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Hell on Wheels – Tony & Joe Gayton on their hit Western tv series

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Hell on Wheels - Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton
Creators/writers/executive producers Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton speak at the TCA Panel during the 2011 Summer TCA Tour at the Beverly Hilton on July 28, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California © 2011 AMC

AMC has given a greenlight for a full season for their new western Hell on Wheels. Written and produced by Joe and Tony Gayton (Faster, Uncommon Valor, Salton Sea, Bulletproof), the series centers on former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), who sets out to exact revenge on the Union soldiers who killed his wife. His journey takes him to Hell on Wheels, a dangerous, lawless melting pot of a town that travels with the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

What was the genesis of the show? Did you know that AMC was looking for a western and try to come up with something?

Hell on Wheels - Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton
Episode 1.05 "Bread and Circuses" - Rev Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) and Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) © 2011 AMC

Joe: We had a blind deal at Endemol to write a script, and we came up with this really crazy idea, it had nothing to do with a Western, and pitched it at AMC, and nobody really got it. I don’t think we actually got it either!

I guess they liked us and said, ‘Bring us back something else.’ And Jeremy Gold at Endemol called us one day and said, ‘What would you guys think about a Western?’ It made sense to AMC because Westerns are a staple for them, and Broken Trail was such a big hit for them. I’ve always wanted to do a Western.

We’ve done a lot of work in features, but we’ve never even come close to getting a chance to write a Western. I remembered seeing this documentary about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, and it was filed away in the back of my head. And we started talking about it and thought it would be a great idea for a TV show.

Tony: We keep saying, ‘Can you believe this? We are getting to make a Western.’ It doesn’t get any better than that.

Following up on that, what is something you can do in the Western genre on television with a long?running series that you can’t do in a feature?

Hell on Wheels - Tony Gayton, Joe Gayton, John Shiban, Anson Mount, Common, Colm Meaney and Dominique McElligott
Creators/writers/executive producers Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton, executive producer John Shiban and actors Anson Mount, Common, Colm Meaney and Dominique McElligott speak during AMC's "Hell on Wheels" TCA Panel during the 2011 Summer TCA Tour at the Beverly Hilton on July 28, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California © 2011 AMC

Tony: I think the advantage to doing it on television, especially at a place like AMC, is that a lot of times Westerns are very iconic.

There’s the black hat and the white hat, the good guy and the bad guy. Our characters are complex, jumbled. They’ve all got good in them. They’ve all got a lot of bad in them.

Anson’s character, Cullen, is driven first by revenge, but he’s also an ex?slave owner. So the complexity of characters is what we can do on television that we wouldn’t be able to do if it was just an hour-and-a-half, two-hour feature.

Can you talk about using the building the railroad as the backdrop for this?

Tony: The genesis of the railroad started in the East. It was Abraham Lincoln’s idea, and we’ve likened it to JFK, saying, ‘We are going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.’ And it was very similar. So it just seemed a good starting point.

The Central Pacific will be a hint in the show. We will know that they are out there building, because we did still want to get a sense that this was a race, which it really was.

This is very reminiscent of the series Deadwood.

Hell on Wheels, 1.05 - A red indian
Episode 1.05 "Bread and Circuses" - A red indian © 2011 AMC

Tony: I think that we wanted to find our own way and separate ourselves from Deadwood.  We’ve called this an ‘Eastern’ as opposed to a ‘Western’ because it really was about dragging this almost urban ghetto across the prairie and industrializing this country.

If there are favorable comparisons to Deadwood, we’ll take them. That’s terrific. I’d love that. But we really wanted this to be original and different and a different  look and feel than any Western you’ve seen before.

Hopefully, we are doing that.

Can you define a little bit the different look and feel that you were going for?

Tony: Yeah. I think in terms of the look we have the iconic Western images, the panoramas, the great wide shots. But then, when we are down in our city with the train and our steam?driven saw mill and all of the prostitutes and the workers, it’s that world, but we never lose sight of the fact that that great Western vista is always out there.

We think that’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Joe: Right. And I think the other really big difference is the language in Deadwood, it was very beautiful, but it was very stylized. I think the dialogue in this is much more naturalistic, and I think one of the really fun challenges of this show is that we are servicing so many different accents.

We’ve got a guy from the South. We’ve got Irish laborers out there. We’ve got Norwegians and Germans you’ll see as the show develops. It really is like ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ in the West.

Another AMC series, Mad Men, can exist in the period and not have to be as plot driven. You introduced a lot of plot in the pilot. Is your idea moving forward with this to continue very plot driven stories, like with Cullen Bohannon’s quest for the guy who killed his wife, or take some more time as some of the other AMC shows do in their period pieces?

Hell on Wheels, 1.07 - The railroad train
Episode 1.07 "Revelations" - The railroad train © 2011 AMC

Joe: That’s certainly going to drive him in the show, but we didn’t want this to become The Fugitive, him looking for the one?armed man all the way through. And we certainly have a lot of characters to service in this. It’s not just Cullen. I’d say that doesn’t drive every plot, but every plot is pretty packed in this show, especially servicing four major characters.

Tony: And I think we’ve always approached everything first and foremost from a character standpoint, even if it is a plot driven episode or there’s an action sequence. We always try and find what the character moments are in those kinds of [scenes], and it’s always character first for us.

Hell on Wheels Episode 1.05 “Bread and Circuses” airs on Sunday December 4, 2011