Wednesday, March 15 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time is probably something you’ll want to mark on your calendar. It marks the premiere of Hap and Leonard on SundanceTV, and the second batch of episodes look to bring you as much entertainment at the first. You get James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams, and this season, you’re also going to get a great mystery at the heart of the story that stems from the closing minutes of the first-season finale.
In leading up the the show’s return, we spoke recently to show executive producer John Wirth about coming over to Hap and Leonard this season following his time on Hell on Wheels, some of his goals in designing the story, and a wide array of other subjects including the challenges working on a six-episode show to Anson Mount’s recent casting in Marvel’s The Inhumans. If you recall some of our interviews with Wirth during Hell on Wheels, they were always extremely informative and in-depth.
CarterMatt – Can you speak to the process of going from one show in Hell on Wheels over to this one?
John Wirth – Hell on Wheels was such a special experience for everyone involved. It was such a strong family, and the feeling of family was very affecting for everybody. When it came to an end, it was one of those things where you’re both very happy to have been able to find your way to a satisfying ending, and sad that you got there.
After we wrapped, I got a call, ‘Hey, a little birdie told me you’d be interested in an adventure that requires you to live somewhere else.’ I said ‘is it Tuscany or London?’ (laughs), and the little birdie said ‘no, how about New York City?’ and I said ‘close enough.’ And that’s how Hap and Leonard came about.
I had been offered a lot of different opportunities after Hell On Wheels here in Los Angeles, a number of things in the broadcast television world, Netflix and premium cable. I really did not feel like I wanted to get involved in something that had a long lead time, or was 22-24 episodes a year. I was looking for something special, and immediate, an adventure. Something artistic. Something a little bit more manageable, that had other aspects to it like living somewhere else. Or, anything I could do with Anson Mount.
I watched the first season of Hap and read the first two books again and had some conversations with [executive producers] Jim Mickle and Jeremy Platt and Linda Moran and Nick Damici, and we decided very quickly that we could all get along. So I packed up, moved to New York, and I was in New York last summer from June to October, and then I moved to Atlanta for two months while we shot the show. Now I’ve been back and forth to New York for the past few months and just finished post on the show two weeks ago.
You talk about the six-episode run, which is a little more common now than it used to be. From a writing perspective, what’s it like being in that room and planning out a story that is that compact? Does that makes things easier or more challenging?
It’s a combination of the things. First of all, it’s very difficult for writers to make a living doing six episodes, especially if they’re exclusive to a series that’s only doing six. I’m not complaining, this doesn’t apply to me as much as younger, less established writers. Not to talk politics, but one of the things on the agenda in the upcoming Writers Guild negotiations with the companies is how we can help writers can make a viable living on these short-order seasons. For instance, I get paid per episode. Obviously, I make more money doing 22 episodes in 8 months than 6 episodes in 8 months. And as the number of episodes that get produced goes down (over the same period of time), incomes go down. This is a concern for writers – who, by comparison, I admit, are paid more than many people in this country with a lot more education and more urgent responsibilities. Such is the world we live in.
This becomes a problem for showrunners because writers, if they can, need to go off and do other shows, just to make a living. Scheduling becomes a nightmare, and it is sometimes hard to get writers back once they’ve gone. So every year, instead of building on the team you’ve got in place, you’re essentially running a teaching hospital. New people every season. Not good.
The same is true for the crew, by the way. Part of what makes a show work, in my opinion, is constancy when it comes to writers and crew. Hell on Wheels is a good example. We had, with very few exceptions, all the same people, the same faces for most of the 6 seasons. We developed a shorthand. Relationships developed. You find yourself and your show hitting on all cylinders.
In the case of Hap and Leonard, by way of example, the first season was shot in Louisiana, and the second season was shot in Atlanta. Very few people made the transition from Season One to Season Two. Currently I’m trying to hold on to people from the second season for Season Three, and that’s difficult because we don’t have an order yet, though I’m confident we’ll be back.
In terms of the writing a short order series, you have to familiarize yourself with haiku (laughs), because you have to write clear and hard and fast and tell the same story that you would typically spin out over many more episodes in just a few episodes. A lot of the stuff Elmore Leonard called ‘the stuff everybody skips over’ falls away, and you get to the core of the story and you tell it and protect it.
This series is very entertaining. Hap and Leonard are wonderful characters, and the two guys who play them, James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams, each have a wonderful quality, and double wonderful chemistry together. It’s been a real joy to write for both of them.
As you said, these two guys already have this relationship and they know the show very well. As you came in, did they have a good sense of who Hap and Leonard were and were able to collaborate on certain things?
The characters were there, they existed. In fact, they pre-existed the show in the novels, and Michael and James embodied them and made them their own. We didn’t make any changes this season in terms of the characters. One of the things I wanted to do was dig deeper and explore the circumstances of their lives – you know, how they got to be where they are, who they are. They’re unusual guys, I was curious how they got there and wanted to dramatize that, or at least extrapolate upon it, if that makes sense.
There were some pretty significant things that happened to them in season 1 like the deaths of their fathers, and there were these crucible moments in their lives I wanted to explore.
I think this season we went a little bit deeper with them than last year. Jimmi Simpson played a wonderful character last season, the psychopath, Soldier. I know from experience that when you have a character like that on a show it’s very hard to not have them take over the show.
The Swede on Hell on Wheels as an example. Christopher Heyerdahl’s performance was remarkable and riveting. You have to be really careful as a writer, or a character like that will take over, not just the show, but you, because they’re so fun to write.
This year, I wanted the focus to be on Hap and Leonard a little more. Jim and Nick did a great job of getting the show on its feet last season. They really launched those two characters. And as I said, James and Michael have a wonderful relationship off-camera as well as on-camera. It’s fascinating to watch them work. They have very different styles. James is very well-trained, Michael is a little more of a jazz-singer. Seeing them together is kind of a joyous experience. Unpredictable. Special.
Coming in after the first season, where things did get so crazy in the final few episodes, did you feel any sort of pressure to up the ante in terms of being big and shocking and violent? Or, did you feel fine to be able to do your own thing?
The setup on the series so far is that each season we do one of the novels. Last season Savage Season was the novel, and all of those characters … disappeared (laughs). The only characters to make it through were Hap and Leonard. Then there was Leonard’s uncle Chester, who died at the end of last season. But sometimes on television when you’re dead… you’re not dead. So, there’s that.
This season we have an entirely new cast and a new story from the novel Mucho Mojo, so I didn’t inherit any story elements or cast, aside from Hap and Leonard, of course. There are vapors hanging over this season from last, but it was pretty much a clean slate.
I didn’t feel any pressure to go any bigger or crazier; I just tried to tell the story of Mucho Mojo. As writers we tried to infuse the season with a few surprises that weren’t in the novel. The thing about [Joe R. Lansdale’s] fans is that they are really ardent and hardcore fans. They love the books and these characters. We could’ve easily done the book as written, it’s all there, but we chose to add a few touches to the story that hopefully distinguish it as a television story. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a Rubik’s Cube when you’re dealing with underlying material from outside of television. You’re trying to honor it, but also make it work as a television show. We tried to be cognizant of that.
Going into season 2, how much is Hap still dealing with and wrestling with the loss of Trudy?
Two significant things that have happened in his life are the death of his father, and meeting Trudy, getting married to her, becoming a conscientious objector, going to jail, and then coming out of that to find out she left him high and dry, both figuratively and literally. For the rest of this adult life, he’s had to cope with the aftermath of what I think of as ‘The Trudy experiment.’
We writers thought it would be interesting to move him past Trudy, finally. I mean, she is dead, but sometimes being dead is not enough. So, the first episode is about Hap coming to terms with Trudy’s death and letting her go.
This season is really about Hap and Leonard both coming to terms with people and relationships who’ve helped define who they are as adults. In Leonard’s case, it’s his uncle Chester. We created a story where Leonard is able to re-parent himself by getting involved with another character. It’s so effective and Michael is so good in the story. The Hap character also heals himself by exploring a relationship that allows him to see himself and realize some things about himself that he wasn’t able to see clearly because of the Trudy bifocals he’d been wearing. James is quite good in all these moments.
In the closing seconds of season 1, we saw the [skeleton] below Uncle Chester’s home. How much is that going to play into season 2?
The mystery story of season 2 is the mystery of that skeleton — how did it get there and what does it have to do with Uncle Chester? What does it have to do with us, the us being Hap and Leonard.
I obviously don’t want you to give anything major away because I loved watching the first season unspoiled. Is there anything exciting or challenging that you found during season 2?
I found the heat challenging (laughs). It was so damn hot on the east coast this summer! I assume you’re talking creatively. The characters are so well-drawn in the novels — they’re very distinctive from one another, and they’re just beautifully played by our two actors. There weren’t any surprises there. The big challenge was figuring out a way to tell a compelling mystery story in so few episodes, and buying into the serialized nature of the show and playing through. We broke all six stories before we started shooting — we didn’t have all of our scripts ready, but in writing the scripts and seeing production and seeing everything that was happening and seeing what little mystery elements landed on film, I was able to go through and ret-con a little bit. I was able to go back and say ‘that worked well, so while we’re shooting the next episode let’s add this little bit; maybe we go back and put this little bit into the previous episode because it’s a missing piece I just realized was missing.’
You can bury cookies and things when you write in advance of production. It was very nice thing to do. By the time Jim Mickle and I were doing the final mixes in New York a couple of weeks ago, we were able to look at each other and say ‘I can’t believe that worked, that was kind of amazing.’ We didn’t know if everything would work, heck, usually you can’t be sure anything will work, but if you plant carefully, some things will grow.’ It’s hard to talk about these things without giving spoilers, but I’m very happy with how the mystery played out.
You mentioned that you’re waiting on news for season 3, but do you have a sense of when you could find out? I don’t know specifically for SundanceTV when and how they like to make their decisions.
One of the challenges for writer-producers in doing things with companies is that I can’t control them and how they do their business. That’s very frustrating sometimes. I’m such a cheerleader for the show and I love working on it. I think it’s worthy of being picked up and staying on for another three or four years or longer. I’ve been advocating for a pickup from the moment we wrapped production.
The way they normally do it at SundanceTV and AMC is that they put up all six episodes and then gather their data and look at the ratings and whatever else goes into it and then they make their decision. I’ve been asking them to renew the show earlier than normal so we can get started earlier and I can lock in my key department heads, the family concept I discussed earlier. There are a number of really talented creative people who love the show and want to come back — the earlier they know, the better they can plan their lives.
I’m kind of hoping that on or around the beginning of April, we would hear something. But that’s just in my head. All I can do is go by what they typically do, which means that we probably won’t hear until late May. It’s a long time to wait in my mind.
So do you already have ideas as to what stories you’re going to tell next rolling around in your head?
Well, no (laughs). I think we’re going to do the third book which is The Two-Bear Mambo. I read it once, but it was a long time ago before there was even a show. I don’t remember the book very well so I have to read it again. Then, sit down with the writers and talk about what we’re going to do. I don’t know the episode order, whether it’ll be six or longer. We’ll see.
The writing-room methods remain the same. We spend the first three or four weeks figuring out the big-picture story, what the pace of the story is. What I like about this show is that it’s a mystery series. Jim Mickle described last season as a treasure hunt and this season was a full-on mystery. Next season, we don’t know what it will be, but one thing I do know is there’ll be a strong mystery element to it.
This season, I think we’ve created some characters that we’d like to bring into season 3 so we’re not starting over every season. We’ll introduce a bevy of new characters next season and feature some people we met this year.
On a different note in closing, I’m sure you heard the news that your old friend Anson [Mount] from Hell on Wheels is going to be doing the new Marvel’s The Inhumans show. When you see news like that and it’s someone you worked with for so long, is it exciting and gratifying?
He and I are close friends, and one of the pleasures of living in New York was that I got to see him a lot. We keep up with each other, and I was aware of this opportunity that he had. I’m thrilled for him — that company [Marvel], that kind of show could be amazing. The character of [Black Bolt] is really challenging and I know Anson’s intrigued with playing him. I can’t think of anyone better suited to play it than him.
You can view the latest trailer for the new season of Hap and Leonard below if you haven’t seen it already. Thanks to John Wirth for his time and for being yet again so candid! We will be back on Wednesday with the first review of the season, and there may be another interview coming your way before then. Stay tuned… (Photo: AMC.)
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