Spoilers ahead. Continue at your own risk.
Syfy's about to go all grind house on us. And if executive producers James Roland and John Hlavin have anything to say about it – and they do – their new series Blood Drive will be the most bloody, violent, and well ... grind house series ever created. In fact, they plan to put a little bit of "every grind house movie ever made" into their series, the EPs told Syfy Wire in an exclusive interview.
Blood Drive is a new Syfy series with a bizarre premise. In a dystopian world, a motley group of drivers set out cross country in a violent death race called the Blood Drive using cars that run on human blood. One good cop, Arthur Bailey (Alan Ritchson), gets trapped competing with his morally-challenged partner, Grace. Unfortunately for Arthur, he doesn't have much choice. Like all the racers, he has an implant in his head which will blow out his brains if he gets too far away from his partner or if he and Grace don't follow the race's twisted rules. And behind the scenes, Heart Enterprises and its army of AI robots seem to be running everything.
Blood Drive premieres tonight on Syfy at 10PM ET.
Roland and Hlavin chatted with Syfy Wire about Blood Drive's first season, about creating a "ridiculous" show with social commentary, and about going delving into the most extreme Roger Corman territory they could imagine.
Congratulations on the new series. This is some of the most dark and funny and disturbing stuff I think I've ever seen on television.
James Roland: I'm just going to say thank you.
James, as the creator of Blood Drive, what was it about this material that you wanted to tackle. What drove you to this, so to speak?
James: When I sat down to write it, because it was pitched just on the basic concept, it became a lot about how can you use something just so ridiculous to tell a story that actually means something, but is as fun as the premise indicates. Right? So, we knew it was going to be funny. We knew it was going to be crazy, but then there's the idea that it's about this moral cop. In this crazy broken world there's one guy who's trying to do the right thing. And of course, he's the one who is forced to go on a race where everybody, in order to keep going, you got to grind everybody up.
As soon as that piece of the puzzle was there, it just opened up and it became something really exciting because you could grind people up and have hot naked people running around covered in blood and all of the crazy grind house things that you want to do. But in every episode you were constantly bringing right or wrong and morality to the forefront of the story and saying something really interesting at the same time, which not all grind house movies have done traditionally. But a lot of Roger Corman's films and stuff like that really did have a lot of social commentary in them. That's when I really got jazzed about it and really thought about the potential of what it was.
What about you John, as a producer, what drew you to the material?
John Hlavin: When they pitched it to me, like they go, "It's about cars that run on human blood." I'm like, "I don't know if it's my bag." Then when I read it. I think what James did really successfully was ... and this might have been frankly just because he didn't know any better at the time, which some of the best stuff comes from that ... is he just wasn't really writing a television show. It doesn't have any of the traditional stuff you have in a TV show and I think that's why Syfy was attracted to it. That's certainly what I was attracted to. [We] had a chance to do almost commentary on the present day world in a way that you could hide it pretty successfully ... I mean it's crazy, but we also think it's really entertaining and really funny, and hopefully it will find an audience.
Well, the first question that popped into my head was how are you guys are getting away with that language. There's a lot of violence, but the language seems more of a problem to me. I'm assuming there will be some editing from the version I saw.
John: I mean we get away with a lot of things now in TV-MA. You have to drop certain aspects of those words ... You can say "fu ..." and they cut the "ck".
What can you tell us about this first season?
James: The idea is that it's a road trip through a world... like imagine if every grind house movie ever made existed in a world together, right? So every week they're driving through a different genre. It tops itself every week. Every week is either crazier than the week before or crazy in a different way, and that's down to the writing. We really encourage the writers to bring their own voice to every script so it's not, well it's definitely a consistent story, but it's not as homogeneous as some other shows, down to the color theme. The way that we shot it, we empowered directors to bring their own touch to it. There was not a specific stylebook for season one. It was with whatever the stylebook of the genre that you were playing with. It was what the directors were supposed to lean in to. So our one rule was how can we be different from what we did last week on every level, on character levels, on a plot level, in terms of gore, everything. That was our goal to never know exactly what you were going to get next week and I feel like we pulled it off.
John: It's crazy. It's definitely action-packed. That race is the driving narrative of the first season. But then the unpacking and learning about who this corporation Heart really is and what their true intentions are operates as kind of the mythology reveal. And then there's the characters emotional arc for us, which had more to do with Arthur and Grace and having those two characters see each other finally for who they really were and fall in love. We're really happy with Alan and Christina as actors. In fact, I would say all the acting in the show, including all of the South African acting, the local hires, everybody again really showed up.
Tell me about your leads, Alan Ritchson and Christina Ochoa.
James: Alan and Christina are beautiful, smart and talented. We hit the jackpot. They really are ... We knew people were going to tune into the show to see pretty people fight crazy bad guys and see blood and gore and sex. And we knew that we had to deliver that every week, and I think we did. But I think in the spirit of surprising them, by the time you get to the middle of the season, you would be shocked at how deep we get with those characters and the emotional depth that those actors brought to these roles is going to be surprising and something you don't expect for a show that's based on a ridiculous concept. That would have lived or died based on the casting and Alan and Christina absolutely nailed it.
There's some extreme things that happen in the episodes I saw. How did your actors handle that material?
John: One thing about this show that I love is that everybody takes it seriously. Like everyone on screen. There's not a lot of winking. When we do wink through the Slink character we try to do it in a clever way.
I miss seeing Colin Cunningham on Falling Skies. Here plays another very strange character in Slink, the showman who created and runs the Blood Drive.
James: He just swung for the fences every single time. He really is the life and the spirit in the show. All three of the leads just brought it. And as ridiculous as the situations where, they were incredibly trusting. It was amazing. They were willing to say and do things that just ... I don't know, probably made their head spin, but they treated it real, and in the final product it really shows. Because it's still funny and ridiculous, but it doesn't feel meta to the point where there's no stakes, you know? They treated them like real characters that were stuck in real events no matter how ridiculous those events were.
From the first minute on when your main character Grace, let's just say, feeds her car, you're going to know whether or not this is something you're going to want to watch. You're not pussy footing around with this material.
John: Obviously we know how they're going to promote the show. We were conscious of that. But also we really thought the best thing to do was to really try to introduce the grind house spirit and what the show was as fast as we possibly could in the spirit of grind house. For me anyway it's like exploitation and entertainment and salaciousness and those things that we felt collectively had to live in the first few moments of the show so the audience would know exactly what they were getting. Because I don't think people are going to tune into this show expecting The Expanse. It definitely has its own energy and we just wanted to jam that energy as fast as we could.
I thought it was interesting that you've got Arthur, brought to life by Alan Ritchson, who's the real innocent one in this whole thing. What was about Arthur that really inspired you to bring him into the story and use him as a viewpoint character?
James: At first it was just instinct. At first it was just, "Okay, you can generate a lot of drama out of the contradiction, right." So much of a good narrative and good drama comes out of smashing opposites together. Whether it's an odd couple situation like him and Grace, you know the cold-blooded killer and the do-good cop. Or in a situation where it's like okay, if I take a terrible person and put them in a terrible situation, is that as interesting as throwing a good person in a bad situation. And then I think it was at some point interesting. I picked the name Arthur Bailey because it reminded me of George Bailey character [on It's a Wonderful Life] and threw him into a Corman film.
I don't think there is any angels waiting for this Bailey.
James: Exactly (laughs). Right ... My wife pointed this out to me. I always refer to him as Art. I kept calling him Art when I was telling my wife the story and all the crazy ideas ... I come from a very conservative religious background, believe it or not. And my wife said, "You realize that you came from a conservative restrained background and you came to LA and you're making this show (laughs). And you've got a character who's named Art, who has this squeaky clean veneer but gets thrown into this crazy world that will grind you up." And she's like, "This is just a metaphor for coming to L.A." (laughs) I don't know. Maybe my subconscious was working overtime on that one. The metaphor aside and whatever it means to me personally, I thought, "Who is the least likely person that you would think you would find in this scenario." And I think that inherently is going to be the most interesting.
Another interesting character is the A.I. robot lady, Aki, who seems to pop up everywhere in the show.
James: The general idea was this is the evil company. The way that Heart Enterprises functions is they're happy to make mistakes. If they built a phone that killed people a thousand people, they're like, "Okay great. That's interesting. Let's see if we can find another use for that." They were in the market for making sex robots, because that's what a company like this does. And it just happened to be this glitch in the matrix that she became self-aware and they couldn't replicate another model, so then they just started replicating all ton of her. That just suddenly struck me as really interesting. That right there is an example of how you take a grind house [element] that is completely salacious, a sentient sex robot, and think, "Okay, that's great. Now I can actually tell a Pinocchio story of somebody becoming human," and, not to give too much away, but that character could very easily be just a joke every week and you would have a lot of fun with it. But we were able to take that and grow it into something interesting about what does it mean to be human and all those type of things and to give that character an arc.
John: And it's really a testament to the actress playing her, Marama Corlett.
At the "heart" of this story you have Heart Industries, which appears to own everything. Every product that's made, everything including the Blood Drive race, the cars that run on blood, everything. That to me says a lot about the undercurrents you're exploring with this story. It says a lot about today's world, in a way. Why did you guys want to go there and have this thread through everything?
James: When you sit down to write stuff and you go, "Okay, great, they're racing and I'd get why crazy people would want to race. But where do you get the cars from and stuff." I would not call our show realistic, nor do we in any way try to be realistic, but I think the best shows, no matter how crazy follow their own rules. So even if it doesn't make real world logic, like what was the logic within the world, then how can you have fun with that? So that just leaned into this idea of like, "Okay. Well, somebody is building these engines and they use the race to test them and the people that are racing want to race, and Slink, who is the creator of the race, loves the race just for what it is. But the company behind it is doing it because they want to test these engines."
I think a lot of it was just putting a twist on trope. You see a lot of shows that have the evil company behind it and then there's always that point. You get to the end of season one or season two and it's like, "Oh, my gosh. This company is more powerful than we ever imagined." And I think that we said, "Well, rather than teasing it out that long, let's by the end of episode one just be completely up front with it. What if they're just Google on crack. Everywhere that you look in a room is a product made by them and there's no escaping it. It's just a way of telling the audience right in episode one, like this show just plays in crazy waters. We're not going to tease our story for a whole season when we can give it to you in one scene. We just might churn through mythology stories as fast as we can because that's interesting to us. There's a lot of shows that are going the other way, where people will go with more of an eight-hour movie. And we're like, "No. I don't want to make our show 13 episodes. We didn't want to make a 13-episode movie. We wanted to make 13 movies."
John, this is such a big story in so many ways, so much action, so many special effects. As a producer, what's been your biggest challenge with the production end of this thing. It seems like this would be crazy to produce.
John: It literally is crazy to produce. We shoot the show in South Africa in Cape Town. So James and David Straiton, our producing director, went to Cape Town. I stayed in Los Angeles. We were very lucky that we were given the time to write all 13 episodes before we left, so that we would be able to prepare for this. And I will say, and I think I can speak for James when I say this well, it turned out better than we ever could have imagined. Cape Town is in the wintertime and we're in the summer. So we went down there in the middle of their winter when you get usually a tremendous amount of rain and we dodged a lot of that, thank God.
The show is considered a low budget show, yet we got a lot of stuff that I don't think we would have ever been able to do anywhere else because there are artisans and craftsmen who live in South Africa that really took to this show in a really meaningful way. There are things that we discovered that our art department and our production weren't fully dialed into. They were creating Easter eggs and connective tissue between episodes. It was a fully committed production operation, besides the unfortunate time difference. James and I would have a phone call at seven a.m. or ten p.m. because of the time difference and then the really unfortunate distance in terms of travel. I went there for a little bit and it takes 24 hours to fly there ... There are way more effects than we anticipated. There's like over a hundred in the finale. But everybody showed up and everyone was really into it. It says a lot about James's writing that nobody really approached this, myself included, as a regular job. We all saw it as an opportunity to do something in television that, to my mind anyway, there's nothing like it on TV.
There is nothing like it on TV.
John: It's mostly to the good. But to the good or bad that is where the show lives or dies. I don't think anyone could watch this show and say, "Oh it doesn't look good." We definitely made a really well-produced hour of television every single time. I don't think there's a bad episode in there and in our crew, we ground these guys pretty hard and everybody showed up. So it was hard. It was long. We were supposed to air next January and they were so happy they wanted us to launch in the summer. James and I have been at this together since November of 2015. Is that when we started?
John: Going on two years. So we're really excited to get this baby out the front door and let the world consume it.
You got 13 episodes and I imagine you're hoping this goes on for a few years.
James: A hundred years.
I'm assuming the first 13 will be the first race, am I right or do you want to tell us?
John: This story mythology spins on, but it is an enclosed first season. So it does come to a conclusion in the spirit of how television is consumed now.
Why should people tune in?
John: What you get in episode one and two is what you get in three through 13. It's a crazy show that I think honestly holds onto its narrative all the way through. But still, I think, it entertains every week, week in and week out. I hope this show finds an audience. I know it's specific, but I hope it finds its audience because I think people are really going to enjoy it.
Here's a look at Syfy's Blood Drive.