Taking on an epic 700-page novel that covers the complex 300-year history of New France is no easy task, but it was one that creator Elwood Reid was eager to tackle head on with NatGeo’s Barkskins. As Reid described the era, it’s a time of unexplored territory that Hollywood has been hesitant to dramatize. A period set in the small French settlement of Wobik, Barkskins dramatizes the complex time where French and British settlers and the First Nations People clash. The series begins as the settlers are terrorized by a mysterious massacre and follows an eclectic and diverse ensemble of characters as they uncover what happened all while discovering what it takes to survive in this unforgiving new world.
Creator, executive producer, and writer Elwood Reid took the time to speak with Awards Daily regarding the journey to adapt the acclaimed Annie Proulx novel for television including the mountain of research and what it was like condensing a sweeping novel into a concise eight-part series. Reid touches on his past experience working in procedurals like the fan-favorite Cold Case and how that helped him understand that the very best period pieces tap into the emotional stakes of the time. He also describes how that helped him take a deeper psychological look into the world of Barkskins.
Awards Daily TV: Thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk with me! I wanted to begin the interview by asking how this journey began for you? How were you introduced to the original Annie Proulx novel and how did you know this would make for such a rich series?
Elwood Reid: I am a novelist and screenwriter and Annie Proulx is a writer that means a lot to me. So when Scott Rudin, a producer I have always wanted to work with, optioned the book I paid attention. I remember reading the book for the first time and holding my breath thinking “there’s so much here.”
The problem when I first read the book was that it is so big and contains stories for like 20 TV shows. The world is so fascinating, especially the first 100 pages. My stress test for a TV show is that I look around and check if there is another show like this on the air and there is no show like this on the air. So, Annie Proulx, Scott Rudin, Nat Geo, and a world that we haven’t seen on screen? – It was very easy for me to say yes. That being said it wasn’t one of those shows that I felt like I could do in my sleep, it scared me. I believe that if something scares you it is a sign that you are going to do great work. I am at a point in my career where I want to take on things that are challenging to me.
ADTV: As you just mentioned the world of Barkskins is incredibly vast and one that covers many different cultures. What was that research like and how did you sort through what must have been a minefield of interesting knowledge at your fingertips?
ER: I had this amazing associate producer and researcher who changed my life by the name of Mimi Munsen. I don’t know how she does it. I had been doing some of my own research but the problem I came across was that a lot of what was available was in French. So we had to do a lot of digging and every day Mimi would send me something cool. After reading the book I knew there was a world there but every day Mimi would send me these big digested blogs that she read and she introduced me to a mountain of material.
When we think about historical dramas, we have gone through a lot of war movies, westerns, the time of ancient Rome. We selectively jump around history and they fall into these genres that people can easily pinpoint but this is an era of American history that not many people have explored. There have been some like a movie called Black Robe and a book long time ago by Brian Moore but overall this era has not been explored, particularly this mix of the French, the English, and the First Nations People. It felt like I was in unexplored territory.
ADTV: Why do you think Hollywood has been so hesitant to explore this era of history that feels so rich with interesting stories to tell?
ER: I watch a lot of what you would call period or costume dramas – you know you’re Belgravia or Downton Abbey. They all seem to fall into tropes and I think what you’re responding to is what I’m trying to do is take adventure, mystery, and a lot of plot and place it in what looks like a costume drama. We do have that element of the dances, the flirting, the clever wordplay but then the next scene there’s a guy in the woods taking an axe to someone’s head. It is a juxtaposition of those two things.
The other element of what I was searching for was that if you look at the founding of North America a lot of it was religious based with the church sending people out to conquer and convert people. There was also a lot of commercial interests with the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, the French; they were all here to exploit this vast land that seemingly had inexhaustible resources. There was a lot of plot and motivation there for a soup that I put on broil and tried to reduce to a bone broth. That’s the way I always approach a show – boil, boil, boil until I get to the most powerful stuff that pulls a viewer along. Again, I watch a lot of period shows and they always fall into this pattern but I wanted to achieve something different.
ADTV: Annie Proulx’s epic novel covers a lot but was there anything in your adaptation that didn’t stem from the original story that you inserted?
ER: There was quite a bit. The only things that came from the first 100 pages of the book were the characters of Claude Trepagny (David Thewlis), Rene Sel (Christian Cooke), Charles Duquet (James Bloor), and Mari (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Melisande (Tallulah Haddon). Everything else I invented; Mathilde (Marcia Gay Harden) is not in the book, Goames (Aneurin Barnard) and Yvon (Zahn McClarnon) are not in the book. I heightened all of that stuff. The inclusion of the priests and the Jesuits were elements that I put in there.
It was all a way for me to take her world and inject more plot into it. I was only taking the first 100 pages of this huge book so I needed to inject more plot. Her original covers a lot, she’ll go through an entire decade in one paragraph. She was narrating this massive history of North America.
ADTV: Looking back on some of your past work in television one of my all-time favorites is Cold Case. One of the reasons I was so drawn to it was that in the confines of a procedural you were able to masterfully craft these character driven stories. I was curious if your work on shows like Cold Case influenced your work on Barkskins at all and what overall drew you to these characters?
ER: It’s funny, I get asked about Cold Case all the time. At the time there were a lot of procedurals. I love procedurals and they’re one of the things that got me into television but for me Cold Case was special. There’s always a body and a murder but the cool thing about Cold Case was that every week – I did a show about a guy in the 50s going off to the Korean war, about skate rats in the 90s, a brush salesman in the 60s – every week it allowed you to go into these worlds and explore emotions that were inherent to those time periods. What you’re really asking is that when you look at period shows, the best of them at least, are the one that take the stakes of that time period and get you into the emotional stakes.
That is what I did with Barkskins. Yes, the guys were wearing funny hats and weird shoes and all the women are wearing corsets but their concerns and their day-to-day struggles are no different than ours. I think we forget that a lot of time when we look back through history but when we go back to New France that was the beginning of the civilization, the struggle to conquer a new land. Immigrants coming to this country to seek their fortune and that happens everyday in this country. It’s an immigrant story and it’s an American story. Those themes ring eternal and it was easy to hit that note.
ADTV: This is a genre that I feel puts women on the back-burner and sometimes completely omits them from the narrative. What I loved so much about Barkskins was that you really went through history and portrayed their stories in ways we had never seen whether it be through stories of Indigenous women, the Filles du Roi, and even Marcia Gay Harden’s character. What was that process like creating these roles from history?
ER: It’s interesting because when I watch historical shows that import a current political agenda into the reality of that historical time period. They revised history. I did not want to do that. So what I chose to do was to look at the period, through a lot of research, but the history of the time was written by men and this goes for the history of the First Nations People as well. So that doesn’t mean that women weren’t present and vital parts of the community it just meant that men were focused on their story. Everyone is the hero of their own story and men are particularly good at excluding everybody else. But if you looked there was this program by the French government, the Filles du Roi, that sent young women sometimes as young as 13 or 14 from the streets of Paris and put them on a boat with a promise to get a husband and inherit land. I have four daughters and I can’t imagine them leaving their family behind and picking their husband for land. It was an amazing fucking thing that happened that I didn’t have to create.
Then there’s Mathilde/Marcia Gay Harden. A lot of the women that were brought over there were brought because their husbands were trying to improve their fortunes. If you look at the French society the women were integral to the societal fabric, the social strata that existed all existed the husband and wife. Already in the material for the show was that these women were presented as the most valuable resource in that period. There were men hunting fur and timber but they needed women to survive so they had a lot of power. At the same time they weren’t able to own land so with Mathilde I wanted to ask what happens after she loses her husband? They owned an inn and she was the brains and the smarts of that operation. How does she hold onto this power?
The same thing can be said of the nuns. These were women that knew nothing about this place and were living in shacks in the woods preaching the word to the First Nations People, they were birthing children, they were there healing people. These women and stories were already there but they get alighted because of who writes history.
ADTV: This is also a genre that has notoriously portrayed Indigenous people in a grotesque and unfair manner. What kind of lengths did you go to that the aspects of the First Nation People were fairly and accurately portrayed with agency?
ER: It goes back to the history of the First Nations People. These were very old, highly advanced civilizations. They were there for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Technologically speaking the First Nations People were far more advanced at surviving and navigating the landscape. The Europeans died off and they needed the Native Americans. We look at the First Nations People through this monolithic culture and think of them all as the same. Particularly in this area that could not be farther from the truth. There were a whole bunch of nations and sub-nations with their own views of the Europeans. Some loved trading with the French and some preferred trading with the British while others wanted nothing to do with either.
I did a lot of reading, but again, this was the white man’s history, so I had to constantly remind myself of that. Another thing I did that helped a lot was hire two other writers. I hired David Treuer, a Native American friend of mine who wrote The Heartbreak of Wounded Knee. The other writer I hired was named Migizi Pensoneau. Our first day I told Migizi “I’m going to get all of this shit wrong. Your job is to update what we think we know.” It was important for him to tell me how he wanted to have Native Americans depicted. It was about listening to them and viewing them as partners. I began the project by asking them to list all of the things in movies and shows that pissed them off.
One of the things he was tired of, something I know that I and many viewers are guilty of, is something he called chief speak. This idea that Native Americans spoke English (which is not the language they spoke) in this halting way. “The. Moon. Rose. Over. There.” He didn’t want to see that and he wanted to see Native Americans that switched between English, French, and their own language. He wanted their speech to be modern. They didn’t speak archaically. They were trying to get along with Europeans. It was tricky shedding this monolithic idea, but it was important and we were trying to do something different.
ADTV: As you mentioned earlier, you only focused on the first 100 pages of the novel. Do you have any plans to revisit the rest of the story?
ER: When I first thought about adapting the book I had plans of turning each season into a new decade or century. What I would love to do is to continue the story with these characters. There are a lot of themes left to explore. It feels like the show is just gaining momentum and I was conscious of trying to end the season on maximum RPM. Hopefully we’ll get to do this again!
Barkskins premieres today – Monday, May 25th – on National Geographic and will be available the following day on Hulu.