Not far from Montana’s Bitterroot River, a postcard for the American West, Kevin Costner was stoking a fire – pitching logs into a pit several feet away. “This is how you do it – you get it close, you make everything a little convenient!” he told correspondent Lee Cowan.
For the last five years, this valley has been his campsite – the backdrop for a modern-day Western that has taken off like a band of wild Mustangs. “Yellowstone,” a production of Paramount (CBS’ parent company), was the most-watched scripted series on television last year. It’s a show as sweeping as the family it depicts.
John Dutton, a Montana rancher played by Costner, is a man with one boot in the past and one reluctantly in the present. Land – that’s what Dutton sees as his legacy. The only thing more important is loyalty. Think “Bonanza” meets “The Godfather.”
“We’re a little violent,” Costner said of his TV family. “We’re, like, a little bit ‘Murder, Inc.,’ our family – a little bit!”
“Yellowstone” is a reminder that our notion of the American West is hardly as romantic as we sometimes like to believe. Costner said, “The ranchers that came here, they didn’t own this land, and they basically banded together and pushed out the Native population. It’s still beautiful. But it’s very easy to forget the drama, the things that we’ll never recover from.”
You have to know that world to write in it with any real sense of authority, and few can do that like “Yellowstone”‘s co-creator and writer, Taylor Sheridan. “I just make movies to support my horse habit,” he told Cowan.
If Sheridan looks and sounds the part of a horseman, that’s because he is one. He’ll talk riding and roping all day long, but much beyond that, he reins it in. “My least favorite subject is myself,” he noted. “I say about everything I wanna say when I write a story.”
There’s an economy to his language – a directness that he carries to the set, too. He said, “I don’t run much of a democracy. The words are the words. I don’t tell people how to act; I don’t need anyone to tell me how to write.”
And as writers go, he’s been called one of the most important Western storytellers in decades. He created “1883,” the pioneer prequel to “Yellowstone,” staring Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. It was so popular there’s now a sequel to that prequel, the upcoming “1932,” starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. “It’s ludicrous that I’m working with these people,” Sheridan said. “It’s fantastically insane.”
What you won’t find in any of his works are cowboy clichés. It’s easy to make a bad Western, said Costner; making a good one is Sheridan’s gift.
“Westerns, specifically, they can look really dumb, they can look obvious,” Costner said. “They’re hard to make, and that’s the problem. It’s like, it’s hard to make a Western you can relate to.”
Sheridan relates to it so well because he lives it – he owns not one, but two ranches in Texas, and actually provides most of the horses for his productions himself. “All the horses, for the most part, in our business are terrible,” he said. “They’re not very broke. They’re not very safe, which is one of the reasons you don’t see actors on ’em very often. And I didn’t want to do that. So, I bought all the horses for the show, and then taught the actors how to ride ’em.”
He couldn’t find an actor good enough on a horse to play a horse-trader on “Yellowstone,” so Sheridan played the part himself.
He fell into Hollywood first as a model. He later began to audition, and over the years got parts in shows like “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.” But after more than two decades of trying, he never became a leading man.
Cowan asked, “What kept you going in the acting world?”
“I think stubbornness, a refusal to fail,” he replied. “An interesting thing about Hollywood is, if you let it, if you listen, it will tell you exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.”
How so? “I have never seen anyone bang their head against the wall for 20 years and then make it. I’ve never seen that. I’ve seen it take eight years; I’ve seen it take ten years. But I’ve never seen it take 20.”
“And is that where you would come to?”
“Well, I had come to where the best I was ever gonna be was, you know, 10th on the call sheet.”
But one day a friend brought him a project, not to audition for, but to write. “I said, ‘Look, I have no idea how to do this, but I have a 15-year education on how not to do it.'”
His first script was for the series “Mayor of Kingston.” “I sat down and I wrote the first episode in about ten hours,” he said. “And when I was done, I said, ‘Man, I wished I had done this 15 years ago!'”
From then on, he began writing at a furious pace. Out came scripts for films like “Sicario,” “Wind River,” and his Oscar-nominated screenplay “Hell or High Water.” Not bad for only the second screenplay he ever wrote.
But when it came to his idea for the series “Yellowstone,” almost everyone in Hollywood passed – Nobody’s doing TV Westerns, they said. Sheridan said, “Look, anytime that Hollywood says a genre is dead, it’s because they made a bunch of bad movies about it.”
Chris McCarthy, Paramount Network President and CEO of MTV Entertainment, essentially bet the ranch that “Yellowstone” would resonate. “People think of Westerns as good guys and bad guys, and this is really such a different show,” he said.
“It’s much more complex,” said Cowan.
“Much more. And much more appealing. I’ve been in television nearly 20 years, and there’s very few times where my 18-year-old niece and my 80-year-old aunt ask me about that same show. And this was one of those moments.
“When you see the entire world, you get it,” McCarthy said. “He mentally creates his own world in the TV series. He creates that world for himself. And, you know, he’s unique that way.”
“He writes what he knows?”
“Absolutely. And he writes it incredibly well.”
Sheridan now has no fewer than 10 Paramount series either on the air or in the works. Busy doesn’t even describe his life – and that’s just the Hollywood side. He just became part-owner of the historic Four Sixes Ranch, consisting of more than a quarter-of-a-million acres near Lubbock, which financially means he better keep on writing hits to pay it off.
“I was about ready to retire,” Sheridan said. “I had saved. I had done really good. My goal was retire at 50.”
Not that he was going to play golf, he says. “I don’t know how to – I see that much grass, I wanna put cows on it.”
John Wayne once said that nothing is so discouraging to an actor than to have to work for long hours upon hours in brightly-lighted interior sets. Kevin Costner feels the same way – the outdoor world of the West that Taylor Sheridan has created is a place one no one really wants to leave.
Cowan asked, “What’s it like at the end of the day shooting? Do you guys all come down here and hang out and have beers?”
“I do. I come down here. Sometimes I just don’t go home,” Costner replied. “I just stay right here. I mean, if those mountains don’t feel the need to move, why should I?”
To watch a Season 4 trailer for “Yellowstone” click on the video player below:
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Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Mike Levine.