Hell on Wheels Q&A – Neil LaBute (Director)

Noted playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute talks about returning to the Hell on Wheels set to direct two Season 4 episodes and how his work on stage informs his work in television.

Q: You previously directed the Season 3 Finale, "Get Behind the Mule." What was your favorite moment from that episode?

A: I came into this show as a viewer first, so for me to get a chance to put Cullen Bohannon and the Swede together again towards the end of last season, knowing the audience was waiting for it, was a real thrill for me. That was one of my favorite parts, and definitely a highlight.

Q: This season you directed two episodes, the Season 4 Premiere, "The Elusive Eden," and Episode 402, "Escape From the Garden." What was it like to be back on set?

A: It was really nice, because it's so much easier once you've actually done it and you understand the vibe. Suddenly you know all these faces and how the game works and you feel like you're a part of the community. That's always a nice thing.

Q: Is gearing up to direct an episode of a television drama at all similar to preparing for a play? How so?

A: It is similar in the sense that you must prepare. The more prepared you are, the better off you are in the moment because there's the pressure of the clock, especially in television. I always find that time pressure is much greater than in theater. You're shooting in a quick time frame, and there are so many storylines. You have to really be on your toes. There's an energy on a TV set that I don't find in the theater, and I think it's thrilling.

Q: If Hell on Wheels was adapted for the stage, what do you think it would be like?

A: As a stage show, I think it would be a difficult one because so much of Westerns rely on the landscape. It's all about going from a close-up to an amazing vista of open range. That's a really hard thing to show on the stage.

Q: Are there any Hell on Wheels characters you would love to see in a play?

There are lot of people who I think would make great characters on the stage. I love the character of Eva, and I love where Cullen has come from and his story. Elam has always been fascinating to me. I love where they seem to be going with Mickey, and Durant is a very fun foil. There are a lot of new people too -- I love John Campbell, who Jake Weber plays.

Q: How does your experience in theater help inform your work in television?

A: One of the reasons you have a director on set is because the actors need someone there to support them, even though they've been doing these roles for three or four years now. With my background in theater, you'll find me talking to the actors and working on their performance. When you're surrounded by really good people who are creating the show, you know you're covered, so mostly I'm there to help the actors with any spots where they have difficulty with the telling of the story.

Q: Your filmography is a mix of genres -- crime, Westerns, comedy. Do you have a preference?

A: I don't. As a writer, I've been trying to create a particular voice in the theater, but film-wise, I've had the opportunity to do a lot of different types of things. They're all very interesting, though I find comedy is really hard to do, because it takes a particular talent and a strong cast. With thrillers, you need a lot of material to create tension. I've learned along the way how all of these things work and what they need. I think I'm at my best telling a mostly dramatic story.

Q: You're currently working on a film, Dirty Weekend, with Phil Burke (Mickey McGinnes). What can you tell us about it?

A: It's a small film that I wrote and directed. I thought there was a role he might be good for, and he agreed to come to Mexico and shoot it. It was fun to have him do something very different than what he does on Hell on Wheels. I use a lot of people a number of times over in works I've done both on stage and on screen in film. It was great. He's a really easy guy to be around and work with.

Read an interview with Christopher Heyerdahl, who plays the Swede on Hell on Wheels.