The Strain Debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. on FX and FX Canada
Warning: Graphic Descriptions of Horror and Gore
Guillermo del Toro’s dark, disturbing and highly anticipated thriller offers a new kind of vampire tale and a new kind of vampire that, as del Toro tells us, has been on his mind for a very long time. He knows vampires. Be prepared, del Toro’s descriptions are vivid.
Monsters and Critics – Police procedurals, monsters, murder, gore, blood, pain and death are the backbone of much of our pop culture. Why are we so fascinated by our darkest behaviour?
Guillermo del Toro – We’ve come to the point where socially, as we are mammalian creatures we are territorial, we are built to fight and fend off territorial challenges, reproduce, and sit a sedentary life, you know, ultimately that’s the way we’re socially and animalistically geared, and yet we live in a society that the more it isolates itself from its natural instincts, the more it seeks them in entertainment. And I think there is a vicarious thrill your brain needs, the way your body needs the exercise in a way, your brain needs to be exposed to flight and fight instincts, and you seek it through a roller coaster, or some people seek it through extreme sports, or you can seek it in genres like noir crime, horror, adventure, etc. It’s literally a biochemical mammalian biofeedback with how we are constructed to organize the storytelling in our lives, I think.
Vampires may be the most seductive of the monsters, why?
The genre requires you to cross at some point. It’s almost like a hostage situation, where you need to show an audience that you’re not kidding, you know? You have to show you are going to deliver either by atmospheric, creepy moments, or by visceral punch, hopefully both. You’re going to be able to deliver the goods, the things that will make you feel queasy, will make you feel unsafe, will bring this delightful shiver that is required with the genre.
Your obsession with vampires dates back to boyhood. What was the fascination?
Since I was a very young kid, and a very strange kid. I read about vampire mythology worldwide – the Japanese, Filipino, Malaysian, and Eastern European variations on the vampire, and many, many others. I kept very detailed notes on where to go with the vampire myth in terms of brutality, social structure, biology, this and that, and some of those notes made it into my first feature, Cronos, some of them made it to Blade II and most of them made it into The Strain. And designing them, we knew and we had it very clear that, for example, The Master needed to be hidden for at least half the season or more to not make him that accessible.
How did you create The Master?
I came up with the idea that this guy that has been alive for centuries and essentially is an apex of the Dark Ages in the middle of a world of imminent modernity. You have people with cell phones, jet airplanes, iPads, texting, Internet, all of that, and there is a 9 foot tall, hand carved coffin with a creature that has been alive for centuries. And it’s ancient, and that’s what makes it powerful, that it doesn’t care about any of the modern accoutrements of mankind that gives mankind such a false sense of security.
The Master needed to look that ancient, so we decided that he was going to become his wardrobe and that eventually when he reveals himself you have a second layer. So we designed the wardrobe, the cape and the multiple layers of clothes that are falling apart, because he has an accumulation of clothes over the 1800s, 1900s, 21st century, he’s just accumulating rags, and he needed to look like a lump, like a bunch of rags thrown on the floor, then come alive, and out of all these rags comes out this incredibly glistening and viscerally biological appendage that then drains the first victim. The more you see of him the more you discover layer after layer of that creature design.
How did you see him psychologically?
Well, I knew that the older the vampires stay alive, the older that they stay alive, the more they lose their humanity. They start literally by losing their heart. Their heart is suffocated by a vampire heart that overtakes the functions. And this was important metaphorically for me because the beacon that guides these vampires to their victims is love. Love is what makes them seek their victims. They go to the people they love the most. So they turn their instinct that is most innately human into the most inhuman feeding mechanism, so their heart is dead.
Then shortly thereafter their digestive system is overtaken. Then, as we do in an early episode, their genitals fall off. And their excretion system becomes really, really efficient in the way that ticks, or lower forms of life that feed on blood do, a tick in order to feed needs to evacuate itself, and they are evacuating while they are feeding. And in the series that comes with the big splashes of ammonia infused liquid that they expel while they’re feeding. And then I know that they lose their soft tissue, their ears start falling off, their nose, if they’ve been alive for several years their nose rots and falls away, and they develop a tracheal opening to vent the extra heat from the metabolism and to project the stinger. So, I take a very biological approach. It’s not just, oh, that looks cool. I try to have it make sense biologically in the design. And you notice they lose their hair because their body heat is so big it consumes the fat in the scalp, burns the roots, and they then change color because they lose their red cells.
Speaking of colour, contagion films are generally bleak and washed out. The Strain is the opposite, the colors are saturated.
G. Del Toro I was jokingly calling it “saturated monochrome,” because we have very few colors in the show. We are going for a palette that limits itself to basically cyan and amber in clash with each other, and then they make room for red to exist. And red is only in connection with the vampires. Also if you were channel surfing the show would almost pop out and demand your attention visually. I went for this color palette because the clash in the show, you’re talking about daylight and nighttime, so it’s a clash between gold and blue, night and day and that led me to cyan, which is a color in the spectrum between blue and green. That is the night world and then the amber, the day world is clashing.
Every time you see red, with the exception of a police siren or a fire extinguisher, something causally of the real world, you know it’s linked in some way to the vampires. So, some of the characters that are going to turn in the pilot are coded from the beginning to have a little bit of red, telegraphing to at least me that they were linked to that world.