Guillermo del Toro Interview: 'Your Ambitions Should Always Exceed the Budget'

The Strain creator talks going even bigger for season two

by | July 7, 2015 | Comments

Guillermo Del Toro‘s a busy guy — spend a few minutes scrolling through all the projects he’s currently working on, attached to, or just rumored for, and you quickly realize why some of his co-workers openly wonder whether the filmmaker ever sleeps. Case in point: how many other A-list Hollywood directors shoot second unit on a TV show on their day off?

Still, you get the sense that every project is a passion project for Del Toro. And with The Strain — the hit vampire series he co-created for FX, based on the trilogy of books he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan — Del Toro was willing to lend a hand whenever he had a spare minute while shooting the upcoming Crimson Peak, whether it was filming short sequences or overseeing the show’s visual effects and creature design.

Rotten Tomatoes spoke to TV’s most famous second unit director in advance of The Strain‘s season two premiere Sunday night, and here’s what Del Toro had to say about how this season goes even bigger than the last, and where he thinks showrunner Carlton Cuse has improved on the books.

Rick Mele for Rotten Tomatoes: I was just reading up on everything you’ve got in the works right now. And it seems like if it’s hard for me to keep track of it all, then it must be really difficult for you.

Guillermo Del Toro: Not really, because most of the stuff that is in development stays in development. It’s a sad reality, you know? You can have things that develop for ten years and never get made and other stuff gets on the fast track and gets done within the year. I think Hollywood has a habit of developing 100 times more than they actually shoot.

RT: With all the demands on your time, how much were you able to hang around The Strain set this season?

Del Toro: Well, since this season went off-book a lot, I was more involved in shooting the prologue of the first episode, which I’ve always wanted to do — it was originally part of the pilot — and shooting a couple of second unit [scenes]. And staying involved on the VFX supervision all the way through to the finished effects, and still color-correcting every episode of the season to check that the look of the show stays as consistent as possible.

But this season, Carlton [Cuse], the pattern of the shows and the scripts were more run by him, with new characters that were created for the series and that would allow us to expand the second and third seasons. And then I think next season we’ll go back into the books more firmly.

RT: When I spoke to Carlton, he said one of the great things about working on this show was that neither you nor Chuck Hogan were sticklers about not changing anything from the books. Do you think of the show almost like a different animal?

Del Toro: Well, I remember both [Hellboy creator] Mike Mignola and Stephen King always say, “If you want the books, they’re on the shelf.” It’s really a healthy position to take, because it’s a completely different medium. And even though I originally pitched [The Strain] as a TV series, when we started writing the books, we just wrote the books without thinking of any other medium. We were not thinking of movies or TV. So the books are gone. They have their own structure, their own evolution, and both Chuck and I are very, very happy with them. And the TV series allows me to come in now and then and shoot. For example, I shot a black-and-white Mexican wrestler movie for this season, it plays on TV and opens one of the chapters — I think it’s episode four — and just had fun. And then the rest of the time, I try not to interfere in the way Carlton runs the show.

RT: Do you have any plans to come back and direct a full episode in the future, or are you preferring to just stay involved in a more advisory capacity?

Del Toro: Honestly, I do enjoy the pace of directing TV, and I would like to be able to do it more, but I have so much work, with Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim 2, that it becomes just an occasional thing. You know, I can direct three days over here, one day over there. As I said, we did a couple of days of second unit to clean up some sequences, the prologue, the black-and-white movie, and so forth, but I think that it would be more sporadic. Especially now that the next season is going to coincide with almost the last weeks of pre-production on Pacific Rim 2.

RT: And you still have to sleep, obviously.

Del Toro: Yes, amongst other things. [laughs] That’s high on the priorities these days.

RT: When I visited the set, a few people mentioned you’d sometimes come in with ideas that came to you in a dream — whether it was for a new scene or creature design. Did you find yourself dreaming about the show a lot this season? Is that a good sign for you?

Del Toro: I’ve made a point if I come up with any ideas, I send them to Carlton and I say, “What about this?” Or whenever he’s in town and they’re shooting, we have a dinner and we talk about possible scenes or ideas and little character quirks. And I think that’s a lot of fun. Because what is great about TV is that you can come up with an idea for episode two while they’re shooting episode six, and you can still accommodate it. You can see the finished product and you can say, wouldn’t it be great to do this or to do that. For example, I reshot one or two of the scenes in a couple of the episodes, or augmented them weeks and weeks after those shows had wrapped. So it can be a nice idea, or something that you daydream, and then you can still do it.

RT: How much of a learning curve was there for you in season one, just in terms of the realities of what could and couldn’t be achieved on a TV schedule or budget?

Del Toro: Well, we are very stubborn. In fact, the second season, we go bigger without augmenting the budget. We just redistribute it, and try to give a lot more scope to the show in season two. We have a couple mass [vampire] attacks, we go back into Roman times, we go back to the 1700s, we go back to the ’40s, ’60s. It’s really even more ambitious this season. I think for me though, the learning curve has been enormous. But I think that it serves me well. I hope to continue doing TV, and I think that what I’ve learned on The Strain will come in handy. For Carlton and [producer J. Miles Dale], they have a lot more experience, but now and then, we do go crazy and try to achieve feature-sized scenes or ambitions on our TV budget.

RT: I feel like that’s one of your calling cards as a filmmaker, that no matter what the budget is, your movies feel even bigger, even when it’s a $100 million dollar movie. And I’d guess that would be a pretty good skill set to have when you’re making TV.

Del Toro: It is. It’s very important. I feel that your ambitions should always exceed the budget. That no matter what budget you’re doing, you should be dreaming bigger than the budget you have, and then it’s a matter of reigning it in to the reality. You try to make things count. We have a couple scenes this season that have really good action and good scope. I think that we’ve stretched the budget to the max.

RT: And it’s not going to get any easier as the seasons go on, right? You just keep getting deeper and deeper into the vampire apocalypse.

Del Toro: I think that is going to be the most interesting part of the third season and onwards. We have a few massive strigoi attacks this season, but as the series progresses, we have to start solving the fact that we are heading towards a world where there’s almost like a 60 percent strigoi, 40 percent humans balance. It’s really very daunting to be heading towards. [laughs] It’s going to have to be very, very creative next season, how we do it. But I think we finished the season with a couple of images that are very powerful, that indicate where we’re going. And that ambition will need to be realized in the next season.

RT: Going back all the way to writing the books, this is a story that’s existed in your head for a long time now. And I know that the show has gone off-book and new characters have been added, but what was it like for you to finally get to see this come to life? Not just on set but also unfolding on TV every week?

Del Toro: It’s a very strange experience. I understand a little bit of what Mike Mignola used to tell me, that it was almost like watching an alternate reality. I am surprised sometimes by a twist that an actor does or that the scene takes. For example, the finale of season one, where The Master jumps out the window and runs into the sun and Setrakian didn’t know [he could do that]? I was delighted and surprised to see it. And I think it’s exactly what Mike said: it’s an alternate reality of a world you used to live in.

RT: Have you found that your favorite characters on the show aren’t necessarily the same as your favorites when you were working on the books?

Del Toro: Strangely enough, no. [laughs] I still think my favorite characters in the series are Setrakian and Fet. And they were my favorites in the books. They were the most fun to write, the most rewarding. But what I find that is really great is Setrakian, the way Carlton has made him in the series, is more of sort of an incredibly compelling sociopath. He’s not the wise vampire hunter full of humanity that was in the books. And that’s one of the changes that Carlton did that I really think made the character, honestly, better than the books. He has a harder edge.

RT: What did you think of the fan response to season one? With a movie, you have the opening weekend and you get the reviews all at once, but with this, you’re watching that response evolve and change each week.

Del Toro: One of the biggest adjustments I had to make is I can reasonably well tell you what a movie is expected to do from the tracking [numbers], I can tell you the campaign is working, I can estimate opening weekends. But on TV, I’m a novice, so I have no idea. And then FX called us and explained to us that the pilot had an amazing reception by the fact that we had I think zero percent attrition — nobody changed the channel during the pilot. That was a new term for me. And the numbers, if you tell me 7 million watched it, or 11 million watched it, I didn’t know how to receive them. So every week, I had [FX president] John Landgraf explaining the good news to me. [laughs] It’s hard to ride that thing every week. The suspense sort of killed me a little bit. You did it 13 times as opposed to one time when you do it with a movie. It’s one weekend and then it’s in the hands of God. But a TV series, every week you’re biting your nails.

Season two of The Strain premieres this Sunday, Jul. 12, on FX at 10 p.m.

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