Tag Archives: Paramount Network

Riding high

Wes Bentley and Gil Birmingham talk horse riding, family rivalries and Native Americans in Paramount Network’s recently renewed drama Yellowstone.

Place Kevin Costner into a drama about a cattle ranch dispute and set it against the backdrop of some epic Utah and Montana scenery, and on one level Yellowstone delivers what you might expect.

But scratch under the surface of Paramount Network’s latest original and this Taylor Sheridan-written show offers a multifaceted take on a part of the US that has been little-used in TV dramas of late.

The series tells the story of the Dutton family and, in particular, Costner’s John Dutton as he juggles illness and family bereavement while attempting to ensure his huge US ranch maintains its borders and deters encroachment.

Sheridan, the man behind movies including Hell or High Water and Sicario, created the show alongside John Linson, with both exec producing, while Wes Bentley, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly and Gil Birmingham are among those in front of the camera. And it’s that combination that has helped the show secure an extended 10-part second season with the first run still airing.

Gil Birmingham as Chief Thomas Rainwater

For Bentley and Birmingham, the key to the show’s success has been Sheridan and his carefully crafted script. Bentley’s Jamie Dutton might be part of the family but working for the ranch as a lawyer has distanced him from his father, while Chief Thomas Rainwater, played by Birmingham, heads up a nearby Native American reservation that borders the ranch.

Both actors say Sheridan – himself a former actor with major roles in the likes of Sons of Anarchy – is also a “hands-off” director who allows the cast to play their roles to their fullest.

“There’s sometimes a synchronisation that happens with creative people and you develop a shorthand of understanding, and he was a real hands-off kind of guy,” Birmingham says, speaking at SeriesFest in Denver in June. “He just knows who to cast for the roles he has and then you just get out of the way and let the story tell itself.”

“And you can trust that hands-off approach because he does step in when there’s something really specific that he wants you or someone else to do,” Bentley adds. “That gives you a lot of confidence.”

Given the show’s setting, there are inevitably stunning sweeps of the Montana and Utah landscapes, and Bentley says the production teams, which include Linson Entertainment and Costner’s Treehouse Films, were keen to reflect movie-sized ambitions. But it’s when they talk about the script that the duo really light up.

The Hunger Games star Wes Bentley plays Jamie Dutton

Birmingham says Sheridan is “totally open to collaboration” when interpreting the script but adds that “because his writing is so precise, you don’t really want to touch anything or change it because you’re not likely to come up with anything better.”

Birmingham’s Rainwater represents his reservation and fights for those who live on it – including one of John Dutton’s own children – but arguably in a different way to how Native Americans are normally portrayed on screen. “Initially Rainwater is almost assertive because Native Americans have had to come from a hole to get any recognition or power,” Birmingham says of his character.

“I can’t remember the last Native character in contemporary times who was given the kind of power Rainwater has, and the way he was able to do that was learning how to play the white man’s game. So he has the opportunity to retrieve and reclaim the resources beyond a casino – there are so many layers.”

Clearly this is a story with deep roots in the past – John Dutton is part of the sixth generation to farm his family’s land – but there are also numerous strands within the characters’ arcs that allow the exploration of different contemporary topics.

Birmingham notes the issues  Native American tribes face in terms of corporations taking their resources, often without assurances or permission, and says Sheridan’s script also highlights the bigger picture. An initial dispute sees cattle straying from John Dutton’s ranch onto Native land, with the ensuing issue of ownership causing a surge in hostilities involving Rainwater’s tribe.

Kevin Costner takes the lead in Yellowstone, which airs on Paramount Network

It helps to provide an opportunity to explore who’s fighting for what, Birmingham explains. “Rainwater informs [Dutton] of how small his picture is – my picture is much bigger than what he thinks we’re fighting about. I love the way Taylor structures that.”

So, it turns out, do the viewers. The show has become a breakout hit for Paramount, with its third episode becoming the second most watched cable drama of 2018, beaten only by The Walking Dead.

While part of Yellowstone’s allure is surely its picturesque setting, neither Bentley nor Birmingham spent huge amounts of time on location, though the latter did make it onto a horse.

“One of my favourite scenes was with Kevin Costner and the buffalo hunt – that was my only outdoor scene on a horse. I said I didn’t ride horses and they said, ‘OK, you’re the guy who’s gonna ride out of the scene then.’ All the people there, including my Native brothers, were all major horse people and they were just watching me. I mean, I ride horses but nothing like these guys.”

Bentley, meanwhile, was one of a number of actors taken out with real-life cowboys to give them a taste of that lifestyle, although he had previously owned a ranch and horses.

As it turned out, Jamie Dutton spends more time in suits than spurs, but Bentley was keen to get to the core of what his character was about. “We talked a lot about Jamie. I wanted to be really specific about what kind of law he went into and if he wanted to go into law, which is something we still discuss,” he says.

There is also uncertainty over Jamie’s sexuality, which Bentley argues plays into his character’s persona. “I don’t think there’s a decision on that and I think that’s great. I like not knowing as far as Wes is concerned, but also not knowing as far as Jamie is concerned. Given that Jamie has given his life to his job and his work and his family, I’m not sure if he even knows yet. That’s something I think has been really interesting.”

At its core, perhaps, the show is attempting to explore what it means to be good, something Birmingham suggests emerges through the multi-layered script penned by Sheridan.

“That’s the brilliance of Taylor’s writing, it’s so layered,” he says. “The reveals of a lot of the backstories for the characters come down the line – I saw it in Hell or High Water too – and I’m totally in a trusting place and excited about it because you don’t really know how things will be revealed.

“That’s what draws the audience in. And it feels more satisfying to me, because you have to watch a Taylor film or series a couple of times to really get the whole picture, to see what you’ve missed that might have been integral to the story.”

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Telling the truth

Factual dramas are a staple of the scripted television landscape and can often be relied upon to bring in big ratings. DQ explores how these series are developed and brought to air, with contributions from the writers behind Waco and Kiri.

It’s a well-established fact that telling true stories through the lens of TV drama can work wonders in terms of ratings. Tanya Lopez, executive VP of movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions for A+E’s Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network, says: “The right story can be a magnet for curious audiences. That feeling of ‘I can’t believe this happened’ is a real hook.” Beyond the initial thrill of recognising real-life events, Lopez says “viewers then really like to get into the detail of a story, to find out things they didn’t know or see a new point of view.”

One of the most recent true-life stories to roll off the Lifetime production line is Cocaine Grandmother, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as Griselda Blanco, a highly successful Miami-based drug lord who is reputed to have ordered 200 murders during her reign of terror in the 1970s and 1980s.

As a starting point for true-life projects, Lopez says she likes to have some IP to work with, such as a book or a documentary, but adds that Lifetime’s approach is not to take too much dramatic licence with its central characters. “The audience trusts us to tell the truth and we don’t want to deceive them. Where the dramatic licence does tend to come in is with the fourth or fifth lead characters where you might bundle a number of real-life figures into one composite. This can help to provide a frame of reference for the audience.”

In the case of 2017 real-life drama Flint, which investigated a toxic water scandal in the state of Michigan, “the story is told through the eyes of three women – two of whom are real-life characters that we had the rights to and a third who is a composite,” says Lopez. “That allowed us to draw attention to the issues affecting the people of Flint in the right way.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones in Cocaine Godmother

Historically, factual dramas have tended to live in the world of feature-length biopics or miniseries. But if there has been a recent trend, it has been towards extended exposition over a number of episodes or, in some cases, seasons. FX proved this could work in 2016 with American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, a superbly cast series that won awards, achieved strong ratings in the US and sold in international distribution.

Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v OJ Simpson, the tone of this Ryan Murphy-produced series was harder edged than the content on Lifetime. And for this reason it also attracted some criticism from those depicted in the series. In an interview with The New York Post, Mark Furhman, a police officer who comes out of the series in a bad light, said: “In a time when Americans read less and less and investigative journalism is on vacation, it is sad that this movie will be the historical word on this trial.” Other critics included relatives of the two murder victims, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown, who complained about a lack of consultation.

These complaints highlight a potential challenge with fact-based drama, which is that there are inevitably going to be differing opinions about how events are portrayed. FX has run into a similar situation with its new Crime Story series: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (pictured top), which launched this winter.

As with the OJ project, there is a best-selling book at the heart of the project – Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth. The book is generally recognised as well researched but has been dismissed by the Versace family as scurrilous. In a statement, the family said: “Since Versace did not authorise the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should be considered as fiction.”

FX has stuck to its guns, saying it “stands by the meticulous reporting of Ms Orth.” And short of a legal challenge by the Versace family, it’s likely that the only practical outcome of the dispute will be more promotion for both channel and brand.

Flint, which focuses on the Michigan drinking-water crisis

So what draws TV writers to these projects? The potential for ratings can’t be ignored, but just as often it seems rooted in indignation that a story has not been adequately reported or followed up on by authorities. Nicole Taylor’s award-winning Three Girls is a compelling insight into the lives of vulnerable teenage girls, while Jimmy McGovern’s work is often an expression of the injustice that those involved feel. Recently, McGovern wrote Reg for the BBC, in which Tim Roth played Reg Keys, the father of a murdered serviceman who stood against Tony Blair in the 2005 UK general election. McGovern also penned ITV’s Hillsborough, a dramatisation of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 football supporters died. This film has been screened four times since it first aired in 1996 and also laid the foundations for a new ITV production called Anne, made by World Productions (Little Boy Blue).

Back in the US, Paramount Network has just aired Waco, a six-part miniseries about the 1993 Waco siege, a stand-off between US law enforcement agencies and a religious group called The Branch Davidians that were holed up in a Texas compound. After 51 days, the stand-off ended with 76 people being killed. According to the show’s writers, Drew and John Erick Dowdle, the trigger for this project was reading A Place Called Waco, an account of the siege by one of the few survivors, David Thibodeau. That, say the brothers, was the start of a painstaking research process that lasted four years and involved interviews with participants on both sides, as well as months of listening to transcripts and examining forensic reports.

The end result was that “we uncovered a different story to the one we’d been hearing for years,” says John Erick. “Waco is such a seminal moment in US history but there is so little about the people who were in the compound – how they got there and what they were like. They are presented as mindless cultists but a lot of them were discerning, educated people. We wanted to get beyond the image most people have of Waco, which is of tanks rolling in to break the siege.”

Waco tells the story from both sides, exploring the law enforcement failures and the personality of David Koresh, the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidians (played by Taylor Kitsch). While Koresh had his dark, disturbing side, he was a far more compelling character than the writers expected. “We went in expecting to find a crazy, malicious person, but he had a funny, light-hearted side that appealed to people,” says Drew. “For all his flaws, he was a gifted communicator and leader.”

Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh during filming for Waco, about the 1993 siege that left 76 people dead

A key challenge for the writers, however, was finding a way into the law enforcement side of the story. “Eventually we found it in the shape of FBI chief negotiator Gary Noesner, whose involvement allowed us to provide a compassionate two-sided version of events,” John Erick says. “Gary ran negotiations for the first part of the siege and was convinced that any attempt to take the compound by force would be doomed to fail. But ultimately he was overruled.”

‘Why now?’ is always a key question in the decision to tell a fact-based story. In Waco’s case, Drew says the brothers were drawn to the project because the issue of proportionate law enforcement remains critical. “If anything, Waco seems even more relevant now than when we started researching. The breakdown of truth we are witnessing makes Waco seem even more relevant, because it was a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare played out on the world stage.”

Of course, one of the problems with fact-based drama is that writers are inevitably limited by the parameters of their subject matter. For this reason, there is also a strong strand of work that takes a fictionalised approach to factual scenarios. UK writer Jack Thorne, for example, has produced a couple of compelling pieces in this vein – National Treasure, which tackled the high-profile issue of historic sex abuse allegations against celebrities, and Kiri, which delved into the raw and emotive world of interracial adoption and fostering.

“My starting point is to explore stories I don’t know the answers to,” Thorne explains. “The issue behind National Treasure felt very tricky to me – because the police felt they had to put people’s names in the spotlight to encourage potential victims to come forward. But this created a presumption of guilt.”

Kiri started with another unanswerable question, says Thorne, arising from the notion that black children should only be adopted by families of their own ethnicity. “But what do you do about the fact that there are more black children awaiting adoption than can be placed within black families?”

Delta Goodrem in Olivia: Hopelessly Devoted to You, the forthcoming Olivia Newton-John biopic – a genre that has proved popular down under in recent years

Thorne says he particularly likes “talking to experts who are passionate about what they do and have a sense of what is morally right.” Some of this clearly creeps into Kiri, in which Sarah Lancashire plays Miriam, a social worker hung out to dry by the system because a judgement call seemingly leads to a bad outcome. Flawed and impetuous she may be, but most viewers will come away from Kiri believing the world would be a better place if there were more Miriams to turn to.

Thorne shares some of the Dowdles’ concerns about the dissemination of information, observing how “Twitter is sending us all mad with what it is doing to the news agenda. What I really try to do with all my stuff is encourage a discussion afterwards. TV is great at generating debate, and I love that.”

The importance of fact-based drama has also been evident in Australia, where a string of high-profile biopics have played a key role in helping the domestic scripted sector bounce back.

Recent biopics have included dramas about INXS frontman Michael Hutchence and tycoons Kerry Packer, Gina Rinehart and Alan Bond, while on the way are FremantleMedia productions about movie stars Paul Hogan and Olivia Newton-John.

Interestingly, the Aussie thirst for biopics has thrown up a couple of other issues with factual drama – namely that good subjects can soon run out and the stories don’t necessarily travel well overseas. At a recent Screen Producers Australia event in Melbourne, Posie Graeme-Evans, who created McLeod’s Daughters, speculated about whether the industry had reached “peak ‘Famous Australian,’” adding: “Biopics based on the B-list… are not quite the same.”

And while biopics “play brilliantly at home” she continued, “time and sales have suggested that not all do quite so well in the overseas market.”

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All American

In Paramount Network original series American Woman, Alicia Silverstone, Mena Suvari and Jennifer Bartels fight for their independence in 1970s LA. DQ talks to Bartels about the dramedy’s contemporary parallels and the trio of women at its heart, and discovers an alternative use of mushroom soup.

As part of the promotion for her forthcoming dramedy American Woman, actor Jennifer Bartels spent a day updating Wikipedia articles to highlight the recently revealed statistic that only 16% of the online encyclopaedia’s editors identify as women. The event is part of a campaign to empower women to raise their voices – a key theme in the Paramount Network series.

Inspired by the real-life upbringing of Kyle Richards, a star of reality series Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, American Woman follows Bonnie (Alicia Silverstone), an unconventional mother struggling to raise her two daughters after leaving her husband in 1970s LA. Bonnie also comes to rely on the help of her two best friends, Kathleen (Mena Suvari) and Diana (Bartels), as they each discover their own brand of independence in a glamorous and ever-changing world.

From watching the first three episodes – the series debuts in the US on June 7 – it’s clear many of the issues in the 70s-set show are still in play four decades later, most notably surrounding Bartels’ character Diana, a bank worker trying to fulfil her ambitions in a male-dominated environment.

L-R: American Woman stars Jennifer Bartels, Mena Suvari and Alicia Silverstone

“Try working twice as hard for half the recognition and a quarter of the pay,” she tells Bonnie, as Silverstone’s character sets out to stand on her own two feet after leaving her cheating husband.

Bartels is in no doubt that many of the messages in American Woman transcend time. “1975 was a while ago but, after playing Diana and being where we are now socially, you realise so many things have changed but so many things haven’t,” she says. “I think I learned a lot. I learned about sexual harassment in the workplace and how in the 1970s it wasn’t even regarded as a real issue. So to think it now actually is, it’s cool to think of where we’ve come as women and as a society, but there are a lot of things that unfortunately need work. It’s eye-opening to see how far we’ve come but how far we have to go.”

That need for change is even more apparent today, following the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that were born out of the sexual harassment scandal that swept through Hollywood last year. It was a big first step, Bartels says, but she admits more work needs to be done.

“It was really wonderful, brave and honest for women especially, and under-represented people, to come up and say, ‘Hey, this happened to me,’ and to be heard. That’s the biggest first step, but we can’t just sit with that and say, ‘OK, now we’re good, right?’ It’s something that continually needs work to create awareness so we don’t go back to that. But even as an actress in this industry, it feels like we’re walking into a new space and it feels a little more equal and a little more safe, which is great.”

Bartels was coming off ABC comedy Broken, which she co-wrote and executive produced, when she was invited to audition for the role of Diana. With Silverstone and executive producer John Wells (The West Wing, ER, Shameless) already attached and the chance to play in the 1970s, it was an opportunity the actor didn’t want to miss. John Wells Productions is behind the series in association with Warner Horizon Scripted Television.

“I come from theatre and I do a lot of comedy so this is a nice stretch for me in the sense that I haven’t really flexed this muscle as much as others,” she says. “So I went in and read and it went very well, and then it kind of happened. We shot the pilot at the end of 2016 and shot and wrapped the show last summer, so it’s been a while. Fortunately, but also unfortunately, things shifted in Hollywood last year so it is so timely. It has a nice relevance to it.”

Bartels says she clicked with Silverstone (Clueless) and Suvari (American Beauty) straight away, and it’s that chemistry that holds the series together. The central premise may concern Bonnie’s journey into independence, but the 12-part show looks at all three women and how they overcome the problems they face.

Within the triumvirate, Diana immediately stands apart. Initially seemingly stuffy, boring and uptight, she portrays herself as a powerful working woman. But as the opening episodes unfold, this appearance unravels to reveal someone struggling to impose herself.

“At first, you’re like, ‘She’s strong, she’s independent, she’s assertive but aggressive,’ but I think it’s out of necessity,” Bartels explains. “There are times maybe she doesn’t want to be that way, she doesn’t want to have to work. She sells herself on the idea that she has to, so she’s going to do it and she enjoys it. But I think there are a lot of motives behind the ‘why’ and why she has to do this for her life.

Bartels plays Diana, who goes from stuffy and uptight to jumping into a pool from a rooftop

“Over time, you find everyone’s struggling to find their voice or their footing in this time period, especially as three single women. It’s interesting to see where Diana goes. It was so wonderful that they trusted me to take this character. Expect a lot of interesting choices, sexy choices. I think Diana becomes a little more comfortable in her own skin, but she has to lose herself a little bit to find that.”

The moment she loses herself can be pinpointed to a scene in episode three where, at a house party and desperate to prove she can be fun, Diana mixes cocaine and quaaludes with lots of alcohol.

“When we meet her in the pilot episode, she’s in a shell like an onion and by the third episode, you start to peel off these really luscious layers of her character,” Bartels says. “There’s a lot of pain there, and reckless behaviour usually comes out of trying to escape pain or worry. So we start to see a little more of what she’s willing to do to prove she is fun, and a lot of times it goes overboard. She really is an honest woman that’s trying to play the game the best she can in a world where the game is so unfair.”

That episode also has a standout moment for Bartels as Diana climbs onto a roof to deliver a monologue, before plunging into the swimming pool below, surfacing and immediately vomiting – in reality spewing out cold mushroom soup – in front of the watching crowd of partygoers.

“The pool scene was great. Just as an actress, it was so cool,” she says. “You crawl up eight feet and there’s a man that held me and rigged me in. He wore a blanket over himself and sat up on the roof. I do this monologue and then the stunt double actually jumped off the roof. So when it cuts back to me, I had to jump into the pool from the edge, put vomit in my mouth, swim underwater and then pop up out of the pool, swim with the stuff in my mouth, then vomit and hoist myself out. We did this take about 20 times. They made it look so fun, and it was fun. It was also a bit of an orchestrated dance to get that shot, but I’m so pleased with it. It really opens up a new layer to my character.”

American Beauty star Suvari as Kathleen

As the series progresses, Diana’s character is enhanced by her connections away from Bonnie and Kathleen, as viewers learn more about her relationship with her mother and her boss.

“There’s also some really provocative stuff they wrote for Diana that really challenged me. I felt really supported and safe to do it and I was really pleased in how it turned out, so it was great from an acting perspective,” Bartels reveals. “Diana starts off as this buttoned-up working woman and she ends up taking us for a ride and maybe losing a few buttons.”

As for the actor herself, Bartels is taking the initiative and writing her own projects that she hopes to use to create awareness of social issues and women issues. Whether she stars in those projects is not a concern, so long as she does work people can relate to.

“I also think it’s important to not wait as an actor but to write and create your own opportunities for the things you believe in or for your voice, because this town is hard. So the more hands you have in the pot, the more opportunities you have to create change – the change you want to see,” she says.

“Part of being an actor is having a voice to create change. Over the last few years, even before the movement of last year, I realised becoming more comfortable in my own skin has leant itself to realising the things I really want to tackle and write about or be attached to. That’s being relatable and inspiring others, especially women and people who have dealt with some hard stuff in life. It’s something that has really inspired me to keep going and hopefully make a difference for others.”

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