Is Mohamad "worthy" of Sam? Or is there another? We spoke with Neil LaBute about this particularly disturbing Sam-centric episode of Van Helsing.
SPOILERS AHEAD for Van Helsing Season 3, Episode 4: "Rusty Cage."
I love how experimental the editing and cinematography often become during Sam-centric scenes. What goes into the planning of the visual (and sometimes also aural) style of "Sam moments"?
Neil LaBute: I wouldn't say that this comes out of the writing room in particular — we think of some horrible things for Sam to do or say, no question — but often it's a particular director and/or editor that the more wonderful, weird, and wacky moments come for that character. There's a beautiful sequence courtesy of director Michael Nankin and editor Bridget Durnford and director of photography Ron Richard in Episode 304 that is like a floating ballet of vampires chasing a human which I think is just gorgeous. The movement of the actors through the trees, the way the camera flies past the action, etc., is all so sensual and alluring and terrifying — watching someone being pursued is scary but made beautiful by the medium itself and all its tools working in harmony.
We looked at various kinds of music here, but in the end we all loved the idea of a tribute to Tony Scott and his movie The Hunger, so we used a selection from the opera Lakme (the "Flower Duet") and it just made all the puzzle pieces slip seamlessly into place. Can't say enough about the actors who make these moments work (and I've talked a lot about the brilliant Chris Heyerdahl in these Q&A sessions), but this segment in particular was a real group effort and something well beyond what was on the page (even though author Jackie May did a terrific job with the script as well).
George Klimovich as Young Sam was quite good; he has kind of an Edward Furlong in Terminator 2 look and intensity. Did he work with Christopher Heyerdahl at all, or did he create his own Sam from the ground up?
Chris is brilliant about spending time with other actors and teaching them craft, making them feel comfortable and learning from them as well. I think both actors picked up certain mannerisms that helped connect the two ages of this character and to give us some character continuity as well. Chris did the same kind of work with Trezzo Mahoro, who plays Mohamad. And you can feel the growth in this wonderful young actor from season to season (Jonathan Scarfe also spent time working with Trezzo, and that was also very gratifying to see, a more experienced actor reaching out and helping a newer actor gain confidence and range episode after episode).
However, back to George Klimovich: You're right, he was quite good and always made me feel for the young man in every scene he was in, no matter how awful his behavior was at certain times (and it gets pretty bad along the way).
Sam's such a brutal and often cruel character, though his mentoring of Mohamad somewhat surprisingly contained elements of discipline, affection, and, oddly enough, something resembling honor. He also seems to have been marked by a great evil since his childhood. What can you tell us about Sam's journey so far and the continuing development of his character? He never ceases to surprise and grow.
The sky's the limit as far as Sam can go, because the writers love writing this character and in Chris Heyerdahl they have an actor who can do anything they think of (and more sometimes). What's really important, though, is that Chris is involved in the growth of Sam and actively works with us to know where he's going and to even make suggestions about the stories that he's given. He isn't just a puppet out there — he knows the character better than anyone in the writers' room and he's quick to react both positively and negatively to something that feels correct or incorrect for Sam.
Some people might find that behavior intrusive, but I love a good artistic collaborator and Chris has been a dream, both on Hell on Wheels and now here on Van Helsing. His instincts are incredible, and his mind is quick and nimble — he also has a wicked sense of humor, and that has been a pleasure to be around as well. Sam is on a dark path and will continue forward for now in that direction but who knows? It's an apocalypse and anything can happen — personally I would love to see him lose all those vampire traits he loves so much and see where he would go from there.
Is it weird that Scab in distress stresses me out? He's an awful little creature, though so very sympathetic as well. And he seems to be headed in an interesting direction with Ivory. Anything you can tell us about where he's been and where he's going?
I've spoken before about the joy of watching Rowland Pidlubny and Jennifer Blossom in their characters and on the show, but I'm happy to do so again. We originally had no real long-term plans for these characters, but the actors were so committed and so fierce in their portrayals that we've kept them alive and kicking for multiple episodes now. Personally I love seeing signs of life and love and fear and all the rest on these vampires — it allows us to remember that all these creatures were once human and had a past and it's all been put on hold by this disease that engulfs them and drives them crazy for blood. Like any addict, you have to look at the person that's there and remember that they're fighting for their lives against a raging sickness, no matter how dark the deeds are that they commit.
I think a recent show like The Haunting of Hill House did a really nice job with this when they dealt with one character's addictive behavior, and we're trying to do the same within the limits of a genre show. Thankfully we have two gifted actors and you can't hide their beautiful spirits and raw emotions under any amount of blood and makeup that we put on them (and believe me, we've tried!).
Even as a half-starved vampire, Mohamad can't help but be the most charismatic guy in the room (or the emptied swimming pool, or the bunker, or the woods, etc.). Has Trezzo Mahoro enjoyed going a little more feral lately with his character's turn?
I may be wrong, but everybody who's had a chance to play a vampire has enjoyed some part of it — if only putting on the makeup and clothing for the first time — and Trezzo has been no exception. Once he realized he was going to be a vampire he dove into the evolution of the character and embraced it. He's a very physical actor, and he's able to do a lot of his own stunts, so it's amazing to see him cut loose through the forest or climb a tree or do fight sequences, and that was doubled when he became a vamp. Trezzo has grown so much as an actor and as a person during these three seasons, and I'm proud to have him giving life to this really fun and complex character on the show.
Now that I think about it, maybe Jonathan Scarfe hated being a vampire the entire time, but thankfully so did his character (Axel fought becoming a vampire from beginning to end), and that frankly made his performance even richer. That idea — that a person could fight the sickness and would rather starve themselves than give in to the addiction — was one of the most provocative and surprising notions I think the Van Helming team has put forward so far, and it worked perfectly in the hands of Mr. Scarfe.
The parallel hunting lessons sequence was very poignant, considering what later happens to Felix (and to Mohamad), and what I've been referring to as "the Johnsons woods" has a particularly "haunted forest" vibe. What were the challenges of shooting that sequence?
I really thought writer Jackie May landed on a wonderful grace note with these parallel moments with "fathers" and "sons" learning skills from each other. I'm not sure when the idea started in the writers' room about Sam wanting to teach Mohamad how to enjoy the kill and find pleasure in prolonging the horror, but it was a great way to bring new life to a certain kind of character, and then Chris and Trezzo just built out their volatile relationship from there, in scene after scene.
I don't always love action shot in tandem like this, but Jackie handled it just right on the page, and then the four actors, including Phil Burke (who is also a friend from Hell on Wheels and was a pleasure to have back on set) and Bzhaun Rhoden as Felix, really nailed the familial interplay that was needed to sell these moments. Phil and Bzhaun have both given us such wonderful scenes during their time on Van Helsing, and there is even more to come from both of them, I hope — but don't forget, I could be lying.