We've seen Guillermo del Toro's disgusting vampire monsters in the pasty flesh on the set of his mystery series The Strain. And they were way weirder than we ever imagined, but also gorgeous. This is a unapologetic gross-out monster series with vampires that crap themselves when they eat, but somehow it still manages to be beautiful. Here's what we saw on set.
I had the opportunity to join a small group of journalists in Toronto to witness the filming of Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse's vampire mystery series. It did not disappoint. Like all things GDT, this place was a constant collaboration of horror and beauty. It was an astoundingly elaborate set with so many details, and thankfully I was allowed to take pictures! So here is our exclusive look at the set of The Strain. Minor spoilers ahead.
Here's the basic premise of The Strain: a plane lands at JFK airport and stops completely on the tarmac; it's unresponsive and completely dark. Assuming it's some sort of biological attack, the CDC, lead by main character Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), is sent in to investigate. What they find is an entire cabin full of dead people and a few random survivors. Dr. Goodweather (or Eph as he's called through most of the series) is handed the task of solving this suspected act of terrorism. And, of course, things get wildly out of hand because the threat is vampires—parasitic vampires that infect people with tiny little white worm creatures that infest the host's body and mutate the victim.
And this is where things get interesting. You've got the creeptastic Guillermo del Toro at the monster wheel building terrifying creatures, paired with a main character who is looking for a scientific explanation for everything. This is where our balancing act begins. On one side, you have vampires with a hierarchy. There's a vampire boss named the Master, and he is transported in an elaborate carved coffin. Meanwhile you have a collection of scientists arguing with other about hazmat suits, taking samples, ruling out all possibilities. I haven't seen it yet (and I don't know if it will ever really happen until much farther along), but it will be really exciting to see these two worlds collide.
The balance between the science and the supernatural is what charmed me on The Strain set. And when we sat down with co-showrunner Carlton Cuse (who knows a few things about the melding of the real and unreal), he elaborated on this delicate walk:
"In any kind of storytelling like this, you try to have it rooted enough in reality that the audience willingly suspends their disbelief. Innately, the audience watching this show comes in with a gimme, which is, 'Okay, this is a vampire show. I get it. I'm buying into that. That's what I'm doing.' Still, as a storyteller, you have an obligation to try and bolster that and support it with enough narrative evidence to make it credible.
In the case of The Strain, there's a lot of great stuff in the first book about the biology of the vampire that was really interesting that we do in the series. It's not like these are random stinger shooting vampire creatures. There's a whole biological underpinning to what makes them work and tick. As I said at the TCA's, we've discussed that down elaborately as, 'What organs do they shed? What organs do they create? How like a tick these vampires eat and shit at the same time.' They are rooted in a lot of the same biological constructs as other parasites. All that kind of stuff gets explicated in the show."
The Strain sets have to be one of most detailed fake creations I've ever seen. This vampire mystery series spreads far across New York City, from a family home in Queens, a massive Midtown high-rise apartment, inside the bowels of New York's sewer system, to the most Guillermo del Toro-y looking pawn shop to ever exist in Spanish Harlem. Needless to say, The Strain's sets are elaborate. Here's the rundown of each little world I was permitted to poke around in.
The Eldritch Palmer character is set up as THE richest man in the world. His only fear: death. Played by Jonathan Hyde (the Professor in The Mummy, Bruce Ismay from Titanic) Palmer has a home that is one part doctor's office, one part fortress. In the middle of this sky-high penthouse sits a medical chair. This examining apparatus is Palmer's throne where he sits and wills away his own oncoming death.
It's sterile, clean, dark, and freezing. It's not only cold on set, but Palmer himself and his team of doctors keep it cold in the series. All human characters' breath will be noticeable inside Palmer's 96-story pad, just another fruitless attempt to stave off death. The place is littered with expensive, but no less desperate, endeavors and delaying the inevitable. But nothing is more representative of this obsession than the trophy case of organs that stands just off to the side.
Producer J. Miles Dale alleges that this grotesque collection is actually past-their-prime innards, yanked out of Palmer for a new version. Apparently, this character likes to keep his former organs on display as a reminder that death waits for no one, unless you know a vampire.
When we sat down with Hyde, he revealed that it takes more than three hours for the makeup department to make him "old." And the first time he saw himself made-up in his olden face, he took a photo and sent it to his wife with the text, "This is what you have to look forward to."
Hyde went on to call Palmer a "marvelously single-minded" character, which works as Palmer is what spurs the vampire assault on New York city. Palmer is set up to be the big bad, but in reality, the monster that he brings to NYC is so much worse.
Also inside his lair is this massive art installation, which is just there because it looks amazing. A few folks made references to the constructivist aspect of this creation. But honestly, I think it was just put there to be awesome and look menacing and powerful. No Thomas Kinkade originals for Palmer.
Goth rock star Gabriel Bolivar is one of the few "living" passengers to survive the earlier mentioned plane. And his place is amazing. Guillermo del Toro had a strict "no red" policy on almost all of the The Strain sets. But that rule was lifted for Bolivar's home.
And the result was GOTH; everything else in this world exists in the saturated blue with pops of gold GDT hue, so when you enter Bolivar's lair, it's hard not to imagine blood streaming down the walls. Bolivar would love that, because it works perfectly with his highly manicured, phony goth rock lifestyle.
The entire place is covered in candles, curtains, altars to the macabre and pills. The walls are a shrine to himself with absolutely lovely concert posters. He even has a ridiculous circle mattress, presumably where the rocker takes his fans to worship.
Even the tub is red and copper. It's gorgeous.
But, of course, this is a TV Rockstar! So of course he has to do drugs. And of course he has to take a bunch of pills. Which this show's props department lovingly created and then tossed about his Hot Topic love pad.
It's like GDT let his goth kid off the leash and gave him anything he wanted along with a bucket of red paint.
But hands down, the most interesting set (and the place that's channeling GDT the hardest) is Setrakian's pawn shop. The curiosity cabinets in this Spanish Harlem locale are loaded down with various antiquities and dusty relics. This is where David Bradley's character Abraham Setrakian (more recently known as Walder Frey) works. And by works, I mean goes downstairs to his impressive weapons basement and readies for the war on vampires. Everything is covered in dust, or cracked, and hums that lovely sort of golden GDT glow that the director loves to bathe his many "good" characters in.
But just because Setrakian is a curious old collector that doesn't make him any less of a bad ass. The cane he leans on isn't a walking aid, it's a disguise for a silver sword (for vampires OBVIOUSLY). This is how Setrakian fools you. Adorable pawn shop on the outside, arsenal in the basement. He's not above faking some old person malady to get what he wants. And if all else fails, he'll just break your hand.
This character is integral to the story. And there's no waiting around; Setrakian knows what's coming because he's seen it all before. When we sat down with Bradley to discuss why he got involved in this project, he revealed his interest in working with something outside of the vampire camp club.
"This particular genre I remember seeing a lot of vampire movies when I was a kid with Bella Lugosi and Christopher Lee and all those people, but in a way compared to this they're quite camp. There's a kind of twinkle that they've got in the kind of knowing we know this is ludicrous but with this it's another world but it's got a kind of truth to it and it's all in the quality of the writing."
"And I think what Chuck and Guillermo have done is amazing because they've taken something which clearly works so well in literary form and kind of reinvented it for the screen. Sometimes sacrificing whole scenes and whole situations and some new characters they put in like Eichorst, it's not in the books. And they've obviously they haven't thought well we'll just stick to what we know works in book form and just transplant that onto the screen. They've rethought and re-imagined the whole thing and made it a great kind of dramatic piece of work."
The pawn shop may look old and outdated, but the copious "we buy silver" signs hint at a slightly more awesome angle happening in Setrakian's life. He's buying silver to kill vampires (obviously). Beneath the pawn shop sits a mass of hand-made vampire killing machines and baskets of fancy pawned silver items waiting to be melted down and turned into bullets.
Setrakian is on a mission, and eventually this pawn shop becomes a rallying point for our characters. In one scene I was able to witness, Nora Martinez (Eph's number two at the CDC), Setrakian and rat catcher Vasiliy Fet (played by Kevin Durand) discuss the tunnels of New York and their next plan of attack. Thank goodness David Bradley was cast, because this set is so beautiful it's hard to keep your focus on the characters speaking, but not Bradley. He's got a whole "I've been in the vampire shit" shtick that works.
Perhaps the oddest part of The Strain set is the makeshift press room, which also shares space with a gargantuan reconstruction of the prisoner sleeping quarters from Treblinka (a Nazi extermination camp). An important part of a Setrakian-centric flashback, the life-size barrack was recreated with an astounding attention to detail.
The barrack itself was stuffed with row upon row of wooden bunk beds, each with its own little metal pail. Setrakian is a survivor of the Treblinka. In his youth, Setrakian escaped the extermination camp, which was being run by one of the Master's undead acolytes, Thomas Eichhorst (played by the chilling Richard Sammel).
It was bizarre, and The Strain is certainly not first supernatural title to weave devastating historical instances into the fabric of its mythos. Thankfully, it does feel very different from previous efforts, like witnessing a pair of True Blood characters in SS costumes fight werewolves, or casually giving a fake Anne Frank a lobotomy in American Horror Story—different in the sense that I truly hope this plays out better than it could, because at its heart this is still a show about vampires infesting the sewers of New York.
The Monster Room! If there's one thing Guillermo del Toro does well, it's create monsters. Sadly most of the strigoi (the Romanian term for monster that gets thrown around A LOT on this show) were boxed up and taken to various monster makers' homes because the set that day was "too cold." But there was still plenty to see, cases of pointy vamp parts littered shelves; mangled bodies were stacked on top of mangled bodies.
Small spoiler alert about the vamp transformation: when a human is transformed by the vampire parasite, everything changes. The organs morph in to gigantic, white bulbous things, reproductive parts drop off and the host becomes an entirely new creature. Due to this transformation, a lot of white, Ken-doll downstairs manikins were splayed about under tarps and hiding behind large tables.
But it's not all practical; the biggest distinguishing mark of The Strain creatures is their stinger, which will be added on thanks to CG. This means any functional vampire that wants to strike will lash out with his neck area, and the rest of the cast must just imagine a horrifying stinger crashing their way. It's weird all the actors are kind of flailing their necks about and hissing because the rest will be added after the fact, TV magic!
And the creatures never stop changing. One makeup head shared the cute but probably intensely stressful last-minute GDT decision, "The Master had the nose for the longest time, but then Guillermo del Toro woke up one morning and decided the Master shouldn't have a nose. So the green paint went on, and now the Master kind of has a negative nose." Oh, the monstrous whims of GDT creature making.
Other treats I spied in the makeup room included one gigantic, animatronic Master head and torso, which really sold the epic size of this monster. His grotesque face is three times the size of a human head; it's impressive. Alas, the actual animatronic still hadn't been used yet. This head, coupled with the "Masters Cape" we spied in the costume department made for a massive villain. Also, I would like to note that the cape, true to the books, was being sprayed with bottles marked "piss and sweat." When the vampires eat, they also defecate on themselves. Don't know if this is going to be referenced in the actual show, but at least there's an eye for detail.
All the horror and grime aside, it's the vampire's end goal that really scares the show creators. While discussing the creation of the monsters, Carlton Cuse said he was most taken with the fact that these beasts have some sort of a plan. Then he threw some shade at The Walking Dead.
"For me, the other thing that really was appealing was from a narrative perspective, the force of antagonism is a very layered and complicated one that has an elaborate mythology. As opposed to The Walking Dead for instance, where you just have homogenous zombies, all of whom can do the same thing, they are not controlled by any central intelligence. They don't report to a hierarchy or chain of command. The forces of antagonism in The Strain are wildly different than a show like The Walking Dead. That also, particularly as a storyteller, was really appealing to me that we would be able, in the course of the series, to peel back the onion and see that what we're witnessing with this strain of vampirism is a very layered, complex, mythologically rooted force of antagonism."
He makes a good point. Let's just see if the public will swallow it.
And then there's Corey Stoll. The actor burned the house down on the Netflix series House of Cards and it is very, very exciting to see him get his own series. This is The Strain's secret weapon. The character Eph is a powerhouse of frenetic energy. He's a top-class scientists but a lousy father. Yes, yes we've all seen this before, but you haven't seen Stoll do it. He plays this guy with an amazing disregard for human emotion. Eph is losing his family, so he puts in the required time that would allow him to win them back, but there's no emotion in it. He can't connect, and they bail. It's a new twist to the old failing father TV trope. And Stoll plays him with such glee that you can't take your eyes off of him. On set, Stoll explained that he and GDT had talked about channeling that particular aspect of this character very early on:
"The model that Guillermo kept on referring to was Orson Welles. He was sort of a model for the character. The boy genius who had succeeded in everything in his life, up until when we see him. And then suddenly the guy who went to college early, Rhodes Scholar, was incredibly successful and an idealistic doctor, now that he's maybe not so young… Everything is sort of coming crashing down all at once. And he really doesn't have the skills to deal with failure. That seems like a really fertile ground to play in."
Stoll continued on about the balance of science and supernatural on this show, which he is also keenly aware of, calling The Strain a "hybrid" and "very, very, Guillermo."
"Guillermo is incredibly carnal, and he's really interested in the profane and the physical and the anatomical in a very molecular level. But he's also very interested in the mythological and the spiritual. I think for him, for Guillermo, where those two things meet is where he finds his inspiration. It's actually more interesting that they're both right. That Setrakian, who has lived with the seemingly irrational way that the infection takes over people. And my very rational way of looking at it. Neither of us are 100% right, and I think that makes it more interesting."
And if the public can get past that wig, we're good to go.
For those of you wondering how much The Strain is pulling from its source material, the answer is quite a lot. Heck, the book is only 300 pages and 150 of those pages is basically the pilot, Cuse told us. So not only will most of the book be covered in the series, but the show will absolutely elaborate on different characters and various supernatural world building.
In conclusion, the already ravenous GDT base of fans is going to eat this blue-hued world up. But if The Strain can charm the non-genre crowd, they can make it work. It's a hard thing to sell, but people are hot for the supernatural right now. Plus, as we mentioned before, it's hard to pull your eyes from Stoll when he's on the screen. We need more new horror TV shows that don't have ghosts rattling about inside a torture chamber/insane asylum. Basically, we need something that's smart but still not afraid to be silly, something scary without getting profane. And I think The Strain has the makings of something truly new.
So until Sunday, here are some more pictures I took with my phone!
Full Disclosure: All travel costs were paid for by the studio.