Hap and Leonard interview: EP John Wirth on season 3 story, cultural relevance

John WirthOn Wednesday, March 7 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, SundanceTV will officially premiere Hap and Leonard season 3. Subtitled The Two-Bear Mambo, the new season is going to touch on another adventure for our heroes Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael K. Williams) as they take on more challenges both to themselves and the world they know. They are going to experience first-hand some of the horrors of the Klan in visiting a place known for its white supremacy. The show will retain the soul that it had with its first two seasons, but in the shadow of Charlottesville and the state of the country it may be fair to say that Hap and Leonard, despite being set decades ago, is more current than ever.

In previewing the latest batch of six episodes we were pleased to speak with the man orchestrating much of the story behind the scenes in executive producer John Wirth. In the interview below, Wirth tells CarterMatt about keeping the onus on Hap and Leonard’s friendship while also preparing this surprisingly-relevant story and focusing on entertainment even in the midst of taking on such a significant issue.

CarterMatt – There were some changes between seasons 1 and 2, when you first came on board. Is there a lot of continuity this time around between seasons 2 and 3?

John Wirth – I think there’s definitely a continuity of tone between seasons 2 and 3. Whenever you add a new writer who is involved heavily in the development of all the scripts, there is going to be a shift in tone, which obviously happened between seasons 1 and 2 when I came onto the show. I tried hard not to make too many shifts in tone or style between the first 2 seasons, and people’s reaction to how the show had changed surprised even me.

As you know, every season is based on a different one of Joe R. Lansdale’s novels, so there’s always a shift in story. Many if not most of the characters are new and the world is new. I really liked all of the characters we introduced last year, Hanson and Charlie and Officer Peg at the police station. This year we developed some stories for those characters because they’re fun, and it gives us a place to go when we need a break from the Hap and Leonard point of view.

So, those characters are back this season, and once our guys get to Grovetown we meet a bunch of new characters there. We have Corbin Bernsen this year playing Chief Cantuck, we’ve got Pat Healy playing a guy named Truman Brown, and we have Laura Allen playing Officer Reynolds, a racist cop. Then, we’ve got Louis Gossett, Jr. who plays a cook in the diner, but turns out to be more than he seems as the story goes on. He’s amazing, by the way, and what an honor it was to write words for him to say on camera. There’s a whole group of people in this new setting — like last year when we had MeMaw and the Reverend, TJ and their whole crew. We have the same thing going this year. New town. New story. New folks.

One of the things that I was so impressed about in season 2 was the establishment of the place and the community. I grew up probably only a few hours from where this show is set and I do feel like there are many aspects of it that feel real. How do you build on that moving into season 3?

I think one of the things the show has going for it is a real strong sense of place. I attribute that almost entirely to the sense of place Lansdale has created and continues to develop in his novels. Leonard’s house, which he inherited from his uncle, is instantly recognizable. He’s got the crackhouse next door and at [the start of the season] you are going to see an interaction between Leonard and the guys who live there — an ongoing trope from the books. That helps to establish some continuity between seasons. Then you’ve got the guys over at the police station who all know Hap and Leonard — they’re not family per se, but they are a family of characters.

This year we also get to see Hap’s house. The location we found is really stunning. It’s just a little ramshackle affair out in the country south of Atlanta, but quite photogenic. I’ve never been to Nacogdoches or any of the places where this story is set, but I understand it’s very woody and very green.  I always think of Texas as brown and dry. Joe Lansdale talks about this place called The Thicket in his stories. The Thicket is a real place. A dense forest in East Texas. I think we were able to find places where we shot the show, in and around Atlanta, that were evocative of the places Joe describes in his stories.

The second season ended with a mention of the Klan and with the image of the noose. How are you planning to implement that into the story?

We knew we were going to do The Two-Bear Mambo last year. It’s the third book in the Hap and Leonard series and we’re going book to book to this point. [Executive producer] Jim Mickle and I were talking about the story of season 3 last spring, having our multiple preliminary conversations before starting up the writers room. I remember talking about how to make the Klan relevant in 2018. It seemed like a tired story to me, as ridiculous as that sounds now. I wasn’t sure anybody would care. Then, we started working on the story and all of the events of the summer happened with Charlottesville and Trump’s reaction to that, the controversy. The world of white supremacy was alive and well, it seemed.

We went in deep with it and as a writer, I felt really strongly that this was a chance to say something about what’s going on in the country right now, couched by our story which takes place in 1989 in East Texas. Sadly, the story turns out to be as relevant now as it was when Lansdale wrote it 25 years ago. I felt we had a chance to tell a story this season that, while not aping what’s going on in the country right now, per se, could at least offer some insight into the Klan and white supremacy. We have characters on both sides articulating their positions. Our bias, of course, is toward Hap and Leonard. They are pushing up against the evil of the Klan and white supremacists. And as always, we try to just tell our story. Without commenting on it. Just let it play. The Klan in our show does have a chance to tell Hap and Leonard what they stand for. It’ll be interesting to see what our audience thinks about it.

I don’t know how much you or the writers specifically tried to emphasize this within your leads as a white man and a black man engaged in this deep friendship. Is there a specific message you are trying to convey with them? Or, do you hope that message comes about organically?

I think we talked a little bit about this last year. One of the things that makes this series stand apart, and once again it goes back to the novels and the characters Lansdale has created, is the relationship between Hap and Leonard. Whatever is going on with them story-wise, and whatever they’re involved with, the heart center of this series is Hap and Leonard and their friendship. It was important to me to continue to develop that relationship on the TV show and deepen it this season. Take it further than last year and tell a story that is revelatory in terms of who these guys are to each other.

There are a couple of scenes this season that just killed me. Michael and James are wonderful actors and they’ve figured out these characters. They also have a relationship that is deep and meaningful off-camera. I was blown away by the work they were doing, how they expressed the friendship between Hap and Leonard. It’s something we talk about a lot in the writers room, and with Michael and James.

I think you’ll come away from these six episodes really feeling something about these two men. That they are not traditional TV heroes. They are not like many men who are depicted on TV. They’re capable of having a deep and meaningful relationship despite all of their obvious differences. There are a lot of things that should get in the way of them being friends, but somehow, nothing does. I find it moving. And meaningful.

Is Florida going to be a part of the season?

Yes, Florida is going to be a part of the season. Anyone who has read the novel knows what the story is, but I think I can say this without spoiling anything. The story this year is that Florida goes to Grovetown, a Klan town, in order to do some work for a client. When she doesn’t come home, Hap and Leonard go looking for her.

In the world of Hap and Leonard the TV show, we have a contract with Tiffany Mack, who plays Florida. Between the end of last season and this season she got a lot of job offers which I had to put the kibosh on because the producers of those shows were insisting on having her in first position, which for Hap and Leonard, meant we would have to work around their schedule should any conflicts arise. Because we hired her for our show first, we naturally have her in first position. I didn’t want to give that up. Consequently, she had to pass up a number of juicy job offers. And was not particularly happy about it because she had read The Two-Bear Mambo and knew what her role was in the story. She called me and we talked about it and I immediately went into the writers room said, ‘Guys, Tiffany Mack is going to get in her car, drive over here and kill me if we don’t create a story for her this season where she appears on camera.’

And because we needed to, we were able to figure out a way to keep Florida alive in a story where she is a missing person. And we did it by telling the story out of time. This allowed us to spend on camera time with her, and also makes it intriguing, I hope, for the audience, who will need to track several timelines — hers, and Hap and Leonard’s. Honestly, most television stories are linear —  A to Z; this story kind of starts at G and jumps back to C and then jumps forward to T and then ends up back at A and flows forward to the end. It sounds complicated, but there are enough visual cues to get the audience through. I hope.

Let’s talk more about the scheduling because I know that has to be a challenge. The six-episode model is great and it gives the cast the opportunity to do other things — I know James did Altered Carbon and Michael’s got a lot of different projects. How difficult is it for you to get everyone on the same page? Was that a challenge?

Yeah. It’s tough. What complicates our lives is the fact that our show has to go through this annual decision-making process every spring to find out if we’re going to stay on the air. It’s frustrating for us because everyone at the network loves the show and the stories we’re telling. And they are very supportive and aggressive in their marketing efforts to reach our audience and to grow our audience. It’s really a very gratifying working relationship we have. But until they know if they’re going to continue with the show, we’re all at loose ends a bit, and as I said, that’s frustrating. It’s hard to plan your working life when you don’t know for sure whether you’re going to be available or not. The fact is, there are many pressures in this business right now that come to bear on these decisions. I think there may have been a time when making television shows was a little bit like printing money. That’s not the case anymore.  For me, it’s nine months of work to make the six episodes of Hap and Leonard. Almost, not entirely, but almost impossible to do anything else.

You referenced earlier that you’ve followed along the order of the books ‘to this point.’ Are you thinking about changing that?

There are a couple of things that come to bear on that decision. One is the creative — the next book in the series is called Bad Chili, and there are some things in the story that are worth diving into; but, there are also things that feel repetitive of what we’ve already done. I’d like to change it up. I sense now that we’re driving toward the end of the series, since we’re 3 seasons in, so we may try to jump ahead. Lansdale’s done a nice job in the later books of moving the story forward. It would be nice to delve into that material as we look forward to winding down the TV show.

Lansdale and I talk about how the TV show and the books are two separate things, even though the TV show would not exist had he not written the books. The books and the TV show live in different worlds and there are different rhythms to both. He is very open to us pulling elements from other books. And we try to bring something fresh to the TV show that isn’t in the books so the audience gets a little bit of a different feeling. I’ll give you an example — this season we have a character in the show named Reynolds. She’s a cop in Grovetown, and is featured prominently in the story. In the book, Reynolds is a guy. And he’s very similar to a character we created last season on the TV show named Sneed, a uniform cop in LaBorde. We really like Evan Gamble, the actor who plays Sneed, and we like the character. We wanted to pull him into season 3 but Sneed and Reynolds were essentially the same character; we wondered why we needed Reynolds then, if we already had Sneed, but the Reynolds character is important to the plot of The Two-Bear Mambo and we couldn’t figure out how to have Sneed play that role either

So, we made the decision to make the Reynolds character a female, and that allowed us to create a dynamic between Sneed and Reynolds as partners. And then also presented some opportunities to do something between Hap and Reynolds. None of this is in the novel. It’s just one of the ways stories migrate in adaptation. Joe Lansdale is always very supportive about these deviations we make from his books. Without his support, the sledding would definitely be tougher.

As we start to wrap up I want to touch on larger themes. Hap and Leonard is entertainment and it’s great entertainment, but is there a takeaway that you are hoping viewers have from this season?

Yeah. We’re telling a story about the Klan and I want viewers to look at the story and have a chance to ruminate on what the Klan represents, both in history and in current events. I want our audience to be able to think about what this means to the country today. To think about the impact the Klan has on society — especially in a small town where they can exercise their power by sowing fear. In my opinion, the Klan’s philosophy is not only ugly, it’s dangerous. I really welcomed the chance this season to be able to say something about this right now, given that the Klan, white supremacy, is rearing its head again. I can honestly say I was taken aback by the rise of white supremacists since Trump got in. I was surprised to learn there are many more people in our country than I imagined who feel this hatred toward others. I just didn’t think these feelings were as prevalent as they are. But the bottom line is, we’re an entertainment show. We aren’t trying to teach anyone anything. We’re entertainers. But having a chance to say something on this subject felt good. And responsible.

Check out the latest Hap and Leonard trailer

If you haven’t seen it, we’ve got that for you below! A special thanks to John Wirth as always for his time and be sure to like CarterMatt on Facebook for more news regarding Hap and Leonard. (Photo: SundanceTV.)


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