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Hemlock Grove’s Famke Janssen and Eli Roth Discuss Season 2 [INTERVIEW] 

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Warning: Spoilers Ahead

If you’ve watched any of season two so far, you know things are different. The show is building on the characters we already know and love, but the stories are tighter and the special effects are even better. When Netflix gave Hemlock Grove a season two order, executive producer Eli Roth knew he wanted to make some changes. TV Goodness spoke to him and series star Famke Janssen about the look of the series, the evolution of Famke’s character and whether or not season three is already in the works.

How is this series different from doing a film?

Eli Roth: “It’s not that you’re just asking people to completely invest in a new mythology, in new characters. We come from the film world so, for us, we’re asking people to invest ninety minutes or two hours of their time. This was our first real foray into television and the response was incredible. I remember when we told everyone we were doing a show on Netflix, people said, ‘Oh, is it some web series?’ We’d say, ‘No. It’s a whole new thing. They’re doing shows now.’ In the year and a half difference between when the first [season] aired until now it is the norm to binge-watch. In fact, people are so used to watching multiple episodes they’re waiting so they can watch them all in a row. We’re thrilled. We wanted to make something special, we wanted to make something unique and the fans really gave us a chance and embraced the show. It was a fantastic hit. We’re lucky to get Emmy nominations. We’re so excited to be back with season two.”

Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie/Netflix
Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie/Netflix

As far as developing the show, was it a prime objective to give it a cinematic feel?

Famke Janssen: “Netflix has really been amazing because, of course, the first one out of the gate was House of Cards. They set the bar so incredibly high that all of a sudden it turned the entire film [and] television industry on its head because now anybody can do anything. But you had to do it at that high of a level. We’re basically making a ten hour movie. So all these people, all these incredible filmmakers, have another place to create.”

Eli: “Yeah. Drew Boughton worked with Tony Scott for many years as his art director. [He] did The Man With the Iron Fist for me and we brought him on to do the show and he just ran with it.”

Famke: “So talented.”

Eli: Now, the level of definition that you can get- everyone’s watching it on their home theater. You have to create something cinematic. When you watch shows like Game of Thrones, it’s like watching movies. That’s what we wanted to do. We had great filmic people [for the first season] and we wanted to maintain that for the second season so Chic Eglee came in – he’s an incredible writer, creator. He worked with James Cameron for many years, worked with him on Dark Angel. He’s so good at story. We had fantastic feature directors: Spencer Susser, who did Hesher; Floria Sigismondi, who directed The Runaways; Vincenzo Natali, who did Cube, Splice and Cypher. Everybody wanted to come in because we could approach the episode like a small movie. The show is just suddenly all there and you can watch it and watch them in a row and we could tell the story that way. For the actors, they’re not recapping things, they’re not talking quickly to get to a commercial break. Everything had a cinematic approach, but really anchoring it with a major international movie star who’s an amazing actor and a director in her own right, that was first and foremost. We were doing something that was not television, not theater, not movies. It’s something in between, this new kind of series but anchoring it with a major cinematic star with Famke.”

Season two really feels different. Was there a directive you set out when you started filming?

Famke: “It is, definitely. The book was the model for the first season. The 13 episodes were all tailor-made to suit the storylines of the novel, but in season two it’s a complete departure from the novel and it’s become its own thing. They brought in Chic Eglee, a wonderful showrunner. Everybody collaborated on these new ideas of where to take the season. I think that’s the amazing thing about season two. Yes, the core is still there. The characters are there, their interrelationships are even more complicated in season two. We [spend] time exploring how they develop and what happens between the various families and groups of people. It’s its own new thing, yet it’s based in what we already established.”

Your character is a little more emotional because of the treatment you’re going through.

Famke: “She is.”

How’s that been to play?

Famke: “Really fun, especially for somebody who hasn’t experienced emotions before. Myself, I’m emotional. It was more fun to explore it from the point of view of what happens to somebody who’s never actually felt anything because she’s been such an ice queen, so in control of everything. She’s going through a real transformation in this moment in time.”

Eli: “We’re also lucky to have, obviously, Famke and Dougray Scott as well.”

Famke: “Dougray’s great.”

Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie/Netflix
Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie/Netflix

Eli: “And Bill [Skarsgard] and Landon [Liboiron], these amazing actors to write for. In the first season we were very much writing for the actor and really knowing exactly where they were going in the book. With Brian McGreevy, when we first sat down and talked about it, we talked about the two season arc of the guys. ‘This is the three season arc with Olivia and Roman and this is where Norman goes.’ We had a plan of where to go with these characters for many seasons, but then Chic Eglee comes in. He has amazing ideas. We were now free to write for the actor and decide now that now we’re off book, so to speak – but the foundation is there, the DNA of the character, the base of the character has all been formed, all these different ideas of backstory and layers that we could explore – we could write incredible, strange new different bizarre scenes that [were] a lot more fun for the actors to play. So the book is why we started it and we all love it, but in the second season we were almost freed up creatively because everybody had their DNA but now we could really write for the actors in a way that we just couldn’t just by the nature of what season one was, the adaptation.”

Is it scary for the actors, going into the unknown? 

Famke: “That’s what’s scary to me about being part of a series. My only experience with that, really, was one season on Nip/Tuck. There’s two sides to it. On the one hand you don’t really know what you’re signing up for. You’re in the hands of whoever the creators of the show are. I felt in really good hands in both cases, so that was good. The other side of it that I find really interesting is that even though everybody maps out the broad ideas of, ‘Where do I want to take this season? What’s gonna happen with these characters?,’ people get inspired by actors. So when they see an actor or actress do something on the show they go, ‘Oh wow. That’s actually great because maybe we can write this scene.’ It’s really such a collaborative art form. Of course, filmmaking is very much too, but it’s a little more set because you really sign up for it and everybody knows you have this much time to shoot this particular script. There’s just generally no time to do an entire rewrite on it, but this is a flow of a bunch of people collaborating and it just can veer into various directions.”

Eli: “Also the directors we got this season, we really set the template for season one but we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. We wanted to be in the same universe, but have people who would bring new energy and new ideas. That’s what’s great. When Spencer Susser comes in and he’s doing the first episode, he’s so aware of the transformation that he wants to top it. When Floria comes in with her episode and she’s done these amazing Marilyn Manson and Incubus [videos], she’s very visual but she also has the rock n roll, but also the beautiful gothic, poetic side to her. She could take a sequence, she’s gonna be thinking of it from an angle that none of us are, but she’s approaching it as a fan of the show. Everybody has that first season to watch going, ‘This is what I like, this is what I’d do different.’ The people that sought us out to do the show really love it, but they also wanted to add their own creative stamp to it, so as a result you just get this incredible season two. It’s tighter at ten episodes, there’s more story, the characters go deeper.”

Famke: “Two female filmmakers, which is really great.”

Eli: “You just have a different energy, a different point of view and we want every season to get better. We want the fans that invested in season one to really be rewarded going, ‘Yeah this show is way better than the first season.'”

Are there any challenges that go along with working with different directors throughout the season?

Famke: “I found that in the past when I did Nip/Tuck, I thought, ‘Oh, wow. This is interesting because I’m so used to working in film. The director is really the captain of the ship and that’s the person who holds all the pieces to the puzzle where television, or whatever we call this, is different in that there’s creators who come up with this. We have a showrunner, the novel was written by Brian and he had his ideas. So the director comes in and is not the captain of the ship anymore, because we would have so many different captains. You have to have one really strong opinion and, of course, it’s a larger group in this case. So it works differently.”

Eli: “It’s a different medium.”

Famke: “Totally different. It’s more of a writer’s medium than a director’s medium.”

Eli: “I’ll be honest. I was prepared for it, but I had never been through it. So going back and shooting Green Inferno after I had shot my episode was like, ‘Ok. This is directing a movie.’ When you’re directing television and other people have shot scenes of your episode or pieces you go, ‘Oh, that’s not about me,’ it’s because we realized by episode 8 people were confused because we didn’t set it up enough in episode one. So it becomes more set up. Everybody goes in making something that’s part of the bigger picture. It’s like we’re all collaborating on a quilt [where] everyone is putting in their square. You step back and look at the picture and go, ‘Wow this is an amazing tapestry.’ That’s when the directors come in. We have very visionary, individualistic directors. Even our producing director David Straiton, he’s got to help pick up pieces and there’s just basically a tone and a mood that we want to keep, but we don’t want people to come in and feel creatively stifled either. We want it to be a fun experience and generally the directors that came in loved it. They know that it’s not about them. It’s about being part of the show and having fun and doing a cool episode. The great thing is that Netflix is such a hot network, they have been so wonderful. They’re the place to be right now, so you get the sense that other directors want to come into our show to show Netflix what they’re capable of doing. It’s amazing how a year ago people didn’t really understand the concept of a show on Netflix, but now everybody wants to get a show there ’cause it’s the place where you have the most creative freedom and you can make the most cinematic television series.”

Famke: “Now even people like me can watch things. With my lifestyle I just never, I don’t even own a TV. There’s no point ’cause I can never tune in at a certain time. I travel too much. What I love about this whole concept that they created is, I liken it to reading a novel. I pick up the novel when I want to, I put it down when I want to and that’s exactly what you can do. Clearly I’m not alone because this has become such a humongous hit – this way of watching, putting everything on at the same time and for streaming it all at once and people watching it at their own leisure whenever, however they want to.

Photo Credit: Netflix
Photo Credit: Netflix

Eli, how many contributions or ideas or input did you give to the makeup or effects people for Hemlock Grove or did you just let the guys do their work?

Eli:Todd Masters came in on the effects this season. He did an amazing, amazing job. They know me, they know my standard and they also know what the fans expect and want. It’s not about what’s quicker, it’s what’s the best for the story that we’re telling. When you’re doing a transformation like An American Werewolf in London, they spent six weeks and we have six or eight days for an entire episode. So the nice thing is we could parcel it out over ten episodes if there’s pieces of it we want to get, little details. We’ll go, ‘Ok, when we’re shooting episode 7 let’s get that detail that we need for episode 2 because it hasn’t aired yet.’ So you could pick those moments, but I was so continually blown away by what I was seeing and what the directors were doing. Everyone knows I have a very high standard for that sort of stuff, but so do they. It’s not about doing more. It’s not about doing better. It’s about making all the effects great. So we did a lot of hybrid. Whenever practical made sense – you can clean it up with a little CG – but for us it’s what keeps you in the story. It’s not about coming up with a great effect. Effects don’t do it for people anymore. People are kind of over that. People like the emotional moments. So for me the judge of a good effect is is it making the viewer watch the show and go, ‘Oh my God. I’ve never seen that. I can’t wait to see what happens next.’

What’s the key to balancing dramatic and comedic elements interspersed with horror and suspense? You do so many tones in your work. Is there a secret to that or is it just a story is a good story no matter what?

Eli: “I think a story’s a good story. I remember when I worked with David Lynch for a long time. He always talked about seeing what was right in front of you. I had heard a quote from [Stanley] Kubrick that said, ‘Making a movie is having a vision and compromising it 100%.’ Thinking about what Lynch said, he could see things that he called happy accidents where someone would do something wrong. Instead of reshooting [something], it would become a whole other avenue for a storyline. The key is looking at the cast you have. Famke, even though she might not show it, has a very, very wicked sense of humor. Famke is very smart and very cutting and funny, but so are Bill and Landon.”

Famke: “And Dougary’s hilarious.”

Eli: “When you have actors that can naturally do that, you don’t think, ‘Oh, we need a laugh here. We need to lighten it up.’ When you’re at a funeral, people laugh. When people are uncomfortable, the way you deal with pain is by laughing. That doesn’t mean you’re not taking is seriously. When the most horrible sh*t in your life happens you just look at each other and you start f*cking laughing because that’s the only way to deal with it. That is the human reaction to tragedy, so I think when you have something that’s so horrific if you don’t have the humor it just becomes grim and bleak and that’s not necessarily the best way to engage the viewer. Humor’s a great way to engage you in the characters. When characters are enjoyable and fun and humorous you want to watch them more. If everyone’s being so serious and epic all the time, I’m bored to tears. I think it’s a combination of not fighting it and letting the actors be, letting them do their thing. I remember shooting the episode with [Famke] and Bill, the way they were looking at each other. It wasn’t anything that was on the page. I was like, ‘Oh my God. Are they gonna kiss? But they’re not. This is creepy.’ There was so many layers of weird. They took a very simple mother/son scene in a kitchen. There were fifty different things going on. You don’t fight that. You don’t tell them, ‘Guys, pull it back.’ That’s the goal. When you have actors that can bring that, you just sit back and let the camera capture it.”

Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer/Netflix
Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer/Netflix

Famke, can you talk about your relationship with Roman this season? 

Famke: “It’s very complicated. The starting point of this mother/son, who in many ways are so alike and are constantly butting heads because it is about control, it is about love, I think, underneath anything. That’s the fun part to play. They constantly want love from one another, but they don’t know how to ask for it. They’re too proud and so that was always the starting point from last season. In this season the tables have turned so much. You see such a vulnerable side of her where, despite the fact that her own son ripped out her tongue, she’s still willing to go back and crawl into his place basically. It sets up for a really interesting dynamic and so, I think for the audience, they’ll just go like, ‘Oh, come on. Just make up already. Just let it go.’ That’s in so many families or friendships, really, where you see people who are just hanging on to these old grudges and old things and you just want to say, ‘One person, at least, take the high road. Make this work, it can work.’ And that’s very much the two of them.”

How about the fact that Roman wants to be human? That seems like such a betrayal of everything-

Famke: “That she’s about, that she’s lived for, that she’s created for him to be. Of course in a world today, I think all of us can very much relate to that. All we want is longevity. Look at the obsession with youth. Look at the obsession with health. We’re just trying to stay alive as long as humanly possible and so here we have these upirs with the ability to live as long as they possibly can and then you have somebody saying, ‘Yeah, but I don’t want that.’ So that creates a very interesting dichotomy between these two characters to add just to another layer of dysfunction.”

Eli: “I love the mother/son conflict. That’s what’s fun about the show. Obviously you can look at monsters metaphors in horror films. Addictions are many different things that monsters have been used for. All the teenage angst Brian put in high school and being monstrous and looking monstrous and feeling like an outcast, all the things that went into writing this book. I love the idea of taking the notion of the family conflict and the idea of you have to live up to what your parents predetermined for you and fighting against that and ultimately succumbing to it.”

Famke: “Or not succumbing to it.”

Eli: “Or fighting it, rebelling.”

Famke: “Realizing that it may ultimately be the best, but maybe you were just rebelling because they were your parents.”

Eli: “Exactly. The fun is in taking a show and creating something in this fantastic universe with the upirs and the vargulfs and anything that Dr. Price is creating in his lab, but putting it in the context of this family drama.”

Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie/Netflix
Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie/Netflix

Famke: “And Dr. Pryce is up to a lot of stuff, very fun storyline. I have a lot of interaction with Joel [de la Fuente] this season.

Eli: “Johann.”

Famke: “Johann. He’s such a great character. He’s got such a delicious sense of humor too.”

Eli: “It just wasn’t written that way, but he could take any line and add some sort of weird tone of voice or eye roll and he was pitch perfect in the show.”

Will there be a season three? Will we keep going with these stories?

Eli: “That’s up to the fans. The thing about Netflix is they know exactly how many people are watching the show. It’s a different metric. It’s how many people sign up for it, it’s what their stock price is, it’s the buzz on the show. We would love to. We love playing in this universe. We like pushing the bounds of story, of series, of television. It’s in this new medium that is the binge-watch/Netflix hybrid of ten-hour movie. The idea of doing it at ten episodes, not fitting it to a book, that we could have story, story, story, story, really make the episodes tighter and more twists in there. We would love to continue but it is 100% up to the fans. We’re very lucky that the fans embraced us and we were able to take Famke’s fans, my fans, Dougray’s fans, all the people that are fans of the book, people that are fans of the genre and even people that may have absolutely hated me still gave these how a chance, which was cool, and people that didn’t know anything about it just thought it looked fun. People invested.”

Famke: “And don’t forget, we did something different. The moment you do something different, the initial reaction, the human reaction is to say, ‘No. I don’t know. What is this? I don’t understand it. It’s different. I can’t relate.’ Most of the things that I end up liking the very best are the things that I have to get – whether it’s a novel or a movie or a television show – it takes me getting into it a little bit, going, ‘I’m not sure. Where is this going?’ and then really embracing it, going, ‘Oh, wow. That’s what they’re doing. I think that’s what Hemlock Grove is. It’s not that easily definable because-“

Eli: “It’s something new. It’s really something new.”

Famke: “And different.”

Eli: “But we feel very lucky that people invested in the first 13 in the first season and we want the people that invested in the first season to really be rewarded with a much better second season. We are all capable of seeing what we did right, what we did wrong and what we could’ve done better.”

Famke: “Or people just want to start season two and say, ‘Oh wow. This is something I can be part of. Let me go back to season one,’ and watch that. You can do it however you want to do it. That’s the great thing.”

Eli: “The response globally has been great. Horror, these genres- every country has their own mythology, their own fears. Everybody has their own folklore, but there’s something universal about scares and  horror mythology and this other.”

Famke: “Human drama, family interactions. All that kind of stuff.”

Eli: “It’s been fun to watch people all over the world fully embracing the show. So as long as people keep watching it, we want people to know they’re going to be rewarded for watching the second season and we’d love to do a third.”

Edited for space and content.

Season 2 of Hemlock Grove is available now on Netflix.

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