Hemlock Grove isn’t like most small communities. When a teenage girl is murdered, two boys – Roman Godrey (Bill Skarsgard), the spoiled and possibly vampiric heir to the Godfrey estate, and Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron), a gypsy traveler and werewolf – step up to solve the shocking crime. As the investigation unfolds, though, the steel town’s deep, dark secrets come to light. Nothing is as it seems and the lines quickly begin to blur over whether Hemlock Grove’s monsters are supernatural – or just really twisted humans.
Hemlock Gove is the second original series from Netflix, which has now made 13 episodes available. The show is based on the novel of the same name by Brian McGreevy, who serves as the series’ writer and executive producer. Hostel’s horror maverick, Eli Roth, is also an executive producer, and obviously has an exuberant passion and enthusiasm for the genre.
“What Eli brings is such a great, offbeat sensibility to it all, that we all hung onto, which continues to go through the whole series and doesn’t leave,” says executive producer and director Deran Sarafian to several visiting journalists. “I was on from the beginning to listen to the stories. Along with Brian and Lee [Shipman], we would watch movies all the time. And we started with Rosemary’s Baby, because there’s a very dark sense of humor in Rosemary’s Baby that we have in this show. Even The Shining has a sense of humor to it, but you need a very visceral dark experience, and that’s what we kept hanging on to.”
Hemlock Grove’s pedigree and Gothic soap opera style alone would have been snatched up during Hollywood’s competitive pilot season, but both Roth and McGreevy only had Netflix on their radar.
“We didn’t want to do something on a network where we’d have to water it down or dumb it down,” says Roth during a phone conversation. “It really appealed to us that we’d air all the episodes at once. That’s the way people are watching television now, is they record a bunch of episodes and binge watch over three nights. The thought that it was going to be presented that way… It’s [also] violent if you want it, there’s nudity if you want it, and the fact there’s no commercials really appealed to us.”
Unfortunately, none of that bloodshed or sexuality is on display during a December, 2012 set visit. Instead, it’s a key dialogue-heavy sequence. On location in a suburb of Toronto, the majestic Parkwood Estate is standing in for the Godfrey’s sprawling abode. Inside, the creepy corridors are crammed with crew, cameras and wires. Midway up a spiraling staircase lurks scheming bitch Olivia Godfrey <Famke Janssen>, who slowly descends to embrace her distraught son, Roman. There’s an evil glint in her eyes as she holds him tightly and reveals the killer to be… Sorry folks, that’s what embargoes are for, but the actors replay the pivotal moment, take after take. One thing is clear: This isn’t Twilight for TV.
“We honestly weren’t thinking that much about the market as a whole,” offers McGreevy on set. “When I was writing the book, I had extremely little concern with what other people were doing. It was like, ‘Okay. That’s cool. That’s what other people were doing.’ It was more like a lot of people involved with this project were deeply attracted to the core of the story. It was more worrying about ourselves and our own individuality and authenticity and just assuming, ‘It is what it is.’ To change it towards the direction of something else or away from the direction of something else just wasn’t what we were trying to do. We’re doing something quite specific and quite odd and have a very specific and odd group of people who are executing it. We’re just trying to do something special.”
During a break from filming, a laid back and lanky Skarsgard discussed the Godfrey legacy. “Basically the Godfrey family runs Hemlock Grove,” he explains. “They used to do it through the steel industry, but then my dad on the show decided to change that. When the steel industry was going out, he started investing in biotechnology, so it’s an old steel town that’s now very weird high tech. It has a grungy Pennsylvania look to it, but in the middle of this town, there’s a huge white tower where all of this biotechnology is happening. So my character is from that background. He’s a prince in the town. He gets whatever he wants. He’s very wealthy, obviously, and good-looking. On paper, everything’s given to him. He’s had an easy life, but he’s battling a lot of demons inside him and he’s not happy at all. The only one that he really cares for and loves is his sister, who’s a special character as well.”
Apparently, Roman has the ability to compel or control others. That means those around him are unable to resist indulging his smallest whims or most perverse desires. Whether that makes Roman rotten to the core, Skarsgard says, “I wouldn’t say that he is. He’s doing bad things on the show, but personally I don’t believe in bad people. I think there’s always a reason for people acting bad. For me, I care for Roman a lot. I love that guy. I love that character. I think that’s important for me to be able to portray that character, to find that deep bond and care for him as well. So, I wouldn’t say that he’s bad. He’s a victim in a lot of ways.”
One individual who helps ground Roman and keep him in check is Peter. In terms of upbringing, the two couldn’t be more different, but somehow they develop a special bond over the ordeal.
“Basically, they have a bond without knowing it, a supernatural bond, if you will,” offers Skarsgard. “The first time they see each other, they know they’re different from anyone else in this world. They’ve never felt that before, neither of them. These two kids are from the opposite sides of the world and where they are at. In terms of money, you have this poor, gypsy guy and then you have this wealthy kid. I think that they’re equally as lonely in the sense that they have no one else to share their things or feelings with. They’re so different. They’re both kind of monsters, too. The first time they meet each other in school, it’s like the moment of finding someone else out there. Even though they have a lot of trust issues going on, especially from Peter’s side… Peter knows more about Roman’s background than Roman really does because Peter comes from this gypsy culture.”
Also on hand was Battlestar Galactica’s Aaron Douglas, who had already wrapped his role of Sheriff Tom Sworn for the season. Nonetheless, the Canadian actor, who specifically came in to speak with us, was obviously fracking excited to be a part of such a ground-breaking show.
“I’m the Sheriff of a small town and I’m holding on to 10,000 kite strings in a hurricane,” reports Douglas. “As things spiral out of control, I try to figure out what’s going on, how it’s going on and who is making it go on. I’m sort of the Columbo, but with both good eyes. He’s really kind of the heart of the show.”
“Tom has a good relationship with everybody,” he adds a few minutes later. “He’s the Sheriff, so he has to be that politician. There’s no mayor, so he’s sort of the leader of the town, or at least a political-type figure. The Godfreys tend to run things otherwise. I would say if he had a best friend, it would probably be Norman Godfrey, who is played by Dougray Scott, and who is absolutely phenomenal.”
There may be plenty of drama and character development in Hemlock Grove, but don’t let that fool you. There are still buckets of blood, gore, werewolves and psychological horror… All the goodies you would expect from Roth. Those troubling elements are all present in the novel and the creative team absolutely refused to trim them down.
“I don’t think it’s the rating that is necessarily important, but if you are going to have a story where there are werewolves transforming and eating people, I wanted to show that violence,” concludes Roth. “In horror, it depends what kind of story you are telling. If you have a ghost story, it doesn’t necessarily need to be violent. But this is a story where a girl is brutally murdered and people think it’s an animal. They don’t know what killed her. It kicks off this mystery where you find out all sorts of strange things going on in this town. Boardwalk Empire would feel false if you didn’t have that gangster violence on it. Game of Thrones would be a little less interesting of you didn’t have that nudity and sex happening and that violence. So it depends on the story you’re telling and the audience you are telling it to. But, the nature of the book… It’s an R-rated book, so Hemlock Grove is an R-rated story.”