'Hell on Wheels' Creators Explore Freedom Via Western

Hell on Wheels TV Still - P 2011

Premiering Sunday, AMC’s Western drama Hell on Wheels may revolve around the building of the country’s first transcontinental railroad, but creators (and brothers) Tony and Joe Gayton used the backdrop of the Reconstruction era to tell a bigger story.

The showrunners tell The Hollywood Reporter that the series starring Anson Mount as an ex-Confederate soldier on a quest to find the Union soldier who killed his wife is about much more than revenge and the railroad. Set in a traveling tent city dubbed Hell on Wheels as the railroad construction progresses, the Gaytons note that while the war may have ended and slaves may be free, the struggle to determine what that freedom means is among the heart of the AMC series.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What was it about the Reconstruction era that first appealed to you?
Tony Gayton:
It’s like the D.W. Griffith movie The Birth of a Nation -- it’s the birth of this country more as we know it now: the slaves were free, and it’s like the war was supposedly over, but it really wasn’t over. In a lot of ways it may still not be over. It’s that friction that still existed from after the war and the fact that, in trying to build this railroad -- as Durant (Colm Meaney) says in the opening in the first act -- there’s a healing population of East and West out of this conflict of North and South but not everybody’s ready for that healing yet.

Joe Gayton: We wanted to look at racism in this show and shine a light on it. That’s why one of our characters is a freed slave.

Tony Gayton: It’s the whole idea of freedom and gradations of freedom. You have on paper they’re free, but how free are they? How free is anyone because where this takes place is out in the middle of the Nebraska territory where there’s really no law.In a lot of ways, there’s unlimited freedom and what do you do with that?

Joe Gayton: Right. Very simply, we thought it was a great sort of new way into a Western. To do a Western which has all the iconic images and characters but it’s coming at it from a different angle.

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THR: How much will you let history be your guide with this?
Joe Gayton:
We have the historical signposts; we’ve researched it. We know where the railroad was built, what areas it went through, what kind of people were involved. So far, in terms of historical characters, all we’ve done is Durant, and even he is kind of an amalgam. He’s definitely not literally Thomas “Doc” Durant, especially physically, but a lot of the stuff we have in the pilot and some of the continuing episodes have actually taken from very kind of underhanded things that he did, so we’re trying to cull from him as a historical figure, but we’re not trying to be 100 percent accurate.If we go on, we’re hoping down the line to introduce historical characters. You know, Sherman came out. There was a great character called Grenville Dodge. We’re hoping if the series goes forward to include more historical characters; but right now, the only one taken actually from history is the Durant character.

Tony Gayton: The truth is that a lot of our stories played out in Hell on Wheels, we’ve created these characters. A few represent the Irishman and an ex-slave and ex-Confederate soldier, so that gives you the freedom to enact the railroad story, which is historically accurate, making the first 40 miles, making the first 100 miles, the government subsidies, the bribery that went on. You also have this freedom of creating your own characters in this incredible place called Hell on Wheels, this tent city that moves along with the railroad, which there’s really not a hell of a lot of historical information about, so you can use your imagination a lot more with that part of the story.

THR:What historical guides have you used in researching for the series?
Tony Gayton:
Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World; Empire Express by David Bain.

Joe Gayton: It’s as much about the Central Pacific as it is the Union Pacific, which we haven’t obviously touched upon the Central Pacific yet.

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THR: Will touching on the Central Pacific be something that you get to in subsequent episodes, or perhaps seasons?
Tony Gayton:
We would love to because, ultimately, this really was a race between the Central and Union Pacific. This season, we had to stay with Hell on Wheels, mainly because of budgetary concerns and Union Pacific; but we would sure love to get into the Central Pacific side of things because that really became exciting as they were racing each other across the country.

Joe Gayton: We thought it was really important to establish one sort of story line first instead of characters. Certainly, the Central Pacific was a completely different story. Most of their story line took place in the Sierra Nevadas, half of it anyway, with the Chinese laborers. So it’s another really interesting aspect that we can explore in this show once we get it down the line.  

THR: There have been a throng of Western projects sold to the broadcast networks this development season. What is it about the genre that you think makes it suddenly hot?
Joe Gayton:
I think it’s a cyclical thing. I don’t think Westerns will ever go away. If we keep making Westerns, they may not be set in the Old West but they’re still Westerns. You know, with that kind of iconic individual character who comes into town, the good guy vs. the bad guy.I hope with our show, it was a different time. People were tough and strong, and greedy and did things that would be almost unimaginable to us today. And that’s one of the big reasons we’re interested in it.It’s really astonishing they would just leave everything, go out to the edge of nowhere, and say we’re going to build this thing across the country. I hope that people still have that in them today and are interested in seeing it.

THR: You mentioned that shows revolving around a character who comes into town and a story of a good guy vs. bad guy. Anson Mount told THR last week that he sees that notion of good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats as an old notion of the Western. Is that fair to say?
Tony Gayton:
I think those days are pretty much over. Clint Eastwood pretty much changed that forever, and Sergio Leone in the 1960s and 1970s with the way they handled the Western. I don’t think you can get away with black hat/white hat, being that simple anymore. Joe and I have never been interested in that. I think it’s very gray, and even our series has characters who live in the gray.Anson’s Cullen Bohannon is probably about as gray as you’ll get, and I would say he would be even darker than gray in this series.

Joe Gayton: Even though Anson’s character is very dark, I think of Unforgiven. I think of True Grit: Those characters were very dark but at the end of the day, you could count on them and you could root for them. We want it to be gray. We don’t want it to be black and white, but we still want a character in the center of it that, at the end of the day, people will root for; and I think we have that.

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THR: What liberties will the series take when it comes to portraying popular opinion from the era, especially those pertaining to women?
Tony Gayton:
We have two very strong female characters: we’ve got Lily (Dominique McElligott), the transplanted Brit/aristocrat who is as tough as nails. And Eva (Robin McLeavy) who is a prostitute based on this actual historical character named Olive who was kidnapped by the Indians when she was a child and sort of held slave, and made her way out and into society. There are actually several books about her. So, Eva is kind of based on her. She’s a very, very tough character who ends up having a relationship with Elam (Common). I think we’ve got two very strong female characters to represent women in this show so far.

Hell on Wheels premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit