‘Yellowstone’ Gets a Prequel in ‘1883,’ but It Wasn’t Easy

Making a western is a little like building a time machine out of wooden planks, leather straps and canvas sheets. But when the cast and crew of the new Paramount+ series “1883” headed into America’s frontier past, some wondered if they would ever make it back.

The show’s writer-producer (and sometime director) Taylor Sheridan created “1883” as a prequel to his popular Paramount Network series “Yellowstone,” which tells the present-day story of John Dutton (Kevin Costner), an aging Montana rancher trying to hold on to the enormous spread his family has owned for generations. Premiering Sunday on Paramount+, “1883” is a Dutton origin story, following the original settlers of the Yellowstone land as they endure the hardships of the Oregon Trail, accompanied by European immigrants and a few skilled frontiersmen.

Telling this story required a challenging five-month shoot that is still going — it began in August in a 100-degree Texas swelter and is continuing into the single-digit chill of winter in Montana. The locations have been remote, the days long, and in striving for authenticity Sheridan and his team have pushed themselves to the limit.

Calling from the set while putting the finishing touches on the 10-episode series — at press time, shooting was scheduled to wrap in early January, a few weeks after the first episode debuts — Sheridan recalled one particularly draining day when they struggled with something pioneers did all the time: piloting a wagon across a river.

“Here it is the 21st century,” he said. “And of course we choose a small river. But what we found out is that it’s still almost irresponsibly dangerous. And that’s with multiple stunt people and with us practicing it for weeks on end.”

“Fortunately, no one got hurt,” he added. “But it was a pretty dicey deal.”

In separate interviews, the stars each attested to the arduousness of filming “1883.” Tim McGraw, who plays James Dutton, spoke of bitterly cold 10-hour days on the outdoor Montana set, with “the wind howling at 40 miles an hour.” McGraw’s wife, Faith Hill, who plays James’s wife, Margaret, cited the uncomfortable cold, wind and dust, and noted that she endured it all “in a corset, by the way.”

Faith Hill, McGraw’s wife, plays his character’s wife in the series.Credit…Emerson Miller/Paramount+

“It is without a doubt, and Tim will say this as well, the most physically and mentally challenging thing we have ever done,” Hill said. “It is a beautiful portrayal but I mean, it’s real.”

Even Sam Elliott, a veteran of dozens of TV and movie westerns, flatly described the process of filming his role as the grief-stricken trail boss Shea Brennan as “difficult.” But, he added, “We’re getting it onscreen, and in the end that’s what matters. This is really going to be something special.”

Given that the cable TV ratings for “Yellowstone” have risen each year since the show’s 2018 debut — with the current fourth season averaging over seven million same-day viewers an episode, outpacing most network television shows — it is no surprise that Paramount would want to work with Sheridan to expand the show’s universe. As a fan of the Larry McMurtry cattle-drive novel “Lonesome Dove” (and its TV mini-series adaptation), Sheridan chose to tell a similar Wild West “road trip” tale, set nearly 140 years ago.

But after selling that idea to Paramount, Sheridan got writer’s block, and was unable to figure out a way into the story. It wasn’t until he was working on one of his other Paramount shows, “Mayor of Kingstown,” that his premise snapped into place.

The actress Isabel May had auditioned for that gritty political drama, but her sunny disposition didn’t fit with Sheridan and his co-creator Hugh Dillon’s intentions. Sheridan told the casting director, “She looks like American hope.” Later that night, though, he started imagining a sheltered young woman with a big heart in “1883,” wondering what would happen if someone like May left polite society behind and ventured into a land with looser mores.

Sheridan explained, “As soon as I realized we needed to see this story through her lens, I had the pilot written within a week.”

May’s character, Elsa, the grown daughter of James and Margaret Dutton, narrates “1883,” and the sense of excitement and optimism she brings to her western adventure balances the tragedy the family often encounters on the trail. When Elliott, McGraw and Hill were asked, in the waning days of shooting “1883,” what convinced them to spend months enduring extreme conditions to make this series, they all raved about Sheridan’s conception of Elsa.

“The narration is just pure poetry,” McGraw said. Sheridan described channeling some of the women in his life, including his wife and his mother, when he wrote for Elsa. “My mother grew up outside of Waco, and she was pretty wild,” he said. “She wanted to be a cowboy.”

Sheridan grew up in Texas around cowboys, and even today owns a cattle ranch in the state. He has participated in horse-riding competitions and also produced a reality series, “The Last Cowboy,” that offered a $1 million prize to champions in the sport of reining, in which riders show off their skills at getting horses to stop and turn. He has made it one of his missions to share the cowboy life — past and present — with the wider world.

Elliott is a cowboy of a kind too, having appeared onscreen in his first westerns back in the late 1960s. (With his deep voice, sunken eyes and droopy mustache, he looks like he experienced 1883 firsthand.) He was unfamiliar with “Yellowstone” before signing on to “1883,” he said, and admitted that it has been an adjustment to work on a big-budget show with many moving parts that are sometimes “hard to synchronize.”

Elliott said he took the job because he liked Sheridan’s colorful but direct dialogue. “His writing is very spare,” he said. “That’s a joy to work with. When you have dialogue that sounds like people talk, it’s a lot of fun to do it.”

“I’m not one of those actors who just immerses himself in everything that’s available about the character,” he added. “I have an understanding about the history, as it applies to these kind of things. But it’s really about what’s on the page.”

Casting the married country music stars McGraw and Hill in heavily dramatic roles would seem to have been more of a gamble, though Sheridan insisted that he’s never known a musician who couldn’t act.

“Musicians are acting every time they perform,” he explained. “They understand how to put inflections on syllables to stress the meaning.”

McGraw grew up on a Louisiana farm, where he rode horses and helped his stepfather round up lost cattle in the swamps. Taking on the part of James gave him a chance to reconnect with his childhood, though Sheridan still gave him “cowboy notes,” so that his arm positions would look more authentic.

The series represents another trip in the saddle for Sam Elliott, who has been acting in westerns since the late 1960s.Credit…Emerson Miller/Paramount+

As for Hill, she said she generally tries to avoid acting with her husband because they prefer to keep that part of their respective careers separate. (They have shared concert tours, “but being onscreen together would be an entirely different thing,” she said.) But she, too, was lured in by the scripts — she and McGraw passed the pages back and forth, eager to find out what was going to happen next.

“Once we committed to the show, we spent a lot of time speaking to Taylor, and he was adamant about this fact: ‘This is going to be really, really hard,’” Hill said. “We’re not afraid of hard work, but wow, he was not joking.”

Throughout his film and TV career, Sheridan has bounced between grittily real stories and ones that offer more pulpy kicks. His screenplays for the 2015 drug-war thriller “Sicario” and the acclaimed 2016 crime drama “Hell or High Water” fall on the heavier side. “Yellowstone” (which he cocreated with John Linson) and this spring’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” a chase movie based on a Michael Koryta novel and starring Angelina Jolie, are more escapist, despite their gruesome violence.

“1883” is an ambitious effort, with a plot that stretches from Texas to the Northwest and aims to counter some of the myths about the American West. Rather than being yet another saga of white settlers braving the threat of a violent Indigenous population, the series has the Duttons surrounded by non-English-speakers, freshly arrived from overseas and grimly aware that their travel brokers lied to them about their new home. The threats they all face are also more mundane than in the average frontier tale: roving bandits, tainted drinking water, the perils of a rushing river.

Sheridan knows how to tell an engaging story, mitigating the misery his characters endure with times of triumph and moments of warmth. He has also given “1883” the look of an old-fashioned western epic, with plenty of sweeping outdoor scenes shot by a crew that, having worked with Sheridan with since his 2017 film “Wind River,” has become “very experienced at making pivots,” he said.

“If it’s 50-mile-an-hour winds and it’s a night shoot, I can’t put my cranes up with the lights because it’s not safe,” he said. “So the schedule just got one day longer. What this really does is compress the post side, because the air dates are the air dates.”

This is why the “1883” production will be plugging away into 2022. McGraw laughed about how different the schedule has been from that of his regular job, which involves a lot of late nights and sleeping in: “I’ve seen more sunrises over the last five months than I’ve seen my entire life.”

That said, he admitted that there has been something inspiring about experiencing a version of what the Americans who settled the West went through, even if it’s only a Hollywood approximation.

“Everybody left paved streets and restaurants and civilization back East or in Europe,” he said. “It’s a lot like astronauts, to take that risk and go out into the unknown.”

So even though much of his time on “1883” has been exhausting, McGraw added, he has tried to savor every moment. “I like to get there an hour every morning before shooting and just walk around in the world,” he said. “Live in it. Feel it.”

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