[This interview contains SPOILERS for The Strain seasons 1 & 2]
FX's The Strain has been kicking around New York City in the wake of a growing epidemic for two seasons now. Poised to begin its third, the series is faced with the prospect of the vampire infection spreading beyond the relatively small confines that have so far been explored. This provides the series with a unique opportunity from a storytelling standpoint, in that it will go all-in on the apocalyptic premise and present its characters with a season that is, more so than ever before, do or die.
So far, the series has doled out its story in concentrated bursts; each 13-episodes season has covered a remarkably small amount of time from the characters' standpoint (23 days at the start of season 3), which means it's still early days for the strigoi outbreak and whatever plan the Master has up his sleeve. It also means that, at less than a month in, the show's core group of characters, Ephraim (Corey Stoll), Setrakian (David Bradley), Fet (Kevin Durand), and Zack (Max Charles) – yes, even Zack – have already seen untold horrors and experienced shocking losses – like the surprising death of Nora (Mía Maestro) at the end of season 2. If things really are about to get worse for the entire planet, then one can only imagine how bad the situation will become for core group fighting on the front lines for the fate of humanity.
Ahead of The Strain season 3 premiere, series co-creator, executive producer, and writer Chuck Hogan took time to speak with Screen Rant about where the series is headed and how, now that the two previous seasons have taken the story past the point of no return, it promises an exciting journey for those writing the series as well as those watching. During our interview, Hogan spoke about making a slight jump forward from the end of season 2 and how that underlines the urgency of the situation.
Screen Rant: From what has been seen so far, the season seems like it’s shifting to a much larger scale in terms of the response to the outbreak. How much is that a part of the season's objective, to expand the conflict beyond the scope of what's been seen so far?
Chuck Hogan: "That was 100 percent our objective. First of all by just jumping ahead to show that the spread of the strain has really become entrenched in the city to the point where it becomes a now or never battle. It's not something that's going to go on and on but it's going to reach a tipping point quickly unless our heroes do something about it."
How will that larger-scale conflict unfold onscreen and how do you balance that with the personal struggles of the main characters?
"What interested me in the first two seasons was the mystery unfolding and who was behind it and what does it mean and what's going to happen? And now the mystery has been solved or revealed and we know what we're facing. So now, it's time for our characters to really confront it."
One of the interesting things about the show is how the timeline has unfolded. You’re entering season 3 now and it’s only been a few weeks since the outbreak began. How do you deal with that sort of timeline from a character perspective?
"It really keeps everything on the front burner. There's not a lot of time to put things behind you, so everything stays very -- you know, everything's being felt; there's not a lot of time to process what happened, which I think is great because it really drives the characters forward. That's been sort of the fun for us: revealing the mystery, and now that we've constructed the sandbox, we get to dig in and play in it.
Look at Eph at the end of season 2 -- he's lost his wife, he's lost his son, and he's lost his girlfriend. He's completely alone and we really lean into that going into season 3. He's back to drinking but he's not the sort of morose lost alcoholic character you might be expecting either. He's doing a lot of dark things this season and he's using his expertise in a way that he never imagined using it and the drinking is a way to cope with that."
How far into the outbreak do you see the series going?
"I don't really want to get into how far it will go in terms of this season. Again, it's another fairly compressed timeline. I think what interested us is not the sort of something terrible happens and then you skip ahead to see what the new world is like but to watch a place like New York fall and how it can happen a lot more quickly that people imagine. So that's sort of been the fun for us. Now that we're in season 3 this is really the most fun part -- by fun I mean, you know, scary and terrible but also exciting, too, trying to stop what's happening from happening. But yes, it is happening quickly and we definitely want to sort of hang a bell on that early on just to let people know that this hasn't been going on for a year or two, but we're still in a very heightened place of danger where things are still changing day to day."
Has the idea of a time jump ever come up in the writers’ room? Is that something that has ever been discussed?
"It definitely comes up, and I think because we've been dealing with things falling brick by brick at some point it would be exciting actually to leap ahead. I think that could be really great and a nice change of pace. Hypothetically."
You’ve made certain deviations from the books to the series. At this point, how much are the books still serving as a road map, and how much has the show sort of become its own thing?
"I think the show has very much become its own thing. I think instead of a road map its more like the roots of the TV show is in the books and we certainly still turn to the books for the general outline of the series, but the branches of the tree are completely their own. We are absolutely not beholden to the books at all. In fact, for me especially, having written the books, it's more fun to go further afield and to do different things than staying within that same sandbox. We're in the same general world as the novels but the story has definitely taken a lot zigs and zags in the television medium that are different from the novels."
Was it part of the plan all along to give the series the freedom to go where it needed to go or has that been something you’ve discovered in the course of working on the series?
"Always freedom. That's what you want. You don't want to be held back by anything. I can honestly say I don't recall any specific discussion over whether we were going to hew close to the books or not. I made it clear on day one, being in the writers' room, letting them know, the books are the books. It was Guillermo's and my expressed desire to finish the books, to have them written and published before he even went to FX to pitch it as a TV series because the books are the books and the TV show needed to be its own thing. But, no, there was no sort of arithmetic as to how much of the books would be in it or not.
And it's really one of the signs that the story's working, when it starts sort of telling you what it needs and whether that's the same as in the books or different really doesn't matter; it's what the series needs to thrive."
The death of certain characters is one of the bigger deviations the series has made. How does the decision to kill off a character like Nora come about and how do you think that will affect the series as it moves into the next phase of the narrative?
"If we're going to make a big move, what's the cost benefit to the story? I honestly can't remember how the Nora thing came about, but like everything it started as someone mentioning 'maybe this happens or maybe that happens'. And generally you sort of reject the big move at first but then it keeps coming up you start to pay attention to it and think 'Okay, what does that do for us?' I mean we do have the kind of show where characters can live or die; it's just really what's going to propel the story ahead.
It's not one of those things that you think about from the top down, like who lives and who dies? I think for us from a storytelling perspective it's great because you do have a license to kill, which in a lot of television shows I feel like you don't have, and so you've got to keep ginning up conflict but never really paying it off. Here, we can do that. We can also make it seem like we're going to do that and then pull back and go a different way. So for me, from the writing perspective, it's really freeing and creatively engaging. It's never an easy decision and it's always with a heavy heart but [it's done] with our eyes on the story ahead and what's best for The Strain."
As far as decisions go, Zack made a pretty big decision at the end of season 2. Can you talk a bit about what's it like writing for that character and what can you say about his role in the upcoming season?
"The tricky thing about writing for someone who is 11 or 12 is that I think the usual way to go is to make them likable. You want to have your characters be essentially likable, and yet the character of Zack is one who, while he doesn't start off being unlikable, he is a tricky sort. He does have kind of a dark side. So to bring that out without losing the audience in terms of not being sympathetic at all towards him is tricky. And that's definitely a line we've tried to walk gently without tipping our hand too much. I don't think he had all that much choice really but to go with his strigoi mother at the end of [season] 2. This whole show has been really at its heart a custody battle, custody of Zack and custody of the city and the planet. So he becomes a very central figure in this push and pull between Eph and Kelly."
What do you want the big takeaway from season 3 to be?
"Dramatically, so many TV shows go up to a certain line and then pull back and I feel like, with this kind of show, we have a rare opportunity to step up to certain lines and cross them and go over them. I really feel like season 3 does that. I think the show is moving at a pace and towards a place that most TV shows don't dare to tread.
We went from 13 episodes the past two seasons to 10 episodes this season. It really paid off; every episode this season has some sort of story explosion or character explosion or something, so it's hard to talk too much about without revealing things. I think The Strain is a TV show going on a fun, fast, and wild chase this season and the finish line is going to be very unexpected."
The Strain season 3 premieres Sunday, August 28 @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below: