Taylor Sheridan had carved out a nice career for himself as an actor. He wasn’t a star, by any means, but he worked steadily for years, with recurring roles on shows like Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars, something a lot of actors would kill for. But he didn’t feel creatively fulfilled, so he started writing screenplays and came out with a bang: Sicario, the riveting, gut-punch of a film starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benico Del Toro that chronicles the U.S. and Mexican governments’ war against the drug cartels. Sheridan currently has two other scripts in various stages of production: the forthcoming Hell or High Water, directed by Starred Up‘s David Mackenzie and starring Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges, and Wind River, his directorial debut, which will star Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner.
We spoke to Sheridan recently about making the transition from working actor to successful screenwriter, the seemingly endless war on drugs, the journey Sicario took from page to screen, and a possible Sicario sequel, among other things.
I saw Sicario in the theater whenever it came out and really loved it. So one of the first things I did after walking out of the theater was to Google the name of the screenwriter and as it turns out it was written by you, a guy whose face I’m familiar with from Sons of Anarchy. It was a bit of a surprise. How did this whole thing come about?
Well, you know, it’s been a really long journey.
I imagine so. And I imagine there’s a good story behind it.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know what was the turning point, but I’ve just been this actor. I’ll walk you through the whole thing. I’ve been very fortunate to make a living as an actor. That’s not very common. But I was going to have to get lucky to get rich, you know? [Laughs.]
Yeah, I get that being a character actor isn’t exactly a traditional route to great financial success.
I was doing what I did. Now, I’m a good-looking guy, but I’m not real good-looking, and there’s a whole lot of people that are. I was fine with what I was doing, but creatively I was feeling very limited. Also, I’d became fascinated with the notion of possibly being able to tell a story with no exposition at all. At the same time I’m a bit of a history buff and a bit serious about world affairs and it was the height of the Mexican drug war, but people weren’t really talking about it. The atrocities that I was reading about were not really being discussed, which was fascinating because Mexico’s our closest cultural neighbor, it’s our physical neighbor, and we’re the ones buying all this crap.
That we are. We’re the marketplace where the goods are purchased.
It exists as a result of us. We drive the demand.
That we do.
So when I was on Sons of Anarchy I was friends with a number of the writers on that show and I became fascinated with the development of story. There were little things that I did as an actor, a choice that I made that actually affected the story and gave the writer an idea, and I watched it take off and take on a life of its own. So I started to think about what kind of character could allow you tell a story in the landscape of the drug war. You have to think about a traditional story, you’ve got a good guy and got a bad guy. The good guy is going to go fight the bad guy. The bad guy’s going to almost win, and then he’s going to lose. We’re going to feel good because the good guy won.
But you can’t tell that story about this real world, so I had to find a way to give a sense of a conclusion in a story and still have the reality and bleakness of nothing’s been solved. How can a hero win and keep absolutely nothing? The notion was to really test the audience’s idea about what a hero is, who is the hero, and that you could make the audience feel disoriented and as unsure about what’s right in this world. The reality, the difficulty of finding a hero in this world.
The world presented in the film?
Yeah, of the drug world. The cartels. There are no heroes. But there are a lot of victims. Now, there are individual heroes, people who have dedicated their lives to fighting it, but they’ll sit there and tell you the same thing I’m telling you. The only thing that has an effect on the drug war is the demand.
So you were intrigued by telling a certain kind of story and the drug war and all of its intricacies was something you were captivated by. Thus, Sicario was conceived.
I just wrote the movie I wanted to see. That’s it.
This was, correct me if I’m wrong, the first screenplay you wrote that was turned into a film, right?
It was the first screenplay I ever wrote.
Oh, it was the first screenplay your wrote, period? Wow. I’m guessing that you read a lot of scripts during your years as an actor, though.
Yeah, believe me, I’ve read 10,000 scripts.
Did you ever take a Robert McKee class or anything like that?
No, I consider my 20 years as an actor my PhD in screenwriting.
Twenty years is a long time.
A long fricking time.
So you knew how to write and structure a screenplay, but I’m also guessing connections you’ve made over the years helped you know how to get it in the hands of people who could make it, who could get it to the screen?
Actually, no. DiCaprio can do that. I couldn’t. I was 12th banana on a cable show. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any concept of how that worked. When I sent the screenplay out, I quit the show at that point. I told my wife, “Don’t worry, honey, I’m going to fix this. I’m going to write a screenplay.”
I’m sure that went over well.
Did you have a writing agent at that time, or did you just have an acting agent?
I had nothing. I had nothing.
Wow. So how did you get it out and in front of people in the film industry?
I sent it to the attorney who had negotiated a few deals for me and didn’t want to negotiate any more, and I was like, “I’m begging you, please, please read this. I don’t know what to do.” He read the script and was very taken by it, so he took it and put it in the hands of some agents who liked me. They staked their reputation on it and started sending it around. The funny thing is, by the time Sicario actually got produced, I had sold probably six or seven other scripts. It was impossible to put together for three years and then in three months it went from sitting on a shelf to going into production.
Why did the agents representing you have to go out on such a limb, why was it so hard to get it produced?
It was kind of untouchable because of the subject matter. Because of a female protagonist. Because of the violence. No one wanted to touch it, no one wanted to make a movie about that world. It had countless strikes against it.
What changed that ultimately got it produced?
Basil Iwanyk of Thunder Road read it and loved it. He sent it to [producer] Molly Smith and she loved it. Then [director] Denis Villeneuve, he felt the same way. And all of a sudden we were going into production.
That’s kind of incredible. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that a Mexican drug lord, El Chapo Guzman, was rising to worldwide prominence and becoming something of a mythical figure? There was some serendipity there.
When I wrote this it was at the height of the war. By the time it was in production, which was in the fall/summer of 2013, the war was tapering off. Then Chapo happened. I think he escaped. It started to coincidentally become a pallet for this subject. It was on everyone’s mind. Then, when the movie came out, I think it was the perfect time.
The moon and the stars aligned, so to speak.
The only question I’m going to kick around now is what’s the end to this? You know it’s never going to end, and you have to sit there and go, “Okay, I guess maybe the way we conduct ourselves is the only thing that matters?”
Well, there’s the whole question of legalization of drugs. If it’s never going to end, so do we try to harness it and control it and derive revenue from it?
I think if you’re looking at solutions, you’re talking about three possibilities. One is we all sit down together and swear to God we’re never going to ever do drugs again. That’s not going to happen.
The next question is, okay, let’s legalize them. If you legalize them, let’s look at the companies that are going to jump into that frame. Who’s set up for the business model? Well, there’s always the tobacco companies, they’re set up for it.
Pharmaceutical companies, I guess would be the most …
Pharmaceutical companies are set up for it. Now we’re probably going to need a doctor to prescribe it. It’s a tricky, tricky, tricky thing. We could have a massive campaign, I think M.A.D.D. [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] would be a great example. When I was a kid, drunken driving was, not only was it not something you really got in trouble for, it was something… I mean, we all drove around with a keg in the back of our pickup truck, sitting around in fricking lawn chairs.
Where did you grow up?
Texas. And I can’t tell you how many friends I lost to drunk driving, and none of us ever pondered the notion of not drinking and driving. That never came up. It was never discussed, and then this massive campaign came about that created an awareness and an intolerance for that sort of behavior. I don’t think we have an equal in power and support over drug use. I think that people should be targeting recreational drug users. People who do it for fun. You’re never going to convince the desperate, the people that are hooked on something, but there’s a lot of reasons to do drugs. The most common is as a recreational outlet. I would say, let’s speak directly to those people first so that they know that it’s not a victimless crime. Many people died and suffered for you to get your drugs, for you to party this weekend. Many, many, many people.
I heard somewhere that in your original script the closing scene in Sicario was actually less violent. That [spoiler alert] the whole family of the drug lord wasn’t killed.
It was a different violence. In the original, what Alejandro did was simply torture Fausto Alarcon in front of his family. Then essentially he told the wife to take the children far away. Raise them to be doctors or lawyers and not drug dealers so he doesn’t have to come back and kill them. I wrote the re-write, and then fought against it and internally it was a massive fight. The producers were arguing amongst themselves. Eventually, they shot both versions and tested it [with focus group audiences] to see which one people most responded to.
I’ve heard rumors about the possibility of a Sicario 2. Can you talk about that?
I wouldn’t call it a Sicario 2. But with Alejandro and Matt, if the problem isn’t solved, there’s still a use for them.
So we can expect to see those characters again?
This what I explored. The reason there will be a sequel is because this world still exists. Basically, you could think of Sicario as a first act to an introduction to this world.
You mentioned that you’d sold other scripts before Sicario ever got made; were you commissioned to write those?
There are three scripts that I wrote on spec, which is an industry term. You know what it means, but just for anyone who’s reading the article, on spec means no one paid me in advance to write it. I just sat down and wrote stories that I wanted to write. Producers didn’t pitch them to me. A director didn’t ask me to write them. I just sat down and did them. The one thing about writing a spec is, it’s just you. You’re going to tell the story the way you want to tell it. The flip side of that is no one might make it. You may be the only one who ever sees it. That’s the challenge. So, Sicario is the first in a thematic trilogy exploring the modern American frontier, and how much it’s changed and how much it hasn’t. Comancheria, which takes place in west Texas in the oil-rich belt of West Texas, is the second in that trilogy, and Wind River, which takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, is the conclusion, thematically.
(ED. NOTE: Comancheria eventually became Hell or High Water.)
How difficult is it to sell specs in Hollywood right now, as a writer?
Here’s the thing; I don’t want this to sound arrogant, but a good script will always find a home. We all know from going to the movies, there aren’t that many films that are swinging for the fences. You realize what I’m saying?
I know what you’re saying.
If someone writes a script about something that they know about and are passionate about, and they are pretty uncompromising, really hard critics of themselves, then I think that they’ll find a home for that script. I don’t believe there’s a lot of really talented writers that don’t sell screenplays.
The cream does have a way of rising to the top. The people with talent find a market for their work.
There are far more producers and far more studios and far more people looking for movies to make than there are people peddling scripts.
Are you still acting at all or are you focused on writing 100% now?
No, I quit after Sons of Anarchy. I played a role in Comancheria because I wrote this fricking big-ass monologue for a day player and then we couldn’t find a day player who could do it and ride a horse at the same time. So I said, screw it, I’ll do it. So I’m on screen a little bit in that one.
That’s great though. You should write a small part for yourself in everything that you do. You got your start as an actor, after all.
There are a number of people who have done that. I don’t want to be one of those guys.
Sicario is now available on DVD and Blu-ray as well as On Demand and various digital streaming services.