Not many Americans are familiar Parkwood Estate, a Canadian National Historic Site about an hour’s drive east of Toronto. The sprawling mansion was home to Samuel McLaughlin, a business magnate who founded General Motors of Canada and built the home and gardens in the town of Oshawa. Today, it’s open to the public, though its interiors and garden remain much the same as they were when McLaughlin lived in it in the 1930s. It’s also the site of a number of famous film and television shoots, including the original X-Men, Billy Madison, Warehouse 13 and The Ref. On the day Collider visited, a much different series is wrapping up principal photography: Netflix’s new original series Hemlock Grove. Hit the jump to read our full set visit report.
Hemlock Grove takes a page from recent TV success stories like The Walking Dead and The Vampire Diaries. Under the supervision of horror director Eli Roth and novelist Brian McGreevy, it delivers a blood-soaked soap opera containing all manner of supernatural horrors. Parkwood makes a fitting setting for such a show: narrow paneled halls, quietly oppressive opulence, stern Gothic portraits glaring disapprovingly from the walls. One of them is overtly fictitious – a family patriarch posed with a pollution-belching factory behind him – which reflects a certain tongue-in-cheek tone for the series. But don’t confuse that with timidity or a lack of heavy-duty scares.
“The beautiful thing about Netflix,” McGreevy says as he walks among the cameras and lighting squeezed into Parkwood’s confines, “is that there’s so much freedom. We can do the things we want to do, go as dark or violent as the material demands, and not have to worry about landing the right rating. We’ve got great people to bring the material to life and a partner in Netflix committed to giving them the freedom to do their thing.”
That fact isn’t lost on the show’s cast, most of whom are wrapping up their schedule when we arrive. They speak fondly of their time there and stress how different this felt from other shoots. “I’ve been a part of some special shows,” says Aaron Douglas who plays the sheriff in the town of Hemlock Grove. “Battlestar Galactica was something that comes along once in a lifetime. But this one, it’s up there too. We all can do our thing and be what the show needs us to be. No jumping through hoops to please some suit back in LA or New York. Do you have any idea how awesome that is?”
Douglas finished his last shot just before speaking to the visiting press; he’s still dressed in his sheriff’s uniform, and his energy level is bouncy and upbeat. The rest of the cast and crew share his ebullience, even director Deran Sarafian working under a tight deadline to finish the last of the show’s thirteen episodes. He lets the press come in close to watch him set up a series of shots, while the lighting crew works hard to get the composition just right. He chats briefly with us and looks into his viewer. On the other end of the camera, Famke Janssen’s stand-in sits patiently as the crew does their work. (She resembles the actress so closely that several press members mistakenly approached her with questions.) Sarafian looks at the composition, nods and smiles.
“Get me a thespian!” He calls out to no one in particular. “Thespians arriving on winged feet!” Janssen replies: appearing out of nowhere, smiling and saying a brief welcome to the press, then positioning herself in the exact spot as her stand in. The director calls action, and suddenly the charming actress is gone, replaced by cold-hearted bitch Olivia Godfrey. As the centerpiece of the show’s Byzantine web of schemes, Godfrey holds all manner of secrets in her heart. Janssen instinctively conveys it with flinty-eyed hisses, purring words and monstrous implications before the director finally says cut. A couple of blinks, and the smile comes back. “How was it?” she asks to no one in particular. The director wants another take. In flash, the bitch is there again, and we quickly find out he’s right. The second take has a little more teeth to it; it’s the one they end up going with.
The shoot continues throughout the afternoon, moving to new spots in the mansion and swapping players with each one. Bill Skarsgard, Dougray Scott, Penelope Mitchell – all playing members of Godfrey’s extended family – take their places and hit their marks. Morale is high and the pace proceeds quickly; one gets the impression that it’s business as usual on the shoot. When they can, the cast talks about the unusual nature of the material, and the way they feel that it capitalizes on prevailing cultural trends without staying beholden to them
“There’s a bit of True Blood in there,” Skarsgard says when he has a free moment between takes. “There’s a bit of Twilight and a bit of Twin Peaks and a bit of Dark Shadows. But we really feel like we’ve found our own vibe with the material. I don’t think anyone has seen anything quite like it.”
The show’s premise seems to back up those assertions. Though it starts fairly typically – a murder near the Godfrey’s steel mill disturbs a dark town full of secrets – the twists and turns deliver a fascinating combination of elements. One of the characters, for instance, is a werewolf… a fact that is apparently public knowledge. The town’s steel industry has been replaced by a biotech firm with all kinds of creepy things in their laboratory, and the produces promise revelations of the sort that (to quote Roth) “will fuck up an entire generation.”
The cast and crew approach it with a certain twinkle in their eye, and the corners of the shoot reflect that sense of fun. But no one is prepared to let a little archness get in the way of the show’s dark heart, least of all Netflix. The corporation seems almost proud of its ability to push the envelope, and Sarafian speaks of the project as a lengthy 13-hour movie rather than a series of individual episodes.
“I’ve been directing television shows for a long time,” he explains. “People are consuming it differently these days. They don’t like waiting a week to find out what happens. They’ll download the whole thing, take a sick day, and power right through it. We want Hemlock Grove to speak to that, to be the kind of vehicle through which those changes can be made to the medium.”
It’s a tall order, but there’s no shortage of confidence at Parkwood. More than anything else, the cast and crew feels hopeful that the show will become a hit… letting them come back and do it all again. “Everyone wants another season when you’re doing a TV show,” Douglas says, his smile growing broader. “But in this case, it’s a lot more than steady work. You don’t get this combination of elements very often. If they can keep it going past the first season… man, that’s going to be something worth watching.”
We’ll all have a chance to find out when Netflix releases the show on April 19th. For now, the excitement is contained to Parkwood, an old building with something very new brewing at its heart. Stay tuned to see what Hemlock Grove has in store for us.