He's had a lifelong love story with horror

OK, now I know I should have saved all my childhood toys and comics. Here's the story I sent to papers about the fascinating creator of "The Strain":


For anyone whose mom threw away his comic books, Guillermo
del Toro is an eternal inspiration.

He has saved everything and keeps adding more. “At some
point, (I) decided to live the way I dreamt of living when I was 10 years old,”
he said.

If he were an ordinary chap, he would be a hoarder. But he’s
an acclaimed filmmaker, with an Oscar nomination (for writing “Pan’s
Labyrinth”) and a cable series (“The Strain”); so he’s a curator.

“He has a museum, a wonderful museum he calls Bleak House
that he curates himself in a private home,” said John Landgraf, programming
chief of the FX networks. “It’s absolutely spectacular.”

Actually, it’s two homes, del Toro says, side-by-side in
suburban Los Angeles, totaling 11,000 square feet. “I’m the curator, the maid,
the butler, the service man.”

Those houses prove that del Toro was well ahead of TV’s
current interest in all things strange or scary. “I think horror … responds to
the pulse of the world,” he said. “And I think we are in a particularly
paranoid, vulnerable form, where we accept horror back in our lives.”

On broadcast TV, CW has pretty vampires and “Supernatural”
and more … ABC’s “Resurrection” was a late-season success … and NBC has had
Friday-night horrors. “Grimm” will be back in the fall, joined by the new “Constantine”
and, later, the return of “Hannibal.”

But it’s on cable -- home of AMC’s “Walking Dead,” HBO’s
“True Blood” and assorted Syfy shows – that horror thrives. FX, which already
had “American Horror Story,” linked  with
del Toro, who co-wrote the “Strain” novels and produces the series. “He is
really a truly original voice … and he absolutely loves and lives this genre,”
Landgraf said.

Carlton Cuse, the “Strain” show-runner, agreed: “Nobody
knows this genre as well as Guillermo.”

Added Sean Astin, a “Strain” co-star: “Guillermo gives the
best hugs of any director I have worked with.”

Don’t expect “Strain” to be huggable. Landgraf figures there’s
been too much of the “romantic vampire myth.” By comparison, he said, the “Strain”
crisis is a virus, taking over the host-human bodies. “These are disgusting,
parasitic, awful, worm-bearing vampires.”

Filming this can be rough at times. “I didn’t want to go
into my basement after watching the pilot,” said Mia Maesto, who plays one of
the two Centers for Disease Control doctors who grasped the threat.

Still, not everyone seems bothered. Ben Hyland, 12, who
plays the son of a CDC doctor, considers it “really cool …. If I had never come
on the show, I would be scared by the simplest things, but now I’m used to
this, so nothing can scare me now.”

That’s been del Toro’s approach. He’s been saving his toys
since he was 4, he said, and keeps adding books and art, in houses that have “secret
passages, secret book shelves that lead into rooms that are themed, …. with
life-size figures of characters I admire. I mean, it’s truly demented.”

“The Strain,” 10 p.m. Sundays, FX; reruns at 11:01
and (after a rerun of the previous episode) 1:03 a.m.

The Aug. 3 episode, the fourth, reruns late Wednesday
and Thursday nights – technically at 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday.

A marathon Aug. 9 has the first four episodes at
10 and 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:30 p.m.

Cougars and leopards and phythons, oh my ... and we're talking about cities

Maybe it's just me, but I have mixed feelings about sharing my habitat. When it comes to deer and raccoon, I'm cheerful, even encouraging; when it comes to cougars and pythons, not so much. Now a fascinating cable special Sunday (Aug. 3) finds wildlife in cities everywhere. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Looking for some wildlife? It may be a lot closer than you

There are coyotes in Chicago, a cable special says, and
cougars in Los Angeles. Bats fill Austin, Texas; leopards rule parts of Mumbai.
And amid the luxury of California’s Tahoe area, there’s a surprise:

“Folks show up for Christmas vacation … and there’s a bear
in the house,” Boone Smith said.

Smith is one of the people who made “Urban Jungle,” a
three-hour, two-network project Sunday. “These animals really have us figured
out,” he said.

The longer they live in a city, it seems, the more they know.
Geoff Luck, the “Urban Jungle” producer, said one scientist told him: “Toronto
(has) the most densely populated raccoons in the world and they are actually
getting smarter than their country cousins.”

Some city-dwellers doubt all this, because they’ve never
seen critters. Steve Winter, a photographer, points to people in a Mumbai
neighborhood, at the edge of a park: “They had lived there for 10 years and
didn’t even know the leopards were there.”

He showed them the photos: “People would do their walking,
exercising, walk their dogs, like we do in parks. And boom, the sun goes down
and the habitat changes. It’s time for the leopards.”

Others have similar patterns throughout the world, Smith
said. “These animals are so adaptive. (They) take advantage of a new habitat
and … live right under our noses, without us even knowing about it.”

They range from Alaska (eagles) and Australia (kangaroos) to
Zambia (baboons), with wildlife adapting to civilized turf. Winter recently
took a classic photo of a cougar in the foreground of the “Hollywood” sign.

In temperament, Luck said, these creatures range from
something “as strange and sweet as sloths in Rio to 14-foot pythons that live
in downtown Bangok.” When you spot them, you know it’s an urban jungle.

“Urban Jungle,” National Geographic Channel and
NatGeo Wild

Debuts 8-11 p.m. Sunday, repeating 11 p.m. to 2

Also, same times Tuesday (Aug. 5), plus 9 a.m.
to noon Aug. 10

British-style drama -- one man, one voice, one complex mosaic

Here are two key things about many cable dramas: 1) You really have to pay attention; they get complex and confusing; and 2) You really want to pay attention; they get compelling.

The latest example is "The Honorable Woman," which debuts Thursday on the Sundance Channel. Here's the story I sent to papers:


There is a difference between Englishmen and Americans, it
seems, that goes far beyond cricket, croquet and tea-time. It involves
(sometimes) how to make a TV series.

“In the U.K., sort of the buzzword of the broadcasters is
always ‘authorship,’” said Greg Brenman, a veteran British producer whose eight-week
“The Honorable Woman” debuts Thursday.

Occasionally, Americans work that way. An Aaron Sorkin (“West
Wing”), Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or David Chase (“The Sopranos”) has
other writers, but keeps strong control. More often, that doesn’t happen;
Roseanne Barr once had so many writers that she gave them numbers.

Now “Honorable Woman” reflects the British approach, with a
tale too complex for a committee to wrangle. Hugo Blick, its sole writer, calls
it a “thriller mosaic”; Brenman compares it to “this kind of Russian doll that
you keep on sort of peeling, peeling, peeling back.”

And Maggie Gyllenhaal views the complexity of the character
she inhabits: “She’s very powerful and graceful and intelligent. She’s also really
childish and broken and hungry and desperate and all of the things … I
recognize in myself.”

Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, half-Israeli, half-British, all-business.
Ever since a girlhood tragedy (shown in the first minutes), she’s been in
public view and in control. She has money, power and now a title; the story
begins as she enters the British nobility, being named a baroness.

The role places demands on Gyllenhaal. Like her character,
she reflects mixed cultures (her father is Swedish, her mother is Jewish);
unlike her character, she doesn’t have a British accent.

“I kind of wish I could talk like that all the time,”
Gyllenhaal joked. “I remember someone telling me, ‘You sound so much smarter’”
with a British accent.

Her character also sounds calm and soothing – until a jolt,
late in the first hour. Filmed in London, that scene starts in splendor and
ends with a desperate Nessa overshadowed by the giant Albert Memorial, which
Blick calls “a huge mega-statue of establishment power.”

Such complex visions spring from Blick, who wrote all eight
hours. “It’s important that it’s authored and come from one angle,” he said.
And that, most of the time, isn’t the American way.

“The Honorable Woman,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, repeating
at 1 a.m., for eight weeks, Sundance.

Opener (75 minutes) also airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday
(Aug. 5).


OK New York, it's time to beware of flying sharks

What do we do during the Television Critics Association sessions in Los Angeles? Serious things, often; during the 16-day stretch that just ended, we chatted with writers and producers and generals, plus Kobe Bryant and Dave Grohl and the Kiss guys.

But things also get silly, sometimes. Like the night we saw "Sharknado 2" at a swimming pool. Or a few days later when -- sandwiched between the PBS president and brilliant filmmaker Ken Burns -- I rushed back to my room for a conference call with the "Sharknado" stars and director. The movie arrives Wednesday on Syfy; here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- For Ian Ziering, this was the movie-star
experience. “I felt like I was a in a big Hollywood premiere,” he said.

Well, sort of. Except the biggest premieres have red carpets
and fancy gowns and movie theaters. “Sharknado 2: The Second One” was shown on
a wall alongside the Beverly Hilton swimming pool, with fake sharks in the
water and real hot dogs on the catering table.

The film – which debuts Wednesday on Syfy – is what the
title suggests. “This is not a deep movie,” Ziering said helpfully. Added Tara
Reid, his co-star: “It’s not like National Geographic or anything.”

National Geographic might say sharks can’t be lifted from
the ocean and flung – still alive and feisty – into New York City. “A shark can’t
do that,” director Anthony Ferrante said, “but a sharknado can.”

Forgive him for feeling possessive. Years ago, he said, he
pitched a different movie which had one character saying: “We don’t want what
happened in that other town. Remember the sharknado.”

Syfy rejected that film, but liked the word. It ordered a “Sharknado”
movie, which Ziering said he originally rejected. “I didn’t have the vision and
foresight to see what they had.”

Fortunately, his wife had financial foresight. A former “Beverly
Hills, 90210” star who divorced a former Playboy playmate, Ziering, 50, is now married
to a nurse and has two kids, ages 3 and 1; his wife suggested he take a job to
remain qualified for Screen Actors Guild insurance.

“I thought, ‘Well, no one’s ever going to see the movie,’”
Ziering said. “Boy, was I wrong.”

Something about the goofy title seemed to capture a
social-media world. The audience went from 1.4 million for the first airing (July
11, 2013), to 1.9 million for the second and 2.1 million for the third, James
Poniewozik wrote in Time magazine. “One in six tweets that (opening) night was
about ‘Sharknado’ …. Everyone from political pundits to Mia Farrow joined in
the ‘Sharknado’-nado.”

The film drew the usual monster-movie audience, Ferrante
said, but it went further. “Somehow, we also captured the mainstream audience ….
It was this fun little film that caught on.”

So the sequel follows the same route. “This(had) a very
campy nature,” Ziering said. “The only way to screw it up would be to change
it.” The only key changes involved:

Moving the filming from Los Angeles to New York.
That created some discomfort – filming during a frigid February – Ferrante said,
but “makes the movie look gargantuan.”

Adding cameos. That’s Robert Hays (“Airplane”)
flying the plane, Judd Hirsch (“Taxi”) driving the cab. “They told me I was
going to be eaten by a shark,” Hirsch said. “I said, ‘I’m in.’”

There are many other quirky cameos, plus all the big moments
that an action film requires. The actors, Reid said, were “reacting at sharks
coming at you, but nothing is coming at you.”

Those would be added later, with more than 700 special
effects. The stars didn’t get to see the final result until they joined TV
critics for a poolside evening that was (a little) like a Hollywood premiere.

“Sharknado 2: The Second One,” 9 p.m.  Wednesday, Syfy; repeats at 11:02 p.m.

“Sharknado” (2013) reruns that night at 7 p.m.
and 1:02 a.m.

“Sharknado” and “Sharknado 2” rerun at 5 and 7
p.m. Saturday, leading into “Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda.” That one (starring
Conan O’Brien, produced by Roger Corman, 88, the micro-budget movie master) is
at 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., part of a 20-hour monster marathon from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m.

In the midst of nowhere, the world was transformed

For its first original drama series ("Salem"), WGN America merely drew shrugs. The second, however, is another matter. Directed and produced by Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing"), "Manhattan" is a stylish look at the early days of Los Alamos, when strangers gathered in an obscure part of New Mexico, to create the bomb that might end World War II. Here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- On a stark stretch of New Mexico ranchland, a
makeshift city grew 70 years ago. It was “this very peculiar bubble in the
middle of nowhere,” said Sam Shaw, creator of the “Manhattan” series.

People came to Los Alamos, propelled by a patriotism and an optimism
that may seem distant now.

“We live in such a cynical and bitter time,” said John
Benjamin Hickey, who stars as a physicist. But back in 1943, it all seemed like
“such a great cause, to protect the American way of life.”

Los Alamos soon had 7,000 people, the majority of who didn’t
know what was being created. “Probably 70 percent, at least, found out … when
we dropped the bomb,” said Thomas Schlamme, who is director and producer of “Manhattan,”
just as he was of “The West Wing.”

The atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, quickly
ending World War II. Now the series looks at the two years before that, as the
Manhattan Project rushed along. “It was an incredibly strange moment in
American history,” Shaw said.

But how do you re-create that? A key break, Schlamme said,
was finding an old Army hospital that was “days away” from being leveled.
Carpenters added more buildings and natural New Mexico did the rest.

“This is a verisimilitude that only God could make,” Hickey
said. “We shoot (much of it) outside … on probably 20,000 acres …. As far as
the eye can see, it looks like 1942.”

It’s an odd and distant place … ut actors are used tat.
“Very often, (I don’t) know what I’m going to be expected to do tomorrow,” said
Olivia Williams, who plays Hickey’s wife, a botanist. “(I find) out late at
night and I’m taken to a strange location in the dark and then told to perform
strange acts.”

Now “Manhattan” puts its characters – all of them fictional,
except for Manhattan Project chief Robert Oppenheimer – in that same situation.
In a strange place, te tackle strange projects.

Some knew they were building a super-bomb, said Ashley
Zukerman, who plays a young genius. They also knew “there was a team in
Germany, working on the same thing.”

Others had no idea. Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Zukerman’s
wife, met a woman who grew up in Los Alamos and told about her mother’s
reaction: “She had no idea, for all the time they had been there. And (when she
learned of Hiroshima), she became violently, physically ill.”

The world had discovered a fierce force, created amid New
Mexico obscurity.

“Manhattan,” 9 p.m. Sundays, WGN America.

Opener, July 27, reruns at 10:10 p.m.; also,
reruns at 9 and 10:10 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.