A one on one with the creator of Damnation, Tony Tost

  1. How did you create the tv show?  What was your inspiration?

Like most TV writers, my goal has always been to create and run my own show. For five years, I had a great gig writing for Longmire: first as a freelancer, then eventually as a writer-producer. This meant six months out of every year were spent breaking and outlining and revising and writing and then finally producing three Longmire episodes a season. I’m incredibly proud of the work I did on Longmire, absolutely adore the show and everyone involved, and learned everything I know about making TV from Greer Shephard, Hunt Baldwin, John Coveny, and Robert Taylor, among others.

But coming from a poetry and literary background, I also wasn’t used to spending six months out of every year writing in someone else’s voice and serving somebody else’s vision. When you write on someone else’s show, your number one job is to make the showrunner’s job easier: that means embracing someone else’s vision, internalizing it, and writing scripts and making decisions that the showrunner and/or head writers would make if they weren’t busy working on seven other episodes. It’s a kind of well-compensated, high-pressure ventriloquism act.

In the months I wasn’t working on Longmire, I was developing projects with other producers and studios, which has its own hurdles and endless compromises. So I decided to set aside time to write something just for me, just for the joy of creating it, with no cynicism or coyness about the market, and no outside voices. Basically, I decided to make up my dream show. And that ended up being the first two episodes of Damnation.

My inspiration was basically my love of Americana and westerns and samurai and crime stories. I wanted to come up with a pulpy story about America that had big, operatic backstories for the characters and big gestures and unexpected little grace notes. I was inspired by everything from the westerns of Peckinpah, Eastwood, Ford, Hawks, Boetticher, Mangold, Tarantino, the Coens, and Leone; to samurai films like Yojimbo and 13 Assassins and Lady Snowblood; to grimy 1970s crime films like Charley Varrick, Prime Cut, Night Moves, and Walking Tall; to crime novels by Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy, James Crumley.

Thematically, my big inspirations are my artistic heroes Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

 

  1. How did you get it on tv?

After writing the first two Damnation episodes over a couple of months, it took over three years to get it on TV. It’s a long, frustrating, thrilling, interminable process. Your people send the script to other peoples’ people. Then other peoples’ people talk with other peoples’ people at studios and networks and agencies. Eventually, if you’re lucky, the scripts get passed around. Some people respond enough to hear your pitch for the whole series. Some people get more interested if you’d consider attaching this or that actor, or changing this or that story point, and so forth. For me, the secret to the whole process — beyond writing something interesting — is to find a way to get people invested in the project and to share ownership in it without ever selling out the core principles or vision of the thing. If you’re lucky like me, you find yourself paired up with a studio and a network who want to make the same show you want to make. Another key is to never take for granted the idea that your show deserves to get made: as showrunner, your goal is to make your show as exciting and rewarding as possible for everyone involved every step of the way. Firstly, life is better that way. And secondly, eventually the shit will hit the fan in some form or another and if people aren’t behind you and/or the show, you’re screwed.

  1. What made you choose a period piece? Aren’t they more difficult than modern day shows?

I suppose I love the storytelling freedom of diving into another time period. I think our society is imprisoned in the contemporary moment: we read the newest tweets, we listen to the newest releases, we watch the newest shows and news. We’re trapped in the immediate, constantly updated present. In the world of twitter and facebook, six months ago is treated like ancient history.

So I like the idea of telling a story from a different perspective. And to look at what was different about life in the 1930s, and what was very much the same. For me, the 1930s feel long enough ago to have a mythic glow, but not so long ago to feel irrelevant.

In a lot of ways, writing a 1930s show is easier than a contemporary show because you don’t have plot killers like cell phones. But production-wise, a period show is much more difficult and costly: every piece of clothing, every piece of set dressing, every vehicle: it all has to be dug up and paid for. And a period piece is undoubtedly a harder sell than something set in present day.

  1. The show seems to be big business vs the little guy. Is that a subject that’s close to your heart or have been affected personally by?

I grew up in a series of single and double-wide trailers in rural America. My parents were the day and night custodians at my elementary school. They were also the president and secretary of their labor union. I started working pretty much full time at fifteen: fast food jobs, retail jobs, a pickle factory, cleaning hotels and condos, washing dishes, janitor work, making candles, and so on. I’m a first generation college graduate and these jobs are how I paid my way through community college and then a working class Christian college in the Ozarks.

So I’ve got a pretty decent blue collar chip on my shoulder. I’ve always felt that the deck was stacked against someone with my class background. And I think blue collar life — whether white, black, latino, mixed or otherwise — is radically under-represented on American TV. One of my goals in Damnation is to bring a blue collar sensibility to the show: not just in terms of content, but in terms of the style and tone of the show.

  1. Did you choose USA as the network or did they pick you?

No one was lining up in Hollywood to do the first Tony Tost-created TV show. I was incredibly lucky that USA responded to the scripts and the pitch my team made. They took a huge roll of the dice in picking me and my show. There’s no other network I’d rather be at.

  1. What can we expect from the first season? Will all the episodes be as action packed as the first episode?

I think the first season should feel pretty epic. Our characters will grow and evolve. Unexpected alliances will form. Big revelations will be made. Big personalities will come to town. We’ll start getting extended flashbacks that’ll help us understand Seth and Creeley’s past.

In terms of action, I think the first episode is pretty representative. It’s definitely a bloody, primal show in many ways. Some later episodes will make the first one feel like Little House on the Prairie by contrast.

  1. How did you cast the show? Do you get final say in casting?

Damnation was cast mostly through traditional audition sessions. The scripts are sent to our casting agents. Then I follow up with phone calls telling them what qualities I’m looking for, or some prototypes to consider for various roles. Then myself and the other producers and (later) the directors review the auditions. Sometimes the choice is obvious from the first tape and there’s a quick consensus. Sometimes you get intrigued by a couple different performers and ask them to come back and make some adjustments. Sometimes the actor or actress you want is an offer-only person: meaning you offer the role to them without an audition. Sometimes there’s disagreement as to who’s the right person.

Ultimately, I make the final call on who to cast. Then we submit that selection to the network and studio for their approval. And then we try to make a deal.

  1. How is this show different from Longmire?

I suppose the biggest difference is the period setting. Both shows feature very strong ensemble casts, though the primary storytelling point of view on Longmire is through a single character, Sheriff Walt Longmire. Damnation is structured around two lead characters, Seth and Creeley. The earlier seasons of Longmire had more of a mystery storytelling engine — almost all of the episodes I wrote centered on a central mystery, usually a murder. In a lot of ways, a Damnation episode is easier to structure than a Longmire episode: putting together a good mystery that’s unpredictable but also emotionally compelling and resonant is really, really difficult.

  1. What do you think will surprise viewers the most this season?

How touching and gentle the show will be at times. Also, I’m sure the appearance of a machine called “mother’s little helper” in episode 107 will be a surprise.

  1. What should viewers be looking out for?

How their sympathies will probably shift and evolve over the season as they come to learn more about the characters.

  1. The preacher obviously isn’t who he says he is. Is his past going to come back and haunt him?

It’d be a lost storytelling opportunity if it didn’t!

  1. The women in the show seem meek, but they’re smarter and tougher than they first appear. Are they going to be a big part of the revolution?

They’re smarter and tougher mostly because of the actresses playing them. But even in conceiving the women in the show, I wanted to acknowledge the societal limitations placed on women (then and now), while finding ways for these women to turn those seeming limitations to their advantage. For a lot of viewers, I suspect Amelia, Bessie and/or Connie will be a main reason they watch the show. They’re an essential part of every single element of the drama.

  1. How did you create the characters? What drew you to them?

That’s sort of between me, my subconscious, and my childhood. But I will say: I’ll create characters mostly to have interesting forces at play that hopefully don’t replicate traits found in other characters. Or I’ll create a character to play around with some genre archetypes, then will try to peel back layers to find the person lurking under the archetype.

With Seth and Creeley, we have two very dangerous and somewhat traditionally masculine characters. So I wanted to surround them with characters with different strengths. So we have Sheriff Don Berryman, who has consolidated power through compromise and political cunning, skill sets that are different than Seth and Creeley’s (though the Sheriff can be deadly in a pinch). In creating a character who is tracking Seth elsewhere, I wanted to see how the show could weave a distinctly feminine lethality, which led to creating Connie Nunn, who I imagined as someone who wandered out of an old American murder ballad (thus her penchant for singing folk songs) and who embraces traditional notions of motherhood and etiquette, to contrast with some of our rougher-edged characters.

Of course, what’s on the page is just a starting point. Then you hand over the characters to the cast, who breathe life and uncover unforeseen layers and tonalities. Our costume designer Jeriana San Juan is also an essential voice in creating these characters. She has what I consider a writerly approach to costuming: she starts with the characters and their backstories and builds up the costume and silhouette from there, which gives these characters a lot of specificity. It also adds another arena for creative play which myself and the cast find rather thrilling.

  1. What do you want viewers to take away from the show after watching it?

I mostly want people to have fun and enjoy the show. After that, I want the show to ask interesting questions about America without resorting to the left versus right political mania that has gotten in the way of any reasonable discussion in this country.

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