When it comes to Vanessa and Scarlett ... can there be only one?
We spoke with Neil LaBute about Van Helsing Season 3, Episode 8: "Crooked Steps." SPOILERS AHEAD.
I was going to say that I love how this relatively complicated exterior set involving a guy and his post-apocalyptic camper is used simply as a setup for Vanessa and Scarlett stealing a rowboat … but then it comes back in the end! Did you feel that you had to use that set at least twice to justify all the work that went into the little details like the guy's makeshift table made of tree branches and such?
Neil LaBute: Thanks for noticing the little things — you're right, that could've been a real throwaway moment (and set) just to get that bit of business done and move the characters on to the next scene or location, but our Van Helsing team provides us with little miracles every episode. We got a full working set with fire and amazing home-built contraptions for this apocalyptic survivor, and that's all thanks to our amazing production design team (whom I've thanked many times before), but also great people in SFX, VFX, costumes, makeup, hair, photography, etc., along with a marine unit (boats and people in the water), because we had actors and stunt people out there in the boat. All that for a couple little moments… but moments that we made pay off when Vanessa landed again at the end of the episode.
I thought it was such a brilliant touch, to have her return the boat and then, on second thought, go feed on the guy for blood (which was a hugely important moment in the show, because this marks the first time that Vanessa has killed anyone purely to drink their blood, because she wanted to). Anyone watching the show has to now ask themselves, especially when you watch all the conflicting emotions that Ms. Kelly Overton brings to the part, "What's the difference now between Vanessa and a vampire?" and my answer would be: "You tell me."
The lighthouse made for a mysterious location, as well as a unique one -- a different kind of aesthetic for Van Helsing. Where did you film those scenes?
Yes, it was great to stretch ourselves a little bit, get out on the road and take over an entirely new location for this episode. We went to Victoria, B.C., to film at a national park location (Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse), and it really paid off for us in terms of look and scope and storytelling — it was the last episode we shot this year, even though it's #8 in terms of the season, so it was a smaller crew that went over to the island, and it was a great way to finish off Season 3. Once we got there we were able to incorporate the location into the script, into many of the scenes that already existed on page, and so that was fun as well, finding little hidden spots and rewriting the story to match. It was really only the beginning and ending of the episode — along with the actual "cell" that the Elder was trapped in — that were shot in some location other than Victoria.
We also really liked the idea of the sisters being off on a mission together and the introduction of a new Elder at this point in the season; it's always great to freshen up the storytelling in any way possible, and this felt genuine and earned on our part. Because of the park and its many features, we were also able to shoot in a very efficient way as well (led again by director Mr. Jonathan Scarfe), which was helpful to all of us, as this episode came at the end of a long production schedule.
Is Scarlett eating peaches as a callback to Vanessa and Mohamad eating peaches in Season 1? I couldn’t tell if they were peaches or oranges or some equivalent thereof.
Good call! We did think it would be fun to call back to the peaches of Season 1 but not call a lot of attention to itself — so thanks for noticing. The writers and other artists in the Van Helsing world love to do that as often as they can, creating little moments that echo something else or tucking visual cues into the back of scenes or even the titles of books on shelves sometimes. It's a nice little gift to give to the very dedicated viewers who like that kind of thing — and sometimes you even get to preview things that might be still to come (am I being mysterious enough for you yet?). The peaches were also something that you would believe were there at a place like that, home-made by someone, and would still be fresh enough to eat, thanks to the canning process.
That scene was one of those that also really benefited from being shot on the island — as written, it took place inside the lighthouse, but once we got there we were constantly looking at scenes and saying to ourselves, "How can we move this outside and near the water?" Another was that crazy little block of concrete we found, mostly hidden by foliage, near the base of the fort that allowed us to create a believable entrance to an underground cell. It was just perfect and even allowed for a camera person to crawl inside and get a shot of Vanessa entering — many happy little accidents like that happened in Victoria!
The first couple acts of the episode reminded me of the puzzle-solving sequences of the Silent Hill games, and I loved the steampunk slide projector contraption. Who designed that?
Silent Hill — that's quite a compliment, thank you! We just wanted to do something fun and hopefully give our fans a different kind of episode than they've been used to this season. Part of what we wanted to do this year was to make each episode feel very unique and singular, and I think we came very close to achieving something like that: It's our version of The White Album (to try and jump on the back of some of the greatest artist minds of the century… I mean, you might as well pick the greatest heroes you can, right?). At one point we were even going to try a Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of map, with a red line moving across the screen as you watched our two sisters head toward the island, just to give this one a throwback feel and reference a type of adventure that all of us in the writers' room love and respect. The very cool "steampunk" (as you so rightly call it) projector was again devised by our production design team, along with some important assists from the SFX, VFX, and camera departments.
For the interested fan or even layperson, SFX means "special effects" department (who do all the on-set effects, from fires to "atmosphere" to bullet hits that are attached to an actor's body), whereas VFX means "visual effects" department (who do all the things to the image that we didn't do on set, like adding more fire or atmosphere or blood hits that can be cheaper and less messy to do after the fact these days).
Anyway, the projector and the map ripped out of the book and the two lines converging to create a point on the wall map are all tributes to a kind of fiction that I used to read when I was a kid. The best teacher I had as a writer was me — being a good reader and devouring books. Many more people guided me along the way, but the work of great (and even mediocre) authors really led the way for me.
I love the brief Frodo-Sam-Gollum dynamic of Vanessa-Scarlett-Jacob, and Jacob writhing on the rock in orgasmic ecstasy as he sunbathes made for yet another great little character moment on Van Helsing. What can you tell us about the actor who played Jacob Van Helsing?
What a great scene we got from these three pros in a set that we had to slap together in one corner of another set because we couldn't find any suitable space to build the cell in Victoria. Our talented producer designer (Mr. Grant Pearse) created a creepy little workspace for the actors, and they ran with it, along with Mr. Jonathan Scarfe, in terms of creating a palpable sense of dread and foreboding. Jacob is played by the fabulously talented Mr. Michael Eklund (late of Wynonna Earp, among others), and we just tried to give him enough space to let his endless imagination and talents roam. Every space that he found himself in — outside or inside — became a playground as he would inspect the props and the room or the cliffside or whatever, looking for the best and most interesting way to sun himself or to feed himself or to bite Vanessa on the neck.
You just consider yourself lucky to have an actor of his caliber join the show at any point to really inject some new and surprising life into our apocalyptic world. It's easy to forget how great Ms. Kelly Overton, Ms. Missy Peregrym, and the rest of the cast is when you see them day after day, but an episode like this — where Michael came in like a whirlwind of talent and ideas — is such a fresh and nice way to keep working through the long months of production.
Vanessa’s brutal dispatching of Jacob was made all the more disturbing by shooting it from behind — we experience it as Scarlett witnesses it, with our imagination filling in all the gruesome blanks. Are we meant to be as uneasy about Vanessa as Scarlett is? That’s what it’s feeling like right now, which makes me even more afraid for what lies ahead for our heroine.
A great point and a lovely choice by director Scarfe, but we certainly saw enough to feel ill, thanks to the amazing look of Ms. Overton's face when she stands up and smiles demonically, covered in blood: one of my favorite moments in the entire series. I think Kelly is doing such great, subtle, emotional work this season — even in the context of a genre show — as she takes this darker and darker path toward her destiny. Actors want to be pushed, but they also want be likable (especially if they're the hero of your story), but Kelly really embraced the need for Vanessa to make a journey that goes to some devastating places… and she's not done yet.
After this episode, there are still five more episodes to go in this season, and Vanessa has a couple of intense stops along the way. I think it's time to go past "uneasy" and start to get "nervous" or even "scared"; I promise you, the next time you see Vanessa you're going to want to hang around for every last second of the episode to see what happens… and that's practically a spoiler alert!