As the first season of Longmire comes to a close this Sunday at 10pm on A&E, Craig Johnson has watched — along with an average of more than 4 million other viewers per week — the characters he created in a series of mystery novels come to life. While he was initially leery about turning over the reins to his rugged, Wyoming-set stories to Hollywood, he says he couldn’t be more pleased with how this adaptation has turned out.
I had a lively chat with Johnson as Longmire was about to premiere and he spoke about the unlikely way his first Walt Longmire novel turned into a series, what he thinks about the casting of Robert Taylor, and about the show being set in Wyoming but filmed in New Mexico:
Channel Guide Magazine: Let’s talk about Longmire. This is pretty exciting stuff.
Craig Johnson: (Laughs) Yeah, it is. For a guy who writes books in a town of 25, it’s pretty exotic stuff.
CGM: I got to interview Robert Taylor recently. He’s got quite the voice on him.
CJ: He really does. It’s been fun to listen and see everyone’s response. A lot of people haven’t seen the pilot, but they’ve gotten to see the trailers and hear Robert talking. My gosh, that voice of his is absolutely amazing.
CGM: What’s it been like watching your characters come to life this first season?
CJ: It’s still odd. Everybody asks what’s it like to have these characters and these places in your head for eight years and see people embody them and delivering the lines. The way I always describe it is it’s like having a houseplant in your house for about eight years and then getting up one morning and having it start talking to you. It’s very strange but wondrous. It’s really something. I’m very pleased with the quality of the work and the people that have been involved. I’m not John Grisham. I’m not Stephen King. I’m just a cowboy writer in Yucross, Wyoming. The only real control that I have over these types of situations is to try and get the best people to work with that I possibly can. I’ve got some friends who are producers out in Los Angeles, and one of the things they said is, “Don’t allow your work to be optioned. Wait until you get a package deal put together.” That way it gives it much more of an opportunity to possibly be done. Then it was just a question of looking at the people who were thinking about doing it. That was ramrodded by Greer Shephard, the Shephard Robins company. She’d done The Closer, Nip/Tuck. John Coveney, Hunt Baldwin, the writing that they’ve done, the shows they’ve been involved with. It just seemed like a really good fit, an awful lot of good people. Then the big question became: Do you want a feature film or a do you want a TV show? The advantages of a TV show are you get more opportunities to tell more stories, an elongated arc and the development of the characters. For me, place and the characters are always going to be the most important part of the whole shebang.
CGM: Is it going to be strange, though, when they run out of material to take from your seven novels and start coming up with plots out of whole cloth?
CJ: It is. I really don’t mind it, because it’s been very different than anything that anybody told me it was going to be like. One of my favorite stories is when I was actually having dinner with Tony Hillerman down in Albuquerque, and it was a point in time when PBS was doing a couple of his movies on television. I remember a woman coming up to him and saying, “Mr. Hillerman, I’m sorry to bother you, but I’d like to ask a question.” And Tony was just one of the sweetest individuals on the face of the Earth. He would just do anything for anybody, and he put his fork down and said, “Yes, ma’am, how can I help you?” She said, “I just want to ask you how much control you’ve got over what it is that they’re doing with your books and these movies that they’re making on PBS.” He adjusted the glasses on his nose and looked at the woman and said, “Madam, I have just enough control to take the check and go across the street and put it in the bank.” I remember thinking, “You better remember that.” (Laughs) But my experiences have been very, very different. Earlier on, whenever I did a conference call with the producers and the director, the conference call lasted a couple of hours and I was fully prepared for them to kind of sign off at that point. Instead, Greer Shephard kept me on the line and said, “Craig, we’ve got the opportunity to maybe make you an executive creative consultant to the TV show, and we think we’re going to exercise that. How do you feel about that?” I said, “That’d be wonderful. I don’t have any problem with that at all.” So basically what they did was they sent me DVDs of the auditions of the actors that they were thinking of using in the different roles to get feedback. They discussed plot scenarios with me. They still send me the script for each episode and I go through and give them notes on each one of the episodes before they start filming. We were down there for the three-week period that they were actually filming the pilot. It’s been very atypical, very different than the stories you hear coming out of Hollywood.
CGM: Do you feel it was important to cast an unknown? Would a big, recognizable star have worked as well for Walt Longmire?
CJ: They had two different directions that they could go in — they could with go with a big name that would draw an audience to the piece, or they could go with someone who is a relative unknown. The difficulty in that is Walt is of a certain age. Walt is not a 20-year-old sheriff, so trying to find somebody who’s an unknown who’s that age is a little bit difficult. I think they did an amazing job, because Robert seems to understand the character so well. I remember standing there with him during the filming of the pilot and his remark was, “I grew up with these guys. I know these guys. They’re a dying breed, but I know who they are.” He really does, you can see so many of the wheels turning in the pilot. He doesn’t say that much, which was a little bit of a revelation to me, because when I write the books I write in first person, so it’s Walt’s running monologue from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. But I still remember Greer Shephard asking me, “Do you think of Walt as being a very verbal character?” I said, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.” She paused a second and said, “I want you to go through one of your books and mark what he actually says. Not what he thinks. Not that thought process and that running monologue that we have inside his head, but what he actually says.” And it was a little bit of a revelation to me, I have to admit, because he doesn’t say all that much. He thinks a great deal, but he doesn’t say that much, in the great tradition of American Westerns. The dialogue tends to be short and sweet, and I think Robert really found that to be something he could embrace in the character. I think they did the right thing, because you look at Robert and you get this feeling that you’ve seen him somewhere before. He looks somewhat recognizable. Somehow you think you know him but you can’t quite place it. He hasn’t been branded by 47 different Western movies or television shows or anything like that. It’s that fresh quality, that unknown quality that they were looking for, but still he settles right into the character just like a well-worn glove. He does a magnificent job.
CGM: So, yes, as an author you’re prepared to deal with changes that have to made for the adaptation. But given that these books are set in Wyoming, and that Wyoming is such a character in the books, is it problematic for you that they’re filming the show in New Mexico?
CJ: No. I know that obviously that the New Mexico film commission is very aggressive as far as the monetary aspects of getting people to shoot in New Mexico. They have sound studios, they have crews, they have all these things right there, available. Wyoming only has half a million people in the whole state, and it’s the ninth-largest state in the U.S. So logistically it made a lot more sense. The other thing that happened was when A&E gave the green light to Warner to do the pilot, it was January. I still remember the story that Chris Donoghue, they told him, “We want you to go up to Montana and Wyoming and do some location spotting for us.” He paused for a second and he goes, “What time of year does this pilot take place?” They said it takes place late in the spring. And he paused for a second and he says, “Have any of you ever been to Montana or Wyoming in January? It looks like a lot of things, but it does not look like late spring.” The snow is about knee deep. I think they had to look at certain logistical aspects and think about what was going to work for them. I think New Mexico, just weather-wise, it’s a lot more stable weather pattern down there than it is in Wyoming. It’s not like we’re talking about filming it in Spain or Taiwan or something like that. I mean, it’s New Mexico. And it’s northern New Mexico. There’s an awful lot of that area, they went to great pains to go and find exacting locations for about a six month period, to try and find places that looked as much as Wyoming as they could possibly be. There’s only one shot in the entire episode where you can tell it’s New Mexico, and I’ll be interested to see if anyone picks it up, a little four-second shot.
CGM: When you were writing the first novel, The Cold Dish, were you envisioning Walt as an ongoing character?
CJ: No, it was a standalone novel. I thought if I ever fooled anybody into publishing this novel, I’d never get anybody to publish a second one. The first draft of The Cold Dish was close to 600 pages long; I was putting everything in it, because I thought it was going to be the only book that I was probably ever going to publish. Then Kathryn Court, the president of Penguin, sat me down after they purchased the book, and she slid the ARC, the Advanced Readers’ Copy, on the lunch table there between us, and said, “We would like some more of these.” I said, “I’d be happy to write you guys some more books.” And she goes, “I don’t think you completely understand. We would like some more of these books. We think that these characters and this place, people are going to want to know more about the relationships, about the individuals, we think you’ve got a series here on your hands.” And I, with all the knowledge of not even having had one book published, started arguing with the president of Penguin USA. “Well, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t think that’ll work. But I’ve got some other ideas I want to bounce off you.” (laughs) Thank goodness she stuck to her guns and said, “Why don’t you go back to Wyoming and think about this? We think that these characters have legs. We think people are going to want more of them.” She was right. The emails come in every day. I think that’s an awful lot of the draw of the books, and I hope it’ll be the draw of the television series, too. It’s about people. It’s not 27 people getting killed every week. This is the sheriff in the least populated county in the least populated state in the U.S. Most people don’t realize that sheriffs are the only elected law-enforcement officials that there are. He has a very strong commitment and connection to the community and to the society whose laws he serves. To me, that makes it very different. One of the big mistakes people make about Westerns is it’s all this, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” Everyone takes care of themselves. That’s not particularly true. The more frontier a place is, the more isolated people are, the more they tend to look out for each other. It becomes an absolute. I live in a ranching community and two of the busiest times of the year are the calving and the branding seasons when you need to have your neighbors help you or else you won’t be able to get the work done that you need to get done on a yearly basis. In some ways, that’s one of the things that the television show properly reflects in the tone, and the sense of being in a small town in a very rural county. Some of these counties are the size of New England states. This is not CSI: Wyoming. There’s one crime lab in all of Wyoming, down in Cheyenne. I went to ask one of the DCI investigators, “How long does it take you guys if you have a DNA that you need to do?” He goes, “High-profile case?” and I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “Oh, about seven or eight months.” It kind of makes all that CSI stuff look silly. It forces the stories to fall back on good, old-fashioned storytelling, which is more about character, more about place, more about relationships and that type of thing. To me, that should be refreshing to people.
CGM: I’m always curious to get authors’ input on this. It seems like whenever I go to a reading, which is full of passionate fans who love the books, presumably, there is always a question about whether it will be turned into a movie. How does that feel as an author? Is it the kind of thing where a work isn’t validated until it’s turned into a movie?
CJ: It does seem like it in some people’s eyes. I mean it would no sooner occur to me to pick up a book because it was turned into a television series. I always go by inside the leaf. Does the story look compelling to me? Are the characters something I would be interested in? It’s so vague, that whole Hollywood world. To try and depend on that, or hope for that, is kind of silly. Basically what I do is tend to sit in a room all by myself and type about my imaginary friends. Heck, in any right-minded society, they’d lock us all up and wouldn’t let us out. But I live on a ranch, so I’m able to balance that with the physical activity of having a ranch. It’s a pretty good life, but I did kind of wait and see because we had a courting dance with Hollywood with an awful lot of names and people who wanted the property. To be honest, I was just a little bit stand-offish about the idea until I got a really good feel from the people I was going to be working with. Then it all just really kind of Cinderalla-ed right into place, which I think gives hope. You do want it to convey the tone and the messages that the books have. I hope that’s the case. Maybe it’s because the maw of media is just so hungry and produces so much, maybe that’s where that validation comes from. But you’ve got an excellent point there. I don’t know what to say about it other than I would hope the validation comes from a good day of writing. But it seems like there are an awful lot of people out there, until you have a movie, until you have a TV series or something like that, they don’t tend to pay that much attention.
CGM: It’s also funny, too, because the way it tends to go is that they get excited about it turning into a movie, only to eventually say how terrible the movie was because it wasn’t like the book.
CJ: (laughs) In that way, you’re always at an advantage whenever the books are available before the film or television stuff is. The great thing about books is you have the advantage of the reader’s imagination. That’s always going to be just a little bit superior to anything that Hollywood can come up with, because it’s custom fit. If you’re reading one of my books and there’s a blizzard at 11,000 feet in the Cloud Peek Wilderness Area in the Bighorn Mountains, you can custom fit that blizzard to exactly the way that you see it. But with Hollywood, they kind of have to commit. They have to commit to actors, they have to admit to a direction, they have to commit to sets, everything that they have to portray. That puts them at a disadvantage as far as being in competition with books, but it is also nice to have the kind of budget that they have and do the kind of things that they do. The crew that I’m working with, I can’t say it enough, it really is amazing what it is they’ve been able to do, because they really do understand the books and value the information that’s there and in realizing that this is what’s going to make the show different from everything else that’s out there. There really just aren’t that many Westerns, and then there aren’t that many contemporary Westerns. I think it was something that they were looking to do that was a little bit counterprogramming, I guess.
CGM: At this point, eight books in, are you itching to write a non-Longmire book, or is there a lot still left to tell about Walt?
CJ: People always ask, they’re always worried I might not write another one. I don’t know what the tone of that is. They’re afraid something’s going to happen to me? I’m not sure what to make of that. I’ll keep writing the Walt Longmire books as long as it’s interesting to me to write them, as long as the characters and the place have something more to say. The ninth book, I’m actually going to finish it this week. As soon as I get back from the tour, I’ll start in on another one. I’ve got a few standalone books that I’m working on, because I think it’s important to write some other things, to spread yourself as an author. But if somebody would have told me I’d have just as much fun writing the eighth or ninth Walt Longmire book as I did the first and second one, I would have laughed in their face, because I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. But I think it is. I didn’t plan these books as a series, I planned it as a standalone book, and so I put everything I could into it. What happened by accident was I ended up with a lot of extra material, a lot of extra places and people and stories, which I could expand upon in the series. I’m having as much fun as I have when I started.
CGM: Do you have an endgame in mind for Walt, or do you think he’ll just exist in perpetuity?
CJ: I don’t know. Each book is a story unto itself. If you write what I tend to refer to as socially responsible crime fiction, something that has something strong to say about a society or a problem within the society, you have to know what’s going to happen. You have to know who did it. I do very strong outlines with every book that I write. Then again, when you’re writing the books you have to be open to the idea of a certain amount of improvisation to keep the books fresh. If I can surprise myself with them, then hopefully I’ll be able to surprise the readers a little bit. I always have a strong idea of what’s going to happen in the books, and I always have a strong idea of couple books ahead. But I’m also open to the idea that there might be surprises somewhere down that road, too. At this point in time, I think that people with pitchforks and torches would show up if I killed Walt Longmire in the near future. Or Henry Standing Bear. Or Victoria Morretti.
Photo: © 2012 Credit: Ursula Coyote