Full Steam Ahead: John Wirth

With two seasons and an Emmy nod under its belt, AMC's Hell on Wheels has a history of its own. As the series' new showrunner, seasoned producer John Wirth wants to take the railroad-centered show slightly off track.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, one former Confederate soldier seeks to avenge his wife and son’s deaths amidst the chaos of the construction of the transcontinental railroad. That’s the world that fans of the AMC series Hell on Wheels plunge into every week. It’s also the environment that John Wirth is learning to navigate. A former producer for shows including Picket Fences, Ghost Whisperer, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Wirth was working as a writer and consultant on the TNT series Falling Skies when he learned that Hell on Wheels creators Joe and Tony Gayton were leaving their positions despite the show getting picked up for a third season.

Then I got a call from AMC [asking] would I be interested in coming in and talking about the show?” Wirth says. “My wife is a big fan of [lead actor] Anson Mount, as many women are, so she encouraged me to go and take the meeting. I took the meeting and we started talking about what the show could be and what would I do with it and before I knew it, I was signed up and already working by Christmas.”

Tapped as the Gaytons’ replacement, Wirth took the showrunner helm for season three, which meant taking on an Emmy-nominated show that was already garnering 2.4 million viewers on average and not only making it better, but doing so in a way that stays true to the show’s storyline and character development as well as historical context. The challenge is immense and the stakes are high.

Get In Media: What is it like to step into a show that already has so much…

John Wirth: Behind it?

GIM: Yeah.

JW: The first thing you have to do is, I think, look at the show and try to figure out what’s working and what isn’t working, and try to think of something that you can bring to it in terms of improving without wrecking what’s working. This show had a lot going for it—a wonderful cast, beautiful sets, God’s country, all of that stuff was working. Storytelling for the most part was working in my opinion. I thought it could just be fine-tuned and focused a little bit and centered. That’s kind of what it seemed like it needed, so I was very happy to accept the challenge.

GIM: As somebody who’s coming in and choosing a direction for a project that already had a direction, what are your plans for taking the show into the future?

JW: It’s really about just a shift in sensibility, you know? The direction of the show was kind of set. They made 20 episodes before I got there. There was a historical context to the show, so it’s not like I could say “And then they veered north and they went to Canada!” We know that the railroad continued to go west, so really it’s about sensibility. It’s an ensemble show, but it was a show without a center and I felt very strongly that Cullen Bohannan was the center of the show. He was the person that brought us to the world. He was the person through whose eyes we saw the world and sometimes that was lost in the first two seasons. I just wanted to pull the show kind of around that character and that character’s experience without diminishing anybody else on the show whatsoever and just sort of give the show a very strong point of view. That’s what I’ve tried to do.

Hell on Wheels season 3Credit: Chris Large/AMC

GIM: What are the challenges of coming into that situation from a human resource perspective?

JW: I did not meet any of the people who left. They were already gone before I arrived and, in a sense, it was a clean slate to set up shop, plant your flag, and move forward, but there were about 150 people who survived from the previous administration, let’s say. It was really important to me to reach out to all of those people, especially the department heads, and tell them how much I admired what they were doing, tell them what I was going to attempt to do, and just forge some relationships and build some trust, primarily with the cast. It’s a very disquieting thing when you’re a person who shows up and your job is to embody a character that is not you. You’re relying on people to provide you with what that character is, and then all of those people go away and you’ve been doing this for two years. It’s kind of an unusual circumstance. I wanted to just create a level of trust between those people and myself and engage them in the process and then move forward.

GIM: How much of the direction of the show is controlled by actual historical events?

JW: We sort of start with the circumstances of history and then we have some historical characters in the show and then we have some fictional characters. Our historical characters are somewhat limited in terms of what they can do if we decide to break them out of what they did historically, but our fictional characters are free to do whatever they want. We sort of create the bedrock of history and then we tell our story on top of it.

GIM: Do you have researchers?

JW: No, we do it all ourselves. Writers are at heart readers and researchers, so everybody’s read a lot of books about the railroad and are very aware of what happened historically with the railroad.

GIM: In previous interviews, you’ve stated that you wrote 25 screenplays before selling any. Is that the landscape for writers now? Should writers be prepared to have that amount of work done before they sell anything?

JW: I can only say this: If I were in a position to hire a writer, which I am, I would only want to hire a writer that could help me. If I’m hiring somebody who considers themselves a writer but they haven’t really put very many words on paper, it’s not going to be helpful to me unless they’re born writers or geniuses or something that most people aren’t. In my experience, it just takes a certain period of time before you’re able to really write a script that is effective. I think one of the things that weeds out people is that process. It’s a simple equation, ass plus chair. That’s what gets it done. If you’re willing to put in the time, you have a shot. I think in some ways, things haven’t changed much. If a script comes across my desk and it’s good, I’m going to be interested in that writer. There are a lot of writers in television, in Hollywood who are competent. Competent is not enough.

Hell on Wheels season 3Credit: Chris Large/AMC

GIM: You’ve also stated in previous interviews that you’ve been surprised how hard writing is. Do you have any tips for getting through that?

JW: Writers are, by nature, solitary people because you spend a lot of time in a room. I’ll give you an example: I have an office at my house that is above my garage, and the other day I went down to get breakfast. I start early in the morning when I’m writing, so I go down to get breakfast and [my wife] starts saying dialogue to me that I’ve just been writing. I said, “How could you possibly know that? I was just up there writing.” And she said, “I came into your office to talk to you and you were doing the script.” I said, “I don’t do that” and she said, “Yes you do and you had no idea I had even come up the stairs, walked into the room. I stood there for five minutes. You had no idea I was there.” I think that’s what writers do. You just get into this place and it’s a world that’s apart from the world that you’re in. That’s a beautiful thing about writing, but it is somewhat solitary. When you’re writing on a television show, it becomes a group thing and that kind of throws things off.

GIM: Has there been a project you’ve worked on where the writing was less work?

JW: No. It’s always a lot of work…

GIM: What do you recommend for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

JW: Understand that you may be poor until you’re 30 and as soon as you finish a script, write another one. Connect with anyone you can connect with. Take meetings, badger people; get people to read your material. Get to Los Angeles. Get a job in the industry, figure out how it works, and stay with it until you absolutely can’t stay with it anymore. At a certain point, you can’t sleep on a couch anymore. You just get like “This is too uncomfortable, I just can’t do it.” Then get on with your life. Don’t hang on. If you’re 45 years old and you haven’t sold a thing and you’ve been trying for 20 years, maybe you should get a real job and have a life. I was ready to give up at 30. I got my first job, I was 29, but I had been at it for about five years and I was ready to just cash it in because I couldn’t do it anymore.

Hell on Wheels’ third season debuts August 10 at 9 p.m. EST on AMC.

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