A TV epic tiptoes through the West
LOS ANGELES — Don't expect to sit back and relax when you tune in for "Into the West." The ambitious TNT miniseries that chronicles the 19th century American frontier from the perspective of two families - one native American, the other white settlers - comes complete with English subtitles for the many native Americans who speak in their own languages.
"We erred on the side of authenticity, as opposed to doing it in English," says co-executive producer Darryl Frank. "We wanted to do it the right way."
Hollywood is finally telling the full story of the native American, says Charlie White Buffalo, a Lakota Indian who acted as a language coach and adviser to the TV production.
"You may be reading the subtitles and you may say, 'Why is he saying that?' " says Mr. White Buffalo. "For the Lakota people out there that understand the language and are going to be watching this, they are going to say, 'I got a lump in my throat. I feel good about this. That may be what my grandma and grandpa did.' "
"Into the West" spans frontier history from 1825 to 1890, covering events ranging from the California Gold Rush to the building of the transcontinental railroad. It culminates with the massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D.
The series, with Steven Spielberg as executive producer, aims to tell a tale that resonates as much with the descendants of Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in 1890 during the final Indian wars, as it does with viewers looking for a high adventure epic.
The goal of the miniseries was to steer clear of Hollywood horse opera clichés of pioneers and Indians, according to the producers. "I don't think we classify this as a western," says co-executive producer David Rosemont. "This is really a film about the West," he says, adding that meticulous attention was paid to everything from wardrobe and locations to the authenticity of the native-American languages.
With a different director guiding each of the six episodes, the miniseries employs the familiar but effective storytelling device of uniting two families from the different sides of history to tell a single tale.
At the start of the saga, a Lakota Indian named Thunder Heart Woman marries Jacob Wheeler, a white wheelmaker from Virginia. The tale follows their descendants over the subsequent decades.
Stripping away decades of conventions of the western genre and stereotypes about the settlers and Indians was no easy task. Justin Falvey and his fellow producers consulted scholars to check facts and worked closely with writers William Mastrosimone and Kirk Ellis on the complex screenplay.
"We made sure we backstopped ourselves with extra credibility," adds David Rosemont, citing George P. Horse Capture, special assistant for cultural relations at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Kay-Karol Horse Capture, a specialist in ethnography and material culture, as examples of experts who vetted the scripts.
The cable network is clearly aiming to capture audiences looking for an alternative to summer reruns on network television. While TNT won't reveal the budget, industry trade publications estimate that the channel has spent more than $100 million on the show.
With so much riding on it, executives are sensitive to the suggestion that the series may be overly politically correct.
But Michael Wright, senior vice president for original programming at TNT, claims that the series is balanced and nuanced. He stresses that the intent of the research behind the series was that the story would be fair to all sides. "There are good people on both sides of the story and there are parts of the story that haven't been told," he says.
The series boasts enough familiar names to attract a wide range of audiences, from Rachael Leigh Cook and Keri Russell, to Matthew Modine, Sean Astin, and Beau Bridges.
Working on the series was an education, say those involved. "It's about all the European ideals, and how these ideas about living and culture spread across America," says Matthew Settle, who plays Jacob Wheeler.
White Buffalo, a tribal elder who teaches the Lakota language at Ogala Lakota College in Kyle, S.D., believes that the production has successfully avoided stereotyping his people. "What it's doing, from my point of view, is humanizing the native American," he says.
The series is a reminder that, despite the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee, his people did not disappear. "We are still here," says White Buffalo. "The culture is reviving."
• "Into the West" runs throughout six consecutive weekends on TNT, beginning Friday night at 8/7c.