Well, what's the vampire apocalypse without the eventual appearance of some good-ol'-boy cannibal cops and their barbecuin' Big Mama?
We spoke with Neil LaBute about Van Helsing going all Deliverance in Season 2, Episode 8: "Big Mama."
1. What were the challenges of writing what I believe (though correct me if I'm wrong) is the first Vanessa-less episode of Van Helsing?
You are correct, and it was a challenge! It's not fun not having your lead to move around the game board, but the story and our production situation called for it, so that's what we did. It all made sense on paper, but I love watching Vanessa grow as a character — we keep trying to give her new things to discover about herself and dramatic situations to deal with, and I think that's what keeps her interesting and the audience invested in her. She still feels like a real person and not a superhero. She's angry, she's sad, she's afraid, just like anybody else, but she also knows that she's in the middle of all this chaos for a reason, and so she keeps going, keeps trying to do what's right and keeps trying to figure out the mystery of herself. You can't ask for much more than that and an actor who can turn all that into playable behavior. Kelly Overton leads the way on Van Helsing, so, yes, it was tough to go in another direction without her, but look at the rest of the cast that I had to play with — such good people and fun characters, and also a really crazy premise for this episode — so it was a lot of good fun to write as well.
2. Loved Sheriff Walt Turner -- nice and accommodating one second, completely creepy the next (and, really, often both at the same time). What can you tell us about the actor who portrays him?
This was a very quirky and clever direction that we took the show — we wanted to add a bit more humor along the way but to also earn it and then take it away quickly when we wanted to, and the "Big Mama" episode gave us that opportunity. We decided to have a cadre of rogue police officers, living in their station and going about life as if things hadn't really changed (including pulling people over on the street!). We also knew that at some point in this apocalypse we would want to deal with cannibalism — as it makes a nice human contrast to vampirism — but that we wanted to skew it a bit and not do what we'd already seen on The Walking Dead or in a film like The Road. Again, humor allowed us a new way to go, along with strong character actors like Tom McBeath. Tom has been around for years as an actor (in everything from The X-Files to Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus), and he was a perfect choice for a sheriff who seems to be an "aww-shucks" sort of good ol' boy but keeps saying and doing odd things that start to unnerve you. He was a real trouper and ready for the next challenge, whether it was a one-liner or rolling around in the mud at midnight fighting for his life. Van Helsing has been blessed with so many talented actors up in the Vancouver area — we couldn't have pulled off this show without them.
3. Loved the Texas-Chain-Saw-Massacre-as-dark-comedy vibe of this episode, and the almost endearing nonchalance with which the Sheriff and his gang of cannibals live their lives. What were some of the particular influences on the story, tone, and look of this episode?
Deliverance, probably! I say that jokingly, but my father took me to it at an early age and I never escaped its cold, hard grasp. Brilliant movie, still holds up, best thing Burt Reynolds ever did and one of the most muscular performances on film. Lean and mean. Our director, David Winning, worked fast and smartly with our cast and crew and gave us a lot of really good character material for the editing room. We still wanted it to feel real, not like something out of Police Academy, so the actors created a vibe of these people who were trying to carry on with their lives even in the midst of an apocalypse and having settled into a very particular and gruesome lifestyle. It was a fun little world to create, and I like very much what David and the actors achieved in the end.
4. Axel's got some great stuff in this episode. Was it fun to finally be able to write for the "old Axel" this season now that he's human again?
Hell yes! We've all been waiting to get our badass marine back in action, and Jonathan [Scarfe] did not disappoint. He has great chemistry with actors, but I thought he and Missy Peregrym were particularly well suited as a team, and that was helpful (since we didn't have Vanessa to throw into the mix for the episode). Their banter was a lot of fun to create with them, and the natural ebb and flow of their physical work was nice to watch as it unfolded. There's also some really great moments from Julius and Doc as well, but I will say that it was indeed satisfying to put a gun back in Axel's hands and to see him lead the troops in such a relaxed yet believable way. More to come, and I'm excited about it.
5. The fight scene between Julius and Big Mama was impressive, going from somewhat clumsy and comic to rather gruesome and brutal by the end. Both actors seemed especially game for it. Any behind-the-scenes details you can share?
Yes, I particularly liked what our director, David, and our stunt coordinator (the lifesaver Kimani Ray Smith) did on the fight between Big Mama and Julius. It started as a kind of spooky little moment that grew in intensity as it went on — I loved that Julius was driven to put a vampire out of its misery and that this is what caused the fight in the first place — and as you point out, it erupted from this sort of bumbling, awkward fight into a slow, ugly death scene that you hopefully don't expect. Aleks Paunovic nails the emotional beats as well and really seems distraught over the entire incident by the end of it. Good stuff and the kind of thing I hope we can do much more of — things that are unexpected.
6. What was your favorite scene in this episode, and why?
There's a lot going on in this episode and some funny, wonderful moments — I love seeing more of Ivory and continuing to follow Flesh and Lucky out in the woods — and it was a blast to mirror the Vanessa and Axel shower scene by having a similar incident between Axel and Scarlet. That said, what I really enjoyed was Doc driving Wanda and getting pulled over by the cops to her utter disbelief (as she mumbles a racial remark under her breath about the police). That and the following scene, with our heroes casually facing off and accessing the sheriff and his deputies was a moment I really liked. There's a deputy in the background who's even eating out of tupperware that I thought was a terrific touch — a little glimpse of where the entire episode was heading. As much as I know and enjoy the fact that we're a genre show and we need to provide thrills and chills and buckets of blood, my background is in playwriting and the stage, and I can't help enjoying the cheap rush of good actors just standing and talking to each other (especially when you're the one who wrote the dialogue). That never gets old for me.