This week, Netflix debuted its new horror series, Hemlock Grove, based on Brian McGreevy’s novel of the same name and produced by feature horror auteur Eli Roth. Set in a small, economically depressed Pennsylvania steel town and drenched with Eastern European supernatural mythology, Hemlock Grove aims to be different both visually and structurally from traditional network TV – it’s part Twin Peaks with monsters, part slow-burn serialized storytelling, part exploration of the duality of human nature and the secrets we all hide within, and part depiction of a once thriving small town that now has an enormous division of wealth and power between the haves and have-nots. There’s also the rise of bio-tech, women getting half-eaten, and one seriously cool werewolf transformation.
At a roundtable WonderCon, the creative forces in front of and behind the camera gathered to talk about what drew them to the project, what it’s like making TV intended for binge viewing, and what makes Hemlock Grove different from anything that’s come before.
Bill Skarsgard plays Roman, a disaffected rich boy with secret undiscovered powers and some freaky blood issues who teams up with wrong-side-of-the-tracks new kid Peter to solve the town’s gruesome murders. “He wants to be a hero, so desperately. It’s like, if you have a psychological problem that you’re dealing with, if you can put it in a physical form [you can defeat it]. He has this battle with this darkness inside him, but he puts it in a physical form in being solving these murders ‘is a good thing, and that will be my redemption from this darkness I have.’ That’s why he’s so keen on solving these murders – his life kind of depends on it, in his own way.”
One of the most challenging parts for Landon Liboiron, who plays werewolf Peter, was shooting that elaborate and graphic transformation scene. “I was terrified. I was terrified, also, to see it. Because when you’re doing it, you don’t know what you’re doing, cause it’s such a kind of, you just don’t know if you’re doing it right, you don’t know if you’re looking phony doing it, and sometimes you just have to put your trust in the CGI guys, and prosthetic guys, and so really, you just kind of have too… take the leap, I guess. I was very, very nervous about it.”
As for Dougray Scott, he ticked off several reasons why Hemlock Grove spurred him to leap from features to television. “Working with Famke [Janssen] was one of the big draws…It’s complicated. The relationships were complicated… I’m Scottish. I’m clinically melancholic. I’m drawn to anything that’s fractured and f***ed up, but I love comedy as well. The black humor I love. And at times there is that.”
Janssen expanded on the complexities of the characters. “They are very real. The characters all are flawed, they’re all full of problems, there’s a certain thing projected to the outside world, and another inner world going on, but I do believe that most of like are like that. We’re programmed to be that way…”
She is also a fan of how the show mixes up the character arcs. “There are episodes that really focus much more on one person and then another person again or then they all come together and so it’s somewhat non-traditional in that sense. It’s really different from the way we see the most episodic television.”
“Normally ‘restraint’ is not the word associated with me,” joked Producer Eli Roth when asked about having a non-network free rein with gore and still knowing where to draw the line. “But we also wanted to get into the story, we didn’t want to be like, ‘Hey, look, we’re on Netflix, we can rip someone’s guts out!’ I think gore, it’s like an ingredient in a pizza, it all has to serve the story. If you’re watching going, ‘What happens next?’ then it’s the right amount.”
And that story was a big inspiration to Roth. “Brian wrote such a wonderfully twisted novel. I was so impressed by his research. In particular his research about the root mythology of what Bram Stoker based Dracula on. The oupirs and vargos and all these things that are literally the original, original folklore that the very first novels, the very first writings, were based on. But setting it in this world where bio-tech has risen out of the ashes and these new monsters are being created. And we loved the idea of doing something new, that was bold, and having every episode available for you. Really approaching it like a 13 hour movie. We wanted to make a really really cool, interesting creative world.”
Director Deran Sarafian elaborates that Roth wasn’t in it just for superficial gore. “One thing that Eli told me early on, which became the thing we kept, that we followed, was ‘Look at a rock. If you’re gonna film that rock, don’t film the rock. Film what’s underneath the rock.’”
McGreevy, who adapted his novel for TV with Lee Shipman, said, “It’s a high concept show- the show does have a pretty dense and elaborate mythology, but the point of entry was really about these two young guys finding themselves, and finding themselves in each other. And that was definitely the emotional through-line of the show”
Shipman added, “One of the most attractive parts of the Netflix deal is that we could write almost the entire series upfront before we shot a frame, and so we could really structure all these arcs, characters and stories, like a movie. And that’s how we consume TV. That’s how we know Netflix users consume. They binge watch. We wanted to make people stay up way past their bedtimes.”
All 13 episodes of Hemlock Grove are available for streaming now on Netflix