Axel is reunited with his long-lost sister in one doozy of an episode. Also, post-apocalyptic laundry.
We spoke with Neil LaBute about Van Helsing Season 3, Episode 11: "Been Away." MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.
This is definitely one of the most emotionally moving episodes of Van Helsing to date — and definitely one of the darkest. Let's start with that great opening shot — in slow motion, we move in on a weary Axel, smoking a cigarette as he leans against his lady Rhonda. There's definitely a western vibe going on in this shot (and in the episode itself) — how do you feel this image (and the accompanying music) sets us up for the journey we're about to take?
Neil LaBute: Just about every time we photograph Mr. Jonathan Scarfe as Axel it looks like a war movie or a western, so that just seems to come with the territory! He's got a great look and feel for the character, and he comes off like a timeless warrior no matter what we do (actually he puts a baseball cap on next episode and I don't love that look on him, but most everything he does, Jonathan just comes off pretty cool).
Interestingly (I hope), this piece of music — a song by Lost Under Heaven called "I & I" — was not a favorite of mine, but Ms. Jacquie Gould, our first-time director, really loved it for her opening montage, and I always want to try and work with my directors rather than dictate my own vision on top of theirs — if you want to be a director, then go be one — my job here is to work with them, and so I accepted her choice and made it work.
I love this process of making something (theatre, television, film), and I hate it when someone is not collaborative… that's just about the worst trait anybody on the crew or cast can have, as far as I'm concerned: hard to work with. I've had great and horrible experiences doing this work over 25 years, and it's such a pleasure working with people who want to work with you. Happily, this was one of those experiences, and I think Jacquie did a brilliant job on her first-ever episode. To pull it full circle back to Axel, she had such a sure hand with her actors, and this was a particularly emotional episode for our man of war, and together they navigated it rather beautifully — very proud of the work Jacquie and Jonathan did on this one, some tough stuff in the middle of a goddamn apocalypse.
Something in Carter's eyes after she chooses to lower her gun on Axel — and immediately reach for the liquor bottle — made me think that maybe she recognizes Axel as her brother right then and there, though I may be way off. Was there a general consensus as to what her "Ah-ha!" moment was during production?
That's a really interesting question and would be a great one to put in front of the wonderful actress, Ms. Sara Canning, who played Carter (who turns out to be Axel's long-lost sister, Polly). I love that moment, too, but if there was a discussion about this — when she realizes that this might be her brother and if she, in fact, ever does have that moment — I wasn't privy to it in their rehearsals and during production. I thought the ambiguity of who these people might be, and having two women in the episode who might be that sister (the other one played by a terrific actress named Ms. Chelsey Reist), was a masterstroke on the part of Ms. Jackie May, who also wrote this episode (basically at the same time that she wrote Episode 310 and directed it as well). Those secrets are fun for actors to carry around sometimes, and as a director I encourage that kind of thing among my cast; I think it makes for more surprising choices and unexpected reactions to the simplest of scenes and/or lines of dialogue.
It's pretty obvious when Axel realizes that she is his sister, but no, for me I don't actually see it on screen when Carter sees it in Axel, and that's okay by me — what's important is how I respond to what I'm watching, and I think this is one of our most heartbreaking episodes ever. Really love it on a number of levels, so bravo Jacquie and all the cast/crew that worked on this one.
That final scene between Axel and Carter/Polly was heartbreaking, and "I'm not going anywhere" definitely goes onto the list of Best Final Lines in Television. Some excellent work from both actors here — honest and generous. What do you remember the most from that shooting day?
It was a very zen day as I remember it — people getting ready to shoot that scene on the rooftop but going about their work quietly and waiting for the sun to go down a bit more, the actors walking through the beats with their director but everything having a hush over it. It was a very important moment and different than a lot of the work we ask our actors to play — not that we don't have very emotional, life-or-death scenes for a lot of people, but this had the additional element of it being between family members who have just found each other again, and they handled it really beautifully. The simplicity of it, followed by the loss, then Axel actually throwing up in the stairwell and then finally tracking down Lorne and confronting him, was a really fine series of scenes building upon scenes to create something very magnetic to watch.
Axel finding out that "you can't go home again" turned out to be one of my very favorite episodes (all three Episode 11s of all three seasons are some of my very favorites in the entire series).
Axel chose not to forgive Lorne for his sins against Polly and guns him down at point-blank range. Is there anything you can tell us about how this decision — and his violent, vengeful action — is going to affect Axel and his journey from here?
I think Axel's decision was completely predicated on the fact that Lorne calls out for Polly at a moment of desperation, and that's what triggers Axel into that final act of violence. I remember clearly in the writers' room that we wanted it to feel that Axel was going to let it go with beating Lorne to a pulp — due to the fact that the old man now has dementia and supposedly doesn't remember what he's done — but that went out the window when he calls out his sister's name and shows that he's lucid enough to call out for her help. I really liked that idea — in fact, I loved the whole "missing sister" storyline in the episode, where a person has to deal with the past and finds out a horrible truth that he/she may have to let go because there's no good way to exact some kind of revenge.
The actor who played Lorne (Mr. Fred Keating) was a marvel — he was playing essentially "the bad guy," a man who had kidnapped Polly and held her in his home for many years, and yet he comes across in the episode as a kind, befuddled elderly gentleman who is very happy to see Axel again when he returns to his hometown. Watching the episode, I feel sorry for the guy as much as I despise him, and that's not an easy thing to play, but Fred manages it rather handsomely.
And then we have Sam, who has somehow found a way to dehumanize himself even further by renouncing his ability to love, and perhaps even love itself as a concept. That entire scene fit perfectly with the dark fairy-tale way in which the Johnsons view him (as "Grendel"). Have we indeed lost Sam to the abyss completely?
I mean, was there ever a doubt? What a journey it's been, from those first episodes of Season 1 when Sam, the bearded gentle giant, quietly set a standard for kindness and authority, through when he shaved his head and revealed his true nature and now where we find him: almost physically unrecognizable and filled with equal parts venom and glee. He's like a great vaudevillian, dancing and singing while he kills and guts his way across the apocalyptic landscape… a vampire monstrosity by way of Samuel Beckett.
I can never say enough about Mr. Christopher Heyerdahl and his many talents, but he's matched in this episode by the brilliant actor (and fellow Hell on Wheels cast member) Mr. Phil Burke, who comes back for a final, tragic turn as one of the Johnson family fathers. These two never got enough screen time together on their previous show (as far as I was concerned, anyway), so it was great to see them trade banter and finally come literally face to face in their last confrontation. It's a grand goodbye for Phil and another step toward outer darkness for Sam.
You're right about the dark fairy-tale aspect of this part of the tale: It's been fun letting Sam drop in and terrorize the Johnsons from time to time… I wonder if they'll ever get their revenge? You never know in a vampire apocalypse — death comes in the most unexpected way sometimes.
The episode wasn't all doom and gloom, though, as we also got some nice little details of the Van Helsing world that I don't think had been explored before. For example, was this indeed the first episode to address the issue of post-apocalyptic laundry?
Ha! Every so often it's great to show some little or larger detail that reminds you that life continues on while you're running for your life out there in the vampire wasteland. People still fall in and out of love or need toothpaste or find their favorite candy bar, and as creators we have to stop and give a nod to those strange, funny, absurd moments in life (even a crazy apocalyptic life). I've loved the through-line of Axel and the Kit Kat bars (one of the first things he talks about in the first scene of Season 1), and maybe we'll even find a way for him to get one last Subway sandwich before he's through protecting Vanessa and generally kicking vampire ass. After this week's episode, I can only hope he finds a way to reunite with Scarlett, and maybe she'll bring him some canned peaches or something!
And speaking of things you've lost or want to get back again (in this case a missing sister), there's a great moment that our director of this episode, Ms. Jacquie Gould, pulls off with our brilliant DP (Mr. Ron Richard), and that's when the young Axel sees the baseball in the grass that he left with his sister and goes to pick it up: We're watching the boy (with blue sky behind him) see the ball, then go to pick it up, but the adult Axel is the one to actually pick it up and sadly study it (with a muddy brown sky behind him now). Really nice stuff — is it the same baseball? Doesn't matter. The shot is a real beauty and just one of many in a very emotional, gorgeously shot and designed episode of Van Helsing.
You mentioned laundry, too — I love that Axel gets the generator going at Lorne's store and in all likelihood it's the same damn generator that he had to fight to keep going when he was a kid working there; that's a really nice touch and just one more detail that makes this episode a real beauty.
I also love the idea that maybe Axel's military training gave him the discipline to eat the apple first … and save the Kit Kat for later. Have we talked about the Kit Kat before? Is it indeed the only candy bar to survive the Rising?
We have definitely talked about Kit Kats before — the good people at Hershey's who make Kit Kats (in the United States) should be paying us storage fees for all the love we send their way. Kit Kats are seemingly the currency of the realm in the vampire apocalypse (and as a side note, were created by the folks at Rowntree of York but was purchased by Nestle, who still makes the candy globally, except for the U.S.).
Anyway, yes, Axel could probably have stared at that Kit Kat all day long if his superior in the corps told him to do so — like a trained dog — but he's proven to have a soft spot and a sweet tooth for the chocolatey confection. Like all good antiheroes, however, he does unexpected things like give them out to other people when you'd least expect it — he's a little bit like the character of Rick in Casablanca, a guy who would outwardly say "I stick my neck out for nobody" while he's carrying you to safety from a house fire.
To fully answer your question: No, surely other snacks have survived the vampire uprising, as seen with Doc and Julius (who went on a snack binge last season), and no doubt there are still a few Twinkies sitting on near-empty shelves somewhere out there in various apocalyptically deserted strip malls, but I like to think that Kit Kats remain the height of humanity and all that we've achieved, in that aliens could visit and look at all the bad things we've done — war and famine and global warning and that garbage island that's floating out in the Pacific somewhere — but then they'd have a Kit Kat and think, "Well, these guys can't be all bad…"
That's a thought I stole from a Woody Allen film when he talks about his girlfriend being God's answer to Job (I'll leave you all to figure out which film — spoiler alert: It's brilliant).