In the high concept thriller THE STRAIN, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, the head of the Center for Disease Control Canary Team, and his team are called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak in New York City with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism. These vampires are not suave aristocratic types, nor ensconced in community; they are mindless, monstrous creatures animated only by the desire to feed. Abraham Setrakian, who owns a small pawnshop which he lives above, is actually a vampire killer from the old world, determined to stop them at all costs. As the strain spreads, Eph, his team, Setrakian and an assembly of everyday New Yorkers wage war for the fate of humanity itself.
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan partnered on writing the trilogy of novels that inspired the television series. Del Toro reveals, "When Bram Stoker wrote DRACULA, it was very modern, a CSI sort of novel. I wanted to give THE STRAIN that CSI procedural feel, where everything seems real." As executive producer, he directed the pilot and is still very hands-on with the series. Thus, when the set decorator of the pilot, Avril Dishaw, moved on to another project, it seemed natural for del Toro to draw on the talents of Set Decorator Peter Nicolakakos SDSA, who worked with him on PACIFIC RIM and BLADE 2.
SET DECOR talked with the unassuming, Nicolakakos, who often goes by the more easily pronounced “Peter Nick”. The conversation is wide-ranging and detailed, witty and real...
SET DECOR: You are known for your work with Del Toro and another auteur known for stylistic imagery, David Cronenberg, but these were all films. Tell us about set decorating for television and the differences you see in working in the two mediums.
Set Decorator Peter Nicolakakos SDSA: I have found features to be more of a focused process on the product, but quality-wise, television is just as difficult as a feature to do in terms of creating a character and telling the story on screen as quickly as you can. Just panning across the room, theoretically you should know roughly where this character is, where they stand in life and what he/she represents. That challenge is exactly the same in both mediums. You have less time in television. The other difference is that there are many more people involved in terms of the creative process.
I like that features seem to be more focused and that the creative process seems to run through fewer people. It’s more that the director is the real lead. In episodic television, the director is almost like a guest…in fact, sometimes there is a guest director. Every one of them has their own specific thing, “I absolutely need this!” Or, “We need to convey this.” But for the most part, they aren’t carrying the ball, whereas on a feature, one person is driving it and there’s a consistent vision through the whole project.
So tell us about Guillermo del Toro’s vision for the look of THE STRAIN…
Brutal-realism, so to speak. Tamara Deverell, the production designer, and I always try to keep it plain and simple. We convey what the real world would look like, and then just accentuate it in sort of odd ways as best we can where the camera can see it, unique in that way. In most of his films, Guillermo wanted it to be sort of comic book-ish, that sort of ultra-realism where you had the basics of what every set needed, the particular style, the couch, the lamp, that sort of thing, then we added the details. For this we add even more details.
We try to keep it real, working from the idea that every day horrific things happen in the most ordinary of places.
It’s basically a procedural about “vampire infection”, so you need to keep it very real, but then a little heightened.
Yes, that’s a good way of putting it, because it’s not the magazine “real”, it’s more a depiction of real, daily lives. Most of it was middle-of-the-road looking…lower and middle class people, offices, cafes, shops, subways. There wasn’t anyone with a lot of money, except for Palmer and Bolivar, who were essentially the only characters whose places we really stylized. Otherwise, Kelly’s house [Eph’s estranged wife] was pretty suburban, a middle-class Martha Stewart kind of look. Everything else was just average. Walk down any street in Middle America and that’s what you see. That’s what we were after.
In this case, for this average look, were you shooting mostly on location?
Yes, we did a lot of locations! There are usually about 10 additional locations per episode, so there were probably about 100 locations above and beyond the standing sets for this season. That was pretty grueling.
Locations offer their own set of problems, as you know, because you’re going into some place new and then you’re restricted by reality, which includes money and time. Usually time is the biggest factor, followed by money, because you just don’t have time to do some of the things you really want to do. The good thing about returning to a location, though, was if you didn’t like something, you could add-on, if you hadn’t established it on the first round. But then sometimes, they would establish something we didn’t want because they were improvising on the shoot day, as they are so apt to do on locations… On an average, we were doing 2-4 locations a day if we were on the road. A lot of them were small, with a lot of signage and specifics, like “Make it more that…” but it’s still time-&-budget consuming and hard on your team.
And then there’s the physical aspect, the tightness of fitting the shooting crew, everyone and everything in to a small location or working in a space that’s not easily accessible…
Yes! In fact that happened on one particular location. To get to the actual set, there was one corridor to a loft area, which was about 300 feet long, from the door to the loft. So everything had to be walked/carried that additional 300 feet. That doesn’t sound like a lot, when you think about it…it only takes you 2-3 minutes to walk it. But by the end of the day, when you and your crew have walked it 20 times and they’ve been moving dressing in or out the whole time…man I’m tired.
SD: Is there a lot of CG? It looks like most of this series is physical sets, except maybe extensions of the cargo bays, and some effects…
Most of the series is physical sets, with set extensions occasionally. Like we have a warehouse that looks good but they add NYC in the background, or we added mountains in the back of Albania in later episodes. The castle foreground was all real and dressed as much as we could, and then the rest was set extension. And the vampires are always…well, you know what they’re like. [He smiles.] They have to be added.
Let’s talk about some of the key sets…We know John Hurt was originally cast as Setrakian, and the shots he was in for the pilot had to be redone when David Bradley replaced him, so did you start all over with a new pawnshop, or utilize what was already there?
We used what had been established for the pawnshop and then I augmented as time went on with things we needed on an episodic basis. We did his apartment, a Brooklyn-style upper floor flat, with all its trappings: two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room. He hadn’t done much decorating, but I thought he had brought a bit of the old world with him, his heritage…and, of course, his wife. He kept her heart in a glass container in the basement workshop.
I brought in Germanic and Austrian elements, because that’s supposedly where he came from, and added in some Romanian pieces as well. We kept it an older-European look to give the idea that he was sort of living in his past. When he moved to NY, he was thinking of the future and vampire-hunting, but he was still very cognizant of his past and where he came from, that was his comfort zone, so to speak. Later, his place became the headquarters for an assimilated group of people who became the vampire fighters, the vampire hunters.
Then there’s the flamboyant Bolivar…
Oh, the hipster, the gothic phony. That was actually fun, because that was the only set where we could use the color red. In the pilot, one of the design rules was “No red.” So it was a color we really avoided until we got to Bolivar’s. Then we were allowed to show it as a symbol of evil. That’s where I was able to bring in the reds, deep crimsons and some velvets, and give it that Gothic look. I was particularly happy with the way the curtain turned out on the back door, his round bed, and the collection of stuff that he had. You can sort of play with that, you know, the image of a womanizer and rock star.
The exterior of his theater was in one part of town, the interior was in another club in Toronto, where we did the upper tier, which meant we were constantly hauling in the stuff…the furniture, candles and all that…but it was great, because we got to play with that, changing it up a bit each time, and, again, lots of red.
Throughout the episodes, you’ll notice that most of the palette stays away from deep reds. There are some significant blues, but we’re always working with the greens, browns, yellows, which seems to be quite the thing these days. And, of course, Kelly’s earth tones are supposed to represent motherhood and hope.
SD: Which contrast with the ice-cold blues of Palmer’s place, the penthouse atop the Stoneheart building, encircled with the classic sculptures of torsos…
Avril established that set, I just augmented it later on when the props needed to change, like when Palmer went through several transformations. So as he gets better, he’s in different hospital beds, there’s different medical equipment. And we added more furniture as he progressed. As for the torsos, the backstory is: since he was constantly changing his body parts, just segments of the human body were displayed.
Was there a favorite set this season?
The arty ones…Bolivar’s place and Dutch’s apartment. Dutch was somewhat androgynous, and switches from hacking for Palmer to the side of the vampire hunters, so she's an interesting character to play with, as was Bolivar. We decided to do her as a junk and clutter artist. I met a local artist, Stu Bean, who was doing some really nice work, and we used him for both characters’ places. The more unique characters were the easiest for me to get into…it was more difficult for me to come up with all of the middle-of-the-road sets!
So are you using a lot of thrift store stuff? Obviously, if you buy new things, they look new.
Paint is a huge factor on these things. Guillermo and Tamara are both scenic-type people, so I would have to buy everything, because we would end up having to paint it. We aged EVERY thing! You know what shiny things are like on camera, especially television these days with high definition, so everything was aged or dulled down.
Do you have a favorite element that you like to make sure a set always has?
My thing is always a bit of whimsy…a piece your mother-in-law gave you that you have to keep out on display because she might come by at any time. It doesn’t really fit in, but when you sort of look at it as part of a whole, it absolutely makes sense that it’s there. And maybe a little dust. Not everyone has designers or stylists come by once a week to freshen up the place or to change the flowers like we often do.
You must deal with a lot of practical lighting details on a vampire piece, with no UV and having to keep places curtained off…
These days, it’s a closer relationship with the DP then we used to have on all projects, since practicals are used so much for lighting for digital filming. So of course, they have a lot more to say about the lights you use. One of the first conversations I always have with the DP is about the type of lights we’ll be using. And everyone has different preferences. One DP refuses to use LEDs or another one loves them. Some like dimmable lights, some don’t care. And then you have to make it all work with the character, the time and place…i.e. “appropriate” lighting for a sewer!
Theoretically, in the beginning, every room had to have 3 layers of covering. Vampires do not like daylight. It came into play with a variety of character sets as they “turned” or vampires took over…Kelly’s house, Setrakian’s, all of those needed to be able to shut out light completely.
But then, the other part of it is the tunnels. When we get down into the subways and into subterranean levels, the vampires hanging out there can’t deal with daylight, but artificial light doesn’t seem to bother them, so fluorescents are okay. Ultraviolet light/daylight is the only thing that they can’t handle.
Of course, the DP would push for light in places that in reality probably wouldn’t have it, “Can’t I have a light down here in this tunnel?” So we have to determine whether it’s a lantern or candle or some sort of light that’s spilling in from some subterranean light well, and then produce it. We had that problem in the subways. Lights on, lights off…lights on, flashing and dimming, or that dull amber color that you see from fluorescents that they love to do these days…It’s another whole layer in the world of set decoration!
But the good thing from this is that I’ve learned to buy lamps on instinct. If one speaks to me, I know there will eventually be a perfect place for it on one of the sets along the way. You can’t have too many lamps or lighting sources available for each set’s last minute lighting needs, because they still have to fit with the overall look of the set.
Tell us about working with Guillermo del Toro, whether on this or on the films you’ve done with him…
Well, Guillermo is a joy to work with on a lot of levels. He’s really demanding. He knows what he wants. That’s one of the things I admire most about him. He’ll say, “This is what I’m looking for.” And if you say, “Hey, I saw this other thing, will it work for you?”, he’ll take a second and think about it and then reply either, “No, and this is why…”…or…“I haven’t figured out why, but I don’t think it’s right.” Or then sometimes, he’ll say, “Hey, I like that! I can use that.” And he’ll incorporate it going forward. So he’s open to suggestions, very approachable, usually a pretty easy-going guy.
So that part is all great. But the best part, really, is the fact that he usually has a very clear vision of what he wants. Guillermo sees it in his head and can visualize what you’re describing. David Cronenburg is that way as well. He knows what he wants. He’s easy, he’s approachable…very similar in that acuity.
And you’ve worked with both quite a bit.
Yes! I got lucky there, too. You know, I started in the business about 25 years ago and it was a peak time for David, so…
I’ve had some great projects and I love a creative challenge.
Do you have a regular crew?
Oh yeah. I have a very well-rounded crew, whom I love dearly. And they’re always helpful. You know, I try to be a lot like Guillermo. If you have a pre-conceived idea when someone brings you something else, that can sometimes be serendipitous. Like, “I need a blue vase” and they come back with a red one, and at first you’re thinking “What???” But then it actually works, and that’s great. Buyer Jaclyn Shoub SDSA is also an artist and pretty amazing in finding just the right thing.
I find that everyone always brings something good to the table. They might arrange things on the set a different way you had in mind and you look at it and realize it could work. And you go with it. That’s what they’re there for. They are really talented people and you use that. I tweak things around, of course, but generally, they get it, and make it better.
Basically, you talk to them in the morning, “This is where this is going. Here’s the floor plan.” There’s a reference shot—if you have one – or a quick description of what you want the place to feel like. They’ll rough it in and I’ll come in and re-direct it.
You hone it into the way you want it to be, and then you run off to the other set and check that one out, and then to another and then another…all of which I can do because my crew is the best!