“It’s definitely the future of broadcasting.”
Bill Skarsgård is wired as he sits down to talk with us, a group of press that’d flown into Toronto the night before. His thin, wiry frame can’t hide the resemblance to father Stellan (Thor) or brother Alexander (HBO’s True Blood). Skarsgård sees the irony of course, being the brother of the star of a show about vampires and shape shifters; he’s now the face of a show about werewolves and shape shifters. But after a day of set tours and sitdowns with cast and crew, it becomes clear how unwise it would be to lump Hemlock Grove, the latest series in Netflix’s slate of programming, with HBO’s flagship series.
We’d been shuttled into Oshawa, Ontario not long after our arrival, a weary group of press culled from both coasts save for my Midwestern ass. The next morning the lot of us were piled into a bus and carted to Oshawa’s own Parkwood Estate. If Parkwood doesn’t sound familiar, it certainly looks it. The sprawling manse, all 15,000 square feet of it, is no stranger to film, having appeared in the likes of X-Men, Hollywoodland, Chicago, Billy Madison and a slew of other projects both big screen and small.
On this day we’d been brought here by Netflix to view their latest project, Hemlock Grove. For context, this visit was in December, long before my peers and I had been able to pull apart and dissect House of Cards and it’s day-one rollout, to the point where our handlers weren’t ready to reveal whether Grove would unveil in similar. But Skarsgård’s comment spelled out just how serious Netflix was in approaching its second foray into original programming.
“I’ve never done TV before. If you shoot a film, it’s two months, two-and-a-half months. The material is like 120, 130 pages. Now we’re doing 55 pages every two weeks.”
The actor plays Roman Godfrey, one of the many residents of the titular Hemlock Grove. Godfrey is a member of the wealthiest family in the sleepy Pittsburgh town, and it’s not until the arrival of the mysterious Peter (Landon Liboiron) that bodies start piling up. An uneasy alliance is formed between the two young men as their respective secrets unearth themselves along the way.
Secrets, sex and gore are the order of the day here and indeed, I managed to catch a glimpse of a familiar face decked out like something primed to go bump in the night. Meeting one actor before they were whisked into make-up, I bumped into them later to find them transformed into a Vorhees-esque mutant. Erie surprises like this quickly became the order of the day.
When I first arrived, Skarsgård was one of the many actors and crewmembers that’d been on set approaching six months. The series, based on a novel from exec producer Brian McGreevy and shepherded in part by Eli Roth (also exec producer, director of the pilot), now looks to wrap up its first season under the steady hand of director Deran Sarafian.
The Los Angeles native is a seasoned vet by now, with directing credits on Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even Charlie Sheen-vehicle Terminal Velocity. Here, he’s not only wrapping the season finale, he’s closing out a six-episode run of the season, making him somewhat of an expert on the show’s burgeouning mythology.
“It’s a very twisted, sort of [David] Lynchian experience that I love. It’s almost like a graphic novel in a sense… “
I asked him how a project like this, under the Netflix banner, is different from his runs on shows like House:
“The great thing about Netflix is that they’re letting us spread our wings and let us break boundaries that you really can’t break in network television. I’ve worked cable before but you still have executives that really come down on you. ‘This has to be like this, this is the rulebook.’
There are no rules here, this is brand new territory. So for a director and producer, it is a fantastic. It’s going to be hard to go back and do a network [show].”
It’s not long after meeting some of the cast and crew that I find myself in the belly of Parkwood, its wide halls and open corridors immersed in the cords and buzzing crewman of a lively and somewhat grueling production schedule. I pass Dougray Scott as he paces in the kitchen, getting ready to shoot some pick-ups with second unit. As we move into the greater house, I notice myself becoming more and more careful with my steps. The furniture of the estate lines up and down the halls, swathed in bubble wrap and stacked, tucked and cornered off so as to not get in the way of production.
In truth, this is the end of the line for Season 1 of Hemlock Grove. We arrived at a day and time when one of the more pivotal scenes of the season finale is being filmed. When I found out I’d be visiting the set, I thought I’d crack McGreevy’s book and try to work my way through it before I arrived on set. Alas, real life intervened and while I found myself engaged with the book’s overreaching mystery, I hadn’t come anywhere near finishing it. By the end of my day, I’ll have wished I had.
Under a winding staircase I mistake Famke Janssen’s stand-in for the genuine article. In truth, the two could pass for twins. The assistant director is using the stand-ins to compose a shot. Skarsgård is shuffled out from a secluded room where he’d been rehearsing his lines. As this happens, Ms. Janssen buzzes onto the set graciously and with aplomb, even as her presence injects a touch of electricity among the fellow press people now grouped behind a monitor.
I’m snug behind Sarafian, peering over his shoulder as he observes Famke and Bill on the monitor. He calls action and the two begin exchanging dialogue. Famke, playing Roman’s mother Olivia, consoles her son as he relays the events of what I have to believe is a final showdown amongst many of the series’ major players. In one extended exchange, I have every mystery of the book completely solved for me. Disappointing, but also kind of exhilarating in the realization that I’ve never observed a scene being filmed in my life, or had a book spoiled for me by the actors playing the characters. If you’re going to be spoiled on a book or show, there are worse ways.
Walking away from the set, I noticed McGreevy, the man behind the misery of Hemlock Grove, walking next to me. I was still connecting dots and was hoping the orchestrator might help: “Brian, so [redacted] was behind the killings all along?”
“Yeah, you couldn’t tell when you met [the actor who played the killer].”
“No. Guess not.”
So lesson learned. Finish your goddamn books before you visit the set of an adaptation. Grove has now been available for streaming on Netflix Instant for the past few weeks. Word’s been mixed; unfortunate considering the hard work I’d seen being put into making it all happen. But I’m excited to check out the show for myself to see how it all shakes out (I’d held off seeing it until I had time to sit down and write this). Serialized horror on television has been limited to True Blood and CW dreck these last few years.
And it’s likely to stay that way in the short term, because Netflix, and even the cast and crew during my visit, were careful not to label Hemlock Grove as television. Like House of Cards before it, this is a brave new world in serialized programming – one caught somewhere between TV and film.