The Western genre – whether the story is historical or contemporary – is directly based upon a geographical region within North America. The landscape of and settings within that region are key frameworks for Westerns. While acknowledging that the influence of the Western has affected filmmaking around the world and that the geographic definition of the “West” can vary within the continent, it is worth considering that the base of the Western is its North American locus. The genre is the region/the region is the genre.
The incredible range of geography within the West opens up myriad possibilities for Western productions. One of the initial hurdles of stereotype that one should step over is that all Westerns are set in the desert. The repeated use of the iconic Monument Valley (Arizona/Utah) by director John Ford – given the reach of his films – is likely one of the reasons for that view. However, in the words of a contemporary of Ford, fellow Western director Anthony Mann….”John Ford adores Monument Valley but Monument Valley is not the whole of the West.” There is not one type of geography for the Western film, be it desert or wide-open Plains, simply because there is not one type of geography within the West itself.
AMC’s Hell on Wheels, which is beginning to shoot its third season, is a Western TV series that sets its story arc within the westward construction of the Union Pacific Railroad immediately after the US Civil War (1861-1865). The Union Pacific made its way across Nebraska, the north-eastern tip of Colorado Territory and southern Wyoming Territory before meeting the Central Pacific Railroad in northern Utah Territory in 1869. The Great Plains and Rocky Mountains would be traversed by the Union Pacific railway crews.
(NOTE: For a discussion of location filming for Seasons 3 to 5, visit the 2015 post Land & Location Reboot.)
To replicate that geography and the conditions faced, the production team for Hell on Wheels chose southern Alberta as their shooting location. For Season One of Hell on Wheels, the production company rented 15,000 acres of land from the T’suu Tina Nation, an Indigenous reserve southwest of downtown Calgary. Season Two was filmed near the Bow River, southeast of Calgary. During the first two seasons of the series, the show has crossed into Cheyenne and Sioux traditional territories.
In a recent interview for AMC, series director David Van Ancken discussed aspects of filming out on the land. When asked to share what he enjoyed about directing Hell on Wheels, he offered, “Having to keep your head up for unexpected opportunities that come and go very rapidly, like changes in landscapes and changing environments. That’s something specific to not being in a studio and not being in an urban location. Weather, environments, and even actors act differently when they’re out there.”
In an earlier AMC interview, Edsel Hilchie, a location manager for the show, described some of the conditions for shooting: “In Season 1, we shot in a bowl, and whenever it rained, everything came down on us, and we had to do things like create trenches and drainage pits and river flows around the town… In Season 2, we got as much rain, but the ground drained a lot better… In Season 1, we were ending up with three or four feet of mud at times, and in Season 2 we were only dealing with three or four inches of it.”
In following AMC-produced clip, the cast and crew reflect during Season One upon the location, on-site locations and conditions for the series:
The third season of Hell on Wheels will premiere on August 3rd. The series now moves into the year 1867.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)