13-part drama Hemlock Grove is one of the most anticipated new shows of 2013, thanks partly to its talent (producer and director Eli Roth, actors Famke Janssen and Bill Skarsgard) and partly to its status as the second original series for Netflix, following House of Cards.
It’s due to premiere on April 19. Roth and actress Famke Janssen appeared at MIPTV today to discuss the show and its distribution strategy, introduced by the CEO of Gaumont International Television, Katie O’Connell, and interviewed onstage by Peter White, international editor at trade magazine Broadcast.
Roth said he’d been courted by networks for some time to make a horror TV series, but he’d resisted the invitations. “What makes horror great is that any character can die at any second,” he said, pointing out that this is a challenge for TV. “I can’t just keep killing my cast week after week, so I didn’t really know how to crack it.”
The manuscript for Hemlock Grove – based on a book by Brian McGreevy – reminded Roth of “a very dark, monstrous Twin Peaks” – his favourite television show. “This is more what killed Laura Palmer!” he joked later in the session.
While Roth was reading the script, Netflix had been looking for an original horror project, and were happy to commission a series all in one go. “They wanted to do all 13 at once, and air all 13 at once. We wanted to make it a 13-hour movie,” said Roth.
Janssen said her interest had been caught by the script, and also by the Netflix angle, and the fact that House of Cards was attracting so much attention at the time it came her way.
“Already the bar was set so high, and all eyes in the business were on this company (Netflix) to see what it would do next. And this was the second project out of the gate, so it piqued my interest,” she said.
Hemlock Grove is already making waves online with the trailer showing one character’s gory transformation into a werewolf. Roth said he had previous cinematic examples in mind when planning his new show.
“For me, when I saw American Werewolf in London, there was nothing that freaked me out more than that,” he said. “That howling visceral transformation… For this, we wanted something that would be beautiful and horrific, but which would f*** up an entire generation.”
Roth praised Netflix for handing him creative control of the project, but he said it tied into a wider cultural change that’s happening in the US entertainment industry.
“You can see that people want their horror horrific,” he said. “The Walking Dead got 12.5m viewers. Evil Dead just opened at number one in the box office… people want stories like this. They want their violence in Game of Thrones. What you’re seeing is a real shift… You wanna see the sex and you wanna see the killing and the violence. You want the murder to be scary and horrible!”
Roth stressed that right from the start, the intention was to make Hemlock Grove “theatrical” – something worthy of filling the frame for people with “beautiful home projection screens”. He also said that the knowledge that all 13 episodes will be released at once also had an impact on the production.
“The wonderful thing about how this has put on by Netflix is it’s up to the viewer’s discretion how and when they want to watch it,” said Janssen, who said she’s been watching House of Cards in clumps of episodes. “It’s really nice, and it gives you a flow that you miss in the traditional way of watching television on a weekly basis.”
Roth compared it to a Harry Potter or Twilight novel, where people rush out to buy it, but then “you read it at your own pace”. He had this in mind when shooting.
“It changed the way you could edit things. We didn’t have to have the scare of the week or the monster of the week,” he said, while admitting that because Netflix is only available in some countries, there are still traditional end-of-episode cliffhangers, which will (hopefully) keep viewers hooked in markets where it’s airing more traditionally.
Roth praised produce Gaumont, saying “they really treat you as a director and as an auteur”, while also hailing Netflix for letting him “run wild” with the project. “Netflix and Gaumont are both filmmaker-friendly companies, and both trying to define themselves as doing it more like a 13-hour movie rather than traditional television,” he said.
Roth also thinks that the horror theme of Hemlock Grove – albeit with twists – can make it a global success far beyond the US.
“The horror fans are there globally and the appetite is so strong for this type of material. And fans have been waiting for me to dive into something that would be week-to-week,” he said. “I wasn’t going to do a series unless I could give that big payoff… I don’t just want this to be a hit on Netflix in America. I want the show to become a global phenomenon, because horror is one of the few areas where you can really appeal to a worldwide audience.”
Roth has been thinking hard about how to extend Hemlock Grove beyond the television, with plans to provide fans with a community to chat about the show, as well as additional content – he mentioned the idea of Tumblr pages and photo-journals from the characters published online as examples.
He also has plans beyond this first season. “We’ve really thought carefully about where the story was going to go, and making it about more than just ‘monster vampire’. That’s only going to go so far,” he said, before hinting that the mysterious White Tower may be the key.
“There’s a whole complete mythology of the White Tower, and who’s behind it and what it’s creating, which really leads you into season two,” he said. “I can think of endless horrible things to do to people! It’s like the White Tower becomes my brain…”
There’s no news on a recommission from Netflix just yet – Roth said that the main feedback so far has been from the teenage son of Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos – “He was like ‘Dude! That was f***ing awesome!'” – but as he finished the session with a screening of the infamous werewolf transformation scene, Roth dangled another reason for Hemlock Grove to be given a second season:
“In season two you’re gonna figure out how the eyes grow back. I’ve already planned that,” he said.
Confused? Watch the scene, and you’ll understand what he means. Warning: it’s not for the faint-hearted!