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 as well as an additional fourth sub-storyline.
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, Redfield County’s Sheriff, who plans to marry her off to the son of a wealthy oil tycoon. As a result, realising that she can never become a legitimate officer, Tessa decides to run away from home and become an independent bounty hunter, although she is in for a rude awakening in regards to the harsh realities that she faces when it comes to hunting outlaws. She’ll eventually receive guidance from another established female bounty hunter and scout named Sally Harding (whose backstory will be loosely inspired from the real-life figure of Calamity Jane).
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.
An additional storyline in conjunction with the main three will follow Seth McKinley and his daughter Maggie’s efforts to save their ranch from being bought by rich oil tycoon Noah J. Buchanan and his son Amos Buchanan (who is to be betrothed to Tessa). This task will eventually be taken upon by Maggie herself as Seth will become bedridden with illness.
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. My storyline following Maggie’s attempts to save her father’s ranch from being purchased by a wealthy oil tycoon will tie in with this main theme as Texas did experience an oil boom in the 1900s onwards. Additionally, 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 tries to negotiate with Noah J. Buchanan to save her father’s land being purchased by him to drill for oil.
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 from 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. Although I know that the pilot I’m proposing to write would be a big-budget project and isn’t suitable subject matter for an emerging writer such as myself to write as a calling card to the industry, I still want to challenge myself to write something on this scale. I never intended for this screenplay from the beginning to be my calling card into the industry; I merely wanted to write a story that interests me and that I can have fun with.
In a wider context, if I was writing this pilot to be produced and eventually be picked up to series, I have to first identify what successful shows are currently being played right now as well as why they are so successful as that would help me write my story to cater to what the current contemporary audience are keen for.
For example, successful shows in recent memory like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad will contribute heavily to what I want to achieve from my pilot script. Game of Thrones is popular notably for its complex characters, its unflinching violence (this is also a point of criticism for it also), its production values and its willingness to kill off popular characters as well as its rich and extremely detailed fictional world which parallels eerily with our own. This would mean that audiences are keen to gravitate toward shows that are challenging and that do things aesthetically different from other mainstream television shows. Breaking Bad on the other hand is popular for the show’s great writing and credible characterisation of its main characters. This would influence me to really the nail the writing of my characters in order for them to be believable and relatable to the audience who would no doubt be eager for great characterisation in shows in the wake of Breaking Bad’s success.
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.
Another TV show that balances multiple storylines effectively is Game of Thrones which I mentioned previously as being an inspiration to what I’m trying to achieve. My pilot will have a relatively large ensemble cast of characters like Game of Thrones has, as I would need to explore different perspectives in different environments within my setting to fully capture the spirit of the time. I plan for my characters to be complex in nature and not have a clear good and evil dichotomy. At times, characters who would initially be perceived as good will commit acts of extreme disrepute while characters who are initially perceived as evil and despicable will commit occasional acts of kindness and thoughtfulness. All of these will depend on the context of the scenes I write as each character would act differently in different scenarios. Furthermore, since my pilot is a Western, there will be a lot of violence in it as those times were very violent in nature, especially since my plot revolves around outlaws. Game of Thrones is noted for its violence so that would be a point of reference I can draw from, although it has been criticised for its violence being too gratuitous, I hope to find a balance between showing graphic violence consistent with the times, but at the same time not being as gratuitous.
In relation to Breaking Bad, the concept of that series will be explored within both William West and Tessa Trager’s storylines in the sense that over the course of a potential series, William will transition from a lawman with good intentions to being inadvertently just as bad as the men he is after, all in the pursuit of vengeance which is very loosely similar to Walter White’s character arc from a relatively good man to an antagonistic figure. With Tessa, her character arc will develop from a woman who is privately disillusioned with a patriarchal society to an individual who outwardly rejects society’s opinion and expectations of her.
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.
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.
Step Outline – to be completed by 10th November 2015 (status: completed)
Treatment – to be completed by 13th November 2015 (status: completed)
First draft – to be completed by 18th December 2015 (status: completed)
Final draft – to be completed by 4th May 2016 (status: pending)
Horn, T. (2014) Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter. United States: Createspace
Siringo, C. A. (2015) Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism (classic reprint) United States: Forgotten Books.
Django Unchained. (2013) Directed by Quentin Tarantino. [Film]. Columbia Pictures.
Deadwood: The Ultimate Collection. (2007) [DVD]. Paramount Home Entertainment.
McCarthy, C. (2010) Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West. Cormac McCarthy. London: Pan MacMillan.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Seasons 1-4. (2015) [Blu-Ray Disc]. Warner Home Video.
Breaking Bad: The Complete Series, (2013) [DVD]. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.