books, because this is more sociopathic. Setrakian is more gruff in the series and less likable in a way. You love him, you love watching him, but to the other characters he is like sandpaper. He doesn't have this fragile – he's not vulnerable and I like that. I like that change in him. The rest are great. Fet was written in the books for Ron Perlman, but Ron was on 'Sons of Anarchy' when we started, and I think that Kevin has now, for me, become Vasiliy. I cannot imagine Ron in that role now. It's surprising and great.”

“The Strain” returns to FX on Sunday (July 12) night. Check out video highlights from our Guillermo del Toro and then del Toro/Carlton Cuse interviews both above and below.