‘Hell on Wheels’ season 4 finale exclusive: EP John Wirth on mud, Cullen’s story, season 5 progress

Saturday’s season 4 finale for “Hell on Wheels” may still have you reeling. It set the stage for the 14-episode final season with Cullen Bohannon in California, with Mickey and Eva on the move, and with Durant and John Campbell completely covered in mud. It was complex, but also emotional and striking with in terms of visuals and music. Who doesn’t love a little Bob Dylan on the show?

To continue our coverage of the show, we have a real treat for you this morning. We had the chance to speak one-on-one this week with executive producer John Wirth, who also co-wrote the finale with John Romano, on some topics included this episode, the overall arc of the season, and more. Note that this is just the first half of a two-part story; Wednesday, we’ll be back with even more information on what could be coming in season 5.

CarterMatt – There are a lot of different ways that we could start this off, but this feels like an appropriate place to start. How are you feeling right now, looking back at the season and knowing that you’ve already got a season 5?

John Wirth – It’s really nice to have nothing to do, I’ll tell you that … I’m a huge Beatles fan and I’m reading the book Tuned In, which is all about their early life. The book ends in 1962. I get up, drink my coffee, and then I sit down and read. It’s such a pleasure.

I’m trying to enjoy that while I can, you know? With the show I’m trying to lock in my writing staff, I’m trying to get a budget for season 5 and 6, which is really just going to be one [season], but I have to think about it in terms of two seasons. I have to write two premieres and two finales within these 14 episodes. I got to think about how to frame both of those seasons. I’m doing a lot of reading. I’m re-reading the Ambrose book, in particular all the chapters on the Central Pacific. I’m reading [about] the Big Four, who referred to themselves as the Associates. There’s a very concise book about those four guys, who ran the Central Pacific, called The Associates. I’m reading that book, and I’m trying to formulate some thoughts about what to do next season. Anson Mount and I are probably going to start talking again in December, he’s been on vacation. He and I will start talking about what his thoughts are for next season, and also just trying to figure out who is going to come in and direct the show … We’ve got a family of directors now that have done multiple episodes, so it will be nice to get them locked up and kind of revisit that part of our family.

That’s what’s occupying my time right now. [At present] it’s not a full-time gig … It’s just nice to have some free time and some down time to rest the brain, since it’s a long, hard slog once January 5 comes. You just start grinding, and with fourteen episodes I’ll be working into December. This year I finished on November 7, but I’m sure it will take me until at least Thanksgiving to finish the show.

This sort of answers my next question, since the whole split-season thing is still sort of new and crazy to me. There was ‘Breaking Bad’ [on AMC] that did it and then there was ‘Mad Men.’ I think with ‘Breaking Bad’ they took a big break in between [episode blocks], and with ‘Mad Men’ they just shot it all the way through. That’s seemingly what the plan is for you guys, that you’re going to do the fourteen episodes all at once; or, are you going to break it up with a hiatus?

We’ll shoot [all] fourteen episodes this coming year. I really suspected that they were going to order the show and do a split-season thing. I tried to talk them out of it because I thought that maybe we had more episodes than just 14 in terms of our story, but this is a model that works for them, and one thing I know about networks is that they are very reluctant to revert from a model that works for them. So I wasn’t surprised at all when the order came down like this. I think it is certainly sufficient enough episodes to finish the story. I have no doubt that we can do the story justice in fourteen episodes.

I’ve got a few more questions about season 5, but we’ll circle back around to them. (Note: They’ll be in part two of the interview.) The first thing that I have to ask about the finale, and it came into my mind right when I was watching the episode, was when you brought this mud scene to Colm Meaney and Jake Weber, what was their reaction to it? It was really entertaining; I’m not sure I’ve seen a scene quite like it.

(Laughs.) I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ll tell you, I have a lot to say about it, and in no particular order I will say that by the time that the writers room gets around to breaking the last episode of a season, everyone is pretty shelled out and pretty tired. The premieres and the finales of these serialized dramas are challenging. Just to talk about the finale, you have a lot of stuff to wrap up, and the obligation to set up what is going to be the next season. Then you add to it that you don’t really know that there is going to be a next season. So you kind of have to play with that, as well.

When we sat down to break episode 13, I initially was going to write it on my own but then I asked Romano to co-write it with me, all I had was ‘old man fight.’ We wrote on the whiteboard ‘episode 413, finale,’ and I wrote ‘old man fight.’ That’s all I knew. Later when I talked to Jake about it and told him this story he said ‘I’m not that old!’

I knew I just wanted to do this crazy fight, and really play it with no chopsocky and, as I kept saying to Brent Woolsey, our stunt coordinator, ‘I want this to be ugly.’ I don’t want anybody to land a punch that makes it look like they’re really good at having a fight. I want these guys to tire quickly and careen around the office. The original, unedited version of this scene was around eight or nine minutes long. It was absolutely hilarious. In watching it on the air I thought ‘maybe I could have taken a little bit of time out of it,’ because I did go on. I just enjoyed it so much.

That was kind of the origins of that, and then when we were actually filming it, it was cold as hell and it had actually just snowed like nine or ten inches that week, and it was raining. I knew Jake would be up for it because I’d spoken to him and he had read the script and loved the idea. But I knew that Colm Meaney might have some issues with it. True to form, Colm was like ‘do we really have to do this,’ and [was talking about] rolling around in the mud. That mud out there is pretty tricky. We’ve got horses and horses**t and animals, so we had to create a virgin mud bath in front of the railroad office for those guys, and we tried to rake out as many stones and stuff as possible.

Then Jake just got together with Colm, and he said ‘come on man, this is going to be fun. This is really going to be fun.’ … Once they both got into it, I think they both did a fabulous job, and I was standing there on the set watching the whole thing. I can’t tell you how enjoyable that was … It was so funny. I think it was [director] Adam Davidson’s idea to set up all that vegetable stuff (laughs), and when Jake pulled over that little cart of vegetables and just started throwing cabbages at the guy, it just killed me. I was laughing so hard.

By the way we flew in two stunt guys from Vancouver, and they were sort of the unsung heroes of that sequence because all of the banging around in the office was done by them. Then, the big fall [into the mud] was done by them. That wide shot from I think Bendix’s point of view where Durant slips … those were all stunt guys. I just love that sequence.

I thought it was a very appropriate way to end this thing that was going on between them all season long. When I first pitched the story of Chicken Hill to the network, they were concerned that the story was too petty, that it was much ado about nothing. I kept insisting that these big titans could get totally revved up in this petty bulls**t, and the pettiness of their rivalry would sort of drive their [conflict] the entire season. It worked pretty well, and by the time where we got to this point, where Campbell has basically achieved all of his goals, the one last thing is Chicken Hill, which is really not worth what they’ve been through. I mean, people have been killed, maimed over this.

I think now it’s possible that Campbell and Durant become buddies. Where is there left to go after fighting for a season over Chicken Hill, and then have a down and dirty fight in the mud? You have to have a drink afterwards, and figure out somehow that you have more in common than you think.

I think in general one of the things I liked so much about this scene is that there has been a lot of tough stuff this season, like seeing Elam go and then seeing Ruth go, and during this finale it was this big change of pace and tone, just for a couple of minutes. I don’t know if that was something you were trying to achieve consciously, or if that was something that came through watching the episode.

You know, there’s always been a sort of dark humor running through the show, but one of my first impressions before I was working on it was that it was sort of unrelentingly grim. What I had said to AMC when I came aboard was ‘if you guys hire me to come on this show, the show’s going to be considerably less grim than it has in the past two seasons.’ I think I have achieved that. I don’t know if I was consciously doing what your experience was in watching it, but it is certainly within the DNA of how I write.

In shifting over to Cullen, we obviously saw the big change with him in California. He seems to want to find his family, but there’s also this nagging desire to still be a part of the railroad. What was the decision-making like for where you wanted Cullen to end up at the end of the season?

We knew at kind of the beginning of the season that he would end up at the Central Pacific. We thought that it may happen earlier than it did. When it became clear that Common was leaving the show and we had to figure out how that was going to happen and when that was going to happen, we sort of pushed off the Central Pacific notion until the end of the season.

We’ve always wanted to tell [the story of the Chinese working on the Central Pacific], and since Cullen is our point of view on the world, we couldn’t really envision telling the story without him being there and taking us into that world. And I thought, by the way, that the whole sequence at the end was very effective in showing us that world and coming into it.

The Central Pacific side of the story is distinct from the Union Pacific side in that primarily, they were in the mountains. Whereas the Union Pacific was laying a mile to three miles a day across the prairies, the Central Pacific was moving sometimes only twelve inches a day. They’d been in business of building the railroad for three years I think, and they had only laid 131 miles of track. Most of that was leading up to the Sierras, and not actually in the Sierras.

Seeing the Central Pacific side of the story is going to be quite different visually. Next year we’ll be building tunnels through the mountains, we’ll be building snow sheds. The whole [manufacturing] of the snow sheds in the Sierras was an enormous undertaking by this railroad, because there was ten, twelve, fifteen feet of snow annually. They just couldn’t keep the tracks clear in certain places. They built I think like 39 miles of snow sheds for their tracks. That involves a lumber industry, that involves carpentry, that involves a whole other aspect of railroading that we haven’t seen. I’m looking forward to kind of exploring that aspect of the railroading.

And the tunneling, it was incredibly proficient. They would start on the west face of the mountain, and then they’d start on the east face of the mountain and start tunneling towards each other. Then they would dig a hole in the middle, straight down like seventy feet, and then they would start tunneling out to each end. The tunnel to the summit was [around] 1300 feet long, and when they finally connected they were only an inch off. It was pretty spectacular stuff.

So I want to see that [shown], plus the nitroglycerin aspect of it. That was a very unstable but powerful explosive. I want to explore that. There’s just a lot of cool stuff to see on the Central Pacific side that was not available to us on the Union Pacific.

About three episodes into this season I was thinking that there was no way the Swede was going to get out of his situation alive, but somehow this guy is like a cockroach, and [the characters] just can’t get rid of him. Now, he’s potentially sent in the direction of Cullen again.

It has to be just exciting to have a situation where these two could clash, because those scenes with [Christopher Heyerdahl] and Anson Mount at the start of the season were really great. When was the decision made to find a way to get the Swede back into what was happening with Cullen?

Obviously we knew we weren’t going to kill him and he wasn’t going to get hanged. He was going to have to work his way out of that somehow. Bringing Brigham Young onto the scene gave us a clear route to extricate the Swede. Those two actors (Heyerdahl and Gregg Henry as Young) were so good, and that scene in episode 408 where the Bishop is telling his tale to Brigham Young and then he turns back into the Swede during that speech, was just brilliant.

The Mormons were very involved in the building of the railroad. They had men working for both sides. It just seemed like a natural way to move the Swede from being the Bishop back into being Thor Gundersen, and utilizing some of his railroad skills and putting him on a trajectory to put him in a conflict, and I suppose in some ways it will be a final conflict, with Cullen Bohannon.

In part two of the interview, we talk with Wirth about Eva’s future, the state of things for the John Campbell character, and also the sort of pressures that can come with creating a series finale of any show. There’s a ton of great material in here, and John was extremely generous with his time.

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