For two decades Taylor Sheridan made a living as a sixth-on-the-call-sheet actor, and his cowboy Marlboro Man look kept him busy, if not satisfied. But he quit cold turkey, determined to take charge of his own destiny, and reshape himself into a writer and director. His scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water became highly regarded movies, directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie respectively. And the third in that disconnected trilogy, Wind River, came together with Sheridan himself at the helm, earning him the Un Certain Regard Best Director prize at last year’s Cannes.
He has spent the past 12 months working on the epic and disruptive Paramount Network series Yellowstone, which premieres June 20. Kevin Costner heads a stellar ensemble in a contemporary Western shot with the sweep of a feature film. The show is about the collision of an ambitious Native American casino owner (Gil Birmingham) who grew up believing he was Mexican, a real estate developer (Danny Huston) carving up this mountain paradise into condos, and Costner’s patriarch rancher trying to preserve the land; unusual in that it was white people who historically displaced the Native American population. Sheridan, appropriately, spoke to Deadline while herding horses at a rodeo in Katy, Texas.
Your scripts come from a personal place. What informed the seeds of conflict in this story?
Rainwater, the tribal chairman, 100% holds his people’s best interest in mind. What you have is the three versions of assimilation. I placed the white rancher in the position that the Native Americans were in 100-plus years ago because that is accurate to what’s taking place in what you can call the gentrification of the West right now. It is the most American of us, the West, and land developers sell that fantasy. And people who can afford the fantasy are very, very wealthy people from LA to New York, Dallas and Florida. They buy their slice of it and use it for a weekend getaway. In the process, those land values and inheritance taxes are killing a way of life.
It does seem ironic to see the white rancher and his family on the other side of that.
Whether you call that some cycle of the manner in which humans treat each other, that area was settled in the 1870s, early 1880s, and some of these ranchers are eight-time generations. Their great-grandfather doesn’t recall it being taken from someone else, which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t. It just means that those people aren’t directly responsible for it, and now it’s being taken from them in a different manner. The manner is now with money instead of through policy and government and military.
Too much to fit into your usual feature film format?
This long-form version has been an interesting way to cover ground I’ve been exploring in my other films, in a way I think is very rich and entertaining. It’s also something I haven’t seen done in commercial television in a really long time. The linear format of TV is almost dead and people binge-watch and it’s very hard for these commercial television channels to compete. And yet, they have a lot of resources and they were kind of going the way of the dinosaur, if they don’t evolve and change in the way that they do television. And this was my answer to Game of Thrones.
Not in sheer size, but in saying, “Hey, guys, you can do this too; a different version.” You can actually use commercial breaks to your benefit, build tension with them. It can be a more communal viewing experience. People can get together to watch like they used to. I remember as a kid with Miami Vice, on Friday everyone went somewhere to watch it. That communal experience at home is gone; it’s dying in theaters, as well. I wanted to see if we could do that kind of renaissance.
But not as a feature.
Structurally, I approached it like a movie. I wrote it like one and filmed it like one. I wanted it to look like a movie, and tried to get the network to trust that, which is obviously a terrifying proposition for them, and I understand that. But, as a storytelling vehicle, it’s effective. It’s cinematic, and the fact now that everyone has 60- or 70-inch TVs at home with surround sound systems, you can create a cinematic experience.
But it’s another rising movie voice gone to television. The blurring of the lines between film and TV has created a most disruptive space. What most concerns you about the traditional feature format?
I just had this conversation the other day with the head of the studio where I had an idea I can’t really talk about, but we have all this IP, and everyone wants everything to be IP. And it’s not necessary. There is a renaissance in the independent film world right now with incredible work being done. You’re also seeing that there’s enough independent money that you don’t have to work on a micro budget anymore. There are ways to make a $50-$60 million movie independently and that is a real threat to the studio system. All they’re trying to do is Marvel. The only game they’re playing is the $200 million budget film. At some point, people will get tired of seeing Batman, no matter how many new circumstances they put him in. They just will.
What does that tell you?
Original content is the future, just as it has always been the lifeblood of our medium. Whether it’s a television network or a movie studio, this is about trusting that your artist will execute. If we do our job and tell a great story cinematically, people will come. They really will. You don’t actually have to have the marketing built into the budget. This cost a tremendous amount of money and I’m very appreciative of Paramount to give me the freedom to do it.
Hard to expect studios to feel differently. Even bad superhero movies draw huge grosses.
Studios lose lots of money trying to create original content that wasn’t executed very well. You have to recognize it’s a business and what you bring has to be bulletproof. Do that and they’ll trust you. I’m not talking about concepts. I’m basing this on a world, and a journey within that world that is reflective of us. I don’t know that what I’m doing is original; I’m just doing what the people who I study did: Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, going back to John Ford. Some of their bold original ideas paved this path.
You’re back on TV for the first time since you went from actor to writer and then director, after your Sons of Anarchy character got killed off. That show had a strong sense of authorship from Kurt Sutter. Was there frustration over not being heard or having input? How did that influence your radical career pivot?
I didn’t know I was going to write until I quit the show. I had no idea. I did TV shows for 20 years. I don’t know if it’s through osmosis that you pick things up and you get a PhD in storytelling—what to do and not do, how to talk to actors and how not to—without being aware I was getting that education. As far as working on Sons, it was very enjoyable; I never had any conflict or saw any. It was a very well-cast show. The dialogue was great. It was fun to do. So there were no battles like that. No battles over character; my character was quite clear.
There had to be something that happened that prompted you to quit and go off and write Sicario?
100%, yeah. We were renegotiating on Sons after the second season and I had one idea, and the studio had a different idea. Everyone on the show was making twice what I’m making, the other series regulars. We’re not talking about the stars. And I’m on the DVD [cover] bro; only two people on it. I say, “Why is this all you’re offering me? It seems unfair.” I’m told, “That’s all you’re worth and all you’ll ever be worth.” I took that in. And I said, “OK. I guess I’ll tell my own stories.”
You were around 40 when you got your first writer credit. This doesn’t happen.
Sicario was the first feature I wrote. I had worked on some really bad movies and really bad TV shows and that’s not counting the ones that I read for and I didn’t get. Or the ones I read and wouldn’t audition for. I sat down and said, “I don’t know how to do to this. But I sure know what not to do.” Like, all the shit that you’ve found yourself having to say and do in situations, for lazy moments with writers who stick to the rules and know not to break them. Instead, write a movie you want to see, that says something about the world.
The other thing was, I hadn’t ever done anything as an artist. No one gets into this going, “God I hope I can be sixth on the call sheet, and get a pretty nice Mercedes.” I wasn’t among those precious few actors in the position to choose things, so I spent the first 20 years of my career compromising. I decided I would spend the next 20 never compromising. Not compromising visions, execution, edit and who I wanted to cast. That doesn’t mean not listening or being collaborative. It just means never compromising my vision.
I have been ruthless on my own screenplays as far as what I omitted or trimmed down. I was merciless on Wind River in the edit bay and had no loyalty to the screenplay that I wrote. My loyalty then was to the story that needed to come out. And over that trial by fire I’ve reached a place where I think I have the skills to go with a voice, and with Yellowstone, there’s not a wasted word on the page. That was my goal and hopefully I achieved it.
What about your family, not knowing if you could make a living? What was the most desperate moment as you made that transition?
There’s two things. First, I imagined jumping forward seven years when I found out my wife was pregnant, and living in some little two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood. And telling my son he can be anything he ever wanted to be, but that I can’t make his soccer game because I’m auditioning for a Windex commercial. That’s not living by example. And that’s where living through compromise had gotten me. A two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood. So for me, not compromising was the best way to provide and hopefully live by an example.
In Sicario, Benicio del Toro’s protagonist character comes upon the drug kingpin who murdered his family. He executes the criminal’s family in front of him. Talk about not compromising. What were those conversations like?
Well, that was a collaborative moment. Remember, Alejandro was not the protagonist; he was the antagonist in every sense of the word. In the original screenplay, Benicio executes the father in a rather brutal way in front of the wife and the kids. And he gives the speech that basically says, “Take these kids away, go somewhere. Raise them to be a doctor or lawyer so I don’t have to kill them someday.” Why not just have him kill them now? He’s wise enough to know they’re not going to become doctors and lawyers. This is what they were raised to be. And to make his brutal statement about his state of affairs in the drug war and greed when he just possibly could… So that’s how that evolved.
Denis Villeneuve was the director, and as screenwriter I was there to serve his vision. You sort of surrender your vision as screenwriter, so you have two choices. Take a stand and argue it needs to be shot exactly the way that you wrote it—and then they will just hire someone else who doesn’t have your voice. Or you can offer whatever assistance you can to help him realize his vision. I may the build the ship but the director is the captain. Now, as the filmmaker, I’m building the ship and steering it.
Wind River won you Best Director in the Un Certain Regard category last Cannes. It was one of 2017’s top grossing prestige pictures, but didn’t register much in awards season, its message about the undocumented rapes of Native Americans on reservations getting skewed in that its theatrical distributor was Harvey Weinstein. You stripped the Weinstein name off the DVD, but a worthy film got ignored. What happened and what was your takeaway?
The campaign is a bizarre necessity if you want a film to be recognized. The Tunica-Biloxi tribe was going to finance that, and those things cost $5-8 million. I managed to get The Weinstein Company to agree to donate all their future proceeds of the film to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. But the Tunica-Biloxi tribe needed to be reimbursed ahead of that because they were about to pump all this money into an awards campaign. And so it seems to me that now we were going to take money from the organization that I just compelled a company to give money to, to go try and win an award. That seemed counterproductive to what I was trying to achieve. So I said, “I’m not going to campaign. It’s a waste of money.”
You pulled yourself out of the race?
It felt like a good, nice clean break, and the right thing to do. I didn’t want to have to go on an apology tour for something that none of us involved in the film did wrong. I didn’t want the legacy of the film to be that. The message of the film should be its legacy. There was a law passed in Washington State. There’s a law before Congress as a result of this film. I’ve given testimony to Congress and there are bills now that will mandate the federal government to document the number of missing murdered women on Indian reservations. On top of the fact that I think it’s a good movie, it gave a little recognition to the Native American actors getting opportunities to play roles now that aren’t tethered to their heritage. So those are all, for me, tremendous accomplishments that very small film was able to achieve.
And many of the Native American actors from Wind River are part of Yellowstone…
That is fantastic, but I didn’t give them anything. Their work is splendid. But we make a lot of message movies in our business, and how often is the way that you put a movie or series together part of the message? In the end, it’s somehow all message.
The press describing Yellowstone and your films often use the phrase ‘Red State appeal’ because of the geographical setting. It’s a phrase used in assessing why the Roseanne reboot became an outsized success. We’re so polarized as a society, forced to choose sides on everything. Stars seem obliged to be pro- or anti-Trump and it overwhelms their promotional campaigns and alienates parts of a potential audience. What do you think?
To be perfectly honest, it’s bullsh*t noise. I’m in Katy, Texas right now, moving horses, and I just left this shopping center after getting an organic gluten-free shake from a shake shop. It’s the same. People are not that much different. It’s very convenient for the media to invent controversy and it’s in their better interest to polarize and anger and scare so that we internally do this. We watch it, and we have an identifiable enemy. To think that everyone from inside a barrier of the Eastern Seaport or on the West Coast thinks identically is ludicrous. It’s absurd and insulting that the media has proposed it that way. And the contrary news stations have embraced it as well.
It’s damaging to our country. It’s preventing any meaningful change from taking place. You can’t get a law passed in Washington, because even if you believe in something, if it’s contrary to your side of the aisle, you can’t vote for it. So the extremists are running the country and that is not the way this government was designed.
I think that our news organizations, particularly the cable news organizations, have done a tremendous disservice to this country. They built all the puppets that we’re screaming at.
I think that what we can do—and I can only speak for our industry—is really look for ways to explore these issues and try to find ways to bring people together. Because this is not sustainable.