What: Gideon Grenville, New York Times reporter, has come west to Texas in search of the story behind the Native Americans known as the “Face-Stealers.”
Who: Gideon Grenville, a new style investigative journalist using the modern psychology of the day to profile criminals and the root of their crimes, has convinced his editors at the “Times” to send him to Texas in search of the story behind vicious crimes being committed against settlers by a band of Indians known as the “Face Stealers” because of the way they execute their victims.
Also on the trail are the Texas Rangers led by Captain Parker and his lieutenant, Atchison. When the latest killings turn up in Mesa Grande, Sheriff Thompson demands that Parker deputize Jeff Morgan, a retired Ranger, a legend and a man who inspires envy and jealousy in Parker.
Morgan retired after tracking and killing the renegade band of Indians known as King Crow, responsible for killing and mutilating Morgan’s wife and son when he was away from the ranch buying supplies. His daughter escaped death, but, shunted from foster home to foster home while her father hunted King Crow, she grew up alone without family.
Morgan and his associate, Chisholm, a Tonkawa Indian scout, are disinclined to join Parker’s mission. Even when shown a photo of the severely mutilated faces and bodies of the latest victims, Morgan remains difficult to convince.
Morgan looks at he photo, then hands it back.
Morgan: Only Comanches left are in the reservations. Look there.
Parker: We’re planning on it. Hoping you’ll throw in with us.
Morgan: You want to beat up some squaws and young kids, you can do that without me.
Atchison: Texas ain’t seen horrors like this since King Crow.
Morgan: I did my part. I’m done now.
Parker: (quietly) These killers… lance women to the ground so they can outrage ‘em easier.
This gets his attention.
Morgan: (thrown) Through both shoulders?
Morgan: (disbelief) I searched out King Crow and his braves – Yellow Hair, Quahadi. I put them all in the ground. These can’t be the ones killed my family.
Parker: Maybe not…
But maybe so.
Morgan: Show me the girl who got lanced.
The seeds of doubt planted that it might be a surviving member of the band, Morgan agrees to join the hunt.
While Morgan is out on the plains producing the first clues, discovering that there is no “band,” but only a solitary brave terrorizing the countryside, Grenville has arrived in Mesa Grande by stage coach. Outfitted in Eastern finery, topped with a bowler hat, Grenville is easy pickings for a miniature con artist, 13 year old James Guenther, who, before their first encounter is over, lifts Grenville’s wallet and disappears.
Grenville looks around, but there’s no sign of the boy.
Grenville: (to himself) Little bastard.
EXT. Back Alley – Later
Grenville, sweaty from running, sees James sitting at the end of the alleyway, eating a hunk of cheese.
James looks up, doesn’t seem to recognize Grenville until he’s standing right above him. He darts up, tries to kick Grenville in the balls. Grenville blocks him, grabs his arm, reaches into his pockets and retrieves the billfold. He counts the money.
Grenville: Three dollars are missing, boy.
James: I bought us dinner. You being tardy, I had to commence without you.
Grenville: What’s your name?
James: Your sister’s ass.
Grenville: Peculiar name. Try again.
James: George Washington. (Grenville twists his ear) Ow! James Madison. (another twist) Quit it! James Madison Guenther, I ain’t playing.
Grenville: where are your parents, James?
James: Buy a shovel and dig straight down to the pits of hell, they’re fat ugly folk who look like me.
Grenville: Where do you live?
James: Mason Street boarding house, I do odd jobs there.
Holding the boy by his arm, Grenville examines the lunch: a hunk of cheese, bread, a bottle of patent medicine.
Grenville: “Dr. Ruseckas’ Vegetine.” You spent my money on this?
James: It’s a preventative against the gout and dropsy.
Grenville takes a sip from the bottle then spits it out.
Grenville: Grain alcohol and laudanum. You’ll wind up dead or an addict.
Grenville tosses the bottle to the ground. It smashes.
Grenville: You’ll thank me one day.
James: That’s one bottle of Dr. Ruseckas’ Vegetine you’re owing me.
Grenville walks away.
Curious by nature and profession, Grenville soon makes the acquaintance of a very skeptical and unreceptive Morgan, is attacked by the town toughs, and is rescued by Sabrina McGinley, handy with a gun, quick with a response and… the surviving, estranged, daughter of Jefferson Morgan.
Parker, looking for a chance at fame and immortality, welcomes Grenville, and his new sidekick, young James, into his camp; Morgan is less welcoming. Grenville, however, may have an interesting new approach to the hunt.
Int. Parker’s Tent – Night
Parker, Grenville and an annoyed Morgan share some coffee. Grenville’s leather notebook and pen are out.
Parker: “Psycho-criminology”? You’re a psychic?
Grenville: Psychology is what I know a bit of. Nothing to do with mediums or the astral planes. I studied at Harvard.
Morgan snorts. Parker ignores him.
Parker: How’s this psycho-criminology work?
Grenville: A true mankiller’s crimes distort his psychology and vice versa.
Parker: The crime reveals the man?
Grenville: Exactly. Start with what’s unique here. How they kill –
Parker: Ripping off faces.
Grenville: Exactly. Why?
Morgan: ‘Cause the faces are on white people.
Grenville: Then why don’t all the Comanches kill in this fashion? Why just these three?
Morgan: this is useless.
Grenville: these theories have been tested in the real world –
Morgan: We’re in Texas. That’s a long way from the real world. (he rises) And all your theories couldn’t even tell you we’re hunting one man, not three.
Morgan walks out of the tent. Grenville, surprised, looks to Parker, who nods. Parker chuckles.
Parker: You keep it up, Mr. Grenville.
And between Morgan, Chisholm, Grenville and Sabrina McGinley, the mystery will be solved and Western justice served; but not before the tale takes unexpected physically and psychologically horrific twists and turns.
No Meaner Place: Blake has successfully combined several genres – the Western (first and foremost), the psychological thriller and horror – to explore a time of history – that post Civil War period that still simmered with ill will and distrust – that straddled the beginning of the modern era toward the end of the West and Native American culture. This is the West of John Ford and John Wayne combined with the violence of Sam Peckinpaw and the psychological underpinnings and irony of the Coen Brothers.
The Western, like jazz, is a purely American art form. Although all but abandoned, it has, over and over again, demonstrated its timelessness, as proven most recently by both the traditional - “True Grit,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “3:10 to Yuma;” and contemporary – “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Brokeback Mountain.”
Why it’s so difficult to get funding for a Western completely baffles me, as a betting man has only to look at the box office track records of the genre to realize that it’s as close to a sure thing as one can get. We are still a young country in love with our unique heritage – a romantic heritage, despite the violence, that has attracted the countless immigrants that have populated and built this country. No serious study of film is complete without a thorough grounding in the Western – whether native born from the lens of John Ford, or the foreign version, as exemplified by Sergio Leone or Akira Kurosawa (for what are Samurais but the hired guns of the Far East?).
It is sincerely hoped that “The Staked Plains” finds its champions and Blake’s vision makes it to a big screen one of these days soon.
Life Lessons for Writers: It’s easier to get a writer to be a producer, than a producer to be a writer. With apologies to John Ford who said: “It’s easier to get an actor to be a cowboy than to get a cowboy to be an actor.”
Neely: Peter, you know I’ve always been a fan of your work. I still think you were one of the best writers I worked with on a David Kelley show. Your stories for “The Practice” were inventive and the writing was elegant. I’ve followed your work ever since.
I was blown away by this script. Of course the writing is as inventive and elegant as ever, but A WESTERN??? It’s a genre I would never have thought was in you. How did it come about?
Peter: I actually wrote the first draft of this script in 2003. I had always liked westerns – I loved the Anthony Mann movies, like “Bend of the River” and…
Neely: I just saw one with Jimmy Stewart…
Peter: …there’s that great one where he had to kill his brother – “Winchester ‘73” – so great, but I think “Bend of the River” is the best, truly epic. Oh, and “The Searchers” is one of my favorite movies…
Neely: It seems to be everybody’s favorite.
Peter: Right, right, exactly. And Lonesome Dove was one of my favorite novels. I had just always loved westerns.
I was having lunch with a friend of mine from high school, David Benioff, who had just made it really big as a screenwriter. He sold the pitch to “Troy” and he also made a giant spec sale for a movie called “Stay;” they’re both amazing scripts. I was taking him out to congratulate him and we started talking about this new script that had sold about a serial killer who strikes during tornadoes. We were joking about the “X meets Y” construction of movies, like, I dunno, “Towering Inferno” meets “Star Wars.” I think I said, sort of as a joke, “Someone should do a western serial killer movie” (‘cause I always liked serial killer movies too). And David thought it was a good idea and said, “Why don’t you write it and I’ll produce it?” David is a brilliant writer and this was the first movie I ever wrote, so I leapt at the chance…
Neely: Really!? This was the first feature you wrote?
Peter: Yeah, yeah. This was my first feature.
It’s actually why I left “The Practice.” The script went out and it didn’t sell, but it got me a blind script deal at Universal and then, unbelievably, Fox offered me “Die Hard 4,” all within a week. So it just seemed as if I needed to quit my TV job and do that. The “Die Hard 4” thing ended up falling apart, but I wound up getting another movie assignment eventually. So that’s how it all came about.
Neely: The characters are well developed, but obliquely. It’s tough to figure out their motivations or influences, other than revenge – and I mean that as a high compliment.
Peter: Huh. Not sure how to answer that. Obviously I like to think it’s subtle. But at the time I was writing this, and the more and more I write for TV, I’ve discovered that you want to be subtle but you don’t want to be oblique – you want to be clear about motivations. So… if it works for you, great; but it wasn’t really what I was aiming for.
Neely: Actually it works very well for me because I think the murkier and muddier the motivations, like symbolism in writing, the more you can ascribe your own (the viewer’s or the reader’s) sensibilities to it.
Peter: Okay. I would agree that I did try to make it murky in the sense of … Let me go back a bit for some explanation. This script, for people who haven’t read it (which is everyone in the world), it’s about a New York Times reporter slash proto-criminologist in the 1870s who teams up with a Texas Ranger to investigate a series of what are essentially serial killings in West Texas. So for the New York Times reporter, I made his motivations murky… At the start he was motivated both by a sense of justice, I suppose, but also, to a large extent, just a love of succeeding, getting the story…
Neely: …of the chase.
Peter: Of the chase. I guess I gave him those mixed motivations because that’s his arc in the movie – by the end he’s just motivated by justice.
Neely: I was hoping you’ll be surprised by this (although I don’t know why) but the western is actually my favorite genre.
Peter: That’s cool. I wish more people liked them… then this movie could get made, or more westerns could get made.
Neely: You know, I really think we’re on the cusp! (both laugh) There’s always some kind of western on my DVR. Right now I’m waiting to record “The Gunfighter” with Gregory Peck (directed by Henry King and written by William Bowers); and if you haven’t seen that one, you have to see it.
Peter: Is that a great one? I actually haven’t seen it.
Neely: It’s spectacular. Peck, in his only successful role as a bad guy, plays a morally reprehensible character (a hired gun) who’s trying to do the right thing at the end of his life.
Peter: That’s always a great theme.
Neely: William Bowers’ screenplay is brilliant, melancholic, sardonic and ironic. Interestingly he turned the exact same story on its ear when he wrote and directed the James Garner classic western comedy, “Support Your Local Sheriff.”
Peter: These Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart westerns had the same dynamic. You always think of Jimmy Stewart as this sweet guy, although in “Vertigo” he…
Neely: …had an edge.
Peter: Right, totally. And in a couple of these Anthony Mann westerns, he’s actually a fully bad guy who redeems himself by the end of the movie. But he starts off as a killer. And it’s just really funny to see Jimmy Stewart play that – it’s not what you expect.
Neely: You really really have to see “The Gunfighter.” It’s one of the truly great westerns. I remember lending it to Steve Harris, one of the stars of “The Practice,” because he liked westerns, and told him he had to see it. I didn’t hear anything, and didn’t hear anything until one day he came in to work and pulled me aside and said, “I’m really mad at you. I started watching that movie last night at 10:00 and I couldn’t stop watching it; and I had an early call, so it’s all your fault if something goes wrong today.” I love that movie and I watch it whenever it comes on. It is brilliant. It’s a Fox movie from 1950.
You mentioned that you read Lonesome Dove (by Larry McMurtry). Have you read any of the Elmore Leonard or Zane Grey?
Peter: I never read Zane Grey; I wanted to read Riders of the Purple Sage…
Neely: It’s really evil…
Peter: That’s like the classic western and I did want to read it just to understand what it was about. And I’ve never read the Elmore Leonard western novels, but I did see “3:10 from Yuma” which is based on his short story.
Neely: It is, but you have to read the short story to see how brilliant the adaptation and expansion is. And, by the way, the original movie (the Russell Crowe version is a remake) is equally good. It stars Glenn Ford and Van Heflin (playing counterintuitive roles). I expected to hate it because I can’t tolerate Glenn Ford, but it was fantastic.
Peter: I make a reference to that film in my script. I have the stagecoach leave at 3:10 at the end.
Neely: (laughing) I did catch that.
Peter: (laughing) It’s funny because David Benioff was like “Really? Were they that specific back then?” I was like, “Well, actually, I don’t know, it’s just a reference to this movie.”
I love, love, love Elmore Leonard and his ten instructions for good writing. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neely: I haven’t read that.
Peter: It’s basically like a short magazine article, but he also published it as a book. It’s ten aphorisms about good writing and they’re brilliant. Like: “leave out the part readers tend to skip.” The only one I disagree with is that he says you should never use the word “suddenly.” (Neely laughs) Actually, I’m on a writers’ bulletin board and there was a debate about this the other day – someone said that they always used “abruptly” instead. But anyway, I think “suddenly” works fine. Otherwise everything he says was right.
Neely: His western literature is…
Peter: Is it great?
Neely: It’s great. He wrote “Hombre.” It was made into a Paul Newman movie.
Peter: I never saw that.
Neely: His writing dates back to the early fifties, when he was primarily doing western literature. Then sometime around the early 60s he switched, but I don’t think he ever abandoned it. The western locale figures prominently in his short stories – like “The Tonto Woman.” And “Fire in the Hole,” the basis for “Justified,” is a modern western even if it’s set in Kentucky.
Peter: So’s Get Shorty actually. I think. It’s been years since I read it. But I think Leonard makes references to westerns throughout that work, like the death of the bad guy was a reference to the shootout in the OK Corral or something. Pronto also has a great shootout scene. I read a bunch of Elmore Leonard and liked Pronto the most, maybe after Get Shorty. I think Pronto’s his most under-appreciated book and it has some really great, iconic moments.
Neely: I’ll have to read it because the guy is so fantastic.
What is it about retribution that plays best in westerns?
Peter: Retribution exists only before the state has a monopoly on the use of force. Pre-modern societies were incredibly violent. You think that we’re getting more violent today because you read so much about death, but we’re actually getting less and less violent every year. Steven Pinker, a brilliant psychologist at Harvard, is coming out with a book about it. He has this great lecture you can see on the TED conference site about this. But pre-modern societies were incredibly violent. Every century in America, every decade, every year in America gets less violent because now (generally speaking) you don’t get to go out and kill the guy who killed your daughter or son and you don’t get into these cycles of vendettas.
Neely: Then Mexico is the new Wild West because of the drug cartels and the way that they…
Peter: …Sure. Anywhere that is lawless and anarchic, it’s easier to write a thriller set there. In the 70s when crime rates were incredibly high, they came out with a bunch of movies that were retribution-based because people in America really had the feeling that the criminal justice system was failing them. Stuff like “Death Wish” and the Michael Douglas movie, “The Star Chamber.” Did you ever see that one?
Neely: No, I never saw that one.
Peter: These were all vigilante movies.
Neely: Charles Bronson remade his career that way.
Peter: Exactly. But that’s why it works so well in the western setting. The farther away from civilization you get, the more you do have to take justice into your own hands, which makes for a really good story and is one of the reasons I really love westerns. You have these giant, almost Greek tragedy-type plots that you can’t set in modern society because today you have cops and the FBI enforcing the law and enacting retribution or justice.
Neely: Which character is closest to your heart?
Peter: (laughing). Oh come on. You mean between the tough murderous Texas Ranger and the wimpy Ivy League-educated writer (both laugh)??
Neely: I’d have said handsome, intelligent writer, but then I don’t want to get into self esteem issues. And we’ll get to the Ivy League part later.
Now what was this really about?
Peter: You mean the script?
Neely: What were the underpinnings?
Peter: More than what was on the page? Hmm… Well, I wrote it in 2003, a couple of years after the 9/11 attacks. The Iraq War was starting and like many other American liberals, I was saying, “Why are we attacking a country that didn’t actually attack us?” So there are very clear references to terrorism in this script. Parker, the antagonist Texas Ranger, is planning to lead a vigilante mob to destroy an already destroyed Indian reservation because he thinks they’re responsible for these killings.
Neely: Which of course they weren’t.
Peter: Which they weren’t. Anyway, the parallels are so obvious that it’s kind of silly to even talk about it. I was just annoyed at that point by the idea of attacking the wrong people as revenge for a terrorist incident. But in any case, that was only sort of a subtext. It’s not what the script is about.
Neely: I already asked you about Western literature (it can be quite subversive – like Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage) but how about Western film influences (besides Anthony Mann), both on this and on you?
Peter: In terms of film or literature, the reason I set it in West Texas was because of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and the film “The Searchers” - maybe my favorite novel and maybe my favorite movie. Both took place in the same geographical area called the Staked Plains, which is this weird lawless prairie in Texas. It seemed to fit very well because it was this wide expanse of just flat grassland where the Comanches – who despite the horrors we perpetrated on them were not a nice group of people – they’d go on raiding parties, kill settlers and escape again because they were only ones who knew where the watering holes were. So it seemed like a very good place to set the story.
In terms of the literary influences, it was the Anthony Mann films, McMurtry, and “The Searchers.” But once I knew where I wanted to set it, I did just an enormous amount of research. I read every memoir I could find about the Texas Rangers or children captured by the Comanches or the Apaches. There’s a book called Indian Depredations in Texas by Wilbarger and I actually reference it in my script. It’s just one dry recitation after another of Indian raids that killed Texas settlers. It’s fascinating to read as a testament of what it was like to live as a Texan in those times. I did a lot of research both about Indians and about Texas Rangers.
And I wanted to do more research about criminal psychology but there really wasn’t that much that was being done in the 1870s as far as I could tell. If I recall correctly, it all started happening a little bit later, in the 1890s with the Germans or Austrians like Freud and Krafft-Ebing who wrote Psychopathia Sexualis. I think he predated Freud, but he post-dated my guy. There just wasn’t that much criminal psychology going on at that point. Which reminds me: the other great literary influence on the script was The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Have you read that?
Neely: No, I haven’t.
Peter: Oh my god, it’s such a great great novel. It’s about a serial killer operating around the turn of the century in New York City. A proto-profiler/psychologist teams up with, among others, Teddy Roosevelt, who’s the chief of police of New York at the time, to solve this grisly series of murders. It’s such a great book and they tried really hard to make it as a movie and never succeeded, probably because it would be so expensive to try to recreate turn-of-the-century New York City. But, absolutely, that was an inspiration for me; I wanted to do something like that. Everyone should read that book; it’s great.
Neely: I loved the non-fiction Devil in the White City
Peter: Oh, right. That’s supposed to be great, but I’ve never read it.
Neely: It is and sounds like a real life version. I’ll be sure to read The Alienist.
Peter: Another influence was that I had just finished reading True Grit, which is a complete masterpiece. The novel is so great. The movie is great too, but the novel is, I think, even better. It is close to Huckleberry Finn level of…
Peter: It’s a masterpiece. Everyone should read it.
Neely: Then I will.
I am not a proponent of the remake of “True Grit,” but I recently saw the original with John Wayne, directed by Henry Hathaway…
Peter: I love it! I love the original and I love the remake. I love them both. I thought the original, weirdly, although being a looser adaptation of the book, was closer in tone to the Portis novel. The book is really comic, but when you see the things on screen that this 13 year girl is describing, they come across as really really dark in a way that they don’t when you just read what she’s describing. So, for that reason, I thought the original movie, which took more liberties, had a closer comic tone to the book.
Neely: And yet, in comparing the two… I didn’t read both scripts… but in listening to the dialogue, I did not find that much difference; I really didn’t. And I thought the remake should have given credit to the original screenwriter, Marguerite Roberts because I was hearing a lot of the same dialogue…
Peter: Well sure, because the dialogue in Portis’s book is incredibly good. But I loved what the Coen Brothers did. They had a scene in there – straight from the book - with Mattie and some poor guy where she’s trying to buy her horses or sell her horses…
Neely: Oh yeah. Col. Stonehill, played by Dakin Matthews…
Peter: …it’s amazing that that worked and that they had the guts to do that in a movie, because it’s just two people arguing about how much a horse costs and it’s incredibly hysterical.
Neely: But they did that in the original also.
Neely: Yes, they did.
Peter: To that extent? Like five pages of dialogue?
Neely: I’m not sure about the five pages of dialogue, but it was a significant scene; absolutely wonderful and hilarious. In the case of the original film, Strother Martin, a legendary character actor, played Col. Stonehill, and he was soooo brilliant. I loved Dakin Matthews and his interpretation and I loved that scene; but I was shocked when I went back to watch the original and that scene was in there.
Peter: I did not remember it. That’s really funny.
Neely: For me, that scene was the highlight of the remake.
Peter: (laughing) That’s awesome.
Neely: Then of course in the original, the movie is prevented from being a masterpiece because Glen Campbell is truly the worst actor who has ever stepped on stage.
Peter: I kind of liked him and I have a soft spot for the song “Wichita Lineman.”
Neely: (laughing embarrassingly loudly) It’s okay… he can sing. There’s no question that he can sing, but I think “True Grit” put an end to any discussion of whether he could act. (Peter laughs)
As I said earlier, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the West and western stories, especially in the just post-Civil War era, which adds an additional layer of conflict.
Peter: Right, right. I don’t think I addressed the Civil War too overtly in my script because it’s just (long pause) it’s a whole other story. But the weird thing is, if you look at “True Grit” and you look at “The Searchers,” the heroes of those two works are Confederate veterans; Ethan Edwards was, as was Rooster Cogburn. It just wasn’t something I wanted to mess with because I disagree so strongly with hero-izing the Confederacy.
Neely: It does add a layer of conflict…
Peter: One of the reasons it worked so well in “The Searchers”… the reason “The Searchers” is so incredibly moving at the end is because you really think that Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne) is such a racist bastard that he’s going to kill his own niece because she was…
Peter: Exactly, in his eyes. In reality, she was kidnapped and raped and eventually became the wife of an Indian tribal chief. But in the nineteenth century way, Ethan’s blaming her for her victimization. So the moment where Ethan doesn’t kill her is incredibly moving. And it only works because you really believe he’s racist enough to do that. And I think making him a Confederate veteran helped you believe that.
Neely: Although I like that movie a lot, and everyone else finds it a touchstone of the Ford films, my very favorite of Ford’s oeuvre (and he’s done so many brilliant westerns including “My Darling Clementine”), is “Fort Apache.”
Peter: I never saw that one.
Neely: Oh my god! You have to see it if only because of the ambivalence. It’s actually a more pro-Indian point of view than anything that Ford ever made.
Neely: Henry Fonda (Lt. Col. Owen Thursday) is the villain. He’s in charge of the brigade, a West Point graduate who’s unyielding. It falls into what you talked about earlier – making war on the wrong people or for the wrong reasons. You have to see this film.
I grew up watching westerns. It was what my father wanted to watch and it was just about the only family time we had. This was the era when dads had a cup of coffee for breakfast while silently reading the paper, went off to work, came home for dinner, read the paper – there were morning and afternoon papers in those days – watched TV and went to bed (unless you did something wrong in which case you got yelled at or worse and then we watched TV).
You had cop shows, PI shows, family comedies, sketch comedies, and westerns, lots and lots of westerns.
Peter: The longest running show in TV was a western, right?
Neely: “Gunsmoke;” it was until “Law and Order.”
Peter: “Law and Order” beat it… Wow.
Neely: I’m wrong; actually they tied.
Continuing on with my litany - There was “Wanted Dead or Alive” which started Steve McQueen’s career and “Maverick” which made James Garner a major star.
Peter: I didn’t know that.
Neely: You have to see “Maverick.” It shows on the Starz cable station called Encores Westerns. Or Netflix it. It’s brilliant; but you only want the James Garner ones. Some of the Jack Kelly ones are good but all the James Garner ones are brilliant. You will see how his on-screen persona was shaped.
And then there was “Bonanza” (catch it on TVLand) and “Gunsmoke” and “Wagon Train.” Did you ever see “Wagon Train?” It starred that Ford stalwart, Ward Bond.
Peter: I’ve never seen any of the western TV shows.
Neely: Oh my god. If I can name them all, it’s only because they made such an enormous impression. There were actually Saturday morning westerns (in a galaxy far away there used to be filmed programming on Saturdays for children) with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, as well as “Annie Oakley,” “Wild Bill Hickok,” “The Cisco Kid,” and “The Lone Ranger.” This doesn’t come close to covering the programming that existed. There were even 90 minute westerns, because in the early days dramas were either 90 min. or 30 min.
Peter: 90 minutes? Wow, really?
Neely: Yes, I think “Cimarron Strip,” “The Virginian,” and even the first season of “Wagon Train” were 90 minutes. The very first 60 minute drama on TV was a western – “Cheyenne” starring Clint Walker. “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Zane Grey Theater” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” were examples of 30 min. series. “Have Gun Will Travel” was one of my favorites. It starred Richard Boone and was about a sophisticated gun-for-hire based in San Francisco. You have to see that one. It’s amazing what kind of dramatic stories could be told in a half hour. But I go on too long (as usual). Did you catch the tail end of this television trend?
Peter: I never saw any of them. I actually haven’t even seen “Deadwood.”
Neely: A lot of people liked it. As far as I’m concerned “Justified’ is the best western on TV.
Peter: I really want to see that.
Neely: Even if it takes place in Kentucky, it’s still a western… because you don’t have to be in the “west.” It’s the sensibility.
I know you have a producer attached to this project. How far have you gotten in the process? Interest? Funding?
Peter: The first draft, written in 2003, got me a couple of jobs but then it sort of disappeared. But a couple of years ago there was a young director on “House,” the TV show I write for now, named Matt Shakman, who says hi by the way…
Neely: Unbelievable. He’s a good friend. He runs a small theater called the Black Dahlia. I can’t wait to see the next play he does.
Peter: I met Matt who said his wife, who works in development, had read the script and told him he should read it. I sent it over to him and he loved it. He attached himself to it and with a producer named Paul Webster got it set up at Focus Features, where it was for about a year and a half. They weren’t going to make it, so we got the rights back from them and we’re going to try to set it up independently.
Neely: What about notes? At the beginning, when there looked like there was interest, did anybody give you notes on it?
Peter: Well, David Benioff helped develop the book from the very beginning…
Neely: You mean the script.
Peter: Yes, of course, the script, sorry. It was David’s idea to make it a two-hander between a reporter and a ranger. So his input was essential. But in terms of like studio notes? It never changed that much. We did a draft for Focus in which we tried to further explore the relationship between the Texas Ranger and his daughter; that’s the draft you read. There’s a scene or two that didn’t exist in the original. We actually just wanted to make his motivations clearer and also to make his relationship with his daughter more understandable as well. One of the stories in it is the arc of his estrangement from her turning into a reconciliation by the end. That was the biggest change we made. I’ve gotten notes over the years but nothing major.
Neely: So that would have been a character development note and it’s a good one. You really do have to understand what her issues were…
Peter: Right, right.
Neely: …since you know what his issues are. You really need to understand hers to make her a more fully integrated character.
Well, features remain alive in one form of development or another, sometimes longer than the writer. I certainly wouldn’t give up hope. I love it.
Have you ever considered turning "The Staked Plains" into a book? There has to be a Freudian reason you referred to it as a novel. It's very cinematic (you nailed the visuals), but it also paints the kind of picture that you can only fully flesh out in a book.
Peter: I have, actually. Maybe because The Alienist, which inspired it in some ways, was a novel. The benefit would be that I could explore some of the historical tangents I mention in the script -- Comanche culture, the Rangers, criminal psychology, whatever. But the downside is that I'd do that and spend another year just researching to get the details right. So it's probably not going to happen anytime soon.
Neely: Well I must say, your tastes are as diverse as your credits. I’d love to talk more about your credits in a second part to this article. To be continued!