‘The Strain’: Del Toro and the new face of the apocalypse
TORONTO — The forecast insisted that the latest in a series of punishing winter storms was due to descend on Toronto in a matter of hours, but the sky hovering over the cast and crew of FX’s new vampire series, “The Strain,” was nothing but a blanket of pristine blue.
The sunlight might have cheered the locals who had endured more than one Polar Vortex event — yet it was dampening the spirits of the behind-the-scenes team attempting to film a vampire attack that was supposed to be taking place during an eclipse.
On a clear and cold Friday, technicians attempted to create enough shade for the sequence by maneuvering a giant black tarpaulin at the entrance to a narrow alleyway, with mixed results. Miguel Gomez, the actor who plays the show’s streetwise Gus Elizalde, was gamely wrestling with an undead foe, landing some killer blows with a prop pipe, but the shadows weren’t falling in their favor.
Turns out, sunlight really is the vampire’s greatest enemy.
“The Strain,” which premieres July 13, arrives as FX’s entry into the arena of marquee genre television that has proved such a tremendous boon to the network’s rivals AMC and HBO with their respective series “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” And much like “Walking Dead,” which has achieved staggering mainstream popularity with its gruesome vision of the end of the world, “The Strain” centers on an apocalypse triggered by monsters.
Emphasis on the monster. With their shock white skin, bald heads and talons, not to mention the sharp, retractable stinger used to attack their victims, these vampires are more closely related to Max Schreck’s Count Orlak from the German Expressionist classic “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” than the sexy, brooding blood-drinkers from “True Blood” or “The Vampire Diaries.”
“They’re vermin, basically,” said British actor David Bradley, who portrays Abraham Setrakian, the gentleman scholar who functions as the story’s Van Helsing.
“The Strain” is the brainchild of Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Pacific Rim”), whose interest in bringing vampires to the screen dates to his 1993 feature film debut. That Spanish-language indie, “Cronos,” relocated classic mythology to a modern middle-class home in Mexico and centered on the tender relationship between a young girl and her grandfather.
In “The Strain,” the story centers on a father and son. Actor Corey Stoll plays Centers for Disease Control specialist Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a canny scientist more skilled at his career than at parenting his 10-year-old Zach (Ben Hyland) — the pair previously played father and son on Netflix’s political drama “House of Cards,” which featured Stoll as troubled Pennsylvania Sen. Peter Russo.
“I think my whole life I’ve been cast as people who were either the good guy who isn’t quite all good or the bad guy who isn’t entirely evil,” said Stoll, who isn’t immediately recognizable in the salt-and-pepper wig he wears for the role.
“The Strain” is adapted from a New York-set trilogy of books Del Toro wrote with crime author Chuck Hogan — 2009’s” The Strain,” 2010’s “The Fall,” 2011’s “The Night Eternal” — but the concept was, from the start, intended for TV. Del Toro pitched the project to Fox about a decade ago, but executives were interested in a lighter approach.
“They said, ‘Can you turn it into a comedy?'” Del Toro recalled. “I said no.”
Fast forward to present day when the apocalypse is all the rage in entertainment, and the concept found an enthusiastic backer in FX, which has enjoyed success with series with bite, such as the modern-day Western “Justified,” and the biker-gang drama “Sons of Anarchy.”
Del Toro shot the $9-million pilot for “The Strain” last year in Toronto working from a script he co-wrote with Hogan.
“The thing I wanted to do in ‘The Strain,’ you can actually see this world collapse in a week,” Del Toro said. “If the circumstances are right, the world could collapse in a week. If we lose all our digital and all our electronics and the right acts of terror occur, the world could collapse very fast.”
(Del Toro retains approval over the show’s special effects and remains creatively involved in the overall vision for “The Strain,” but Carlton Cuse, of “Lost” fame, serves as show runner.)
The end of the world begins when a 747 lands on a JFK tarmac entirely without power; all the passengers on board appear to have died suddenly but peacefully. Stoll’s Eph and his partner Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) are called in to investigate.
Meanwhile, across the city, in the basement of his Harlem pawnshop, Knickerbocker Loans and Curios, Setrakian watches the scene unfold on television, realizing at once that an ancient evil called the Master has set his sights on Manhattan.
“When [Guillermo] told me about the character, that someone of my age could play an action hero … it sounded so exciting,” Bradley said, adding that Setrakian is nevertheless plagued by doubt. “He’s full of fear. He does some pretty ruthless things in the name of doing the ultimate good.”
Although “The Strain” has the makings of a hit — popular source material, a fan-favorite creator, impressive production values and a supportive promotional push from FX ahead of its 13-episode first-season rollout — several questions remain: Chiefly, is there an appetite for another high-concept series dealing with apocalyptic concerns? And at this point in their endless lifespan, can vampires still attract audiences?
Del Toro believes so.
“It’s very hard to make people believe in the supernatural, including vampires, but if you ask anyone about a pandemic, they get almost superstitious about it,” he said. “You can scare people by saying there’s a viral threat, they put paper masks on — it’s almost like a spiritual fear of contagion. So it was a good way to treat the vampires.”
Even if “The Strain” becomes a breakout hit, its run will be confined to five or possibly six seasons, according to Del Toro. The idea is for the series to adhere closely to the narrative that unfolds in the books, to have it follow the same arc and reach the same end point.
But that’s not to say there won’t be surprises along the way.
Either way, Gomez, the former boxer who earned early career praise for his roles in the 2013 indie film “Bless Me, Ultima” and for a turn on the FX comedy “Louie,” said he’s committed for the long haul.
A huge fan of Del Toro’s before he was cast on the show, Gomez welcomed the opportunity to bring more depth and nuance to the unfailingly tough Gus.
“Guillermo, he shows the human side of someone from the street,” Gomez said. “He’s just not a bad ass for no reason, this gangster for no reason. He shows the human side of him, the loyalty, the love, the reason why he looks that way. Shaving his head, the earrings, the necklace, that’s his battle armor. That’s his shield out there in the streets.”
Back in that alley, Gomez appeared to need the armor — the vampire he was facing off against already had landed one or two key blows. But Gus wasn’t so easily defeated.
“In the street you deal with vampires and zombies all the time, you know what I mean?” the actor said. “Essentially a vampire or a zombie, all it is is someone who doesn’t care anymore about life, a crack head or people who are on trial that might do life in jail. All the rules are out the window. It’s just about what they want in that moment.
“What’s so good about this story is this conflict, this battle between good and evil,” he added. “It’s not scary to scare you for no reason. There’s a purpose behind it.”
— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex
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