“Here I am, a cowboy author in a town of 25 [Ucross] in northern Wyoming. And all of sudden, my character is on Sunset Boulevard 20 stories high. It’s a little odd.”
Writer Craig Johnson
Author of the Walt Longmire mystery series
LA Times interview by Liesl Bradner
“ I’m of the belief that everybody has a writer in them, but they also have an editor that strangles the writer to death before the writer gets anything down on paper.”
Ucross, Wyoming is unlikely place. At least from the perspective of being a novelist whose work ends up being a popular TV show. But that’s the short version of Craig Johnson’s life whose Walt Longmire novels (The Cold Dish) were the basis of Longmire which aired on A&E for the past three seasons.
Recently the show, despite being its most viewed scripted program, was cancelled and is currently looking for a new home. Johnson is also credited as executive/creative consultant on the show.
So how did Johnson pull that off while writing from a town with a population of just 25? Before I answer that, first I’d like to share a quote that I read on excellent blog Go Into the Story that always bugged me a little:
Now Halsted has both a film and TV background so it’s not a feature film verses TV for him. He did admit that he’s bored by police procedurals that proliferate TV. But since he dropped in North Dakota—let me ask, “What of interest can come from North Dakota?” I labour the point because Longmire has been called CSI Wyoming—without the team of investigators and high-tech equipment. (And while Wyoming isn’t North Dakota—it shares some “unlikely places” DNA.)
A phrase I’m fond of is “embrace your limitations” and I think what Johnson did was embrace the surrounding area of rural Wyoming and mesh it with some Native America Indian culture found more along Montana-Wyoming border and create some interesting characters and drama.
“[Johnson] got his big break when an agent from Creative Artists Agency walked into his literary agent’s office in New York City. The CAA is an agency that puts promising stories and characters with producers and studios, and the CAA agent asked whether Johnson’s agent had any strong characters. Johnson’s agent gave her a copy of The Cold Dish and refused to give her anything else until she read it.”
Johnson became a New York Times best selling author, and had the image of his character Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) “20 stories high” on Sunset Blvd. in L.A., by writing.
Eventually Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny wrote the Longmire pilot resulting in a viewership averaging more than five million people per episode (from 2012-1014). That’s actually a higher viewership than even Mad Men, so why would A&E cancel Longmire. Ah, money? Exactly. Longmire attracted an older audience which didn’t meet the necessary advertising revenue that made the numbers work for A&E. Plus scripted shows cost a lot more per episode to produce than the reality shows.
According to Deadline.com Warner Bros. owns the Longmire TV rights and is working on finding a home for season 4 of Longmire.
P.S. Apparently Ucross, Wyoming isn’t a one writer town. I found this on the website for the Ucross Foundation:
“Founded in 1981 by Raymond Plank, the Ucross Foundation provides a rare gift in today’s world – uninterrupted time– along with work space and living accommodations, to competitively selected visual artists, writers, and composers. Nearly 1,300 individuals have spent time at Ucross since we first opened our doors. They have come from every state in the U.S. as well as from many countries including Germany, France, Scotland, England, Poland, Egypt, the Netherlands, Canada, Thailand and others. Ucross extends invitations to approximately 80 individuals each year, selected by an outside panel of professionals.”
Annie Proulx wrote part of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Shipping News on the Ucross Foundation ranch, and now lives on her own 640 acre ranch in the area. In fact, the movie Brokeback Mountain flowed from one of Proulx’s short stories published in Close Range: Wyoming Stories.
Here’s part of the New York Times 1999 review of Close Range:
“The strength of this collection is Proulx’s feeling for place and the shape into which it twists her characters. Wyoming is harsh spaces, unyielding soil, deadly winters, blistering summers and the brute effort of wresting a living out of a land as poor as it is beautiful.”
Movie Making in Marfa (Texas)
Screenwriting from Nebraska “Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.” Author Willa Cather (My Antonia)
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70) Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt suggests where your efforts should be placed.
My guess is Oscar-winning writer/director Alexander Payne would agree with Cather. Craig Johnson, too.