Written By February | March 2013 : Page 36
Family The o
The Original Family Feud
Ted Mann and R onald Parker take aim at Hatfields & McCoys.
Forget the Alamo. The most famous battle in American history raged between two rural families named the Hatfields and the McCoys. At least that’s true as far as the History Channel is concerned. Airing last May, Hatfields & McCoys offered up a thorough, searching look at a story that everyone had heard of but few really knew anything about. The three-part miniseries, History’s first foray into original programming, didn’t just break all Channel records: Every night it massacred the competition—Part 3 was watched by 14.29 million viewers, a record for adsupported cable drama. (To give that number some perspective, the highest rating that Downton Abbey has wrought thus far is 7.9 million. Take that, genteel Brits.)
The ratings hoopla, and accompanying critical acclaim, provided a sweet coda for a show that took some 30 years to reach the screen. Producer Leslie Greif worked on it longer than the actual feud, which lasted from 1863 to 1891.When Greif first envisioned the project back during the early 1980s, he hired Bill Kerby (The Rose) to write the script. A few decades and countless rejections later, the History Channel evinced interest. Greif turned to Ted Mann (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) for a fresh look at the saga.
Mann turned him away. Repeatedly. “The money was terrible,” Mann recalls, sitting in his home office in Sherman Oaks. Greif persisted. After all, if he knew how to take no for an answer, the show would never have been made. “Leslie called me up a final time and said, ‘You really fucked me up.I spent so much time talking to you I didn’t get anyone else,’” Mann says. “So I started laughing”—and took the job.
Mann expected to spend at most a week and half on the rewrite. Without reading Kerby’s script, he began delving into the clan’s histories and “sort of fell in love.” The upside to crappy pay is low expectations; he was given total freedom to write it exactly as he wished. So what if the process took about eight months longer than he originally envisioned?
His first revelation was how inaccurate everyone’s preconceptions were, “with the New York Times and the other papers of the day ridiculing these pathetic hillbillies. ‘Twelve of them killed each other, and it was over a pig, imagine, they’re so backwards!’ ” Mann notes that some of the participants were actually well-educated and wealthy. The silly little war between two clans in West Virginia and Kentucky was no less tragic than any international conflict that feeds on violence and retribution, Mann believes.
As Mann talks, he sits—and stands, and paces, and sits again—in his home office in Sherman Oaks, across the street from a rocky hillside. The room’s walls are lined with books; his mind is filled with lines from them. In discussing the origins of the Hatfield-McCoy rivalry, he mentions the memoirs of duc du Saint Simon and a battle that wracked the court of Louis XIV. “The Affair of the Bonnet is one of the great fights in literature,” he notes. “You think it’s the most pathetic— they went to war over this bonnet—but it wasn’t about who wore the hat. The protocol had ramifications in every aspect of the hierarchy. It expanded out in significance.”
Mann’s conversation is dappled with such literary references, reflecting a classical self-education in the public libraries of his youth. Born in Vancouver, he was selling stories and comics to publications by the time he was 13. He left home two years later. “The only other employment I’d had was in a logging camp, and I learned enough about that work to know that my strong preference was to be indoors,” he adds dryly.
“For my sins I ended up in New York City,” editing National Lampoon magazine.
Ten years in, he hired Al Jean and Mike Reiss out of college.After only a few months, they left for Los Angeles to work in features (and later, The Simpsons). “I knew at that moment there was not enough money in the magazine business to pay the talent required to encourage people to buy a million copies a month,” Mann says. “There would be a slow process where that thing would grind down. And that’s happened.” So he followed Jean and Reiss west.
He sold his first feature script in a bidding war (oh, the 1980s!); the script ultimately didn’t get produced but did land him plenty of work. And plenty of temptations (ah, the 1980s), to which he was vulnerable. “I had a predilection for alcohol and substance abuse,” he says. “Cocaine absolutely riddled our system, and I was among the most grotesque of offenders. I soon drank and drugged out of a career in the movie business. At that time, television and movies were more separate than they are now, so I was able to cross over into TV.”
He chose to work in drama because it suited his literary aesthetic. “Drama could include as much comedy as seemed appropriate to the story, as our lives do, but comedy couldn’t do the reverse.” He stumbled along, still half in the bag, until reaching NYPD Blue. Mann credits David Milch with teaching him true respect for the medium, which led to respect for himself. “I learned the importance of working sober, of trusting yourself and the work enough to allow it to be as good as it can be.” Working sober for the past decade, Mann also Wrote for Milch on John From Cincinnati and Deadwood.The latter, set in the lawless west during the gold rush, shares more than a few similarities to Hatfields.
“When looking into the past, society has a less vested interest in various positions,” he notes. “You can tell a more absolute form of truth, because nobody’s going to become indignant that they were overlooked.” Historic events reflect powerfully on contemporary life, he adds, but at a remove that might make it easier to absorb the hard lessons, just as ancient Greek theater held a mirror up for drama’s earliest audiences.
The Sounds of History
Mann says he only read a couple of books to research the Hatfields story—his primary reference material took human form. Darrell Fetty, who had been married to a Hatfield descendent and had worked with Greif from the outset, told him everything he knew. And that really was everything. “When I had a question like, What was the name of Goofy Hatfield’s third cousin, the one with the patch on his eye, no not that one, the one who had the limp, he’d say it was Charlie.”
Slowly, patriarchs Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy, and all their kin, came to life in Mann’s mind. During a visit to the Appalachian region years before the assignment, he’d heard tell of a man who was said to have had a long relationship with his dog. The tidbit became part of the creation of character Jim Vance,Anse’s uncle. That visit also inspired the language and cadence of the characters’ speech, which Mann likened to blank verse. “They will occasionally express themselves in ways that are startling and fresh and very powerful and seemingly new, because they are classical,” he says of the people he met. In writing dialogue for the period, however, “you cannot do it exactly as it was, or it’s essentially incomprehensible. Many of the references of 100 years ago have just vanished from the verbal culture. But you can locate the dignity and the formality and the grace of the natural speech of the period by allowing it to present itself through the characters.”
The first speech he sat down to write “turned the key in the lock.” Except he neither sat down nor wrote. Instead, he employed an unusual method he’d never tried before. Walking the hills near his house, he dictated the entire show into a tape recorder. “I think it was Laurence Sterne [author of Tristram Shandy] who famously walked over the moors, talking in the different voices of his characters. He was sometimes mistaken for a madman.” Mann can see why; he has accidentally recorded himself trying out hundreds of variations of the same line before getting what he wants.
“Typing was much less satisfying, and because I have ADD, I had a tendency to become focused on individual scenes or paragraphs,” he says. “I know one of my colleagues spent six months on the same paragraph. It’s a trap.” Dictating gives him the ability to look at the entire series, rather than being forced into the internal dynamics of a single scene. Once he gets the transcription back, he does a polish. “There’s an old Turkish proverb that says, ‘If you go down the wrong road, no matter how far, turn back.’ I had to turn back once and throw out six scenes.”
He did create an outline when he began, but it quickly became outdated as the work progressed. The events themselves presented the dramatic arc. “How did it start? Well, Anse and Randall were best friends and served together in the Civil War. So what happened, Anse came home early, he deserted.Randall got locked up in one of the more horrific Yankee prisons.” A McCoy was killed, a Hatfield was suspected. A pig was disputed, a day in court made matters worse. Mc- Coy’s daughter Roseanna fell for Hatfield’s son Johnse. More misunderstandings led to more killings, which led to more acts of vengeance, as the years and the bodies piled up. And the ending couldn’t have been more poetic had it been fiction.The irreligious Hatfield, actually nicknamed Devil, was baptized at 60, while the devout Randall became a drunkard, eventually dying in a fire he set himself.
“The only time I felt at liberty to embellish or create was when the things were not known,” says Mann. “The one thing about reality is, if something seems unmanageable, think again. It happened, so your task is much simplified.It’s not that you’re creating an artificial explanation for an event that never happened. You’re creating the best possible explanation, from your understanding and experience of the world.” After doing just that, Mann then left the project to work on another script, and Ronald Parker (Joan of Arc) was brought in to rewrite the material.
A Second Shot, A Third Act
As helpful as it would have been to this story’s thematic elements if the two writers had also engaged in a bitter rivalry, neither obliged, instead speaking highly of each other’s work.“I was very, very fortunate that Ron was not only a good writer but a tasteful writer,” says Mann. “It seems to me that he acted selflessly and for the ultimate benefit of the project.” In Parker’s estimation, “Ted is a wonderful writer. It was a Pleasure to have something really well-written and substantive to work from.” The two met and became friendly during the Emmy season, where they were nominated and the show gleaned two acting trophies. They will see each other again at the Writers Guild Awards; Parts 2 and 3 of the show were nominated for Longform–Original.
Parker’s experience in that category is formidable. He’s written about 50 TV movies and miniseries and more than a dozen have been produced. The feat is even more impressive considering he didn’t become a writer until he had worked his way up the production side of the business as an agent, director of development, and producer. “You know the expression of feeling like an understudy in your own life? I had been having a very good career, and I felt that it wasn’t my career. So I started writing.” Parker speaks by phone; after a recent move to a townhouse in Century City, he’s still living out of boxes and writing on his couch.
In his late 30s, Parker wrote a script that, at assorted times, had directors Sidney Lumet, Jonathan Demme, and Norman Jewison attached. It wasn’t made, but it launched his writing career. He was successful, except nothing made it to the big screen. Then he made the move to longform television.“This will sound strange, but it would have been easier to be hired to write, produce, direct, and star in a major studio feature than to write a network movie-of-The-week,” he says. It was a closed shop. On the upside, once he broke in, he was a made man, with five network movies in a row over the next 18 months.
A couple of decades later, he’s as in-demand as ever. “I’m lucky that I’ve been able to keep working,” Parker says. “I feel like a blacksmith doing work that no longer exists. But I’m the guy they still bring the horses to.” Ageism isn’t as prevalent in longform television as other areas of the industry, he notes. “Consider the fact that they can’t be as profligate with development money as the studios can be, so they want to hire somebody who’ll get it right. That’s why they like working with people who have a track record.”
Gunning for Good Guys
When Parker was brought on Hatfields, the History Channel asked him to address a few areas of concern. In the second half of the show (at that point in development, it was a twoparter), Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy, the family patriarchs, all but disappeared. “It was consistent with the historical record, but for a movie, they wanted Hatfield and McCoy to be alive literally and figuratively through the whole piece,” he says. “It’s always important to be spiritually faithful to the truth,” but because the show wasn’t a documentary, he wasn’t obligated to stick to the facts. So Anse was given more involvement in the “planning and execution of the planning and execution” of the New Year’s skirmish.
Parker also pared away some of the broader political issues that Mann had included, to focus more closely on the characters.He beefed up the romance between Johnse and Roseanna, “which is what everyone knew about the Hatfields and McCoys, the Romeo and Juliet aspect of it.” He also built up the character of Johnse, “because I felt that he might be the character that the audience would not so much identify with but follow. He’s somebody who keeps meaning well but causes such harm. I thought he might be more identifiable, especially for a young audience.”
The History Channel also wanted Parker to select good guys and bad guys, so the audience would know whom to root for. “I may have said okay,” Parker admits, laughing. “I had no intention of doing that. What I felt—and I said this to the producer—was that if I write them in a way that they’re recognizable human beings, the audience will go with them.”
Parker didn’t just have his wealth of experience to rely upon; he had Walter Hill (48 Hours). Hill had directed Broken Trail, a hit western miniseries that Parker wrote on, and the two collaborated on a pilot for a western series. Hill was initially set to direct Hatfields; he later left the production to direct a feature. During the interview, Parker is intent on making sure that Hill’s involvement is credited as much as his own. “This is his genre in a way,” Parker notes. “His knowledge of the history and of the time and place was just immeasurable.”
With Hill’s help, Parker took the supporting role of Frank Phillips, head of a bounty hunting gang, and fashioned it Into a lead. “Walter’s love of westerns figured in well with what to do with Frank Phillips,” Parker says. “In a story that has a lot of antagonists, we wanted to give the antagonists an antagonist.”
The two would meet for lunch and discuss scenes, then Parker would send him pages. “We jumped around a little bit. He was already creating the vision in his head, so it was kind of like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, without quite knowing what the picture was on the box.”
Parker also employed a more linear approach to the piece, figuring out the material’s dramatic, emotional, and psychological throughlines, which balanced their scattershot method.“When you’ve figured out the throughlines, then you can jump around a little bit. I wouldn’t do that if I was writing from scratch, but when you’re rewriting, you can kind of do what you want to do in a certain area, then spend time there.”
His production background came in handy as well. “I naturally think in terms of reusing the same locations,” he points out, and jokes that he cut down the number of speaking parts from 500 to 490.
Once the rewrite was completed, it was much too long for a two-parter, but they decided to let History Channel make the cuts. Then Kevin Costner was lured in by the script. He came on board to star as Anse, on the condition that not a word be cut, to the delight of the writers. “I was hired for three drafts and only did one, and that became the shooting script,” says Parker. Costner also wanted to add some scenes.The whole thing ended up six hours long, so the Channel, recognizing the extraordinary quality of their work, simply added another part.
(Mann is credited alone as writer on Episode 1. He and Parker both have credits on Episodes 2 and 3. Kerby and Mann share a “Story by” credit.)
Thanks in part to the show’s success, Mann and Parker have been kept busy writing ever since. (Kerby retired years ago.) Again teaming with Greif and the History Channel, Mann is immersed in Texas Rangers; meanwhile, Parker works on two as-yet-unannounced projects: a series for Wolfgang Petersen, and a film with producer Jordan Kerner—after 24 years in the business, this might become his first produced theatrical feature release.
Neither Mann nor Parker—nor really anyone—expected Hatfields & McCoys to do as well as it did. With its viewing records and accolades, the show became more than a show, having made waves in an often-intractable business.
“Longform is coming back, and Hatfields & McCoys has been instrumental in people seeing what can be done creatively and also in terms of ratings,” says Parker. Without getting specific, he notes that meetings he’s had lately have been about resurrecting the genre on broadcast networks. Mann’s also heard tell of dozens of miniseries in production now.
It took a bunch of hillbillies, and the men who brought them back to life, to teach the city folk a thing or two about what audiences want.
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