Barkskins: Elwood Reid brings crime drama expertise into period drama

Rene Sel (Christian Cooke) and Mari (Kaniehtiio Horn) pause in the woods. (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)
Rene Sel (Christian Cooke) and Mari (Kaniehtiio Horn) pause in the woods. (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks) /

Barkskins has Elwood Reid mixing TV crime drama with period drama, and here’s how he adapted the Annie Proulx novel into the NatGeo miniseries.

When NatGeo‘s Barkskins premieres May 25, it will be somewhat of a departure for Elwood Reid, who’s known for producing and writing on TV crime dramas like Cold Case and Hawaii Five-0.

But it’s not as different as viewers might think. Barkskins is a crime drama wrapped in the setting of 17th century New France, as it surrounds the massacre of a group of settlers. Who killed them and what led up to this massive tragedy?

Reid spoke to Precinct TV about the mystery element of the miniseries, what he learned from his TV crime drama experiences that he brought to this project, and why he wanted to turn the Annie Proulx book into a TV show.

Preview Barkskins in our interview below, then watch the eight-part series on NatGeo over four nights beginning on Monday, May 25 at 9:00 p.m.

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Precinct TV: TV fans are used to your work on more procedural-type shows, so what was it about Barkskins that made you want to adapt this.

Elwood Reid: Annie Proulx is someone who meant a lot to me as a writer and still means a lot to me as a writer, but the book was so big and it spanned 400-plus years. And so I knew you couldn’t adapt the whole book. I was also told when it was sent to me that it was probably un-adaptable, but what do you think?

There were a couple of characters that jumped off the page at me right away. And then I saw a way to add a whole other much more driven storyline into that storyline. But it goes back to everything that you do as writers. How many shows are there that are taking place in 1670’s Quebec along the Saint Lawrence Seaway? Zero.

So just that idea, that there was an area that hadn’t been written about in television. There’s a million medical shows, there’s a million legal shows, there’s just all kinds of shows of very familiar genres. The idea that I would be the first person to try to plant my flag in this era, in this territory, and then bring a unique, weird perspective to it, that’s interesting as a writer. It’s a challenge.

PTV: How was the adaptation process? Did your having written a few novels of your own help you to get this one onto the screen?

ER: Yes and no, because I’m the opposite kind of writer. When someone options my book, and it hasn’t happened with my books that much, I could care less what they do with it. How I got into Hollywood was as a novel writer. Someone bought my book for option, and I found out how much they were going to pay a writer to adapt the book. And I said stupidly, well I’ll adapt my own book. I was so sick of my own book by the time I was done adapting it. Once you write a book, it’s an itch that you scratch and you move on. You’re onto the next book. Having to live in this world of adapting my own book, I hated it.

One of the things that taught me was, I wrote the book [and] the book exists. Annie Proulx’s book exists. It’s a perfect book that does its job. I think the best TV adaptations are ones that riff on something that works in the book. Whenever I see adaptations of books that I love, the ones that really fall the shortest to me are the ones that try to be as true to the book as possible. They don’t take the book as the leaping-off point. I’ve always heeded my own advice, which is yeah, it’s a great book and people that love the book are going to love the book and probably not like the TV show that much. You have to add something to it.

PTV: It’s obviously very different from writing for something like Cold Case or Hawaii Five-0. But did you learn anything from the success of those TV crime dramas that was applicable to Barkskins?

ER: My first love was procedurals—also in books, private eye fiction and police procedural books—because they have a built-in motor. the motor of an investigation or a procedural ultimately always leads to an examination of the people doing the investigation. [In] the best ones, you get to look into the soul of the detective or whoever it is that’s doing the investigation. And that’s really the takeaway. It goes back to Dashiell Hammett, I think.

I came up in the golden age of procedurals like the NYPD Blue and The Wire, and stuff like that. I can’t tell you a single case from those [shows]. I can tell you all about the cops and how those cases affected those cops. So it was a way for me to get at exploring character, by having an event happen and bringing an investigation, such as it was, into this period drama. Most period drama is either romance or historical based. In my experience, I have not seen that kind of drive in historical drama. So I really wanted to bring the energy of a police procedural into historical drama.

PTV: One similarity Barkskins has with Cold Case is the atmosphere. It truly pulls viewers back in time. How did you create that world and bring these settlers’ struggle to the screen?

ER: Physically, it was easy. We shot in the middle of the woods up in Quebec. I cleared some land way up in this forest. There were bugs and animals. The actors were dressed in period clothing and we were outside. There were no cushy sets. So it was very easy for the actors to feel immersed in the world.

But in the writing of the script, I took a lot of great pains. Usually, you just write the scene heading. I would write the bugs into the description. I would write how miserable it was and now muddy and how hot and scary the woods were. When the actors read it, they had an idea of what they were getting into. And I warned every actor that was taking the job. I’m like, hey, you’re going to be in the woods. You’re going to be out there with swarms of mosquitoes and gnats, walking through a swampy woods. This is the job. Do you want it? And they all jumped and leapt at the opportunity.

I think it shows on the screen when you see the actors. They’re not acting. They’re in it. They’re really physically feeling what it means to be in that woods. And that was really important to me, to try to get that across. I think a lot of period pieces take place on sets or behind green screens; I took great pains to put my characters in the hard woods where the story took place.

PTV: How was it to work with NatGeo as a creative partner? Barkskins is new territory for them as well.

ER: It was awesome because [Barkskins is] their first scripted program. So I don’t think they had any hard and fast rules for me to follow. They couldn’t say hey, in our last show we did this, we did that.” They wanted me just to make a kick-ass show. But I had a previous working experience with Carolyn Bernstein, the head of drama at NatGeo. She was the studio side on The Bridge. So she and I had a real shorthand. When we got into doing Barkskins, she just said go do your thing. As a writer, higher-ups just trusting a writer to come up with a cool show, that happens very infrequently these days.

And it ticked a box. It was historical, it does have some environmental implications. So it felt like I was playing in their sandbox, but I was telling these really weird driven stories, which is something they had not done before. Not once did they blink. They really supported me the entire way. And that’s not always the case when you’re adapting and creating television shows.

PTV: Why would you say TV crime drama fans should watch Barkskins?

ER: I think the reason to watch this show is, it’s a period piece on acid. These are people out in the woods in full costume and drama, talking about murder and about God and about survival and about building an empire. One of my idols was always Werner Herzog, and I tried to keep that manic tone that Werner had in movies like Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and transplant them to television with a little dollop of David Lynch. I want you to give period shows another look, because I dismiss a lot of period shows. I think they’re stuffy and locked in amber. Here’s a show that’s not that.

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Barkskins premieres Memorial Day at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on NatGeo.