Forget “Hellboy.” Forget “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Forget directing “The Hobbit,” which is why Oscar-nominated director Guillermo del Toro finds himself in New Zealand these days.
For the moment, del Toro’s all about a plague of blood-feeders taking over New York — and the novel he’s written about them, a man vs. vampire page-turner called “The Strain.”
“There was a little book I read as a kid,” del Toro says, on the phone from the Kiwi capitol, Wellington, by way of explaining his fascination with vampires. “I was very, very young, I must have been 9 or 10. It was a book that compiled ‘true fact’ vampiric lore ... Not a literary book, but an anthology that harvested 17th-century, 18th-century, 19th-century pamphlets and stories about vampirism. Oral traditions, legends from Eastern Europe.
“It was really quite fascinating. I still have it ... I cherish it.”
Bits of that little book, eagerly gobbled up by the young del Toro in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the early ‘70s, have found their way into “The Strain” (William Morrow, $26.99), the first installment in a trilogy by the filmmaker in collaboration with author Chuck Hogan. Published Tuesday — with the second book (“The Fall”) and third (“The Night Eternal”) due in 2010 and 2011, respectively — “The Strain” is a fast-paced mix of gruesome horror and straightforward investigative crime fiction.
The novel begins on the tarmac of JFK International, where an arriving trans-Atlantic flight goes dead before it can taxi to its gate — and it’s soon discovered that just about every passenger on board is dead, too.
Enter Ephraim Goodweather, head of New York City’s disease-control operations — he’s thinking virus, pandemic. And then enter into a world of verminlike bloodsuckers, living in the sewers, sleeping in the dirt. Del Toro, who dealt with vampires in “Blade II,” with a freakish devil-child-turned-superhero in his two “Hellboys,” and with a traumatized girl’s immersion into an alternate reality in the Oscar-winning “Pan’s Labyrinth,” isn’t going for that vampires-are-sexy “Twilight” thing.
Rats, not Robert Pattinson.
“Romantic vampires are a perfectly legitimate part of vampire myth, and romanticizing, literally, the nightlife and the thirst and all that is a perfectly legitimate thing,” he says. “But it seems like everything is a variation of that theme these days.
“And I really wanted to show it as a disease, and for it to have the inevitability of a disease. To see the vampirism more like a gradual loss of our humanity ...
“I posit that vampires nest in tragedy, and it’s linked to their origin. They grow in tragic times and they essentially nest in places of great pain.”
There’s a passage in the “true fact” vampire book of del Toro’s youth that has stayed with him all these years, and that resurfaces in “The Strain.”
“It’s about how vampires turn with zealous attention first to their own families — first they kill the dearest ones, and then they go out into the world,” he remembers.
“And rarely have I seen that in vampiric depiction. It’s always a stranger attacking strangers. But the idea of a man turning against his own family, or a woman turning against her own family — I thought that was powerful. That was the moment when I became engaged with vampires. It’s never been the Dracula movies, for me. It’s never been the man with the cape and the strange accent.”
Del Toro first pitched his ideas for “The Strain” to the Fox Network, envisioning it as a limited, long-arc miniseries.
“They thought it was (a) too expensive for TV, and (b) they asked me if I had any vampire comedies,” recalls del Toro. “I just took the manuscript back.”
And then he brought it to his literary agent, who hooked him up with Hogan, a onetime video-store clerk whose crime thrillers include “The Standoff” and “Prince of Thieves.”
“I told my agent I don’t want to partner with a horror writer,” says del Toro. “That would be one horror writer too many. So I asked to look at procedural novels, FBI/CIA/police books that felt gritty and real. And when I started reading Chuck, quite frankly he had a voice unlike any of the others that I read.”
A few months before “Pan’s Labyrinth” came out, the two met in New York. Del Toro had written a “bible” containing most of the structural ideas and characters for the book. Hogan was floored.
Del Toro and Hogan started swapping chapters via e-mail, writing and rewriting each other’s work — a “true collaboration” says del Toro, who acknowledges that his prose can get purple, and pulpy, and that Hogan “got rid of that.”
Hogan, for his part, says that del Toro was equally merciless, editing, cutting, retooling.
“At the same time, he’s open to anything I throw out there,” the writer reports, on the phone from his home near Boston. “Not that it all goes in, but he’ll consider it, and if it works he’ll add his own thing and I’ll add to it. ... There’s an alchemy there.”
Hogan adds: “The impressive thing about Guillermo is how specific and exact he is about that world. I’ll ask him a question and there’s no hesitance. He knows exactly what the vampires look like and what they do.”
Indeed, the authors promise — del Toro chuckling when he says it — to get into “the eternal question of what happens with vampires’ reproductive organs.”
“I wanted to do a biology lesson on how vampirism works,” Del Toro says. “Exactly how it works. What organs do what ... But also, as the books progress, they address the spiritual and mythological aspects and origins of vampirism — and hopefully it begins to all make sense.”
With the second book nearly completed and the third on its way, del Toro also is thinking these days about a furry-footed middle-aged character from Middle Earth. One Bilbo Baggins.
Since last fall, the filmmaker has been living in New Zealand, working with “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson on “The Hobbit” — J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to the revered Middle Earth trilogy. Del Toro has been writing the screenplay with Jackson. Early next year, they’ll begin shooting. Del Toro is directing what he envisions as “one film told in two chapters,” a movie released in two parts.
Don’t bother asking about casting, although the Tolkien fan site TheOneRing.net reports that Viggo Mortensen will return as Aragorn. And Ian McKellen himself has said he’ll be back as Gandalf the wizard.
“Pete and I get together probably twice a week, and I enjoy very much our interaction, but we’re busy just moving everything along, designing the monsters and designing the places and all that,” del Toro offers.
“We are cowriting. We take turns. It’s the same as with Chuck in many ways. One takes over a portion and then turns it to the other. And back and forth. It’s a good collaboration.”
And has del Toro stepped back to take this all in — living Down Under (“it’s utopia in a way,” he says about New Zealand) and getting ready to bring the adventures of Baggins of the Shire to the big screen?
“I thought about it when I was 11 — about making a movie of ‘The Hobbit,’” says del Toro, returning again to his boyhood memories in Mexico. “But I acknowledged it was an impossibility when I was 12. I came to my senses.”
“And here I am, living the fantasy of an 11-year-old.”