Some creators just say they’d like to work on something entirely different from what they’ve done before. But Neil LaBute really walks that talk.
The playwright and filmmaker first broke out with the 1997 indie hit “In the Company of Men,” followed by more adult drama work like “The Shape of Things” and “Possession.” He’s also dabbled in other genres and mediums, including television — but his first official gig as a showrunner isn’t at all what you might expect.
“Van Helsing” drops us into the middle of an apocalyptic Earth overrun by vampires. Our only savior might be the mysterious Vanessa, whose supernatural abilities include being able to change vampires back into humans with her own blood.
It’s a Syfy vampire action show shot in Canada, but don’t let its genre trappings fool you — it’s a surprisingly complex and intimate take. Check out an exclusive clip from tonight’s episode, in which two survivors (one of whom was just restored to human status after months as a vampire) try to connect despite their circumstances:
Below, LaBute tells IndieWire what drew him to the “Van Helsing” concept for his first showrunner gig, how his indie film background helped him find out-of-the-box solutions for problems, and what working in a very specific genre gives him that he doesn’t get from writing for the stage.
What kind of reaction do you get from people when you tell them about the show?
It’s twofold. I think people who are into genre are always excited about something that combines apocalyptic things or science fiction elements or vampires. And this is a particularly known title, in terms of a character that’s directly connected to the Dracula myth. That name has been out there in the ether for a while, and I think that people do have some expectations that they bring to it.
For my connection to it, I think it’s a surprise, but I think people also know that while in the theater I’ve been very strict about creating a certain voice, film or television-wise I have not really followed any trajectory so far, and have been more open to things that have interested me. So, for a lot of people, the initial surprise might lead to knowing that, “Well, he likes to try things that are different than the last thing he’s tried.” Hopefully they’ll want to go on this particular ride.
Dan Power/Helsing S1 Productions/Syfy
What goes into finding things that are interesting to you — is it a gut instinct?
A lot of the time, yes, it is. Sometimes you’re looking for material or other times material comes to you — in this case, it certainly came to me. I was working with the producers of the show on another show of theirs, “Hell on Wheels,” and I could remember being in a field somewhere in Canada and one of them asking me, “How do you like vampire shows?” And strangely I had actually adapted “Dracula” to the stage years ago and I had changed the gender of Van Helsing myself, however many years ago. So, that seemed like a weird connection, and I went, “this seems like something I should be involved with.”
What’s been the most fun aspect of getting to create this world?
Part of it is getting to create it from the ground up and changing up some of the rules. Going into this we credited a graphic novel [also called “Van Helsing”] but we really are not connected to that in a specific or realistic way. There was this sales document that was created that originally got Syfy interested in the show — that was what they originally bought and said, “Let’s work from this.” We’ve changed so much of that it’s almost its own complete creature now, but one of the things that was embedded in that original idea that I liked a lot, and that was carried over, was the notion of our hero being able to bite vampires and turn them back into humans. That was a really nice idea.
I think that just being able to push your mind into a world where you’re not used to being… I’m often used to theater being like, there’s a table and a chair and two people sitting and talking, now make that talk as interesting as you possibly can. The settings are often so simple, literally like that — they say, “A table in a room and a man and a woman sitting in chairs.” So, to actually have to fill in the blanks that come with a show likes this, it can be really fun.
Dan Power/Helsing S1 Productions/Syfy
What is a great pleasure and part of the fun of directing, and the reason to direct, is to work with actors who I admire and who I love, to see how they flesh out characters for you. Being a part of the casting for a lot of these characters, that’s a really nice thing to be a part of it. It’s great, as the showrunner, to get to see everything and hear every idea, and all of that, but I think one of the best parts for me is casting those lead characters. It’s fun to cast small, supporting parts, too, but it’s really great to say, “OK, I’m going to take a chance on this person, this woman, I think she’d be a good fit.” You turn the corner and they’re building the sets and then suddenly, it’s all set and lit and there’s this world that you imagined in your head. But the actors are the ones who really connect with the audience — they are the conduit into the show. To watch actors grow in the roles that they’re given over time, for me, that’s one of the great pleasures.
What surprised you most about the job of showrunning?
I’d never been part of a writers’ room, you know, where you sit around with other creative people and break down the story and put everything into usable beats and then fill in the blanks. I’ve never really done a paragraph or a single line of dialogue with other people before. So, getting a chance to actually do that, from hiring the writers to being with them in a room and on set, and all that… It’s still writing, and I love that part of the job — but what it was like to work with people in that capacity, that was probably the most fun surprise.
It’s a job that is endlessly pulling you in a variety of directions, where, somewhere in production, you are sometimes still writing scripts and/or rewriting scripts, prepping the new director, working with the present director, and also in the editing room. There are so many directions that it’s difficult to make sure that you’ve implemented yourself in the best possible way. That’s a really important thing — just being able to figure out how you split yourself into enough pieces, and use those pieces effectively during the production.
How has your past experience helped you with that?
I think that when you start out young and you figure out what it is you want to do and you forge your own way, it makes you someone who doesn’t panic easily and someone who can think off the grid. Sometimes you don’t have enough money or enough time or enough light, but the good news is that showrunners don’t always have production experience — they haven’t directed movies or stage like I have. So, all of those things are different bags that I can reach into and say, “Hey, I know a little bit about this or that, or here’s an idea that I’ve tried on something else, you just a play that I did.”
You’ve got three scenes left to shoot in the day and they’re all a variety of scenes that take place in different episodes or they’re not one right after the other in the same episode, and you say, “Let’s shoot them all in interesting one-shots that we choreograph a little bit, take a little time, but that will save a lot of time with setting up and shooting and we’ll probably still make our day that way.” Being able to think on your feet and not always be able to run back to the pot of money and just say, “Let’s just throw money at this” — let’s buy another day or let’s buy another hour of overtime, let’s buy our way out of this problem. I’ve had to be more creative, and I think having come from a world where you started out not having much money or time or any of those things has helped me.
Dan Power/Helsing S1 Productions/Syfy
And certainly I can remember the first time I directed a television episode and I thought to myself, as quickly as they shoot those things, boy, if I hadn’t made independent films with relatively small budgets and small amounts of time, I would be standing over in the corner with my hands on my knees and sucking in air going, “Man, I can’t believe they shoot seven pages a day here.” The luxury of studio films [is they] buy you a lot more time and consideration for shooting a movie. So, having done independent films, you know, having shot my own films in eight days allowed me to come into television and not feel like I couldn’t keep up. so that certainly, left from my background in that way, has helped me a great deal.
It seems like “Van Helsing” in general came together pretty fast. I think it was just announced last November?
That’s right, yeah, and it’s already on the air. I think the difference being it was one of those scripted, straight-to-series kind of opportunities, so we knew that when we were sitting down and writing we were going to write not just the pilot but an entire series. Then we tried and keep ourselves down to as few a number of directors as we could have and just keep things all in the family and very linear.
I think for the kind of project that it was, it’s relatively still ambitious when you’re dealing with all the effects, makeup and costumes. We moved pretty efficiently and quickly. Part of it’s necessity and part of it’s just when you get a good team that’s working together and they enjoy what they’re doing, you know, I think people are willing to stay that extra bit of time, here or there, or go to lunch late or, even right now, we still have our visual effects artists working on the final episode. They stay and get things done because they like the show and they believe in it and they want it to be good, so that’s why, from your posters on down, there’s a cohesiveness, because of a team that likes working together.
On a technical level, you certainly didn’t take it easy on yourself for a first showrunning gig.
No — also when you’re away from home, that’s tricky. Vancouver is a lovely city but that’s not where I live, and so, wherever you do that kind of thing, eventually you end up feeling like you’re living out of a suitcase and the reason you feel that is because you are, so that can get to be a tiresome thing as well. But you kind of have to love what you do and most people who are lucky enough to continue to get work in this business are respectful of that and do love what they do. And sometimes the hours are long, but there’s a certain pleasure that comes with saying, “Hey, I’m a part of this, and I’m going to the set, and I’m doing something that I’ve always wanted to do.” So, you shouldn’t complain very loudly — and I don’t.
Dan Power/Helsing S1 Productions/Syfy
Something that stuck me was just how intimate “Van Helsing” feels, especially for a genre show. Was that a deliberate part of what you wanted to achieve?
Well, part of it’s necessity and part of it’s, yeah, the work I’ve done previously, and probably what I bring to it as showrunner. Saying, “I want to build suspense in the best way that I can.” Sometimes it’s isolating people and not having them talk, or not overusing music, or if there’s a scene you could take outside but by putting it in a stairwell it suddenly makes the place feel that much more claustrophobic. It’s a combination of things, certainly, but creating any kind of tension like that between the piece itself or the characters themselves or and the audience at large, is part of the real pleasure of working on that kind of thing. We try to very inventive with the amount of tools that we had.
For you as a writer, what does working on something that is very classically genre give you, that perhaps you don’t get from working in more traditional drama?
I guess there’s a freedom to go for broke a little bit more. The stakes are a little higher — I mean, certainly in a life-or-death situation you still want to create believable characters with psychological profiles that people will believe when they watch it. But they aren’t just going off to work and getting in petty squabbles with friends or loved ones, these are often life-or-death situations that they’re talking about, as simple as going outside for a few minutes.
So, at least for me, I think that frees you up in a good way, to push yourself to be creative. To say, “Well, this is going to be one of those kinds of shows, but let’s turn that on its head, let’s have the show start with our hero in a coma for the first 20 minutes of the show, and start with a vampire in a cage and somebody using their own blood to feed them and keep them alive.” Those seem like different approaches to characters that you would find in perhaps another vampire show. We constantly strive to be creative and say, how could we both fulfill expectations — because that’s something that people come in with, they go, “This better have this, this, and this” — and also say, “Hey, we’re marking our own territory here, and it may be a little shaggy dog at first, but give it a try and see what you think.”
I appreciate that about working in genre. It really allows you as a writer to say, “Nothing is stopping you now from really pushing every boundary you want to.”
“Van Helsing” airs Fridays at 10pm on Syfy.