There a lot of shows that call themselves groundbreaking, but the 13 episodes of Blood Drive really will test the barriers of speed, tone, and language.
While many shows that would tout themselves as groundbreaking might take that role seriously, Blood Drive takes itself ridiculously. This is part of what makes it so different. Sure, the series from Syfy and Universal Cable Productions takes on such weighty subjects as fracking, corporate greed and police brutality, but it never gets heavy enough to slow the pace, gasps or laughs.
Den of Geek spoke with the driving forces behind Blood Drive before the checkered flag drops. Lead actors Christina Ochoa, Colin Cunningham, and Alan Ritchson parked themselves long enough to discuss characters, themes, and production notes. But they all did it with the enthusiastic giggles of artists given a chance to go full throttle.
They were given the keys to this monstrous machine by the show’s creator and writer James Roland, who was “getting coffee” on shows like Mad Men and Weeds before this, and showrunner John Hlavin, best known for writing the screenplay for Underworld Awakening and episodes of The Shield. Between gales of laughter, here’s what they told us.
Den of Geek: I’ll be asking this to everyone: How many times did you have to take the driving test before you passed?
James Roland: It was actually who we had to kill. John had me kill somebody.
Did Syfy give you any shit about language? The first episode is called “The Fucking Cop” and there’s one episode called “The Fucking Dead.” Was there a problem with that? Because when we turn on cable and hit the info button, we see these things.
James: They were cool about it
John Hlavin: That one in particular, because the title we knew we would be on DVRs, we were somewhat concerned but, honestly, Syfy from a content standpoint, really gave us quite a bit of rope. Wouldn’t you say, James?
James: Yeah, we talked about it at first, saying uh oh, what are you going to do? It was like real far out. But once they started seeing the cuts and they started getting into it, I remember at one point S&P said something like give us a couple weeks, we need to wrap our heads around this. I think of all the battles they had to fight, that became the one they didn’t even have to worry about. So they were pretty great about it. I think we’re going to be the first, on their network at least, show that doesn’t bleep fuck. That’s what I heard, I don’t have that confirmed. So, yeah, it was kind of a free-for-all with the language. It was great.
I can bleep out the unconfirmed bit later. So there weren’t intense production note sessions like the ones between Slink and Heart Enterprises?
James: There’s a lot of fun stuff with that. Almost everything Slink says, I think you’re referring specifically to episode three?
James: Almost everything that’s on those note calls is our twisted variation on actual notes calls. All the stuff with the executives throughout the show, it’s all based in truth. But also totally focused through our crazy lens.
I love the way you play with censorship. You use visual puns. My favorite is the cop’s erections. How much leeway are you really giving him?
John: First off, can we just say, please put that in your article, that you have stated that that is your favorite part. The thing is, it made the show feel more salacious than it was. There were times we were covering up things that actually, probably, could have been okay, and there were times we did it to get around things. There were times we were gonna do things that we ended up not doing, but we were having a lot of fun with pulling that ride on that bar, playing with censors. We were very lucky, in this regard, at Syfy and UCP. They were really supportive of the vision of what the show was and how it evolved as we moved forward into a kind of a commentary on what it’s like to make a television show. They were really gracious about it.
Also, to James’ point, we were very aware of the fact when they were giving us notes that there was an excellent chance those notes were going to wind up in some form or another coming out of Slink’s mouth in a critical, critical way.
James: Later on Slink starts really interacting more with the executives at Heart. We were originally spoofing, giving these Easter Egg references to our executives and we had trouble clearing those names. Then we just said, what are we hiding the salami for? Let’s just call them the names of our executives. Then it be became, not to give away too many spoilers, but a lot of those executives don’t make it. We were afraid how they would take it. Like, “oh my god, are we crossing a line, killing off our executives?” And they loved it and then it became a request. They started asking “can so and so get in the show?” “Can you kill this person?” They loved it.
Okay, I want to work at Heart Enterprises. What should I put on my resume?
James: The fact that you want to work there alone is almost enough to get you in.
John: Yeah, you probably better talk to your bosses about that.
James: Well, we talked a lot about that. We actually had an ethos for Heart Enterprises, to put a method behind the madness. Cos it’s so easy to just have a Machiavellian villain, you see this in comic book movies, you think, “why are they going about things this way, when it would be more convenient for the sake of plot.” We really talked about how, because they are so evil, they don’t care if they have a faulty product. If their iPhones blow up and kill ninety people, they say great. Like the same way they did with the Joker from The Dark Knight, where he works for Chaos and goes about things that might actually destroy him just because he has that methodology. That’s what we’re talking about with Heart. It’s about the amount of chaos. It’s the collateral damage that makes the company what it is.
At one point we talked about an intern seeing that first day at Heart Enterprises and what it takes to get in. But they literally, you’ll find this out a little later in the show, they actually do recruit psychos. They talk about their hiring practices. Some of that will be in the show in later episodes.
Will they be working on their dental plan?
James: Exactly. They’ll have to have a good one to keep up.
You mention that Slink is a Machiavellian character, or is he the ultimate company man?
James: You’ll have to find out. In the first couple episode one of the things that was fun was putting such a powerful character. He’s a god to the racers. But who’s the god to the god? Who’s the step above that? We had a lot of fun with that. Whenever you see Slink at Heart Enterprises you get to see people that actually have more power than him, and what that’s like. It actually makes him more of a dimensional character, too, than just the standard villain.
John: A lot of what we realized after we cast Colin and started to watch him work that there was a lot more to play in that character. A lot of credit goes to Colin as well for really finding who he was and letting us play with it once we realized that his voice was so specific. He did a truly amazing job bringing that guy to life. There’s a lot of ways he could have gone with that character and he went a way we didn’t see coming even though James had written very interesting ideas, he found layers that made him more interesting than we had even thought of. So, many kudos to Colin for that.
Have you ever grossed yourself out with an effect you thought up yourself?
[Evil laughter] James: I wanted really badly, but we couldn’t afford it, to make a perfect human rubber filled with strawberry jam to feed into the engine so we could see the whole thing from start to finish. But even what we ended up with was pretty horrible, a man getting his head chewed up. What the show did to Christopher in that chamber, I think in episode 4.
John: Episode 4 was our point of no return.
James: That wasn’t an effect but, James Roday directed that episode, some of that was hard to watch.
Yeah, some of the stuff they were throwing up against the walls…
John: Kudos, by the way, to both those actors. They just showed up and fucking grabbed these parts and got inside of them, James was on set the entire time in Cape Town. We were always blown away here in LA, we’d get the dailies and there just wasn’t a bad performance. Everybody really embraced their roles and James Roday did a great job in bringing them out and capturing them. We were really, from the very first set of dailies, we heard from UCP that day, and Syfy, and they said “Holy shit.” I don’t think they expected it to be as good as we thought could be. And then it was actually better than we all expected.
I love how you go from monster-of-the-week episodes, to changing styles from one style of grindhouse to the next. How did you come up with those dynamics?
James: That was almost an accident. When I pitched the premise to my manager, before it was even written, I phrased it as a grindhouse TV show, “Road Trip Through a Grindhouse World,” and he lit up and said “write that, write that.” I had the premise before that but never thought of it in that way. Then it naturally leaned into, if you’re going to have a road trip, you might as well have a story of the week. It seemed very natural.
Grindhouse isn’t a cinematic movement or genre. It was specifically a place that played exploitation films. It’s endless the amount of styles and artistry that was going into that, good or bad. It was a really fertile ground to pick from. So how do we control that? Each week they just drive into a different movie. That seemed to click with everybody. It helped them wrap their heads around the world that we created.
The next challenge was how to fuck people up, especially on a lower budget. Kudos to the crew down there, and our directors, David Straiton really helped form the whole world. David directed four of the 13 episodes. But he was also down there every day as an executive producer and he really worked to form not only the look of the show, but how we went about shooting it, and how we went about creating a different look and a different vibe for each episode.
We were also in a place, I think a lot of shows tell their crews and tell their guest directors, we want your thumb print to be on this show, but they don’t really mean it. For us, it was totally the case. I saw a lot of wide-eyed directors down there filled with excitement and fear. They were given the reins artistically. In episode 5 there was a whole set that was built that defies gravity. It switches gravitational pull into different directions. None of that was scripted. The director in that episode worked with the production designer to create this whole concept. He took a scene that was a pretty straightforward scene and turned it into this little miracle, an awesome moment. I don’t think there’s a lot of shows that give their directors or their department heads creative freedom like that. It just let people off the hook. Our costume designer, Danielle Knox, and our production designer, Andrew Orlando, come from this grindhousy kind of world. They love those kinds of movies so they just pulled it off fast. They really leaned into the challenge of making a 45-minute movie of a different genre every week and god knows how they managed to pull it off.
I love the sets. I seem to be seeing nods to Videodrome, nods to Max Headroom, all those TVs, am I correct?
James: Yes, we talked about Videodrome in the writers’ room. We talked a lot about Cronenberg. We really described the world as if Roger Corman and David Cronenberg helped god create the world. Because Roger Corman is a visionary in a lot of ways. He gets knocked down a lot because of the quality of his pictures, but a lot of them are better than people give him credit for. I just saw The Man With the X-Ray Eyes at a little festival and it’s the damnedest film. Even though some of it’s pretty dated and the low budget.
But then you take Cronenberg who lived in this world of schlocky, weird shit, man, but there’s an intelligence to it. No matter how silly it got there’s always a gravity that would kind of surprise you, or an imagery that would unsettle you and was very striking. And that was, especially in the side of the world that Christopher [Thomas Dominique] and Aki [Marama Corlett] and Heart Enterprises have, we talked about Cronenberg quite a bit.
I spoke with Corman for the newest Death Race reboot, and he saw it as a social commentary, so I’m wondering: The Scar is caused by fracking, is this ultimately ecologically conscious grindhouse?
John: Truthfully, not really as much as you think. I mean we’re always in the room, certainly thinking about the world at large, but we weren’t necessarily trying to make an allegory. The number one rule for us was “entertain,” and if there was a chance to have a little fun with satire, we would lean into that direction. Certainly in the world that James created where gas is extraordinarily expensive, you see that water is being fought over. We never thinking of it as a future dystopia, we were always framed it as a stark vision of 1999.
The fracking thing, at the time of the writing, it was kind of on the decline. It may increase again under the new administration. But we heard all the horror stories of what could happen with fracking. It made a great place to indicate that to be so dependent on these fossil fuels is inherently evil because eventually they’ll be gone and then what will happen?
James: The scar also is something that evolved for us.
John: So we put those together. The stuff coming out of the Scar went beyond oil. For the basis of that need to destroy something so you can live for a time in greater comfort, the stuff coming out of the scar was perfect. It’s just pure evil. It’s selfishness and greed and all those things. There’s nothing altruistic about it. It takes you to your worst place.
James: The concept of fracking, which just personifies the way we treat the world, we’re hurdling through space on this thing we call our home and we’re cracking it and breaking it and sucking it dry. I understand why we need oil for stuff like that. I’m not crazy, but from the other perspective, it’s like, what the fuck are we doing? So when we struck upon that idea, even calling it “the Scar” was intentional. We have to face the fact that we’ve permanently hurt ourselves. All of that stuff was intentional, but John’s right. Ultimately, there’s not much we can do about this, so let’s have fun with it.
I also saw commentary in small details, like how the cops make their quotas in teeth. Did that come from living in LA?
James: Yeah, all that stuff, like the cameras being judge, jury and executioner, was from how everyone thought mounted cameras have been shown statistically to make everything better. All the interactions between policemen and civilians go smoother because everyone’s being watched and everyone’s on their best behavior. But that could so easily shift, because if one side controls where that data goes, then who is actually watching and who is supervising? We tried to pull all of those things. Things that are actually going on in our world and try and twist it and make it as terrible as possible.
Christina Orchoa’s great uncle is a Nobel prize-winning biochemist. Were you tempted to go to him for the science behind running a car on human blood?
James: We don’t need to go to him. We can go to her, man. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. She had some fun with that. She runs in very elite scientific circles. At least elite by my standards. At some point she actually did have somebody working on whether it was possible, and the answer is no. We always knew that. There is going to be a certain amount of people who watch the show who go “it’s impossible for cars to run on human blood.” But it’s impossible for a person to turn into a wolf and run around during the full moon too. Monsters have always been metaphors and these cars, they’re just the monsters of the show, in many ways. But she totally went down that road too and had a lot of fun with it.
Which character best represents you on the show?
James: John you go first.
John: Oh my god. I guess, probably as the showrunner, when you see Slink arguing with executives or putting up with whatever he puts up with, when we were in the room, those things we discussed. But honestly, all these things came out of Roland’s insane head. You wouldn’t know that from meeting James, he’s the nicest guy in the world, but there’s some dark shit up there.
James: My wife always likes to say that I split myself in half and one half was Arthur and the other half was Slink, which is weird. I think Arthur kinds of clings to his morality and his demanding of rules and that chaos shouldn’t be going on. Even in the face of impossible odds. Our show is a David and Goliath story and there’s no fucking way Goliath would have lost. Let’s face it. It’s a myth for a reason. I basically took that part of my personality and put it into a body I will never have and that would be Arthur. And all of the writers and key creators of the show are connected with Slink in that kind of way because everybody is scared of this thing that they create. That this thing they put all this work into is going to go out there and everyone’s going to tear it apart and shit on it or not like it. Try to make it their own. Every artists feels that way when they’re creating something.
So Slink was a way to live out those dark desires. We see that in the first trailer, you try to give me notes and I’m going to throw a knife in your chest. It sounds creepy to say, but it’s wish fulfillment. I’m friends with all our executives, we have a great working relationship. It’s not to say that that obviously is all hyperbole and ridiculousness. But when you like somebody and they hesitate and go, “ah, but let’s talk about things I don’t like,” that always sucks. There’s no way that doesn’t suck. It makes sense that writers and creators really connect with Slink.
Is there really much difference between making a show like this and working on Shield or Madmen?
John: Well there’s a huge budgetary difference. For my part, I’m not sure now, the Blood Drive experience was very different. Because every time you have an idea, we have great writers on this show and we would sit in a room together and, normally, when you’re writing a show, someone will say “oh this is a crazy idea, we could never use this.” That was always the idea on Blood Drive we would end up using. There was no boundary to what we could do, as long as we hung on to the narrative of the story, we had a lot of freedom.
The downside to that is, if the canvass is too big, you can end up being a little sloppy. I think we guarded against that by making sure we never did quote unquote gags or went to an easy gag. We always tried to keep it connected to our world. I would say and I don’t think this is hyperbole there is nothing like Blood Drive on the air, at least not to my knowledge. And I can’t even remember a time when it was. It’s sort of a one-hour action-drama with a lot of comedy but it’s also inside of a genre that for some reason, I don’t think even Netflix has a comparison, there nothing that does grindhouse. And James will tell you that when we were premiering this thing at the Egyptian he made the point that was really smart. When you’re making a show for this little money it’s not grindhouse, it forces to you have to make grindhouse decisions. We didn’t have the money to shoot certain things so we had to figure it out the way they had to figure it out in the 70s and the 80s, when they didn’t have the money.
If you freeze screen the first episode you’ll see that there’s a guy driving early on. It was fairly obviously a male driver with a wig and a goatee, not Christina. And we were going back and forth on what to do and James emailed us and said, hey if this is grindhouse we leave it. You just have to defend your buddy. Like other shows I’ve worked on, in terms of another show I’m running now, you’d would always fix it. You would worry that these little details would ruin the experience but on Blood Drive those little details actually enhance the experience.
James: Well, on those other shows, I was grabbing coffee. But all of that rings true. That was the challenge and the hurdle we faced every week in the writer’s room was how crazy can we get? Great. We always said let’s use the crazy a safety net never as a crutch, because if we fail on a scene it’s gonna be weird enough with tension to be enjoyable, but you never want to depend on that. you want to try and build up a character-driven scene in the middle of an action sequence just like any other show.
Stunt driving, is it any easier now than it was in the seventies because of the effects they didn’t have then?
John: Roland, go ahead.
James: One of the things that saved us was being able to do all the car stuff on a sound stage, but also we knew, even on Madmen. I loved Madmen, and there weren’t many shows that looked as good as Madmen, and yet when they did driving, and it was green-screen driving you could very much tell that it was green-screen driving. It was the best green screen driving on TV, but it was still green screen driving. We went the other way. We actually used rear projection for the driving and used a videogame engine to generate the exteriors. We could alter the angles of the sun. We could alter everything in that environment around those cars at a reasonable price because we also blew it out and did these cool silver things. So it didn’t have to be 100 percent photorealistic David Straiton and our EVP Huroan LEay came up with this amazing way to kind of shoot through glass and these weird filters to give this really cool effect to the inside of the car. That saved our ass.
In the seventies, they’d be shooting this thing for real. With a guy in the back seat with a mounted camera or it you would have to make a process trailer, which takes forever. So, yeah, I think that definitely saved our ass and modern technology saved our ass. We always said that it would. We look at 16 millimeter film through this nostalgic lens and it certainly looks beautiful, but if Corman had a digital camera they would have grabbed it in an instant. As long as the aesthetic was okay, and they didn’t care about aesthetic to a certain degree but ultimately it was how do we get this done. We couldn’t have made this show if we didn’t have modern technology.
I have a sense that the 10 million is a bait and switch. I’m afraid to ask, but is the Blood Drive a larger audition that they’re on?
John: It’s gonna take you to a place where, we felt when we got to the end of this thing, there were some surprises for us. James came in with a five-year plan for the show and at the end of the season we always get to a more interesting place if it sticks to James’ original vision. After this whole thing has made its run, let’s get on the phone again and talk about it.
Do you remember your first cars?
John: Mine was a 1988 honda Civic. 1980.
James: Better than mine, I don’t know year but I had a 3 cylindar Geo Metro, I didn’t even know it was possible. It was basically a golf cart.
John: James was in such a daze when he got back from Cape Town, cos he had just gotten a new car that had been in a car in a garage for six months that, the first time you drove it, didn’t you crash it?
James: Yeah, I pulled out to the end of the driveway. Looked left, looked right and pulled right in front of somebody, It was a pretty fitting welcome home to America after leaving to film car insanity.
I take it that neither of you were big drag racers.
John: There’s not much drag racing in Clevland, Ohio.
James: I think the reason why we focused on Classic American Cars as much as possible is the artistry, I love them. The Camero is a gorgeous piece of art. It’s incredible. We’ve gotten away from that, to a certain degree. But also somebody asked me, one of the writers, you must be really into cars and stuff. I said, well, I wrote a show where cars literally destroy the world and then turn into monsters. Car culture is a two headed beast. I love vehicles as much as any other red-blooded American but there’s a price for that. The pride that we put into these things literally emit poisons as you drive them., We’re seeing the long-term ramifications of that. That was always the metaphor: a beautiful red Camero and when you open the hood, there’s something dark underneath.
Blood Drive premieres on Syfy on June 14th.