The home entertainment landscape is a moving target as we get further and further into the realm of different ways to consume television. With the success of DVD box sets and the ever growing trend of binge watching, the days of centering your life around a TV schedule has officially gone the way of the dinosaur. Premiering this week on Netflix is the gothic horror series Hemlock Grove, which takes us to a creepy small Pennsylvania steel town where the residents are hiding far too many secrets.
The story begins with the discovery of a high school cheerleader, mangled and murdered in the shadow of an abandoned mill in the dilapidated community of Hemlock Grove. The ensuing investigation exposes the community’s underbelly and reveals that nothing is as it seems. Some townspeople suspect a connection between the murder and White Tower, the biotech facility owned by the Godfrey family, who were once steel magnates. They have a sinister, superior air about them and the town despises them yet is afraid of them all at the same time. Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen) is the otherworldly beautiful and controlling grand dame of Hemlock Grove. Her daughter Shelley (Nicole Boiven) is disturbingly deformed, and her son Roman (Bill Skarsgård), the arrogant Godfrey scion, has always been considered peculiar. However, some people believe the killer comes from the other side of the tracks. Fingers are pointed at Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) a 17-year-old from the town’s mistrusted gypsy community.
In these first three episodes we get the distinct impression of what this series is striving to be. Not a show that would have ever been able to work on network or cable television, it is a deliberate, slow burning kind of tale that they are trying to convey. You commit to all 13 episodes or not at all, as executive producer Eli Roth and show runners Mark Verheiden and Deran Serafian, along with writers Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman guide us down the rabbit hole into the dark and twisted world of this small town. These initial episodes establish all of the primary characters and they slowly unravel this world that we have been thrust into.
While the horror motifs are clear cut and an obvious selling point for the series, this is unlike any other recent forays into the genre. It is a deliberate and well executed character study with a plethora of interesting characters brought to life by an excellent ensemble cast. Led by the indomitable Famke Janssen and Dougray Scott, I got the chance to sit down with both of them in advance of the show’s launch. I asked them both about the differences and potential challenges on working on a show done in the Netflix fashion, where there wasn’t any concerns about a pilot season and at least having a rough idea about what kind of story they were going to tell over the course of these 13 episodes.
Famke Janssen: Thankfully, we had the novel as a guide going in, or it would have been just like any other TV show since in reality we really only ever got the script for the first episode when we were going into it all. Having the novel as a backdrop allowed us to know who the characters were and what their back stories were along with giving us an idea where the show might be going. Having that asset as we are apart of this whole new way of launching shows on Netflix… it’s just great. And we are in the footsteps of someone like David Fincher… I love saying that [room laughs]. Now whenever my name gets brought up it will be associated with David Fincher in some way, and that is never a bad thing. There were just so many pluses about participating in this show…
Dougray Scott: Yeah, you could take out a six month lease on an apartment and actually know that you are going to be there for six months while shooting it. You don’t have to worry about the month-to-month hassles and not worry about get cancelled or not.
It’s hard to explain what a genuine force of nature Famke Janssen is in the role of Olivia Godfrey. Rarely does an actress get to play such a delicious scene stealing villain and I asked her what it was that ultimately drew her to this role.
FJ: I can’t give you too much details about Olivia since I really feel it is best for people to just watch the 13 episodes and let it all unfold that way. What attracted me to the character, and what I really think is the strength of the novel and in the scripts, is that nobody is a caricature of themselves. There is good and bad all mixed into specific people and how somebody seems on the outside isn’t quite how they are on the inside. The novel and the show both play with that idea so that we do see different sides of the characters. Someone like Dougray’s character, Norman, who at first glance would seem like an incredibly good person, is also a very conflicted person who does things that would be considered pretty bad as well. It’s this constant struggle, between good and bad as well as between the class systems and there is really so much more going on then what you would see at a first glance. It was very interesting to me because when I look at the people that I have become friends with over time, sometimes your first impressions of those people can be spot on, but sometimes you can be really off. I know that I have been judged a fair amount more than I ever wanted to be, but most of the time you just have to give people a chance and once you realize who they really are it is usually pretty different from those first impressions. I think that Olivia and Norman and all the characters in the show are very much like that.
A show that’s filled with countless dramatic reveals, I asked both our leads how much they knew about what might happen and if anything was kept from them in regards to their character. Dougray had this to say.
DS: Well, we had read the novel, and of course there were going to be deviations from novel to script, but for the most part it stayed pretty close to what happened in the novel. However, because a novel is a novel and a script is a script, we did ultimately have to wait until we had the script in our hand. That’s the big difference between TV and film. On film you can have time to work and develop, but not necessarily for TV. It can be frustrating at times, but that’s the way it is and you work in those parameters.
With a show like Hemlock Grove being fairly unexplored territory, not only for the subject matter, which hasn’t been seen in these gothic styling’s in quite some time, but in the methods of production which are deviating from the norms along with the audiences watching habits. I asked what it was that ultimately drew them to Hemlock Grove and how their tastes ran towards not only acting in, but watching shows.
FJ: For me it was really the Twin Peaks-esque vibe that it had to it. I’m drawn to things that are different and unique and have their own voice, and certainly it is that kind of show. It’s not an easily characterized show either and ultimately I think that we are doing it a bit of a disservice by calling it a “horror show” because I think it is much more than that, almost genre-less in a way. If you ever have a chance to read the novel you can see what Brian (McGreevy) was trying to do with it. He was obviously inspired by certain genres, but he went to the roots of it, a much deeper mythology rather then what is prevalent in popular culture today. I really think that is pretty much the core of the entire show, with its own kind of unique voice. Certainly for me the fact that is was 13 episodes all at once on Netflix, and being a part of the future as the audience is clearly dictating how and when they want to watch things… I mean it’s already happened it’s just that people haven’t been making original content like that until now. Netflix has all this fantastic data about viewing habits and what people want to watch and now they can create programming tailored to that and everyone is watching them. I’m ultimately happy in this scenario, because I know that it is 6 months out of the year where I am working, and in the other six months I can pursue other projects including writing and directing. It’s a good thing for me.
DS: I’ve been a binge watcher, particularly when I get things like box sets of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm or Inspector Morse and I’ll just watch them non-stop. If something is good, I find that I really can’t stop watching and hopefully people feel the need to watch them non-stop as well because they are just that good.
Hollywood can be a fairly fickle business at times, and taking risks can sometimes back fire. I asked them what their philosophies were as actors about taking risks on projects and especially on one with Netflix because it is such a new way of getting things done. Both stars had very honest and insightful answers.
FJ: By the time we had all signed on to the show, they had already started production on House of Cards and any time something has David Fincher’s name on it or Kevin Spacey’s name on it it really felt like such a privilege that I was just happy to be mentioned in the same breath as they are so from that standpoint it really wasn’t a risk at all. However, as it relates to risks as an actor in general, I think that they are really good to take.
DS: You never really want to do stuff that is familiar or safe to you, because otherwise what is the point of living and doing this job? We’ve both always taken risks, I just don’t want to repeat myself. I mean, there is always a little risk with some of the choices you make as an actor and the projects you choose because you never really know what is going to happen with it, so why take that risk with a new genre that you’ve never worked in before or a new way of producing the shows?
FJ: And really what is the worst thing that could happen? If it doesn’t work out, you just go do something else.
Clearly, the models that have existed since the invention of television are now changing with shows like Hemlock Grove and these first three episodes show a clear dedication from the stars in being willing to move with the times and try something different. This show is certainly that and for anyone in the mood for some quality storytelling or just a solid weekend of “binge watching”; Hemlock Grove should be just the ticket.
Keep it locked here at Criticize This! as we examine this new cultural phenomenon and talk with more of the stars and creators of Hemlock Grove over the coming weeks.
Hemlock Grove stars Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Bill Skarsgård, Aaron Douglas, and Lili Taylor. All 13 episodes of the first season are available to stream on Netflix now. Check out the red band trailer for the show below.
Top image: Dougray Scott and Famke Janssen from Netflix’s Hemlock Grove. Credit: Gavin Bond for Netflix.