“Hell on Wheels” creators Joe and Tony Gayton are tired of having to compare their new AMC Western to HBO’s late, lamented “Deadwood,” or at least tired of having to differentiate it.
It’s an association that I’ll confess that Sepinwall and I made in our podcast last week and an association that’s popped up in more than a few reviews I’ve read.
In a wide-ranging interview, the Gaytons address the “Deadwood” issue, but they also go into depth on how they view their post-Civil War drama, touching on how the new series deals with historical accuracy, treatment of Native American characters and why they chose to tell the tale of the Union Pacific rather than the Central Pacific. It’s more an interview about what “Hell on Wheels” is than what it isn’t.
Premiering on Sunday (November 6) night, “Hell on Wheels” features Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon a Confederate veteran who finds himself working on the Union Pacific while looking to avenge his wife. In that quest, he meets original characters like the recently emancipated Elam (Common) and real figures like Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney).
This interview contains some minor spoilers, but it may also answer some of the questions you’re asking yourself after watching the “Hell on Wheels” pilot.
So either check out the full transcript now, or feel free to drop back in on Sunday night…
HitFix: So this all started with AMC looking for a Western, right?
Tony Gayton: It’s something Joe and I have always wanted to do. Joe and I have talked about Westerns for a long time and we were looking for the right opportunity to come along and when this came along, we jumped at the chance to do this Western and we could not have found a better place to do it.
HitFix: Was this a specific story that you wanted to do, though? Or you heard there was the chance to do a Western and then you went looking for what interested you?
Joe Gayton: We knew they were looking for a Western and we’d seen this documentary a few years back on “American Experience” on the building of the transcontinental railroad and we thought it would be really intriguing to take what ostensibly is a Western and set it against that backdrop, just because of the great different types of characters, the greed and rapaciousness that were going on, because of all that it meant to this country and all that it meant to the Native Americans. We just thought it’d be a great milieu to set a Western in.
HitFix: It turns out that all of what I thought I knew about the development and construction of the railroad was apparently largely based on the Central Pacific and not the Union Pacific. Why did you guys decide to focus on the Union story rather than the Central?
Tony Gayton: There are great elements of both of them. The Central Pacific, they actually built a lot less track than the Union Pacific, mainly because the Union Pacific was building over flat land. They were up in the mountains, the Sierra Nevada was a huge part of it. One of the things that really struck me and one of the things that Joe and I, from the very beginning, knew that we wanted to explore in this and that made it very unique was this moving tent city called Hell on Wheels. I mean, that’s the name of the series. They did not have one of those on the Central Pacific. Having heard about that and researched it, I thought it was just such a great American idea. What could be more American than a city that actually moves? It was like this big parasite that attached itself to the railroad and as the railroad moved, the town would move with it. They would build permanent towns to leave behind along the way, but then we thought, “What you’ve got in this is like this urban blight on the landscape and you’ve got freed slaves, you’ve got Irishmen, you’ve got Swedes, you’ve got Germans, you’ve got ex-Confederate soldiers, ex-Union soldiers.” To us, we’d have liked to do it all, but having to focus the scope of the story for 10 episodes and for our budget and with the amount of characters that we had already for the Union Pacific, that’s what it boiled down to, basically.
Joe Gayton: Yeah and I think what you said, is most people’s conception — and it was mine for a long time, too — that the Chinese built the entire railroad. And look, it was amazing what they did and we want to tell their story, because we want to ultimately make this show about the race between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. But like Tony said, we needed Hell on Wheels. We needed that kind of Western town. The first year that the Central Pacific were building, they were in a mountain the whole time. Literally. It took them a year to dig through one mountain. Now there’s great stuff there, but it’s difficult to set an entire show around. But our plan has always been to include that side of things, because this really was a race that the whole country followed very closely. It was almost like the landing on the moon, although we were not competing with anybody at that point, except for ourselves. But yes, we would certainly want to include that, but for all the reasons that Tony stated, we went with the Union Pacific at least for the first season.
Tony Gayton: Well, we were competing with somebody in the moon race, the Russians.
Joe Gayton: Yeah, but they fell back pretty quickly. They weren’t even close by the time we actually got there.
Tony Gayton: Yeah, I know. I know.
HitFix: You’ve obviously got all of the railroad stories you can use, but at least for the first season, you have Bohannon and his quest for revenge at the center of everything. How long do you see that being the driving motivation for the series?
Joe Gayton: We didn’t ever want it to be *the* driving motivation for the show and I think you’ll see as the season wraps up where we’re going with it. It may be something that’s ultimately still out there or maybe not, but we never wanted the show to become “The Fugitive.” We wanted other things to take over for him on the railroad and even though the first season does deal with his quest for vengeance, there’s a lot more going on than that. He does getting involved with the building of the railroad and starts taking it seriously. He tries turning himself around, but then certain things happen, but again, we never wanted this to be a show that’s going to rely on his vengeance for its run, however long that run may be.
Tony Gayton: He’s not only informed by that vengeance. He’s a guy who’s lost everything, so the vengeance comes from the wife, but he’s also lost his farm and he’s lost his country. This is a guy who’s been stripped of everything, so that’s another thing that the show hopefully is about, is reinvention. It’s about a guy who’s trying to find all of those things again. Not to be too lofty with this, but I think you can compare his character a bit to Odysseus, except that Odysseus knew where his homeland was. Cullen doesn’t know where his homeland is. He’s trying to find his place, but he’s been completely uprooted. So yeah, he has his need for vengeance, but it’s not just vengeance, it’s that too.
Joe Gayton: Yeah, he has a line in a later show that’s something like, “I failed as a tobacco farmer. I lost the war. Now I’m a railroad man. Maybe third time’s the charm.” He’s like a guy who, like Tony said, is just trying to find his way as much as anything.
HitFix: I had a conversation with Anson Mount about how important it was to him to not let the “He was a slaveowner, but he’d already freed all of his slaves” aspect of the character be a cop-out. How did you guys approach this detail, which seems to be a very key character point?
Tony Gayton: He says he did it for his wife and you’ll find out later that he really did do it for his wife. He didn’t get it. He didn’t understand it. But he loved his wife. So he’s still got some bitterness about that and that’s played out with the character Elam, played by Common. He’s still pretty angry. He’s angry about the war. In a way, he wants some acknowledgement from Common’s character, but Elam’s not about to thank him for that. Elam sees it for what it is and sees that he still fought in the war. We found a combination of those two things kinda interesting to drive that character: He’s a guy who freed his slaves, but he still fought in war. He kinda laughs about it and says he did it for “honor,” but that was a huge part of the South fighting in that war and a huge part of those guys going into battle.
Joe Gayton: It’s not all sweetness and light, either. He and Elam go at it. He’s got some resentment and we’ve got some good stuff coming up between the two of them.
Tony Gayton: He’s not enlightened by any means.
Joe Gayton: Yeah. We’re not whitewashing what he did.
HitFix: With Colm Meaney’s character, Doc Durant, you’ve got a real historical figure, obviously. How much do you want the Doc character to be taken as this literal man who did exist in history and how much is it a name and a few biographical details, but then you get to have some latitude with the rest?
Joe Gayton: I think the latter. First of all, Colm doesn’t look anything at all like the actual Durant. We didn’t try. We didn’t think that was necessary. The actual Durant didn’t spend nearly as much time out on the frontier at the leading edge of the railroad as our Durant is going to, because we needed him in the mix. He did a lot of his real wheeling and dealing in New York and Washington. So we’ve taken a lot of license with him. However, he was — excuse the pun — the engine that drove this whole thing and he got into some very underhanded things, one of which we use in the first season, which is based on something that actually happened and that the real Durant pulled off. So we’re going to use stuff when it’s great, but we don’t want to feel chained to making him exactly historically accurate, because if we did, he’d hardly ever be in the show.
Tony Gayton: However, I have to say that character-wise, we did use a lot of Durant. We used a quote that someone else said about him. He says it about himself now, but it’s “Just like Samson, he would pull the temple down upon himself to get at others.” He was a guy who constantly risked losing everything. They called him “Doc” because he was an eye doctor, an ophthalmologist, but that world was just way too slow for him. He had a horrible temper and he would lash out at people if he couldn’t get his way. He was kinda short-sighted, in that he always thought the only money in the railroad was in the construction of it and that’s what he set his sights on. So I would say that character-wise, he was modeled on the real Durant. Definitely.
HitFix: Do you view Durant as the villain of the piece?
Joe Gayton: Well, I think in the same way that Cullen is the hero in an anti-hero kind of way, I’d say that Doc is the antagonist, but he’s also the protagonist. I think our characters have sort of a mix of both. And they needed a villain. They needed a villain to get this thing done. Another quote from him was that ultimately once he realized the Central Pacific was really up and running and he stopped building his oxbows into into the rail, his quote was, “Don’t build it good, build it fast.” At that time, he was a classic robber baron, but you know what? He was exactly what they needed to get the thing done and he ended up doing it in — What was the time, Tony? — half the time they were supposed to do it? It was supposed to take 10 years and they did it in four? But in the context of the show, I’d say he’s as close to a villain as we have. We have another character who will be introduced in the second episode, but I don’t know how many episodes you’ve seen.
HitFix: I’ve seen five, so I’ve gotten to The Swede.
Joe Gayton: Yeah, he’s what’s probably our more day-to-day antagonist for Cullen.
HitFix: Speaking of The Swede and also of Doc, they aren’t necessarily larger-than-life characters, but they’re certainly outsized. How do you keep characters like that from overpowering the entire story you’re telling?
Tony Gayton: It can be tough, because Cullen’s character is very taciturn, but having said that, he really holds the screen even when he doesn’t talk. That’s what’s so great about Anson. He actually asks for less dialogue sometimes, which is antithetical to most actors. But it’s a concern, but just being on the set and watching performance, you’ve gotta make sure that these people still seem like real people at the end of the day.
Joe Gayton: I think a classic example of what Tony’s talking about is in Episode 2 when The Swede does all of his talking about Andersonville and “way down in the great state of Georgia” and Cullen just sort of listens and says something every once in a while and then he has a great line at the end, but he steals the scene completely. I think good actors do that. But you’re right. We have to be careful that they don’t become too outsized and too larger-than-life, though a little bigger with some of these characters I think is great.
HitFix: Changing gears a little bit… There’s the Native American side to the story and at least through the episodes I’ve seen, it’s a bit parallel to the main story. Could you talk about your approach to that side of this narrative?
Tony Gayton: We have the hindsight of knowing what happened and there certainly were people who were trying to stop the inevitable and then there were people like Durant and people like Joseph, even, who is the Christian convert, who can kinda see the writing on the wall and they know what’s going to happen and the real tragedy is that… they were fighting for their homeland, so there was no way they were gonna… they had so much pride and I think even the ones that knew that in the long run that they were going to lose, there were so many of them that still wanted to fight. You have a character like Chief Many Horses, he’s pulled both ways. He has young men and he completely understands that they’re braves and they want to go prove themselves in battle, but at the same time he’s got women and children he needs to protect. So part of him is saying “Yeah, maybe we should go to a reservation,” but the other part of him is saying, “No, I can’t do that. I fought all my life and I can’t tell these guys not to do the same thing.” The interesting thing about this time in history is really our two greatest sins as a nation: Slavery and our treatment of the Native Americans. So it’s a really tragic story that we want to tell. In our pilot, they attack the surveyors and sure they look like the aggressors there, but they’re the ones whose land has been invaded and we don’t want to take an easy way out with that either, because there were atrocities committed on both sides.
Joe Gayton: I think Joseph is probably our most torn character. Here’s a guy who does sorta see the writing on the wall and who has been converted by this reverend. And he does believe. He truly has become a Christian and he does believe it’s the way to save his family, especially the women and the children, from what he sees is going to happen to them. And he ultimately, if the thing goes forward, will be torn by that and there’s a real dilemma going on with this character. In a way, he’s like all of these other characters. He’s also trying to recreate himself and desperately trying to believe in what’s being sold to him and as we progress, hopefully he’ll starting coming up more against what’s actually going on and we’ll see what happens.
HitFix: And I have to ask: When they’re in conversation together, why do the Native Americans speak English?
Joe Gayton: We had seven days to shoot a lot of these episodes and none of our actors actually spoke Native. So you’d have to get somebody to coach them, to teach them how to do it. You would have to have them on-set the whole time. It literally would have doubled the shooting time for some of these scenes. We have stuff in Episode 2, some of it was supposed to be night and some was supposed to be day, but now it’s all day, because we didn’t have any time to shoot at night. We had to do all of it in one day. So it was a choice that we didn’t want to make. We wanted to have them speak in Native tongue with subtitles, but it just was impossible given our shooting schedule.
HitFix: And you didn’t contemplate doing the “Hunt for Red October” trick?
Tony Gayton: We did!
Joe Gayton: We thought about that, but we ultimately decided that having to do that over and over again… You know, it’s funny. In Episode 2, we thought about doing that there, but we were just afraid that if that’s not done right, all it does is confuse people. Believe me, this was our best option, we thought. It’s not perfect, but it’s what we ultimately decided to go with.
HitFix: At TCA press tour this summer, y’all got some “Deadwood” comparisons and you differentiated the two shows by saying that you didn’t want to view it as a stylized Western. Could you guys talk a bit about that distinction?
Joe Gayton: Yeah. Man, if I never heard another “Deadwood” comparison, I’d be happy. “Deadwood” was a great show. It was what it was. Like you said, it was very stylized. The language had an artifice to it, a Shakespearean artifice, that I felt actually sorta became distancing after a while. I think we wanted our show to be more accessible than “Deadwood.” I think we wanted it to have a bigger scope. Even though Hell on Wheels is this sorta very claustrophobic ghetto town, we wanted this thing to be out on the West with the frontier ahead of us. I think as much as “Deadwood,” our show is a throwback to the Clint Eastwood movies. Those are the comparisons I’d like to hear. You know? I guess we’re inevitably going to be compared to “Deadwood” because that was the last Western on television, but I don’t think our show’s anything like “Deadwood.”
Tony Gayton: Yeah, I find it odd… I guess I understand it, but I also find it odd that people automatically go, “Western TV? I’ve gotta compare it to ‘Deadwood.'” I just find that really weird. I will say that David Milch is freakin’ brilliant. He’s an amazing writer. But the biggest difference, I would say, between our show and “Deadwood” is visual. I think our show is really cinematic and I think that when you’re flipping through the channels and stop on our show, you’ll look at some of the scenes in our show and you’ll wonder like, “What feature is this I’m watching?” I’m not saying it better than “Deadwood.” I’m not saying it’s worse than “Deadwood.” I’m just saying that I think that’s one of the big differences in our show. I think we probably do deliver maybe on some of the more classic Western elements, service that in our show.
Joe Gayton: “Deadwood” had its real artifice to it and we always wanted our show to feel, at least in the way people spoke, more contemporary. We don’t want it to sound completely modern, but it’s like you said with the Native Americans… We tried very hard for them not to talk in that classic kind of stilted “Native” style that you heard in a lot of old Westerns. We wanted them to sound more conversational with each other.
Tony Gayton: We made the decision that our characters would use contractions, which they didn’t back then. You won’t hear a lot of “Can not” and “Do not” in our show. I watched “True Grit” recently and Jeff Bridges speaks like that all the way through and it’s a very particular way of speaking. It worked great in that movie and I loved his dialogue in that movie, but I think if we had gone a little bit more accurate with the dialogue, it’s a little bit more distancing, I think, for an audience.
HitFix: Just to wrap things up, we’ve talked about this show a lot as a genre piece and as a historical piece, but are there modern resonances that you want audiences to get as well?
Joe Gayton: It’s funny you ask. I actually watched the documentary the other night, “Inside Job,” about the bubble and derivatives and all of that money that was made. We’ve said this several times, but there are real parallels between Durant and those characters. Tony just brought it up, but what they said about those guys on “Inside Job” was, to a man, that they’re gamblers and they’re turned on by gambling. They’d get endorphin rushes, so at the same time they were doing coke and seeing prostitutes. It was part of their character, the gambling and the willingness to lose everything. So it’s like that quote about Durant again, that like Samson he was willing to bring the temple down on his head. He was a gambler. He was rapacious. But here’s the big difference — they actually said this in “Inside Job,” not about Durant, but about Silicon Valley — is at the end of the day, they had something to look at, something amazing to look at. Durant could look at this and go, “You know what? I may have done some underhanded things, but I built this. We built this thing.” At the end of the derivatives and the hedge funds and the bubble, there was nothing to show for it. So I think there are great parallels, but there is a really, really important difference too.”