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