In the vein of Dracula
Stephen Jewell talks to director-turned-writer Guillermo Del Toro about his life post Middle-earth and the newly released second part of his spine-chilling vampire trilogy. Double meanings were a focus for Guillermo Del Toro when coming up with the titles for his trilogy.
Considering the chaos that has recently surrounded The Hobbit, it is easy to conclude that Guillermo Del Toro got out while the going was good. Film studio MGM's continuing financial problems forced the Guadalajara-born 46-year-old to resign as director of the much-anticipated prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in May. Still, he sounds almost wistful when he speaks about the three years he spent living in Wellington after relocating down under in 2007 to work on the movie's extensive pre-production and to pen the screenplay with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
"New Zealand is an absolute paradise," declares Del Toro, who has returned to his hometown of Los Angeles. "The New Zealand people must be the most delightful people on the planet. Part of the tragedy is that if I were to lose another couple of years, I would have loved to have lost another couple of years in New Zealand. It's easy to do that there because time slips by without you noticing it when you're in New Zealand."
He pays tribute to Auckland in The Fall, the second volume of the contemporary vampire trilogy that he is co-writing with Chuck Hogan. He notes that the City of Sails is one of many cities around the globe to be devastated by undead hordes after a spookily possessed plane arrives at the airport.
"And then there's the certain destruction of New Zealand in the third book," he promises with a laugh. "I try to put everything that is dear to me into the books. Most of the characters are named after very close friends of mine. I killed my wife in the first book after about 40 pages."
In homage to Bram Stoker's seminal 1897 novel Dracula, last year's first instalment, The Strain, opens with an airliner touching down at New York's JFK airport with most of its passengers and crew dead and a mysterious coffin in the hold.
"We've made a huge point to try and root this thing in classic folklore and literature but what we then do with it is very different," says Del Toro. "I wanted the plane to be like the ship in Dracula, coming into port in England. And I named our vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian after Abraham Van Helsing. Dracula was an eminently modern novel when it was first published. It used all the latest cutting-edge technology of the day, like telegraphs, cipher machines and recording machines. It was like a Tom Clancy novel of its time and we want to honour that."
With New York in ruins after the sinister Master and his minions have laid waste to it, The Fall is a much bleaker book than its predecessor.
"From the get-go, I wanted the titles of the books to have a second meaning," says Del Toro. "The Strain was as much about a viral strain as it was about social strain and the strain that is placed on the main character, Ephraim Goodweather, after the dissolution of his marriage, his divorce and the custody battle for his son."
The book takes place during the autumn. "It refers to the fall of mankind and it also hints at where the vampires come from," says Del Toro. "The second book in every trilogy is usually the darkest, because in the traditional three-act structure, the middle act is always about conflict and the moment where the night is the darkest. The third book is probably the hardest to write because it's the book where the characters need to reach some kind of resolution, whether it be good or bad. It's the same with movies and you notice it with any trilogy. The first Godfather was the beginning and Godfather II, which is most people's favourite, is the darkest of them all, while the third one is the most difficult to do because you will always find people that like it and others that dislike it."
With much of the action occurring in downtown Manhattan and the streets around Ground Zero, Del Toro and Hogan draw some striking parallels with September 11. The story also harks back to the atrocities of World War II.
"Setrakian first encounters the Master at the concentration camp at Treblinka," says Del Toro. "We reveal in the third book, which is called The Night Eternal, that the vampires are born out of a great cataclysmic tragedy in a place of great pain and loss. This is because thematically and socially the monsters in The Strain are social monsters. They're creatures that are born out of everything we do wrong and the reason we cannot fight them is because we are incredibly fallible as a social entity. The Fall begins by saying that it took the world 60 days to end and we're basically accountable for that because of our arrogance and pride. That's exactly how I feel: you can apply that to eco-tragedies, viral outbreaks or any kind of disaster. It's a miracle that society functions at all because it is such an imperfect model."
In the prologue, Goodweather, director of the Centres for Disease Control's New York office, refers to the standardised response to a pandemic. "You can apply the Kubler/Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief to any individual or group when they go through anything shocking in their lives," says Del Toro. "It begins with denial, then you get anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It's really quite interesting to realise that as a species or individuals we go through those five stages."
Renowned for his exploration of myths and fairytales in films like Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Del Toro delves into the power of folklore in The Fall. Much of the novel involves the hunt for a mystical text, the Occido Lumen, which details the true nature of the vampires. "I take full responsibility but one of the things that I wanted to do in this book was to create a completely fictional volume that sounded like it could have existed," says Del Toro. "The creation of this forbidden document was essential for the second book because it validates everything. If there is a book about something, we immediately believe that it is real in the same way that people assume that something must be true if it is written in print. I wanted to marry old mythologies with new mythologies and in the third book the crazy origin of the vampires in ancient times relates to this piece of Mesopotamian culture that we introduce in the second book."
A stickler for accuracy, Del Toro does all of his own research. "I don't hire anyone to do it for me," he says. "I know my alchemy and I know my Mesopotamian lore. I just go for it and try and get my facts right. Then at the end just before publication, we run it past an expert. We usually get a lot of slaps on the hand and a few congratulations. Then I argue with the expert and most of the time they win but some of the time I have the satisfaction of proving that our hero is right."
While Del Toro's name looms largest on the cover, he insists that his co-author should receive equal credit. "Chuck is not only a really nice guy but he's also a phenomenal writer," he says of Hogan, whose 2004 fourth novel, Prince of Thieves, was recently turned into the Ben Affleck film The Town. "It's a really great book and people should seek it out."
When The Strain was published, Del Toro was accused of merely providing some spine-chilling ideas while leaving the bulk of the writing to Hogan. However, he has always maintained that the novels are joint efforts. "The way we write and the way we collaborate has just got better and better," he says. "Each of us writes different chapters of the novel and then sends them to the other to look over."
According to Del Toro, The Night Eternal "will definitely be the end of the series." However, he is currently working on a couple of short stories set in the world of The Strain, which will appear in Phantom Limbs, a short story collection that he is writing on his own.
Since The Strain debuted in mid-2009, the vampire genre appears to have become even more popular, with the publication earlier this year of Justin Cronin's much-hyped apocalyptic epic The Passage and the release this month of Let Me In, the American adaptation of cult Swedish film Let the Right One In. With the emphasis placed firmly on bloodshed, Del Toro and Hogan's series is the polar opposite of the anaemic Twilight and other saccharine spin-offs like The Vampire Diaries.
"When we first started writing the books, this fad hadn't happened yet," says Del Toro. "Everything was in its infancy. Twilight wasn't the phenomenon it is now. But the current over-abundance of vampire fiction is mostly based around the romantic, melodramatic take on vampires. What we do goes completely against the grain of that as we use brutality and treat vampires as parasites."
The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro (HarperCollins $39.99) is out now.
By Stephen Jewell