Tuesday, June 28, 2016



I hope that, even as you watch each new episode of AMC’s HELL ON WHEELS, dreading the series’ imminent finale, you are staying tuned afterwards for the fascinating THE AMERICAN WEST, the documentary series executive produced by Robert Redford.  Focusing on the brief but tumultuous period between the end of the Civil War and the start of a new century, the series happily has a different plan of attack from the many entertaining but oftentimes repetitive docudrama series of the last several years.

The two men with boots on the ground for AMERICAN WEST are producers Stephen David and Tim W. Kelly.  Their previous history-based miniseries work together has included THE MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA (2012) about the great industrialists, THE MAKING OF THE MOB: NEW YORK (2015), the historical drama SONS OF LIBERTY (2015), and many others.  They’ve earned many Emmy nominations and other laurels for their work, and Tim won an Emmy for his sound work on SONS.  I had the chance to preview the first two episodes of AMERICAN WEST, and to talk with Stephen and Tim. 

HENRY: You’ve done both documentaries, and recently historical dramas like SONS OF LIBERTY, and experimental thrillers like REDRUM. What’s the most satisfying?

STEPHEN: I personally enjoy these big historical miniseries.  I like the fact that we get to learn, that when people are watching they get to see something they thought they knew, in a different way.   Our goal is to try and get more into what the truth is instead of the myth, or what we may have learned in school.  Because of the internet, and the way information flows now, I think people know that the mythologies that we learned in school don’t necessarily feel right; feel real.  There’s a much more human side behind all of this.  People do things because of their own desires, their own egos, and inadvertently it has a huge effect.  I love to delve into the psychology behind them.

TIM: It’s interesting now, with social media, you can watch live as the show’s happening , and (follow) on Twitter.  You see people reacting to the show, and it’s happening in real-time – it’s almost instant reviews.  It’s really interesting when you see teenagers Tweeting about history.  There’s something satisfying, to open this up to a younger audience, as well as the older audiences that are already interested in history.  In a society that can be very (busy) on their smartphones, to see them getting into history is sort of a cool thing.

HENRY: There have been a number of Western documentary series since the mid 90s, most of them focusing on the same less-than-a-dozen individuals.  Did you worry that they were overexposed?  That there was nothing new to say about them?

STEPHEN:  I’ve seen stuff where each character has an individual episode.  But what we were trying to show was that each of these people were living simultaneously, and had a cause-and- effect relationship on each other and the country.  I think the key to our show is, what this person did led to this, led to this.  The Little Big Horn led to the election of 1876 – you see how one thing causes another thing to happen.

HENRY: Which is very clear.  Because your premise, if I’m not misstating it, is that what we think of as the history of the American West is really all an outgrowth of President Grant’s attempts to unify a post-Civil War U.S., and fight a two-front war.

TIM:  That’s one of the jumping-off points to how the whole migration happened.  It played such a big role.  I think that a lot of these (other shows) look at the single story, and we’ve been able to look at the bigger picture of the whole country, and see how all of these different outlaws and politicians, and these legends of the west, all the roles that they played came together to cause the settling of the west that we have today.   

HENRY: What was the genesis of THE AMERICAN WEST?

STEPHEN:  We wanted to do something about all these names we knew something about.  And we found that they all lived and were big characters within a twenty-year time period, and it all came out of the Civil War.  At the end of the Civil War, the West became sort of a healing ground, and a lot of the people who had nothing to go back to, went west.     But many people who went out there were like the P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) survivors of the Civil War, a generation of men that grew up in extreme violence.  (It was) a unique period in American history where you have people who had learned to solve their problems through violence; you had a short but ultra-violent time.  We just found that fascinating, that that existed.

HENRY: It puts a whole different focus on what we think of as outlaws.

STEPHEN: What’s interesting about that time period, about the world in general, is that the people with money decide what the laws are.  And you really see that there, but I guess it always has been that way, and still is.  What we see when we talk about outlaws is that the line is very grey.  Who is an outlaw and who is the law can change overnight; we certainly see it with Wyatt Earp.

HENRY: You focus on a half-dozen iconic people like Custer, Crazy Horse, Jesse James.  Was it a tough weeding our process?  Is there anyone you regret leaving out?

STEPHEN:   If we could have kept going, I definitely would have had Butch Cassidy in there.  It’s an amazing story, and he grew up in this west that we’re talking about.  But by the time he was really becoming an outlaw, the West had been closed.  In 1890, they declared the frontier was closed: every piece of land had been claimed.  Our first year of research and outlines, Butch was connected; but we ended up having to take him out. 

HENRY: What is Robert Redford’s involvement?

STEPHEN: He is an executive producer.  He came in when we sold it; you also see him throughout the show, as an expert.  He is probably the most knowledgeable person we ever met about the West.  He knows a lot. 

HENRY: Obviously he played Liver-Eating Johnson and The Sundance Kid, but I didn’t know he was a real student of Western history.

TIM:  He’s lived in Utah the last thirty years, and he is extremely passionate about the West.  Back in the seventies he rode the whole outlaw trail, and did a book about it, with photos, and writing the history of it.  (Note: THE OUTLAW TRAIL – A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME, by Robert Redford and Jonathan Blair, was published in 1978)  I think when he got into those roles, he got infatuated with the times, and the beauty of the west, and the characters.  He’s very passionate about the whole subject, about the Native Americans and their relationship to the land.  It’s something that he is extremely interested in, and cares a lot about.

STEPHEN: When he was making BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, he actually met people who had helped them out as they were riding across the country, trying to get away.  They hid them, and got them fresh horses.

HENRY: That’s remarkable.  You forget what a young country we are.  But when you think that movie was made in 1969, those wild days weren’t all that long ago. Your commentary seems evenly split between historians and cowboy actors.  How did you assemble your stellar cast?  Did having Robert Redford help a little?

STEPHEN: (chuckles) I think his name helped.  We got lucky that these people wanted to do commentary.  And it was interesting because a lot of times you get celebrities, and they may not really know, and you give them kind of general comments.  But these people really knew their history.  We found that as they prepared for whatever historical roles they were playing, they did a lot of research.

HENRY: That’s nice.  So you didn’t have to give, say, Kiefer Sutherland a script and tell him, this is what Jesse James was like?

TIM:  Kiefer was one of the more knowledgeable – we were amazed at how much he knew about all these characters and the stories.  I think from when he did his role in YOUNG GUNS (1988), he studied all these guys.

HENRY: Did anyone else stand out as knowledgeable?

TIM:  There’s Redford; Tom Sellick was great – he really knew his stuff.

STEPHEN:  I think what was really interesting about Tom Sellick was he really knew the big picture.  He knew how each of these smaller things affected the bigger picture.  You have to know a good deal about the subject to see all the relationships. 

HENRY: Your reenactments are a step above what we’re used to seeing.  The production values are great – it looks like a big-budget feature.  What is the casting process like? 

STEPHEN: We do film this like a movie.  We’ve done quite a few; we were the first to do the genre on a big scale, with THE MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA.  So we’re practiced, we use the same crews; we have a system of filming.  It feels like a drama, and you get into these characters.  We don’t want it to feel like a reenactment.  We just want the whole thing to feel emotional; have the archive and the voice-over and the drama all feel seamless.  I watch documentaries – and there are great documentaries – but a lot of times I’m washed over with a lot of information.  Our idea was, if the information added to the character’s stake, then you cared more about the information.  So when we’re looking at what information is in the show, and what is not, it really has to do with, does this move the character’s story forward?

HENRY: Just as you would do in a drama.

STEPHEN: Right. 

HENRY: Have you ever considered casting familiar actors?

STEPHEN: (laughs) If it was in the budget.

TIM: Even with MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA, about the industrial revolution, you know the names of these people, but there’s very few pictures.  So you don’t necessarily know what they look like.  So we try to make the (actors) look as much like them (as possible).  If we succeed, the people will just associate that actor; they have no other preconception.  They become that character.  That’s the hope. 

HENRY: Where was the series shot?  How long a shooting schedule was it?

TIM: We shot in West Virginia and in Utah; we had a split shoot.

STEPHEN: We had a shoot of sixty days.  To make it a little more complicated, we actually shoot with two crews simultaneously for thirty days.

HENRY: What obstacles did the production face?

TIM: One thing that was very important to us was handling the Native American story in a respectful way, and telling the real story.  I felt like it hadn’t been done.  So we wanted to make sure we got people who spoke Lakota, people who could channel the energy of these legendary characters like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.  It was an obstacle, but we ended up with an amazing cast of guys. 

STEPHEN:  We wanted to tell the full story; that they weren’t just victims.

HENRY:  Any favorite memories from the production?

TIM: One of the most exciting days was when we were doing Little Big Horn and the lead-up to it.  Obviously it was a horrible war.  But you get all those horses out there, and we had cameras and monitors set up in the ATVs, and we’re just tearing through these fields in the ATVs alongside horses that are at a full gallop – it was pretty exhilarating, pretty fun to get out there with the toys and get those amazing shots.

HENRY: Speaking of the equipment, what did you shoot with? 

TIM: We shot on the Arri Amira.

HENRY: Is there a moment you’re particularly proud of?

TIM: To me, one of the most fun scenes, is what they call ‘the big killing’.  It’s when Billy the Kid and his gang are tracked down to a house, and the local mayor, who is after him, brings in the government.  They bring in Gatling guns, and they have a huge shootout with Billy the Kid in this house – bullets are ripping through the house.  His whole crew gets killed, and he somehow escapes unscathed.  It’s an intense shootout scene that’s pretty fun to watch.

HENRY: The violence is more unflinching than it would have been in the past: when a character is shot in the chest, you can see his heart pumping out the blood from the wound.  When Jesse James shoots a man in the face, the back of his head explodes against the wall behind him.  Why so graphic?

TIM: I think the reality is this was a very violent time.  The amount of people who died in that war was mind-boggling; that’s what led to this violent time, and that’s what these guys were – they were violent.  A lot of them were murderers.  It’s the reality.  Not every scene we do in the show is that violent, but those moments, it’s impactful when you see that.  It is brutal, but it’s showing the impact of the war, and all that violence on them.

HENRY: I’ve only seen the first two episodes, so I don’t know where the story goes.  Does the story enter the 20th century? 

STEPHEN: We take it to the end of the frontier, when the West is closed.

TIM: There is sort of a coda that takes place in the 1920s – I guess it would be a spoiler if I gave it away. 

HENRY: Are you planning on a sequel?

STEPHEN: I think we’ve gone to the end of the West.  When we start, we essentially have a North and South that go as far west as the Mississippi River, and beyond that you just have land.  By the end of this you have an America that’s from the Atlantic to the Pacific, that is all one America, and you see how that all happened in 25 years; and we think that is the story. 

TIM: In the last episode there’s a map that starts as we began the show, and it fills in where the people have all settled. You see the states start to fill in, and it’s pretty amazing to see the change that happened in that time period, to see that happen very quickly in front of you on the map.

HENRY:  Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

STEPHEN: As you get into episodes 3, 4 and 5, you feel this cause and effect that is very much like the election we’re going through right now.  The election of 1876 is very much like this election, and everything that is leading up to it.  There’s a divided country, there’s racism, there was a recent financial collapse caused by mass corruption.  There are rigged elections, there are political machines.  I think people are going to look at this and say, things haven’t change much in 140 years.
HENRY: They should be running this on CNN.  What’s next?

You can read my article on THE AMERICAN WEST in the August issue of TRUE WEST.


Craig Zahler

Back when we spoke on the set of BONE TOMAHAWK, writer/director S. Craig Zahler told me that much of the attention he’d gotten in Hollywood was due to his Western novel WRAITHS OF THE BROKEN LAND.  Now it’s been announced that WRAITHS will reach the big screen under the guidance of director Ridley Scott and scripter Drew Goddard, who collaborated on last year’s hugely popular THE MARTIAN. 

While I knew Craig had his hands full, prepping a pair of movies, PUPPET MASTER and BRAWL, I wondered how he felt about someone else doing the lensing of WRAITHS.  It turns out he’s even busier than I thought.  He told the Round-up, “I just finished my fourth script of 2016 – two of which are 179 page monsters – while prepping both those other movies and a third one to be announced.  The only way something as complicated, nasty, and challenging as WRAITHS OF THE BROKEN LAND gets made in Hollywood is by having well established people stand behind it, and Drew Goddard and Ridley Scott are two such people.  This director has the resources and visual acumen to get this giant western spectacle on the screen, and this writer has told me that he intends to retain the characters, violence, and moral complexity of the book in his script while making it fit that medium.  Goddard is a fan on the novel and has been instrumental in moving this whole thing forward from day one, and I am hopeful that he and Scott will inexorably push their oater agendum.”


The series star is in the center

According to The Variety, back in 1987, the great Sergio Leone got together with his writers Sergio Donati, (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, DUCK YOU SUCKER), and Fulvio Morsella (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST), and began crafting a story around The Man With No Name’s pistol from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.  The idea was that, like WINCHESTER ’73, the sidearm would pass through many hands, each with a story. 

Alas, it never happened.  But now, long after the maestro’s passing, his daughter Raffaella Leone and son Andrea Leone, who together run Leone Film Group, are in pre-production for a six-episode (to begin) series.  It will be directed by GOMORRAH director Stefano Sollima, son of writer director Sergio Sollima (FACE TO FACE, THE BIG GUNDOWN).


I had a few video reviews I was going to include, but I’m going to have to stop it there.  I’m still catching up on a week and a half lost to jury duty, and I have an audio commentary to do tomorrow, so I’ll sign off now to prepare.  By the way, the jury duty was very interesting, and if you have the time I’d recommend not trying to squirm out of it when they call you.

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright June 2016 by Henry C. Parke - All Rights Reserved

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