Warning: The Strain might not be for everyone.
FX's new vampire drama isn't a melancholy love story about the undead cursed to walk the earth for eternity and forced to hide their true nature. Instead, these vampires are fierce, blood-hungry killing machines with basically one goal: spread the strain of vampirism around the world.
Based on the novels from Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, the horror story follows Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, whose team is called in to investigate a mysterious "dead" plane that lands at JFK. Every passenger, save for four, have mysteriously died from an unknown virus that will soon turn them into vampires — cogs in the ultimate war in which vampires will take over the world.
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For the uninitiated, you might recognize the show from its squeamish posters that feature a worm — which is how the virus spreads — coming out of an eye. Though The Strain has its fair share of stomach-churning moments, executive producer Carlton Cuse stresses that the show isn't too intense for television.
In our in-depth interview below, Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) defends the horror aspects of the show, breaks down how The Strain's vampires are wildly different from the genre norm and discusses the future of the series — although there were three novels, that doesn't mean there will only be three seasons!
The Strain has already made headlines after some found the promos to be a little too grotesque. What does that say about the show? Is it too gross, intense or violent for some viewers?
Carlton Cuse: I don't think so. My biggest concern about the show is that people who aren't horror fans might be afraid to watch it. I think that would be a mistake. I really consider the show to be a thriller with horror elements. While the marketing is really selling the show on the horror axis, there's a lot more to the show than just horror. There's a very rich mosaic of character stories. It's as much a story about the spread of a contagion as it is a monster story. It really is a human thriller as we watch this group of characters in New York as the world is upended by this strain of vampires. I don't think you need to be a horror buff to enjoy this.
Most viewers have a certain expectation about vampires, especially based on recent movies and television shows. But The Strain's vampires are wildly different. What makes these vampires so unique?
Cuse: The vampire genre had moved in a romantic direction in which all vampires were misunderstood, tragic, romantic figures. Vampires turned into people whose love life problems were worse than ours. What really excited me about this project was the possibility of re-staking the claim — no pun intended — that vampires are scary-ass creatures. Embedded in Guillermo and Chuck's book is this idea that the vampires are scary and dangerous. There's nothing romantic about them. These creatures are unique. I give full credit to Guillermo, who I think is one of the great creators of creatures and one of the greatest filmmakers out there.
Talk about some of the physical changes one goes through while in transition to becoming a vampire.
Cuse: You don't want to become one of these sorts of vampires. There's a lot of emphasis placed on the biology of the vampires in the series. Basically, all of your organs are repurposed into something almost like a jet turbine, which is a very efficient mechanical mechanism that sucks in air and fuel and puts out thrust at the back end. These monsters are ruthless feeding machines. They are parasitic creatures. The main distinctive feature is that they develop these six-foot long stingers that shoot out of their mouth and latch onto your body, usually your throat. Then there's a subsystem of the stinger that goes in there and finds an artery and sucks you dry like a fruit box drink. Then, all of the nutrients go to the vampire and all the excrement goes pretty rapidly out the back end in the same way that ticks are basically pooping at the same time that they are feeding. The thing about nature is, nature is beautiful, but also ruthless. These vampires are beautiful in their biological ingenuity and they are extremely ruthless about the way in which they feed and thrive. In feeding, they spread these parasitic worms that infect their victim and pass the vampire strain into them. They are lethal and efficient.
The thing that's also really interesting that distinguishes our vampires is that it's a layered society more like bees than zombies. In most zombie movies, they all do one thing and are not particularly sentient. We have different levels of vampires. We have feeding worker bee vampires, but we also have highly intelligent, skillful, manipulative, sentient and scary vampire leaders, and we have a Master who is behind all of this that's part of a greater vampire mythology. There are these wonderful layers to the vampire side of the story that we'll unfold during the course of the first season.
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Ultimately, the show is about a war between humans and vampires. Talk about the human side of things.
Cuse: We were incredibly fortunate to get Corey Stoll. Corey, Mia Maestro and Sean Astin play these doctors from the Centers for Disease Control. Ephraim Goodweather is an epidemiologist, as is Nora Martinez (Maestro), while Jim Kent (Aston) is the logistics guy for this team. They are a subgroup within the CDC who are a rapid response team that snuffs out diseases before they turn into hot zone problems. They find themselves confronting these weird events that follow the landing of a plane at JFK that is totally dead. There's no communication and they discover 210 people on board, all of whom appear to be dead, but it turns out there are four survivors. All of the efforts to try to contain the situation are met with bureaucratic resistance. Our characters find themselves chasing what turns out to be this virulent epidemic, which turns humans into vampires. Eph is a man of science. It takes a while for him to really believe in what he's actually seeing. Part of my goal as the showrunner was to create a way in which we as the audience would be right in Ephraim Goodweather's shoes and our own skepticism would match his and our belief would grow as his belief grows that these creatures really do exist and this strange epidemic is possible.
Based on the pilot episode, it seems like humans have battled vampires before. So, why have they resurfaced now?
Cuse: That's one of the mysteries that's uncovered during the first season. We understand pretty quickly that one of the richest guys in the world, Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), has basically teamed up with a Master, an ancient vampire, and plays a role in him being transported from Germany to Manhattan [via the plane]. With Palmer's human assistance, he is basically now set free in New York. He's got a plan, but exactly what his plan is and why it's happening now is part of the mystery that unfolds across the first season of the show.
What is the ultimate goal for these vampires? There's a mention in the pilot about purification of the human race. Was that meant to mirror the Holocaust?
Cuse: There are definitely some parallels to what happened under Nazism in Germany. We look back and think, "How is it possible that someone like Hitler came to power?" It's a combination of factors. In some sense, some of those factors have to do with the ways in which humans are susceptible to new leadership. Our show explores some of that thematically, obviously in a much more high-octane and stylized fashion, but we definitely draw those parallels. Clearly, the Master is a highly intelligent creature, as is Palmer, his human partner. What they're up to is something for the audience to discover as the show unfolds.
If vampires are all powerful, how do humans stand a chance?
Cuse: The vampires have limitations. First of all, through most of the first season, there aren't a lot of them. So it's this frustration that we think, "God, if the humans took the right action at the right time, they would be able to wipe them out and there would be no spread and everything would be fine!" But they exploit that inherent human weakness in order to replicate at a rate that gives them ultimately a massive numeric advantage. They have some of the same limitations that other vampires have: Sunlight is not their friend, they're susceptible to being wounded and killed with silver and they are killable. You severe the spinal column of one of these vampires and they're dead. They're not very quick or very nimble when they're first turned. There's a lot of advantages that the humans can exploit. But there's also this horrible ticking clock that's not in the favor of our characters.
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Underneath the whole vampire story line, there's a story of family with Goodweather battling his wife for custody of their son. How do those stories mirror each other?
Cuse: Ephraim Goodweather is this character who has gotten all As in his professional life and flunked his personal life. He finds himself at the beginning of the story at the end of the road in his marriage and in a custody battle for control of his kid. He's trying to sort out what the consequences have been because of the commitment to his work life. His wife and son become important fulcrum characters in the whole battle that he finds himself engaged in with the Master vampire. It's a story line that actually plays out across multiple seasons of the show. It fundamentally changes the character's perspective towards family. I'm being intentionally vague because I don't want to spoil what comes up, but his personal story is an important part of the show. This is not just a straight genre show. We're learning not only about vampires, but a lot about the personal lives of our characters. Hopefully we're going to care about their fate personally as well as whether they will make a dent in this threat of vampires.
How similar will the story be to the novels?
Cuse: The show in the first season follows the spine of the story in the book, but it's a much richer, more detailed and elaborate experience. We turned this one book into 13 hours of television, so it necessitated a lot of additional material, bolstering the material that was there, expanding the character stories, introducing new characters and changing the way certain characters play out in the show, so I don't think there's any chance that if you read the books you would feel bored watching the show. There's a lot that happens in the show that doesn't happen in the books.
What does that mean for the format of the show? Will you only do three seasons?
Cuse: It's definitely a limited series, so it's between three and five seasons. When we get into breaking the season arc for Season 2, we'll have a better sense of how many episodes the show can sustain. When Guillermo and I sold the show, we made it very clear that it was going to be between three and five seasons. There is a general arc to the story as delineated in the three books and we're going to follow that in a general way.
What's really important to viewers in television right now is getting a sense that different shows require different investment. If you watch Person of Interest, you can watch that for 10 years. It has wonderful characters, but they're doing close-ended stories with some ongoing mythology. It has a long lifespan. This is a story that is highly serialized and tells the story of this strain of vampires that overtake New York and ultimately the world. We want to see our characters fight and ultimately overcome this. That's the journey of three books and in between three and five seasons of television. It's heading towards a definitive endpoint.
The Strain premieres Sunday at 10/9c on FX. Will you be watching?
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