The pilot announces, in slightly too jolly an inflection, that we’re going to have a “bumpy descent” into Toronto, which my body takes as a cue to begin sweating. Luckily, we do not die, because death from plane crash seems frustrating. You’ll always be overshadowed by the flight number.
I’m heading to a press junket for The Strain, the FX show based on a trilogy of books by Guillermo Del Toro. It’s a very good-looking show that’s also pretty silly, and a bit of a mess narratively, at least in the first season. I watched it with a perspective somewhat akin to people slowing down as they pass by a car wreck. It’s not hate-watching exactly; there are a lot of interesting odd things about The Strain that kept it from being actively bad. I don’t want to continue watching shows I don’t enjoy—at least on some level—and The Strain has thus far held my interest, though not because it’s doing very many things right. (It’s not.) I’ve come on this trip in part to see if I can suss out what exactly the people involved with the show think about it, and whether they’re taking steps to improve it.
I’m not at all sure anyone involved with the show will actually talk to me about their true feelings. This is a press junket, and I am the press, there to drum up interest for the next round of episodes involving vampires taking over New York City. Junkets are odd. I had never been on one before—The A.V. Club shuns them as a rule—and was curious. Over the next three days, I will see recreations of sewers built on massive sound stages. I will watch the show’s star get irritated at the journalist sitting next to him. I will see special effects guys hold up plaster busts of heads that have been torn apart, and joke about wishing the same thing would happen to them when it gets too busy. I will take part in question-and-answer sessions that seem primarily designed not to offend anybody; I will ask my own questions, also very much designed not to rock the boat. I will order a phone charger from my hotel room; I will spend an embarrassing amount of money on overpriced food and drinks. I will learn a lot about the world of press junkets, and the lifestyle of those who make a living covering them.
I will also learn an enormous amount about what goes into making The Strain, a show that a producer will proudly inform me was the number one new show on cable last season, and the number six cable show overall. He does not specify if that ranking is arranged in order of story coherence, but it’s probably Nielsen-backed type of thing about millions of viewers. A lot of people watch The Strain. And, as I learn, a lot of other people also find it beset with problems. I can assure the reader of this: By the end of my journey, I am excited to watch season two of The Strain.
Toronto looks unfinished. It’s a steady parade of half-completed buildings and lots, in various stages of refurbishing and construction. It’s like dozens of architects all threw in the towel simultaneously, deciding to go see what was on TV and leave whatever they were working on for the next poor sap. Numerous free-standing skyscrapers dot the city, too spread out to be dazzling, but too numerous to look like outliers. And weirdly, they all look exactly the same. It’s not a skyline so much as it’s like someone cloned an original clump of buildings repeatedly, like a rushed Photoshop job. I assume this is part and parcel of being one of the hubs of television and film production in North America. An awfully large number of things you watch are in Toronto, and many of them share sets and locations. (At one point we learn that The Strain has been more than happy to accept set and prop cast-offs from other series; when Covert Affairs wrapped, they pilfered an entire apartment set and repurposed it.)
Every building in a stage of re-building, either adding or demolishing. The taxi driver and I ride in silence, letting the stoplights’ glow bathe us periodically. Finally, I feel so comfortable with my new friend, I say something.
“Lotta construction around here.”
He imperceptibly grunts. I think we might be going steady now.
I check in to my hotel, Four Seasons Toronto, and immediately begin marveling at the niceness. Even the young man who checks me in seems superior to normal young men, his demeanor the perfect mix of “business casual” and “If you need me to show up at 2 a.m. to assist you in wrapping up a body in bedsheets and sneaking it down the freight elevator, it would be my professional dream to assist you.” I do not usually stay in nice hotels, and begin brainstorming all of the ways that I can exploit this opportunity to the fullest. Mostly, this consists of me walking around the room, taking pictures from different angles, and then looking at said pictures and being impressed.
After eating dinner and posting a review of Bates Hotel, I start to get panicky. It’s almost 11:30 p.m. and I’ve had no time to relax or prepare for tomorrow. Sure, I’ve seen every episode of the first season, and done my due diligence researching everyone I will be interviewing over the next couple of days, but it still all feels very abrupt. I begin flipping through my notes on Del Toro’s book series that inspired the show, and after about 15 minutes of study/anxiety attacks, I decide to return to the hotel bar, the one place that seemed both inviting and like people there were genuinely happy to see me. I hope that there is something nice I can do for my waiter. Maybe there’s a comment card he could fill out, informing me if I’m meeting his needs sufficiently as a customer?
The phone rings, which startles me so badly that I flip over the side of the bed, landing firmly on a combination of my left kneecap and my head. It is, of course, my wake-up call, cheerfully informing me that it’s 8 o’clock, and do I need anything else? I do not. It’s an actual female human doing the calling, not a robot, which also encourages me to feel like I should sound properly awake and eager to hear from her, despite this train of thought going completely against the purpose and logic of a wake-up call.
At this point it seems worth pointing out that I am incapable of working the elevators in the hotel. The Four Seasons Toronto, like many of the more contemporary and expensive buildings these days, has a safety feature built in to their between-floors transit, wherein accessing one of the floors where paying guests are staying entails being one of those paying guests. To get to your floor, you are required to hold your room key card in front of a scanner thing roughly two feet off the ground. I cannot master this thing. No matter how many times I ride the elevator during my trip, it continually thwarts my efforts to access my floor. Children will laugh at me on three separate occasions during my stay. An elderly woman kindly takes my card at one point and scans it for me, informing me that technology “can be a real tough taco if you’re unfamiliar with it.” I resist the urge to challenge her to a contest of seeing who can Vine this moment first, because I instinctively understand that I would lose.
The writers all meet up in the lobby, as we wait to be loaded on to a bus and shipped off to the first shooting location. I took the small amount of extra time I had prior to this and re-watched the final episode of The Strain, season one. It was a helpful reminder of just how awkwardly uneven the show was. Though perhaps not as awkward as a bunch of nerdy pop culture journalists, in town for three days to talk solely about a show involving a vampire outbreak, milling around the lobby of a fancy hotel.
We load into a minibus and head off. Most of the other writers on this junket are clearly old hat at these visits, chatting easily and swapping stories about recent travels. No one sits next to me, so I eavesdrop on the conversations around me, learning how journalists on this kind of beat operate. Many of them seem incredibly knowledgeable and charming, even the ones who have a bit of a penchant for puffery. “I’m friends with Gillian Anderson,” someone says, “or at least I’ve done a lot of press stuff with her—not friends-friends, but you know.” I suspect Gillian Anderson may have a slightly different take. One guy is immensely popular, and everyone else seems to know him and welcome his company. I immediately resent him. Still, I listen, and do my best to get a feel for how one should behave. A few others are, like me, going through their notes, or looking over the itinerary. Once we arrive at the studio, it’s another 20-minute wait while we get approval to head in. I strike up a conversation with a few other folks, who are, to a one, incredibly nice.
We’re met in the lobby by J. Miles Dale, executive producer for The Strain. He will be our tour guide for the next two days, and beyond that, arguably the most knowledgeable person on the planet when it comes to anything you could want to know about FX’s hit show. What you soon realize is that there are two very different creative forces at work on a TV show. First, there are the people whom we tend to think of as the creative vision behind a show: the creators and writers. What became clear during my trip was that these people may as well be on a different planet when it comes to the actual process of making the show. Guillermo Del Toro may have invented this world, and Carlton Cuse may be the one shepherding the writers’ room, but J. Miles Dale makes this show happen. He’s the main producer, meaning he’s the one actually coordinating all the day-to-day work that goes into making sure the series gets made.
If someone needs to get approval for a bunch of new construction materials, Dale is where the buck stops. If a shoot needs to be pushed back two hours because the crew needs more time to build a set, he makes the call. If a scene still hasn’t been shot yet, and it absolutely positively must get done post-haste or else nothing else on the show will make sense, it’s entirely possible that he’ll end up directing it. He wears every single hat on the crew, and seems to have intimate understanding of what each person does. As he explains it, coming up in the world of film production, he was told early on to spend time doing every job on a production, so that he would know what it entailed. J. Miles Dale took this advice to heart, and as such, he is the linchpin of the series. When someone says “showrunner,” they often mean the guy who runs the writer’s room, but that isn’t always how shows work. Not everyone is Joss Whedon. In the case of The Strain, J. Miles Dale runs the show.
We’re warned against taking any pictures, and then walked into the set that is apparently going to be ground zero for the main cast this season, a converted factory space that is home for Vasiliy Fet, the rat-exterminator-turned-vampire-exterminator played by Kevin Durand. (As I will soon learn, Durand—already arguably the most watchable character on the show—is somehow even more charismatic and appealing in person than he is on-screen.) The tiny pawn shop basement, where the characters spent multiple episodes in season one, is gone, replaced by this large, machinery-infused room. It’s like a cross between a loft apartment and a factory floor. It’s stocked with a mélange of various props and set dressings, including a giant red metal piece of machinery with an assortment of dials and pipes coming out of it. “What’s that supposed to be?” somebody asks Dale. Tellingly, he freely admits he has no idea. “We’re of the ‘fuck logic if it looks cool’ school,” he says, which probably explains a little more about The Strain than the show would like to admit.
Each character appears to have their own little section of the set, and Dale mentions that they do try to reference things they remember, such as Fet’s fascination with architecture. Still, it does have the vibe of “throw it against the wall and see what sticks,” which in the world of The Strain is a problem, because the people making this show seem to think everything sticks, which—as a loyal viewer—I can assure them it does not.
One of the first things we’re told is that we may not get to see any actual filming. I’m disappointed, though everyone else seems pretty okay with this. Apparently, you almost never get to see anything interesting being filmed. It’s always a scene where a character just, like, picks up a book and puts it on a shelf. Press don’t get the good scenes placed in front of their eyes, for some reason. This seems counterintuitive to hyping us up about the show, but I guess that’s what J. Miles Dale is for.
We next visit what’s called a “hot set,” meaning the crew hasn’t finished filming in it, and as a result, everyone has to be incredibly careful not to move or bump any of the carefully placed props, lest something end up out of continuity in the finished episodes. It’s an apartment, and while we’ve been told what’s going to happen here, we also have been sternly warned about the embargo on multiple pieces of information. (The embargo is placed on any sensitive spoiler-type stuff we learn during our trip, and given that the season-two premiere is still months away, FX is understandably jittery about anyone leaking secrets,) In this case, though, the apartment set itself doubles as just about every character’s apartment: Take down some pictures, rearrange the furniture, slap up a temporary wall, and voilà—Gus’ bedroom becomes Dutch’s bedroom. “For those who watch closely, you’ll be able to tell,” Dale promises, which seems like an odd guarantee that reflects weirdly on the set design people.
From there, we pass through to another large area of the studio that contains several more sets. We pass by a trio of people mushing up some kind of thick gunk into a bathtub. It looks gross and fascinating, and I’d love to stop and ask them questions, but we’re basically prohibited from communicating with anyone to whom Dale hasn’t already given the okay. Instead, we just filter past these people working hard, feeling like interlopers, or maybe schoolchildren on a field trip.
We’re informed that The Strain, like many shows, loves to repurpose other shows’ castoff equipment and sets, refashioning them into something it can use. For example, this season you’ll be seeing quite a bit more of the pad of Thomas Eichorst, the nose-challenged ex-Nazi vampire who serves as The Master’s second-in-command. His digs were apparently pilfered from Covert Affairs when that show wrapped. We’re shown a few other impressive-looking rooms, including a creepy white room viewers may remember from season one. Apparently, it was the result of a dream Guillermo Del Toro had during filming, and his description was then turned into this set, a blood-spattered torture chamber. Dale says that it’s “very representative of the vibe of the show,” which presumably is not a reference to the fact that it’s messy and was randomly thrown in based on a whim.
At this point, we’re herded back out to the bus. I find myself enormously impressed with our executive producer’s ability to just launch into a lengthy explanatory spiel about each set, with little or no prompting on the part of any of us. If Dale ever tires of show business, he could have a successful career as a tour guide. He’s gregarious without pandering, and his little in-jokes about showbiz are accessible enough while still making us all feel like we’re part of a special club. He’s a people person, in short, a trait that is refreshing to see in service of something fun, rather than, say, a spokesman for British Petroleum. Still, it makes me skittish. It’s easy to picture Dale ordering the closing of a factory, and having the workers thank him for the new opportunities.
Now, it’s the afternoon, and we’ve been shepherded into a hotel ballroom at the Fairmont Royal York, a very nice hotel with a ton of conference space, suggesting that this is the go-to place for Toronto-based conventions. There’s a bank meeting just down the hall from us, whose members observe our comfortable but lowbrow dress and sniff, in the manner of a mid-century British aristocrat, or what I assume an aristocrat would behave like when forced to share space with the unwashed.
Here, the waiting begins. Today ends up being an endurance test for the junketeers. We will spend roughly eight hours in this room, with little to do, unless you’re one of the smart people who brought their computers, which I am not. The rest of us struggle with a beyond-weak wi-fi signal that will occasionally work on our phones, but not often. The computers, of course, pick it up without problem. It’s a painful reminder of just how dependent I have become on the internet.
At 3:13 p.m., we’re called to attention, and Kevin Durand walks into the room, garbed in his character’s go-to wardrobe of utility belt, jacket, fatigues… Vasiliy Fet likes to be prepared.
Like many great character actors, Durand is impossibly charismatic in person. He sits with us for half an hour, answering questions, cracking jokes, and generally charming the hell out of everyone. I get to sit right next to him, and I feel the reflected glow of his ambience warming my insides. It’s utterly psychosomatic, but I felt extremely cool sitting next to him. Anyone who has experienced the bizarre sensation of coming into contact with someone of whom you would genuinely consider yourself a big fan (and who turns out to be just as delightful as you could’ve hoped) might know the feeling I’m describing.
People become stars for a reason, and it has everything to do with indefinable qualities of attraction, magnetism, and force of personality. It’s “it.” Star power. It’s that quality mocked by Martin Short in Three Amigos, aping a producer by leaning in and saying, “Young man, you have Got. It.”
Kevin Durand has Got. It. He claps me on the shoulder when he leaves, and I have to work to keep myself from giggling like a nervous prom date. We’re told the next interviewee (Mia Maestro, who plays CDC employee and Eph’s romantic interest Nora Martinez) is arriving nigh, but it’s okay—our energy levels have been refueled by the force of Durand’s appearance. We’re no longer depleted and grumpy, because the process has finally begun. We’re raring to go.
At least, for the first 30 minutes of waiting.
It’s time to talk about roundtable interviews on a press junket. When you have a one-on-one interview with someone, a general rule of thumb is that there aren’t technically any rules—you’re allowed to ask them about whatever you want. Obviously this comes with a whole host of implied pre-conditions and customs, sometimes accompanied by publicist-dictated instructions regarding areas of discussion that are off-limits. Most of the time, this doesn’t affect me: I have no interest in who Charlotte Gainsbourg is dating, say, or whether Zac Efron is trying to impregnate someone. But there are some obvious, it’s-a-business type formalities that govern many of these interactions. If someone has a new movie coming out, they’re expecting to talk about that. You’re more than welcome to ask them whether they loved Star Wars as a child, but they’d probably appreciate it if you at least let them speak for a little while about the thing they’re there to speak about.
Nonetheless, within those broad parameters, there’s lots of room for maneuverability. What makes interviews interesting, usually, is when you get someone talking about something they care about, in a way they haven’t already had to do 20 times that day. Now, the roundtable is good on one level, because it means that the actors and creatives we’re speaking to haven’t already answered a hundred other questions about the same basic thing. We’re getting them fresh, and if not eager to talk, then at least not sick of it yet. But it also means you’re somewhat constrained by the needs of the table: Everyone probably has a few questions they’d like to ask, but to pull an actor way off topic, just so you can find out their thoughts on, like, Big League Chew or whatever, seems rude.
So even though I had spent several hours prepping questions for each interviewee, doing my due diligence, I figured the prudent thing would be to hang back at first, and see what the vibe of the room was. I didn’t want to be that asshole who unwittingly violates protocol and wastes everyone’s time by spending 20 minutes peppering Kevin Durand with questions about the fascinating fact that he started out as a comedian in Canada, even though I think it’s super-fascinating. I will defer to the more experienced folks surrounding me, and follow their lead, at least for the time being. I set my questions about Kevin Durand’s young life aside, and wait to see when I can interject. That interjection will never happen.
When the Kevin Durand interview begins—my first roundtable interview on a press junket, mind you—everyone very politely, and one at a time, peppers him with questions about The Strain. There are questions about his character, about the plot, about the set, about the season’s arc… and that’s it. Nobody asks anything about his past, about Durand as a person—really, about anything other than the show. I look around, and they all seem to be nodding intently or making little notes. I am confused. Are we not allowed to ask these other questions I have written down? I set aside my list of things I think it would be interesting to ask Kevin Durand, and instead try to ask a question that’s in the spirit of what everyone else is doing. I want to be a team player.
“Was there something you particularly enjoyed shooting this season, or things you got to do that you didn’t last season, that you really enjoyed?” I ask. He gives me a very charming answer, involving his character’s emotions, and how much fun it is to play Fet when he’s confused or weirded out by things around him. I smile, and he turns to answer another question about this season of The Strain, because that is the only kind of question that is going to happen on this junket.
Later on, after all the interviews are done, and I’ve finally gotten friendly enough with some of my fellow journalists, I ask them what the deal is. I’m honestly confused: How come nobody asked any questions that might be out of the ordinary, or getting us different angles of the actor, or their lives, or anything else? In other words, what’s the deal with the laser focus on the minutiae of season two of The Strain?
I assume it has something to do with their respective readerships, and what their websites focus on. But I’m quickly informed that this is the job. As one of the journalists explains: FX has flown us here, on its dime, to talk to all these very attractive and talented people about the show, and it would like us to do that. Questions about other projects are considered bad form.
“I get that,” I say, trying to seem in-the-know and failing miserably. “I get that if we’re here on behalf of FX and The Strain, we shouldn’t spend all of our time talking about Durand’s stint on Lost, or whatever. But what about other stuff? I wanted to ask him about the fact that he started out a stand-up comedian, something that seems wildly at odds with his tough-guy persona as an actor. But nobody was asking anything about stuff that didn’t bear directly on the filming of season two of The Strain.”
My native guides all agreed that a question about how Durand started out in stand-up comedy would have been acceptable. The fact that it’s a debatable issue is precisely why I didn’t ask it, I try to explain. No one else went near those types of questions, and I didn’t want to be the asshole who broke ranks. An incredibly friendly fellow attendee patiently explained to me that there’s a balance among roundtable journalists: Everybody wants to try and make it a good experience for all concerned—including the person we’re interviewing—and to do that, they all try to tailor their questions to the situation. In this case, the situation is The Strain, season two.
That seems fair, and I feel like a jerk for sounding like someone who thinks they should get to do whatever they want. It’s pretty clear that nobody really likes roundtable interviews: not the journalists, nor the actors, nor (just venturing a guess here) the eventual readers, for whom the value of these interviews will be limited to superfans of The Strain. Whenever you read an article online that features very specific, weirdly nitpicky quotes from an actor about their role on a TV show, there’s a good chance it came from a roundtable interview.
We return to the waiting game as Kevin Durand is ushered out of the room, but our tanks are somewhat refueled—the process has begun. We’re told that Mia Maestro will arrive momentarily, which turns out to mean 35 minutes later. She’s effervescent and bubbly and charming, which makes the time flit by quickly. If there weren’t such long stretches of nothing between the interviews, having sessions like this would make the day go by in a blink.
It would be nice if that were the case for every interview, but some are smoother than others. After another hour or so lull, Corey Stoll shows up, while the catering staff are busy setting up dinner and crew are starting to trickle in for their meal. A couple of assistants go around telling everyone they need to be quiet during our interview, which makes me feel bad; these people work very long hours, and now they can’t even speak during their meal break? But we all turn on our recorders and launch into another conversation.
Stoll is much more guarded—not in the sense of keeping secrets about the show (in fact, he drops spoilers left and right for the entire season, resulting in the fun sight of the FX press person behind him having a minor aneurysm), but just in the sense of guarded talking, period. He’s very polite, but also has what seems the most reasonable reaction to a table full of people asking very specific, pointed questions about plot points affecting his character in a nebulous way: He’s bemused and a little frustrated. “Really? You want to ask that? Fine, it’s your dime,” seems to be his general attitude. The more I think about it, the more fair this seems. Imagine someone asking you multiple variations on whether the salad you had for lunch yesterday gave you more energy for the afternoon than the roast beef sandwich you had for lunch today.
We break for dinner around 8 p.m., helping ourselves to the catering provided for the cast and crew. As opposed to most of the times you’ve probably walked down a hastily assembled buffet line somewhere there isn’t one normally, the food all tastes great. I chat with one of the chefs, who brags about his cooking skills, which is the default setting of every chef I have ever met.
Another hour drags by; everyone is full and tired. But we’re way behind schedule, and we’ve all accepted it at this point. The hotel ballroom is our room. If we need to, we’ll tear up the carpeting to begin constructing permanent nests. Conversation has evolved into a lazy discussion of favorite horror and superhero movies. Beaten-down writers—they’re just like us! There’s a bit of a bunker mentality, a certain esprit de corps that forms among people shunted into a room for eight hours. I might not take a bullet for everyone here, but if this were a playground, we’d have each others’ backs when the bullies came around.
Ruta Gedmintas, who plays the hacker Dutch Velders, enters. Her British accent does that thing to me, as an American: It makes her endlessly listenable. Unfortunately, it’s also so soothing that I find myself swaying a bit, dancing dangerously close to ending up face-down in my notes. Happily, I am still in the position immediately to the left of every actor, and much like Kevin Durand, the breath-on-you proximity of a very beautiful person acts as its own form of energy pill. She says that after particularly brutal scenes, she would go home and watch five episodes of Friends. At one point, she’s telling us a story and can’t remember the name of a character on The Wire, and says, “Aw, man, this story is rubbish.” It’s one of the most endearing things I’ve ever seen, short of YouTube videos of sleepy hedgehogs.
It’s awkward having talented people speak passionately to you about something as though it’s an incredibly brilliant and flawlessly executed artwork when it actually comes across to you like a bit of an inexplicable mess. I experience this feeling repeatedly throughout these few days, talking with producers and special effects people and creature shop designers and actors and directors. They’re clearly all sharp creative types, turning in good work for the most part, and it makes you realize just how much of a runaway train a TV show is. It requires so many groups of people, all coordinating across specialties and outside of communication comfort zones, just to get something shot and edited. Even without crossed signals, or directors and producers having conflicting visions, or one of a thousand other things that could go wrong, it’s a tightrope walk during an air raid.
Even worse is the high probability that all those talented people, all working in tandem, just won’t be able to make something successful. History shows that “less than great” is the default setting of most art; and television, even in its latest golden age, is filled with proof. Nothing can go wrong, and it still doesn’t gel. It’s clear why people always use cooking metaphors—sometimes, your soup just doesn’t turn out quite right. Too many cooks, indeed.
We end our day with an interview with Richard Sammel, who plays the evil Nazi vampire Eichorst, second in command to the Master. He’s a born raconteur—each answer becomes a philosophical treatise. An innocuous question about his character’s villainy turns into a disquisition on Joseph Campbell and Nietzsche, with plenty of dark jokes littered throughout. We do learn that a particularly noteworthy scene from season one (where Eichorst sits in front of a mirror, doing his makeup) was shot three different times, with three different directors. In 30 minutes, Sammel answers exactly two and a half questions; we may be at the exhausted end of our day, but Richard Sammel is just getting warmed up.
Finally, he’s shown out, and we rouse our bedraggled bodies from the wreckage of the banquet table. Various bags and water bottles are assembled, the stale remains of partially consumed pastries disposed of, as we gather our belongings and stumble from our temporary home, out into the night. We load onto the minibus and hurtle back toward the hotel, everyone gossiping about odd moments and interesting answers to questions. It’s universally agreed that Corey Stoll did not particularly care for Dan Fienberg’s (of Hitfix) line of questioning, despite it being relatively innocuous. Dan is an old hat at these sorts of junkets, and I thought it worth turning to him to see how my experience was stacking up against the normal press junket for a TV show. I emailed him afterward to ask whether it was “always like this,” and this was his reply:
Because every working set is its own form of variably effective and efficient chaos, every set visit tends to be different. In terms of extended access to talent, this was about as good as it gets, albeit in group conversations, rather than 1:1 chats. In terms of putting eyeballs on the production of the show in question? Well, it’s hard to watch less filming than “none.” The question at the end of any set visit is: Did I get stories to write? The answer: Yup!
It’s amazing how quickly your body can settle into its usual routine. In my case, this means that morning starts with a frantic realization that I sleepily set my wake-up call for only 10 minutes prior to the minibus departure time. I run around the hotel room like a goat on cocaine, bumping into chairs and tables. We’re heading out to visit the other primary shooting location, which turns out to be an enormous warehouse. Right in the middle of the gigantic room is Palmer’s office, a set the show only makes use of about once a month. It’s sort of like the good china you only pull out of the bottom drawers when company visits, or when you need to shoot a big-time flashback sequence that I am legally prohibited from saying anything about, or else FX gains propriety rights to my DNA.
We’re at Pinewood Studios, Canada, a favorite of Guillermo Del Toro’s, where he also filmed Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, and more. Our good executive producer J. Miles Dale is like a proud father, aw-shucksing his way through the tour as we “ooh” and “ahh” at the enormity of it. We wander through false tunnels, large caverns, past something that resembles an ancient [redacted; see DNA threat above], and traverse some subway tracks laid down for the show’s underground scenes. It’s the kind of thing you see in DVD bonus features when a crew member walks you through the backstage of a show: all the big, pretty, expensive craziness against the backdrop of green screens and brick and mortar. It’s exciting. I’m also strictly verboten from sharing any images, by which I mean that innocently asking about taking pictures earned me a look I can only assume IRS agents get tired of seeing.
Thankfully, the creature shop we visit next has no such restrictions. (Well, almost none: The embargo extends to certain props, marked TOP SECRET.) After quickly hiding some upcoming plot giveaways, we’re given free rein to snap away. Naturally, the first thing that gets a picture is what greets us upon entering:
But there’s all sorts of goodies lying around. We’re immediately like kids, poking around and touching everything. We all struggle not to pick up dead bodies and rubber worms and screw around with them. At one point, the creature shop head shows off a specific MacGuffin for the upcoming season, but I’m still staring at all the charred bodies and viscera laying everywhere. For example, here’s one of the genital-less autopsy vampires:
It takes a full two months to make a cast, mold, and all the pieces required to keep him movable—all for one scene. This isn’t to say every single vampire body is this intricate; corpses they know will remain in the distance of a shot thankfully don’t require such painstaking work. Still, they plan impressively far out: Normally you can’t do stuff this like on a television production schedule. And, to be fair, not every episode and scene gets equivalent treatment—there literally aren’t enough calendar days in a year to make that feasible. I’d love to see these guys sit down in a room with The Walking Dead people and have an argument about who deserves the Emmy for Best Creature Work. (Also, maybe have an argument about why there’s no Emmy for Best Creature Work.)
Like any workshop full of talented people working very hard, there’s lots of good-natured complaining about the writers expecting the impossible with their damn scripts. “It’s so easy to write,” the shop head sighs, ruefully. Interestingly, even the creature shop people seem to enjoy talking about how much creepier everything is sans CGI, a point of view roundly shared by all of us. I’d say it was like herding cats to get us all out of there, but really, it was more like herding a bunch of horror television nerds who can’t get enough of poking at latex versions of blood, guts, and vampires.
Then it’s back to the hotel ballroom, and that damned banquet table. We all assume the exact same places as yesterday, because we are normal predictable humans, and trying to mix it up and keep life interesting is something only done by Natalie Portman in Garden State. Today, however, life is much more exciting, because our first interview is with Guillermo Del Toro, joined partway through by executive producer Carlton Cuse. Cuse, you may have realized by now, is a very different sort of executive producer than J. Miles. He’s the writer’s room producer, the guy who oversees the scripts and the stories, not the one who actually makes sure the trains run on time. It’s a useful distinction, and one that I wish the credits of shows would reflect.
Similarly, it’s a fascinating realization to learn that Del Toro, in addition to serving as a creative consultant, spent a fair amount of time in season one doing second unit shooting. Middle of the night pickups, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., were periodically handled by him, on his days off from his “day job”—a.k.a. big Hollywood films—so all sorts of little shots interspersed through the season actually had Del Toro at the helm. This season, thanks to his busier schedule, he wasn’t able to do that so much—instead, he focused his energies on shooting a couple of key scenes, almost like mini-movies slotted into the season. He describes both, and it makes me incredibly eager to see them.
Then again, there’s also that weird myopia that everyone involved with this show seems to suffer from, where they don’t appear to notice the many weaknesses, which those of us watching have been complaining about. For example, Del Toro says the final episode of season one is one of his favorites, which makes me worry about him. Do these people see a very different show than the rest of us? Speaking as someone who is fascinated by it, it’s deeply flawed, and the fact that no one throughout this entire trip says a single negative thing about any part of it goes beyond mere “good behavior around the press.” It’s like a willful rejection that their efforts could result in anything less than magic.
Still, Del Toro says lots of interesting things, as does Cuse—which you can read in our forthcoming interview—perhaps best embodied by Del Toro remarking, “My dreams are not normal.” Another person is filming the interview, and since I’m sitting next to Del Toro, I get nervous about yawning in the middle of one of them saying something. I also get to experience the magic of Del Toro saying, “Excuse me while I eat my candy,” and then popping a couple Tums.
The rest of the day continues apace. Natalie Brown, who plays Eph’s wife, Kelly, shows up, and is energetic, enthusiastic, and couldn’t be nicer. I end the interview feeling like we’ve become good friends. I debate tweeting at her later to see if she wants to hang out. Suddenly, the person who said they were “friends, though not friends-friends” with Gillian Anderson doesn’t sound so crazy.
Jonathan Hyde, who plays Eldritch Palmer, comes in right after, and gives off a completely different vibe. Arch, British, charming, like what I imagine a charismatic Eton prof would be like. He drawls in a thoroughly frank way, as do all British people self-aware enough to know how charming they can be. Plus, he compares his evil character to Michael Bloomberg, an analogy with which I can get on board.
Jack Kesy, who plays the rock-star-turned-vampire Gabriel Bolivar, walks in next. Here is an exact transcription of my notes from his interview session:
My god, this man is handsome. NYC punk rocker reborn as soccer hooligan/male model.
He seems antsy. Like a Boston tough who just came from boxing. Oh, he did just come from that.
Not always so good with the words, though: (“…it comes out of left wing”)
Nerdy academic type I am, I’m immediately put on edge by swaggering dude w/ muscles + confidence
He looks like Ryan Gosling, Jesus.
It’s like trying to interview a bust of Adonis that could kick your ass.
Afterward, everyone is frustrated. They’re understandably a little irritated that he refused to talk about upcoming plot points, even though he was free to do so, by dint of the embargo. I think he might just be better than all of us.
Have I mentioned the bathrooms in this hotel? I’m obsessed with the bathroom. I make multiple trips when I don’t feel the need to use it, just so I can hang out in there. Which would seem super-creepy if anyone else was ever in there at the same time, but they aren’t. It’s like using the bathroom in a house designed by Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson. Allow me to present evidence:
I mean, come on.
Our last interview of the trip is with our two-time host, who I’ve come to call ”J. Miles Davis.” He sits down for questions and again dazzles me with the breadth of his knowledge and affability. For God’s sake, he even knows the history of this hotel we’re in, don’t ask me how. He’s directed two episodes of the show, and he talks about directing like a producer would. He doesn’t list “artfulness” as one of his concerns. Making his days, on the other hand, is stressed multiple times. Though, to be fair, the strategy is working: Guillermo Del Toro apparently called him at one point and said, “That’s exactly how I would have directed that scene.” No one’s going to question that approach to filming.
But he also says some of the same worrying things about the show as Del Toro. For example, that attention-grabbing season-one billboard image of the worm wriggling into the eyeball? He thinks the show is “more sophisticated” than that. Really? I want to ask. He also mentions that so much of season two was simply invented out of whole cloth, to fill in more story than is delivered in the books. “How do we stretch this out without diluting it?” was a question among the show creators. “Usually, you can’t,” Dale concludes, in far too apt a manner. But he thinks they found a way. Like I said—worrying.
Thus endeth the official “set visit.” That night, several of the other writers and I go out for dinner and drinks, which is a convivial and wonderful end to the trip. One small downside is ending up in a bar that is obviously a college bar, populated by dudebros, a species I thought was native to the United States, but has somehow migrated north. Sorry for the dudebro infestation, Canada.
Set visits are weird, normalized by virtue of existing in a weird industry. A brief exchange with Miles Dale sums it up well. At one point, when mentioning what we can and can’t talk about, he offhandedly mentions what he would like us to talk about, a subject everyone dances around for reasons of ethics and not calling a vampire-show-promoting spade a vampire-show-promoting spade. He’d like us to “artfully tease” the upcoming season, he says. This gets at the heart of the real reason we’re there: teasing. Teasing the upcoming season; teasing via morsels of behind-the-scenes information, relatable and funny quotes from the stars, excited prose vaunting the promise of season two. In exchange, we hope that people will come to our websites to get this information they can’t get anywhere else. This is our symbiotic relationship. It’s not a bad thing, but it is an odd thing.
If you’ve ever driven through the middle of the United States, you’ve probably seen the massive signs hyping Wall Drug. Only 200 miles to Wall Drug, a sign will tease, promising Wall Drug in your future. Only 50 miles. Twenty miles. They make you excited to discover Wall Drug. Do you know what Wall Drug is? Probably not. And guess what? It’s just a dumb store. A huge, ridiculous, stupid store. But the signs have gotten you excited, because that’s what good advertising does. Set visits are advertising of a different sort; they’re advertising to the people who can call attention to their show. It works, in the sense that I am now way more excited for season two of The Strain than I was before this visit. But I’m here to write about this piece of entertainment, not advertise it. The hope, for the producers, is that through the writing about it, readers will absorb that excitement, like osmosis, and tune in. Did it work?