‘Hell on Wheels’ exclusive: EP John Wirth details season 5 past, present, and future

It has been a few weeks now since we finished our coverage of “Hell on Wheels” season 5A, and it was a multi-faceted, compelling journey for Cullen Bohannon. While he continued his quest to both complete the railroad and find his wife and child, we also saw him immersed in a completely different culture working with the Central Pacific. We had many glimpses into the Union Pacific world, but through the lenses of people like Durant and Eva.

We’ve made a tradition as of late to bring our readers some lengthy, insightful discussions with executive producer John Wirth, and we wanted to keep that going as we start to dive deeper into the hiatus. Below, you can learn more about his creative process, some insight into key storylines from 5A, and also some of what could lie ahead in the final seven episodes. Obviously, there are spoilers ahead in terms of everything that has aired on AMC.

CarterMatt – Did you write the series finale, and if so, what was the process like?

Tom Brady and Jami [O’Brien] are writing it. I came in at the end of season 3, so I felt it was a fitting opportunity for them to write it. They jumped at it, and they wrote a hell of a script.

So when you got that script and you started to look over it and realize ‘this is the end,’ what was that process like? As you know, it’s not all that common anymore for a show to actually end [with a proper finale].

Part of our process in [getting out] scripts is that we go through various drafts. So we have a couple of drafts and outlines, we submit that to the network, get notes, and those notes are incorporated in the writers’ draft. Then, we have a writers’ meeting and we send the writer back to do a second draft on the script, and sometimes a third draft. Then, we do a thing where everybody does a final read, and we’ll sit in my office. This is kind of a late-night thing, and we kind of go page by page, scene by scene. We’ll pitch our ideas for trims for dialogue, just sharpening things; that session usually lasts a couple of hours. It’s always fun; Jami O’Brien says that it’s the best part of the process for her, she loves it.

We were kind of fantasizing that we would do this for the last script, and what ended up happening was that they were scrambling to get the thing written by the [time] you need to put it out. I was in the office editing another episode, and they were assembling the two halves of the script. Jami said ‘we got it together, we’re ready to give it to you,’ and I only had about an hour and a half because I had to go to Hollywood to get to the final mix for another episode. I sat down, I read it, I didn’t have time to get into it on a deep level, but we wanted to get the script out. I gave them kind of my cursory notes; Tom wanted to go to final mix for 508, which he and I wrote, which is the [premiere episode next summer]. He didn’t want to miss it, so Jami said ‘I guess I could input the changes on my own,’ and I was like ‘yes, you could.’

So she sat in the office, which was half packed-up, completely empty, all the writers were gone, and she did it on her own. It was not at all what we imagined it would go like, and sadness and the reality really didn’t hit until the next day, when I was like ‘oh, that happened.’ Then I wrote a love letter email to those two telling them what a great job they did and how proud I was [of them] and what a pleasure it was to work with them over the past three years.

It’s almost poetic in a way, though, since this has never been a show that has gone according to plan. Things have turned out really great, but you couldn’t predict the move to Saturday or AMC deciding that this is when the story was going to end. Has this particular show thrown you for a loop more than anything else [you’ve done]?

Not really. This show is a very well-oiled machine. Once we got it kind of straightened out. There were some bumpy patches, but the show works really well. It has just been an absolute pleasure to work on this material, and we just take it in stride whatever bumps in the road we [run into]. Occasionally, very very rarely, I’m able to say ‘never saw that before,’ but, not often.

One of the things that I really enjoyed and had never seen before on TV was the story with the Chinese workers and that whole world of the Central Pacific. Tzi Ma was fantastic, and you guys really got me when [Tao was killed off].

Tzi became a really good friend. He’s a good friend for the show, and we had a great time working together. We always knew we were going to kill that character off because it set off the story we wanted to get cooking between Cullen and Mei. He had so much dignity and brought so much dignity to that character, and he was so excited about telling that story. All of our Chinese actors were incredibly grateful and excited that the story was being told, and we were actually putting their story on American television and we were having the dialogue in Cantonese. That process in it of itself was another layer to the production, which is something I hadn’t experienced before. We hired Andy Van Yu out of Vancouver, who is fantastic; a real student of Cantonese. He’s Chinese himself. He’s an actor and a translator and a dialogue coach. He did all the translations for us, he worked with the actors very closely; we had a number of Chinese actors who did not speak fluent Cantonese, so he had to help them through the language. There was a period aspect of the language [that added another challenge].

… When we got into editorial, it [then] added another layer of complexity to editorial because I couldn’t understand the language. I couldn’t understand what everybody was saying. It made it very difficult to edit the scene. The way I tend to edit this show is that we write a scene; it may be three minutes, but I’ll go through it and line-cut, just to trim down the speed and get through lines we don’t need. [The language] made it impossible to line cut, because I didn’t know what anyone was saying. That was interesting, as well. So then I’d have to do the scene, send it to the actors, mainly Tzi and Byron Mann, and if I couldn’t get them I would send it to Andy, and so it was a process. But I loved the Cantonese aspect of the show this year. I thought it was really elegant.

I’m curious about this because I’m sure every show has a different procedure for it: How do you go about telling someone that they have been killed off? Does it change depending on the role?

I don’t think there is any one way that it’s handled; people handle it differently. If it is a main character or regular cast member, I like to do it in-person. If that’s impossible then I will call them on the phone before we put the script out. I don’t tell them in advance. I don’t tell them a year in advance before the beginning of the season or when I know, because I don’t want them to indicate in their performance, just like with you or me, I would not want to know that I am going to die a week from Wednesday. That’d be weird.

But I think the courteous, professional thing is to speak with them in-person. That’s what I did with Tzi. He knew I only hired him for five episodes, so he knew he wasn’t going to be on the show for 14 episodes. I told him how it was going to happen and he was into it. He thought it was cool. A lot of these actors, they like to die on camera. They have a good death on-camera, and they get into it!

Without giving a lot away, are there plans to still revisit the Central Pacific side of things?

It started to really hit us around that [midseason finale], episode 7, that we only had seven episodes left to tell our story, and we have a lot of story to tell.

We have a lot of things cooking. We have what’s going on with the CP, we’ve got what’s going on with the [Union Pacific], we’ve got Durant’s various shenanigans. We have The Swede’s thing with Phineas, we got Chang’s situation with Chinatown, problems with Cullen Bohannon and then Cullen’s problems with him. Oh, and we’ve got the Naomi [story]. So, there’s a lot of dangling [threads] and we wanted to put them all out there in terms of setting things up.

The UP and the CP got completed. Everyone knows that, it’s in historical record. We will be working towards a point in time next season where those two railroads come together.

One of the stories that I surprised about was the one between Mei and Cullen, especially some of the romantic suggestions that were made. What went into making that story?

It’s a very intriguing situation, the kind of ‘Mulan’ aspect of this story. You’ve got this attractive woman masquerading as a man. Cullen is in on the secret.

At the time, mixed relationships were very uncommon. For her to get involved with a Caucasian man would be very out of her experience and his, as well. We wanted to kind of play the impossibility of a romance that we’re happening on, both from a cultural and societal and situational level. We wanted to play some attraction between them, but make it impossible for them to do anything with it.

What that did for us was allow us to explore within each character what it would mean to have feelings for somebody that you couldn’t act on. That turned out to be a really interesting aspect of the writing this year. It’s just not a romance in the traditional sense, so it’s been very intriguing to write. But, it’s also been challenging because we don’t have any Chinese or Chinese-American writers on the show, so we don’t really have that sort of cultural aspect of what was going on. We did have several consultants that we talked to a lot, and they’re very informed and they’ve been helping us through those parts of the story.

It’s hard with Cullen because he’s married, he’s looking for his family, and based on what we saw from the end of [episode 7], he’s going to find his family.

What went into the story for Eva this time around? She’s become this very interesting, layered woman who almost feels now like she is just in survival mode. Running the brothel and engaging in [some] brutality seems to be her way of surviving.

She was living in the mud last year, and we wanted to have the character pull herself up by her bootstraps. She is the lowest of the low in this society; she is a former Indian captive, a female whore who has had so many trials and tribulations, so many travails. She doesn’t really get any help from anybody, she has to do it on her own. And so we started this last year … when she learned to play cards from that gambler, and she puts together a stake and then she buys into Mickey’s business and becomes the madam. Once she straps on that gun-belt in 4×13 … we knew she was going to shoot it. We just didn’t know how or what the circumstances would be.

Then we came up with the idea for this Josie character, who would come in younger and more pernicious than she is, and would want to take Eva’s job and leave her back out in the mud. Knowing this character as we do, we knew that she wouldn’t let that happen. We knew that she was capable of killing; she has been touched by the violence [of the time], and has embraced it as a way to solve problems.

The interesting thing is that with some of these characters, as we move Cullen further and further away from solving all his problems with his gun, everybody else seems to be evolving to a place where they are revolving on the gun and/or violence to solve their problems. That’s something we’ve been very conscious of, as well.

So have you started to look ahead at what you are going to next?

Yeah. I’m going to take a nice vacation. (Laughs.)

I don’t have a job today. I’ve got a couple of offers that I turned down because the timing didn’t work out. People needed me to come on right away. I’m just not available … I don’t finish post on this show until November 23, so I’m working the next few months on ‘Hell on Wheels’ even though I’m out of [Calgary] on October 2. So I’m kind of thinking for me, the rest of the year is ‘Hell on Wheels’ and then the holidays so I probably won’t work the rest of this year, which is a tremendous luxury for someone like me. Then I’ll see. I’ve got a couple of ideas; Tom and Jami and I are talking about a couple of things, [and] we may try to sell something together. It’s just kind of a crapshoot in my world. You get a new phone number every year or two, or every five years if you’re lucky, because you’ve moved on to a new program. It’s a whole new group of people, a new story, new actors. It’s all where the chips fall. It’s hard to control having a situation like this one. I was hesitant to take this job because the showrunners and creators left all at the same time, [and] I thought there must be big problems on the show. But there weren’t big problems on the show; there were just personal problems between those people which made it difficult for them to continue.

This has been a wonderful job, this has been the best job I’ve had in 30 years. I’m looking at the prospect of the ending as a very challenging thing. But there’s also the prospect of getting out while it’s still good and leaving people wanting more. It’s better than having people going ‘aw sh*t,’ the show’s really jumped the shark. Let’s move on.

You have a great luxury in that you’ve worked on so many different things over the years, different genres. Is there anything in particular that you are interested in doing next? Are you looking to something that is not a Western, maybe set in another part of the world?

I love the Western genre. This is my second Western after ‘The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.,’ and when I did that show I was so thrilled to be doing it and I thought I would never get a chance to get it again. It’s just been thrilling.

To me, it’s really about the story and it’s about the people I’m involved with more than genre. There’s really only a [few of them out]. You’re either doing a Western or a period show, a cop show or some sort of procedural, a medical show, a lawyer show, or maybe a family show if anybody’s still doing those. I’m just kind of interested in what it is and who’s on the show. If I could do another show with Anson Mount I’d sign on in a heartbeat because he is just phenomenal to work with and such a great actor. Maybe he’ll find something and call me up and say ‘do you want to do this show’ and I’ll say ‘yes.’

As always, massive thanks to John for sharing his time with us!

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