Kirk Ellis, president of Western Writers of America, is perhaps best known for having written and co-produced the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams, which garnered him two personal Emmy Awards among the 13 the adaptation garnered. Splitting his time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Palm Springs, California, Ellis has also written and/or co-produced such films as The Grass Harp (1995), The Beach Boys: An American Family (2000) and Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001). Twice he’s won the Humanitas Prize (for Anne Frank and John Adams), awarded for film and television writing that promotes human dignity and freedom. He collaborated with Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks on the 2005 miniseries Into the West, the “Hell on Wheels” segment of which earned him WWA’s Spur Award and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Wrangler. Ellis recently spoke with Wild West about screenwriting and Westerns.
How did you get interested in film?
I’m not one of those guys who started making short films at age 3. I came to cinema comparatively late—my high school years. I grew up in west Texas, a place where history isn’t a concept—it’s a living part of the natural and cultural landscape. The same thing is true of Santa Fe, which has been our home now for the better part of 20 years. Having originally been interested in a career in anthropology or archaeology, I thought I might pursue ethnographic filmmaking. But as I delved deeper into the history of film, I was quite swept away. The rest has been what I call a natural cycle of corruption into screenwriting.
How faithful are you to historical reality?
Dramatists have a different obligation from historians. Our job is to tell a compelling story—to get at the emotional, if not always factual, truth. I don’t believe in this concept of “objective” history. Every interpretation is subjective in some fashion. That’s what makes history messy, and messiness makes for great drama. That said, I’ve always prided myself on being able to capture the spirit of time, place and character, even when varying from the letter.
How do you rate legendary director John Ford?
Truth be told, I’ve never been the most ardent Ford fanatic. I think The Searchers is one of the most overrated of all American films. My personal preference runs to directors like Anthony Mann, who was much, much better at conveying the psychological realities of the frontier experience (and a better director). Budd Boetticher was a friend and mentor of mine, and his series of Ranown Westerns with Randolph Scott (the best ones written by Burt Kennedy) have a stark simplicity I also find appealing. Mann and Boetticher, not Ford, paved the way for people like Sam Peckinpah.
While researching John Adams, you read the same books he and wife Abigail read. Why?
David McCullough calls the research process “marinating your head.” It’s important when embarking on a journey to an unfamiliar time and place to immerse yourself not only in the story at hand but also the entire context. John and Abigail were voracious readers, and what they read influenced their own writing. Becoming acquainted with Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne, two of their favorite writers, offered a window into the Adams’ relationship as well as the 18th-century world in which they lived.
What drew you to Into the West?
I was originally hired to write only one episode (Episode 4, “Hell on Wheels”), which concerned the building of the transcontinental railroad and its collateral damage on native America—especially the tragedies of Sand Creek and the Washita. Both topics had long been passions of mine, and I already knew quite a bit going in. But before I was even done with the second or third draft, I became a supervising producer on the whole miniseries and took on the rewriting of the remaining episodes, along with work on those already shot. So by the end I had a whole library full of Western history, from 1826 to 1890, piled up on my dining room table, where I could usually be found cranking out pages for the next week’s shoot.
What advice do you have for readers of Westerns?
Don’t be put off by the label “Western.” Some of the finest fiction and nonfiction in this country is centered on people and places west of the Mississippi—think of Larry McMurtry, Ivan Doig and the late Sam Shepard. For my time and money it sure beats reading about the tawdry affairs of East Coast academics in the midst of midlife crises.
Just what is a “Western”?
As president of Western Writers of America, I’ve adopted the definition of a Western as anything set in the trans-Mississippi West of America, present or past. The Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Granite Mountain fire and the Standing Rock protests are just as much Western stories as the traditional genre tropes. Openness—expanse—is also part of the whole Western ethos. It derives almost entirely from the nature of the landscape. The West is a big country in every respect.
How are Westerns being redefined?
Westerns have been largely told from the perspective of the “victors.” That’s never been the real story and certainly not the only one. Patricia Nelson Limerick really turned the tables on her academic colleagues when she wrote The Legacy of Conquest, highlighting the contributions of those cultures marginalized by the mainstream narrative. That shift has had a profound effect on nonfiction and fiction writers alike. It’s a long overdue and necessary adjustment. We’re starting to see more stories emerge from previously unheard voices, and I fully expect that to continue.
What compelling stories have yet to be told?
David Grann told a whopper of one with Killers of the Flower Moon, about the Osage oil murders in the 1920s. That’s a story I’ve been wanting to do for years, but somebody else beat me to the rights—and paid $5 million for them. There are a few others, but to mention them would be tipping my hand.
‘I’ve adopted the definition of a Western as anything set in the trans-Mississippi West of America, present or past. The Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Granite Mountain fire and the Standing Rock protests are just as much Western stories as the traditional genre tropes’
How has the Western defined Americans?
No question the Western is part of our national myth. In researching John Adams, I discovered contemporary Americans are much, much closer to the founding generation than the pioneers in our social and political concerns. But America and Americans will always be associated with the image of that rugged individual hero. It’s a double-edged sword, though. If the Western means inclusion and the freedom for people to realize their dreams, then it—and we—have a future. If it represents only fatalistic adherence to a dying way of life, then we’ve got a problem. A very big problem.
In what ways do Westerns touch on issues not addressed in other genres?
Particularly in film and television, Westerns have been the favored genre to slip in social commentary without people noticing. You can track Westerns decade by decade and understand what the national concerns were in each era. Fifties Westerns are all about the “other,” reflecting the paranoia of the McCarthy years—High Noon is the most famous if not best example. Seventies Westerns like Little Big Man are as much about Vietnam as they are about the Indian wars.
Each year Western Writers of America inducts a living writer into its hall of fame. Who is this year’s honoree?
This year WWA is honored to be presenting Rudolfo Anaya with its Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement. Rudy helped establish Southwestern Chicano literature with a seminal novel called Bless Me, Ultima, and his output spans everything from children’s books to detective novels. It’s important for us as an organization to have voices like Rudy’s at the forefront, reminding us the West is very much a mosaic.
How does the Old West translate to other cultures and locations?
You haven’t seen obsession until you’ve attended a European-style rendezvous. When I was visiting Austria on a project, a colleague showed me an album from the Iron Curtain years full of photos of this encampment where these terrible communist-built two-stroke Lada cars were parked outside fanciful tepees. Don’t forget, German writer Karl May [Winnetou trilogy, et al.] was one of the most popular Western writers in history, yet the farthest West he ever got was New York City. A few years ago my wife and I encountered a young German couple at a B&B in Wyoming who’d been inspired by May to see the country. He wrote those books over a century ago, and they still cast a powerful spell.
How do you compare screenwriting to fiction/nonfiction writing as a profession?
Writing is a painful, exacting process in whatever medium. The big difference is that after all of that pain—some of it self-inflicted, most of it brought on by the vagaries of editors and publishers—a book author emerges from the ordeal with a neatly printed volume bearing his or her name on the cover. A screenwriter is only “published” when a film or television show actually gets made. I’ve been gainfully employed in the business for more than a quarter-century now and can count produced projects on the fingers of two hands. It’s not getting any easier, despite the new streaming delivery systems and the illusion of increased content. I write seven to 10 scripts for every one that sees the light of day. WW