If there’s one thing Julie Plec knows, it’s how to tell a scary story: the executive producer has been helming The CW’s hit series “The Vampire Diaries” (recently renewed for its eighth season) and “The Originals” (upped for its fourth) since their debuts. Now she’s got a new terror tale up her sleeve: the contagion thriller “Containment,” which she adapted from a Belgian format. The series, which debuts April 19, tracks what happens when a virus spreads rapidly through Atlanta — infecting characters with bloody results.
“Containment” is so different from your other shows. What about it appealed to you?
Plec: There were a lot of things that appealed to me. One was just the freedom from having to be so deeply embedded in a multi-layer supernatural universe. The bogey man is always around the corner in this show, so I was able to use all the great tricks of suspense and genre that I’ve learned over the years, but in a very real-world environment. I leaned into my fears that I’ve always had, whether they’re merited or not. We all sit around and worry about what’s going to happen when the earthquake hits, or if there’s a dirty bomb, or the zombie apocalypse. We all ask ourselves those questions, so this is a way of exorcising that story that I’ve always told in my head. Just being able to set a show in Atlanta and show off the city, and to dabble in themes that I love: family and love, morality and loss. It had everything I wanted.
Why was it right for The CW?
I had lunch with Mark a year or so ago, and I just conversationally was asking him what he wants to do over there. He said that he wants to make television that people talk about. He wants to make programming that gets people talking, whether it’s comedy, whether it’s horror, comic book, whatever feels relevant to the world. This fits right into that. It’s certainly a conversation piece, and it does not fit their brand, and yet it can expand their brand in a way that could be really great if people watch it. We don’t hold back on trying to be realistic about the bodily fluids that are involved. That’s done both for realism and also for the monster movie of it all. You need to see the blood splatter when the shark bites the head off in “Jaws” in order to believe it’s real; the stakes are high.
Was there a moment where you thought, “Should we push it this far?”
The freaking autopsy. At the top of the second episode, Dr. Cannerts is doing an autopsy on who he believes to be Patient Zero, and we shot about five hours’ worth of footage where we had a med tech come in, and a body that we ordered specially from “CSI” that had lifelike organs. We had goo, and we had blood, and we had syrup, and we had liver and intestines and stomach, and it was so nasty. The funniest part about it is that’s the most real thing out of everything that we did, and that was the thing that made me so squeamish that I made them pull back in the edit to a place where I felt comfortable, and then broadcast standards and the network asked us to pull back even further because it was so gross.
Now you have three shows on your plate. How do you juggle them?
The first thing I had to do was make sure that each show had a captain at the helm that was not me, so that I was a partner in every show as opposed to the singular boss. Between Caroline (Dries on “Vampire Diaries”) and (Mike) Narducci (on “The Originals”) and then (Matt) Corman and (Chris) Ord who came on “Containment,” I was really set in great ways with having the right kind of partners. They took on a lot of the pain and suffering that I usually do on my own. It made my job actually easier, and sorry for them, but easier than even when I do it all myself on one show.
We’ve seen a lot of spinoffs that haven’t been successful, but with “The Originals,” you’ve come up with a fresh idea that stands on its own. What’s your secret there?
We never forced ourselves to try to make it like “The Vampire Diaries.” If we have stretches of time where there’s not a singular romance driving the story, we try to let that happen because it feels right. We lean heavily into the family dynamic, which is something on a universal level that I really like to explore, and that audiences, I think, really like to see. We’ve got a great foundation in that it’s a very strange family show, but it’s hard to run out of story when the central conflict of the series is the love and the dysfunction of a 1000-year-old family.
I know you’ve done successful crossovers with “The Vampire Diaries.” How often can you do that and make that work?
We made a really big effort to do it recently, and we’re proud of ultimately the way it turned out. This was after several years of not really knowing how to make it work well and not feel like we were just being exploitative of a commercial environment. Once we opened up the door to it, suddenly three episodes later the pitch on the table is for “The Originals” to have to go back to the place where they were created in order to try to stop a spell from happening, and the writers said, “We’ll need to go to the woods, and we’ll just create the woods like they did in Mystic Falls.” I said, “No, no, you have to go to Mystic Falls. You can’t go to Mystic Falls and not see Mystic Falls. I want to see Elijah Mikaelson walking through the town square,” and I said, “and come to think of it, if Elijah Mikaelson is in the middle of the town square in a town that has politely and firmly asked all the vampires to hit the road, then Matt Donovan’s going to have something to say about that.” It’s not because we’re trying to make crossovers, but it’s because it makes sense and it’s the logical thing to happen.
I know you’ve been doing some directing, and you directed “Vampire’s” 150th episode. Why do you want to move into the director’s chair?
I never did want to move into the director’s chair until I did this for so long that I thought, “I won’t know until I try what my love is for that particular role.” Having done it now twice, the beauty of being both a showrunner and a director is you’ve got the intermittent ability to drive the train creatively yourself without having to play the political dance with anybody that may or may not want to hear from you. That seems so silly, but it’s true. When you walk on the set as a showrunner, yes, if you ask for something they have to do it, but it’s a very careful dance every time of trying not to alienate or offend or piss off the filmmaker sitting in the chair, and really wanting to let them have a clear vision.
When you’re the showrunner that’s in the director’s chair, you get to have a vision, and I was able to fall in love with the mechanics of making the show from a filmmaking point of view because I could feel the rhythm of the camera and I could understand the nuance of performance, and I could communicate directly to the operators, to the DP, to the actor, to the prop person, without needing to go through another person. I could just speak from the heart and get exactly what I wanted on a creative level, and tell the story, which is what I do every day, but tell the story in a visual way. You just feel like you’re creating the whole piece, and it’s a really powerful and wonderful creative feeling.
What were the biggest challenges of directing for you?
Well, I’m not a morning person, and yet production is a morning person’s game. I suffer mightily at the 7 a.m. calls. I’m happy as a clam on the 7 p.m. calls. I can stay up until the sun’s up, no problem, but I do not like getting up in the morning. Ultimately I think the same thing that makes it so intoxicating, which is being able to have control over every detail of the creative experience, there’s a fear attached to that too, because if it goes wrong then you are the problem, and that means you’re exposing yourself to a lot of vulnerability and a lot of criticism, because you’re basically saying, “I own this a hundred percent, so whatever you’re going to take issue with, it means I made a choice that didn’t work.”
What have you learned from the experience of directing?
I’ve learned that I’ve just barely scratched the surface of knowledge of the profession, and I have deep envy of and appreciation for filmmakers who really, truly understand the physics, the design of filmmaking. They can do story and color and composition and geometry and math and science all at once. It’s a pretty spectacular field. A lot changes every day, and there’s a lot to learn, so I look forward to diving in more.
You’ve also got a pilot shooting now in Toronto, “Recon.” How much more can you possibly take on your plate?
I ask myself that all the time, and the next two months of my downtime are going to be filled with some creative soul-searching as I decide. There’s so many different roads that my career can travel down next, and I’ve got to make some decisions about which direction I want to go in. Do I want to create a new show? Do I want to supervise other people as they create shows, these writers that I’ve worked with and love? I’d love to help them have this opportunity that I’ve had. Do I want to direct a movie? There’s a lot of different roads I could travel, so my next job is to contemplate all of that.
“Containment” premieres Tuesday, April 19 at 9 p.m. on The CW.