The Strain Set Visit

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Tonight, Gullermo del Toro presents a new vision in terror as the series premiere of The Strain launches a new kind of vampire. Back in March, I was invited to the set to have a look at what goes on behind the scenes and along with some fellow media types (a number of whom had flown in just for  this event), chat with the cast that was on hand!

…It’s cold. Real cold. Damned cold. -24 with the wind chill as I hit the transit to head to New York (with, fittingly enough, Carpenter’s Escape From New York theme playing in my earbuds). I’m not headed to the real New York, of course, but a recreation. One under the threat from a vampiric menace… I’m off to the set of Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain. It’s based on the best-selling trilogy he co-authored with Chuck Hogan. The novel has already spawned a comic series, and it is now set to take over the airwaves as a highly anticipated summer series on FX. A series that del Toro has already confirmed that, if successful, will only run 3 to 5 seasons and then be done.

Gathering at the Park Hyatt, I immediately feel a little out of my depth, there are writers here from IMDB, Zap2It, IGN, MSN and the Huffington Post. But I steel myself, and refuse to sit at the kid’s table. We’ve proved ourselves with our set visits, film, television and book coverage, I’m ready.

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With hot chocolate and one of those yummy Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwiches in hand, I clamber aboard a shuttle bus for our trip to the set. Pockets of conversations pop up as folks catch up with one another. I’m a little bit like the odd one out, and no doubt, the smallest blog that got invited to set.

Flakes of snow from this seemingly never-ending winter swirl around the vehicle as talk of film and television swirl within. I just sit and enjoy it, hearing other people share in some of my passions.

My phone buzzes as my Twitter feed blares into life as my tweets about the set visit start to make their way around. I also hope that I get to catch up with a couple of previous guests on our show, who are recurring characters in the series.

Dominic Pagone from FX leads us unto the fray when we arrive at the awesome Pinewoods Studio. We step beyond the doors of the towering grey buildings, lined up like so many barns, and into del Toro’s imagination.

Buckle up!

Inside these studios are places that will become familiar to viewers very quickly, and for those of us who have read the original novels, its like seeing images in your head brought to life before your eyes. We’re promised looks at Palmer’s home, Bolivar’s apartment and a look at the tunnels.

Sawdust seems to fill the air, mirroring the flakes outside as production crews work away. We weave our way around wooden constructs, step over bundles of snake-like wires, and then, almost magically, find ourselves in Palmer’s neo-gothic/art deco apartment.  There are jars lining one wall, filled with fluid, organs, and red flesh (all fakes to be sure, but none the less, rather disturbing).

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The centerpiece of the massive room, apart from its view, provided by floor to ceiling windows (which is currently overlooking the stages, but when the backdrop of New York is hung, no doubt looks stunning), which is modeled after the shape of Roy Thomson Hall, is a giant grey medical chair. This is where viewers will be introduced to Palmer, played by Jonathan Hyde, who has some secrets of his own…

We browse for a few minutes, digital cameras whirring away as we snap pictures of the sights, before we are beckoned on, and plunge beneath the city streets into the subway and catacomb-like tunnels that honeycomb New York. The production has crafted over 200 feet of tunnels. They can be used as subway tunnels, then redressed and shot from different angles to suggest other dank and dark areas that the vampires are beginning to infest.

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A number of the materials used in the construction of the tunnels were incorporated from the feature film, Pompei, as well as the locally shot television series, Beauty and the Beast. We also learn an interesting fact… apparently there is a subway stop in Toronto that is no longer used, called Lower bay Street. In fact there are a number of unused subway stations hidden beneath our fair city. Lower Bay however is now used for film shoots on a regular basis.

Stepping around a bend in the tunnel, we’re back out in the open spaces of the stage again, and find ourselves face to face with a massive, intricately carved box, its surfaces carved with chilling and macabre scenes, overseen and partially designed by del Toro, himself, this is the Master’s coffin. It was built from 500 lbs of fibre glass, and is visually arresting. It exudes menace.

Drawing ourselves away from it, our eyes, the last things to be pulled away, we step into another set…

Bolivar’s apartment. Played by Jack Kesy, Bolivar is a bit of a rock star, who gets caught up in things in a big, big way…

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The set is fantastic, its crafted to be a hip little place, the slanting roof, indicating we’re supposed to be at the top of a building, in this case the Tribeca Theater, for which Massey Hall will stand in for. It’s filled with candles, art, and rock posters, as well as the odd little trinket. There are speakers, a drum set, a vanity mirror, and a standing tub.

We learn that for the series, that the color red is used sparingly, and is always symbolic. There are splashes of it throughout the room.

While cool to look at and survey, there is something decidedly off-putting about this set, and you’re left to wonder about the mental state of the character who is meant to inhabit it. I repressed a shiver as we left it behind.

From there, we make a quick jaunt in the shuttle and find ourselves walking into the Creature Shop, where work today has crawled to a stop, as the heat is out, and not only are people unable to work, it makes the materials difficult to handle. So we are given to look around, but be careful not to touch, and most assuredly do not take pictures!

I have a geek moment, because one thing you can always count on when del Toro is involved in creature design, not only will everything look suitably disturbing, but chances are Doug Jones may be involved. No sooner do we walk in the door of the Shop which will administer not only to The Strain but also to del Toro’s latest feature, Haunted Peak (previously called Crimson Peak), there is a full body mold of Doug Jones. Coolness. About fourteen artists work in this room, working in foam latex and silicon.

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The room would be downright macabre if there was some suitably moody lighting, but under the fluorescents, it just looks odd, and a little unnerving. There are jaw bones, sketch boards, maquettes,  facial appliances, hand claws, there are sheets of demonic ears, as if they were fresh from the oven. I see some names of some of our past show guests on labeled bins around the room, filled with appliances (each one taking three to four hours to create, not including face-casting, or body casting the actor) that will help augment their characters… exciting! Glaring up from one of the tables, surrounded by clawed hands, is a deflated mask/face with bloody stained lips, watching me with its ruby-red eyes. There are troubling and skeletal looking busts, life-life faces stare out us from shelves, arms, and viciously clawed hands reach out for us, jutting up from tabletops, and as we round a small corner…

…there, glaring back at us, is The Master.

It’s actually just a bust of The Master, his make-up and look, there is a vicious look to the being, red eyes glaring, and a waddle, hanging threateningly under his chin. This is someone you wouldn’t want to meet anywhere, let alone a dark alley…

The designs we see around the room have been in development since November, 2012. The work overseen by del Toro and his creative team has been designed to be faithful to the book, and give a frightening visual look to this new strain of vampire. The teeth, always part of the defining characteristics of a vampire, are reminiscent of Nosferatu, very rodent-like. Combined with the facial and body designs, del Toro has created his version of the monster eternal, that has been with us since we first climbed down from the trees.

Twinning the bust, not so very far away, is an animatronic Master head, that looks incredibly creepy, and will no doubt appear simply horrifying on-screen! It seems somewhat more tame in the well-lit room, surrounded by lots of people.

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Make-up, practical effects and animatronics will be paired up with some CGI work, with the occasional use of digital doubles to augment the vampires’ speed and movements.

One of the curious, and honestly, one of the many troubling things about these vampires, and anyone who has read the book knows this, is that the genitals are no longer used, and in fact, fall off male vampires… ewww. A black bag is hauled out from under a table, and unzipped. As we watch, a body, on which an extensive autopsy has been conducted, spills out dramatically onto the floor, eliciting a variety of reactions from the room. It looks like it could simply open its eyes and scream at you in horror and pain as it sees the condition of its body.

Very freaky.

Taking my mind off the body on the floor, I start to examine some of the boxes around the room, some are filled with carving tools and brushes, some are labeled… there are vampire sunburns, head wounds, cheek pieces, waddles, ear molds, and a box marked Stephen McHattie (man I want to get that guy on our show!).

We organize ourselves into a cohesive group again as we pile back into our shuttle, with Dominic announcing we’re off to the other sets for the show. Heading west, I find myself in a very familiar area, not so very far from the fae world of Lost Girl, lurks a number of sets for The Strain.

We wander through a large collection of studios, after being warned to make sure that our phones are switched to silent, that also houses the productions of Reign and Beauty & The Beast. It’s a massive complex, with people rushing about in all directions, turning illusion into televised reality.

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Our first stop, and the location that will be our base camp for the rest of the day, is a massive room, that has a complete housing unit from a concentration camp at one end. This is the Treblinka, 1944, set. The wooden construction contains a cramped series of stacked wooden beds inside, a dirty floor, and the imagery would be creepy and off-putting. It’s easy to imagine the area filled with forlorn, starving and shivering huddled masses that only resemble human beings in the loosest sense of the word. It would be completely upsetting, if not right outside the set’s main door, there wasn’t a huge backdrop of a modern suburban home, it’s roof and yard covered in snow, that was used for another shot. Instead of being troubling, it now transcends that to become simply absurd in its surroundings.

Something that is compounded by the fact that there are three long lunch tables set up before the yawning wooden door… Our base camp, proper.

Leaving our coats behind, we wander down a wide hallway and step inside a giant studio filled with sets. There are hints of city streets, storefronts, and homes, all pushed up against one another, jostling for importance and our attention. Before we can get a good look at any of them though, we step through a front door, and find ourselves in the home of Kelly Goodweather (Natalie Brown).

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It’s a gorgeous picturesque home, except for the headless corpse lying in the middle of the kitchen floor. A number of the production crew are quick to point out that the body isn’t there for a scene, it’s just resting there, out-of-the-way… hmmm. Stepping around the body, we take in the view of the kitchen, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell it wasn’t the real thing, it feels lived-in.

We slip out the front door, and weave through backdrops, and wooden constructions to find ourselves in the basement armory of Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley). We are cautioned against taking pictures on this set, as apparently spoilers abound. The dusty subterranean room is filled with weaponry, there are all manner of guns, swords and knives, hanging from the walls, clustering in sharp-edged groups on tables, there are antique weapons covered with notes and paperwork. A worn subway map lazes on a makeshift desk.

There’s a small sitting area crowded with paper, files and reference books, the occasional Jeffrey Archer novel peeking out from the stacks. Peeling from a battered typewriter is a faded sheet from Vautrin’s Diary, dated August 12, 1937, perhaps a reference to Minnie Vautrin?

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Leaving the basement, we find ourselves on a New York Street, with the store front of Setrakian’s pawn shop dominating the space. There is fake snow frosting the edges of the sidewalk, looking entirely convincing. We pass through the doors, and are amongst clutter, with just the subtlest hint of organization. Glass cabinets, filled to bursting with odds and ends, line either side of the long room, ending in the grated, and secure area from which Setrakian makes his deals, paying gold for silver… the better to make his weapons with.

Despite looking completely solid, there walls are designed to be flyaways, pulling out, so that a camera can get in for the right angle. Surrounded as we are, it’s hard to believe it’s a set, it truly does look like a rundown, weathered shop, so we do what all people do… We browse, like flea-market shoppers, rifling through pictures, snapping shots, leafing through pages, and thumbing through old 45s (there’s a copy of Tom Petty’s Running Down a Dream on sale).

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I step out of the shop, to take some pictures of the storefront, and the tiny little areas around it. And pause, letting a grin slide onto my face. There just a few paces away, is Argus Filch, Walder Frey… David Bradley. He is chatting with someone, and when his eyes slide over to me, they are friendly and welcoming, and I do not hear the Rains of Castamere playing anywhere.

Seizing the moment, I head over, introduce myself quickly, I knew he was working, but also knew I may not get a chance to chat with him solo later on… and with all the roles he’s played, what one did I mention to him? His turn as William Hartnell, the first Doctor, in An Adventure in Space and Time. He thanked me, shaking my hand, and told me that the role had been something special for him, and was glad that it had resonated so strongly with me.

At that point I could have called it a day, I’d seen a lot of amazing things already, and had just met David Bradley… but no, there were more things to come.

Gathering up with the group again, we slipped around the corner of the street to wander, travelling very surreal into a building hallway, and then into an apartment, the detail at work in the creation of this home is exemplary, as it has been on every set piece we’ve seen so far. There are tons of photos, and personal knick knacks, conveying the fact that this is where someone lives.

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I wander back out to the dingy and dreary hallway to jot down some notes, only to be interrupted by bells ringing throughout the studio. A rehearsal is getting ready to begin. The cast is ready to walk through the scene, as episode 10 of season 1 continues. David Bradley gets ready to do his thing, standing off to the side of the set, before settling into his spot on the set.

The rehearsal is brought to a halt with the strange cry of “The phone is moving.” Everything reins to a halt, a collective pause, before plunging back into it again.  Everyone seems happy with the rehearsal, the tech is checked and ok, and they roll film, capturing a brief interaction with Setrakian.

We’re called to lunch, provided by the Focused on Food catering service, and it’s a very enjoyable spread. We sit in makeshift groups, some of us still unfamiliar with one another, despite the shared experiences, and creative leanings. There’s Irish Stew, lamb with rice, salads, and dear gods, a table filled with cupcakes…

We chat about film and television, debating whether to brave the weather to see some of the night shoot tonight. Knowing how cold it is, and is bound to get, I’ve already elected not to take part.

After we square our meals away, we’re taken in groups to have a look at some of the filming again, there are working on a series of reaction shots, there’s a writer, nestled up net to the director in video village, mac book whirring away as he puts some tweaks on episode 112 (Season 1, episode 12).

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On our way back to Treblinka, we make a stop in the costume department, cautioned again against taking photographs of what we are about to see. There are racks, upon racks of clothes, sketches, designs cover the walls, and stepping into a work area, which has labeled bottles, film blood and other undesirable stain-making liquids, congregating on tables in strange groups. The tables, the bottles, and a disturbing necklace composed of animal skulls all seem to be in a subservient position to the dominating costume standing tall on a mannequin, giant boots elevate it on its platform, and a high collar that would help to hide and shadow the face, aided by a hood, the Master’s multi-layered cloak stands ready to spring to life in a whirlwind of blood frenzy.

This show is going to be so wonderfully creepy!!

And now, it was time for us to meet some of the creative people who were bringing the characters of del Toro’s and Hogan’s book to life.

First up is Corey Stoll, perhaps best known for his turns as Peter Russo in Netflix’s stellar series, House of Cards, and Detective TJ Jaruszalski on Law and Order: LA. Corey plays Ephraim Goodweather, a CDC expert, called in to investigate the strange happenings that launch the series.

Next up was the delightful David Bradley, who after asking a round of questions was quite happy to share some of his experiences and tales from his time on the Harry Potter films, Doctor Who (albeit briefly) and Game of Thrones.

Following that amazing experience, we all chatted with Natalie Brown, who has rocked roles on Cracked, Being Human, and Bitten, before taking on the role of Kelly Goodweather, Ephraim’s ex-wife.

Finally, we’re joined by Mia Maestro, who plays Ephraim’s partner (in more than just the work sense), Dr. Nora Martinez. Genre fans will recognize her as Nadia Santos, from Alias.

Following that, we all gathered our kits up, threw on our jackets to brave the cold, and got ready to bid farewell to the streets of New York, until we were able to revisit them on the television screen.

Before I left, friend and former guest on our show, Drew Nelson, who plays Matt Sayles, popped in to say hi to me, which was cool!

A number of my fellows were going to be able to come back again tomorrow, for some more interviews, and of course there was the night shoot. Some of us, read as just me, had to head back to work tomorrow morning, so I thought it best to call it a day, get in from the cold, and get my brain back into work mode.

Still, I was very thankful for the glimpse behind the scenes that I was afforded, I do love a good set visit! Sooner or later, I’m positive I’ll bump in to del Toro himself, and I just want to sit and talk film with him, just lose ourselves in a geeky appreciation of comic books, movies, and monsters.

And now, we’ll be afforded a weekly fix of the master filmmaker, as The Strain begins TONIGHT on FX and FX Canada!!

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