TV Interview: Peter Weller Sinks His Teeth Into ‘The Strain’

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Preston Barta // Critic

THE STRAIN | 60 min. | TV-MA | Creator: Guillermo del ToroChuck Hogan | Stars: Corey Stoll, David Bradley, Mía Maestro, Sean Astin, Kevin Durand, Richard SammelJonathan HydeMiguel Gomez, Natalie Brown, Ben Hyland, Jack Kesy, Anne Betancourt, Jonathan Potts, Nikolai Witschl and Regina King

Director Peter Weller at the premiere for 'The Strain.'

Director Peter Weller at the premiere for THE STRAIN.

Vampires, the Holocaust, Nazis— things have truly kicked into high gear lately on THE STRAIN. As characters develop further, back-stories come forth and the vampires grow in numbers and intellect (just wait for Episode 8’s MIST-style storyline), the influence of Peter Weller‘s skilled direction is clear.

Best known for his roles in ROBOCOP (1987) and THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION (1984), Weller directed the latest two episodes (Episode 5 and 6).

In those episodes we watch a younger Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), in 1944, when he, his brother and grandmother are taken to a Nazi concentration camp. When The Master sneaks into the prisoners’ barracks to feed, we watch as Setrakian witnesses the horrors of the night. It’s a fascinating aspect to add to an already gripping show.

Fresh Fiction had the chance to catch up with Dr. Weller, who received his Ph.D. recently in Italian Renaissance – Art History at UCLA, to talk about coming into the series, working with the show’s creators (Carlton Cuse and Guillermo del Toro) and thoughts about the horror genre.

Hello, Mr. Weller. Thanks for talking with me today. So you’re in Hawaii, right? Are you shooting some more episodes of HAWAII FIVE-0?

Peter Weller: “Yes. I am in Hawaii, shooting HAWAII FIVE-0. You could say right now that I am looking at the ocean, sitting in my cigar-approved junior suite with my director of photography, Krishna Rao, smoking cigars.”

Sounds like a good time. Are you going to watch THE STRAIN later?

Weller: “I may, but I usually don’t watch shows unless I have to catch up on something, like SONS OF ANARCHY.”

Ah, I see. I am curious to know how the whole process works for you, when coming into a show where you only direct a few episodes. Do Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse sit all the directors down and talk about the arc of the whole season?

Weller:Carlton Cuse is very specific. He’s a showrunner-producer who is literary but not a director. Many times now there are literary showrunners who also direct, but he does not direct. He’s very specific about taking us one-by-one about where the arc of the show is going, where your episodes are going, and what he needs for the show.

So yeah, it’s true, especially when a show starts like that. I did the same thing with John Coveny and Greer Shephard when I worked on LONGMIRE, because I was helping with the first season for that, too.”

Do you have a choice in picking the episodes?

Weller: “No. I mean, the order comes in and they ask, ‘Are available for this one or that one?’ And you say, ‘Yeah,’ ‘No,’ or ‘Can I get a request to change’ if there is a conflict?”

Interesting. I have to tell you, the episodes that you directed – episodes five and six – are the best episodes of the season thus far. And I have watched it up until No. 8.

Weller: “Thank you, man.”

(L-R) Corey Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather, David Bradley as Abraham Setrakian -- CR: Michael Gibson/FX

(L-R) Corey Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather, David Bradley as Abraham Setrakian — CR: Michael Gibson/FX

I love that we are getting Abraham’s back-story – David Bradley’s character –with the Nazi war camps and Thomas Eichhorst. It was a fascinating storyline and you really handled it well.

Weller: “Thank you, thank you. I really appreciate that.”

No problem. How do you bring your own individual voice to an episode? I have no idea how bringing multiple directors into a series works. Do you watch previous episodes or dailies, or read the other scripts to get an idea of how it should go and so you know where you can bring yourself out more in it?

Weller: “Yeah. I will read them and then see them. You’ll get an episode and say, ‘Well, in one word, what is this really about?’ Then you’ll say, ‘This one is about love, and this one is about death.’ I have to put it in one word.

I design things. If the shot looks like crazy, then my director of photography, like Krishna on HAWAII FIVE-O, will say, ‘Well, that’s not going to fit.’ This episode that we are doing now is about protection. The hit man is trying to protect the people he was supposed to kill. He didn’t kill them; he protected them, ordered them and saved them. This was about protection and transformation.

So how do we tell a story best visually? Does this work? Does that work? It’s got to be fast in places, and it’s got to take its time in others. You got to arc that out. Where does the story move and where does it slow down? One could fly and the other could get buried in mud. It all can’t be at the same pace, man. So if its got to go, its got to go. When it slows down, its got to slow down.”

Now, we’re starting to see this big proliferation of genre stuff, which is obviously not new, but the comic book stuff that has really been invading TV. Just on broadcast alone there are five new shows based on comics. What do you think is behind that proliferation?

Weller: “Well, the world likes thrillers. H. L. Mencken once said, ‘There are three things that sell in the United States: sex, murder, and Abraham Lincoln.’ He said that in the 30s, man. People love thrillers with murder. If you throw in the sex and leave out the Abraham Lincoln, people will be fine with that.

Corey Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather -- CR: Michael Gibson/FX

Corey Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather — CR: Michael Gibson/FX

Comic books, though. See, I wasn’t really a comic book guy. But THE STRAIN isn’t really of that genre; it’s Guillermo del Toro, man. THE STRAIN is his particular vision of the ultimate evil, the ground of being evil. In episode six we re-create Treblinka, which was really the last and most horrible of death camps. It wasn’t set up under the officers as being a labor camp; it was a death camp, man. There wasn’t a gate. It was the train that killed you. You get on the train, you get off the train, and that was it. So even that is just an arm, an exponent of Guillermo‘s idea that vampirism – not the cloak and the fangs – is truly sucking life, sucking good out of a human being. You know, to proliferate dynasty or control. That’s not even a comic book, man. That’s Guillermo [Laughs]. He truly is one of the most unique human beings I’ve ever known. Love him.”

He’s great. I had the chance to talk to him earlier in June, and he really knows his stuff. He mentioned that the first season follows the first book and that the next season will follow the second book.

Weller: “It does, it does. But he didn’t write it as a comic book at first; he wrote it as a book.”

Right.

Weller: “He visualized it later as a comic book series. I believe he tried to sell it first as a series, and no one was interested. So it wasn’t until he wrote the books that everyone was interested. Then they did the visualization of it, which is really cool.

But I did the Batman thing for Frank Miller. I mean, I read some comic books, but I never read horror or science fiction as a kid. I understand the fascination of it, because it’s evil fantasy. But it’s not in my ballpark. I can’t speak to it. But I do know that if Hollywood gets tired of a genre, they will re-invent another one.”

Peter Weller as Bill Lee in David Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH.

Peter Weller as Bill Lee in David Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH (1991).

Since we’re kind of touching base on horror. There’s a quote from Alfred Hitchcock that I like where he says that the best way to get your fears is to make movies about them. Is there anything that you’ve filmed in the past or have written that scares you? It just seems like a great way to get over your fears- make movies about them.

Weller: “There has only been a couple of experiences, really, that have come along that matched my particular, personal dilemma. The obvious one was NAKED LUNCH (1991). Not the heroine addiction, but about the thing that you were addicted to— sex, drugs, money – whatever it is. It will run your life. Unless you purge yourself, you’re doomed to repeat it.  And that’s why it’s a brilliant script, and brilliant movie.

At that particular time in my life, I was really hooked into a woman. It was about as low, emotionally, as I have ever been. And doing that movie was a way out of hell.

Now the book, the book was my favorite book in college. It was in Life or Time magazine as one of the 10 most influential pieces of fiction written in English of the century. It’s a phantasmagoria of what society can come to if it doesn’t pay attention to the spiritual side. I don’t want to say I was morally bankrupt at the time but I was definitely spiritually bankrupt, and I was looking for some way out of that hell. NAKED LUNCH was my way out.

When I was doing ROBOCOP, because of [director] Paul Verhoeven and the writers of that thing, on the other side of it, I was living a great life and I had to sort of plunge myself into the ideology of resurrection. I gleaned, I learned so much by doing ROBOCOP. I learned so much emotionally by doing ROBOCOP, but it wasn’t necessarily something that I was going through.

So those two movies – one from the inside out, the other from the outside in – were very resonant to me while I was doing them. A lot of times you’re not that lucky. You’re going like, ‘I don’t really want to make this terrible movie about murder and stuff because I am not really feeling on top of my game right now,’ but you got to go there. A lot of times you’re feeling miserable and you got to do a movie about a happy guy and do some happy sh*t. But then other times it resonates.

Guillermo wanted to exercise his demons with THE STRAIN, and he did, man. And I got to tell you, it was one of the most difficult shoots. It was five below zero every day. There’s no love story, humor— nothing. It was everyday, subzero weather, man. It was about as horrific as the story.”

Catch Weller’s latest episode of THE STRAIN tonight on FX.

Also check out my previous interview with Dr. Weller with the North Texas Daily (here), and Fresh Fiction’s interview with THE STRAIN‘s showrunners, Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse (here).

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.