An Interview with John Shiban, Executive Producer of AMC's New Western Hell On Wheels

The former X-Files/Breaking Bad scribe talks about the gritty historical drama.

By , Columnist

Over the past few years we've seen an abundance of TV shows whose quality of acting, production, and writing have inspired many to consider this the “Golden Age of Television.” Shows like Mad Men, The Killing, Dexter, and others are beautifully rendered and many times more cinematic than what we’re used to seeing on the small screen. It’s a grand treat for viewers when more productions follow suit.

AMC’s Hell on Wheels, premiering on November 6, is certain to be part of this esteemed group. It is a post-Civil War western whose protagonist, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), is a former soldier bent on avenging his wife’s death. His story is tied to the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Think John Ford meets Clint Eastwood and you’ll get the idea that Hell On Wheels would not be out of place on the big screen.

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I spoke with John Shiban, one of the show’s executive producers and showrunners, whose contributions to quality TV are impressive. He started out as a staff writer on The X-Files, where he wrote or co-wrote over 20 episodes and served as executive producer by the end of the show’s nine-year run. From there he went on to produce and write for such shows as Star Trek: Enterprise, Supernatural, Torchwood: Miracle Day, and Breaking Bad.

Shiban’s involvement with Hell On Wheels came from his work on both Breaking Bad and The X-Files. “I had a great relationship with AMC over the past few years. I came on Breaking Bad after season two to help out my friend Vince Gilligan who I worked with on X-Files. We did that and developed a pilot we called The Voyage, for which I was also the producer. I enjoyed working with the whole AMC family. So about Christmastime when they picked up the pilot for Hell On Wheels, one of the AMC execs called and said, 'Hey, you want to work on the show?' It’s really cool. I’ve been given something that is challenge and exciting and of course being a fan of the genre and loving the pilot script, I said, 'Yeah, get me on.' So they brought me in to the show.”

The concept of the show was drawn from history. “Hell On Wheels is a real historical place,” Shiban explains. “The story follows the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and Hell on Wheels sprung up because the workers needed a place to booze, to gamble to...etc., etc. The concept is sort of a springboard to tell the story of the building of the railroad and the characters who ended up out there for all their own reasons. The building of the railroad was the catalyst for bringing people out of the post-war trauma.”

hell.jpgShiban’s past creative pursuits saw him writing and producing stories that were surreal, strange, or somehow off the beaten path. Hell On Wheels is a different sort of project for him in that it’s more down to earth and rooted in history. I asked how he felt about the differences between this project and others he’s worked on. “I have to say I always enjoy writing strong characters no matter what world they’re in. What interests me as a writer and a filmmaker is to take hold of these characters and follow them into their world, whether it happens to be the Enterprise or Hell On Wheels.

“The challenge with Hell On Wheels is how do you give it its own unique voice? You want to make sure this isn’t The Unforgiven, this isn’t Breaking Bad. It’s its own thing. Having the playground of the western and finding our own interests and stories and ideas and actually making our own Hell On Wheels was really the challenge for us.”

I wondered about other challenges associated with writing for this very specific time in history. “We always wanted to be honest, have a touch of reality to it. One thing we constantly kept coming back to in the writers room was not to think like modern people. In 1865, what would a character’s attitude be toward native Americans? What would a character’s attitude be toward a prostitute? What do you really think? How would you react? That was the big challenge: to portray it more as a drama of these characters and stay true to their reality. That took a lot of thinking and reading books like the biography of 'Doc' Durant (the head of the railroad), just trying to get our heads around how would it feel to be a confederate soldier.”

The look of the show is atmospheric and gritty and rich with details of the era. I asked about the efforts made to get the visuals of the show just right. “We had an amazing art department and crew. We couldn’t just go down to J. Crew and buy the wardrobe. Everything had to be of the period. The art department started very early on. Part of the reason Calgary was chosen [as the place to film] was because of the history and the landscape.

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The Unforgiven was done by some of the same people as Hell On Wheels. There was an infrastructure of wranglers and costumers. We went to Calgary, rented 15,000 acres of it, laid down track. We actually built that train engine. We couldn’t find one to get to Calgary easily so they fabricated one out of plywood and Styrofoam. At the same time we had the effects people build a fully realized 3D model of a train which we used in some of the episodes for certain shots.

“We had to use all the tricks to keep this world three dimensional. We started at the pilot building a city and it kind of grew over the course of the show as we were able to add tents and buildings to make that world fully realized. And I think on the whole it worked pretty well.”

Finally, I wondered if Shiban agreed that this was the Golden Age of Television. “The last two years have seen the rise of cable and the competition that cable’s giving the networks. It’s about the quality of the shows. I’ve been very lucky getting in on the timeline with The X-Files. Even that started changing drama. So much exciting stuff is being done on channels like Starz and AMC. Yeah, I would say this is the Golden Age and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Hell On Wheels premieres November 6 at 10PM on AMC.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning Blogcritics.org website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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