This morning, AMC presented a panel on their new western show Hell on Wheels to the Television Critics Association. Set against the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) seeks revenge on the man who killed his wife. Working on the railroad, he manages a group of freed slaves, who are now laying the track as “free’ workers.
“One of the things that really caught me is it’s just so American, the idea of a tent city that packs up and moves,” said series creator Tony Gayton. “It’s violent and it’s given to vice and gambling but there’s churches there.”
A modern western show with all the ugliness of post-Civil War America, on cable no less, is going to be compared to Deadwood. Gayton knows one way Hell on Wheels will stand out.
“The language in Deadwood was beautiful but stylized,” he continued. “I think there’s a more naturalistic dialogue in this. We’re servicing so many different accents – the south, Irish laborers, Norwegians and Germans as the show develops – it really is like Hell’s kitchen in there.”
Gayton’s brother Joe, who created the show with him, joked, “If there are favorable comparisons to Deadwood, we’ll take them.” Then added, “We’ve called this an eastern as opposed to a western. It really was about dragging this almost urban ghetto across the prairie and industrializing this country. In terms of the look too, we have the iconic western images, the panoramas, the wide shots. Down in the train and our steam driven sawmill and the prostitutes and workers, in there it’s that world but we never lose sight of that great western vista is always out there.”
Deadwood was a gritty western, and Hell plays it real too. Its look should stand out just by the way it is filmed though. “Part of it is just the design of the color palette with the costumer and set designer and DP,” Tony Gayton said. “A lot is done in timing and post production, the way they plan it out to start with and some of it is post production. We talked to David von Ancken, director of the pilot, about the way we wanted this to look. He talked about painting with dirt. It’s a beautiful light source. It was either the sun or a single point light source, a candle or lantern. It gives you beautiful light, even the way filth is on the canvas tents and light filters through.”
Bohannan is a former slave owner, so working with the freed work force will raise many issues throughout the series. Mount took it seriously, with a wink. “I think it’d be a mistake if it fell into the PC groove of oh, the white guy and black guy are going to be buddies now. We keep making Silver Streak jokes on set. That really wouldn’t be the way to go. I wouldn’t say Cullen’s operating out of guilt. That’s just the way of the world. He’s not apologizing for it. Because of their different agendas, I don’t think Culluen’s used to an outspoken black man and I don’t think Elam cares how he feels. It comes to a boil in an episode coming out.”
Elam is the lead black worker, at least the one we get to know in the pilot, played by Common. “In the pilot, what you feel is my character is like man, I’m taking this opportunity to go out here and try to change my life and then here it goes again,” Common said. “Cullen represents here it goes again, the boss who’s not too different from a slave master in my eyes. That conflict comes there a little bit but there’s something I respect about him. I see our relationship evolving as things happen. It’s not that we’re buddy buddies. It’s that tension that exists, that exists with some people now. You like someone, have a certain affinity to them but still have some walls up.”
Hell on Wheels introduces some Native American characters too, but detailed storylines about them may have to wait. “I think the Native American story is something that will probably, hopefully knock on wood, in season two we’ll start servicing more,” Tony Gayton said.
Hell on Wheels premieres Nov. 6 on AMC.