TBI In Conversation: ‘Hell On Wheels’ showrunner John Wirth on ‘passing the baton’

Hell On Wheels train

In the second installment of TBI’s In Conversation strand, we talk to Wu Assassins and Hell On Wheels showrunner John Wirth about the potential of a return to Hollywood production and the challenges for a new generation of creatives working in a world of shorter-run seasons.

By his own admission, John Wirth is a veteran of the TV game with credits stretching over the past four decades.

From AMC’s Hell On Wheels and Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, to CBS’s Nash Bridges and NBC’s 1980’s classic Remington Steele, Wirth has produced for pretty much every major player in Tinseltown and beyond.

But this particular “old dog”, as he describes himself to TBI from LA, believes it’s “time to pass the baton”. The fly in the ointment, though, is that whereas once the industry nurtured its future showrunners over long-running seasons, it now requires so much content to be produced that it is in danger of wearing itself thin.

Wu Assassins

Numbers game

Wirth’s most recent project was 10-part martial arts drama Wu Assassins, on which he was attached as showrunner and creator. It debuted last year on Netflix, one of a number of players in the escalating – and less-reported de-escalating – numbers game that is Hollywood.

While endless discussions have been had about the explosion of scripted product over recent years and the opportunities it has thrown up, less is made of the declining number of episodes: where once seasons regularly ran to 22 installments, there are now hundreds of ten-, eight- or even six-part shows that give those working on them far less time to adapt and learn.

“The talent pool in front and behind camera is stretched pretty thin,” Wirth says, with competition for A-list people driving up prices as a result.

“Here’s an old man’s complaint: when I came into the US business, there were three networks – NBC, CBS and ABC – and then Fox joined,” he says. In those days, many would enter as a freelancer before proving their worth and being hired as staff, he adds.

“If you stayed and if the show remained on air, you could work your way up the ladder. And if the show didn’t make it, you’d shift to another programme.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

“The idea was – and it kind of worked – that over six or seven years you would learn how to work on a TV show, how to produce and write. What’s happening now, because there is so much content being made and so many places to sell to, is that big companies are hiring people to run shows and some are perhaps not really experienced enough to do that.”

As streamers in particular increasingly look for shorter scripted seasons and limited run dramas, Wirth’s concerns lie in the fact that where once a show – and the culture of working on it – would take over your life, it can now be over before it really begins.

Wirth is clear that he wants “the young, talented next generation of creatives to take the baton”, but he also expresses a worry that opportunities lie within “a dangerous landscape” that provides far less opportunity to learn.

Post-pandemic production & opportunity

This ongoing concern joins the more recent developments emanating from Covid-19, and with cameras barely rolling in Hollywood as the US reels from the pandemic, the long-term impact on production and enabling the next generation of creatives remains an unknown.

Wirth, who experienced the 2007/08 writers strike and its associated effects, suggests he would be surprised if LA production was able to resume any sense of normalcy until a vaccine is developed.

Nash Bridges

“I’ve read a lot of the position papers and heard the guys talking, but the proposals sound extremely onerous in my view,” he says. The swathe of restrictions – from cutting back on crew, slashing extras, shooting fewer hours and even potentially quarantining casts – will make for an entirely new environment on set, Wirth adds.

“I don’t even know what production would look like,” he admits, adding that he – like many of those in the business – expects the remainder of 2020 to be largely lost in production terms, at least for shows with bigger casts.

Broadening horizons

There are upsides, though, most notably perhaps the much reported locked down audience and their propensity to consume more programming.

“The interesting thing is that people are discovering shows again, with streamers, and Netflix in particular. People have certainly started talking to me about my shows, Hell On Wheels for example, and Hap & Leonard is getting rediscovered too.”

Wirth’s horizons are by no means limited to the US, either. The positive of studios launching their own streamers, he says, is that Netflix and others have had to move even quicker into expanding their own originals, with border-crossing content travelling worldwide.

Wu Assassins has been popular across Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe for example, Wirth says, and the veteran is quick to talk up the streamer’s impact on the scripted process.

“They’re looking to create originals that are born in and made in those specific territories, not just making shows in US that they can put on their service,” Wirth continues.

“They don’t want a show that will appeal to people in Jakarta, they’re interested in actually going to Jakarta,” he adds, sounding thoroughly enthused and excited by the development. Perhaps there’s another decade ahead for Wirth after all.

John Wirth is among a number of high-profile speakers set to take part in MediaXchange’s forthcoming online event, The Role of the Showrunner – Meet The Creatives, which starts 1 July. For more information, click here.

Tags: AMC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Netflix

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