Event Coverage: Eli Roth & Brian McGreevy Talk Hemlock Grove


With The Walking Dead raising record numbers for its second season finale, and American Horror Story fans eager for its re-conceptualized return, there’s a glut of horror-oriented TV in the pipeline, including Hannibal, Mockingbird Lane (The Munsters revamp), 666 Park Avenue, and an Untitled Kevin Williamson pilot. 

Come January, when one or two of these titles will likely be on the chopping block, Hemlock Grove will premiere with not just a single hour, but an entire thirteen-episode season, available for marathon viewing. But unlike the above-mentioned shows, you won’t be able to DVR it. 

Hemlock Grove, executive produced by Eli Roth and Brian McGreevy (author of the novel it’s based on, along with a handsomely drawn prequel comic), will be available exclusively on Netflix Instant.  The Pennsylvania-set series will explore biotechnology run amok, gypsies and billionaires, teenage sex, adult sex, a murder mystery, psychic manipulation closer to Jesse Custer’s Word of God more than Jedi mind tricks, a girl claiming impregnation by an angel, a boy who feels a testicular tingle when things are about to get hairy, arranged meet-ups with prostitutes in malls, an “Elephant Girl” who writes hyper-articulate emails but never speaks, a special agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hunting some seriously big game, and the practice of ingesting a worm from a corpse to channel the spirit of the deceased. Oh, and a werewolf and a maybe-vampire (as with The Hunger and Near Dark, “vampire” is never uttered).

The book is a quick, cutting read recommended for fans of transgressive fiction as much as horror.  There’s nothing twee, ‘tween or teen about it.  But that hasn’t stopped knee-jerk Twilight comparisons at the very mention of mythical monsters who happen to be in high school.  

Eli Roth and Brian McGreevy sat for a spirited panel discussion and Q&A at New York’s 92YTribeca last week, confident that those dismissing the show based on its familiar subject matter will come to embrace it. 

“Even when we [Roth and Eric Newman, also executive producing the series] did The Last Exorcism, people went, ‘How could you make another exorcism movie?’  And then six months later there’s another found footage exorcism movie.  And people still go see it.  If you do something well and you have an original take on something, then absolutely go for it,” Roth said.  “You know the audience has seen Twilight, has seen True Blood, has seen everything, so you have to do something that’s different, but also embraces those fans who’ve seen it.  We wanted to do a show [that asks] what if you really had these powers, but were in high school?  Like, what would you do – not have sex?  So I said, I want to see the show where [a vampiric character] hypnotizes girls – the cheerleader in class gets her period, and he follows her into the bathroom and goes down on her.” 

“This was Eli’s first note on the show. I was text messaging friends about that, and they were like, ‘Wait, are you guys actually related but just now met?’” McGreevy said.

Being a Netflix original – produced by Gaumont International Television, also behind the Hannibal series – the show has no ratings board or advertisers to appease, permitting Roth (who’s directing the first episode, along with the final two of the season), McGreevy and company to write and shoot without fear of censorship.   

“That’s what I liked about it, “ Roth said. “That we could do something that was adult subject matter, and if we want to go dark and violent, we can.  If we want to have the language, we can.  We have the freedom to do something like it’s on cable… to go as R-rated or as NC-17 as we want.  Where the teenagers could really behave like modern adolescents.” 

This prompted McGreevy to ask the audience, “We all actually want to see teenagers having sex, am I right? I believe that I am. I’m banking on it.”

“He doesn’t mean in real life. He means when you watch a movie,” Roth clarified, laughing.  “The point is, ‘let’s not be afraid to go dark.’  It’s actually a drama set in this world and has the themes of vampires and werewolves and monster mythology, Frankenstein mythology.  It’s this new biotech world.  But what I loved about is it’s set [on the outskirts of] Pittsburgh, this classic American town – you think of Deer Hunter-Pennsylvania.  But going there now, where we’re going to shoot, there are these old steel mills that are like rotting corpses.  It’s like these graveyards of a past America.  Grass is growing over them, but they still have the American flag hanging onto them.  But there’s also the biotech world that’s taken over, that’s the future, and there’s all sorts of strange experiments going on.  That’s what really interested me – how [Brian] took it from this town he grew up in and setting the story in this world.  And we wanted to make a show that was really going to be more like Twin Peaks.  That for us is the benchmark of great television that we love.  And I think the medium is now at a place where we can certainly appeal to my taste, and the type of stuff that I like to do.  When we first sat down we talked about Twin Peaks, which was so smart and so different and daring… and was scary and beautifully done.’’

As of this writing, the quickly growing cast includes Famke Janssen as the ice queen widow of a steel magnate, Dougray Scott as a psychiatrist with his own issues, Landon Liboiron (Terra Nova, Altitude) as openly lycanthropic “Gypsy trailer trash,” and Bill Skarsgard (son of Stellan, brother of Alexander) as a blue blood who may like the red stuff.

Of the ensemble, McGreevy said, “I think that we’ve hired the best people, and sometimes those people have a name, and sometimes they don’t.  But it’s quality first.” 

Yet to be cast are the crucial characters of Shelley, a seven-and-a-half-foot tall Frankenstein-ian creation, and Nicolae, the grandfather who passed the werewolf gene down to Liboiron’s character, Peter.  The latter role will be significantly expanded from the novel, which, at 318 pages, is not exactly Game of Thrones-dense. To accommodate the thirteen-episode order, characters who were supporting and periphery in the book will have ample screentime, fleshing out the story’s many subplots. 

McGreevy has a second Hemlock Grove novel nearing completion, with a third fully outlined, so expect at least two more seasons should the series find a following. 

The show’s writing staff has been holding weekly screenings at the home of director-producer Deran Sarafian (Lost, Fringe, horror geek trivia: star of Zombi 3), who in addition to executive producing along with Roth, McGreevy, and Lee Shipman, will helm a few episodes.  The movies they’ve watched so far for inspiration include Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Silence of the Lambs and The Vanishing (1988), echoing Roth’s mantra of “let’s not be afraid to go dark.” This week: a field trip to The Cabin in the Woods.

Roth was quick to point out that while he’s heavily involved in the show’s development, he’s not doing extensive script work, leaving that to McGreevy and Shipman, who together have Harker and Zorro Reborn in development as features.  

“Right now they’re writing all the episodes with the writing staff,” Roth said.  “So after they’re done, I’ll sit down with them and go through it and do my pass – my dialogue ideas or other scene ideas.  And it’s more of a collaboration. I wouldn’t even call it rewriting.  It’s just me sitting and contributing my ideas.”

And yet what will surely be a signature show moment, nowhere to found in the novel, was all Roth. 

“When you all are sitting there and reading the A.V. Club recap, and they’re like, ‘Uh, holy shit – Roman just performed cunnilingus on a girl having her period,’ I’d love to take credit for that,” McGreevy said.

Roth laughed. “The truth of the matter is we’re all victims of our own reputation. Anything that’s thoughtful and poetic and well-researched will go to Brian, and of course it’ll be, ‘Oh, more typical Eli Roth moments with that person getting tortured!’” 

McGreevy leapt to Roth’s defense at this. “You watch an Eli Roth movie, you might’ve heard about Eli Roth’s reputation. When you actually watch the movie, [the shots] are classically composed, the editing is very stately… they’re not about doing shock value bullshit for the sake of shock value bullshit.

For Roth, the hiatus from directing movies is a rewarding one, as he believes he’s helping pioneer an exciting new medium.

“Netflix comes along, and here’s this great medium where on one day the entire show is on – boom, like that, there’s all 13 episodes. So you can watch it like a 13-hour movie if you want, and we’re going to approach it like that. When I watch shows, I ingest like 4-5 episodes at a time. That’s what our viewing habits are like now,” Roth said.

“If we’re talking just money on its own terms, Netflix could buy and sell any movie studio in the world, so it’s more than just money,” McGreevy added. “It’s about culture of Hollywood filmmaking. Eli’s never made a movie for a movie studio, and I feel that’s not by accident.”

Despite the creative freedom, Roth made it clear that while the show will be shocking at times, he’s putting story before gory.

“We want to make a show that’s accessible, and I think there’s a place for movies like Human Centipede and Serbian Film, but we’re not doing that. What’s great about the medium is we have the freedom to do whatever we want, and it’s really up to our own creative boundaries and tastes. And this is why it’s really good to have other tastes in there like Deran Sarafian and Mark Verheiden [Hemlock Grove’s showrunner, previously on Battlestar Galactica and Heroes] and Sheila Callaghan [the wrtiting staff’s first hire, playwright of That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play].  It’s really whatever best serves the story, and that’s how it should be.  [Netflix and Gaumont] are letting us do what we want, but it’s up to us to censor ourselves.  We don’t want to make a show where you watch one epsiode and go, ‘Oh God, why did I see that?’  I want people to watch the show and go, ‘Holy fuck, I can’t believe what they did on Hemlock Grove.  Did you see that transformation scene?  That was awesome, I want to watch more.’  I think there’s a fine line between kicking an audience’s ass and making them feel like they’ve been kicked in the balls.”

McGreevy agreed.  “Yeah.  We’re aiming for the ass, not the balls.”

After the Q&A, I had the opportunity to asking McGreevy a few questions:

Shock: The novel features an incredibly vivid werewolf transformation. The visuals themselves – including the creature eating the “man coat” it just shed – are horrific, but they’re presented as part of this biological process, natural instead of supernatural. Like something you’d see on BBC’s Planet Earth series. On camera, it has potential to rival the big benchmark – the one found in An American Werewolf in London. It’ll be quite ambitious to pull off practically, but CGI could rob it of the tactility that made is so powerful on the page. What’s the plan for capturing that?

McGreevy: We are trying use as little CGI as possible.

Shock: Has an effects company been lined up for the show? Tom Savini has that make-up effects school in Pennsylvania, so I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of applicants for that department…

McGreevy: We actually took a tour of the Savini school for the hell out of it.  The person we are now talking to is Los Angeles-based.  Can’t say his name yet, but it’s very exciting.

Shock: Has adapting to suit the 13 episode format been a challenge? What can fans of the novel can expect to see expanded?

McGreevy: The show will be more of an ensemble than the book.  There’s a lot going on between major scenes to be explored, and a roomful of talented sickos generating ideas… 

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Weekend: Aug. 22, 2019, Aug. 25, 2019

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