Hell on Wheels Showrunner John Wirth talks the series’s most difficult character deaths, his favorite episodes and the historical figure he wish had made it to Hell on Wheels.
Q: What has made you most proud about Hell on Wheels‘s run?
A: I’m really proud of how successful the show has become and how fervent our fans are. I’m pleased with the way everybody worked together to make this show – from the network, to the studio, to the actors, to the writers, to our magnificent crew… I’m proud to have had some small part in creating the kind of environment where everybody wanted to come to work, and do their best work while at work, to achieve the common goal of making the best show we could.
Q: We got a really unique perspective on the railroad’s Chinese labor in Season 5. What’s been the most interesting historical aspect that you’ve learned about over the course of the show?
A: Well, one devastating piece of information I discovered while researching the Chinese contributions to the building of the railroad is that while over 15,000 Chinese immigrants were employed by the Central Pacific, researchers are only able to identify by name three individuals. The thousands of Chinese laborers who literally changed the course of history for this country were treated as a nameless, faceless horde by their employers. To me, that’s a stunning piece of information.
Q: There have been some shocking deaths over the course of the series. Which one was the most difficult for you to decide on/deal with?
A: The death that had the most impact on us as writers, and perhaps on the audience as well, had to be Elam’s. A close second would be when Ruth Cole was hanged for the murder of Sidney Snow. That was pretty rough. Tom Brady wrote a beautiful episode and the depth of emotion he found in the jail scenes between Cullen and Ruth make the episode one that will endure.
Q: Have you ever invited the actors into the writing room? If so, what have been some of their contributions?
A: Because Anson Mount is a producer, I invited him to spend some time with us each year at the beginning of the season so the writers could pick his brain, and so he could be a part of the process and share his thoughts about Cullen. When you’re writing a character you come at it from the outside in. When you’re acting, the process is reversed. You’re coming at it from the inside out. At least, that’s how I look at it. Putting Anson in the room with the writers resulted in some good alchemy. Last season, I also extended an invitation to Christopher Heyerdahl as well, because we were working on the resolution of the Cullen-Swede story. It was interesting to have both of those guys in the room at the same time. Cullen and Swede is one thing. Anson and Chris another thing altogether.
Q: Who is your favorite original/non-historical character? Which character do you most identify with and why?
A: As writers, we put a little bit of ourselves into all of the characters. I guess Mickey would be my favorite original character. He is America. An immigrant. A dreamer. A killer. I imagine he lived a long and fruitful life. I also created this character named Dick Barlow in Episode 302. He was just happy to be there. He was funny. He liked to talk. He liked his coffee. He wasn’t super ambitious and, tragically, couldn’t get out of trouble’s way. I sort of relate to that guy. I hope I don’t end up with a hole in my belly like he did, but you never know.
Q: Shooting in remote locations in Canada must pose challenges. Were there any times that it caused serious issues for production? Were there any times when the weather proved to be a blessing?
A: In Season 3, we had a flood and our set was completely inundated with water. The show was forced to shut down for three weeks. Whenever a show goes down in the middle of a season, it’s always a backhanded blessing for the writers because we can always use the extra time to prepare scripts. We’re always up against the clock and trying to stay one step ahead of the script eating monster that is production. So, when someone says OMG production is down, we go, “Thank God!” That flood was a blessing in disguise!
Q: What was your favorite episode of the series and why?
A: They’re all my children, and I love them all equally, but there are a few that stand out. There was Episode 410 where Sidney Snow got shot by Ruth. Jami O’Brien wrote the hell out of that one. The hanging of Ruth in Episode 412. The very first episode I wrote [Episode 302]. And I really liked Episode 309, the shootout episode Billy Gierhart directed. Max Hurwitz’s bear episode… Too many to mention, I’m pleased to say. I could probably come up with a reason why I love almost every episode.
Q: What do you hope fans will remember most about the series?
A: As they watch the last season, I know a lot of our fans will be thinking about how it’s going to end for these characters. I’ve had a lot of interaction with our hard core fans and I can tell you they’re very invested in these folks. We worked so hard to come up with a satisfying way for the story to end for each character – tough, because there are a lot of them. It caused us a lot of sleepless nights. In terms of takeaway, I think people really came to love Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon and Colm Meaney as Durant. That father/son relationship was beautifully realized and very relatable and in many ways the heart of the series. Christopher Heyerdahl as The Swede… you rarely find a psychopath so carefully constructed and played on television.
And for a western, I’m proud of the strong female characters we featured, all beautifully portrayed by our incomparable and gifted female cast members. I think people who enjoy the western genre got a full dose of western heritage, action, character and a little insight into one of the most incredible American stories that had yet to be told on film. I sense people will be sad to see it go, but there’s always the DVD collection!
The final episodes of Hell on Wheels begin Saturday, June 11 at 9/8c on AMC. Click here to get a look at the final episodes with the cast and creators.
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