Get an exclusive look at the making of HBO’s new film with some of the people responsible for all those believable details.
To re-create 19th-century Deadwood for HBO’s Deadwood feature film coming May 31, it took a small army to immerse the audience in the look, feel, and texture of the rough-and-tumble South Dakota town. The movie catapults us forward 10 years from where the series left off, picking up the story in 1889, when residents come together to celebrate South Dakota’s entering the union.
Although many of the actors from the original Deadwood — including Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Anna Gunn, and Gerald McRaney — reprise their roles from the beloved Emmy-winning series, their onscreen magic wouldn’t be possible without the creators and crew members whose job it was to bring the town of Deadwood alive in all of its violent, filthy, and disease-infested glory.
To captivate the audience with the same frontier spell cast by the original series, the location, of course, was key: The movie was filmed at the famous Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, California, which is also used as one of the Westworld sets, and luckily was not plagued by the horrible fires that destroyed part of the famed Paramount Ranch Western sets.
Also critical were the contributions of behind-the-scenes talent. C&I talked with some of them about bringing the magic.
Randy Hughes, background performer
Background performer Randy Hughes has been eking out a living on a half-dozen sets over the last 12 years, working on the Deadwood series, American Horror Story, Westworld, and Deadwood: The Movie. It’s all for the love of the genre and to supplement the income he pulls down working at riding stables across the West.
Cowboys & Indians: Background performers or “extras” are key in creating the atmosphere, color, and authenticity in period Westerns. What was to like to play background on the set of Deadwood: The Movie?
Randy Hughes: Well, aside from standing in the cold mud until the sun came up, I walked the muddy streets of Deadwood for hours at a time. Production kept watering down the set to create the dark and dirty look of the town. We also had to constantly walk around the main actors and stay out of the way of the horses. All of us who played in the background had to be real troopers.
As background performer I played several different characters, including a blacksmith, wearing a costume covered with Fuller’s Earth, which got into all my pores as well my hands and fingernails and hair, which turned solid black. I also played a townsperson who walked into a bar and had a bit of a stare down with Calamity Jane, played by Robin Weigert. Principal actors and background performers alike experienced challenges during the filming, but we were all sorry when production ended.
C&I: You sent us a note back months ago after having worked on Deadwood for just a day or two. You were covered in coal dust after a day of shooting and wrote, “November 16: Arrived on set Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. and left at 6 a.m. on Thursday. Fight scene in the mud. Wish I would have worn another pair of socks under the thick thermals I was wearing.” Sounds kind of miserable. Was the work worth it?
Hughes: There were lots of long and very cold days in early December when we had to do several pick-up shots before principal shooting wrapped on the film. I heard one background performer say to another that he wouldn’t do another western again because “they’re too hard.” But for me it’s been an amazing experience. Only seven of the originals made it back and we had to work hard for it. I like to say that we’re not making money — but we’re making history!
Todd and Tonia Forsberg, head wranglers and livestock coordinators
Todd Forsberg and Tonia Forsberg — owners of Forsberg Ranch & Company in Fillmore, California, with an ancillary location in New Mexico — were the livestock coordinators and suppliers for both the Deadwood series and Deadwood: The Movie.
C&I: The two of you worked on both the series and Deadwood: The Movie. How different was the work you did as animal wranglers and livestock coordinators on the series compared with the movie?
Todd: For me it really wasn’t any different because we were working with the same producers, writers, and actors. So it was like we had never really left. Yes, it’s been 12 years, but when you walk into the same room with the guys who had started our careers, it wasn’t a big deal. But the main street looked different, and it wasn’t as busy as it was on the series. And many of our characters went from miners to city-folk. Another of the changes was that many of the earlier wagons were changed to buggies and buckboards.
C&I: You must have worked with actors who had different riding skills on Deadwood: The Movie. Talk a bit about those challenges.
Tonia: In the opening scene Calamity Jane, who plays drunk all the time, rides a mule into town and had to really get into her character. Luckily the actress, Robin, who played her, is a good a rider and a good actress and made that sway look natural.
Todd: Timothy [Olyphant] was also really great to work with and was very respectful of both the crew and the horses. He treated the livestock like actors on the set. A lot of the actors are uncomfortable and don’t really want to be on their horse, but Timothy was very gentle and respectful of them.
Maria Caso, production designer
A lifelong world traveler and daughter of a fighter pilot, production designer Maria Caso grew up with a deep passion for art and design. She began her Hollywood career working on The Terminator as a set decorator, soon rising to art director, all the while nurturing the goal of becoming a production designer. She credits Deadwood creator and executive producer David Milch and director Adam Davidson for allowing her “to be fearless in my work.”
C&I: We’ve all seen the credit of “production designer” at the end of movies and television shows, but what exactly does a PD do to create the feel and texture in advance of filming and on the set?
Maria Caso: As a production designer I take the writer’s work, the director’s vision, and the producer’s budget and formulate ideas and a plan to design and build sets or shoot at locations that are an appropriate backdrop to create the world that tells the story of our characters. This includes collaborating with the cameraman for the look, designing and building the sets, working with the director’s vision, overseeing the set decorating [and] props, and working closely with the wardrobe department.
C&I: Congratulations on winning an Emmy for Deadwood the series, by the way.
Caso: We were nominated two years prior and didn’t win, so I didn’t think that we had a chance our last year. I bought my dress the day of the Emmys and my hair was still wet when they called our names. I was pretty shocked to win, but I feel proud to share the win with so many of our crew members, who worked tirelessly on the show. I believe the win honors the entire crew. I feel blessed to have been able to collaborate with so many talented people. Nobody that wins an Emmy ever does it alone.
C&I: As production designer on Deadwood: The Movie, which takes place 10 years later than the HBO series, how did you create a different look and feel going into the late 1880s?
Caso: Deadwood was growing so quickly and our characters had matured, so we wanted to show the town’s progress. We researched the look of the town and found out that it was extremely cluttered with new signs, advertisements, and poles everywhere for the new electricity. Modernity had hit Deadwood and you see the growth clearly. It was also important for the original Deadwood audience to recognize the old town, so we made sure that we kept many of the important original [aspects] of the first town’s design elements intact to honor the actors and audience.
C&I: How much historical research did you do for the movie? You must have had a bit of a boilerplate after being the PD on the series.
Caso: On Deadwood, we were never finished researching. We were always researching and always adding to the sets, and the actors were always growing and evolving as well. A fun story: During the series I found out from the Deadwood museum supervisor that they called the brothels cat houses because each girl owned a cat to help her deal with her depression and drug use. I was told that each brothel had hundreds of cats inside. So I asked David Milch and Gregg Fienberg if they liked the idea of having cats in the brothels. They said yes but told me we could only afford one cat! So the research didn’t pay off that time, but it was always exciting to find out new bits of Deadwood history.
C&I: We assume that the movie will have the same dark and gritty atmosphere?
Caso: Yes! I wanted everybody to feel that we were still in the same town and recognize our old world, so I used the same color palette, textures, and fabric that we used originally. I hope when people tune in they feel as if they’ve never left.
We will have much more on Deadwood: The Movie in the May/June 2019 issue of Cowboys & Indians, hitting newsstands in late April.
PHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY HBO