SundanceTV has added another series to its slate of original, scripted programming with the thriller “The Red Road,” premiering Feb 27 9pm. Like “Top of the Lake” before it, the 6-episode series treats location and landscape almost as a character in its own right. We spoke with Aaron Guzikowski, co-executive producer, writer and creator, about the show’s development, the Native American tribe on which the series is based and casting the right actors.
You mentioned at TCA that the show was originally developed for HBO. Did you work with the network at first or did you develop the show for it specifically?
I worked with a producer [Sarah Condon] who was mainly working with HBO, so that’s kind of where we figured it would end up. But it wasn’t necessarily built as an HBO show, per se. A lot of the development we kind of did on our own. Eventually it ended up at Sundance.
What makes it a good fit for Sundance?
Because I think it’s very cinematic. When people think of Sundance I think they think of movies and I think that was part of our approach—to jam as much story into each episode as possible, treating each episode almost like a movie unto itself. Not saving too much in terms of story, and just kind of churning through it at a really good, healthy pace—especially since we have a 6 episode first season. There’s no need to kind of sit and reflect.
If making the series cinematic was so important to you, why not make it a film?
I think it’s because of the characters—the kind of storylines we wanted to tell. It takes a while to drill down and strip away the layers. And there’s a lot of different stories—these two different families, the past and the present. There’s quite a lot going on. In a feature film, it’s much more rigid in terms of the amount of story you can really get through in an hour or two. This is more novelistic in terms of the way it unfolds.
TheRamapough tribe you feature in the series exists in real life, in the outskirts of New York City. How much of your portrayal is based on truth, and what was scripted?
Quite a bit is authentic to the tribe it was inspired by. They’re living on polluted land and the fact that they don’t have federal recognition was all taken from the real circumstances that this particular tribe has found themselves in. What is mostly fictional is obviously the characters and the specific situations—but the world itself I think we tried to make ring as true as possible.
Executive Producer Bridget Carpenter mentioned that you used a consultant from the tribe, who would flag things that didn’t ring true in the script. What kinds of things did you need to adjust?
There were things like what people would wear, the meaning of certain symbols… We talked about turtle shells at once point… just kind of the minutia of the world. Certain turns of phrase, things people may or may not say.
You read a lot about the tribe beforehand. Was there something about it that inspired you to write the story?
This tribe in particular I think was unique. The fact that they don’t have federal recognition, they don’t live on a reservation—the fact that they live so close to New York City. And they’re such a small tribe… in a sense, they’re kind of like ‘outsider outsiders.’ That made it incredibly interesting to me. And the whole idea of a controversy in terms of their origins, which keeps them for getting recognized federally as a tribe… It was a world I hadn’t really seen before, and that’s what drew me to it.
You provide a lot of back story for your actors. Did they all appreciate that, or did any have a different process, in which they preferred to make up their own? Do you always work this way?
Sometimes I do. I think it depends on the actor. In this case the actors really wanted to know what we were thinking in terms of where these people had been and what their past entailed. That was stuff I’d already worked out because it’s kind of part and parcel in terms of the story. So much of it has to do with the past and where these people have come from and things kind of resurfacing. That had been worked out and they wanted to know everything that could be known about the character, so we gave them these back stories. They seemed to really appreciate that, and it inspired them.
How much say did you have with casting?
I had quite a lot of say. Casting Jason [Momoa] was a priority for me. It was a tough character to really nail down. We were looking all over, and I was wondering about Jason, but I hadn’t really seen him do anything quite like this. He actually put himself on tape for us. After having seen that, I was like wow, he’s really a tremendous actor. It was obvious that was the guy, at least from my point of view. And I think everyone else pretty much felt the same way. And those he didn’t came around very quickly.
Was it important for you to cast actors with Native American roots?
Yeah, if at all possible we wanted to bring as much as that to it as we could, and we found some great Native American [actors]. Jason has Native American blood, Tamara Tunie, Kiowa Gordon—they all kind of brought their own unique experiences to it.