“House of Cards,” the Netflix original drama that premiered February 1 in a 13-episode, season one swoop, was a flag-planting series, a brand statement as much as a work of entertainment and art. David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Beau Willimon, Corey Stoll — staffed with high-end talent and set in the weighty world of D.C. politics, “House of Cards” exudes prestige and has served (quite successfully) as a signal that Netflix, as a home for quality programming, intends to be placed next to the likes of HBO and AMC.
If “House of Cards” is Netflix’s bid at a “Mad Men,” the upcoming “Hemlock Grove” is its attempt at the sexy, bloody genre series — the less overtly prestigious and more obviously popular type of show that’s currently dominating cable TV. “The Walking Dead,” “True Blood,” “Game of Thrones” — the supernatural saga for grown-ups has been a huge draw in the premium drama realm, and you don’t need access to the levels of data Netflix collects from its users to understand why the company is eager to have a hot and gory show to call its own.
And “Hemlock Grove,” like “House of Cards,” seems to be comprised of all the right ingredients — a name director (Eli Roth), an ambitious writer (Brian McGreevy), a few movie stars (Famke Janssen and Dougray Scott) and some talented up-and-comers (Bill Skarsgård and Landon Liboiron). It’s also positioned to take advantage of the content freedoms allowed to Netflix-only programming, as seen in a red band trailer released yesterday promising “mild fornication, fellatio, heavy cocaine use, lesbian necrophilia, violent hemorrhaging” in its MPAA-style warning.
All 13 episodes of “Hemlock Grove” will premiere Friday, April 19. Back in December, Netflix invited a group of journalists on set to catch the tail end of production. While set in Pennsylvania in a former steel town, the show was shot in Canada and made use of Oshawa’s gorgeously creepy historic Parkwood Estate (which has served as a location for everything from “Billy Madison” to “Hollywoodland”) as the home of the Godfreys, the town’s wealthiest family and its de facto ruling class.
At the start of the series, the town of Hemlock Grove is rocked by the brutal killing of a young girl, though the investigation into who killed her reveals that many locals are harboring supernatural secrets. Vampires, werewolves, mad scientists and lab creations — the search for who’s behind the murder uncovers plenty of contemporary takes on classic monsters, but suggests the culprit may not be so obvious an uncanny outsider.
Roth, who serves as executive producer on “Hemlock Grove,” helmed the pilot, but had already headed off to work on his upcoming feature “The Green Inferno.” Series director Deran Sarafian (a veteran of “House”), who was directing the final two episodes, spent a few minutes with the press to explain that the show’s various guest directors had taken on two episodes each, in the style of “House of Cards.”
He summed up the show as a “twisted, Lynchian experience” that’s “almost like a graphic novel,” and said that the freedom they were given will make it hard to go back to a network series after making what he called, in what’s become the common Netflix refrain, more of “a 13-hour movie.”
TV is hardly short of supernatural dramas of late, but the cast, who trickled into the room over the hours when they had a break from shooting, were quick to note that their characters didn’t easily fit into the usual molds. Australian newcomer Penelope Mitchell, who plays Godfrey daughter Letha, notes that while the show can be “racy” and “intense,” “it has a lot of heart,” and that while many of the younger characters have powers, strange happenings and mysterious killings to deal with, they’re also “all really going through basic teenage stuff.”
For Skarsgård, who’s in the role of Letha’s brother Roman, his wealthy scion is more of a troubled kid than a “Twilight”-style vampire. “On paper he’s had an easy life, but he’s battling a lot of demons, and he’s not happy at all. He’s doing bad things, but he’s a victim in a lot of ways,” he explains, adding that a desire to, for once, do good drives him to investigate the murder.
He’s also less in touch with his uncanny side than others: “A big part of his character throughout the season is him finding out who he is or what he is.” Skarsgård, whose brothers Alexander and Gustaf are currently also on the small screen in larger than life roles in “True Blood” and “Vikings,” had also been interested in working in TV.
“Growing up with ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire,’ as an actor, I really wanted to portray a story that changes throughout,” he said. “We don’t get to read the scripts until a week before shooting, it’s almost like living your character.”
Liboiron, who most recently starred in Fox’s canceled “Terra Nova,” plays Peter Rumancek, a poor kid of Romani heritage who has a lupine side, and who’s the natural first suspect when the body is found. “The show’s so specific in its own world that to me it was a completely original take on the whole werewolf thing,” he said. “The fact that he’s a Gypsy was so much more interesting to me than the werewolf aspect. They got a bad rap. They have this rich, beautiful culture revolving around family.” Culture aside, it’s the character’s grisly, painful and distinctive transformation scene that’s attracted a lot of attention.
“Hemlock Grove” is based on the novel of the same name by Brian McGreevy, published in March of last year and the first of an intended trilogy. McGreevy, who’s both an EP on the show and the head writer, has enjoyed an unusual amount of creative control over “Hemlock Grove,” which according to him was by design.
“Myself and the other executive producers pursued the Netflix because we knew that that was their approach, that they were sympathetic to the way we wanted to do things.” He and his screenwriting partner Lee Shipman wrote over half the episodes themselves, and he spoke of the process of expanding what was in the novel onto the screen (as opposed to the more typical condensing you’d do when adapting a book to a film) as “the fun part.”
There are freedoms beyond just those for sex and gore when writing for a Netflix series. Since “Hemlock Grove” will play online, as opposed to on air with commercials, McGreevy noted that they had the freedom to deviate from the traditional four-act structure of a TV installment. “Episodically, we didn’t really have an interest in doing that, and episodically, Netflix was not in the market for that,” he said. “The idea is that, like a novel, the thing is designed to work as a whole,” though they still to maintain “narrative propulsion.” It is, he admitted, something of a new frontier — “We’re all in the exploration phase of that, now. Hopefully we’ve figured it out.”
As for overall themes of the series, cast member Joel de la Fuente (“Space: Above and Beyond”), whose Dr. Johann Pryce works in the ominous biotech lab that more recently moved into the town, suggested that it’s one of reexamining morality and outcasts.
“In ‘Hemlock Grove,’ we know there’s going to be a vampire or two, there’s going to be a werewolf or two, there’s going to be a giant creature, there’s going to be a mad scientist — in a town full of monsters, what makes someone monstrous? It’s the things that we do.”
McGreevy addressed it more succinctly: “I wanted to psychologically exorcise my own adolescence.”