The AMC television series Hell on Wheels is a contemporary Western that centers on former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), whose quest for vengeance has sent him on the hunt for the Union soldiers who have killed his wife. He ends up in a dangerous and lawless town that travels with and services the westward construction of the Union Pacific – the first transcontinental railroad. The series documents the railroad’s engineering and construction, as well as the immigrant experience and the plight of newly emancipated African-Americans during Reconstruction, while showing just how brutal and corrupt it all was. The show also stars Colm Meaney, Common, Dominique McElligott, Ben Esler, Phil Burke and Eddie Spears.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, show creators/executive producers/writers Joe and Tony Gayton (Faster) talked about how Hell on Wheels came about, the three-year journey it has taken to reach viewers, the challenges of telling the story of their own set of characters in the historical context of building the railroad, what made Anson Mount their leading man, and just how violent the series will get. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: How did this series come about for you?
JOE GAYTON: We hadn’t worked in TV a lot. We’d mainly done feature stuff. Tony had some movies made, and I had a few movies made, and we got a feature made together, that came out this past summer. The first time we got involved with a pilot, we wrote it for Fox and got a shot. We really loved the project. Madeline Stowe was in it, and it was called Southern Comfort. 20th Century Fox was the studio and Fox was the network, and we shot the pilot, but it ended up not getting picked up to series. So, we went back to our feature stuff and subsequently wrote another pilot that didn’t get shot, but we enjoyed the process. And then, Jeremy Gold at Endemol brought us in. He had been at Fox and had hear about us, and offered us a blind deal after we met. So, we were going to write something for him, we just didn’t knwo what. So, we came up with an idea, pitched it to him, and he liked it. We still want to do it one day, but it was a very convoluted psychological thriller.
TONY GAYTON: It was about an insane man who sees the truth, basically. We couldn’t quite figure it out.
JOE: So, we pitched it to AMC, and they scratched their heads and said, “We like you guys a lot, but we’re going to pass on that idea. Come back with something else.” And then, I don’t know if it was Jeremy Gold or AMC that brought up the idea of a western while they were talking. They thought that would be great. They called us and we said, “Oh, hell yeah, we’d love to do a western!” And then, we started talking and remembered this story, American Experience, which was this really great documentary, and I thought, “God, that’s great. I just learned a bunch of stuff I had never learned before.” You just have this cursory information that the Chinese and the Irish built the railroad, but it got in underneath all the dirt and stuff that went on, with the financing of it, and the greed and corruption. And then, I heard about this Hell on Wheels place and I went, “What a great setting for a western.” So, we pitched that to Jeremy Gold and ended up taking it to AMC, and they loved it. We developed the script, and got it made as a pilot and picked up to series.
TONY: And, it’s been a long process. That was over three years ago.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, what is Hell on Wheels and how does it relate to the story you’re telling with this show?
TONY: It was what they ended up calling the rolling town of tents that went along with the railroad. What would happen was that the railroad would get built to a certain extent, and then leave the tent town behind. Once the railroad got so far out that they couldn’t service it anymore, they would pack up and go out ahead of the railroad and let the railroad catch up to it. It hopscotched across the country, along with the railroad. I think a reporter coined the term and called it Hell on Wheels.
JOE: Yeah, the reporters who saw it said it was just the most depraved place they’d ever seen. When you hear that, you go, “Wow, that’s going to be good for a TV show.” We can’t even really do it justice right now. At one point, at its height, they had a dance hall saloon that was 100 yards long. It was a tent that was 100 yards long, with a dance floor that was 100 yards long, and a bar that went the whole length of it, so thousands of people could go in there.
TONY: We don’t have the money for that yet. But hopefully, if we go forward, we’ll be able to do some of that stuff.
JOE: They had brothels. Doing the research on it, there’s not a ton of stuff. It allowed us to imagine it being a full-service place, that serviced the flesh and the spirit, which is really more interesting than just doing the flesh. Our reverend character is a very prominent figure in the whole series. He’s trying to save a lot of people. It’s very frustrating for him because nobody wants to be saved. That’s how it started. The other cool thing that happened was that, when it would pack up and move, sometimes they would start building a railroad town there, but not every place that Hell on Wheels was. You have this image of permanence being left behind, with some of the people staying behind while others just kept moving and had this transitory life. They kept moving with the railroad.
TONY: We have a great story arc between two of our characters that deals with that, in the first season. One of them opts to stay behind and the other has to move on. It’s just so rich with subject matter.
JOE: It’s very American. What could be more American than a moving city on wheels?
How challenging is it to balance the stories of these characters while telling the history of this time period?
TONY: What we didn’t want to do was a docu-drama. We could have taken the approach where we did it all from the building of the railroad and Durant (Colm Meaney) dealing with Washington, D.C.
JOE: And had real characters.
TONY: We wanted to create our own set of characters, in the context of the building of the railroad. The building of the railroad, excuse the pun, is the engine that drives the story, but we wanted it to be an original set of characters. Durant is based on a real character, but we’ve taken some license with him. Although, a lot of it isn’t too far from the truth.
JOE: The real Durant has given us great plot stuff.
TONY: He was getting paid $2,000 a mile, so he built a crooked railroad, until he had to start speeding up because he was going to lose the Central Pacific, if he didn’t.
JOE: When he did have to speed up, he built it really shoddy and bridges would wash out. As long as he got it approved, they couldn’t disapprove it afterwards. He would just have to rebuild it. So, his mantra was just, “Build it fast and get that sucker down.”
Knowing that there hasn’t really been a Western on television since HBO’s Deadwood, are there ways you can capitalize on that popularity while making this show its own thing?
TONY: I hope this is going to be its own thing and that it’s going to be original, but even Al Swearengen had aspects of the Durant character. All these shows do. There are going to be certain identifiable things in a western, and that’s great, but then we hope we can look underneath that and turn it on its head a little bit. Our characters are very different than those characters. It’s that idea of, “What do you do with complete freedom?” Nebraska was a territory, at the time. It wasn’t a state. There was no official law. How do you deal with that freedom? A lot of it manifested itself in violence and murder, and greed and corruption. But, we also want to service the other side of that. I call it the gems and the muck. We’ve got a lot of muck in our show. We put your nose in the muck a lot. But, along the way, there are these moments of humanity that you’ve got to find.
JOE: Our mantra for this show has always been that it’s the absolute best and the absolute worst that this country can be.
With so many interesting characters, how difficult is it to tell enough of all of their individual stories?
JOE: We’ve got 42 ½ minutes and four characters. What you do is cross those characters, so that you can double-up. These stories are not all modular. Cullen (Anson Mount) is going to cross with Lily (Dominique McElligott), and Cullen crosses with Durant, and Cullen and the Elam (Common) character cross. That’s how you are able to service all of the characters, and that’s what the audience is going to want to see anyway. These disparate characters are thrust together. The other really cool thing about Hell on Wheels is that you had all these different ethnic groups, and they were thrust together in this crucible, and they had to find a way. I’m not saying they got along, but they had to find a way to build this railroad together. That was always the prize. They were out here to make money to support their families back home, but they had to keep their jobs and build that railroad.
What made Anson Mount your leading man?
JOE: I don’t know, but it’s spooky how good he is.
TONY: With the casting process for his character, in particular, we were getting a little desperate. We saw 50 or 60 people, and we didn’t think we were going to find him. And then, one night, I got his audition DVD from New York, looked at it, and called Joe immediately and said, “I just found our guy.”
JOE: We weren’t familiar with Anson, but I watched it and said, “God, this guy’s great!” And, he’s Southern, which was a huge bonus.
TONY: We wanted a Southerner. We had Australians coming in, trying to do a Southern accent. They were okay, but it just didn’t feel right.
JOE: We didn’t feel like we were settling on him, at all. That was our guy.
TONY: He really feels like the guy that we wanted in there. We wouldn’t trade him for anybody. He’s amazing! He’s unbelievable. This is the role he’s been waiting to play. I’ve seen him in other stuff, and he’s almost unrecognizable in this show.
JOE: It’s a very different role for him. It was something he was waiting to do, for sure.
How did the rest of the cast come together?
TONY: Common was terrific. He came in to audition and his test deal wasn’t done, so he had for his lawyer to sign off on him coming in. He waited out in this SUV in a hot parking lot for two and a half hours, and then came in and did this scene and just blew it out of the water. He was just so passionate about this character and this project.
JOE: Here’s this guy from Chicago who’s this hip-hop guy, and I said, “Look, we’re going to be in Calgary and it’s going to be raining, it’s going to be muddy, it’s going to be cold at night and really hot during the day,” and he said, “Man, that sounds great. I’m ready for all of that.” When he came for his costume fitting in Calgary, he went over to the prop guys and asked for a sledgehammer to practice with. It was raining, and he went behind the prop warehouse and swung a sledgehammer for an hour in the rain, just to get the feel of it. That’s how dedicated he is.
TONY: They’re all dedicated. Everybody seems to really love their character.
JOE: Dominique [McElligott] was just a find. She was one of those finds who was an unknown that came over from England. She’s Irish, but she lives in England. We got lucky.
TONY: And then, we heard some names for the Durant character. When we heard Colm Meaney, we were like, “Okay, that’s him.”
JOE: We met with him and he just seemed like the guy, for sure.
Where do you want to go with the show in the first season, the themes you want to explore, and just how far you’re going to take the violence?
JOE: There is a lot of violence. We always knew this was going to be a violent show, and we never wanted it to be gratuitous, but it’s messy violence. It’s not choreographed, beautiful violence.
TONY: You’ll never see the bad guy and the good guy standing in the middle of the street and drawing their weapons.
JOE: And, there’s no slow motion. You have to choreograph it, but we want it to look unchoreographed and sloppy. People don’t hit you from 10 feet away. These guns weigh four pounds. If you’re shooting at somebody, you might empty your whole cylinder and not hit the guy, and then have to reload. It was a very violent time. I love violence for character because it’s just a crucible. At the end of the day, we really are pushing the Cullen Bohannan because he’s not a super-likable guy, but he always does the right thing, when push comes to shove. Sometimes that includes violence.
TONY: Anson never worries about the sympathy factor. Sometimes he wants to push it more than we do, and we love that.
Are you going to be giving viewers bits about the Cullen Bohannan character, throughout the season?
JOE: Yeah, there’s a mystery about this guy. He’s a character that, even on his best day, someone will look at him and say, “Something happened to this guy.”
TONY: There was PTSD back then. They called it The Soldier’s Heart, and he’s definitely suffering from that. He was in the war and saw nad did some pretty awful things.
JOE: And our preacher character picks up on that and wants to save him, but he’s nowhere near ready to be saved yet. We have some really good scenes with him and Tom Noonan.
TONY: Our preacher character is trying to bring the Indians and the white men together and is now a Christian, we found out had rode with John Brown in Bloody Kansas and did some awful things too. It’s just part of his character. We want to find what’s underneath all these characters, and it’s not always pretty. There’s a lot of latent violence, in a lot of these characters, and that’s very American.
How are you handling the treatment of women on the show?
JOE: They were tough as hell. I read this journal by these pioneer women, and they’d kick any one of our asses today. It was just such a hard time to be alive, and for a woman, it was probably even harder. In the research for the native women, I learned that they got all the hard work. They got everything. The men went out on a hunt and brought the buffalo back, and the women had to slaughter them and cut the meat out. It was a really hard time for them too, and we want to service that. Lily is such a great character, caught between two worlds. She’s an aristocratic English woman.
TONY: She didn’t originally start off as British, but some British women came in and read for the role, and we thought, “There’s a real fish-out-of-water.” She’s somebody from aristocratic London, who ends up in the wilderness.
JOE: She fell in love with this guy, and came out to the West and fell in love with it. She’s tough as nails too, underneath. Other than that, it was the Squaws, who were out with the Indians, and prostitutes. That’s what it was out there.
TONY: At one point, it really was 3,000 or 4,000 guys and about 20 women. It was like a factory.
JOE: I don’t even want to imagine that.
TONY: We want to capture that, too. We don’t want to glamorize that either. I don’t see how you could.