‘Barkskins’ Creator Elwood Reid on Creating a Werner Herzog-Like Limited Series for Nat Geo

     May 25, 2020

barkskins-aneurin-barnard-zahn-mcclarnon

From creator Elwood Reid and based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Annie Proulx, the National Geographic eight-part limited series Barkskins transports viewers to the wild frontier of the late 17th century, as the mysterious massacre of settlers in New France threatens to tear everything apart. This treacherous new frontier forces the collision between civilization and commerce, while the dream of carving out their own place on the new American continent turns into a fight for survival. The series stars David Thewlis, Marcia Gay Harden, Aneurin Barnard, James Bloor, Christian Cooke, David Wilmot, Thomas M. Wright, Tallulah Haddon, Kaniehtiio Horn, Lily Sullivan, and Zahn McClarnon.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Reid talked about pulling off such an epic series like Barkskins, how this project evolved, the key to telling this story, the most challenging aspect of the writing, telling all of the character stories in a relatable way, building a village in the woods to shoot in, and much, much more.

COLLIDER: This show seems like such a tremendous challenge to take on and pull off.

ELWOOD REID: Yeah, but that’s the fun shit. The stuff that’s easy is boring. My entire career, what I’ve learned is, whenever I’m afraid that’s usually a good sign, because then I’m gonna rise to meet that moment. Then again, an opportunity like this may never come up again, to build an entire world for a show, out in the woods with these characters and this language. Those opportunities don’t come up that often.

How did this come about? Had you read the book and wanted to pursue turning it into a TV series, or did National Geographic come to you with the idea of doing it?

REID: National Geographic came to me. A woman that I’ve worked with, Carolyn Bernstein, who I did The Bridge with, came to me and said, “We have this book. Are you interested?” I’m a novelist and short story writer, and when you hear the words “Annie Proulx,” you pay attention. She’s someone who meant a lot to me, as a young writer. So, I got the book and it’s a 700-page book that covers multiple centuries. It was fascinating. The other thing that was interesting to me is Scott Rudin was attached to it, and he’s made some of my favorite movies.

barkskins-aneurin-barnardbarkskins-aneurin-barnard

Image via National Geographic

So, with this confluence of Annie Proulx, Scott Rudin, my friend at Nat Geo, and Nat Geo wanting to make a splash in scripted television, you’d have to be a fool to pass it up. But when I read the book, I was like, “Oh, my god, how did you do this?” So, I took some time and then I said, “Okay, I know how to do this. Leave me alone.” I wrote a script to show them I could do it. A lot came together. Maybe I’m forgetting the birth of it, but everything seemed to happen for a reason, and it seemed to come together in a really interesting and satisfying way. That doesn’t happen that much.

When you took that time, what was it that finally unlocked it for you? What was the key of figuring out how to do this?

REID: There’s a character in the book named Trepagny. This is gonna sound weird, but I’m a big fan of Werner Herzog. He’s a very important person to me, creatively, on many levels. I’ve never met him. I just engage him with his movies and his thought process. But Trepagny reminded me of something that would be in a Herzog movie. So then, I started going, “Well, fuck, could I make a Herzog movie for Nat Geo?” It was my meager attempt to try to do a Herzog hero. He’s this crazy madman, who has this power and he was in the New World, trying to carve out a civilization. That was the spell I was trying to tell myself, as I was writing it; that was the goal. You need things like that when you’re writing. You need a dream. What’s the dream? The dream was to create a Werner Herzog movie for National Geographic.

When you ended up only using a chunk of the novel for this season, was there a natural place to end it?

barkskins-christian-cooke-kaniehtiio-horn

Image via National Geographic

REID: The way Annie wrote it, she goes through a decade in a paragraph. She’s very efficient, with the way she turns time in the book. There’s an incident in the book I won’t give away, but I knew would be a good place to end the first season. So, I blew up the importance of this particular incident, and I don’t wanna give away the ending of the show, but with the largeness of the scale, I just didn’t know how much more the audience could handle. I pushed a lot of story and a lot of characters into those eight episodes, [but] I knew that I had to have an end point. That end point was always there. I didn’t know what was in between, with that end point, but I knew I was gonna get to that end point.

Because you still have a lot of the novel left to cover, have you thought about how that would work, if you did more seasons?

REID: Oh, of course. I’ve done a lot of shows. When I finish writing something, I go, “Whew, I don’t ever wanna do that again.” The problem with this show was I was up there, I was exhausted, we were in the snow, it was cold, and we’d be shooting in the woods for four months, so I immediately tried to cleanse my brain and write. I’m working on a novel and a bunch of other TV projects, and Barkskins kept coming back to me with ideas for the next season. I have a file for Season 2 with all of these ideas. It’s these characters, and it’s the actors and getting to work with this cast. The sign of a good show is when they’re bouncing around, and you’ve got more and more and more, and I certainly do for these characters.

When you’re telling a story like this, is it more challenging to write the first episode of the season, the last episode of the season, or everything in between that gets you there?

barkskins-david-thewlis-christian-cooke

Image via National Geographic

REID: In talking about an eight- or 10-episode order, there’s a period in Episode 5 or 6 where you think you have all of this real estate space, and then you get there and have this panicked thought, “I don’t have that much runway left. I’ve gotta land the plane.” I don’t write the finale until I’m in the middle of production. I wrote the last half of this show while I was up there, producing it. Fear works for me because it makes you perform. It feels like I’m on a tightrope and I’ve gotta get across to the other side. It’s that middle part that’s hard. It’s calibrating the pace of the show. When the critics always talk about how the pace of a show is uneven, that’s because the showrunner is trying to figure out how they want to end it. I knew where I was gonna end the season. It was one of those things where I looked up and was like, “Holy shit, I’ve only got four episodes left,” and I started to think about all of the story that I had left, for all of these characters. It became a real challenge for me to cram all of the story that I had, into those last three or four episodes.

There’s some stuff that I wish I had gotten to. There’s stuff that went by the wayside. But I also knew it was really important to end with a strong finale that shocks you, surprises you, makes you think, and has some quiet moments and some upsetting moments. I don’t like finales that feel like every other episode, and then, in the last 10 minutes, they take the car off of a cliff. I like finales that feel of a piece, and feel like you’re tuning in to see the end of something and the beginning of something.

How do you find the balance between giving enough closure to have viewers feel satisfied, but also have those cliffhangers, so you have those moments and the audience wants to come back for more?

REID: There’s what you’d call the action cliffhangers, like, “Is he gonna get run over by the train or not?” That’s a very basic, age-old cliffhanger. There are a lot of shows I watch, and I watch the first season and go, “You know what? I don’t wanna watch Season 2.” I feel like I’ve been there and done that. One of the things I always try to do is make the characters have this emotional moment that isn’t finished. You leave them in points of emotional turmoil, whether that’s joy or sadness or depression, or whatever it is.

barkskins-tallulah-haddon-lily-sullivan-01

Image via National Geographic

If you’ve done your job right, as a writer, and the audience is investing in the emotional lives of these characters, they go, “I wanna see what emotional state Trepagny is in. There’s the plot stuff, which is just mechanics, like putting guns in people’s hands and making bad things happen, but that unfinished emotional businesses is why I’m gonna turn into a second season. I’m always gonna tune in when I feel like I’ve gotta know where these characters are gonna be, emotionally, in the second season. That’s the most important thing to me.

This is a very complex series with a lot of characters and it seems like it could easily become very difficult for audiences to digest. How did you keep track of everything and everyone, and tell all of these stories in such a relatable way?

REID: I look back to the stuff I admire and like. I was aspiring to write a great TV show, and anytime you’re trying to do that, I look at the shows I like. There’s a show that’s on right now, Succession. If you read the reviews, everyone was like, “Oh, it takes a while to get going, after the first three episodes.” Then, the show locked in and everyone loved it. Game of Thrones was a lot like that, too. You were being asked to swallow this huge world and lots of characters. All everyone remembers about Game of Thrones was dragons and zombies, but at the beginning, the basis for that was this giant base they set up. You have to put into the bank, and establish character and a world, and that takes time. I’m asking the audiences to have some patience because I’m gonna pay that off.

barkskins-christian-cooke

Image via National Geographic

Going back to the shows I do and do not continue watching, I feel like some shows start out in a way that’s very easy to understand with lots of fireworks and easy to understand action, and then it’s just empty calories after that. Whereas a show that’s big in scope, like Game of Thrones or Succession, which I think is emotionally a very big show, the reason they’re so successful is because they took the time, in the beginning, to challenge you as a viewer, and to lay out characters, confusing motivations, and emotions, and not make it simple. Nothing great in this world is ever that simple. You want the audience to work a little bit. I’m not asking you to work that hard. You’ve got people trying to survive in the woods. That’s a pretty simple instinct. But there’s a lot of characters because a lot of characters made up that world and I think it would be cheating to simplify that storyline. All of my favorite shows, like Deadwood, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Succession, and Ozark through a lot of stuff at you. That’s just the nature of the shows.

One of the things that I was most impressed with while watching Barkskins is it feels like we’re actually watching the time period. It doesn’t feel like a TV show re-creating a time period. How did you approach that?

REID: I’m always reactive, as a writer, and I was reacting to the hundreds of period shows. Not all, but most of them seem to be of a piece. One of the period shows I used as a model that wasn’t genre was Peaky Blinders, which seemed like it took a period I knew nothing about and then pumped it up full of excitement. I wrote it in the scripts. The other thing I did, with the bugs, the mud, the heat, and the woods, I hired a production designer and a wardrobe designer that handmade everything. They didn’t take one single shortcut. I built a village in the woods. There’s no green screen or CGI. The costumes were not bought from a costume house. They were handmade by Anna Terrazas, who I worked with on The Bridge. She made the shoes people wear. A lot of times, you’ll see people in costume, but they’re wearing sneakers, and she handmade the shoes.

Then, the actors got on set and saw what my production designer, Isabelle Guay, had done, building a set in the woods out of real trees, and the streets were mud, and there were animals walking across from them, shitting in the street, and then they were wearing heavy wool clothes that were handmade to fit them, they felt like they were in a period. So, what you’re responding to when you watch it is you’re sensing that granularity. You’re sensing the actors feeling immersed in that world, and therefore the audience feels immersed in that world. I don’t feel immersed when I see greenscreen. I feel pulled out of it.

It feels like a world that just keeps living, whether we’re watching it or not.

REID: Yeah. That’s the little things. I feel like, a lot of times, with costume dramas, you’re like, “Oh, let’s get a famous actor and put them in a funny costume, have them walk on a fake set and talk a funny language.” I tried to create a language that was both updated, and then archaic and weird, so it made you feel like you were going into a world that was interesting. The camera could shoot anywhere. It had that realness. There’s just something about that, and the savvy viewer picks that up, senses that, and feels that. You feel when writers and movie makers are taking shortcuts. You see it. We didn’t take any shortcuts.

The nature of TV also typically means that you have at least a few directors working on a project. How is that for you, as the writer and showrunner, especially when you’re creating this world? What’s it like to establish that relationship with the different directors, so that they’re doing their thing, but it also lines up with the overall vision?

barkskins-david-thewlis-02

Image via National Geographic

REID: I was there, on set, every day, for every set-up, on every set. My pilot director, David Slade, established a tone and a look for the show. Some shows that I’ve worked on, I want the director to come in and blow the show up, every week. With this show, because of the language and visuals of it, I was very protective of the look that David Slade had established in the pilot. I also told all of the directors that came in that I have an amazing cast, and I would show them a few clips and tell them, “That’s David Thewlis. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what this character is. Your job is not to screw that up. He’s gonna walk on set, Marcia Gay Harden is gonna walk on set, and Aneurin Barnard is gonna walk on set, and they know their character better than anybody there. What I’m asking you not to do is try to change who they think their characters is.”

The directors were all very respectful, and I’d worked with a lot of the directors before. They were shooting outdoors on these massive sets, so the directors were like kids in a candy store. Visually, they had so much stuff to shoot. The two women responsible for the production design and the wardrobe design had set such a strong presence on the show that anywhere that you put the camera, you were dealing with the production design. The production design was almost a part of the direction, and same with the wardrobe. I planned that. I was very insistent on getting these people that were gonna impose their vision on the show. So, even when Guest Director A or B came up there, when they were shooting, they were shooting Isabelle’s sets, and there was a certain aesthetic in the way that she designed the sets that forced the directors to shoot a certain way. I learned a lot doing this.

It also sounds like you had a real collaboration with your cast of actors. Was there a conversation you had with them to be open about that, or was it something that just naturally evolved?

REID: I’d worked with Thomas Wright and Matthew Lillard before. I knew that Wright, who plays Cooke, was gonna come in with something interesting and weird and it was my job to see what it was, and then write to it for the scripts. When you get David Thewlis and Marcia Gay Harden, I had written a lot of the description of what the landscape was in the scripts, and then David and I would create a few notes, here and there, about what I thought the character was like. He’s a prep-heavy actor. When he walked on set, the first day, he was in period costume, he had this weird cane, he was sweating and on the top of a mountain, and he looked out and he had this weird voice, and he began to shout, and he was looking up at the sunlight and putting his hand in the light. I was like, “That’s the character.” He was living the character, and I had that experience with almost every actor, on set.

Sometimes your job, as a writer, is not to screw people up, and then you write to them, so I spent a lot of time writing to them. I saw what Aneurin was doing with Goames, and what Zahn [McClarnon] was doing with Yvon, and I wrote to the chemistry that they had. That was just part of being up there and seeing it. I love collaborating with actors. It’s my favorite thing. To collaborate with Marcia Gay Harden and David Thewlis, and the rest of my cast, was an easy thing to do. They make you look great.

Is that how you’ve always approached working with actors, or is that something that’s evolved, the longer that you’ve worked with actors?

REID: Not to sound like an old guy, but as you evolve, you have more confidence in the script. A lot of insecure people try to micromanage things because they’re not managing their work, so I spent a lot of time on those scripts. The scripts were written many times. I was going for something that I felt meticulous and interesting and exciting. As a writer, the only thing that I have is the authority of my scripts. So, when the actors would come in and go, “Oh, my god, this is a fucking great script,” that’s how you get authority. If an actor comes to you and goes, “I don’t like the script. There’s a problem here. It doesn’t make any sense,” you lose your authority. It’s a two-way street with the actors. They trust in you.

barkskins-david-thewlis-03

Image via National Geographic

David Thewlis had no idea where his character was going, and I could see he was scared, so I walked onto set, every single day, knowing I had to honor David Thewlis and not let him down. I’ve learned to let actors be collaborative, but I’ve also learned to make sure I’m giving them the best work, and it tends to work itself out. The best actors have great bullshit detectors. They know when the writing isn’t good, and they know when you slop through something. There were a few times when the actors would pull me aside and go, “This could be better,” and they were right, so I would fix the scene. I’m more comfortable in who I am, as a writer, to not get offended when an actor gives me notes. With everyone in that cast; no one was just there for a paycheck.

I’ve done a lot of TV shows, and a lot of times, you’re just going through the motions. Never once did any of my actors or myself feel like we were going through the motions, and you can feel that. I knew every day they were going in there and playing to win, and they brought everything. That’s all you can ask for, as a writer.

You talked about your background as a novelist and about how important writing good scripts is. How did you make the leap to being a showrunner, and when did you know that was something that felt right for you?

REID: Part of getting older and more confident as a showrunner, is hiring great people and not micro-managing what they’re doing because they’re gonna make me better. You learn, as a showrunner, to set a tone, at least with the shows that I’m interested in making. I’ve tried to make things to make money or to run multiple seasons, but I only wanna make great shit and I only wanna write great shit. I know that sounds ridiculous, but if you put that out there, as what your goal is, and you tell people that, every day, I’m gonna kill myself to make something great, you’d be surprised at how many people follow you along with that. They take your lead on that. That goes for your cast, as well. When you hire actors the caliber that I hired, they don’t come to set and just say the lines and hit their mark.

barkskins-poster-nat-geoWhen I meet people that I’m gonna hire and work with, I wanna make sure that they wanna do something great. If they don’t wanna do something great, then we’re not gonna get along. I can be demanding because I demand, out of myself, the best work. And when I see people that are talented, that aren’t doing their best work, I don’t wanna work with them. That’s just not something that I’m interested in doing. I just wanna make a fucking great show. If an actor does something great in one take, I’m like, “That’s it! You fucking nailed it!” I’m a cheerleader, once we start shooting, but they all know that when something’s not great, I’m gonna call them on it, and they’re likewise gonna call me on it. That’s the relationship. I had an open door. They would come in – actors, production people, stunt coordinators, make-up people – and they knew that I wasn’t playing around. I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten older, to set that tone. A lot of people wanna be everybody’s friend and they’re hosting a party. I’m not hosting a party. I’m trying to make a great show, every fucking day. That’s my job, and I feel it.

Barkskins premieres on Monday, May 25, at 9/8c and will air on Monday nights on the National Geographic channel.

Television