Even amongst the Hollyweird crowd, staying up past the witching hour on a Monday night for a book signing at Meltdown Comics takes dedication. Then again, one has to take into account context, or in this case subject: writer-director Guillermo Del Toro, who is promoting his first foray into novelization with The Strain (co-written with Chuck Hogan), the first in an epic trilogy about a vampire plague. The kind of dedication the man engenders is infectious; for the hardcore geek audience he is one of our own, as impassioned and boisterous a fan of genre storytelling as the next guy (or girl), as adept with the sublime melancholy of Pan's Labyrinth as he is with the whizz-bang action of the Hellboy series. It's not difficult to understand why there's a line snaking clear down the block to get in this late. Señor Del Toro speaks our language, fluently. (And we don't mean English or Spanish.)
Before the event, we spoke with Del Toro about the challenges of this particular medium; being a writer who is used to putting down words with the intention of attaching images to them later, not to mention the wildly elaborate and dazzling imagery that his films usually contain, how did knowing this would remain on the page affect the process?
"The origin of The Strain is convoluted, the decision to turn it into a novel wasn't," he says. "I originally created a bible for The Strain to be a limited three-season series for TV. I went to Fox, where I had my deal back then, and they read it and they said a) much too expensive, and b) can you make it a comedy?" He laughs, and continues: "It's such a TV thing to say, at least at that time. I had been longing to do a long arc for characters, because I love things like The Wire where a character can be barely sketched on the first season, then (they are) leading on the second season... I love the possibility of modulating characters like that."
"So I approached Harper Collins about turning it into a novel, and I started very carefully casting a partner that I could really call right, who understood that the document that existed was just a launching pad. I said to him, we can change anything we want: Add, take out, discard. But the only thing that I want to keep from the idea is the rhythm, it has to be a very cinematic rhythm, and something that is not very novelistic. At least in the first novel, I wanted to have the characters defined by their actions rather than introspection, not a lot of internal monologues but to see how they react to things. And that's a risky proposition, but I think it was really necessary to keep the movie essence but not an adaptation of a (treatment.)"
So the series, as it were, will live on the page as close as possible to its intended structure and continue through two more books: "I wanted it to start and end, because those are the series I love, not the ones where the death is determined by the ratings. I love The Wire, it starts and it ends... The Sopranos, Deadwood. And I wanted to have each of the novels feel satisfactory in itself, but in my mind the shifts of the characters should be surprising. One of the things I'm proudest of in The Strain is the last line, because the last line tells you in terms of character that the second book is going to go into a really different direction."
As midnight rolls around, the fans begin to trickle in - including Transformers star Tyrese Gibson, who looks about as giddy as a schoolgirl to meet the maestro - and before declaring it the evening of "no geek left behind" and that he promises to stay until 4 a.m. if necessary to sign everyone's book and chat, Del Toro tells an anecdote about being a young aspiring filmmaker from Mexico in LA pitching his first feature (Cronos). Of being holed up in the Highland Gardens hotel where Janis Joplin OD'ed ("I had that room a couple of times"), broke as anything. And as fate would have it, he made the acquaintance that time of future Meltdown co-owner Gaston Dominguez-Letelier, the two becoming fast friends and sharing their dreams of making cinematic magic and opening the best damn comic book shop in the land, respectively. The better part of two decades on, it's pretty damn inspiring to see dreams writ that large realized, and then some.
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