Premiering tonight on MTV, Death Valley is a new mockumentary series that follows a group of officers working for the Undead Task Force (UTF), a law enforcement agency assigned to keep the denizens of Los Angeles safe from attack by supernatural creatures.
Awhile back I visited the set of the horror/comedy at a diner in the San Fernando Valley, where I had the opportunity to chat with a few of the series’ cast members including Texas Battle (Final Destination 3), Tania Raymonde (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D) and comedian Bryan Callen.
In the process I found out what level of gore we can expect from the series (answer: a lot), what past TV shows it bears comparison to (cough, Reno! 911), and whether the UTF will ever make it out of the San Fernando Valley to fight it out in other areas of Los Angeles.
See inside for the full report.
“I mean, it’s gory,“ said actor Bryan Callen, who plays Captain Frank Dashell, the macho leader of a group of special law enforcement agents known as the Undead Task Force (UTF). “Heads blow up, throats get cut. It’s crazy! People get drained of their blood…it’s gory. I guarantee it’s every bit as gory, if not more gory, than ‘True Blood’.“
Ok, maybe that’s a stretch. Or maybe not.
“There’s still blood left over on the precinct wall from when a zombie’s head exploded,“ said Bryce Johnson, who plays UTF agent Billy Pierce. “Yeah, it’s awesome. It won’t come off, so it’s just a blood-stained precinct. It looks cool.”
And this, from blonde, freckle-faced bombshell Caity Lotz, who plays UTF agent Kirsten:
“It gets pretty gross! There’s definitely like camera guys with bags, like having to cover everything, cause there’s blood squirting into the air, and…it’s cool, it’s pretty cool. It gets pretty gross.”
I visited the set during the last day of filming on the first season. The location? An old-school diner tucked away somewhere in the wilds of the San Fernando Valley. As I walked in, dodging P.A.s and other assorted crew members, I spotted a zombie sitting just outside.
I settled into a semi-circular booth just inside the diner and took in a bit of the filming – or at least what I could see of it. To be honest, there didn’t appear to be much of any interest going on, so I kinda just hung out and waited for someone to come over and talk to me.
In a nutshell, the show follows a group of UTF agents whose job it is to keep a semi-recent zombie outbreak contained in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. At the same time, they are tasked with policing the city’s two other main categories of supernatural denizens – vampires and werewolves, who must adhere to strict rules (i.e. every werewolf must lock him/herself up in a secure room of their house during a full moon) in order to stay out of trouble.
As they became available, cast members stopped by – either alone or in pairs – to talk. First up was Callen, a stand-up comedian who was one of the original cast members on the now-defunct sketch comedy series MAD TV. He was dressed in what looked like a police-officer’s uniform, with a badge bearing the “UTF” insignia affixed to the front of his shirt.
“You can see my sleeves are tailored…it’s ridiculous,” said Callen. “[Captain Dashell is the] kind of a guy who talks, you know, always talks with a little gravel and salt in his voice. [demonstrating] ‘He’s a man, he’s a goddamn man.’ You never know what he does really…he’s got a real perversity to him. He’s a mystery to his men. And we kind of figured the character out as we went along.”
Callen also spoke to the show’s mixture of horror and comedy, telling me that, true to the mockumentary format, much of what happens on screen was improvised.
“The scripts are always really good, but at the end of the day they’re always partially a suggestion,” he said. “And then you can come up with your own suggestions, and you kinda meet in the middle.”
Which makes it sound kinda like that other mockumentary cop show that ran for a few years…what was it called again?
“‘Reno 911′ meets ‘Dawn of the Dead’“, said Callen. “That’s probably the best way to pitch it.”
Ah, but not if you ask the show’s producers, it isn’t.
“[According to] Spider [One], the creator of the show, no,” said Charlie Sanders, who plays UTF agent Joe Stubeck, to my question of whether the series could accurately be compared to Reno.
“But in reality, yes,” cracked Johnson, sitting beside him. “Listen, Hollywood works like this. It’s ‘this meets this’, right? I’ve always told my friends about this show: ‘Have you ever seen ‘Reno 911?’ Well it’s kinda like that, only with zombies, werewolves, and vampires’. You know, I’m a big fan of that show, so why wouldn’t you use it to help somebody get the picture in their head?
“But listen, it has nothing to do with that concept, and obviously it’s a totally different thing,” he continued, backpedaling somewhat (probably to avoid getting himself in hot water). “It’s comedy mixed with…I think a big focus of our show is there are these monsters, and these vampires, and werewolves, and zombies. So in that respect it’s nothing like that, you know? And that’s gonna be a big part of what sells this show, is how cool our monsters are.”
Ah yes, the monsters. According to cast member Tania Raymonde (a.k.a. badass UTF agent/expert marksman Carla Rinaldi), who you may remember from her 17-episode arc on Lost as Ben’s adopted daughter Alex Rousseau (she’s also starring in the upcoming Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D), a lot of thought and care has been put into their creation.
“That’s like very time-intensive stuff,” she said. “Our monsters look cool. They’re not just your typical, everyday zombies and werewolves. They’re very unique and they’re detailed…the effects are important. That’s a big, important part of the show. So not only do we have like the action that we need to coordinate, and the funny moments that we need to do, but we don’t have much time to waste beyond that, because we also have all the like really complicated effects stuff.”
As I said before, the show sports three main types of monsters: vampires, werewolves, and zombies. While that no doubt sounds more than a little bit cliché at this point, the originality of the idea comes when you couple these supernatural creatures with the mockumentary format.
“I gotta say, it’s nothing like I’ve ever seen anything out there, you know?” said Johnson, trying really hard to dig himself out. “I think it’s a really new concept. I mean, we’re dealing with monsters invading the Valley. Just that concept alone is like, it makes me laugh. Why wouldn’t they go over the hill to Hollywood, you know?“
The thing is, the zombies do try and cross the border between the Valley and L.A.’s “Westside“. The UTF’s job is to keep them at bay.
“It’s like what it really would be like if this [actually] happened?” said Lotz, who got her start doing stunts before turning to acting. “Like, if there really was an outbreak of this, and what it would be like. It’s realistic…Our job is to contain the monsters in the Valley.”
Lotz described her character Kirsten as a basically sweet young woman who’s nevertheless capable of kicking some serious ass when it comes right down to it.
“She’s a really good, caring person, very genuine, a little naïve,” said Lotz. “She just moved from [the presumably fictional] Carefree, Arizona to L.A. And she’s a badass, she’s definitely a badass. She’s like extremely trained…her dad was in the military. And so ever since she was young, she’s been training. …But you would never expect it when you look at her, cause she’s just like super sweet and innocent and very nice and loving.”
To get a better idea of just how extreme they get with the gore, I asked her if she’d ever ended a day of shooting covered in blood and brain matter.
“I haven’t had any covered in blood [moments],” she said, indicating her character is more apt to use her fists than a gun. “I’ve definitely had like werewolf slobber all over me, and like zombie skin and stuff…yeah, it’s gross. And that fake slobber stuff is just like so sticky, and it’s like you have werewolf hair falling all over…”
Lotz claimed that the makeup effects work was so realistic, in fact, that it would sometimes even keep her from finishing a full meal.
“It looks pretty gross sometimes,” she said. “Like, we’ll be sitting, eating lunch or whatever, and one of the zombies will come like and they’ll like sit at your table and you’re like…’I think I’m full now!’ Cause it just looks like flesh peeling off. The vampires…can look gross too, because they’re like veiny and dead-looking.”
As for the werewolves, I wondered whether we could expect any cool transformations.
“Oh, yeah,” said Lotz. “Really cool ones. Really cool. I got to do some great scenes with werewolf stuff…It’s just so cool how they do it…it’s crazy.”
So, any other types of monsters we can expect outside of the obvious ones? Lotz told me that there is indeed one more, but that she wasn’t at liberty to talk about it. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Cool creature effects or not, at the end of the day, of course, Death Valley is still a comedy – not to mention one with a huge amount of improvisation, a la both Reno 911! (sorry, but…) and the Christopher Guest films.
“You know, Eric Weinberg, the showrunner, the head writer on it, he’s very cool about playing, just being loose with it, and let[ting] everybody really try a lot of stuff,” said Lotz. “You know like, Bryan Callen is a hilarious standup comedian as well as an actor. So he’ll just go on and on and on, and it’s so fun because it’s like you just go on a ride, and you just like try to hold on, and he just takes you all these places in the scene that’s not even written. And then all of a sudden you’re like ‘what is going on?!’”
“We love that aspect,” said Johnson. “Sometimes there’s like…we’ll get through a scene and then it’ll become completely about something else that was never even written down. …It’s those moments that catch like a spark of something fresh, or something unexpected. If we’re surprised, then the audience in turn will be surprised, and they’ll pick up on those little great moments that we have throughout the series…we call those ‘lucky accidents’.”
“I would say it is like ‘Cops’ with monsters,“ said Sanders. “Because our characters play it pretty real, which is why we can swear. They want us to be able to say whatever we want to say, just like when you watch ‘Cops’, they’ll swear and they’ll bleep it out.”
Also in the cast is Texas Battle, probably best known to horror fans for his roles in both 2006′s Final Destination 3 (as jock Lewis Romero) and 2007′s Wrong Turn 2 (as Jake Washington). Here he plays UTF agent/Carla’s partner John-John Johnson, who in contrast to his teammates actually prefers a baseball bat to a Beretta.
“I’d rather go into battle with my bat than my gun,” said Battle. “Cause a bat doesn’t run out of ammo.”
“We’ve gotten into trouble a few times because he always wants to use his bat,” countered Raymonde. “And I’m always telling him to just shoot the damn zombie!“
“And every time I listen to her and I leave my bat and bring my ammo, something always happens, ” said Battle, trying to get in the final word.
The two also couldn’t seem to agree on whether or not the show requires viewers to tune in every single week to stay on top of what’s happening, or whether each episode will remain more self-contained.
“When you watch the show you’ll see the vampires are a certain kind of people,” said Raymonde. “They’ve also got like a sort of hidden agenda connected to the zombies as well. So there’s an arc throughout the show. It’s a story that continues in a way.”
“But you can also just watch any episode and enjoy it,“ she continued. “Every episode has sort of a supplementary story, a supporting story – ”
Texas cut her off here, clearly in disagreement.
“What I’m saying is, it’s not the kind of show you have to watch every fucking week,” she persisted, brushing him off with half-sincere annoyance. “You can watch one episode kind of out of sequence and still enjoy it, to a certain extent.”
“I think if you miss a couple episodes, you’re gonna be fucked!” chimed in Texas, his high-pitched voice rising. Well, alrighty then.
Of course, being the sprawling metropolis that it is, Los Angeles boasts tons of different locations just waiting to be exploited by the show. Which begs the question: will the adventures of the Undead Task Force ever spill over into, say, Hollywood or the Venice boardwalk?
“We probably won’t be in the Valley next year, I don’t think,“ said Texas, perhaps wishful thinking on his part. After all, the series is called Death Valley.
“‘Death Hollywood Blvd’,” said Raymonde, testing out different names. “‘Death Joshua Tree’. ‘Death Santa Monica’“.
How about Death Riverside? I wondered aloud.
“Death Riverside?!“ cried Raymonde. “Oh no, man, I don’t wanna go to Riverside!”
“Death Valley” Premieres Monday, August 29th at 10:30 PM on MTV.