Showrunner Carlton Cuse Talks Cranking Up the Volume for The Strain Season Three

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Showrunner Carlton Cuse Talks Cranking Up the Volume for <i>The Strain</i> Season Three

By the end of the second season of The Strain, FX’s bloody, pulpy, Guillermo del Toro-inspired vampire series, the balance of power between man and monster was clearly shifting. And humanity wasn’t winning.

Now, as we head into Season Three, which premiered last night, all Hell is breaking loose. The show’s vampires are stronger, faster, and there’s a whole lot more of them. We’re officially entering The Walking Dead/Game of Thrones White Walker territory here.

And while that’s not exactly great news for mankind, it’s got The Strain showrunner Carlton Cuse very excited about what’s in store this upcoming season. So excited, in fact, that he decided he just had to direct the show’s season finale this year. This, even though Cuse is also currently the showrunner on two other series (Bates Motel and Colony), recently got the green light on a fourth (Amazon’s Jack Ryan), and is now developing a fifth show for Hulu.

Paste caught up with the busy writer/producer to talk about what’s got him so enthusiastic about The Strain’s third season, making his directorial debut, and the plan for the horror show from here.

Paste Magazine: I just finished watching the first three episodes of Season Three, and talk about a cliffhanger. Without giving anything away, I have to say, it makes me pretty excited to see where the rest of this season is headed.
Carlton Cuse: Oh, that’s awesome. I’m really happy to hear that. First of all, I have to give thanks to FX. Basically, I went to them and said, “I would much rather do 10 episodes than 13 episodes this year.” This season is really about the battle for New York and I wanted it to have this really high level of kineticism. It gave us the opportunity to really crank up the volume on the series this season, in a really good way. I just was trying to make the show really full throttle this season. I feel like there’s massive stakes, and I think it’s really the best season of our show by far.

Even if you haven’t been watching The Strain, you can kind of jump in and go along for the ride. Because, not only do we have some great character stuff, but on a narrative level, really, nothing less than the fate of New York City is at stake. With the sense that however New York goes, so’s going to go the rest of the world. It was a really fun season. I was so excited about the narrative that I directed the season finale myself. It was just too juicy and good for me to not want to do that. And that was the first time I’d stepped behind the camera. I’m really proud of the season.

Paste: After all the shows that you’ve worked on—not to mention, that you’re currently working on—what made you want to make your directorial debut now?
Cuse: It’ll become clear (laughs).There’s a complete answer to that, but unfortunately, it’s kind of a spoiler. There’s some stuff that happens in the finale this season that was just too good. It really came down to that. Chuck Hogan, who is the co-author of the books [with del Toro], and I wrote the final episode. And the more we started talking about it, I just kept thinking, “Boy, I really would love to do that.” It was also very challenging, and it’s a good thing to challenge yourself. I felt like it would be a great experience. And it turned out it was. Especially because I am working on multiple shows at a time, it was so awesome to just be singularly focused. It reminded me of being back on Lost, where I just monastically worked on one show for six years. Just having that opportunity to really craft one hour of film, super-intensely, was really rewarding.

Paste: Were there any parts of it that were more challenging than you’d been expecting?
Cuse: I mean, look, I have the highest respect for directors and, in particular, episodic television directors. I don’t think anyone has any idea of how hard they work and how arduous it is. Many of them are flying all over the world to do episodes of shows that are set in far-flung tax havens (laughs). It’s a really demanding job. It was physically really demanding. We had a bunch of all-night shoots in Toronto during the coldest April in the last 40 years. It felt almost like a shared battle experience. The crew is just awesome and it was really fun to bond with the cast and be guiding them. And I think they also appreciated it, because the visiting directors come in and they’re doing different episodes of different series across the television landscape, [whereas] I was coming in as someone who was an authority figure with regards to this story and their characters. So it was fun to be able to collaborate with them on what the next moves would be in their stories.

Paste: I’m guessing that, considering it’s the season finale, the action is probably pretty ramped up as well.
Cuse: Absolutely. It just felt like a great culmination of the season, and it was a really wonderful experience. In terms of the action and the scope, I’m just kind of laughing inside, because it’s pretty wild. I love The Strain because it goes places that no other show goes to. I feel like one of the things we’ve done really successfully is carved out a niche in the genre space that is really unique—which is hard to do. There are many, many iterations of “vampire stories,” but this one, I think we’ve managed—between Guillermo, Chuck Hogan and myself—to make it very different. And [to make it] feel different. To set it in a crowded genre landscape, I think that’s really hard to do, but I don’t think there is any show that’s quite like The Strain.

Paste: It feels like the scope of the show has been rising exponentially ever since the second half of last season. Was that almost like a warm-up, in terms of what the series is going to look like going forward?
Cuse: Definitely. Again, without spoiling things—I guess you could spoil them in some sense if you read the third book in Guillermo’s trilogy, where the world is in a very desperate place—we’re in the process of writing Season Four right now and it’s awesome. I think we’ve defined the world in a way that’s very different than other post-apocalyptic shows. It’s a very different universe than The Walking Dead, for example, and it’s really fun to both establish the world and then put our characters into these crazy, action-y encounters in that world. And really, through that action, reveal what our characters are made of, what they’re all about.

Paste: The season premiere kicks off with a voiceover from David Bradley’s character reminding the audience where we’re at, and that we’re still only 23 days into this outbreak. It’s crazy to think where this show is at now, versus where it was 26 episodes ago.
Cuse: Yeah, I know. It is crazy when you think about everything that’s happened and then it’s only been 23 days. But I think that the truth is, if there was an apocalyptic event that struck our world, 23 days is a huge amount of time. Things can change seismically in 23 days! And one of the things that we took on in our show, that is not taken on a lot in genre, is to show the gradual disintegration of a world across those 23 days. A lot of other times, the apocalyptic situation is a precondition, whether it’s The Road or The Walking Dead, or in the case of something like World War Z, there’s three scenes and then Brad Pitt is running from zombies. They don’t detail out how society collapses and what the process is of that collapse. We felt like that was a really cool thing that we could do on our show.

Paste: To me, it almost feels like Season One and Season Two are sort of Act One of this story, and now we’re getting into Act Two.
Cuse: Yes. Very much so.

Paste: You’d mentioned you’ve already started talking about a Season Four. Are you still eying this as a five-season story?
Cuse: It’s still evolving. Whether it’s four seasons or five seasons, we’re definitely working towards an endpoint. This is a story with an ending. Right from the very beginning, Guillermo and I agreed that we had to be writing towards an ending. So we’re in the process of figuring out right now how many more episodes is the ideal episode count to get us to that end. And it’s a little too early to answer that question. But it’s in the best interest of the show; it’s going to make for the best story. I think, in a world where television shows can be watched over time, it’ll really make The Strain a great viewing experience for people who pick it up later. And as a storyteller, the best possible thing is to get the opportunity to write the end of your narrative. That’s when you get to take all the issues that have been percolating and bring them to their conclusion. So, it’s a question, really, of us figuring out what’s the best path to get there, and that’s what we’re doing now.

Paste: Last season ended with a pretty big twist that doesn’t happen in the books, and I know that’s something that you and everyone else on this show has talked about since the beginning—that this is not going to be a strict adaptation. But that seemed to be your biggest signal yet to fans.
Cuse: Yes. Right from the get-go, again, in concert with Guillermo and Chuck, we all agreed that the TV show should be its own thing. The plan was always, we’ll take things that we love from the books and we’ll do them in the show, but sometimes we’ll do them in a different way. And sometimes they’ll be the same, and then we’ll also have a bunch of stuff that’s not in the books at all. When you write a book, you’re creating a universe by yourself. The pool of collaboration is very small. You can create the world exactly the way you want it. I think of TV shows as organic entities, and I think one of the things that’s very important to me, as a show creator and showrunner, is really listening to the show. And that means watching what actors do, watching what kind of relationships unfold between the actors. Finding threads of drama as they’re exposed through scenes that we create, and mining those veins of ore and pushing those relationships further. And exploring things that arise. And listening to the voices of all these other talented writers who work with us on the show. All of those things combine to make the series its own distinct thing.

I’ve had the really good fortune of going on that journey with the two guys who wrote the underlying books, who have been incredibly open-minded about the fact that the show is its own creative process. And I think they’ve really enjoyed the process as well. Guillermo just started shooting this movie, The Shape of Water, and before that, we sat down a bunch of times and talked through ideas for this next [fourth] season. And a lot of the stuff that we were discussing was new stuff that wasn’t in the books. It just allows the project to have a life and a vibrancy that you wouldn’t have if the task was to just diligently translate what’s in the books to the screen. Creativity is not a finite process, and I think both Chuck and Guillermo have relished the opportunity to revisit this work and adapt it in a new way.

Paste: One of those new subplots that I’ve really enjoyed is the councilwoman Justine Feraldo and her almost fascist rise to power. Given the current political climate and everything that’s happening with Donald Trump, that element of the show is starting to feel more timely than ever.
Cuse: I think what happens is, writers are influenced by their environment. In a certain way, we take the experiences of our lives, past and present, and put them through the genre filter of a vampire show, and tell stories. But in some ways these stories we tell are reflective of the culture at large. Certainly when I was doing Lost, I think it was a show that felt very informed by having been written in a post-9/11 world. Where “anything could come out of the jungle at any time” was a very appropriate metaphor for the way people in the world were feeling.

On The Strain, the issues of a convulsive society in change opening itself up to a form of totalitarianism is a very topical thing. It’s something that is not only a lens on what’s going on in present day, but we use a lot of World War II metaphor in this show. A lot of the political moves in our show are reflective of what happened during the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the ‘30s, and you think it can’t happen here. Or if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen during a vampire apocalypse. But our story is obviously a very heightened reality, and there are elements of our storytelling that I think reflect the world at large in interesting ways.