If Hammer Films had made a Van Helsing episode, you would've probably gotten a little something like this week's gothic delight. Heck, there was even a mad scientist!
We spoke with Neil LaBute about Van Helsing Season 3, Episode 1: "Super Unknown."
Love the name-dropping in this one, from Edward Hawkins to Dr. Karloff to, of course, Renfield House. However, there's one that's a little more obscure -- is Lilli named after the doomed would-be neck-and-shoulders model from Dracula's Daughter (1936), or is that just a coincidence?
Neil LaBute: Thank you for noticing the name-dropping — although I guess I warned you about it last week — and I'm glad you enjoyed it. If we can't have a little bit of fun in the "genre" world, where else are you gonna have it? The "Lilli" call is a good one on your part, as 1936 is a very important year to me (some of my favorite films of all time come from that year), and my daughter's name is "Lily," so that was enough right there. It was also just a good name: "Lillian Van Helsing." I believed it and that was enough. We added a really lovely actress by the name of Julie Lynn Mortensen to help bring that character to life, and I really enjoyed those "period" scenes — a lot of fun to write and watch as they're being filmed. I think our audience is interested in the Van Helsing mythology, so we continue to bring more and more of it to the forefront when we can. In fact, just wait until next week!
Absolutely loved the gothic horror vibe of this episode, from the (mostly) single location to the relatively smaller cast to taking place entirely at night. Also, an asylum. Also, a graveyard. Also, a mausoleum. And even a cabin in the woods early on. What was the process of the production design and art direction in this episode?
Yes, we all called this one our "haunted house" episode, and we kept throwing out key items or locations that we felt were necessary to include to make it fuller and richer as an entire episode. All the places you mentioned were key to us, and we wanted the rain and lightning and graves and all the good stuff — Ron Richard did wonderful work behind the camera, and Grant Pearse once again did some amazing things with rooms and locations that we had previously used before. In fact, a lot of the reason we did this episode was because there's a mostly shuttered psych hospital outside of Vancouver called "Riverview" that is constantly used as a film location — we have used it over and over — and in the writers' room this season I asked, "Why have we never used this damn place for what it is…a psych hospital?" and from that grew the idea of using it in both the past and the present. We found that beautiful architectural facade at one end of the property (we weren't even allowed to enter that actual building) and then utilized a number of other rooms on the property to complete the transformation. It was very fun, and I think we pulled it off nicely.
Hilary Jardine seems to be having a blast with her somewhat eccentric portrayal of the Elder. Is she working closely with Keith Arbuthnot or is she kinda doing her own thing?
Hilary took into account what Keith had done as the Elder but was really left to play in her own sandbox — meaning that it was more interesting to see what she would do on her own or with our guidance rather than mimicking another actor's voice and gestures and that kind of thing. What Hilary did was give us glimpses of the real Susan (and that was sort of touching and sad) but also this weirdly off-putting creature who didn't really seem to know what to do with a human body any more. She ate spiders, sat on chairs in strange ways, and talked in halting sentences. Hilary is such a smart actress and a really joy to work with, but this time it was a blast to watch her just let herself run free and do whatever impulse hit her in the moment. I've rarely seen a vampire enjoy blood in the same way that she does… puts a shudder down the spine in a way not every actor could do. Susan and Hilary are very special, and I hope we keep finding logical, fun ways to bring that character back into our circles.
I love the nonchalance Axel has even when he's being tortured and potentially getting a lobotomy. Ever since he came back from being a vampire, he's had this kind of seen-it-all worldview, a sort of almost cheerful cynicism. I also like how he overcompensates in trying to reconnect with Vanessa as he maybe uses his go-to term of endearment ('Sleeping Beauty') one too many times. How do you feel about this particular character's journey so far and how Jonathan Scarfe has been portraying him?
Jonathan has given us a good dose of world-weary, right from his first cigarette and speech about missing Kit Kats and Subway sandwiches as he offered his own blood to keep a vampire alive (a vampire who was once a doctor that he had feelings for). That's a pretty good entrance for a character and a lot for an actor to play, and Jonathan isn't one to shy away from a good opportunity. Watching his Axel from Season 1 to his journey as a vampire in Season 2 (starving himself rather than letting himself go over to the dark side) to being back with a swagger and a twinkle in his eye but a little beat up and a lot sadder than before has been an exhilarating character growth to be a part of, especially in a world where scares and blood and genre thrills tend to take the precedent. This has been indicative of many of our actors, who have forced us to keep making their parts better and more complex and human, no matter what other masters we have to serve along the way. The balance so far feels pretty good, and I think we're going in the right direction with Axel leading the way.
Well, Dr. Karloff had a good time completely stealing the show (or at least about half of it). How did Brent Stait join the Van Helsing family?
Brent Stait did it the old-fashioned way — he walked into the audition room and threw himself into it so much that he left you only one choice in the end: Cast him or cast someone inferior in the part. He was such a pro and game for anything, had great stories of all the people he's worked with and really knew how to make you feel good about the work and what you were doing. He had questions and suggestions, but everything he did was in service of his character and the show and he pushed us to make even the "crazy doctor" character someone we cared about… until we realized he was a complete madman and a danger to our protagonists. Brent was a great example of the acting community in Vancouver — great, disciplined, talented crop of actors who just get in there and do the work without complaining or trying to make it about them; they get how important they are to the process and therefore support the process to create the whole. Great actors up north but, more importantly, great people.
Nice poignant moment between the two sisters as Vanessa comes to terms with the possibility that she may completely turn and Scarlett will have to kill her. Do you think a part of Vanessa is hoping that will happen so she can finally be released from her torment, or is she not quite there yet?
Vanessa has a long journey ahead, so I think she's just being honest and letting her sister know how dangerous the work they have ahead may be. She and Scarlett understand what they're in for, but sometimes you just have to say it out loud, and that's a lot of what their great scene in the graveyard is about. That was an interesting night of shooting: It was a holdover from a different day when we got hit by a snowstorm, and it made no sense that they'd sit and have this conversation out in the snow while waiting for Axel to return — of course, when we postponed it and set it up to shoot again, it poured rain, so we had to do it out in inclement weather anyway. The logic of standing in the rain aside, Kelly Overton and Missy Peregrym absolutely knocked a pretty good scene out of the park and made it truly memorable; Kelly, in particular, when she growls "I don't know!" at her sister, really moved me. It was not a fun night, but we shot some beautiful footage and it's great to watch now from the (I hope) warmth and dryness of your own home.
Really dug Christian Westerveld's performance as the Psychic Vampire, and the overall look of these somewhat advanced creatures. Any details you can reveal in terms of their conceptual design and abilities?
Christian did an amazing job for us — we wanted a new sort of creature, and he gave us one; of course, when I say "he" gave us one I also mean dozens of other artists who helped design the hair and makeup and clothing and VFX and all the rest, but he was the man standing there, so I give him lots of credit for his quiet, creepy performance. We called him and some earlier vampires we met in Episode 302 "energy vampires," as they were meant to pull on other energy sources from a person's body rather than just blood. It led to a very cool, multi-colored fight scene and a fantastic showdown with Christian at the end of the episode. It wasn't until we were in post-production and trying to make the "energy vampires" bleed real blood that we decided to try colorizing the blood to make it more energy-like and a bit psychedelic. I think it worked remarkably well, and I'm now very happy with the sequence. A little something new from us as we keep pushing our way forward, always trying to give the audience what they want while trying to surprise them a little bit as well. Again, just wait until next week…!