Netflix will premiere “Hemlock Grove,” from producer Eli Roth (who also directed the pilot), on April 19th. As is Netflix’s business model, all 13 episodes will be made available on the same day. In anticipation of that event, I can finally share my set report with you. I travelled up to the show’s location outside of Oshawa, Canada last December and what I saw truly surprised me.
“Hemlock Grove is a riveting one-hour murder mystery that revolves around the residents of a former Pennsylvania steel town. When 17-year-old Brooke Bluebell is brutally murdered, any of Hemlock’s peculiar inhabitants – or killer creatures – could be suspects. Through the investigation, the town’s seamier side is exposed, revealing nothing is what it seems. Beautiful, terrifying and graphic, Hemlock Grove is unlike anything else in its genre.” The series stars Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Bill Skarsgård, Landon Liboiron, Penelope Mitchell and Freya Tingley.
December 12th, 2012.
The set of “Hemlock Grove” is unlike most locations I’ve been to in that there are no mental gymnastics required to suspend your disbelief beyond its walls and into the world it’s supposed to represent. Much of the show is filmed at the Parkwood Estate in Oshawa, Canada. This was once the home of auto baron R.S. McLaughlin and is comprised of a whopping 55 rooms, which makes it a fitting choice to portray the estate of the super-rich Godfrey family in the new Netflix series. The place feels rich. Old money and tactile, you can almost smell the wealth .
Built in 1917 (at least that’s when it was first occupied), Parkwood is now a historical site that is preserved with great care. So while it’s an ideal choice for shooting, it’s also a bit of a pain. The existing furniture in the house can be photographed, but not touched, so the production needs to bring their own furnishings if any of the performers are to sit in them, lean against them or die on them.
Things are extra busy when we visit, it’s the second to last shooting day of the entire season and the frigid Ontario air is bustling with two units (one shooting upstairs, the other downstairs) loading equipment in and out of the house. Bill Skarsgard, who plays the posh and deceptive Roman Godfrey, paces in an open room downstairs preparing for a climactic scene with his mother, Olivia (Famke Janssen – whom we were not able to interview due to the day’s schedule). Director Deran Serafian preps his shot from video village, which is assigned to a cluttered hallway in the mansion some 50 or 60 feet away from where the action will be taking place.
Meanwhile, we’re scuttled away to a production conference room onsite. I’m traveling with 10-12 journalists and there are far too many of us in the group to be on set at once without getting in the way, so we’re paired up and visit in shifts of two or three people while the others wait.
In the meantime there’s still quite a bit to learn. “Hemlock Grove” doesn’t take place entirely in the Godfrey Estate, after all. The show occupies its own world; ostensibly a Pennsylvania steel town with a heavy class divide, built with the gleaming White Tower smack dab in the middle of things.
What is the White Tower? According to Joel de la Fuente (who plays Dr. Johann Pryce) it’s a biotech facility. But he’s cagey about what’s going on in there and the degree to which it might be malevolent. “I run the White Tower in the center of town, and the big question is, what in fact am I doing there? That’s one of the big mysteries of the series. He’s described by one person, ‘I don’t know if you have Asperger’s or are a total sociopath.’”
Having not seen the show at this point, I feel like the White Tower is central to “Hemlock Grove’s” unique identity. While it might be easy to, at first glance, compare this quirky town with Werewolves, Vampires, Frankenstein-like creatures and other mythological creations to the Bon Temps of “True Blood”, “Hemlock Grove” feels much more akin to something like “Twin Peaks.” A new twist on something we haven’t had in too long.
And, like “Twin Peaks”, the show is a mystery at heart. The entire story starts with the body of a young girl being found and much of the rest of it is dedicated to finding out who did it in a sea of people (and creatures) who seem utterly capable of doing anything.
All of this stems from the mind of Brian McGreevy, who wrote the original novel the series is based on. Forgetting for a moment the feat of completing and publishing an original world-creating novel in the first place, the property’s progression to series was astoundingly fast and the book itself was published less than 4 months before the series started shooting. Obviously there was some interest before that in the galley stage when producers Eric Newman and Eli Roth (who also directed the pilot) swooped in, but it’s still been quite the rapid ascent.
Still, McGreevy seems almost 100% unflappable when it comes to his new circumstances. Calm as can be. And he hasn’t just cashed the check and relinquished control, he’s still heavily involved having scripted over half the series himself. When asked if adapting his book for the screen was a painful distillation process he replies that it was quite the contrary, “ If we had made a movie, that would have been distillation. But this required quite a bit of expansion.” He’s also very hands on as an executive producer and fought for the chance to partner with Netflix because of their unique distribution model. “Myself and the other producers pursued Netflix pretty aggressively because we knew that was the way to go.”
But how is working on a Netflix series different than working for a network? After all, there are fewer episodes and they are all made available on the same day. Director Deran Serafian (a longtime veteran of the small screen) answers, “ Netflix is letting us spread our wings and letting us break the boundaries that exist in network television. For a director and a producer it’s a fantastic opportunity. It’s going to be hard to go back and do a normal show after this… It’s different than anything I’ve ever done. It’s a very twisted, Lynchian experience. It’s almost like a graphic novel. ”
It also differs in terms of organization, with everybody making their own mini-movies (sans commercial breaks since Netflix doesn’t air spots), “After the pilot, each director gets two episodes to do at a time. I happen to be doing the last two episodes. They’re out of order, so sometimes I’ll be doing a scene from episode 12 or a scene from episode 13, so it gets a little crazy.”
Of course, there is one person who only got to direct one episode before departing to Peru to shoot The Green Inferno, Eli Roth. But Serafian maintains that without Roth’s vision, the show would be a very different beast, “Eli brings such a great, offbeat sensibility to it all. The aesthetic he established hangs on throughout the entire series, it doesn’t leave. Brian [McGreevy] and I also watched a lot of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. There’s a sense of humor there that was a big influence on the show.”
How about the actors? They’ve been in this mindset for almost 6 months now. Aaron Douglas, who plays Sheriff Tom Sworn, says it hasn’t been easy grappling with all of the dark material, “It’s a tough show. The material’s pretty heavy, so the days on set are pretty exhausting emotionally. It’s really really draining. My favorite time is away from set when you’re spending time with the other actors, writers and producers. It’s those connections I’ll miss and take away when all is said and done.”
Still, at least Douglas can toe the rudder a bit by being the straight man. “My character is very much the heart of the show, he’s the humanity and moral straight line. For a few episodes at least.”
Not everyone can be the straight man. Take Landon Liboiron for example, he portrays Peter Rumancek; the kid from the werewolf transformation clip you’ve all been flipping out about. But there’s more to Peter than just his carnivorous lunar activities (even though they land him in deep water), “Peter is sort of the wayfaring stranger of the show. He sort of strays in at the beginning, not really a part of the town. He’s a gypsy and he also happens to be a werewolf. Suddenly local murders start happening and they believe it’s some sort of thing or creature, so of course he’s the first suspect.”
He doesn’t look like a typical Gypsy though. Did he do any research into that lifestyle? “Oh yeah. Brian McGreevy sent me a list of 10 or 15 books I should read. I didn’t get through the whole list yet but they got a bad rep. They bring it upon themselves in a way but they also have a very rich culture that revolves around family in a beautiful way. It’s a very romantic culture.”
Equally as monstrous, in a more refined and clean-cut way, is Skarsgard’s Roman Godfrey. In the show he and Peter are sort of at odds, even though they have to set about solving the show’s central mystery themselves. “My character’s sort of a prince in the town, he gets whatever he wants. He’s very wealthy, obviously. Good looking of course [laughs]! On paper he’s had everything given to him, he’s had a very easy life. But he’s battling a lot of demons inside him. He’s not happy at all. Kind of the only person he cares for or loves is his sister, Shelley, who’s… a special character.”
But is he a bad person? “I wouldn’t say that he is. He’s doing bad things but personally I don’t believe in bad people. There’s always a reason for people acting bad, I don’t think people are bad natured. I care for Roman a lot, I love the character. He’s a victim in a lot of ways.”
Peter’s a werewolf, but Roman has a… different power. “He’s something else. He can make people do whatever he wants. He looks them in the eyes and does that whole little…vampire thing, I guess. He is supernatural in a way, but he doesn’t know it because he’s always been that way.”
After our interview with Skarsgard, it’s my turn to head back inside to set. I’ve already seen one massive spoiler at our lunch break via some intense make-up work, but I’m utterly unprepared for what I encounter inside. After a few shots of Skarsgard making his way down an opulent staircase, Serafian turns his attention to a more serious matter… the aforementioned scene with Bill and Famke Janssen. As it turns out, the show’s central mystery is about to be solved for me. This is truly the “who killed Laura Palmer” moment as far as “Hemlock Grove” is concerned. I find out who did it.
Of course I can’t tell you what I know in that regard. Nor have I spoiled anything (it could be anyone, even one of the two people in that scene). But I will say that this show seems rich enough to survive even the strongest of spoilers. After all, I know the ending – yet I still can’t wait to visit this world.