The week he started filming on his FX show “The Strain,” filmmaker Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," "Pacific Rim") received the best phone call he’d ever gotten from anyone in a position in power in Hollywood. It was from John Landgraf, the station’s CEO.
“He said, ‘Look, I want you to know we encourage creators to be as wild and as free and as daring as they need to be. I want you to know this before you start shooting so you can feel the absolute freedom to do this,’” del Toro recalls. “I have never gotten that phone call! I’ve gotten that phone call on my Spanish movies, but never on a Hollywood project.”
TV might seem an odd place for del Toro, especially since “The Strain” is a sometimes gory mash-up of the vampire movie, the pandemic saga and the CSI-style procedural. In it, an old, odd strain of vampirism infects a flight, killing most but leaving a handful alive to quickly spread the virus around New York City and beyond.
The vampires aren’t kind to their victims. In the first episode, one gets his head smashed like a watermelon — the kind of sight usually exclusive to premium cable. “They were never any creative restrictions,” del Toro says, laughing. “We needed to show the vampire were very brutal in their feeding. They are not romantic vampires. They’re vicious parasites.”
Originally del Toro pitched “The Strain” pitched the strain to Fox back in 2006, but things didn’t work out. So del Toro and his co-writer Chuck Hogan wrote it as a trilogy of books. While writing, they never imagined it becoming a TV show, nor a movie.
“I make movies and I know that a lot of the places we wanted to take [‘The Strain’] would be very restricted creatively if we had a huge investment behind it,” del Toro says. He cites as one thing that would never fly in the movies is one infected character, a rock star, whose biological mutation costs him his genitals, effectively turning him into a Ken doll. “That would be a hard sell to the studios.”
Only the first episode is directed by del Toro, who was also directing his latest movie, “Crimson Peak,” a psychological horror with Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston. But he monitors every aspect of production, including the most acclaimed aspect of his work: creature design. People mutate after they've become infected. The main vampire, called The Master, doesn’t look like a traditional bloodsucker but rather keeps changing over the show, growing weirder and weirder.
“Ever since I can remember I have always been in love with monsters,” he says. “I was barely able to speak and I was already talking about monsters and vampires. It really is something I think about all the time. It’s just the way I swing.”
“The Strain” is also del Toro’s first foray into TV since his pre-film days, when he cut his teeth on Mexican television. Doing the show is also reminiscent for him of his early low budget films, like “Chronos.”
“For me the challenge was going back to a tighter schedule," he says. "It was like going to the gym. You go back and discover you have muscles you haven’t used in awhile.”
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