Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hell On Wheels

Genre: Western (TV pilot)
Premise: In 1865, a town physically moves across the frontier, following the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
About: Hell on Wheels is an AMC show set to debut either this year or early next year. Tony Gayton won the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting scholarship at USC, where he attended, over a decade ago. After graduating, he worked as a production assistant for John Milius. He also wrote the Val Kilmer film, “The Salton Sea” as well as writing (with his brother), “Faster,” last year’s film starring The Rock. Here’s an interview he did with his brother leading up to the film’s release.
Writers: Tony & Joe Gayton
Details: 44 pages – 8/3/2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

AMC has its shit together. In a world where creativity is shunned, this channel is one of the growing few that is willing to take chances. Okay okay, I admit it. I stopped watching The Killing after three episodes (I sensed they were basking a little too comfortably in their “anti-procedural” proceduralness. Sooner or later, you gotta start answering questions – I still haven’t seen the finale but I hear it proved me right. What did you guys think?). But overall, you gotta give it to AMC for not creating Law & Order CSI 50.

Friday, we dissected the amateur period piece, The Triangle, which afterwards left serious doubts as to whether it’s possible to make period pieces exciting for a modern-day Twitter-centric audience. But Hell On Wheels proves that with some good old fashioned story sense, an eye towards milking the drama, and an infusion of as much conflict as possible, you can make any story exciting.

It’s 1865. The Civil War is over. Lincoln is dead. America is trying to get back on its feet. But they’re having a rough go at it. Each side is bitter about how things went down (particularly the, um, losing side) and they’re not hugging it out saying “good game.”

Hell On Wheels starts off the way every show should start off, with a good scene. Bring us in right away and never let go dammit. A local soldier goes to a church to confess the sins he perpetrated during the war but seconds later the priest he’s confessing to puts a bullet through his head. Or who we thought was a priest. This is Cullen Bohannon, an ex-Confederate soldier with revenge on the brain. Something really bad happened to this man during the war. And now he’s going after the Union soldiers who did it, one by one. This is the second to last. He’s got one more to go.

Cut to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the thing that’s going to change America. The thing that’s going to connect the East to the West. The railroad is being built by a dishonest tyrant of a man named Thomas “Doc” Durant. Doc could care less about America’s noble pursuit to expand. All he cares about is making this construction go as slowly as possible so he can milk the government for every penny they’ve got.

This is where Cullen is headed. And where many people are headed for that matter. Building a railroad requires a lot of work so, obviously, they need workers. Once there, we meet a few more of the major players. There’s Elam, a black man dealing with the ongoing testiness of men who still don’t believe he should be free. There’s Joseph Black Moon, a Cheyenne Indian who’s acting as a sort of intermediary between his people and the railroad workers. There’s Daniel Johnson, a mean son of a bitch who carries a hook for a hand. There’s Lily and Robert, a married couple who are dealing with Robert’s deteriorating health. As the train moves further and further into Cheyenne Country, and the threat of violence with the natives becomes more of a reality, he’s begging her to go home where it’s safe, but she insists on staying by his side.

And then of course there’s the biggest character of them all, the thing that sets the show apart from everything that’s come before it, the town itself. “Hell On Wheels” is a moving town, a series of makeshift tents that trudges along the frontier, following the expanding railroad. This was my favorite aspect of Hell On Wheels because I’m always asking, “How do you make a Western different?” They’ve done just about everything already. Not only is a moving town unique, but it brings up a lot of opportunities you’d never get to see in a traditional Western (for example, the concept of moving further and further into dangerous Native American territory). In other words, it’s not just a gimmick.

That combined with the intriguing main character, Cullen, who we’re not sure if we should like or fear, gives this pilot an edge that you just don’t see in movies or TV shows. Out of all the Westerns I’ve seen or read in my life, Brigands comes first. And this would be second.

So what does it do right? A lot. There’s conflict everywhere you look in Hell On Wheels. Cullen seeking revenge against the men who ruined his life. A Hitler-esque railroad developer who challenges everyone he meets. A character on the brink of death from disease. The looming threat of a war with the Cheyenne Indians. Racial tension on the building lines. That’s why this teleplay is so damn great. There isn’t a single scene where something isn’t clashing with something else (or leading up to a clash). We’re never bored here.

Which leads to the next thing. In a TV pilot, you want to set up/allude to as many major character conflicts as you can. You want the audience saying, “Hmm, I wonder how that’s going to play out?” Or, “I wonder how that’s going to evolve.” When someone finishes watching that first show, you want them pissed off that the next episode isn’t on RIGHT NOW. So here, when we learn that Cullen’s final mark is here in this town, we can’t wait to see how he’s going to get to him. When we see the Cheyennes discussing how they’re going to treat this invasion onto their land, we can’t wait to see if they’re going to move in. We can’t wait to see how Joe, the Cheyenne who’s in the middle of it all, is going to react. Will he choose his people? Or his new friends? And of course we can’t wait to see the unique machinations of this moving city, this “Hell On Wheels.” There are so many intriguing threads here.

I loved the little touches in Hell On Wheels as well. Like when Durant gets pissed at his builders for trying to build the railroad straight. “What the fuck are you doing?” he asks. If you build the railroad straight, you complete the railroad faster, which means I don’t get paid as much money. So he insists they make it curvy. This had me wondering, is this really what happened? Were our ancestors so corrupt that still to this day we have inefficient railroad paths twisting through our country? I love when screenplays break that fourth wall and make you think.

You know, I recently watched the abysmal pilot for the Spielberg produced TNT series, Falling Skies. And I found myself comparing the two scripts, wondering why a script about the old west, something I have little interest in, was so much better than something about aliens, which is a subject matter I love.

The answer came quickly. There wasn’t a single character that stuck out in Falling Skies, that popped off the page. None of them had anything unique or interesting going on. Everything about their existence, their goals, their desires, was humdrum, basic, generic. But here, in Hell On wheels, you had characters enacting revenge, characters torn between two sides, lovers in denial about impending death, corrupt dictators. One of the sure signs of a good screenplay (or teleplay) is that you REMEMBER the characters afterwards. And the way to do that is to give them real lives, real problems, real fears, real conflicts. Hell on Wheels had that in spades, and it’s the reason it’s so damn good.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Create looming conflicts. Conflict is not just about the right now. It’s not just about two characters who don’t like each other or don’t agree on something in the moment. It’s about the future. It’s about hinting at conflict that is to come. When you do that, you create a powerful force – anticipation. If we’re anticipating an event, a future showdown, we’re more willing to keep watching. The two instances that really got me here were the looming clash with the Cheyenne Indians and Cullen’s last mark. I needed to see those two things resolved. Pack your pilot with a handful of these and people will want to tune in for the next episode.