What's more fun than watching FX's horror thrill ride, The Strain?
Talking to the man who helped create this new drama, bringing to television one of the biggest pleasures of this summer, that's what.
I grabbed some time recently with Guillermo del Toro and grilled him on everything from the biology of the vampires in The Strain... to the names and music he's chosen (along with co-creator Chuck Hogan)... to when we're gonna meet Mr. Quinlan, who fans from the book know very well.
Consider yourself SPOILER WARNED and read on for excerpts from our interview...
TV Fanatic: I’m really interested in the fact that the vampires are like parasites, they’re not what we’re used to where they’re just vampires. You really dive in deep to the biology and all that. What was the reasoning behind that?
Guillermo del Toro: When I was a child one of the things I read first was a medical encyclopedia and then I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid and I became obsessed with diagrams of how animals work, you know? I never did dissections but I did see preparations and biology labs, and I became obsessed with this idea of how does Godzilla breathe fire? Does it have a tracheal gas chamber? I thought about methane, the thing that you process as methane as a human [and] does he process another type of gas and it goes to that reservoir in his neck?
Trying to figure out the biology of monsters, and with vampires I thought ‘okay, why do we transfix their heart?’ And I thought ‘well, maybe they grow a second heart that is a parasitic heart next to it.’ Would they need to breathe? No. They wouldn’t need to breathe. Why do I think that? Because insects have white blood because they don’t have red cells, maybe the vampire stopped needing the red cells because they feed on nutrients that have the red cells, and maybe their blood becomes white, and they don’t need oxygen because they’re not producing red cells anymore.
Maybe then their lungs die, they don’t breathe. They would need to eat a lot because their metabolism is very fast so if their metabolism is very fast they are warm, they’re super hot to the touch. If they’re super fast then their hair falls down because there’s too much heat in the body, and so on and so forth. So as a kid I was a very absent minded kid that was just thinking of vampires.
TVF: Talk to me about some of the character names in The Strain series because the names are Goodweather, Setrakian…really great names.
GDT: Ephraim Goodweather was because I needed a very short name, Eph, like almost an initial, Eph. Goodweather is so much what he is not, you know? I found it a really powerful last name that rolls off the tongue. I’m Mexican so English is my second language, I find those names fascinating.
Setrakian, I have a friend that is named Setrakian, Mark Setrakian, and I admire him and I always loved how his names sounds like stabbing sound, like a blade. And it’s such a strong name, Setrakian, you don’t forget it. And then the Armenian culture and the ideas around the Eastern European vampirism fit very well with Armenian lore and Eldritch Palmer is sort of an homage to Phillip K. Dick, but at the same time Eldritch means ancient. Mr. Fitzwilliams is such an unlikely name for the sort of son/right hand man. Eichorst is such a great German name.
TVF: What can you tell me about Mr. Quinlan and when he’ll be showing up. He’s a fan favorite from the books.
GDT: He’s one of my favorite characters. He comes in in the middle of the season. He is one of my favorite characters. My favorite characters are a Mexican wrestler that comes in in the second book, Mr. Quinlan and Setrakian. Those are the characters I get my rocks off the most because they’re great, unlikely heroes. And Q comes in…his introduction is really, really good. Really, really good. And by the end of the season you’ll realize he’s there to stay.
TVF: I have to ask about the music in the show and the irony of a song like Sweet Caroline used in the first episode.
GDT: It’s a very dark, subdued form of humor. It’s not ironic as much as a counterpoint. To me it’s important to have banality interrupt the horror. Like we have in I think episode five or six we have a recording on a cell phone during a horrible scene saying, “Your call is important to us.”
I’m involved in the day to day with the finishing of the episodes. I suggest the music. I can say ‘look, let’s try this.’ In episode four, I wanted music from an Italian funeral once Setrakian goes down, but I ended up thinking it was better to have his heart beat which is there, and it’s just how do you build the soundtrack of the series is important for me.
It’s okay to have fun with this. Not every horror series needs to be a deep meditation about the human condition. You can get there if you want but you can also give the audience license to just have fun. I jokingly called The Strain a refreshing summer gazpacho of brutality because the idea is that we’re ultimately a light, refreshing dish of horror. It’s meant to be a very summer-oriented horror series.
TVF: I’ve definitely found myself giggling as I watch some of the horror. It’s just so fun!
GDT: It has to be. There’s a great line in the novel and another one in the series. One is Setrakian uses a nail gun with silver nails which you already saw in action and Fitz says, “Is it a special weapon you fabricated?” He says, “Home Depot.”
And there’s another one later in the series in the books they fabricate a bomb and Fitz says, “If I didn’t know better I would say this is an egg timer,” and he says, “It is an egg timer.” Because what I think is great is when you bring everyday life, when you bring Neil Diamond to it, when you bring Paddywhack, the little song, to the children’s room… you recognize yourself in it and it’s fun but it’s creepy.
TVF: And you’ve said five seasons max with the TV series.
GDT: Yes. Max. No more.
TVF: What’s your take or philosophy on characters dying? There has been a trend this past season on television where a lot of lead characters have been unexpectedly killed off.
GDT: I think that’s a given in TV now because you can do it in a way that is conducive to the narrative staying alive. When I came to America in the ‘90s and they gave me two rules. Never kill kids, never kill dogs. And I said ‘okay, we’re going to break all of them.’
TVF: You’ve done that already on the show!
GDT: It’s just whenever they say ‘don’t do this,’ I try to do the opposite and I think it’s almost a way to establish with the audience a little bit. This guy you like a lot? He could go. Or this girl that you like a lot? She could go.
TVF: Nobody is safe.
GDT: No. And actually, that’s part of our discussion as the seasons go by.
TVF: In the start of the pilot, the voiceover talks about hunger and love. Do you see those things as competitive with each other or are they more running parallel to each other?
GDT: I emphasize the fun of the episodes because it’s true for me they need to be fun but I also think it’s important that in Eastern European folklore the vampire goes back to the people it loves the most and destroys them first. That is used as a powerful piece of mythology in The Strain. There is a great moment where one vampire comes back and Setrakian says, “You should be flattered. That only means he loved you.”
What I think is great is to use what makes us human to feed the radar of these vampires going back to you. So they go to the people they love the most and destroy them first by instinct because they want to possess them, they want to own them, they want to be with them, they want to become what they’ve become.
TVF: It’s not an act of vengeance. We often think that’s why people get killed, but this is not that.
GDT: No. No. It’s an act of love. No. It basically is the most horrible conception of ‘wish you were here.’ But at the same time, for example, Eph is an addict who has the thirst, he’s a recovering alcoholic, he knows the thirst as well as the vampires do. So that stuff is there if you want to catch it but the main thing in the series is come in, have fun, and watch vampires not be romantic.
The Strain Season 1 airs Sundays at 10/9c on FX.
Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.