Guillermo del Toro on The Strain's new luchador, and the future of the series

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Aug 7, 2015, 7:52 PM EDT (Updated)

Watch any good luchador movies lately? You did if you tuned into FX's series The Strain Sunday night. In a pre-credits opening scene, viewers were treated to a black-and-white Mexican wrestler vs vampire flick directed by series creator Guillermo del Toro. The mini-movie plays out like a VHS cassette as the viewer fast forwards to the good parts: The epic showdown between luchador and a “real” vamp.

The opening serves to introduce Angel (Joaquín Cosio), a new character to the show who initially serves as a foil to Gus (Miguel Gomez) after his elite vampire buddies are eradicated. Angel works as a busboy in an Indian restaurant, but one gets the sense it’s only a matter of time before he is pulled into the vamp-hunting action.

During a visit last Spring to The Strain’s Toronto set, which stands in for New York city, I saw the basement of the Indian restaurant where Angel works, as well the oft-repurposed tunnels we saw the young Setrakian (Jim Watson) running around in during the Sunday night ep. Then, as production commenced in a stairwell of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, del Toro joined myself and a small group of journalists to discuss his directing work this season, as well as the his and Chuck Hogan's book adaptation to TV, and the future life of the series.

What can you tell us about Angel, the luchador?

It's a character that I love very much; it’s a character that I've been wanting to do audio-visually for a long time, and I wanted to make the movie that he shot when he was young: one of these black-and-white Mexican wrestler versus vampire movies. They gave me one day, and I shot the part of the movie that shows up, which is about five or six minutes. They fast-forward, so there's a lot of fast forwarding through it because it's somebody watching it on VHS, but we shot the whole little piece. What I like is the idea that a real Mexican wrestler is fighting real vampires. It's not post-modern. It's not tongue-in-cheek. It's not wink-wink. These are real monsters and a guy that used to be a wrestler, but now works as a waiter in an Indian restaurant in New York. So it's really a down to earth reality to the Mexican wrestler genre, and it's a character I've been thinking about for ages. I wanted to do a whole feature film at one point, and I may still do it. It's just a genre that I love. Joaquin Cosio, the actor that I chose personally because I think he's a fantastic presence, and hopefully he'll grow. He appears enough in this season, but in the next season, third season, I think he comes into his own.

You directed the premiere episode backstory of Sardu, and now this. When did you realize how finite your time was going to be this season in terms of directing?

I knew I wanted to help second unit. I knew that because it's always fun. [Executive Producer] Miles Dale and I do a little bit of clean-up unit and second unit because what is great is in the middle of your week you have a day or two to shoot. Mostly, sadly, on The Strain it's night. So all of the sudden from six in the afternoon to six in the morning you're in a set somewhere really cold shooting inserts of hands or action moments, stuff like that, but I knew I couldn't do the whole episode because I need to deliver Crimson Peak in May. I'm still in post on that, and I knew that it would be too much. I'm prepping Pacific Rim, so it was very difficult for me to do a full episode this season.

Talk a bit about the changes Carlton Cuse has made in the adaptation from your and Chuck Hogan's books, and why they were necessary.

Well from the beginning, even in Season 1, Carlton was going off-book and its very clear to me that The Strain needed to be run by the showrunner. Carlton has always been responsible for the screenplay and development of the story. I try to be unobtrusive and not keep quoting the book. I do when it gets really to a point where I say, "this does not work for this reason" but you cannot say it's because the book. Carlton is very respectful of the areas that are controlled by me and I'm very respectful of that. This season we knew that if we stayed on-book we would have less discoveries. There's stuff with Fet that wasn't in the book that's been really, really good. The Master, the finale of the first season was not in the books, and it's really one of my favorite episodes, the final episode. So it's about saying let these things have a life of their own. There are characters in the book that live and die and characters that could be dead six episodes ago are now alive, and characters that were minor are now gaining a footing. It’s a very different medium, so I watch it with curiosity. So it's Carlton and Chuck running this season much more than the books.

Are there parts that still feel like they're canon from the second and third books?

We agreed from the beginning that we would try to hit the big notes. But if you do a change that you think is good that ripples through, then you ripple it through. As long as they're working, the episodes, and Carlton is happy with the development of that I think It's an organic process. You still shoot episode after episode. You learn that you're going to going to generate blue pages or golden pages for 11 in the middle of shooting eight or nine, and you go, "Well that's a good idea," and then it ripples. It's a very different medium. [Laughs] I'm kind of still getting used to it, to be honest. I'm still, "What?" I read a great scene three weeks ago and then three weeks later, it's gone. And I go what happened? This happened. Ok. I'm still on dailies. I'm looking at assemblies. And when we need to strengthen a moment or when we need a little more strong action I go shoot a little of that, but I leave that part up to Carlton.

Once you saw these actors inhabit the roles you helped create, did it change your thinking about those characters at all? 

There are new characters, like Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas). I like that character very much because it makes Vasiliy (Kevin Durand) find a foil that is not just Ephraim. He really has repartee with her that is very strong. She really has interesting angles. I like that character. But the other actors, I couldn't be happier to see them exactly or variations that are more interesting than I thought. David Bradley, I think the way Carlton writes Setrakian is more interesting for me than the Setrakian in the books, because this is more sociopathic. Setrakian is more gruff in the series and less likable in a way. You love him, you love watching him, but to the other characters he is like sandpaper. He doesn't have this fragile - he's not vulnerable and I like that. I like that change in him. The rest are great. Fet was written in the books for Ron Perlman, but Ron was on Sons of Anarchy when we started, and I think that Kevin has now, for me, become Vasiliy. I cannot imagine Ron in that role now. It's surprising and great.

Given the new life of these characters do you still think that the show can only go five seasons, Or do you see it going longer?

Oh no. Four to five seasons. It's surprising because unlike in a movie -- with a movie you work for two to three years and then the movie comes out and basically after one weekend it's thrown to posterity. Some people may come, it becomes a movie that people like, it's completely fortuitous. But TV, you live and die through 13 weekends. It's so taxing. Every week you go, "Phew!" And then "Oh my god! The next chapter airs in a few days." Then you go through the trial and error again. It's really, for me, surprising that series can last more than four or five seasons. Because you're never stopping. You finish the first season and you have a few weeks and then you're prepping the next one, and it becomes a huge way of life. I think five seasons is a good measure.

What has this experience taught you about the television audience?

It's funny because you ultimately learn about the audience only by the numbers. It's not an audience that you interact with, and then you learn about it at Comic-Con and fan events because people show up and you can talk to them, but other than that you have a relationship more tightly with the bloggers or the people that are reviewing the episodes. The audience stays silent, and then you get the data, you get attrition, how many people switch channels in the middle. You get all this data and that's the contact. I remember we got the report for the pilot and they said we had basically zero attrition and I thought that was a dermatological condition or something. The guy said, "No, that means nobody switched the channels, that is the highest compliment." And I go, "Oh fantastic, I love attrition." Honestly, it's a medium that I love as an audience. I live my week on my iTunes hitting Justified or The Americans. I live my week by Better Call Saul. I know when it falls, and I know I'm there 5 a.m. in the morning I download and I watch it alone in the morning. As a creator, the audience remains just numbers until you meet them.