[09/14/12 - 11:12 AM]
Interview: "Hell on Wheels" Executive Producer John Shiban
By Jim Halterman (TFC)

The Western is alive and well in television with big ratings coming in for miniseries like "Hatfield & McCoys" as well as solid showings for weekly dramas like FX's "Justified," A&E's "Longmire" and AMC's "Hell on Wheels." After an uneven first season where pacing and focus were often an issue, the second season of "Hell on Wheels" seems to have ironed out the wrinkles and is now filling the gap left on AMC's Sunday nights now that "Breaking Bad" has wrapped its summer run.

So where are things heading as the show continues the 1865 journey of following those involved in the construction of the first transcontinental railroad? Our Jim Halterman checked in with Executive Producer John Shiban to find out.

Jim Halterman: There's no question that 'Hell on Wheels' is a Western but I also have a little voice in the back of my head saying it's also kind of a serial. Do you see it that way?

John Shiban: You know, it's funny you picked that up off of it, because it's a very conscious discussion that we had in the writers' room and that we had with our network. Towards the end of last year when the characters started to blossom and intersect and it was like 'let's dig deeper into that. Let's go' and soap opera is not a dirty word. 'Breaking Bad' is a soap opera. The way you look at it. It's a character story, the kind of story is serialized, and we consciously tried to stretch out our stories over the second season in that manner and it seems to be working. It's pretty exciting.

JH: It seems like we're having the little resurgence of the western, too. 'Hatfield & McCoys' did really well a few months ago and your show is doing well. Why do you think that is? It definitely feels more prominent now.

JS: We like to take credit for the resurgence. [Laughs.] The genre itself is very American. I think it's ingrained in peoples psyche. All the hopes of the individual building a country, families versus the elements, family versus danger, all of the things that you find in the Western are just classic. I think it was inevitable it was going to come back. It was kind of just a matter of time, and the form it's going to take. I'm glad that we're a part of it.

JH: Ever since 'The X-Files,' you've done so many things like 'Torchwood,' 'Vampire Diaries' and 'Supernatural' that have leaned more towards sci-fi or fantasy. Is that a genre you were wanting to step away from when you joined 'Hell on Wheels?'

JS: Honestly, I always thought of sci-fi and fantasy as another genre that I'm interested in. The western was always something I've been interested in. Film noir was always something I was interested in. It's like 'Star Trek' is 'Wagon Train' in space. It's kind of the reverse but you're kind of telling similar stories... I'm a big fan of the horror genre and we tried to make certain episodes or certain moments be told from the horror genre... for example, [episode] 102 had the whole teaser that was an attack on the town of Durant by the Sioux and we conceived it and wrote it, and shot it like a horror movie. So, it is kind of the same kind of genre work and world building that I always enjoyed in doing science fiction. This just happens to be a world that existed but it's not modern. It's playing with the same kind of stuff. It just happens to be the West instead of space.

JH: Shifting to some of the characters and stories, I feel like some of Cullen's (Anson Mount) motivation has changed a little bit since the beginning of the show or maybe he's just found a home with these people? Am I reading that right or... ?

JS: Yeah. You are. We wanted to play the killing of an innocent man at the end of season one and that hit him pretty hard. He was reluctant to drive back to the railroad but very quickly realized that there might be a place for him there. He's an intelligent guy who likes to fight, who likes to battle. As Durant said, 'this is a war and I need you,' and I think he enjoys that. I think he sort of put his past into the back of his mind because he's got a good fight to fight now. That doesn't mean it won't come back.

JH: Lily (Dominique McElligott) is interesting because she's a woman who is looking ahead to the future and has some sense of independence even if it is through her relationship with Durant (Colm Meaney). What is her journey through the next few episodes?

JS: Lily is a character who is really trying to find her place in the world. She was not happy... she was a young woman with an arranged marriage and she didn't want to be that. She wanted to be her own person. She fell in love with Robert (Robert Moloney), who was this dashing, American figure who was going to come West and she was like, "hey, maybe there's a place for me in there." She's learned the hard way that there is a glass ceiling or an iron ceiling that she can't break through. She's still trying.

When we meet her in season two [now widowed] she's in a relationship with Durant. She's got some power in Durant's name this season but she is going to be tested. This whole thing that she's built... it's going to be tested. In the last half of the season, she begins to realize that this [relationship] is not a permanent situation. [Durant] has a wife, he has a family and at some point he's going to go back to that. And that's what she's going to have to face.

JH: Is Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) going to stay sober? Because I thought it was so sweet in the last episode the way that the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) helped him stay away from the drink and he even helped him shave his beard off. It was just really sweet moment in the middle of all this violence and chaos.

JS: Isn't it? I love those two together. In a perfect world that would be our spin-off. That would be the odd couple. Yeah. I'll tell you he is going to stay sober.

JH: What about the triangle between Ferguson (Common), Eva (Robin McLeavy) and Mr. Toole (Duncan Ollenrenshaw)? Safe to assume that is something that's going to develop some more?

JS: Absolutely. Yes.

JH: Because she's got a baby in her belly.

JS: She does and it's not Mr. Toole's and that story is going to build over the last few episodes of the season.

JH: What else can you tease for the next few episodes? Are the Sioux Indians coming back?

JS: Definitely. Definitely. It was no lie in earlier episodes when Lily said they were entering sacred ground. That builds to a big confrontation coming towards the end of this season. Reverend Cole's role will also continue. Now that he is sober and aligned with The Swede he's going to make a move to end the bloodshed so that's going to come to a head. I would like to say one thing. because they put Durant on a train to go back East to recuperate and recover. But he's going to come back with some other characters that are new to 'Hell on Wheels' and one of them is his wife. Virginia Madison will be playing the Mrs. Durant. It's been very fun.

JH: As writers, does it give you more or less freedom that you can't rely on modern technology in your storytelling? In modern shows it's so convenient that you can have phones ring and an email that provides information. What do you think?

JS: It's a little bit of both to be honest, because sometimes it can be an obstacle, because we're always trying to figure out, well how could they know in Washington DC, you know, x, y and z. What's interesting about this period of time specifically and about the railroad and the telegraph was becoming more prevalent, this was the cutting edge. They're out on the railroad and it was sort of the space program of this day.

We're finding that though it may take longer, there's still communication, there's still the connection it was in a different manner and these were the pioneers in technology. These are the Steve Jobs of their day, and so, there are parallels. But it can sometimes screw you up in storytelling where you really want a character to get back, to come home that night, but there's no way it could be on a horse. Sometimes you think 'maybe we can do a time cut and nobody will notice.' [Laughs.]

JH: And you haven't heard about a season three yet, right?

JS: No. We have not but I'm feeling very good about it.

"Hell on Wheels" airs Sundays at 9:00/8:00c on AMC.

  [september 2012]  


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