Well, that's a wrap for Van Helsing Season 3! And a wrap for our friend Neil LaBute as the series' showrunner, though he'll be serving as a writer and executive producer on Season 4.
We spoke with Neil about Season 3, Episode 13: "Birth Ritual." MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
Well, look who showed up late to the party: the Howling Commando himself, Neal McDonough! It kind of feels like he should've been around since Season 1. How did he come to join the family?
Neil LaBute: What a great and lucky addition to the Van Helsing family on my last episode as showrunner! You're right about the feeling of Mr. Neal McDonough on the show — he's got the right look and presence to have been a part of our story from the beginning, and, in a sense, he has been (or at least the idea of his character). I can't say much more than that, but we were in a place this season where we needed someone of Mr. McDonough's stature to come in and pivot things in a new direction, and lo and behold, we got the man himself.
Another acting pro, by the way — a person who comes on set and somehow manages to make it his own while completely collaborating with you and making it feel like he's been around for ages. Can't wait to see more of that character and his journey (some crazy early plans still exist), but he brought so much to just the single episode that I can't say enough good about him. Ironically, he was someone that passed our lips in consideration for "the Dark One" itself, so obviously we all think very highly of Mr. McDonough in the writers' room.
Okay, we finally need to talk about Jesse Stanley as the Oracle — she really took center stage in this episode. She very easily could've been just a provider of exposition (and occasional instigation), but she brought a sense of gravitas to it all — you could really feel the, well, ancient-ness of her. What went into developing this rather unique character?
What a fun person and character to talk about, good choice! Ms. Jesse Stanley joined us at the end of Season 2 and has appeared throughout Season 3 as both the mysterious "dark figure" and also as "the Oracle" herself (and that won't be the end of it, either, I can promise you that). Ms. Stanley came into a standard audition for a part that could've easily been a "one and done" (a character that only appears in one episode), but everyone in the room was impressed by what she did in a relatively short amount of screen time. She altered her voice and body and, with the help of our tremendous hair, make-up, and costume teams, she really became something unique and interesting to us: something other than another standard-issue vampire.
We have plans for her going forward, and I don't want to spoil anything for Season 4, but the possibility of new looks and new adventures lie ahead for this very talented young performer (whom I expect to see working in many mediums for years to come).
Love the look of Elder Sam. Were there any earlier designs or concepts before going with this one?
Oh good, I'm glad! That's such a hard thing, finding something new in this genre or even a creative variation of all the stuff you've seen before (especially when you're asked to give the sculptors a sense of where to go and you reference all kinds of wonderful, bold looks that have come before your own). We saw a few different sketches for the "Elder look" for Sam until we settled on what you now see on the screen — and we got some input from Mr. Chris Heyerdahl as well, since he's the one who breathes life into Sam each week — but it was a bit piecemeal at times, and that's sort of expected, I think. A bit of "this look and that hair and those teeth, no, wait, what about this instead, but can we change this too, and maybe these horns would be fun that I saw in a book, but change them so they look unique…" It's a wonder we don't drive the make-up artists mad with all of our thoughts and ideas, but we're lucky to not only have an amazingly talented team but also a very patient team.
What makes the creature unique, of course, is the actor who goes inside those clothes and that mask, and so once again I heap praise on Mr. Heyerdahl for taking something that could be a cliche and turning it on its genre-shaped head: His sensibilities and talents are so singular that I can't give him enough credit or love (but I will continue to try!).
So many cliffhangers with this episode! Axel's pissed at Vanessa, Julius is facing off with Scab, Doc's had some sort of major breakthrough, Flesh and Jolene are on the run, and we've got two Van Helsing ladies taking on Elder Sam (oh, and Callie's still alive, of course). Anything you can tell us about where we might be going in Season 4?
Sadly, no — not because I haven't before and wouldn't love to spill the beans right here on this very page, but I don't feel like it's mine to do now. That's the future, and the future of the series is now in other hands (although you'll see my bloody little fingerprints all over it next year, as I will remain a writer and executive producer on the show).
What I can promise you is a continued dedication from a core of writers and producers who have been on the project from the very beginning and a new leader who understands where we've come from and where we're going, but also has some new and exciting plans to get there. I think we've left each season in some kind of stand-off or cliffhanger, and this year is obviously no different — that doesn't mean that next season will take up right where it left off, but then again it might. I'm not being precious about it; we're at this moment in that creative place where the stories for Season 4 are being broken down and examined and written, so I'm sure many of our initial thoughts will change in the next few weeks.
Know this: We have a plan — we've had it from the very beginning, and it feels like SYFY and Netflix want to give us a chance to take that plan to its logical and fantastical conclusion. (I personally hope it takes a long time, because I'm enjoying the journey, but who knows?) And yes, Callie is still alive and kicking, thank God — it's no longer completely in my hands, but I will be pulling for that young lady to make it basically unscathed through the entire apocalypse… her story makes me smile every time I think of it.
What aspects of Season 3 do you think most distinguished this season from Seasons 1 and 2?
I think we tried some courageous things ("courageous" in the sense of acting and storytelling) along the way in Season 3 that we hadn't done before: going back in time to turn-of-the-century China (and all the production and costume headaches that came with it), filling in backstory for various key characters (especially the devastating story behind the disappearance of Axel's sister), and creating one of the craziest and tightest "bottle episodes" I've ever seen before, with our protagonist (Vanessa) literally hanging from a meat hook for most of the episode's running time (and directed by a first-time director, no less, and shot during the same week that another first-time director was doing her first episode of television as well).
Overall, I think we managed to continue telling our many story fragments in interesting ways while bringing new elements and new characters to life at the same time, all of which anticipates a mind-blowing Season 4 on the horizon.
What aspects of Season 3 are you most proud of?
I'm proud of the entire Van Helsing community, quite honestly: Our creative team, who have changed somewhat along the way but is littered with veterans from the entire run, a writing team that continues to surprise and delight me (and not in a cheap, easy way), cast members who keep pushing the boundaries of their characters while asking for more, and, of course, the fanbase, which has been solid and supportive and very vocal throughout our three-year run (and they seem very pleased that the show will continue for at least another season).
For selfish reasons, I am specifically proud of Episode 308, because we proved that we could really "take the show on the road" if we wanted to when we headed to Victoria, BC, and shot on a remote location (we often shoot the show "on location" but much closer to our home base of Vancouver) with a wonderful new co-star in the form of Mr. Michael Eklund. What a treat that was! Mr. Eklund really added to our world with a gorgeous portrayal of an ancient member of the original Van Helsing household. Therefore, yes, that was a very special trip for me (and personally fulfilling as well, as I got to visit some of my family members who live in the area).
Where are you in the process of handing the showrunner reins over to Jonathan Walker for Season 4?
The reins have already been officially passed, more or less, as we began writing Season 4 up in Vancouver before the holidays. It's a bittersweet moment for me, as I like to see any work I do through to the end, no matter what the experience has been like, but I must say the transition has been smooth and Jonathan is going to watch over a really wonderful new season of love and loss and bloodshed. I think he and the other writers have a few new tricks up their collective sleeve and will be creating an even leaner, meaner version of the show this season.
I know a few specific things that are on the docket, and I'm as excited to see them as a viewer as I am someone who is working on the show. It was a tough place to exit, actually, as we had a ton of story happening in Episode 313, and so we made some radical choices in the editing room (in terms of what we would actually show vs. what was actually shot), so Jonathan is inheriting certain stories that he'll need to address or drop or reboot or whatever it is he does to keep the tale moving forward along its bloody path.
Any parting words for the Van Helsing fans out there?
Just a few and then I'll ride off into the sunset (hopefully driving Wanda and shooting the heads off any vampires I come in contact with… ha! who am I kidding? I would probably have died within about 20 seconds of when the Rising began).
I want the fans — or "fiends," as I affectionately call them on Twitter (which I'll be phasing out soon as well) — to know that I really enjoyed working on this project, both for and with them. I say "with" because as creators we really do feel the genuine support of the Van Helsing fanbase and we rely on them to keep us honest, to push us to always do our best work and to be vocal in letting NBCUniversal and SYFY know how we're doing with the show at any given time. They should know and be proud of the fact that each year their voices have been heard at the highest levels and have been a big part of why the show was renewed… so they should keep it up, if more Van Helsing is what they want!
As for me, I will be writing and producing and cheering from the sidelines this year but know that my little black heart and blood-red fingerprints will be all over the stories and characters and I will always be around if they really really need me, somewhere out there in the wasteland of the vampire apocalypse.