Exclusive interview: Blood Drive creator James Roland on his grindhouse inspirations for the Syfy series

A bloodied Grace d’Argento standing with her car behind her, a long blade in her hand and with two men on the ground in front of her
Blood Drive’s lead driver Grace d’Argento feeds two low-lifes to her hungry car

Later tonight Syfy debuts perhaps one of its most unusual project to date in the form of Blood Drive.

The series, which is the brainchild of Weeds writer James Roland, is perhaps the first time we have seen grindhouse-style storytelling adapted for television.

We caught up with James to ask him about some of his inspirations for the series as well as future ideas.

Monsters & Critics: Having looked at some of your past writing credits as a television writer, it looks like Blood Drive is somewhat of a break from the norm for you. What made you want to do a grindhouse-style television series?

James Roland: I had a great boss (Mark Burley from Weeds and Orange is the New Black) who encouraged me to enter a contest for fake grindhouse-style trailers.

I had three ideas, and one of them was Blood Drive. But I couldn’t figure out how to make the blood engine for no money, so we shot my second idea instead. It was called Butt Spiders…it was as good as that title suggests.

But some friends kept asking when was I going to write Blood Drive so we could shoot it out in the desert around Los Angeles. They literally bugged me about it for years.

Originally it was a cheap movie idea and the main characters would be Domi and Cliff, who appear briefly in the pilot but have a lot more screen time in Episode 3.

So when I got a manager, he asked me what ideas I had. I pitched him Blood Drive on a whim specifically because it WAS so different from what I was writing at the time, which was more grounded science fiction and horror stuff.

I wanted to snag his attention, and it worked, because he lit up, pointed at me and said “I can sell that!” and he did. Holy s**t did he — the project had a life of its own.

M&C: Grindhouse has had somewhat of a comeback in recent years. So with that in mind, what grindhouse movies other than the obvious did you look at as part of your process of creating Blood Drive?

JR: The obvious ones are of course Grindhouse, Mad Max — the first one in particular — and Death Race 2000. I think everyone commented about those as soon as they saw the first trailer.

But I also have this weird obsession with Galaxy of Terror. It’s a terrible movie that I’ve watched at least three times. There is this weird fever dream quality to it, and honestly great production design from James Cameron.

The movie makes no sense, but is mesmerizing, and I wanted to incorporate that vibe into the darker, weirder parts of the show.

When I recommend that movie to people I warn them to only watch about 20 minutes to get a taste of what it’s like, but they watch all of it and then get mad at me like it’s my fault.

Also Phantasm was a big influence. The dreamlike quality to the narrative and the scares, the way it surprises you at every turn.

God I love Phantasm. And while it’s not strictly a grindhouse movie, it’s — in my opinion – the heir apparent to grindhouse because it’s dark, weird, unsettling, and made outside the studio system.

Both those movies heavily influenced the “evil company” parts of the show, but as for the car-racing part of the show it was three movies: Vanishing Point, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, and Wake in Fright.

Vanishing Point for obvious reasons. But Wake in Fright for the hot, sweaty weird vibe and enormous character arc for its lead character.

Live Like a Cop definitely influenced our tone in terms of humor. It treats its very silly moments with complete seriousness, which is my favorite kind of humor.

M&C: In Blood Drive you have a great mix of characters and, four episodes in, I can already see signs of some development for your leads as well as the villain of the piece. Without spoiling things too much for the many that haven’t seen the show yet, would you mind talking about some of your characters?

JR: Once the show has moved on from script form you really can’t talk about the characters without talking about the actors.

Arthur Bailey was written as a “Ken Doll cop” from the very first draft. The idea was to take someone clean and beautiful and pure and really f**k him up.

Arthur Bailey and Grace in a car with flames behind them
Arthur Bailey the “Ken Doll cop” riding shotgun while Grace is at the wheel

His last name is Bailey as a nod to George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, because I wanted to see what happens when you throw a Frank Capra character into a Roger Corman movie.

When we met Alan Ritchson it was apparent that he got the vibe of the show immediately. The humor is about 80 per cent character-based, despite the ridiculous scenarios we throw our characters into, and he just knocked that out of the park.

Plus he had the chance early on to see the scripts — which were finished by the time we were casting — so he could really dig into the character arc we had laid out for him and plant little seeds early on that helped to sell his actions later in the show.

It’s brilliant work, because while Arthur’s True Blue morality is what keeps the show from being just a bunch of psychos running around being nutty, it’s also important that his character evolution feels grounded in a psychology that was there all along, so his choices later in the story don’t seem out of nowhere.

Alan freaking nailed it.

Grace d’Argento was always going to be the femme fatale with a secret which gave her some character depth, but as the story progressed she really became the heart of the show in a lot of ways.

So it was amazing — and really lucky — to find Christina Ochoa. At the time she was really just making a name for herself with Animal Kingdom and now she’s freaking on FIRE with Valor going into production as well.

There’s a reason for that: she’s about the hardest working actor I’ve met and super smart.

She had a book she carried around that was basically a journal from Grace’s point of view and she had ideas about her backstory which were eerily similar to what I had come up with.

As the story progresses, Grace kind of has the opposite character arc from Arthur. Where he is constantly fighting the desire to take the easy path and use violence to survive the race, Grace is already fine with chucking dirtbags into her engine.

But we learn she’s got an emotional motivation for entering the Blood Drive, and when you have a capacity for emotion and empathy can you really play the killer forever?

That’s the crux of her character journey and Christina managed to play both parts of her internal dilemma in every scene.

After you watch all of Season 1, go back and watch little choices she makes in the pilot, especially in the scene with the cheerleaders on the side of the road, and you’ll see the complexities of Grace were there the whole time. It’s beautiful, subtle work.

Julian Slink was a dream to write, and Colin Cunningham brought an intensity and intense depth to the role that I never dreamed possible.

On the surface, Slink is kind of this Hot Topic dandy, all about presentation and flair and putting on a show.

But he can turn on you in a second and prove to be extremely dangerous and almost impossible to kill.

We always described Slink as king of this Other Thing, he exists outside of humanity, out of time, out of morality.

He’s always one step ahead, he’s like a cat and the racers are his mice which he’s just playing with but can kill at any time if they start to bore him.

On the flip side, Slink is beholden to the company which pays for his race, which is what I think makes him such an interesting character.

He’s a very powerful villain, but his weakness is his passion for the race which someone else pays for so he has to play nice with them.

Colin managed to balance the pageantry, the villainy, and the desperate desire to be loved and accepted which make up the complex psychology of Slink, and in doing so I think he created one of the best performances of his career — and that’s saying something.

Christopher Carpenter and Aki are the most surprising characters to me. Early in the writing process they were so simple and a bit generic if I’m being honest, but they quickly evolved into something really weird and special.

Aki had the interesting aspect of being a sex robot who — thanks to a glitch in her coding — became sentient. There’s a lot to play with there.

Aki's face as she looks at Christopher Carpenter
Malfuctioning sex-bot Aki takes some delight in torturing her prey, Arthur Bailey’s partner Christopher Carpenter

With Christopher he was just kind of an everyman. But we found something a lot more interesting as we kept writing scenes of them together and eventually Christopher developed into one of my favorite characters after we got the actors involved.

We hired Marama Corlett and Thomas Dominique off of audition tapes while we were in pre-production in South Africa and once we saw what they were bringing to these characters it effected all of the re-writes during the filming process.

We discovered Marama’s capacity for bringing bizarro humanity to a robot character and Thomas’s inherent charm and hilariously innocent reactions to all of the nasty weirdness that Aki puts him through, and out of that magic was born.

Casting is alchemy, it can create something from nothing or destroy something that works great on the page.

In this case, we really found something that far exceeded what was in the scripts in my opinion. Their weird, twisted love story is one of my favorite parts of the show.

I could go on and on about all the other characters that have four or five episode arcs. They’re all amazing and totally committed to their roles. We got so lucky with amazing actors.

M&C: An obvious movie that I link Blood Drive back to is the original Death Race 2000 where the drivers got awarded extra points for mowing down pensioners. Are there any similar rules to this in Blood Drive, aside from the obvious fuel source for the cars?

JR: In early drafts there were a lot more rules, but they kind of fell by the wayside as the story progressed.

In the pilot, Grace mentions “points for extra carnage” and that was a reference to something we called “Carnage Points” where racers got bonuses for hurting people in weird, creative ways.

But in the end we found keeping it simple worked better for the show. If you’re last, you’re fuel. End of story.

But if you listen closely to Slink’s monologue in the first episode you’ll catch a few more rules that explain why certain characters don’t appear in every episode.

M&C: As far as the wider story goes. There is an obvious arc for the first season. Have you any plans for the show should it be fortunate enough to get a second season?

JR: The show was always envisioned as a weird blend of serialized storytelling and anthology.

Basically, we treat seasons like sequels where external details change but certain characters carry through — and of course keeping all the fun grindhouse violence and the genre-per-episode conceit.

That’s why it’s called “Midnight Grindhouse Presents Blood Drive” because ultimately it’s Midnight Grindhouse which is the real connective tissue.

Not just for multiple seasons but spin-offs and stand-alone TV movies in between seasons.

That was the vision and scope of the Blood Drive world, let’s see if Syfy wants to make it happen!

If you love the show then hit them up on Twitter and stuff, let them know you want more.

M&C: I’d love to see a guest stint from Danny Trejo in this series, but being a realist I know that would be a difficult ask. So with that in mind, do you have a wish list of actors that you’d like to see on the series. If so who and what do you think they’d bring to it?

JR: I’d love to work with him, oh man! But honestly, no I don’t have a big wish list.

Some of the characters in Season 1 were written for particular actors who couldn’t do it for one reason or another.

At first that’s scary because you have such a clear picture in your head of what they should be like. But because those actors didn’t work out we found other amazing actors and now I can’t imagine anyone else in those parts.

So I’m open to anything, although I do have a few fun cameos in mind for down the road, assuming we can convince them to do it. *cough* NicolasCageAsSuperVillain *cough*.

M&C: Finally, having done Blood Drive for Syfy, do you have any other genre projects that you’d like to have happen at some stage in future should Syfy look for something else from you?

JR: Oh hell yeah. When this show took off I was literally mid key-stroke on a story I’m dying to tell, set in Texas but 500 years in the future.

And another that’s set in Wisconsin in 1992 that’s basically a love letter to those great ‘80s and ‘90s horror movies we all watched on VHS in our basement TV room.

Can’t wait to finish those, but in the meantime I’m happy to go wherever Blood Drive takes me!

Blood Drive premieres tonight at 10/9c on Syfy.

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