Stars Sam Elliott, LaMonica Garrett, and more reveal the challenges and the once-in-a-lifetime thrills of shooting Yellowstone’s epic prequel series.
First, there was the good news. Multihyphenate Taylor Sheridan wrote the first script for 1883, a proposed prequel to his phenomenally popular Paramount Network drama Yellowstone, then submitted it to the brass at Viacom/CBS — and almost immediately got the green light to start producing a series for the streaming service Paramount Plus.
Naturally, Sheridan was greatly pleased, and promised to start filming in early 2022, after he completed work in 2021 episodes of Yellowstone and another Paramount Plus project, The Mayor of Kingstown. That’s when he got the bad news. It was April 2021 — and Viacom/CBS wanted 1883 ready to start airing by the following December.
Talk about crunch time.
At the December gala premiere of the first two 1883 episodes at Wynn Las Vegas, Sheridan recalled the sometimes, ahem, spirited back-and-forth he had with Viacom/CBS executive Keyes Hill-Edgar after being given the series order. And unlike many of the foul-mouthed characters on his series, who routinely launch fusillades of F-bombs at each other, he discreetly substituted a less objectionable word for a more familiar one when reporting the exec’s throw-down: “Look, we are betting the house on this, and we are trucked if you don’t do it. We’re paying you a lot of trucking money, so you trucking figure it out!”
According to Mike Fleming Jr. of the showbiz website Deadline, Sheridan told the Las Vegas audience: “It was impossible to have something air in seven months that wasn’t cast, with no locations, and no other scripts. I said, ‘This first episode I’ve written is the best thing I’ve ever written. If I can’t have the time to make it right, I need everything else. I need the toys, I need the cast, I need the team. You will need to trust me, and it’s going to hurt.’
“And I did not hear the word ‘no’ at all.”
Keep in mind: This meant Viacom/CBS was signing an extraordinarily huge blank check for an epic-sized 10-episode series based almost entirely on their faith in Sheridan. 1883 would be, as its title indicated, a period drama about the ancestors of Yellowstone paterfamilias John Dutton (Kevin Costner) as they traveled westward from Texas to the “promised land” of Montana with a wagon train of immigrant pioneers. Telling such a story would require exceptionally lavish production values to be at all credible to a contemporary audience that simply wouldn’t accept the pinchpenny, small-screen aesthetic of, say, the classic TV series Wagon Train.
And rest assured, Sheridan intended to dramatize that arduous journey with an accent on unflinchingly harsh realism, and an emphasis on the capricious dangers faced by the travelers. Even if an actor were featured prominently in the opening credits of early episodes, that would not guarantee their character would survive to the season finale.
As Chad Galster, Sheridan’s longtime editor and collaborator, told C&I in a January interview: “All of us collectively were saying at first, ‘How are we going to do that?’ And I still don’t know how we did it — but we did it and it’s airing. I mean, we are still working on it, but somehow, we got it done. And I don’t know if it was the time pressure or the result in energy, but for myself, I think it’s the best thing that I’ve ever worked on. And I believe Taylor has said the same thing, and we’re all incredibly proud of it. And it is a minor miracle that it is on the air for people to enjoy.”
Almost immediately after getting the initial yes, Sheridan scrambled to assemble his lead players: C&I reader favorite Sam Elliott as Shea Brennan, the Pinkerton agent with a tragic past who signs on to lead the pioneers on their cross-country trek; husband-and-wife country music stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as James and Margaret Dutton, John Dutton’s great-grandparents; LaMonica Garrett (Sons of Anarchy, Designated Survivor) as Thomas, a former slave and Buffalo Soldier who is Brennan’s friend and partner; and Isabel May as Elsa Dutton, James and Margaret’s 18-year-old daughter.
It falls to Elsa to underscore in her role as voiceover storyteller the mortal stakes of the journey through a vast and unforgiving wilderness: “Here, there can be no mistakes. Because here doesn’t care. The river doesn’t care if you can swim. The snake doesn’t care how much you love your children. And the wolf has no interest in your dreams. If you fail to beat the current, you will drown. If you get too close, you will be bitten. And if you are too weak, you will be eaten. We are in the land of no mercy now.”
In the very first episode, however, 1883 emphasizes that, long before starting that journey, Elliott’s Shea Brennan fully understood the randomness of death and devastation of loss. During a powerfully affecting flashback, Brennan silently yet tearfully grieves over the bodies of his wife and daughter, victims of smallpox, then sets fire to the home they shared in happier times. Given this, along with the battlefield horrors he witnessed as a Union officer during the Civil War, it’s little wonder that Brennan is cruelly haunted by nightmares that make him want to avoid sleep — forcing Thomas to maintain a watchful eye on his apparently death-wishing friend.
When asked about the difficulty of conveying anguish in that flashback — without dialogue — Elliott was typically modest yet blunt-spoken.
Here, there can be no mistakes. Because here doesn’t care. The river doesn’t care if you can swim. The snake doesn’t care how much you love your children. And the wolf has no interest in your dreams. If you fail to beat the current, you will drown. If you get too close, you will be bitten. And if you are too weak, you will be eaten. We are in the land of no mercy now.
“We were a couple of weeks into production when we did that,” he told C&I. “Maybe three weeks. But it probably wouldn’t have been any different if it was on the first day. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t that hard either.
“I’m an actor. I’ve got a wife and daughter at home. It’s just a matter of getting into the scene and trying to bring some truth to it. I’m one of those who goes off and gets away from the noise before they get ready for me. I come back in and do it. It was that way that day, and everybody was supportive of it. Everybody was walking around and not making a lot of racket, so it allowed me to stay in that space.”
Focusing on Shea Brennan, Elliott credits Taylor Sheridan for giving him such a fascinatingly complex character to play. “There’s so many things about this guy that are incongruent,” Elliott said. “They don’t make sense somehow. The fact that he’s that vulnerable character who kind of bares his soul up there in this opening that we’re talking about — and at the same time is willing to shoot some guy in the head because he stole somebody’s bacon.
“Again, it’s on the page. It’s on the page and that’s my job. It’s all a gift. It’s a rich gift that has been given to me by a man that I have a lot of respect for as a writer. I think everybody on the show would tell you that. Everybody!”
LaMonica Garrett concurs, noting the episode when Thomas “convinces” a recalcitrant immigrant to return supplies he has pilfered: “When I speak and you don’t do what I say, you get hurt. That’s the pattern here. I don’t stop until you do what I say, or you run out of face.”
“Yeah,” Garrett told C&I with a hearty chuckle, “back in August when I got the script, there were a handful of lines that jumped out at me like that. See, whenever I see something like this in any script by Taylor, I think, ‘That’s a Taylor Sheridan line.’ Because Taylor’s a bad dude. But when I read that line, I closed the script and was like, ‘Man this is going to be so much fun.’”
Garrett’s excitement was only slightly diminished while enduring the rigors of a pre-production “Cowboy Camp” Sheridan established to prepare cast members like himself with little or no experience on horseback.
“At first,” Garrett said, “it was extremely fun. It was life-changing. It does something to you being on a horse that much. But after about three, four days, it turned from being fun — ‘Hey! Cowboy Camp! Let’s all go to Cowboy Camp!’ — to it being work. It was 100 degrees. We’re in Weatherford, Texas, and we’re up at the crack of dawn. We’re tending to our horses. Yeah, it turned into work. That’s when I got a real appreciation for cowboys — just the profession, the culture. It’s some tough work. You watch all these shows growing up, you see cowboys, they’re riding on the horses. It looks cool. I don’t know, just a bunch of hero moments. But the real work of cowboying is no joke. I got a whole new respect for it now.”
And even more respect, Garrett added, for the pioneers depicted in 1883.
“Everything out there, everything in nature, especially in the 1800s, it seems like it’s trying to kill you. You’re just trying to get from point A to point B and everything from weather, to creatures, snakes, animals, wolves, bandits — everything is trying to kill you. A lot of people were grossly underprepared for everything that was coming at them. So, I wouldn’t have made it back then. I know now, there was a different breed of human being back then. There’s a couple of guys on the show that I think would’ve made it. I’m not one of them.”
Right from the start, a standout element of 1883 has been the laconic chemistry generated by Garrett and Elliott as two taciturn friends who can communicate with a minimum of verbiage — but understand that, given their vastly different backgrounds, there are some things in each man’s past that the other will never fully appreciate. Garrett praises Elliott for going out of his way to cement this bonding on screen and off.
“We met each other in the saloon that’s on Taylor’s ranch,” Garrett said. “That’s our little bubble where we could all come together and hang out and blow off some steam. The first time I met Sam, he gave me a hug. He embraced me and he was like, ‘This is going to be amazing for both of us.’ Just knowing who Thomas and Shea are, from day one, we just hit it off.
“One of the first scenes we did for the series was the first day of shooting for everyone. It was the scene where we’re explaining to the immigrants that this is a snake, this is poison ivy, and so on. Taylor’s sitting behind the camera and we’re rehearsing the lines about toilets, the back and forth between me and Sam. It just kind of kept going — it didn’t stop. Taylor was laughing, everyone around us was laughing, and Taylor was like, ‘Alright, you guys got it.’ And from that point on, he just let us do what we do. We’ve just grown closer and closer together, me and Sam.”
Elliott is equally enthusiastic about his partnership with Garrett, and also speaks highly of co-stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
“Again, like LaMonica, I think all of us really in the beginning hit it off,” Elliott said. “Yeah, there’s probably a certain group of people that thought, ‘Oh yeah, here’s these country singers and now they’re going to become actors, and they’re going to try to pull that off.’ Well, they have pulled it off. They’re incredible in this thing. I think the work that Faith and Tim are doing, it’s as good as anything anybody else is doing in the show. They’re up to it.”
At the time the folks quoted here spoke with C&I, cast and crew were still at work on completing the initial 10 episodes of 1883 for Paramount Plus. “I think the most difficult thing on this whole journey is the weather we’ve been dealing with, the elements. We started out down in Fort Worth and Weatherford. It was like 107, 108 degrees. We’re out in the sun all day long wearing wool clothes. It was like being in a sauna most of the time. Then we went up to Montana, it was in the teens up there. We’re surrounded by those snowcapped Rocky Mountains and winds howling. We came back down and we’re back in Texas now.
“We got hit by a dust storm last Friday and it shut us down. We had to wrap early. The elements have been one of the biggest challenges for everyone. It’s the journey within the journey almost. We’re telling this story about this journey on the Oregon Trail, and within that, there’s this other journey that we’re on in the making of the show. You know, it’s a challenge.”
But Elliott wasn’t complaining.
“It’s fun day after day,” Elliott said. “It’s all fun. I’m a believer that if you can’t have fun making movies, then you’re doing it the wrong way. You haven’t got a clue. We’re so fortunate to be doing what we’re doing. We’re in the entertainment business, entertaining people is a wonderful thing.
“People need entertainment in this world we’re living in. And I’m forever grateful and thankful to be able to say that I’m in the entertainment business.”
Stream 1883 online or on TV with Paramount Plus — sign up or log in at paramountplus.com.
From our April 2022 issue
Photography: (All images) Paramount Plus