Kevin Murphy, Showrunner and Executive Producer of The Son, talks about working closely with author Philipp Meyer and portraying the Comanche accurately.
Q: What was it like working so closely with the author of the original source material, Philipp Meyer, on The Son?
A: It’s wonderful having the guy who created the world as a participant in the storytelling because it allowed us to look at what’s working in the book and what’s going to translate well to television and what’s going to not work as well. To give you an example, one of the decisions that was made very early on is the García family massacre — it’s an inciting incident in the novel and happens very near the beginning of the book. Because of the television show, we felt that to begin the series with the wholesale massacre of people that we don’t really know as characters would have cast a pall over the season and probably a really unpleasant viewing experience and probably would have not felt as satisfying or dramatic for the audience, so the decision was made to make the García family massacre something that we built to at the end of the season. It’s very different from the book because it effectively makes what happens in the first season of the show almost a prequel to the events of the novel. It really does make it so much more awful because these are characters that we’ve really, really spent time with, and I think it’s shocking and it helps to understand what Eli‘s empire is based on because I think, as we launch into Season 2 — Season 1 is about Eli’s dream of an empire and Season 2 is about watching an empire actually happen. Because Season 1 is such a powerful ending, you’re never going to forget, as an audience member, that the Garden of Eden Eli’s trying to grow is growing in poisoned ground — that it was all built upon the original sin of killing the García family.
What was wonderful about working with Philipp — I think Philipp understood the value of this, and this was an idea that he wasn’t simply grudgingly accepting of. He was very much a cheerleader for it, and he really loved the idea and that was what we pursued.
A: What’s interesting about Episode 3 and Episode 7 is there’s not as much violence in those episodes, which I find interesting. Nobody dies in Episode 3. Nobody dies in Episode 7 and, most of the other episodes, many people die. I think those are some of my favorite episodes because we get to play other colors. This is not simply a world where life is hard and then you die horribly.
In Episode 3, we really start to put a human face on the Comanche band and you begin to realize that the goal here is not simply to enslave and torture Eli. The goal is to toughen him and train him and see if he’s actually got what it takes to become a male Comanche warrior and hunter, which is what Toshaway hopes. Toshaway initially sees something in Eli. There’s a thing that’s mentioned in the book that we didn’t mention in the show, but it’s implied that Toshaway had watched Eli first for some time before actually taking him as a captive, and you see that in the very first episode [“First Son of Texas“] where you see that Toshaway’s observing him. It’s a little silent scene at the beginning. And the idea here is that the Comanche had severe reproduction problems. They spent all their lives on horseback so a lot of the men had very low sperm count because they were bouncing around on horses, and women getting pregnant — it’s very hard to carry a baby to term when you’re on horseback. As a result, the way that the Comanches survived was by taking in captives and runaways and people who came from all different races and backgrounds, so there were white Comanches, there were black Comanches, there were Comanches from other Comanche bands, there were Comanches who had formerly been Apaches or something else and had been taken as young men and women, and they integrated. What was kind of interesting and somewhat wonderful about the Comanches is they were truly a tribal meritocracy. If you came into the band and you could collect horses and take scalps and you could handle the life, you were accepted as a full member of the family, no matter what the color of your skin or what your origins were.
The thing that was really exciting about [Episode] 7 was we really got to dig deep into the McCullough family. It’s the most screen time for the McCullough kids, and we really sort of get a better understanding of Pete and Sally‘s marriage. And it’s a very sad episode because you understand that Pete was grown and almost trained by his father to accept violence as an inevitable part of life and that’s something that his wife is not prepared to accept. She wants to have the kids in Austin and she wants to have them go to school and live some semblance of a normal 20th century lifestyle. And Pete understands that he would be miserable and just feel hemmed in if he were to live in the big city. This couple realizes that there is a completely irreconcilable difference in what each of them wants out of life, but they’ve got three children and what are they going to do about that? So Pete makes a decision to retreat and goes back to the ranch and then, at the end of the episode, he’s with Maria. It’s a very painful episode, but it’s something that I really like because, for me, the best episodes are the ones that don’t necessarily have guns a-blazing. The ones where you dig into these characters as people I find a little more satisfying.
And then there’s [Episode] 10. That’s something that we’d been building to all season long. What’s interesting to me about the episode is you’re kind of waiting for Pete to stop this because Pete’s our hero and you don’t believe that we’re actually going to go there, that we’re actually going to kill the García family. And you’re desperate, as an audience member, hopefully, for Pete to succeed and, when Pete fails — and he has a minor victory in that he manages to save Maria but largely has been unable to stop the juggernaut created by his father — I think there’s something that’s very horrifying and shocking about that ending. Also in terms of what it tells us about the father and son, you know that Eli loves his son more than anything. We’ve said back in Episode 9 there was the prophecy that Pete was his favorite son. Pete was his hope for the future. Pete was the heir apparent and, ultimately, clearly it seems that Pete is never going to forgive his father for what he’s done and you’re wondering what’s going to happen to this family moving forward. For Episode 10, one of my favorite scenes in it — again, it’s not a violent scene — but it’s a scene where Sally, understanding that Pete’s gone, challenges Eli and Phineas. It’s a very tough, ugly scene at the very end of the show. That, for me, is watching the tragedy of this family being exploded because of the patriarch’s ambition and greed. For me, that’s really the sweet spot of the show. There’s a great shot in there where Jess Weixler — it’s one of my favorite bits of her performance where the camera stays on her in a close-up in that final scene and she has a long reaction to Phineas where she takes a 15-second pause. There’s just so much going on in her face, and we just stare at her and let her live in that moment. It’s really a lovely bit of acting from her.
Q: How did you ensure that the portrayal of the Comanche was as accurate as possible?
A: It was a lot of research. We started from the foundation that Philipp built in his book, because his book was very meticulously researched, and that was a big help. A woman named Juanita Pahdopony was our technical and cultural consultant, and she also was a consultant for Philipp on the book. Once the TV show got greenlit, Philipp introduced us to Juanita, and we all fell in love with her and she became our point of access into the Comanche nation. Juanita was the person that would guide us to where we needed to go. She gave us access to the proper way to make a Comanche bow, the proper way to shoot, the proper way to make arrows, the proper way to make a tipi. We brought Juanita and some other Comanche from Lawton, Oklahoma, to inspect our props and look at our tipis and give us notes on what was accurate, what was inaccurate. Our costume designer, Cate Adair, made a pilgrimage up to Oklahoma, and Juanita gave her access to the Comanche archives and their museum and she got to go into the back room where they keep old pieces of art and photos and actual articles of clothing. There’s this clothing that was owned by Quanah Parker himself, who was the last great Comanche chief, and she was able to take photographs and take notes and ask questions and have conversations. And Scott Reeder, who did our props, went through a similar process, [as did] Cary White who did our production design. And Juanita was on set for whenever we would have big Comanche-centric scenes. With her schedule permitting, we would try to get Juanita out, to just be on set as a resource.
When we wanted to translate Comanche, Juanita would get together with a bunch of other Comanche language experts — because it is a dying language and it hasn’t really been documented in writing to a great extent — so they would look at what we wanted to say. If you look at the subtitles, the Comanches say things like, “Stop staring at me, d***head,” which is the right kind of profane attitude but they would never have used any of those words. They didn’t speak of time in terms of weeks and months and years, but we say that in the subtitles. What they’re actually saying is the product of actual people who are fluent in the Comanche language trying to figure out what the best Comanche equivalent would be for the ideas we were trying to convey. If you looked at an actual transliteration of what’s being said in Comanche, it doesn’t always match. Sometimes it’s not even close to what the subtitle is because they’re speaking the way that they would actually have spoken. We’re just subtitling it for a television audience to give an idea of the flavor. And that was one of the things in Philipp’s book — I love the fact that the Comanche had a very unique vernacular and they spoke like characters from The Wire, and it was something that was very exciting and fresh about the book that we tried to reproduce in the show.
Q: What was it like shifting between two different time periods in each episode?
A: There were two main challenges with it. One of the challenges was logistical in that we essentially were delivering two different shows with two different casts, two different set of sets and locations and props and everything, but we only had the budget for one TV show. … So we really had to be very, very careful about what we showed and how we used our resources. It was a real challenge because it’s a huge cast and hopefully the show looks good…
The other big question was how to artfully segue between the time periods. One of the things we discovered is that we tended in the scripts to ping pong back and forth between timelines a lot more, and what we found in editing is that it was making storytelling less immersive to do this. So we ended up doing what I call clumping of storylines. When we’re in 1915, we stay in 1915 a little longer. And then when we go to 1849, we often stay in 1849 for the entire act where it might have originally been written as three scenes spaced out. I think that makes the storytelling better and it also makes the trips to the past feel that it’s a show with twin timelines. We didn’t want it to feel like [a show] where there’s a present-day storyline that has primacy of storytelling lines and we’re jumping back for a flashback. We really wanted the show to feel like it’s taking place concurrently in two different eras because that’s what was so wonderful about the book. As the show moves forward, we always want to have two different time periods, but those time periods will change.
Figuring out how to jump between timelines was important and also making sure that the audience can understand what timeline we’re in instinctively. There’s some little subtle tricks that we did with lighting and camera — and it’s something that probably the layman might not notice, but we used spherical lenses for one of the time periods and we used anamorphic lenses for the other time period which gives you a different vibe and a different look that the eye can recognize even if you’re not recognizing it consciously. The goal was that the audience would instantly know where you are without the audience noticing us making an effort to make sure it was clear. You’ll also notice that in the first half of the season we put little chirons, like titles, telling people exactly where they were. Then we do a time jump in between Episode 5 [“No Prisoners“] and Episode 6 [“The Buffalo Hunter“], and we retired the “Eli McCullough 1915” because, by the time you’re halfway into the season, if you don’t get that Pierce Brosnan and Jacob Lofland are playing the same character, we’ve failed horribly.
Q: Pierce Brosnan joined the production late, so what was it like watching the cast come together to bring this story to life after he became part of The Son?
A: It was wonderful because what I love about Pierce in this role is nobody’s really seen him do this kind of thing before. He’s done one other Western. It was a movie called Seraphim Falls, but, actually, I hadn’t been familiar with it before we began this process and I think that most people just don’t really know him in this kind of a context. Watching everyone go from the excitement among our cast of knowing who Pierce Brosnan is — nobody signed onto the show knowing that they were going to be part of Pierce Brosnan’s return to television — so I think everybody was like, “Oh, my God. I’m going to be sharing scenes with a hero, sharing scenes with a guy that’s played James Bond, The Thomas Crown Affair, Remington Steele, Matador, all these incredible, iconic roles.” It was really scary and thrilling and a real 10 cc of adrenaline to the heart for everybody. And when he actually arrived, nobody knew what precisely to expect. And it turned out that he was a gentleman and a kind and generous collaborator, a consummate hardworking artist. It’s always so important to have the right No. 1 on your call sheet because that sets the tone for the entire production. And when you have a person who’s coming just to cash in a paycheck, someone who doesn’t want to do the work or someone who thinks they’re better than the material, the entire production suffers because that poisons all the way down through your cast and your crew. And we were so incredibly fortunate that we got this amazing, amazing person who sets exactly the right tone and was an incredible leader. Everyone looks up to him and everyone takes their cues from him, and it was just such a wonderful working experience. I can’t wait to do another season.
Watch full episodes of The Son on amc.com and AMC apps for mobile, Fire TV, Xbox One, Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast.
Read a Q&A with David Wilson Barnes, who plays Phineas McCullough.
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