Taking the horror TV drama to new extremes via the red-hot Netflix, Hemlock Grove debuted last season and introduced fans to its unique mix of sex and violence, Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama, and Twin Peaks-influenced trippiness. The entire run of season 2 arrived on the network this weekend, and critics have already heralded it as superior to season 1. This week, I caught up with executive producer Eli Roth (who directed the show’s pilot) and star Famke Janssen, who plays nefarious matriarch Olivia Godfrey. The two told me what audiences can expect from Hemlock Grove‘s world of photogenic gypsy werewolves and Upir this season. And Janssen even told me a little about returning to the X-Men screen universe in this summer’s Days of Future Past and how she hopes to be back again as mutant telepath Jean Grey. Read what they had to say below.
Nerdist: It appears as though you’ve raised the bar on every level for Hemlock Grove‘s second season.
Eli Roth: We had to. That’s the fun and the challenge of doing another season. You have to raise the bar. You want to reward the fans that invested the thirteen hours in the first one by giving them something that’s better and smarter. We also had the advantage of watching the first season and seeing what we tried to do, what came out better than expected, and what fell short of the mark. We have very, very high standards. But also now that we’re not following the novel anymore we have such amazing actors as Famke and Dougray Scott and Bill Skarsgard – we can really write for the actors in a way we couldn’t before. Because their characters were very constricted by the story in the novel.
N: Famke, after getting killed at the end of the season, it’s hard to imagine taking your character to a more extreme place, but the show has found a way. She seems to have a greater psychological journey ahead of her.
Famke Janssen: Definitely. She’s been humbled. [Laughs.] For somebody who’s so much in control, so vain on so many levels, she comes back with a reconstructed tongue and a cane and no longer any control over anything. From the White Tower to her son to her relationship with Norman, everything is completely on its head and makes for a really interesting character journey. She’s much more vulnerable, but she’s Olivia – so who knows where that brings her. She’s resourceful. [Laughs.]
N: Speaking of severed tongues, how important was it to have practical effects in full force this season with Todd Masters and his team now working on the show?
ER: Todd Masters and the whole team are amazing, but for me what matters is what works best for the story and what works best for the show. You have to be practical in understanding the time constraints we have on television, where you have eight days per episode – where you could spend eight weeks on the transformation. The nice thing with all the episodes airing at once was we could shoot pieces of episodes in other episodes, to really make those scare moments work. But we had directors that came in that loved that stuff, like Spencer Susser – he did a really cool short called I Love Sarah Jane – or Vincenzo Natali, who did Cube and Splice. Or Floria Sigismondi, who’s directed Manson videos and The Runaways. Everybody came in with a love of wanting to make their mark and do something incredible. I don’t want to take away from the digital team, what they could do with the White Tower. You can find a really nice merger. Both of them are just tools for storytelling, and we always want people to watch and go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe what I’ve just seen. What happens next?”
N: How do you prefer to watch the show since Netflix provides for different viewing options?
FJ: I like to savor. I like to watch not just one but two, three at max. More than that I can’t really do in one sitting.
ER: I’m a total binger. I go crazy. I’ll watch six, seven, eight episodes in a row. As soon as House of Cards came on, I said, “For the next two days I’m watching House of Cards.” I don’t want to stop and savor it. I had to know what happened next. The same thing with Orange is the New Black. But even with shows like Silicon Valley, I waited until all of them aired so I could just watch them all at once. Because I just couldn’t get enough of it.
N: How important is Netflix to this show? Is there anything you can’t do with them? Are the gloves completely off?
FJ: Yeah, they really are. It’s a wonderful time in our industry, and certainly Netflix has proven that. All of the sudden everybody is just waiting to see what they’re doing next. Because they’ve set the bar extremely high. They came right out of the gate with House of Cards, with the highest level of talent and filmmakers you could possibly imagine. They’re dominating the Emmys. So it’s quite amazing to see that we can now make a ten or thirteen-hour movie, or thirteen one-hour movies. It’s just a whole new field in essence. It’s not film, it’s not television. It lives somewhere in between. Because the audiences are so sophisticated these days, it was the perfect time to come up with content of that high quality, and introduce it to people in a way that they can really be in control in the way that you read books or novels. You pick it up when you want to, put it down when you want to. It came out right at the very perfect time.
ER: Netflix has been an amazing partner. It changes the way we can tell the story. You don’t have to recap each week, you’re not writing in commercial breaks. We can really write it like it’s a ten-hour movie. The other thing is that it’s released like a film in that we’re day and date. We are out everywhere in all the territories all over the world. So it becomes a global event. Pop culture has been globalized. I spent a lot of time in Chile this past year, and everyone is wearing Heisenberg t-shirts; and whatever happens on Game of Thrones, everyone there knows about it. Everyone knows Orange is the New Black, everyone knows House of Cards. So when you’re creating something for pop culture, it’s going to be watched and judged by every single person at once. Netflix was really terrific in letting us go wild with the story and letting us go as far as we needed to with the gore and the blood and the sex. If it’s any one thing it becomes boring, but we also want to have those signature moments to top what we did in the first season. I really think that we did it.
N: Because you’re breaking from Brian McGreevy’s novel this season, and can take the story anywhere, did you have any guide rules for where you wanted it to go?
ER: Absolutely. Brian McGreevy, when we first pitched the show to Netflix, we talked about Twin Peaks and how the network made David Lynch and Mark Frost solve Laura Palmer’s murder, and left them rudderless for a while. They were trying to figure out a new bad guy, and they brought in Windome Earle and the Black Lodge and everything. But it was something they never intended to solve. And we wanted to make sure that we said, “This is the one-year arc. This is the two-year arc. This is the three-season arc. This is where we go in four and five, and these are the things we’re setting up.” We wanted to show why you could have a show that went for eight seasons without repeating itself. That said, we got an amazing new showrunner with Chic Eglee, who worked with James Cameron on Dark Angel and many, many great producers and creators. He was coming in as a fan, and he watched the show and said, “Okay, this is what I love and here’s where I want to take the show.” He came in with incredible ideas. So that was when we knew the macro arc. But now that we could really write for Famke’s strength, we gave her all sorts of layers and vulnerability that Olivia never really had in season 1. It was really exciting to be able to write off book in a way we never really could before.
N: Are you looking at a multi-year plan right now?
ER: We have a multi-year plan, but it’s really up to the fans if we’re going to continue it. We love Netflix and they love the show, and we’re very lucky that the first season was a massive hit for them. So hopefully the show continues to grow, and we can make more seasons.
N: Do you have a favorite from among this season’s shocks?
FJ: I really like the scene in the first episode with Landon’s character where there’s… a scheme involved.
ER: Using lycanthropy as a grift. I love that.
FJ: Yeah, because of the tongue-in-cheek nature of it. It doesn’t just become about a grotesque horror moment, but has a sense of humor about it. It gives it a whole new spin.
ER: There are some scenes with Bill where he starts to get his Upir urges, where he’s sucking the blood out of the leeches. There’s a scene in the kitchen that’s particularly brutal, that’s just… I read it, I knew it was happening, and I was watching the footage going, “Oh. My. God. Fans are gonna fucking lose their minds when they see this.” Then of course the very last episode, my jaw was on the ground.
FJ: Mine too. [Laughs.]
ER: I can’t wait for the reaction. Ten hours after it airs there will be a reaction from someone.
N: Famke, did you grow up as a horror fan?
FJ: Not at all. It scares the hell out of me.
N: You seem to have a very high tolerance for it.
FJ: No, I have very low tolerance for it. [Laughs.] I can’t even go to a doctor’s office to get blood drawn. I’m that scared of blood. They can tell me as much as they can that it’s fake, but the moment it’s there I’m very squeamish about all of it. It’s not my genre, I’m very uncomfortable with it. They kept it away from me pretty well during the season, it’s just towards the end there’s some… stuff I’m involved with. But they were very respectful of my own personal boundaries.
N: Can you guys update us on your next projects?
ER: Knock Knock is the film I just wrapped with Keanu Reeves, and Lorenza Izzo, the star of Green Inferno, and a Spanish actress named Ana de Armas. I’m in post-production right now. So I’m gonna edit that in the next couple of months. Then Green Inferno comes out in September.
FJ: Taken 3 we just wrapped, it comes out next year. I’m filming at the moment in New York a film called Jack of the Red Hearts. It’s an independent film. And I shot a movie called A Fighting Man in Toronto last year. Then I’m adapting a novel – J.R. by William Gaddis – that I’m going to direct as my second film next year. It was written in the ’70s.
N: Fans were over the moon seeing you in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Is there any chance we’ll see you return once more as Jean Grey?
FJ: I hope so. It certainly has opened a whole new path of possibilities. With Days of Future Past, characters who were once considered dead are no longer. I’m just excited about the franchise. And I really loved the last one. I thought it was smart, it was witty. It was very well done. Yeah, I was thrilled to be back. And it was the perfect timing for it at the end of the movie. It was very nice.
N: Going back to Hemlock Grove, can you talk about how you balance the shocks that horror fans love with the greater psychological depth you wanted this season?
ER: Yeah, it’s not even a balance. Everything has to come from character. You can’t just say “Well, we need to balance the character with the terror.” You need great character, and from great character comes great story. Then you can add those horrific moments into it because you’re watching characters that you really care about. And they’re going places and doing things that just make you cringe. It’s like when you’re watching Breaking Bad and Walt is about to get away with it, and he just makes the wrong decision every time, and you’re just going, “Why is he doing this?” It’s not about coming up with that violent moment, it’s about investing people with the characters. Also, we have an amazing cast. We’re very lucky – Madeline Brewer from Orange is the New Black joined us this season, Demore Barnes. Joel de la Fuente, who does Doctor Pryce, is incredible… We have such terrific actors that it just inspires you to write for them.
With Olivia we talked about how last season almost everything was an affectation. Almost nothing you saw from her was real. No one really knows who this woman is. Now with season 2 we’re starting to see this real Olivia. And how long has that person been buried? And what brought her back? It’s fun to add all those scares, but when you’re watching Peter transform, it’s because you know he’s changing against the moon. His body can do that and he’s forcing himself – almost like in birth control, you’re tricking yourself – he’s forcing his body. It’s like watching an addict shoot up. He’s doing something that you know is self-destructive. He knows it’s gonna hurt him and affect him in a horrible way, but he’s doing it as a grift to make money, because his mother’s run into legal trouble. So you get why he’s doing it, but it’s just that you’re watching this violent transformation and reformation happen, it’s because we know it’s Peter and we don’t want to see him do it. In the first season you really want to see him do it. In this year, you’re going, “No, don’t, this could kill you.”
FJ: Yeah, and Chic Eglee, our showrunner, really wanted to focus on character this season, and just really look at transformations, peeling back layers of these characters and then escalating it into these moments of violence or gore. But see that they really paid off at very specific moments.
N: There are very few horror shows on TV right now that take their subject matter to such extreme places as Hemlock Grove. Do you like being that rare kind of show. Or would you prefer to have more competition?
ER: We love that there’s something for everybody. Vampire Diaries isn’t my show, but I know other people who swear by it, and that’s what they love. It’s a different audience. With Hemlock Grove we set out to make something that was unique, that was more adult, in the way that Twin Peaks wasn’t a high school show, or like other mystery shows. It wasn’t like Murder, She Wrote. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. But we wanted to add that touch of Douglas Sirk melodrama, and a touch of surreality to the show. Everyone’s taking the show seriously, but the show breathes, the characters have life, and everyone behaves the way normal people would behave in these crazy circumstances. It’s still a mother and a son having a conflict, and the mother wanting the son to become something and the son rebelling against it. So it’s relatable. But Famke and I come from movies, and we really wanted to create a great cinematic experience. We didn’t come to television to make another show. We came in here to make something that you can’t find anywhere else. That’s its own unique special thing, and Netflix is the place that really provides the form to do that.
Note: Now here’s a video recap of Hemlock Grove‘s first season to get you primed for season 2…