A Man Following His True North: Tony Tost

I had the honestly wonderful chance to sit down and chat with a man who dove into the deep end of television. Tony Tost, who many of you know “Damnation” (a show gone before it’s time) was his bouncing baby hit. You also may know him from “Longmire” fame.
Thank you, Mr. Tost for the interview. So many of my friends think you’re a genius….after studying your background, I have found you are so much more.
You are such a modern American folklorist. When you first started in television, were you able to work any of your poems into the stories?

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve been able to smuggle some poetry into my TV writing, though I haven’t tried to work any of my previously written poems into a script. On Longmire, I pitched to the EPs the idea of having Peter Weller’s character Lucian Connally be a cowboy poet as a way to get that western traditionalist mode of poetry — which I dig quite a bit — into the show. That was a fun way to scratch the poetry itch in a manner that made sense for the world of the show. I also would find ways to funnel some of the Iliad, or bits from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, into the show through Walt’s reading. Likewise on Damnation, the poetry of Wallace Stevens makes its way into the show, as does references to Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. I’ll also often give characters names inspired by some of my favorite poets: Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, John Berryman, Alice Notley, Robert Duncan are among the poets I’ve tipped my cap towards. I’ve written the first two episodes of what I’m hoping to be my next show, a small town crime show set at an Oklahoma truck stop. The main character of that show, Evie Gentry, is a poetry reader and secretly longs to be a published poet herself.

I love that you come from a working-class family. Brought up with unions and what they mean to the working person. How much of that life experience do you translate into what you write?

I think my working class background has meant everything. There’s no way I’d make a show like Damnation — which is largely about the struggle to unionize and fight labor battles in the Great Depression — if my parents hadn’t been the president and secretary of the labor union when I was a kid. I think the types of scripts I’m drawn to writing are a result of my blue collar life experience. I’ve described the kind of writing I do as Clint Eastwoodian: if you can imagine Clint starring in or directing a story, I’d want to write it. I’m pretty protective of my rural working class tribe, even if I often disagree politically with some of the consensuses that seem to emerge from those spaces. More than anything, I want to make TV shows that working class people in small towns will see their hopes and dreams and anxieties reflected in. My goal is to do blue collar storytelling in an artful manner.

Your book of poems “Invisible Bride” won the 2003 Walt Whitman Award…it was your 1st book. What was that like, knowing so many writers get overlooked on their first book?

I was thrilled to win the Walt Whitman Award — but I think every poetry book gets overlooked these days, so I was no more immune to being ignored than any other poet. With poetry, there’s almost never the promise of being a hit or a success in the present moment. You tend to write what you believe in and gamble that someday the right readers will come along and commune with it in the spirit in which the poems were created. Being overlooked is part of that particular job description. Who knows, maybe I just wasn’t hardy enough to stick it out with a kind of writing so immune to immediate earthly rewards.

How did you, a true working man find your calling in poetry?

I was going to community college and was getting obsessed with bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains and I wanted to become a songwriter myself. So I took a creative writing course and soon discovered that I was more interested in the words than in anything else. I resisted this calling for quite awhile: I thought I wanted to go to business school or law school for awhile. Then I took some English classes and discovered Wallace Stevens and William Butler Yeats and Emily Dickinson and King Lear and Moby Dick and it became a kind of religious conversion: “oh, so this is what I was put on earth to do.” Frankly, poetry also came easier to me than other types of writing. My strengths tend to center around voice and image and you can build an entire poetics around those two strengths. So for awhile, I did.

Poetry or television? If you could do only one for the rest of your career

Television by a mile. First of all, there’s the money, which can’t be ignored. Right now, I can provide for my family as a screenwriter in a way that I never could as a poet. But even if the money was the same, it’d still be television by a mile. I’m much more confident as a screenwriter than as a poet. Much more assured of my aims and desires as an artist: what I want the viewer to feel and what I want the work to express. I never quite had that creative confidence as a poet. Also, I love everything that goes along with being a TV writer and producer at an upper level. The actual writing is maybe only 20 to 25% of the job. The rest involves actually making and prepping and producing the show. And then also editing it. All of which I find to be a thrill. I love these creative facets as much as I love the writing itself. I love working with directors and cast and editors and crew to try and create something real and surprising and resonant. I get a stronger aesthetic high in television than I ever did in poetry.

What made the series “Damnation” so personal for you? Any chance of a movie? I know everyone would go nuts with happiness. There are a lot of people (still) upset by the show’s cancellation. Did USA give you any valid reason for their actions?

Thanks. Damnation was certainly my baby, something I dreamed up on my own. I wrote the first two episodes in private, for free, for my own pleasure and amusement. Even though I loved working for Longmire, it still involved writing in someone else’s voice and channeling someone else’s artistic aims. I needed to write something just for myself, regardless of whether it got made or generated any income. There’s also some personal stuff in Damnation, like the connection to my parents’ work as union leaders, which I’ve mentioned. There’s also the fact that the main characters — Seth and Creeley — were both born with the last name Turner, which was actually my last name at birth. When I was an infant I went to live with my teenage mother and her parents. My biological father went on with his (criminal) life and he ended up spending most of that rather short life in prison. He also had two more sons, whom I’ve never met. Apparently, one committed suicide at an early age while the other is serving a long prison sentence. Since I was young, my imagination has always wrestled with questions about what would’ve happened to me if I’d ended up in my biological father’s hands — in his world, the men all die young and/or live lives of crime — instead of my mother’s. Those questions directly fed my conception of the troubled half-brothers at the heart of Damnation.

In terms of cancellation, USA just didn’t get the audience share they felt necessary to keep the show on the air. I hold no grudge on that front. Nowhere is it written that I’m entitled to keep a fairly expensive period show on the air regardless of viewer numbers. The network took a big chance on me and the show and they supported my vision. I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

“Longmire”. How did you come to work with that show? Was the ending of the show, a satisfying end to the series?

One of my scripts ended up in the hands of Greer Shephard, the wonderful showrunner of Longmire who was in many ways my TV mentor. She was looking to fill out the writing staff for the first season of Longmire. I was living in Seattle at the time, which normally would discount me from getting hired for a show. But Longmire had a bit of a budget crunch and was looking to hire a freelance writer, which meant my being outside of LA wasn’t too much of a hindrance. Their first two choices for the freelance position ended up getting hired elsewhere, so they settled on me because I was cheap and eager and I grew up in a world somewhat similar to the world of Longmire. I worked as a freelance writer for two seasons, writing a total of six episodes. Then I moved to LA and worked for three more seasons in a more full-time capacity, working my way up to producer level. I left the show after season five, so I wasn’t involved in the final season. I actually haven’t watched the final season, though I’m sure I will someday because I’m very fond of the show and everyone involved in making it. But I’m pretty artistically restless and am always leaning into my newest project, so I don’t take much time revisiting past projects once I’m done making them. That is, other than Damnation. I’ll still occasionally fire up an episode or two and watch it: mostly for the pleasure of the show itself, but also out of a kind of grateful awe that I was able to make it.

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The one thing I’ve noticed with your shows…..you let the story evolve as organically as possible. Is that easier, rather than sticking strictly to a script?

Well, I’ll take it as a compliment that my shows don’t seem to stick to a script, because everything is *very* scripted. You can’t produce or prep a scene without a script telling each of the departments what props and wardrobe and cast are needed. In terms of dialogue, that’s very strictly scripted as well, though each of the shows I’ve been on have evolved their own approach. For my episodes on Longmire, I’d be in a kind of running conversation with Robert Taylor, who played Sheriff Walt Longmire, about Walt’s diction and vocabulary. It’s not so much that Rob would change lines on the fly. It’s more that we would continually discuss dialogue and occasionally agree on small tweaks in syntax or word choice in order to get the voicing just right. I loved doing that.

On Damnation I was the showrunner, which more or less meant I could have whatever approach I wanted in terms of dialogue changes. But because I would concurrently be needed in the writers’ room, in the editing bay, in prep and to also be actually writing and rewriting the scripts, I couldn’t be on set as much as I would’ve liked. So I was stricter about dialogue changes: a word couldn’t be changed on set without my direct approval. So the script supervisor would have to call me if cast wanted to change a word or flip syntax. I didn’t do this to be an asshole, but to maintain quality control and keep a consistent voice for the show. Also, most of the time the proposed changes would be very slight. So when our scripty would call me up and give me a possible change, if it didn’t alter the meaning or make the dialogue actively worse, I’d approve it. But merely instituting the step of calling, I think, helped keep things from getting too sloppy in that regard.

That said, I also made sure to get scripts to the cast well ahead of time and I maintained an open door and email policy: if cast had questions or concerns about a scene or line, I tried to be very open to possibly making adjustments. So scripts would evolve with cast input, which I always value. For example, on Damnation I was having a little trouble figuring out how to have Creeley and Bessie essentially declare their love towards the end of the season without it being too cheesy. So I invited Logan Marshall-Green and Chasten Harmon — who played Creeley and Bessie — to dinner so they could give me their thoughts about how to approach the scene, which ended up being just the creative input I was needing to figure it out.

On The Terror: Infamy, I was on set producing three of the ten episodes. It was all heavily scripted, per usual. But I think on this show I evolved a little more of an organic approach than I was able to before. I would really listen to the scenes in table reads and rehearsal and try to creatively respond to what the performances were telling me about the scene: just because a line was written, it didn’t mean it was the line that the scene needed. And because I wasn’t the showrunner pulled in a dozen different directions, I could be on set for every scene and be really really attentive to how the drama was unfolding. So it wouldn’t so much be improvisation of dialogue. It was more like continually collaborating with the cast and the director and the DP to capture as much good shit as we could on an unforgiving TV production schedule where you only get eight days to film an episode.

Now, for your next project. “The Terror: Infamy”. I was excited about the second season, but then I found who was working on the project. How is the horror genre? Tell me about your part with the show and how it was to work with George Takei.

Since you’ve grouped into the rural crime, neo-western, and poetry genres, was it easy to step into the horror end of the pool? Would you do it again?

I was a writer and co-executive producer on The Terror: Infamy. Meaning, I worked under our showrunner Alexander Woo, who hired myself and my fellow co-executive producer and writer Shannon Goss to help him make the show. We had a very full writers room where we all collectively figured out the story we wanted to tell. But then once production started, Alex and Shannon and I rotated on overseeing the episodes: Alex oversaw episodes 1, 4, 7, 10, Shannon oversaw episodes 3, 6, 9, and I had episodes 2, 5, 8. This included refining and revising scripts, helping the director and department heads prep for the episode, being on set during filming, and then overseeing the editing and post-production on the episode. So, pretty involved.

Generally, I prefer working in genre, whether it’s crime, western, mystery, thriller, what have you. So I very much enjoyed working in a horror vein. If anything, I wish I could’ve found more of a way to explore the genre aspect further. One of the great things about working in genre is trying to create set-pieces or scenes that really embrace the pleasures of your chosen genre. I got a chance to do that a couple of times on the show, which were my favorite creative experiences on the show. At the end of episode five of The Terror: Infamy, there’s a sequence that involves a car, a corpse, and a duffel bag. In the prep process, we realized the duffel bag was presenting a problem and keeping the scene from unfolding the way it was supposed to. So in collaboration with the director Lily Mariye and DP John Conroy, we came up with a way to use the duffel bag to actually heighten the horror of the sequence. In terms of genre, it’s one of my favorite moments of the season. And it was deeply satisfying to go from identifying the problem in the prep process, then changing the script, then filming the sequence, and then being able to really minutely tailor that sequence in post-production to create something that should be scary as hell. My other favorite genre moment is in the teaser of episode seven, a scene that I wrote but that the director Meera Menon, DP John Conroy, and cast and crew elevated to something pretty special as well.

Probably the toughest thing about this show was trying to fuse the horror genre with the epic historical scope of a story focusing on the Japanese-American experience during WWII. Obviously, the first season of The Terror was a rousing creative success. And it mined the crew’s isolation and the psychological effects of their situation to tremendous effect. So many of the horror films that I love do exactly that — from The Witch to Suspiria to The Shining to Dark Water to The Devil’s Backbone to The Thing to Texas Chainsaw Massacre — they all isolate their characters in one place for a limited span of time. Part of the horror is the feeling that there’s no escaping a horrifying situation: the characters can’t escape it and neither can the viewer. But in telling the historical story we wanted to tell in The Terror: Infamy, we had a much more sprawling sense of geography and time than what you usually see in a horror story. The story spans the entire war and a whole bunch of different locations. Genre-wise, it would’ve probably have made the most sense to tell a “haunted internment camp” story focused just in one camp, where none of the characters can escape it. But that would’ve given short shrift to the historical story, which hadn’t really been explored in depth like this and deserved a fuller dramatization.

This is just to say: for a first dip into the horror genre, this was a doozy. So much of my anxiety in the process was in getting the historical drama and the horror to hopefully inform and amplify each other. I’d love to tell a horror story again, but I think I’d try to seek out something a little more contained.

In terms of working with George Takei: the man is an absolute pleasure and a consummate pro. He was an invaluable resource for us in the telling of the story. This was perhaps the all-around kindest show I’ve ever worked on. And I’ve been lucky to have only worked on very kind shows. I think the kindness of The Terror: Infamy set had to do with how our showrunner Alexander Woo conducted himself and the people he hired. But a lot of that also had to do with George. You’d never guess he was a big old-fashioned celebrity. He was the most chill, genuine, generous person you can imagine. I’m really lucky to have briefly crossed paths with him.

How do you think “Infamy” will be received? The story is hitting kind of close to home these days. With what is going on in the country, do you feel the show is a type of warning? Meaning, the internment camps of WW2?

I hope people love it. I hope people get hooked on the characters and the cinematic qualities of the show and the dread of the horror. And then maybe learn some history in the process. In terms of a warning, I’m probably the wrong person to ask. Though I have my own political beliefs just like anyone does, I don’t believe in political message storytelling. I believe in telling a story and doing justice to the characters and to the history and to the genre. And in doing that, if contemporary parallels or political content comes across, then so be it. But I think a writer’s inner dramatist should always trump his or her inner polemicist.

I know there is a ton of excitement for the show, specially with you being attached to it. Will you be live-tweeting any of the episodes? I know how you like to interact with fans, and when you tweet them back or like a tweet, they (me) damn near fall out.

That’s so nice of you to say. I’m not sure if I’ll be live-tweeting or not. I guess I’ll have to see. It probably depends on whether or not I’m doing something with my family or not on the various Monday nights. I do really enjoy interacting with folks who watch the shows I help make. There’s a lot of entertainment options out there, so it means a lot when someone makes the effort to reach out. I don’t ever take that for granted.

Tell us something new about yourself. What is one thing the fans don’t know, but you’d like them to know?

I suppose folks should know that if they enjoy the stuff I make that a lot of that is due to my wife, Leigh.

I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to jump into screenwriting full-time without her encouragement. In around 2011, we were both finishing up graduate school and had two children under the age of four when I started writing scripts. Leigh wasn’t having luck on the academic job market. But I’d finally got a tenure track professor job, an increasingly rare academic position. As a father in his mid-thirties, this would’ve meant I’d be making a decent middle class income for the first time in my life. But at the same time, I started to break in a little as a screenwriter. My plan was to continue dabbling in screenwriting part time while doing my professor job full-time. But Leigh encouraged me to quit the professor job and throw all my eggs into the screenwriting basket, even though it meant turning our backs on our first real guaranteed income as a family. Leigh just simply thought I was good enough to make it and didn’t want me to go after it in a half-ass fashion. That was rather terrifying, financially and psychologically. It ended up working out: I built a working screenwriting career and Leigh has gone on to have a really strong academic career herself (she just got tenure at USC). But that first leap into the unknown — I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her encouragement.

But my creative life with Leigh goes beyond that. When I write an original script, she’s my first and toughest reader. I’ve fully scrapped completed scripts when Leigh’s told me that they weren’t good enough. She gives great notes and is very hard to please. Which is a good balance because I’m often too easily impressed by my own writing. And we often end up brainstorming about how to fix problems with my scripts. I don’t send anything to my reps that hasn’t been vetted and approved by Leigh. When I was making Damnation, I’d also have Leigh view my edits of completed episodes before I shared them with the studio or network or other producers so she could give me notes and help me refine the episode to a more advanced state than I could accomplish on my own.

An example: if you work in TV, you know that there’s usually always at least two cameras filming a scene at any given time: the main camera (A) and a more supplementary camera (B). Sometimes a third or fourth camera will be brought in for bigger scenes. But in my experience, it’s usually just the A and the B cameras. Anyway, on one project I discovered in the editing process that the director had forbade the editor from using any footage from B camera at all (since all of his shot designs were for the A camera). And he had also forbade the editor from returning to a camera angle in a scene after cutting away from it. Whatever good intentions the director had in setting forth these rules, the practical result was an edit that wasn’t close to a satisfying viewing experience.

For me, it was a crisis situation because the edit needed tons of work and there was a looming deadline and there was all of this unexplored B camera footage just sitting there, unused. Leigh had seen the edits herself and together we came up with a plan: we’d split the hours and hours of B camera footage between the two of us and mark down the takes and time stamps of B footage that we thought would help make for a better edit. And so we spent an entire weekend doing just that, resulting in an edit that worked much, much better than the director’s cut. So while it’s my name on my scripts and on the “created by” placard at the start of each Damnation episode, it’s actually much more of a creative partnership between myself and Leigh than anyone might expect.

What is your most popular poetry book? Could it be about The Man in Black? (for those who don’t know who that is, I’m referring to Johnny Cash)

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Poetry is such a marginalized art form, I don’t know how to answer a question about popularity. In fact, whenever I get a rare, tiny royalty check for one of my books, Leigh hides it from me because it depresses me so much. I think my book about Johnny Cash — which isn’t poetry, but critical prose — is probably my best book, though I think it’s a bit overwritten in the opening chapters. I’m still pretty fond of my first poetry book, Invisible Bride, which was published in my twenties and includes some poems written as an undergraduate. My second poetry book, Complex Sleep, I don’t really feel much connection to anymore: it feels like me trying to position myself as a “cool” experimental poet as opposed to writing something I believed in with my heart and soul. I think that’s why I feel so much more at home in TV and screenwriting. I don’t care about being cool. I just want to make things people get emotionally attached to, then provide them with stories and characters and moments that reward that attachment.

I would like to to thank Tony for this candid talk. And thank Leigh Tost for being his harshest critic. Let’s be sure to support “The Terror:Infamy” and Tony, as the show premieres Monday, at 9pm.

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