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Q&A: Eli Roth and Famke Janssen on “HEMLOCK GROVE”

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Since HEMLOCK GROVE’s entire ten-episode second season recently premiered on Netflix, the internet has been abuzz with the enigmatic and more horrific turns the series has taken. In the wake of its return, FANGORIA spoke to HEMLOCK GROVE’s executive producer Eli Roth and star Famke Janssen regarding what’s in store, topping the previous season, and the long-term plans for the show… 

FANGORIA: It’s a great time for horror in television, with shows like HANNIBAL, HEMLOCK GROVE and THE STRAIN. Now that the show is two seasons deep, what is it about the show that you think really resonated with both genre and non-genre fans?

ROTH: It started with great material. Brian McGreevy spent eight years with that book, and really researched the root mythology of werewolves and vampires, going back to the words “Upir” and “Vargulf”, the folklore of what inspired these things and even Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. He thought of how he could put a modern day twist on them, even setting it in high school. He even started the book, I remember, before TWILIGHT; so when that came out, he was like, “Uh-oh”.

Obviously [HEMLOCK GROVE] is very different, and I wanted to do a show that was like in the TWIN PEAKS world, with a touch of Douglas Sirk melodrama or that David Lynch quality, you know, to make something that was cinematic. Now with 4K televisions, you can shoot everything just like a movie and it’ll look incredible in a home theater. I always wanted to make my mark in television, not just come in and do a show. I had always been offered different projects since HOSTEL, but I always felt that unless I could do something that was out there, different, and twisted in a way, that I didn’t want to do it.

We were very lucky when Famke came on the show; we got an amazing cast and people really loved the characters. With scenes like the transformation, everyone will go “Oh my God”; I wanted to film that like you were watching a birth for the first time, like in science class, where you know what’s going to happen but can’t get it out of your head. I wanted people to think of only HEMLOCK GROVE when they think of transformations like a real physical, biological process.

What’s great is that I feel like fans are hungry, and that TWILIGHT fans had grown up and wanted a new thing. TRUE BLOOD is coming to an end, and it was the right time with Netflix. We were the first show that people were binge-watching, right after HOUSE OF CARDS, where people were trying to watch television shows that way and declare it “cool” or “the worst piece of shit ever.” Thankfully, they really embraced the show.

JANSSEN: Yeah and also, I think it’s rare that you hear the word “sophistication” with the horror genre; it’s almost a dichotomy, and it doesn’t come up in the same sentence a lot. I think that’s sort of interesting with a mixture of these characters that were complex and complicated. In having these Shakespearean types of relationships, you aren’t really sure who’s going to kill one another over a power struggle or a mother/son relationship, and you have these horror moments in the middle of that.

FANG: Famke, you’ve always had a knack for choosing roles that have had that complexity to them, and Olivia is definitely not an exception to that. With the shift in her relationship with Roman at the end of season one, and with her almost seeming like the weaker of the two this time around, what can viewers look forward to with Olivia in season two?

JANSSEN: It is interesting when you take a character like that, that is so diabolical and strong-willed and powerful, and then strip her of all that power to see what happens. Ultimately, she is resourceful and she’s like a cat, she’ll land on her feet and all will be well…or not be well for anybody else other than her. It makes for a very interesting character to play, when you do strip her of all of those powers and make her vulnerable. It’s certainly delicious to play a character like that.

FANG: Everything in season two seems to be on a much grander scale, with everything from the SFX to even bringing on a new show runner with Chic Eglee. Did you intentionally want to go bigger this time around as opposed to coasting on what worked in season one?

ROTH: Well, it’s not just bigger on a grander scale; we wanted to make it better in quality. The advantage that we have with season two is that we can look back on season one to see what worked and what didn’t work. With everything being dropped at once, we heard from people globally what they liked and what they didn’t like. We saw what memes were being started, what Tumblr .gifs were going around, what fans were latching onto. We were also trying to fit season one to the novel; we really followed it to the structure. With season two, we thought “Alright, we’re all invested in the mythology, and we know this kind of three year or four year macro-arc for where we’re going to go with these characters.”

It was great to have someone like Chic Eglee come in. He worked with James Cameron for many years on shows like DARK ANGEL, and has worked on so many great shows and has so much great experience. He really came into season two as a fan of the show. He came in and said, “I watched the show, I loved it, and as a viewer and a fan, this is where I would want the show to go.” We could all throw out ideas, like “Okay, I want to see Peter reform. In season one, he only let Roman watch and in season two I want him to be like ‘Hey, watch this!’, and do it for a bunch of fucking strangers!” You realize how far gone he is, and how self-destructive he is; he’s using the werewolf transformation almost like a drug bender. We thought that if it’s a biological process, is it like birth-control, where you can trick your body into thinking you’re pregnant? Can you actually turn against the moon?

Chic came in and said “Yeah, he’s doing it like a grift, like a drug deal”. Watching Peter do it is painful for the audience, because we really like him and we know that he really doesn’t want to do it. That’s what was so fun to have someone like Chic come in and lead the charge. We also have Famke, where now we know her and what’s really right for her, without having the confines of the book. We can go in such crazy directions with Bill and Landon, and now he have Madeline Brewer from ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. It took us a whole season to figure out how Shelley was going to move, and she’s the emotional core of the show, so we wanted her there, and now we have Madeleine Martin coming in to play her.

We want the fans to be rewarded. When you make a movie, it’s like you’re asking “Give us ten dollars and two hours of your time, trust me, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.” Now we’re saying “Here’s thirteen hours, you’re investing a lot of your time watching it,” and we want them to be rewarded for that.

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FANG: A lot of shows, like TRUE BLOOD, seemed to have lost some viewers the longer they went on, when they spread themselves a bit too far by adding new characters and twists. Do you ever feel that is a risk for HEMLOCK GROVE, or do you have a four or five year arc in mind?

ROTH: The best policy for us is to just focus on one season at a time, and make it be great. If you make it great and people watch it, we’ll be lucky enough to do a third season, which we’d love to do. In the back of our minds, we have those little macro-arcs of where we’d like to go, but that’s the best thing about the white tower and the mad scientist. Every force that we find, we see that there’s something behind them, and there’s something behind them. Instead of focusing on sustaining it for seven seasons, we just want to look at each seasons as it comes to us and say, “Okay, this is what we did, how can we top it, and where do we go?”

JANSSEN: I think that today, there’s also much content in a way that we’ve never seen this before. I don’t think we’re going to see shows for seven years if they’re not great, since the competition will just kick them out and something else will come up.

FANG: Eli, as a filmmaker, you’re continually making your own films as well as producing things like Ti West’s THE SACRAMENT and HEMLOCK GROVE. Do you find it somewhat difficult to fully focus on your stuff while producing something like this?

ROTH: It’s satisfying in different ways. My value in HEMLOCK GROVE is that we can help develop the material and bring it to life by getting it through the system and establishing it. Now we have amazing people that we’re collaborating with, so a lot of the heavy lifting is done, it’s all about coming in with creative strikes with scripts and ideas. I’m a big presence, but I don’t want the directors to feel like I’m going to be there and that there’s a second director on site.

We had Spencer Susser come in; he did HESHER and I LOVE YOU, MARY JANE. We also had Floria Sigismondi, who directed Marilyn Manson videos and THE RUNAWAYS; Vincenzo Natali, who had done CUBE and SPLICE. I want them to feel like they could come in a put their creative stamp on the show. We have a great and amazing team, and I’m happy to be a part of it, but it’s nice to know that if I want to go and direct a feature, I can go and direct a feature.

FANG: How is that for you, Famke? As an actress, how is it to be able to work with someone new every week, as opposed to a single director running the ship?

JANSSEN: It’s interesting. Like Eli, I come from a film background, the only length of time I did on television was one season of NIP/TUCK. That was the first time that I was introduced to the television model of “the director’s not the captain of the ship, the writer is.” I always felt like, “Who am I really turning to here?,” because the writers seemed to know more than some of the directors; they’d lived with these characters and knew them. What I really thought was incredible with this season, is that the group of directors that Eli just mentioned were really strong, independent filmmakers. They didn’t come from a television background; they came from independent films, so we all came at it like we were making ten one-hour movies.

All ten episodes of HEMLOCK GROVE’s second season are now available on Netflix Instant.

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About the author
Jerry Smith
A lifelong genre fanatic, Smith loves all things Carpenter and plays a mean game of hide and seek. Currently the Editor In Chief of Icons of Fright, Jerry hails from the dead center of California and changes diapers on his off time.
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