As National Geographic gears up to debut its first historical fiction series, Barkskins, on Monday, May 25, creator, writer and showrunner Elwood Reid tells TV Drama about bringing Annie Proulx’s acclaimed novel to the small screen.
The eight-part series from Scott Rudin Productions and Fox 21 Television Studios is set in New France in the 1690s, exploring the massacre of a group of settlers, with a cast that includes David Thewlis, Marcia Gay Harden, James Bloor and Christian Cooke. It premieres in the U.S. with back-to-back episodes and next-day release on Hulu.
Reid, a novelist and TV writer whose credits include Cold Case, Hawaii 5-0, and The Chi, was tasked with bringing Proulx’s Barkskins to life for Nat Geo. It started with a call from Carolyn Bernstein, Nat Geo’s executive VP of global scripted content and documentary films, with whom Reid had worked on The Bridge when she was at Endemol Shine. “She said it’s a monster book and I’m not sure it’s adaptable, take a look. Scott Rudin stood out to me, Annie Proulx is an idol of mine. And then quite frankly the chance to work with Carolyn Bernstein again and do the first fictional show for Nat Geo. Everything was right. And then I read the book and knew there was not a TV show like this on right now: a costume drama with murder and guys with axes in the woods. It had a lot of interesting angles I could explore. It was a no-brainer to say yes.”
Barkskins the novel spans more than 700 pages; Reid says that season one of the adaptation draws from just the first 100. “When you leave 600 pages of a book on the table, there’s a lot of room for a lot more stories. I designed it to ramp up to a high point and then just drop you off a cliff. You want to leave the audience wanting more and not feeling like they ate the whole meal. It was a very conscious decision on my part to do that. These characters need actors and I had so much fun with these actors in this world that I would love to do another season.”
As for juggling so many characters and storylines, Reid notes: “When you have lots of storylines, and you’re going to be moving from one to the next, you [have to] make those scenes count. So you dip into let’s say Trepagny’s [played David Thewlis] storyline, and I’m going to give you all the good stuff. I’m giving you the main course. And then we go to the next pot of characters. Everything moves. It’s not five scenes where I can see Trepagny walking through the woods and talking. You leave the scene at a high point and go to the next storyline. I was trying to tell a really big story and I knew I’d have a lot of characters so I laid down tracks as fast as I could. If you watch the first episode, a lot of shit goes down. Every episode is like that. I like shows that have a lot of nooks and crannies.”
Having worked on many crime dramas in the past, Reid was eager to bring some of the sensibilities of procedurals to the historical fiction space. “One thing I noticed about those shows is, the minute there’s a body, people by and large, no matter how bad what follows is, are going to stick around to find out what happened and why did they do it. It’s a very effective motor and I think we tend to only apply it to cops in Armani suits walking around cities. Why not transplant some of that motor into period drama? I think it really works. It felt good to be able to drive the story around a central mystery. One thing you always have in a procedural is this train track. You can diverge off that train track but the minute you get back on that story track the pace picks up. It’s very comforting to have that as a writer.”
Look out for a longer interview with Reid in TV Drama Weekly next week.