Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse talk about new FX series “The Strain”

“The Strain” is a novel, which spawned a trilogy from Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, which also are co-creators, executive producers and writers for the new limited series on FX. Emmy® Award winning Writer and Producer Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) is serving as Executive Producer/Showrunner and Writer.

“The Strain” is a high concept thriller that tells the story of “Dr. Ephraim Goodweather,” the head of the Center for Disease Control Canary Team in New York City. He and his team are called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism. As the strain spreads, Eph, his team, and an assembly of everyday New Yorkers, wage war for the fate of humanity itself.

Media Mikes had a chance to chat with The Strain’s Co-Creator / Executive Producer / Director Guillermo del Toro and Show Runner / Executive Producer / Writer Carlton Cuse  about the new series and what we can expect.

Carlton, tell us how you first got involved in this project?
Carlton Cuse: I had read the first Strain novel as a fan of both Guillermo’s work, and also independently I knew Chuck Hogan, and so I was very curious to see what this collaboration would look like. And I was just intrigued by the subject matter. I had read the first novel when it came out in 2009 and really enjoyed it, and then basically about two years ago my agent called me up and said that there was some interest in doing The Strain as a television series and would I be interested in it. I went and met with Guillermo and I had a really good meeting, and I basically decided to get involved, for two reasons. One, because I had a lot of respect for Guillermo as a filmmaker and I thought, particularly in a monster show like this, that he’s one of the most imaginative guys out there in terms of creating creatures and worlds. And I also thought that embedded in the book was this fantastic opportunity to upend the vampire genre, as the vampire genre has sort of been overrun by romance, and that we had had our fill of vampires that we’re feeling sorry for because they had romantic problems. And it was time to go back to the conception of vampires as really scary, dangerous creatures, and in so doing that there was a way to kind of make a genre show that would be different than anything that was out there on the TV landscape.

Being a fan of the book series; what is your plan to incorporate the sequels into the series?
CC: Book one is season one, yes. We basically follow the narrative of the first book in the first season. The plan is that the show will run somewhere between three and five seasons, and as we work out the mythology and the storytelling for season two we’ll have a better idea of exactly how long our journey is going to be. But it won’t be more than five seasons, we’re definitely writing to an endpoint, and we’re following the path as established in Guillermo and Chuck’s novels. But obviously there’s a lot that’s also going to be added. The television show is its own experience, and there are new characters and new situations, different dramatic developments, so the show and the book can each be separately enjoyed. I think that the goal is not to literally translate the book into a television show. You want to take the book as a source of inspiration and then make the best possible television show that you can make. And I think Guillermo, Chuck, myself, all of us involved have basically said, okay, here’s the book, now how do we take the best stuff in here and then use that as elements and then make the best TV show we can. But we view the TV show as its own creation.

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Guillermo del Toro: It was very clear from the start that we had the three books to plunder, but we also had the chance of inventing. We talked about milestones, that we want the milestones and the characters that are in the book to be hit, but with that it became very malleable. Carlton decided, I think very wisely in retrospect, it made perfect sense as a game plan to, for example, leave the origins of The Master, which we opened book one with for a second season, if we go that way, and, for example, bringing a set piece from book two to bookend the story of one character on season one. So, it’s a very elastic relationship that the series has with the book, but by that same token it’s very respectful and mindful of the things that will not alienate someone that likes the books. It should feel as seamless. And I think the decisions we have to understand when Carlton is guiding us through this new medium for the story, to trust and know that his decisions are guided by huge experience and a prestigious career.

Guillermo, how was the transition from feature films to cable television?
GDT: The transition came from both Chuck and I, it was very smooth in many ways because we had the chance to adapt the novels to comic book form with Dark Horse. And coming in we really sought Carlton’s guidance into this new form. I think there never has been an occasion in which our dialogue has seen anyone read the books and say, “This is not the way it’s in the books.” So that much was very satisfactory. For me as a producer and director, it was about having some of the quirks that come from a feature film. I asked FX to give us a long pre-production period so I could really plan out the makeup effects, the creature effects, the visual effects, all of which I have big experience with, in order to try to bring to the pilot a big scope feel to the series doing sophisticated effects and some set pieces, while staying on a fiscally responsible budget and managing. And from a director’s point of view it was the same on the pilot. I didn’t want to go back and say, can I get one day more? Can I do many extra hours? I wanted to fit in the sandbox what I was hoping would feel like a big pilot episode for a big series. And that pre-planning was crucial, but also adjusting the way I staged, the way I approach coverage, or storytelling, and yet not sacrificing anything. It was both some fiscal constraints, but creative absolute freedom, which was a huge thrill for me to get a phone call from John Landgraf before starting the series, saying to me, “We encourage creator content, we love Carlton, we love you, and we want you guys to do the most idiosyncratic, best version of the series that you can.”

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Can you tell us about the decision to do this as a limited series?
CC: I think that we’re moving into this new phase of television where I think audiences are really embracing stories with a beginning, middle, and end. And if you look at the success this season, for instance, of True Detective and Fargo, as well as the kind of incredible response that the end of Breaking Bad got, I think that you have to recognize that the audience wants to see stories that come to a conclusion. They want the full and rounded experience. And television has been sort of a first act and sort of an endless second act, and I think that the best television now is giving you a three act experience. And I think that that’s what we want to do with our show.
GDT: I agree with Carlton. I think one of the things that we made essential when we pitched the series everywhere, and certainly at FX, is we came in and we said we are not going to be extending beyond the—we presented two arcs, one that can fulfill three or four seasons, and hopefully the second or third book are complex enough that they can generate a fifth one. But we literally said it needs to end when it needs to end, and that was a central part of finding a home for the series.

Can you talk about the creature development for this show?
Yes. I’ve been obsessed by vampires for a long, long time, since I was a very young kid, and a very strange kid. I read about vampire mythology worldwide and I familiarized myself with the Japanese, Filipino, Malaysian, and Eastern European variations on the vampire, and many, many others. And I kept very detailed notes as a kid 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 in Blade II, when I directed that, 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. 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 in the middle of it 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. And 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. And that’s the way we started guiding the process of designing The Master. And the more we go into the season, the more you see of him and the more you discover layer after layer of that creature design.

What about FX made you decide the network was the right place for The Strain?
GDT: We had a fantastic first meeting, if I may say so. We had an incredible meeting in which the very head of the network and everybody in that room knew patently well and intimately the three books. And yet they were excited by Carlton, they were excited by the possibility of not just doing the books but where would Carlton take it as a show runner, they were excited about, okay, that’s the universe, but we see many more possibilities than that. That made it very unique in our eyes. And they celebrated the aspects of the series that were edgier, or less of a kind that we have seen before. The other thing for me that was unique is I’m a follower of the brand, I’m a big FX fan, and they give you time to find your footing. They give you time to establish, especially in a genre like this, you know you cannot just do everything at once, reinvent everything at once. You either reinvent the characters in a genre story, or you reinvent the generic traits with characters that you’re able to place in the normal canon of the genre and then little by little evolve those characters, and that needs time. And FX has been known to be supportive of series that find their footing and creatively allow them to explore anything from characters you’ve seen before that then transform into things that are new, or concepts that are very new that go to daring places. So, it made it a unique place for the show.

CC: I would just add to everything that Guillermo said, that again we were presenting them with a very specific business model about how we wanted to approach the show, that we wanted to have the show last between three and five seasons, that we needed them to spend a bunch of money up front to do the R&D and the work that was necessary to do the world building for our show, and they would have to spend money up front on writing a bunch of scripts. And they jumped in wholeheartedly and they embraced the way in which we wanted to produce the show, as well as our creative vision, and we felt incredible confidence coming out of our meetings with them that they were the exact right partners for us.

Interview with Reggie Bannister

Bannister is known for his four barrel shotgun and his Hemi Cuda from the Phantasm series in which he starred alongside A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury and Angus Scrimm. Reggie is a talented musician and has released two albums, he has a track in “Phantasm IV: Oblivion”

I was able to get a chance to ask Reggie a few questions about his career, what he is up to now and what’s happening in the future:

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Mike Gencarelli: I know you have released two albums, “Fool’s Paradise” & “The Naked Truth”. Have you always been involved with music?

Reggie Bannister: From the time I could talk intelligently, about 3yrs old I think, if asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say, “I wanna’ be a singer, an actor and a politician.” I sang and practiced an instrument first (actually it was a trumpet since my brother also played) and then I was in my Thanksgiving school play at about 8yrs old in the fourth grade I think. I sang in school choruses, choirs and special groups like barbershop, gospel choruses, Madrigals etc. from middle school through Jr. College. At the same time I worked in community theater and high school and college theater arts programs. I was really fortunate to have grown up at a time when those excellent programs existed in the public school system with instructors that were or had been professional entertainers free for nothin’. Folk music came along in the early ’60s and I picked up guitar and played in coffee houses in the SoCal scene…what a great time for music. I started off solo and then got together with a friend of my dads’ son by the name of Tom Robbins (actor Tim Robbins uncle) If you’re really interested in musical history Tom’s brother was Gill Robbins, founding member of the “Highwaymen” who already had a big hit with a folk tune called “Them Cotton Fields Back Home.” Tom and I put a trio together that we called the “Port Town Three” since we were all from Long Beach Ca. third largest port in the world. Oh yeah, in between my solo gigs and my thing with Tom I tried out for and became a founding member of the “Young Americans” and was very shortly working with Bing Crosby on one of his network specials. That was the first of numerous appearances on local and network TV as Tom and I became members of a group called “The Greenwood County Singers.” We toured all over the country and appeared on a Red Skeleton special, we appeared on “The Hollywood Palace” hosted by George Burns…we played local TV stuff with Stevie Wonder and did the network show “Hullaballoo” with the “Rolling Stones” and “Sonny And Cher.” The ‘Greewoods” made four albums with a single in the Billboard top ten or twenty with each album.

Mike Gencarelli: What happened to your band, Reggie B & The Jizz Wailin’ Ya’ Doggies? Did they merge into “The Reggie Bannister Band” for your latest album?

Reggie Bannister: There was a guy named Terry Svejda who lived in Plano Illinois who was eager to record me and convinced me to go to Chicago Land and record the album. When I showed up in Chicago in ’95, I had no band and no studio but the first place Terry took me to was a joint called “Riley’s Rock House” in Aurora. It was an open mic night and as I was sipping my gin and tonic I watched a rock trio take the stage minus a singer just instrumental stuff…they blew me away! When they finished their set I went backstage and hired ’em. We had to wait several weeks for Doug Agee (Alpha Sound) to finish putting his studio together in Geneva which gave me time to write some more tunes and rehearse with the band, Doug Hakes (guitar), Joseph Corzine (bass) and Jeff Kissel (drums). We got the album out in early ’96 and I wanted to take the band out on tour but the guys didn’t trust the guy who wanted to book us so I just came back to Ca. and resumed life in film.

The “Reggie Bannister Band” came about because of a phone call from a guy named Mike Scarfo, a great drummer and club owner in Pittsburgh (the Smiling Moose), who asked me to come out and play some music in his club…sounded like fun so I went. I met Paul Miser when I got there, one of the greatest bassists I’ve ever played with and so I hung out, then I went back and we recorded the nine tracks for the album “Naked Truth.”

Mike Gencarelli: Is there a possibility of a tour for “The Reggie Bannister Band”, perhaps on the East Coast? and future albums?

Reggie Bannister: No tour per se but we always offer up the band for my convention appearances around the country so we’ve performed quite a bit over the last couple years.

MG: The question you’ve probably heard a hundred times, how do you feel about coming back for another Phantasm film and what do you think the chances are that it will ever happen?

RB: Feelin’ good about it…keep fingers and everything else you’ve got doubles of crossed, eyes, tits, balls (‘specially balls), etc…..

MG: I read that there was a table reading for a sequel to Phantasm done a while ago with added special effects, do you think that will ever be released in any form?

RB: We did that! It was a lot-o-fun! Got together with everybody and just had a great night of it. It was really kind of just for fun but ‘ya know it’ll find light eventually.

MG: What is your feeling about Hollywood remaking every movie under the sun? If Phantasm was every remade, would you be behind it?

RB: Well, I never understood the remake of “Psycho” for instance. It’s like the master has spoken…isn’t it kind of rude not to sit in awe after that utterance? Guess somebody felt they waited long enough or…maybe it was the just money? Whatever, I can’t think of a remake I liked better than the original picture though I’ve seen some decent ones. I don’t think “Phantasm,” the original story, should ever be remade but I do think that variations on the theme will always be appropriate.

MG: If you had to choose any actor that you would want to work with, who would it be?

RB: Ahh man… I don’t really have space. Nicholson, Walken, Streep, Jeff Bridges, Don Cheadle man I don’t know…already worked with Chris Pine, John Hawkes, Lynn Shey, Robert Pine, Katheryn Keener, Dermot Mulrony, Lance Hendriksen, Ossie Davis, Bruce Campbell, shit!…just love working with pros.

MG: I know you did some assistant directing work on your some of your latest films, such as “The Quiet Ones”, “Carnies” & “Sigma Die!”, Do you ever see yourself taking the director helm?

RB: Directing is a total life commitment. You’d better be willing to give a project 100% of your time for the next 2 to 4 years of your life. I’ve actually known some people who’ve given more time than that to get their project completed…so, yeah, if something comes along that means that much to me I’ll absolutely do it.

MG: Your wife, Gigi Fast Elk Bannister, works with make-up & special effects on many films, have you ever helped her with that work?

RB: Yeah, there have actually been several times I’ve helped out. Gigi’s SFX are awesome and it’s really fun for me to help her put that stuff together. There have been times when a director would shoot my character out and for the rest of the shoot I’d be Gigi’s SFX assistant. Than again since I’ve had a lot of experience with stunt work, I’ve been able to direct the stunts that usually accompanie the SFX gags. She’s got some incredible tricks up her sleeve and it’s always terrific to see the end results.

MG: Do you enjoy doing conventions and getting the chance to meet your fans? What is the strangest fan experience you’ve had?

RB: Conventions are a lot like family reunions. People wouldn’t be talking to you if they didn’t feel like they already know you. We all have the films and music in common. If there’s a strange fan it’s really like dealing with your uncle Ted or cousin Billy. They may be odd but you love ’em anyway. No one has ever gotten really out of control with me…probably afraid I’d kick their ass.

MG: Do you have any exciting new projects that you are working on in the near future that you would like to discuss?

RB: Yeah, but there’s some stuff I can’t really talk about. There are some pictures coming out this year that I think are worthy of attention. One is called “Walking Distance” directed by Mel House, the cast includes Adrienne King and Glenn Mourshower. There’s one called “Satan Hates You” with Angus Scrimm, Larry Fessendon and Debbie Rochon. There’s a picture that we worked very closely with production wise called “Small Town Saturday Night.” Directed by Ryan Craig with one of the most incredible casts I’ve ever had the the pleasure of working with. It stars Chris Pine, his father Robert Pine is in it…Lynn Shey, John Hawkes, Muse Watson…go to the site it’ll blow your mind.

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