Tony Tost started out as a poet working in academia before he got his big break writing and producing on A&E’s (and later Netflix’s) western tinged cop drama Longmire. He’s moved on to create and run Damnation, his own gritty, historical drama set in the 1930’s on USA Networks and Netflix international.
Damnation is an interesting show that works as entertainment, history lesson, and reflection of our own times simultaneously. It’s a story about brothers on opposite sides of a labor conflict, but it also features some of the most well written female roles on television in a long time.
Tony was kind enough to do an interview with The Tracking Board about how he found himself working in television, and his experiences running his own show.
Portrait of Tony Tost by Kat Wilson
Hey Tony, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with me. I know you were a poet before you got your big break as a television writer, how did you make the leap from academia to television?
In the early 2000’s, I did an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arkansas. Another MFA student there was Nic Pizzolatto, who of course went on to do True Detective. We were decent drinking buddies in our MFA days, but after graduating we both found ourselves in North Carolina. He was teaching creative writing at UNC and I was doing a Ph.D. in American lit at Duke. While in North Carolina, we got a good deal closer. After his first novel, Galveston was optioned, Nic made the leap into script writing.
At the end of my Ph.D. days, I was looking to get out of academia and into screenwriting. I wrote a couple of scripts. Nic gave me feedback and then passed them along to his agents, who liked them enough to take me on as a client. This was around 2011 I think, when I was living in Seattle. My agents had me fly down for a week and a half of meetings with various producers and executives. From that trip, the stars sort of aligned enough that I scored a job freelancing for the show Longmire on A&E (and later Netflix), as well as a couple of pilot deals. So I quit the creative writing professor job I’d just been hired for and made the leap to screenwriting.
Who was the first person to give you a chance in the industry?
Greer Shephard was the showrunner of Longmire. She was the first person to really give me a chance, even though I was an incredibly green writer (in terms of scripts at least) and was living in Seattle during season one, and then Ann Arbor, Michigan during season two (my wife is an academic, so we bounced around a lot). Greer not only took the chance on me, she also began mentoring me from early on, paying to fly me out to New Mexico so I could get producing experience on set. Her goal was to prepare me to able to create and run my own series upon leaving Longmire, which is what I ended up being able to do with Damnation.
How hard was it to be so removed from the rest of the show writers those first two seasons?
When I was freelancing on Longmire from out of state, I didn’t feel too removed from the other writers because the Longmire writer’s room wasn’t set up like a traditional room. Individual writers focused really only on their own episodes. This was especially the case in the early seasons when there was a real procedural engine to the show. Essentially, I would fly to LA for two weeks to break my episode, and then I’d go off and outline it. We’d do notes over the phone. Then I’d eventually go to script, and the notes process would be done remotely, and then I’d jump into breaking the next episode. I usually did three episodes a season. All the other writers went through basically the same process. The only real constant in the room was Greer, Hunt [Baldwin], and John [Coveny]. The rest of us would really only be in the same room for maybe one or two days before the season began to talk about the season as a whole. The room was very, very small. There were seasons where the only writers were the Baldwin/Coveny team, Sarah Nicole Jones, and myself.
There were psychological downsides to being in another part of the country though. I would go through spells of uncertainty and anxiety and paranoia sitting alone in my office in Seattle or Ann Arbor while the whole machine was largely up and running without me. I was convinced that they’d figure out I was an impostor, a pretentious poet masquerading as a TV writer. But in season two, after writing my two assigned freelance scripts, I was asked to write two more episodes, one of which turned out to be one of my better scripts (Longmire episode 212, “A Good Death Is Hard To Find”). After that, I finally stopped feeling like a fraud and started feeling a bit more secure in the job and myself. Then we finally moved out to LA and I made the jump from freelancer to full-time staff writer.
Did you always want to create your own shows, or was it something Greer Shephard saw in you before you even knew it?
In terms of wanting to create my own show, I think I’m the sort of person who wears his ambitions on his sleeve. Whether it’s poetry, academic criticism, or screenwriting, I’m sort of a swing big or go home type of person. I had pilot deals and was pitching shows to networks when I was still at the freelancing stage on Longmire, so I don’t think there was any secret where I was aiming. Of course, there was also the chance that my ambitions were totally delusional, so having the validation and support from Greer played a huge role in me beginning to realize them.
Does Greer Shephard continue to be a mentor to you now that you’ve gone on to run your own show?
In the early stages of Damnation, Greer was someone I’d call or email during particularly stressful portions of the process, particularly when we were first shooting and editing the pilot. But after the series pickup and I got on to running the first season and she was running the last season of Longmire, there was less occasion to lean on her for advice. But she’s definitely someone I still look up to, and who I try to model myself on, and whose company I really enjoy. Along with head writers/EPs Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny, Greer cultivated a very healthy culture on Longmire, a culture that really sustained the show through endless ups and downs and hardships (and cancellations). The Longmire culture really nurtured my own creative and professional growth and I tried to bring a similar sensibility to how we ran Damnation.
What are some of the biggest things you learned writing and producing on Longmire?
Perhaps the biggest thing I learned on Longmire was understanding the nature of my job. In my first season and a half, I thought my job was to write and make the best possible show. But that’s not actually a staff writer’s job. No matter what level they’re at, I think a staff writer’s job is to make the showrunner’s job easier. End of story. As a showrunner, the question I’d ask myself was: what’s the best decision for the show as a whole?
As a staff writer, I eventually understood I wasn’t there to execute my vision or aesthetic, either on the page or on the set. I was there to embody and communicate the showrunner’s vision in their stead. That meant writing in the showrunner’s voice at the highest possible level. Or making decisions on set that the showrunner would make if she could be there. It also meant communicating in the right way: to ask questions and facilitate conversation, because the showrunner has hundreds of other things to focus on. One of my personal goals was to be high performance and low maintenance.
When working on Longmire on set or in prep, I would literally ask myself: what would Greer do here? What would Hunt and John write here? What can I do right now to make their job easier? And I’d use that as my starting point. It was incredibly freeing, because it allowed me to be impersonal but very focused in my decision making.
Longmire is set in the present day, so I’m curious about how much research you found yourself doing to flesh out the world of Damnation. Where did the idea for Damnation come from, and how did it change as the germ for the idea gestated within you? Was the story always intended to be set in the past?
The story was always intended to be a period piece. The seed for Damnation was a little snippet I found when reading about the Johnson County cattle wars in Wyoming in the late 1800’s. There was a woman named Cattle Kate, a fledgling landowner who was rumored to be a prostitute and who was – seemingly falsely – accused of cattle rustling and lynched by thugs working for ranchers. I came across notice of a boy about eleven years old named Gene Crowder who lived with Cattle Kate and saw her lynching. He ran away and was never heard from again. No one knows if he escaped, or was killed.
Anyway, I started imagining Gene Crowder racing to a nearby farmhouse and gaining protection from another boy, who was unstable but protective. I imagined this other boy, the son of an abusive drunk, would end up killing his own father to help Gene escape from Wyoming, but that Gene would abandon this unstable boy once the coast was clear. That was the first part of the story. Then I thought it’d be interesting for the two boys to re-encounter one another decades later as grown men. I’ve always been intrigued by the 1930’s, so I started reading around in the time period, trying to find an interesting time and place for these two men to run into each other. I came across discussions about farmer revolts in the middle of Iowa in Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, an oral history of the Great Depression. That really captured my imagination and I began writing scenes, and imagining one of these two men as a Pinkerton strikebreaker.
Very soon, I lost interest in the Wyoming backstory and got more and more obsessed with the 1930’s situation in Iowa. So I began focusing just on that element. I realized that I wanted the two men to be brothers, as that seemed like a more mythic, meatier dynamic to explore. I kept Wyoming as the backstory location, partially because I wanted the labor wars of the 1930’s to feel like an extension of the land wars of the previous century. I read as much as I could about the labor issues of the period, and Midwest and Iowa history, and everything else I could find.
When it came time to set up your own writer’s room for Damnation, did you take the same approach as Longmire, or did you have a more traditional group setting?
I set up a much more traditional writer’s room on Damnation. Other than when writers were off writing their episodes, we were all in the room together on every episode at the start of the season. Once production started up, I’d bounce back and forth between LA and Calgary every few days. On Longmire, I think there was maybe one half-day in my entire run where we worked on breaking episodes without Greer in the room. On Damnation, the room would sometimes go for days without me being physically in the room, though every time a new idea or scene would be proposed, our writer’s room assistant would text me a picture of the note cards, then I’d weigh in. Or we’d hop on the phone during the day so the room could pitch story moves or scenes to me, and I would either approve or revise or veto them.
I believe your writing staff on Damnation was evenly split between men and women, and it shows in the wonderful three-dimensional female characters the show features. Was there something surprising about Amelia, Bessie, or Connie you learned once the room began pitching ideas? How fleshed out were the characters before you assembled your room?
We did have a pretty diverse writing staff on Damnation, both in terms of gender and ethnicity. It was pretty invaluable because of the conversations we had while figuring out season one, and the diversity of experiences that were brought to those conversations. I had the characters pretty fleshed out before assembling the writer’s room. Damnation had been in development for a few years, so I’d mapped out backstories and story arcs for the main characters. After filming the pilot, we also had a three-week mini-room where myself and two other writers mapped out a rough sketch for season one on an episode by episode basis. So by the time I assembled the writer’s room for the season, I’d already written the first three episodes and knew the major story points of season one. For instance, I knew we’d have a penny auction in episode three, the carnival in episode five, a bank robbery in episode six, a jailbreak in episode seven or eight, a Black Legion night of terror in episode nine, and Seth’s first radio sermon in episode ten. All of that was planned before the room itself got together.
But there was also constant discoveries. The milk delivery shootout at the end of episode four was a discovery in the room and was pretty much the brainchild of Michael D. Fuller, who wrote the episode. Much of the Seth and Creeley backstory in Wyoming came together in the room. I believe Rayna McClendon, one of our staff writer’s, was the one who pitched the idea that Seth framed Creeley for the deaths of Cynthia and their father in Wyoming; my original idea was that Creeley had turned himself in out of self-loathing. Supervising producer Nazrin Choudhury came up with the idea of Connie losing her child to striking drivers, thus causing her to channel her grief towards stopping the labor movement. I’m pretty sure the idea of Amelia’s father and family being involved with the Duvall family’s intrusion into Iowa came out of the writer’s room. These things get hazy because there’s so much spontaneous riffing going on. The basic fundamental outline of the characters had been established earlier, but it took the writer’s room and the cast and the crew to really flesh out the particulars that made the character’s (hopefully) feel real and layered.
The thing that surprised me the most about Damnation was how Creeley went from being an antagonist to basically becoming almost more heroic than Seth, who is the show’s protagonist. That seems like a very fine line to walk to be able to pull off a believable transition like that. Were you worried at all that it wouldn’t work?
The plan was to always start off introducing Creeley as a traditional antagonist and Seth as the protagonist, and then complicate matters. Classically speaking, Seth is the protagonist because he’s the one with the active goal (starting a revolt) that drives the story forward. And Creeley is the antagonist because he’s the obstacle to that drive and goal. Back in the day, there wasn’t much moral flavoring to the protagonist and antagonist labels: even though Achilles is the protagonist and Hector is the antagonist in The Iliad, I don’t think we can label one of them the good guy or the bad guy. I like that kind of storytelling.
In the present day, of course, protagonist usually equals good and antagonist equals bad. So I wanted to start with that kind of familiar hero versus villain vibe, but gradually peel back layers and get to something different. Ideally, I wanted a viewer to be rooting for Seth in the early episodes, then question their sympathies in the middle, and then finally yearn for the brothers to come together and reconcile by the end of the season. In a lot of ways, my model for Damnation is the kind of character development you see in a James Ellroy novel. The film version of L.A. Confidential was a constant touchstone for me in discussing season one with my collaborators. I think that kind of model appeals to me because you can acknowledge the characters’ flaws and darker sides, but still push them to set aside those differences and darknesses to take on a greater evil – in our case, the Black Legion in episode nine.
Since the start of this project, my pitch on Seth and Creeley has always been this: Creeley is a good, kind dude who fate has forced to do bad things, and Seth is a dark, violent dude who fate has conspired to make him do good things. I found that to be a different kind of story than what a lot of cable dramas do. So I was surprised when critics looked at our first four episodes and seemed to decide we were doing an anti-hero remedial course or greatest hits medley or something. Because in the fullness of the season, I think Damnation is a very optimistic show about characters seeking redemption and reactivating dormant elements of their humanity in spite of the bloodshed and conflict.
What were some of your biggest influences on the look and feel of Damnation when it comes to film, television, music, and literature?
I think the biggest influences on the look of Damnation were Clint Eastwood films like Unforgiven, Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josie Wales, and A Perfect World. I think he’s the most amazing storyteller. Another big influence is the Coen Brothers in their more classical mode, like in True Grit, No Country For Old Men, and Miller’s Crossing. The ideal for me was to keep a certain restraint and classicism in how the camera moves and frames the story, but to find occasion for some striking imagery as well. Especially because shooting in Calgary allowed for such great landscapes and stunning light. It’s the same place Unforgiven, Days of Heaven, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford were all shot, so we tried tapping into that magic. But in making season one, I’d also bring up some less expected reference points, like the 1973 Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive for our color palette, or Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder and Mother for camera work, or Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Seven Samurai when talking about action. But all of those reference points were less important in total than my creative relationship with Adam Kane, our producing director, who directed the first two episodes and the finale, but who was also my creative partner on every element of the show. His sensibility seeps through every episode.
Music is huge for me. One of my goals in making Damnation was to try to tap into the kind of cosmic Americana vibe and deeper themes I feel in Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard songs – those two are probably my biggest artistic heroes.
Are you working on anything else you can talk about?
Right now I’m focused on writing a feature about Bobby Gunn, a real-life present-day underground bare-knuckle boxing champ who lives in New Jersey. It’s a great story with all the themes I’m drawn to. I have two main goals right now: writing a feature script that I would direct, and creating another show. I’ve got original scripts and ideas in various stages of non-completion in both categories.
Tony, thanks so much for doing this.
Thanks so much, Jeff. I really enjoyed it!
Jeff Iblings | Contributor
For six months out of the year Jeff is holed up in his home with nothing to do but shovel snow, watch television, write, and dream of warmer climates.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @OfSoundnVision
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