Vampires without Glitter or Girl Problems: Inside Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Strain’
The infected have worms writhing under their skin and vicious stingers waiting to shoot out of their mouths at the slightest whiff of hemoglobin. The Strain isn't Twilight.
The Strain isn’t your average vampire show.
This much would have been obvious to anyone watching the series’ premiere Sunday night on FX. For starters, there’s the story. A plane lands at JFK, then stops dead on the tarmac. As epidemiologist Ephraim Goodweather (the excellent Corey Stoll of House of Cards) soon discovers, everyone on board is dead—or so it seems. What Goodweather assumes to be a virus actually turns out to be a virulent strain of vampirism—one that has secretly transformed most of the unconscious passengers into the bloodsucking undead and left behind a handful of survivors to morph more slowly (and graphically) as the parasitic bug consumes them from the inside out.
Then there are the vampires themselves. The sophisticated German Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel of Inglourious Basterds), who conspires with an immortality-obsessed oligarch named Palmer Eldritch to sneak a gigantic soil-filled coffin off of the plane and into Manhattan. The cloaked, 8-foot-tall “Master” who emerges from the coffin. And the infected passengers—the first victims of an epidemic meant to destroy the human race—who return home to their infectable loved ones with worms writhing under their skin and huge, vicious stingers waiting to shoot out of their mouths at the slightest whiff of hemoglobin.
In short, The Strain is not Twilight—and we’re not complaining.
The credit for The Strain’s fascinating premiere belongs to the dynamic duo of Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse. Del Toro is the innovative director of Pan's Labyrinth and Pacific Rim (among other visually arresting films); Cuse is the showrunner responsible for Lost and Bates Motel. Together they’ve created what may be the most entertaining new show of the summer. The Strain originally emerged, beginning in 2009, as a trilogy of novels by del Toro and Chuck Hogan (who now writes for the show); it was later adapted into a series of graphic novels.
But from the beginning, del Toro’s dream was to tell his vampire story on TV, and it shows. Last week, del Toro and Cuse sat down with The Daily Beast to reveal the inside story of the making of The Strain.
del Toro: I pitched it to FOX in 2006 as a TV show. The viral-CSI element; the mythic vampires who were parasitic and brutal; the arrival of the airplane to JFK; the dead passengers. The whole thing. They asked me to elaborate it into a bible. So I outlined the first episode and the three different stages of the drama: a beginning, a middle, and an end over three to five seasons. Characters, breakdowns, blah blah blah. And at the end of the process I was told, “We are not really looking for vampires as a drama. Do you think you can come up with a comedic take on this?”
Cuse: It seems Guillermo was put off by this. [Laughs]
del Toro: I obviously just left. I decided to take the bible and find a writer who I could truly co-write with—who wouldn’t ghostwrite and who wouldn’t run off on his own. A real partner. Because I knew the story inside out and I really wanted to put it in paper.
Cuse: So Guillermo worked with Chuck Hogan and turned The Strain into a trilogy of novels.
del Toro: I came up with the story in the early 1980s. Since I was a kid—a young kid—I've been keeping a notebook filled with ideas for vampire mutations, vampire biology, vampire sociology, vampire mythology. They’ve been percolating in my head for that long. I put some of them in Chronos. I put some in Blade II. But I put the vast majority of them into The Strain. I wanted to find a vessel to carry all of these ideas I have about vampires.
Cuse: Guillermo felt there was no way to tell the story in a movie. There was too much to do.
del Toro: I was—and am—completely enamored of longform television. You can be kind of off-kilter. Instead of deciding on a single tone for the narrative, you can have one season be one way...and then the second season changes into something else. Characters can start as villains and end up as heroes—or start as heroes and end up as villains. That’s so fascinating as a storyteller. So I joined forces with Carlton.
Cuse: At first, I was a little apprehensive about jumping into a genre that seemed really overdone and overwrought. I was afraid of the obvious criticism, which is, “What can you do with vampires that won’t feel like we’ve already seen it a million times?” But I also thought, “There’s a way to do this that will still feel fresh. There’s a chance to reimagine the genre—to take back that night.”
And the fundamental idea was that when you saw a vampire, you were scared shitless. I was kind of feeling like vampires had gone from being scary creatures to being misunderstand glittery dudes with romantic problems. That just seemed so uninteresting to me. In contrast, The Strain was returning to the roots of vampires as scary parasitic creatures—and I liked that.
I also had great optimism that Guillermo would be able to realize these creatures in a unique and imaginative way. One of the problems with doing any monster show is how to make the monsters good. And one of the answers is Guillermo del Toro.
del Toro: So we went out to sell the show, and it was the best pitching session I've ever had. [Laughs]
Cuse: It was an amazing day. We had four pitch meetings in one day at four different cable networks. We chose very carefully where we were going to go to present it. We had targeted cable specifically. And all four places bought it in the room.
del Toro: They loved it. I pitched the colors, how saturated it was going to be—a living comic book is the way I wanted to do it. I pitched them the idea of the Master being shrouded in ancient rags for half the season, then revealing him little by little as we learn more. People were just really excited about the mythology. The deeper we go—the last two or three chapters of the first season reveal a whole subculture of vampires that is not revealed in the first half. We go deeper and deeper into that territory in a really interesting way, and people reacted to that in the room.
Cuse: At that point, we had already hashed out the game plan. To me, the key to doing The Strain as a series was that it should be a closed-ended show. In the most simplistic notion, each book would be one season of television.
del Toro: And that's how we pitched it: as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Cuse: There really has been an evolution of what the audience wants. We’ve witnessed the phases. We’ve gone from hero-based shows to complex anti-hero-based shows to complex serialized shows, which Lost was on the front end of. And I think the next logical extension of that is complex serialized shows that draw to a conclusion. The reason True Detective and Fargo are so damn good is because they went from A to Z. That’s the kind of show The Strain had to be. It’s third-act television.
del Toro: So we laid out the season together.
Cuse: We were very much in sync. We had a good set of complementary talents. Guillermo wasn’t experienced in television. But he had all this knowledge and expertise in the creation of these creatures, which I hadn’t done before. The marriage of my television narrative storytelling skills with his visual imagination was a good combination.
del Toro: Carlton has the last word, ultimately, on the screenplay. But he’s very, very patient with my wild suggestions. [Laughs]
Cuse: The entire first book is 401 pages. And the first 150 pages of the book are the pilot. So to take the rest and turn it into 13 hours of television requires a lot of expansion and a lot of other details.
Basically, I felt really strongly that if we were going to make The Strain, we had to make the movie version of the TV show, not the TV version of the books. So I said to FX that it was really important to get a lot of lead time, so that everyone could do what they needed to do. And they agreed.
For network television there’s usually a six-week window between ordering and filming. We had a year for preproduction. That took a lot of courage on their part—checkbook courage. They wrote some big checks so we could do the conceptual work. It made all the difference.
del Toro: I needed to develop a visual bible for the series. We were going to have four different cinematographers, five or six different directors. One of the balancing acts was how to keep some uniformity.
Cuse: From Guillermo’s side there was the creature creation. He hired a bunch of conceptual artists who he’s worked with before to design the creatures, the sets, and the look of the show. Out of that process started emerging all of this art. It really was full-blown world creation, and that takes a lot of time. We were creating a heightened mythological version of our world—one that had a very distinct look and feel to it. That does not happen very often on television, and there’s a reason for that.
del Toro: I’m a very biological perverse guy. [Laughs] I was guy who was always looking in things in jars and blood on dissection tables. As a kid, I always loved the anatomy of animals. So I thought it was important that the survivors get an accelerated metabolism, that they get thirsty, that they develop a stinger, that their front teeth fall and new teeth come out, that they lose their genitals and form a cloaca. They need to become streamlined: an organism that is basically very primitive.
Cuse: One of the things that I thought was really good about the books that was important for us to embrace at the beginning of the series was this idea of understanding the biology of these creatures. That was really important to Guillermo in the writing of the books.
So for me it was, “Let’s take advantage of this.” I remember I joked a lot with Guillermo: “You’ve thought about every aspect of these things, including how they shit—so let’s put that onscreen.”
del Toro: What we explain later—not in this season—is that the vampires defecate while they eat...because that’s what ticks do. Ticks are eating and shitting because they have no space in their bodies to retain their food.
Even the worms. The worms are based on two real worms. One is the famous heartworm that lodges in the heart of dogs. And the other is what is called a horsehair worm that overtakes the bodies of insects. When you crush an insect, you have all these long worms uncoiling from the belly. Everything in The Strain is somehow or another based on gross biology. [Laughs]
Cuse: Simultaneously, I started staffing up. We had to know which creatures we were going to make. There’s a lot of modeling and casting, and all of those things are very time-dependent. I said to FX, “We need to actually hire a writing staff and write the scripts ahead of time because we need to know what we’re facing.” So FX also had to front the cost of a writing staff for a series that they had not yet greenlit. And I think that will be the key to the success of the show.
Time is such a valuable commodity when you’re doing this kind of world-building. Creativity is not something that falls into your lap in full bloom. It’s an evolving thing. And over time we were able to thoughtfully create and conceive the world of this show and the sorts of stories that we wanted to tell within that world.
del Toro: We are not the most expensive show that FX has done. But I wanted this to look like a bigger show. I wanted the pilot to look almost like a movie in terms of how big it was.
Cuse: We wanted the pilot to be as visceral and kick-ass as possible, so the three of us—me, Guillermo, and Chuck [Hogan]—broke the story for that collectively. And I think it really shows. The pilot is a 73-minute movie.
del Toro: The first image I came up with as a kid was the idea of a plane stopping in the middle of a runway. I was thinking of the Demeter, the ship in Dracula, which arrives in the port with all of the sailors dead and with the pilot tied to the wheel. That was what I liked: the idea that they find that ship, and like in Dracula there is a coffin on board, in the cargo. So that’s how the pilot begins.
Cuse: Guillermo is an extremely talented director who has a very clear idea of what he wants and what he sees in his head. For example: I remember we were doing camera tests on the Master. Finally, these many, many months of conceptual work and drawings, and scale models and prosthetics were being put to use. Robert Maillet, this 7-foot guy who plays the Master, came in. He’s a literal giant. I think he wears size 24 shoes. It was amazing. Anyway, we were changing out gels and colors and figuring out how to light the Master. And Guillermo was over there literally working on the Master with a makeup brush. Literally changing the very subtle shadings of coloration on the prosthetics on Robert Maillet to get it just right.
del Toro: Going in, I knew what I wanted to do with color. The color red needed to almost never be on screen. Whenever you see red, it is linked to the vampires. The Nazi vampire has a red tie. Jim, who we find out is a traitor, has red in his wardrobe. Nobody else has red. I also knew it was a fight between day and night, so I color-coded the entire pilot in blue for night and gold for day. The whole episode is a clash of blues and golds.
Cuse: Guillermo’s talent is two-fold. He has this amazing commitment to detail and also this really deep knowledge of the process. He can actually do the work himself on these creatures, and at times he did. Look at the effects shots in Pacific Rim. It’s like studying a Velasquez painting or something. In every corner, everything has been attended to. Every part of that frame has been thoughtfully considered. You may not notice it, but you feel it. And that kind of rigorous attention to detail is not something you can normally do in television.
del Toro: In the books, we basically deal with the origins of the Master in the opening pages. But Carlton very wisely said, “You know what? Let’s save it. Let’s not do it now. It may be a little frustrating, but if we can stay patient, it will be very rewarding to have new territory to dig into.” I learned a lot from Carlton in that sense.
Cuse: From a story standpoint, I felt the critical goal in the first part of the show was to focus on the epidemiology. Getting the audience to go on the same ride as Corey Stoll’s character, a guy who is an empiricist and an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control. How does that guy get to a place where he not only believes there are vampires but is actively engaged in fighting them with guns and silver swords? [Laughs] If we do that right, the audience will go on that journey with him and buy into the world that we are creating.
del Toro: The curious thing is, in order to do genre you need to follow certain codes. You need to do the same things differently. You cannot just come up with a vampire who is green and has an antenna. You need to do it through the introduction of familiar beats in the vampire genre, then take the audience to places that are unexpected.
Cuse: In The Walking Dead, you have non-sentient, homogeneous antagonists. You have these zombies, and they all do one zombie thing. But with The Strain there’s a range to what the vampires can do, depending on where they sit in the hierarchy. There are all these levels.
del Toro: The more you realize that we have a minutely figured out biology and mythology, the more you realize “I haven’t seen this” and “I haven’t seen that”—even if it comes through the tropes of familiar genres. You need a coffin in vampire mythology. But this is an elaborately carved, 9-foot-tall coffin. The lead vampire is 9 feet tall. He’s absolutely a monstrous creature.
Cuse: We hired a dance instructor named Roberto, and Guillermo and I spent a lot of time discussing with him how our vampires would move. He eventually started conducting these vampire schools where we were employing dancers who would have to learn how to move as you turn into a vampire. Every aspect of how these vampires exist as a creature had to be imagined.
del Toro: The Rubicon is when you see the Master come out of looking like a pile of rags on the floor, get up, and in less than 10 seconds drain the blood out of an entire human being. In that moment, you understand that this vampire is not going to take you to dinner and romance you.