HBO taps scribe for Catskills drama

9:00 PM PST 09/07/2009 by Nellie Andreeva, AP

Richard Russo to pen script from article by David France

Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo is making his first foray into TV series with a drama for HBO about the Catskills Gas Rush.

Russo is writing the script and is executive producing with Mark Johnson and Will Gluck.

The untitled drama is based on a 2008 article in New York Magazine by David France, who will serve as a consulting producer on the project.

The Catskills are believed to hold the largest reservoir of natural gas ever discovered in America. Geologists have known about it for more than a century but it had been largely ignored because the location made it prohibitively expensive to exploit.

But the recent discovery of a drilling technique suited for Catskills' terrain and the fact that gas prices have tripled over the past decade suddenly made the region red hot.

However, to make it feasible for exploitation, gas companies have to secure vast swaths of land near where third-generation diary farmers live next door to weekenders, mostly New Yorkers who have bought second homes in the Catskills in droves.

"What the article is about is the kind of class war that was shaping up between dairy farmers in some of the poorest land in the North East and a lot of actors, artists, filmmakers and writers who have bought second homes there," Russo said. "These poor farmers now are leasing mineral rights to gas companies, looking to become overnight millionaires as a way to save their farms and their way of life, while the weekenders are very well educated and environmentally conscious and are not anxious to see drilling, chemicals in the air and access roads cutting through their neighborhoods."

What attracted Russo to the subject matter was its context.

"I liked the metaphor of what lies beneath our feet," he said. "What happens to people's lives when they find out there is something they didn't know about and how it would benefit their lives and how it tends to expose what goes on beneath the surface in their own lives."

Russo's background in depicting class conflict was key to his coming on board the project.

Gluck, who spent a lot of time in the Catskills as a child, read the NYM article and, teamed with Johnson, bought the rights to it.

When the two pitched the idea for a show to HBO, the network brass asked them what kind of tone they envisioned for the project.

Gluck and Johnson pointed to Russo's "Empire Falls" and "Nobody's Fool" as inspiration -- not then knowing they would be able to land Russo himself to write the script.

The Catskills gas rush and the tensions it creates is reminiscent of the oil boom in the South a century ago.

"It's 'There Will be Blood: the New York edition,' " Gluck quipped.

The HBO project will begin four years in the past and would allow history to play out, Russo said. Gas companies are still waiting approval from New York State for drilling to start.

The show reunites the author with HBO where he adapted his "Empire Falls" as a miniseries in 2005. In addition to writing the pilot script for the gas drama, Russo is busy promoting his latest novel, "That Old Cape Magic."

Gluck, a veteran TV writer who segued into features, is in post-production on his film "Easy A" for Screen Gems. He is repped by ICM.
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