Q: You started out as a novelist and writer of short stories. Is writing for Hell on Wheels anything like that?
A: I think writing for television is a lot more challenging than writing novels or short stories… You can be sloppy in a novel. You can have a short story with one or two nice bursts, but the television scripts that I admire most, they have to pop all along.
Q: Walk me through creative process of writing an episode of Hell on Wheels…
A: This season, we started with Cullen Bohannon. What I’m interested in is his evolution and the rehabilitation of his character… As we come to terms with who he is, we start getting glimpses of who he was, particularly in Episode 208, “The Lord’s Day” — the famous dinner scene, which is the first time we see that Cullen was an aristocrat who became a gunslinger, and we see that there are more layers than maybe we thought. And I’m really interested in peeling those layers away.
Q: What’s been your favorite episode to write so far and why?
A: I think it would be 208, where we see a Cullen we’ve never seen before. I also liked 205, “The Railroad Job,” from last season, which was an old-fashioned gunfight, but I tried to write it more credibly in that in real life, gun fights were big, sloppy, messy affairs where people missed, people fell down, people got shot accidentally,.. you had to stop and reload. So that was a lot of fun.
Q: You’re a real Southerner. Do you leverage that when writing dialect for the show?
A: It’s been really helpful because I grew up in Southampton County, Virginia, which is about 60% black, which I think has helped me with Elam, not only with his dialogue but with his sensibility. Common says that I write the best dialogue for him with the show, and I think it’s because my ear is sort of tuned that way… I hear the characters speak, especially Cullen and Elam, because I grew up with guys like them.
VIDEO: Inside Episode 208, “The Lord’s Day
Q: You were involved in writing the Season 2 Finale. How do you effectively write such seismic changes in a show?
A: Jon Shiban, who was our main showrunner last year, was the main writer, and I think he saw more of an action sequence finale, obviously with the Indians burning down the town. But we also had to lay in the narrative storytelling elements. One scene I enjoyed writing was whe Cullen goes to hang The Swede, because we were trying to tie up their relationship for the second season… I like when The Swede tells Cullen, “Now we are consummated,” which is more of a marriage clause or something, but that was The Swede’s perception of his relationship with Cullen… And then of course The Swede slips away and has that death-defying fall off the bridge, hopefully to return in Season 3.
Q: You’re also an executive producer on the show. How do you balance those duties with writing?
A: At this point executive producer means senior writer… I think the executive producer tends to write more of the episodes and is responsible for shaping and rewriting the other episodes. The thing I have to balance mainly on this show is that I also teach at the University of Southern California,.. so I have to balance my students and my classwork with writing and producing television, but they’re kind of complementary in a way.
Q: Can you tell us anything about what to expect from Season 3?
A: You’re going to see a really interesting relationship develop between Cullen and Elam. It’ll be stressed at times. It’ll be reinforced at times. They’re going on a very interesting journey this season. And you’ll see Cullen’s growing awareness of his ambitions and what he wants from the railroad and what he’ll do to get the railroad built. What he’ll risk.
Q: You also wrote and acted in Stop-Loss. What new character would you write for yourself in Hell on Wheels?
A: I’ve always wanted to be Sparky the Train Engineer. I just thought it would be very nice to drive the train up and down the tracks all day and smoke a pipe. Occasionally I’d try to not get scalped, but at the end of the day, I’d like to go into the saloon and watch people fight.Read More