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John Shiban, Hell on Wheels

John Shiban, executive producer, Hell on Wheels

Hell on Wheels is one of the most anticipated US cable dramas of the year. The show, which is produced by Entertainment One, Endemol USA and Nomadic Pictures, is the latest series to air on cable network-of-the-moment AMC following the success of Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead. The 10x1hour series is a western that follows a confederate soldier whose quest for vengeance leads him to the railroads. It will launch on November 6 in the US and is being distributed globally by Entertainment One and Endemol.

How did Hell on Wheels come about?
The show was developed by Joe and Tony Gayton. AMC said they were specifically looking for a western, they’d had a lot of success with this genre of programming, they’d had success with Broken Trail and were looking for something else. Joe and Tony pitched it and AMC bought it. I got involved after the pilot; I’d been working on another show for AMC called Breaking Bad and developing a new series, The Voyage.

What’s the idea behind the show?
The thing that’s interesting to me is that even though it’s an epic tale, we are seeing it through the eyes of this one character [Cullen Bohannon played by Anson Mount]. It’s not a history lesson and it’s surprising how relatable it is. The railroad was the Internet of that period; it changed the world. So people at the front line of that are dealing with issues and greed, just like people now. They had their own Wall Street crash and their own dot-com crash. There’s still no law, it’s frontier justice. That’s a staple of the western and we play with those images in our own way. We are trying to find a realistic take on what we do.

How have you handled the production of the show?
It’s an epic show on a basic cable budget. It was produced in Calgary, where they produced Broken Trail and Unforgiven so the horses and costumes are already there. It’s a huge tent city and the art department built a train that looks amazing.

What’s the difference between doing a period drama and a contemporary drama?
The obvious difference in doing a period piece is that you’re aware of everything you write. You try not to sound contemporary. Breaking Bad is such a pressure cooker on Walter White (Bryan Cranston), whereas this is an ensemble cast so keeping the balls in the air is a fun challenge. There is a similarity, though, in trying to find good characters.

How have you found working in cable?
It’s been a great experience. There aren’t that many cooks, which happens at the broadcast networks. What’s great at AMC is that they’re supportive and they don’t have an agenda. They have such a good batting average and have built some great shows. The bar is very high and we feel it.

Are you still working on The Voyage for AMC?
I went through the dog and pony show [at AMC’s annual bake-off]. It’s the only time I’ve ever done something like that but it’s very smart. I’m currently doing a re-write and it’s still in development.