Based on the Leaphorn & Chee book series by Tony Hillerman, Dark Winds follows Navajo Tribal Police officers in the 1970s Southwest as they search for answers in an unsettling double murder case. In this interview with amc.com, we speak with series creator Graham Roland about bringing Leaphorn and Chee to AMC, telling these stories through a Native lens, and what it was like to put his unique spin on Hillerman’s beloved characters.
Q: Can you talk a bit about the creation of the show? Were you a fan of Hillerman’s novels? What inspired you to bring Leaphorn and Chee to the small screen and introduce them to a whole new generation of viewers?
A: I came in in 2019, but the process of getting these novels made into this show has been decades in the making, beginning with Robert Redford optioning the books in '86. Robert, George R.R. Martin, and Chris Eyre hooked up about five years ago – they had made a few films based on Tony's books – and they decided, "Okay, TV is in a place now — and [AMC] is an example – where anything on television is just as good or as high-quality, both in production value and in storytelling, as any Hollywood movie." It’s just an exciting time to be working in television, and Hillerman’s 18 novels just lend themselves to TV. Novels work for serialized TV storytelling because you have more time to let it all breathe and you go home with the characters. It doesn't have to be shot out of a cannon like when you're trying to condense a whole book into two hours.
In 2019 when I came onboard, they were looking for a writer. I actually hadn’t read the Hillerman books until this project. My agent sent me Listening Woman and I tore through it pretty much without putting it down. There are a few things I really loved about it. Tony's writing was so immersive when it came to place, time, the community, and you could just tell – he wasn't Navajo – but he had spent a lot of time there in that community. The opportunity to bring this to a television audience, a world like this which has never seen before, was the first thing that really grabbed me. The second thing that really grabbed me was there are so many stories that are set in the Native community of recent decades that have a white character bringing you into that community. So, sure you’re going into the community, sure you’re seeing life on a reservation or in a Native community or whatever, but you're still seeing it through the white character's point of view. And this wasn't that. This was told from a Native American protagonist's point of view and you’re experiencing the world as he lived it. And to me that – and obviously the names George R.R. Martin, Robert Redford, and Chris Eyre – was all I needed to really get invested. I immediately clicked with Chris [Eyre]. We had a lot of the same likes in terms of films and I heard his vision for the show and I just thought, "You know what? This could be really great." I was all in at that point.
Q: There are so many Leaphorn/Chee stories to tell. How did you decide where to start?
A: They never ever told to me, "You have to do this book," but Listening Woman was the book that they had been really circling in the development process prior to me coming along, and that's why that was the book I read first. You know any time you do an adaptation for film or television – I've done a few of them now – the hardest thing is to know when to take license and when to stick to the road map that the author left behind. I learned during my first show that it’s important to honor the spirit of the characters the author created and the spirit of what the book embodies. These books have authenticity because I feel like Tony really brought you into the world in an authentic way, even though he wasn't Native. I'll use Emma Leaphorn as an example. In Tony's novels, she's every bit the strong matriarchal character that she is in our show, but I was the one who made her a midwife in the community. I didn't change anything about her. That was a character that he created. All I did was try take the spirit of that, and take it one step further by making her a leader and a servant of the community in her own right, while her husband serves as a tribal police officer. It also afforded us a way to bring her into the story from a completely different angle. That's my best example of trying to honor the spirit of what Tony had done with these characters while also trying to find a new take on them.
Q: You’ve worked on some amazing shows like LOST, Fringe, and The Returned which definitely don’t shy away from mystery and things that go beyond basic human "logic.” How did you work to weave these kinds of elements into the two main mysteries of this season?
A: You know, Tony left behind all the guideposts I needed. If you've read the book, you know that we end up in a very similar place at the end of Season 1. So I knew I had those markers and it was really my job to figure out, "Okay, what is the path that I'm going to take to get to all of these places?" In terms of the mystery of it all, I think it was those shows that you mentioned, my early experiences on shows like Lost, The Returned, and Fringe that not only ingrained in me a love of writing mysteries, but maybe taught me a thing or two about it as well. They taught be about pacing it out and trying not to overwhelm the audience, which is always the hardest thing to do in my opinion when you're writing a pilot because you want to get so much out because you want them to come back. You want to let them know who this character is and you want to give them enough of the mystery to hook them, but you don't want to give them too much where they know what's going on too soon and they're ahead of the characters. In terms of how to tease out the mystery, my goal is always to keep the audience on the same timeline as the characters, if at all possible, so they're discovering things when the character discovers it. It doesn't happen all the time that way, but I find that when it does happen that way, it's the most satisfying, as an audience member myself.
Q: You’re passionate about “writing what you know” and as such your military experience has factored into your previous work. That said, it must have been so exciting to tell this story from an indigenous perspective given Hillerman was white. How did your Chikasaw and Choctaw heritage help you tell this Navajo story?
A: Well, obviously Chickasaw culture, community, and customs are very different than Navajo ones, so I definitely had to do my research, spend time on the reservation, spend time with tribal police officers, and also do supplemental reading. But Tony had really left me a really great place to start and to build from. But there is something universal about being a Native American regardless of your tribe. When you’re a little kid and you’re learning about Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day, and you, as a Native American, you know "Well, that's not totally the story. Like, we were here, but yet doesn’t seem to be what we're acknowledging here." So I think there are a lot of things that Native people in this country, in Canada, and all over the Americas can relate to and I’ve tried to bring that universal sentiment to the show.
I think a lot of that comes out in the character of Jim Chee for me, in my writing, because Jim Chee, unlike the books where Jim Chee is a tribal police officer who starts on the reservation, the Jim Chee in our show is returning to the reservation after many years of absence; after many years of assimilating into the white world, one could argue. That was similar to my experience in a weird way, not as extreme as his, but I was born in Oklahoma and grew up there until about the age of eight. Then after my parents divorced, my dad stayed in Oklahoma and I went with my mom to the Bay Area. When I returned every summer to spend summers with my father, I didn't feel necessarily a part of that community in the same way that I had when I lived there. I'd grown up around Native people, Native neighbors, Native classmates, and then going to the Bay Area I didn't have any anymore, so I never really felt a part of that world either. I always felt like an outsider, even though as a kid I don't think I thought of it like that consciously, but it's a feeling that you have and I think part of that feeling really came out in Jim Chee.
Q: Six episodes is just too short! If the show is picked up for a second season, do you already know which stories you want to tell?
A: We’re talking about that very thing right now. We have 17 more books that Tony wrote to choose from. The early conversations we've had I think have narrowed it down to a few, as in two or three. I certainly have my preference, but I think it'll end up being one of those. So we've talked about it, but we haven't exactly hit the bull's eye of like, "Okay, this is it."
New episodes of Dark Winds air on Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Full episodes are available to stream on amc.com (with a cable provider login), the AMC apps for mobile and devices, and a week early on AMC+. AMC+ is available at amcplus.com or through the new AMC+ app available on iPhone, iPad, Android, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku. AMC+ can also be accessed through a variety of providers, including AppleTV, Prime Video Channels, DirectTV, Dish, Roku Channel, Sling, and Xfinity. Sign up for AMC+ now.