“Lawmen: Bass Reeves” is here.
The new series, produced by Taylor Sheridan, was created and largely written by showrunner Chad Feehan, who worked closely with the series’ producer and star David Oyelowo. Together, they brought the story of Reeves, an actual historical figure who was one of the first Black U.S. Marshals, to life. In the first two episodes alone, Reeves goes from being a slave serving in the Confederate army to living among the Native Americans and beyond. It’s quite the journey. And the show, as a production, is staggering in its complexity and scale.
TheWrap spoke to Feehan about how he became involved, whether or not it was ever really an “1883” spin-off, the comparisons between Reeves and the Lone Ranger and whether or not he has more stories left to tell with the character.
How did you initially become involved?
Growing up in Texas, I had heard stories about Bass and he was always sort of the mythical lawman, the gunslinger, and those stories embedded themselves in my consciousness.
And when a little piece of Bass would arise, whether it was in “Watchmen” or “Harder They Fall,” or Texas Monthly did a big spread on him, I was always interested. And then Taylor recommended me as a writer to David Oyelowo, who’s been trying to tell this story for eight years.
David invited me to dinner and what I thought would be about an hour, an hour and a half, turned into four hours. David and I felt incredible kinship as people. And then I was deeply fascinated with what he had to say about where the myth of the man both converged with and separated from reality. Then I went home and just consumed any piece of information that I could about Bass and then was desperate to be a part of it no matter how big or small. And luckily, he and Taylor offered me the job.
If he’d been trying to make this for seven years, what made it so that this was the version that finally came to be?
As you know, having seen it, I wanted to start with what I considered one of the most compelling inciting incidents of any character I’ve seen or read or attempted to dramatize. And that was an enslaved man being forced to ride into battle during the Civil War, escaping enslavement, living amongst the American Indians. And so that is an inciting incident, was something that I talked to David about wanting to portray, and I think that excited him quite a bit.
Can you talk to me a little bit about the development just in terms of the fact that was an “1883” spinoff for a while and now it could be the beginning of a whole new franchise.
Yeah. I mean, the “1883” connection predated my involvement. When I was hired it was presented to me that if you would like to connect it to any portion of “1883 “you have the freedom to do so, but you’re not obligated to do so. And sort of when I figured out the beginning of our story and the end of our story, it roughly takes place from 1862 to 1877 and the region in which Bass traveled most frequently, I decided to go in that direction.
Paramount asked for eight episodes, and I felt like eight episodes could tell a very compelling version of Bass Reeves that paid honor to his legacy. And then it was asked of me and presented to me like, “How do you feel about maybe doing other lawmen in the future?” And I said, “If that’s something you guys want to do, there are plenty of other lawmen that excite me and there are plenty of other stories that I would love to tell in this space.” And so that’s sort of how it all came to be what it is today.
There’s this other element too which is that Bass Reeves, in all likelihood, inspired the creation of the Lone Ranger. There’s a moment in the third episode with a Native American character that could be Tonto. Was it fun to play with that iconography?
There’s obviously a lot of reporting done on Bass Reeves being the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. The truth is, is we do not know if that is or is not accurate. What I do know is that Bass Reeves is worthy of the comparison and worthy of potentially being the inspiration, if not more so.
And so we put him on a gray horse, a white horse, partially to wink at the audience for the possibility of that, but also because that’s a horse that David fell in love with during his training. It felt very synergistic.
I do want to say that Billy Crow becoming Bass’s posse man was not in any way to pay any sort of homage to Tonto, but rather what we tried to do so desperately in this series, which was to show the universality of the human condition and show fully actualized people who are from all different races and creeds, but who we can identify with as human beings. And Billy is representative of that. Billy is a great character, in my opinion, that has a great arc. He’s a dreamer and he goes on to do some great things in the series.
What was it like working with Taylor and having that insane access to resources? There’s a battle sequence in the first episode with what looks like hundreds of people.
I must have asked five times, “Are you sure I can write this?” before I wrote it. And I was told yes at every turn. And Taylor, Paramount, 101 Studios were very supportive in terms of capturing that scope of the west, if you will.
Taylor himself, I’m very, very grateful not only for recommending me for the job but giving me the autonomy and freedom to tell the story. During the scripting phase he came in a handful of times with his magical storytelling dust that’s such a unique gift to him and would point to certain moments and saying, “Hey, what if you thought about doing something here?” And he was always right.
In the pilot for example, there’s a moment between Bass and Jennie when we first meet them that he encouraged me to add to the story, which is one of my favorite scenes of the pilot. During production, he’s built this machine that’s made all these shows and really gave me the keys to that machine and told me who to hire and who to rely on.
And I’m from Fort Worth as well, but he knew nooks and crannies in North Texas that I didn’t know, and to go, “Hey, go check out this spot,” which was great. And then he’s been back there in post again sprinkling that magic storytelling dust, it’s so innate to who he is and his talent on the show. I’m grateful because I felt a lot of autonomy, but I had sort of this backstop, if you will, that helped along the way.
Taylor has talked recently about wanting his characters to have happy home lives. Was that an edict on “Bass Reeves?”
I’m going to steal a quote from David Oyelowo, which is, “You have to go to dark places for the light to shine.” And for me, the light is Bass and his family. It’s something that is born out of my own DNA, my own experience. I’m very, very enamored by my own family and deeply in love with my wife and my two children. And on this job, we’re incredibly blessed to do it, but there are difficult elements to it. And so those difficult elements are leaving home for months on end, which aligned with Bass Reeves’s experience.
For me, it was important not only to the storytelling, but for my own emotional constitution, to have that family unit be the thing that held him together when he was facing unimaginable horror and challenges and all of those things.
Is there more of Bass Reeves’s stories that you and David wanted to tell or is this pretty much it?
If the opportunity arises there’s definitely meat on the bone. There’s definitely meat on the bone if the opportunity arises. There are stories that we did not tackle. I didn’t intentionally hold anything back. I mean, I feel like our story tells the story and honors a legacy, but there are stories that we did not include that deeply interest me and deeply excite me.
“Lawmen: Bass Reeves” is on Paramount+ now.