#1Aug 26th, 2012
It’s an anecdote that Alberta Film should put in their promotional brochures.
Joe Gayton was interviewing post-production supervisors this year for Season 2 on the locally shot post-Civil war drama Hell on Wheels. A woman came in for the job and thought she would butter up the production by saying how great the digitally enhanced sky looked in the first season of AMC’s gritty western.
“She said, ‘I can’t believe how real that CGI (computer generation imagery) sky was,’ ” says Gayton, the L.A.-based writer who created Hell on Wheels with brother Tony. “We had to tell her it was real.”
Shot on the Tsuu T’ina Nation last year, the look of Season 1 was at least partially defined by the big-skied wonder of Alberta’s wilderness, despite being shot just 10 minutes outside of Calgary. It was also defined, at least for cast and crew, by some ill-tempered weather that rained down on the production and made the already-hellish tent city even more hellish.
The production returned last week to a new Alberta location, with bigger sets and an even darker story that will continue to follow the men and women who built the Transcontinental Railroad as it snakes further west, an enterprise that was dangerous, dramatic and marred by political corruption and racism. But given last year’s weather, the Gaytons decided to hedge their bets with Episode 1.
They allowed for some late April snow to make an appearance. But Mother Nature, as is her habit in Alberta, proved unco-operative.
“We loved the idea of coming back into this season with snow,” Gayton says. “But we didn’t quite get it. It’s like summer up here. What’s going on?”
Last Tuesday, Hell on Wheels sprang back into action for Season 2. Most of the cast, providing they survived the first 10 episodes, have returned, as have “98 per cent” of the largely Alberta-based crew.
New this year, however, is the location, which will allow for even bigger sets than the sprawling, filthy tent city and movable, smoke-billowing train that was built last year. Calgary producer Chad Oakes of Nomadic Pictures said cast and crew are busy filming at an expansive location 30 minutes southeast of the city along the Bow River. He said interior shots will be done at a 56,000-square-foot makeshift studio in Calgary’s northeast near the airport. Season 2’s 10 episodes are expected to take 80 days to finish, employing anywhere from 130 to 160 crew members and as many as 300 extras per episode, Oakes says.
The larger digs will help in the show’s transformation into a “bigger and badder” epic this season, which has yet to receive an air date from AMC. The golden-touched network, which is also behind dark critically acclaimed shows such as The Killing, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, announced Hell on Wheel’s renewal at the end of December last year.
“Essentially we’re marking the passage of time and being accurate in our approach,” says Jeremy Gold, the producer who first brought the Gayton brothers to AMC. “Those end of tracks towns, those Hell on Wheels towns, did in fact grow as they moved west. They’d pick up more merchants, they’d pick up more businesses, more workers. They’d be better funded. So we’re echoing that in our production.”
Reporters have not been allowed on the set yet, but by all accounts it’s bigger and even more detailed. Gayton said the expanded tent city now has a more urban feel to it, like standing in “New York City or Hell’s Kitchen.”
To avoid spoilers, producers are being understandably vague about the specific story points we can expect in Season 2.
Although it wasn’t a sure thing that Hell on Wheels would get picked up by AMC for another round, the first season drew to a close in a fairly opened-ended manner. Our revenge-seeking protagonist, former Union soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), rode into the sunset after committing a less-than-heroic act of violence that seemed to confirm his membership in AMC’s growing collection of great TV anti-heroes. Freed slave Elam (Common) and his tattooed prostitute-girlfriend, Eva (Robin McLeavey), had differing views on settling down, which may or may not drive her into the arms of the appropriately named Mr. Toole (Calgarian Duncan Ollerenshaw). The otherwise fun-loving Irish brothers Sean and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Esler, Phil Burke) showed their teeth with a little payback for the menacing Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl). Meanwhile, corrupt railway baron Thomas (Doc) Durant (Colm Meaney), the only character based on a real person, continued to pine after Lily-Bell (Dominique McElligott) while using her to impress some investors.
“We left them hanging,” says producer John Shiban. “I learned that trick a long time ago. If you don’t give them closure, then it makes it harder for them to say no (for a second season.)”
Shiban is showrunner for Hell on Wheels, which means he oversees both production details and the writers’ room. Having worked as a writer or producer on shows such as The X-Files, Breaking Bad and Supernatural, he is familiar with how to keep a show fresh for many seasons.
And as with any show, the second season of Hell on Wheels will have the hard task of keeping its old fans while bringing in new ones, he says. To do this, Shiban freely admits he pores over Twitter, online comments and other fan feedback.
But generally, the show will continue to live up to its name by presenting the building of the Transcontinental as a harrowing, dangerous and largely unpleasant endeavour.
More racial strife, scarier battles with the Native Americans and a further development of the prickly relationship between Elam and Cullen will also be on full display in Season 2 he says.
“We want to escalate the danger of Hell on Wheels, the danger of building this railroad,” he says.
“It was a race against the rival Central Pacific. It was basically an urban slum on the Prairie and people died daily. Not only was it a tough job and the railway work very dangerous, but the town itself was very dangerous. That’s our No. 1 priority this year, to make it a bigger, badder Hell on Wheels that our characters have to swim through and deal with.”
Read more: Season two of AMC (external - login to view)
then again Broke Back Mountain was also filmed in Alberta, as well as most of Brad Pitt's westerns..