Syfy's Van Helsing has been something of a pleasant surprise for genre fans. The notion of a post-apocalyptic vampire show featuring the famed Dracula character's descendant and run by Neil Labute is kind of bonkers, but the show has delivered an enjoyable ride in its first season. Now, with the finale looming, we took the time to talk to the showrunner about where things go from here.
Looking back on Season 1, how has this ride been for you, from the conceptual stages of the series to this week's season finale?
That's a good word for it, it's been a bit of a ride, a drop into the unknown, Tower of Terror-style. I was the showrunner for a show for DirectTV called Billy & Billie, but that experience was pretty much like directing a movie because I wrote and directed all of the episodes myself; all of the things that go into showrunning for Van Helsing, like having a writers' room and overseeing all these different parts of production to the point where you're prepping and shooting and editing simultaneously and thrown in all these different directions — all of that I had never really done.
It was very eye-opening in that sense, but also this is a world I'm not as familiar with; I adapted Dracula for the stage years ago, but I really hadn't done too much genre work. Being around people who love that world and know how to write for that world and the fanbase around the genre of sci-fi and horror ... they're such a different breed of fans, and it's been very eye-opening to see how they respond and how much they think about it. You think you've done enough homework on the mythology and then you realize that you've never done enough, especially with the many ways that fans are able to communicate with each other. What used to be the water cooler, the world is now the water cooler. So you're talking to people in New Zealand and France and they're all talking about the show and have ideas and are getting ahead of you and second-guessing why you did this or asking how could you kill this or that character.
Sometimes, as a writer, you can get into a box and think about things in a very one-sided way, and hope that people like it ... sometimes, you never know, or don't get that quick of a response. Like the stuff I do in the theatre, you get a sense of how the audience liked a performance on one night, but you don't get a sense of how much they're going to think about it afterwards. With Van Helsing, the fans just gobble down anything you give them in terms of information ... it's just a very exciting version of what I'm used to. It has been a very eye-opening year.
What was your favorite aspect of Season 1? What do you think 'worked' the best?
There are a lot of things I really liked, the way we turned some expectations on their head, took what's maybe the most well-known mythology of vampires -- Dracula -- and made it our own; I appreciated that and hope to do more of it. Vanessa having the ability to change vampires back into humans and the idea that vampires were once human and are now in this state where they're driven by bloodlust and once they come back, they either feel guilty or have this sort of PTSD from their experience, all of that I thought was really interesting.
But I think just straight up from the title, the character of Vanessa and the way Kelly [Overton] inhabited her, if I had to choose just one thing. The central character was really important, because the show wasn't just called Apocalypse or Night Time or anything like that; it had her name stamped on the cover, so if it had failed at that but done everything else well, it still probably would've felt a bit like a failure. But I think the combination of all the people working on that character, from the costumer on down, I think we hit that just right.
What is the current state of Season 2?
We're still at the table. We've basically broken the story for the season in a very specific way for the first half and then in broader strokes for the second half. We've pitched it to the network, we've gotten their response, so we're really in the outline stage.
The stages tend to be you break the story, you explain that to everybody, you get their notes; you then do outlines that pretty much ape what the script would be in terms of all of the scenes if not all of the dialogue - then we get a sign-off on that and write the episode. We kind of go through a three-step process and we're just starting the second step of the first half of the season.
So, our hope is, by the time when everyone else has had a really enjoyable holiday, we'll have created seven scripts. [laughs] And by the time we get into pre-production at the first of the year, we can give all of the people who have to create those pieces, including the actors, the first half of the season and look at the first seven episodes and say OK, I know what's happening up until the first big climax of the season.
The first season started as a chamber piece and developed into a road movie. Will the general setting continue to change and evolve in Season 2?
In Season 1, we built the hospital set and from there could hunker down and shoot for the first few episodes without the difficulties that a company has when they're on the road or on location; it made it a little easier for us to coalesce as a group. Now, we've written ourselves into a place where we have things we have to take care of as we leave the characters in a variety of very specific places in the finale. We're beholden to coming back and answering certain questions before we do anything else, so we'll take care of that and be on the road for a while.
We have a kind of big destination in mind for Season 2: Vanessa and a number of other people still have this notion of Denver as a place of safety. But like other shows that take place on the road, you're waylaid by circumstance. The general recipe for us is you take two steps forward and one step back or sideways...and then, suddenly, four steps back, and then there's new people, and so on. Either way we're going to learn a lot more about all of the characters and come across some even darker forces that Vanessa will have to reckon with.
We were big fans of the 'bottom feeders' that were scurrying about the sewers in Season 1. How do you want to further expand on the vampire mythology in Season 2?
The bottom feeder I thought was a very successful addition to the vampire family. We divided things into, there were these ferals, and there were these feeders, and then there were these breeders, which were Dmitri and his bunch at the top of the food chain. As we're on the road and going to new places, we definitely want to create one-offs like the bottom feeders as well as groups that have maybe mutated into a different kind of vampire. Dmitri also made reference to The Elders, who are perhaps even older than Dmitri and his group.
That's certainly a mandate from Syfy as well; they love this kind of world but they also know it's fueled by creatures, and if you're doing a vampire show, blood should be on the table all the time. It's the currency of the realm. We try to paint the screen pretty red and hope to create even more cool creatures in Season 2.
It looks like we lost Axel at The Farm...
One of my favorite characters! Jonathan Scarfe as Axel, I could've spun him off and done a series just about him, I really liked him. There are some characters who come in and you think they're going to be good and they turn out to be great. You hate to see anyone like that go, but when you're in these shows that take place in a vicious world, sometimes you lose your favorite people. You're facing extinction in every episode; if you don't take some people out every now and then in that world, it's kind of cheating.
It enhances Vanessa's character, too, as it's hard for her to trust anyone, anyway, but when you're in a battle zone and you keep losing people, it makes it even less worth investing in people. We always wanted Vanessa to be the most reluctant of heroes; she had no breeding for it, or so she thought, and now she's suddenly in this place where everyone wants help. It's difficult for her - she's like, "Well gee, I don't even like people! I don't want to be in this place - as soon as I trust one, they turn on me, or as soon as I like one, they die!" So, that's a terrible place for someone who grew up mistrusting people. She has a real attitude from growing up through foster care and always had to stick up for herself and not take any shit, but those are traits that now help keep her alive. So, if we put her in that world but didn't have her lose anybody, I don't think we would be putting her through the best test. Her name's above the door, so we have to base everything around how it affects her and where it takes her on her journey.
Vanessa's entire support group dissolved throughout Season 1 (Sam became a vampire, Susan was killed, Flesh left to be a hippie in Eden, etc.). Is Vanessa being set up to be a lone wolf, or will she be getting some new friends in Season 2?
It becomes tough if you're a lone hero, because then there's no one to talk to. It just becomes like a western, where you ride into town and you kill some people and you leave! [laughs] I think the formula still stands that you have to provide interesting characters and hopefully the audience will invest in them, even knowing they might be killed off at any moment. It's sort of like Charlie Brown going for that football: "I don't know if I should invest in this character, because as soon as I like them, you're going to kill them!"
But there are sleights of hand that are allowed that you don't find in non-genre shows; characters can be turned or even come back in some capacity. You accept that Jon Snow can come back in Game of Thrones; you've got a witch, of course you can bring him back! But when Colin Farrell came back after seemingly being shot to death in the second episode of True Detective Season 2, I felt a little cheated. But I think we're staying true to the genre; you've got to push the boundaries a little bit to keep everyone on their toes. Even if people have lost characters that they liked, we hope they still enjoy the 13-part ride.
How do you plan on expanding Vanessa's various abilities in Season 2?
There are still things that she doesn't even know she has the ability to do. There was speculation back in Episode 7, when the vampires were trying to break in and take over the hospital, of whether the humans could dip bullets in her blood or take her blood and create some sort of spray that they could hose them all down with...all of those things are open to speculation, because who knows what could work? And Vanessa doesn't know better than anybody else. It's off the charts, and that's sort of the beauty of it; you're out in the wasteland and you can create the mythology as you go, even though we want to be careful not so much that it's steeped in science but that it follows some sort of rules.
And if we already knew everything about Vanessa at the end of Season 1, then Season 2 would be a bit of a retread. We're certainly planning that there's more to learn about her and for her to learn about herself and where she fits into this universe. Is she really the savior of this universe or is she just someone on whom people are hanging their hopes...and there might be someone else out there who's the real savior of humankind?
Is someone going to find Wanda, gas her up and get her back on the road? Axel's tricked-out Mad Max ambulance NEEDS to be in Season 2!
All right, I will give you a first: Yes, indeed, Wanda will return. I will say no more, I won't say who it'll be who finds her, but Wanda will make an appearance in Season 2. I don't know in who else's hands she'll look as cool but we have some fun things planned for her.