Interview: 'The Strain' co-creator Guillermo de Toro on vicious vampires, erotic vampires and FX vampires
On Monday's (July 21) Television Critics Association press tour panel for "The Strain," Guillermo del Toro was asked about Bleak House, the supplementary residence he purchased to serve as a museum of sorts for his vast collection of toys, props, books and memorabilia mostly relating to his beloved horror, fantasy and sci-fi genres.
"Well, I have the same restraint collecting that I have eating," del Toro cracked.
The "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Blade II" director has always enjoyed joking about his appetites, which extend beyond eating and collecting into intellectual and conversational realms as well. If, for example, you want to talk fairy tales with del Toro, you have to be prepared to discuss varied international histories for certain stories, while bringing in Bruno Bettelheim as well.
Last week, I posted a brief-ish report from a day on the set of del Toro's "Crimson Peak," just a sampling from the nearly two hours the director took with a small group of reporters, practically having to be dragged away to make his 2015 gothic tale. He just loves what he does and he loves talking about it and since del Toro is typically attached to a dozen projects at a time, that leaves endless room for discussion.
I had 15 minutes with del Toro on Monday to talk about "The Strain," the new FX drama based on del Toro and Chuck Hogan's novel trilogy about a ruthless vampire invasion of New York City. Even knowing I could only concentrate on "The Strain," that time was always going to be woefully inadequate, so I had to choose a topic.
Mostly, that topic was vampires. And since this is Guillermo del Toro, that means the talks about "Kolchak" and John William Polidori's "The Vampyre" as much as his own blood-suckers. We also talked about his earnest love for genre, the origins of his interest in subterranean worlds and his interest in doing more TV in the future.
It's a short interview, but it's a fun interview.
HitFix: What is your first memory of exposure to vampires? For me, I think it was oddly the old "Salem's Lot" miniseries.
Guillermo del Toro: You're younger than me!
HitFix: Then I read the book afterwards but I think for some reason that was the thing that I first remember being aware of vampires in.
Guillermo del Toro: When I was a child the first vampire I saw was probably almost within the same year, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Because it was a time where Hammer films were showing on film and at the same time you were having the Universal monsters on TV. But funny enough, the character I love on the Dracula Hammer films, the character I love the most is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. That's the guy I developed a huge of obsession with, as you may see from Setrakian. But to me the first vampire I got afraid of was "Kolchak: The Night Stalker." When Janos Skorzeny shows up, Barry Atwater, the vampire has such ferocity he was like a snarling animal and he was physically overpowering Carl Kolchak. So "The Strain" is basically my ode, loving ode to sort of refreshingly fun 1970s horror, which I love, Dan Curtis doing "Trilogy of Terror," Kolchak going at it in the most imprudent way, alone going into the city under Seattle in "The Night Strangler," going into the junkyard to saw the mouth of the zombie in "The Zombie." He always was going at it in a way that made him lovingly, but slightly foolish. And yet it was so much fun to watch.
HitFix: Is that "Night Stalker," with the city under Seattle, the root of all of your sort of subterranean interest?
Guillermo del Toro: Yes. Absolutely. One hundred percent. You're the first person to say it and it's 100 percent. That's where it started and that's how we started exploring the sewers in my hometown because I said "What if there is a city under Guadalajara?" which I'm sorry to report there isn't. But that's what started it all. Kolchak for me was a hero. Kolchak, for me, the character was such an influence in the things I do. The idea that you brought venality and science yes but you bring science, you know, the science in "Kolchak" what was great was, "We analyzed the tissue on her throat and it's dead skin." "How long?" "Mummified. Hundreds of years ago. Whoever strangled her was hundreds of years old." That type of thing is what I love. It's procedural enough that you admit it in the modern world, but it still embraces, without any postmodern wink, that's what was great about Jeff Rice and Richard Matheson, without any postmodern wink it knows that ultimately your premise is, by logical standards, completely silly. But I've made a career for 20 years about embracing the most outlandish premises and making them into stories.
HitFix: What is sort of the line there? Because obviously you respect and understand the ridiculousness of...
Guillermo de Toro: Genre.
HitFix: Exactly. But also you're not laughing at it.
Guillermo del Toro: Never.
HitFix: Okay. So where do you sort of make that line?
Guillermo del Toro: Look, if you see my movies there is a complete – I'm enamored of the material I shoot. There is no postmodern wink. There's no... As they say in "Scarface," I get high on my own supply. I am a guy that gets off on the stuff I'm telling and I'm incapable of doing postmodern, ironic wink-wink reflections. Whether I'm talking about giant robots or giant monsters or vampires, I'm talking about them with the thrill of someone that would like to welcome them in his life. You know what I'm saying? To me, the genre is a religion and I'm very devoted to it so there is no irony in that, but there is a complete second nature absorption of the tropes of it, which I religiously hit. Meaning I need to hit the coffin -- Check -- fear of daylight -- Check -- drained corpses -- Check. But at the same time I tried to do it in ways that are refreshing, or at least exhilarating. I want to leave no doubt in your mind that I love what I do when I stage a murder to "Sweet Caroline." I want you to know that I think these vampires discard the bodies they drink the way you would discard a carton of juice. When the master destroys the first thing we see drained onscreen, he does what you would do to a wrapper on a burger, crush it and throw it away. So these are things that are at the same time fresh and at the same time have a love and a reverence for the tropes of the genre.
HitFix: And you like to go to sort of the dark corners of the genre. Going back to "Mimic," I remember being shocked by the death of a child and reflecting on how, even in a tough genre, so many people shy away from that. "The Strain" also has a dead child and other dark turns. What are your thoughts on that sort of gut-punch?
Guillermo del Toro: Well, it needs to punch me. It needs to punch me. If I do that I do it because it affects me. I'm a father and I'm a son. I mean, to me, the ending of the pilot for example, it gave me chills writing it, it gave me chills shooting it, and it is my hope that somebody would get chills watching it. Now, the thing with horror is that it's exactly the same with humor or sex, your funny bone -- or as Stephen King says your scary bone -- are completely personal. So you can tell a joke to ten people and eight will go, "That's the funniest joke I ever heard" and two or three will go, "I don't get it and it's the stupidest thing" or "It's offensive" or "It's lame." So horror is as intimate as humor or erotic thrill. Somebody will say, "I love fishnet stockings." They don't do anything for me. High heel shoes? They don't do anything for me. It's so personal that the only orientation you have in doing it is what provokes you to feel that reaction of revoltion or emotion or it affects you personally and you're trying not to do it if you don't have a reason in the dramatic storytelling. Now you can see the crushing of the head and say, "Why?" And you can say. "Well, you know, he didn't think about it and he just want to do it," or I can tell you my reasons, which are the ones I said to you and the other one is he kills but also I'm trying to tell you not everyone is going to get turned. He's going to turn those he can control, and those that he just needs to drink he's just going to drink. Period. So it's an interesting counterpoint to what you are normally seeing. A vampire bestowing the gift of eternal life, here's your gift. Here's your wrapping.
HitFix: You talked about the subjectivity of what works on people, the similar line of what moves people and also what they find erotic. And erotic tropes have, over the years, become central to vampire narratives. But as you, of course, know that does go back to some degree to Stoker, but certainly to Le Fanu.
Guillermo del Toro: It goes even further. I mean it goes back to Polidori. Polidori when he invented basically in the English language when he created the vampire as we know it, which was Lord Ruthven and the story of "The Vampyre," he was in love, basically a platonic love perhaps but he was basically in love with Lord Byron to whom he was a friend and a physician. At the same time he hated Lord Byron because he was subservient to him. And that love-hate relationship with the vampire, which is a Byronian figure, is at the inception of that. In terms of the story of Polidori, the vampire is presented as an unholy beast or an incredibly magnetic attractive gentleman. So that duality exists in the myth of a vampire. Dracula in Stoker is a crawling horror literally, that crawls the walls of the castle and is basically a reanimated corpse, or he's an incredibly attractive man arriving to England. It is that dichotomy that feeds the myth. Me, I've never been attracted to tell stories about romantic vampires. I haven't. I like the sort of addiction aspect of vampirism, as I did in "Cronos" or on "Blade." And I love the idea of the parasitic vampire that is more close to the traditional Eastern European myth of the reanimated – a corpse that is reanimated by a different will then his own. And there are two types of vampires on "The Strain" -- The ones that the master allowed to have a little bit of their will like Eichhorst and the ones that he completely controls like the rest of the savage strigoi.
HitFix: So, you don't view the erotic vampire as being sort of the abhorence per se, you just view it as being something you're not personally interested in?
Guillermo del Toro: I find it completely valid. I find it valid and I think there are super examples of that vampire. Namely in my opinion I think Les Daniels has written many, many interesting stories and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and my favorite of them all is one that also feeds on the Eastern European lore, which is called "The Vampire Tapestry" by Suzy McKee Charnas. And then you have Anne Rice, whom "Vampire Lestat," I love. I love the second book more than I love even the first one. And if you went back a few decades you would find Anne Rice was doing, people were getting their rocks off on of those novels back then. So I don't chastise it. I don't look down on it. It's just not my bag.
HitFix: Now, on the set of "Crimson Peak" when I was there in March you said something, which I thought was really great so I actually wrote it down. You said, "Part of making movies is dealing with restrictions of freedom or restrictions of budget, and I'd rather deal with restrictions of budget." Could you talk about sort of TV vis-à-vis those two restrictions?
Guillermo del Toro: Absolutely. Look, I met with [John] Landgraf at FX and we had the greatest conversation. He knew the three books. He was very specific about the three books. I jokingly said to Carlton [Cuse] I felt like I was taking an SAT exam because he was saying, "In the third book when you do this, why is the reason you do that?" And he knew them back-and-forth. I knew we were going to be limited on budget, but I knew that if we did our job right I could give the series a big scope, sort of open it up and make it look bigger than our budget. I've done that many times. And I not only did "Pacific Rim," I produced "Mama" or I do "Pan's Labyrinth" or "Devil's Backbone" and make them look bigger. And what was great is that in exchange for those limitations on the budget, Landgraf said to me the week before we started shooting he called me and he said, "Look, I want to know we encourage creative content and creator content that is guided by instinct." And he said, "So, I'm going to tell you we are interested in you, not only as the guy that does big movies, we're interested in you as the guy that did 'Devil's Backbone,' 'Pan's Labyrinth' and 'Cronos,' so whatever quirkiness, savagery, madness you want to unleash on the series, feel free to do it because I'm looking forward to it." And to give you an example, the "Sweet Caroline" scene, I didn't run it by anyone. Nobody knew; it was me and my iPod on the set and I storyboarded the scene to the song and I was still saying, "Somebody's going to say no. Somebody's going to say 'We can't pay the rights; it's too expensive,' whatever." Nothing. Landgraf and Carlton and everybody saw it and they loved it. The crushing of the head? I went as far as I needed to go and I didn't hear "Look, we have to take it..." no third parties involved saying, "They say..." So it's been a fantastic sense of freedom that comes with that. And as a result I'm addicted to doing this.
HitFix: Could you see you wanting to do a total original for TV?
Guillermo del Toro: I would like to continue, yes. And I would love to create something completely... Well, "The Strain" is, it's based on the books but they are original to us. But I would love to continue creating because as a kid my relationship was as intimate with "Night Gallery" or "Twilight Zone" or "Outer Limits" as it was to Hammer fills or Universal. So hopefully there will be a 12, 13-year-old staying late and watching "The Strain" when they shouldn't watch, like I did when I was watching "Night Gallery," which was restricted to adult audiences back then, and my grandmother used to say, "Come up when the show is finished" and I would go up completely traumatized and here I am!
"The Strain" airs on Sunday nights on FX.