It’s no surprise that AMC wants to go back in time. After all, Mad Men proved that fealty to history plus soapy drama is a winning combination — with critics, at least. (Viewers, it turns out, prefer zombies.) So the network’s latest journey to the past is Hell on Wheels, an honest-to-goodness Western that follows the workers constructing the Union Pacific railroad and the rolling tent cities of brothels, saloons, and thieves trying to separate them from their money. (Think Deadwood meets Supertrain. Or maybe don’t.) But the problem with historical truth is that it doesn’t always make for the best stories. So while Hell on Wheels will feature a bad guy drawn from real life — notorious railroad boss Thomas “Doc” Durant (played by Colm Meaney, above) — the things he does won’t be entirely accurate. We asked show creators Joe and Tony Gayton to tell us their rules for transforming past facts into current television.
Looks Don’t Matter
The real Durant was a straight-haired Massachusettsian with a sinister goatee. Meaney is a barefaced Irishman with a head of curls. “We didn’t even try to make them look alike,” Joe Gayton says. Why bother — Meaney doesn’t need a goatee to play evil.
But Soul Does
Not surprisingly, there’s a lack of saccharine in historical volumes mentioning Durant, so the Gaytons had to add artificial sweetener. “You never want a character to be one-dimensional, so we gave him a heart,” Tony Gayton says. “But that’s pure invention on our part.”
Print the Legend, Especially When It’s Fact
On the other hand, if the truth is awesome, use it. Many of Durant’s plans were so audacious that the Gaytons used them, including his attempt to build curved rail lines over flatlands to goose his profits — he was paid by the mile. “It didn’t say a straight mile,” Tony says. “It said a mile.”