My dissertation project will take the form of a TV pilot screenplay that is set in the fictional county of Redfield, Texas in the year 1907. This period is the decline of the American Old West where the frontier lifestyle is dying out and is being slowly replaced by new technologies such as automobiles, machine guns and oil rigging projects. Since my dissertation project is a TV pilot, the whole screenplay will serve to establish three main storylines that will be explored throughout a potential season.
The first storyline follows William West and his quest for vengeance against George Jenkins, the man who killed his parents and burnt down his home eight years prior to my story’s setting. William joins the Pinkerton Detective Agency to hunt down Jenkins but learns that the men he is now working with are in fact no better than the man he is trying to catch. The second storyline follows Tessa Trager and her desire to become a law enforcement officer so that she can also track down Jenkins and bring him to justice after he rapes and kills her mother. She faces resistance from her father, Donald Trager, who is Redfield County’s Sheriff and is disapproving of her daughter “acting like a man”. The final storyline follows Earvin “Skip” Walters, a famous outlaw who is also hunting down George Jenkins, his former right-hand man, after he defected from the gang after raping Tessa’s mother. Skip embodies the “noble outlaw” trope in a sense that he easily commits murders and robberies but rape is the one crime he cannot tolerate, especially if committed by someone in his gang. All three of these primary protagonists’ storylines will be intertwined by their search for this one man and in some cases, one person’s actions in their hunt will influence the other two in some form or fashion and vice-versa.
The main theme that will be explored in my potential series is modernisation. As aforementioned, my setting is during the decline of the Old West as the old lifestyle of the American Frontier is being replaced by a more modern and less unruly society. I chose the year 1907 to set my story as that was a year before the Bureau of Investigation was founded (now known as the FBI) so my story would serve as an eventual lead up to that key event in US history. Government agencies were cracking down on outlaws during this period which leads to my secondary theme of my story: anarchism.
Anarchism was considered a real threat during the 1900s as US President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by anarchists. How present day society views terrorism nowadays was how society viewed anarchism back then. The whole political philosophy of anarchism will be explored through my outlaw characters and their backstories, exploring who they are and why they decided to become outlaws, probably as a result of them feeling disillusioned with the government. I will probably still need to conduct more research into anarchism.
Corruption of law enforcement is another theme I aim to focus on. When William joins the Pinkerton Agency, he immediately becomes alarmed to the underhanded methods some of the agents conduct in order to catch the men they are looking for. Pinkerton Agents at the time were reported to have been involved in intimidation, bribery, unlawful killings and excessive violence etc. Whilst these allegations have been disputed over the years, I’ve elected to include such behaviour in my story anyway in order to heighten my story for dramatic purposes but would take care not to exaggerate any such underhanded behaviour.
My final main theme which I wish to explore is femininity in 1900s America. Obviously American society was very patriarchal back then but I did not wish my story to just focus on men. I thought it would be more compelling to write interesting female characters that do not conform to how society viewed them back then. My main character for this is Tessa Trager but there is also Maggie McKinley, William’s love interest in the series, who is set to inherit her father’s ranch as his only child but faces opposition from his business partners due to her gender.
In all of my previous projects I have either written or co-written them, however all the stories I have written were always London-based so I was always writing what I knew. For my dissertation project I wanted to challenge myself and write something that I don’t know anything about as in the industry as a screenwriter, I know you won’t always be writing stories in settings you readily know so I thought this would be good practice and experience for me to be industry-ready.
In a wider context, the TV market is oversaturated with crime dramas, comedies, legal dramas, even superhero dramas but there are no major Western TV shows so there is a niche in the market for it. The last major Western TV show was Deadwood which was cancelled nine years ago. Maybe there is a lack of appetite for Western shows but I think that if it can be successful as a film genre then the same should be for television, it just needs a compelling story at the heart of it which is the kind of story I want to tell.
Tone & Research
For my research into the historical time of the Old West I have tried sourcing a number of books. I have acquired two so far that are detailed accounts of former Pinkerton Agents during the Old West. These books will be invaluable to me as the Pinkerton Agency will pay a vital role in my story. The books in question are Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter by Tom Horn and Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism by Charles A. Siringo. Another book I’m currently reading for reference is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy which is set in Texas in 1850. Whilst the timeline of the novel isn’t the same as my story as they are fifty plus years apart, the book is proving useful reference point in regards to the language and dialect the characters use in the novel as it would be similar to how my characters speak as Texans have a very distinctive dialect in the how they speak as well as the different colloquialisms they use. It’s vitally important that I nail the dialect of my script or else my characters will not have any credibility which is something I’m trying to avoid.
In terms of visual media for reference, Deadwood was the obvious choice for me to go far as a reference as it’s the only major television show in recent memory that is a Western. In terms of reference for my script, even though Deadwood is set in an entirely different state than my story and in a different time period also (1876), I still wanted to watch it to analyse and identify how the writers of that television show balanced the multiple storylines that are running in tandem. Since my screenplay will establish multiple storylines, I thought it was important for me to get an idea of how I can balance multiple storylines effectively.
Django Unchained is a recent Western film set in the south which would provide an additional reference source in regards to the southern accents that my characters will speak with. Whilst Django Unchained is set primarily in Mississippi and not Texas (as aforementioned, Texans have a very distinct dialect), I still think this film would provide a valuable reference in order to understand the cadence of the Southern American accent as I can actually hear the characters in the film talking, unlike Blood Meridian where I am just reading dialogue and not hearing anyone speak.
Finally True Grit is another film I am looking at for reference. The tone of True Grit balances well between drama and comedy which is something I want to achieve with my screenplay. Whilst for the most part, True Grit tells a serious story about a young girl who wants to seek justice for her father, there are humorous moments in the film to lighten up the tone every now and then.
I work better and more efficiently when I set myself deadlines so I decided to set myself personal deadlines to meet each stage of my writing process. I aim to have a first draft of my screenplay completed before the Christmas break so that in the second term I can focus entirely on writing and re-writing my script until the deadline of May 4th. In regards to my approach to redrafting my script after the Christmas break, I would adapt my redrafting process depending on the feedback I receive from my cohorts as well as outside sources who I plan to have read my screenplay for feedback (i.e. filmmakers I’ve worked with in the past, some actor friends etc.).
For example, if someone were to give me feedback saying the dialogue of a certain scene in my script did not sound natural, my approach to rewriting that scene would be to bring in professional actors in to do a read-through of that scene and try and work out how to make the dialogue sound natural based on how the actors perform the dialogue.
The main challenge I think I’m going to face is the amount of research I still need to do. I need to research law enforcement practice during the time period my script is set in, I need to research the political philosophy of anarchism and I also need to research the agriculture industry back then as one of the settings of my story is on a ranch. I’ll address these challenges by sourcing relevant books on the aforementioned areas of research as well as sourcing relevant historic websites as a secondary option if finding available books proves to be too difficult.