by Natalie Bright
The Western Writers of America held their annual meeting in Billings, Montana in June of this year. Throughout the four-day conference, attendees could choose between discussion panels and field trips covering a wide variety of interesting topics. In this blog post, I’m reviewing the panel which focused on the hit show Longmire, a modern western crime drama first airing on A&E, and then picked up by Netflix which released two additional seasons. Episodes of all six seasons are available through Netflix in North America.
Moderated by WWA President Kirk Ellis, the panel featured WWA Board member Craig Johnson, best-selling author of the Walt Longmire mystery series, Marcus Red Thunder, technical adviser, Craig’s good friend and inspiration for the character Henry Standing Bear, and A. Martinez, who plays Jacob Nighthorse in the series. (Of course you remember A. from Santa Barbara and as Cimeron in John Wayne & The Cowboys, among other things. And yes, there were several fan girl moments among the crowd and numerous selfies. Mr. Martinez and his wife were so very gracious and kind to be a part of our conference and give up their weekend for WWA.)
As Technical Advisor, Marcus makes certain that the Native American elements of the series are depicted accurately. He noted, “I had to remind myself that it’s not a documentary. It’s art.” Marcus started his work by conducting prayers and ceremony at the very beginning of the project. Ceremony and rituals have played an important part in Native American spirituality for generations and continue to be an integral part of their culture today.
In answer to a question about his character, A. Martinez explained how he worked to create Jacob Nighthorse into a memorable character for television. “I was drawn to the poetry of language for Jacob,” he said. “I was intrigued by the character as a ruthless business man mixed with a political radical.” It is later revealed in the series that Jacob is a dog soldier and that is what he is honoring. Cheyenne Dog Soldiers were the elite fighting societies of the tribe.
Complex, troubled, obviously a brilliant business man with a good heart, Nighthorse is definitely one of my favorite characters from the show. You may not realize that Nighthorse does not exist in the books by Craig Johnson. No question that A. Martinez has made that roll his own, taking the character from a bit part to becoming a force in Absaroka community as entrepreneur casino owner and Walt’s antagonist in the TV series. Craig mentioned that his favorite scene when Nighthorse seems to emerge as a significant part of the cast is the basketball scene between Walt and Jacob in Season 2.
In response to a question on how the creation of television is a different from writing a book, Craig Johnson explained that television is very much a group effort. “I was a cowboy writer from a town of 25 and I kept wondering, why did they want to do this?” Making a television show is much like ranching, he noted. “You get the very best people you can to work with and leave them alone.” The process of turning written words into a television show is complicated and obviously a huge undertaking. “I asked my agent, ‘what can I do?'” Craig said. “Write a good book, is what I was told. The one thing we, as writers, have control over is the writing. Never underestimate those characters.”
Buy the books and learn more about author/creator Craig Johnson Click Here.
The challenge for actors is to “bring everything off the page” of the script and make it real A. Martinez told us. There is a large following of both the books and the show among the Native Americans. “I tell kids to get into the books. They are a hell of a lot better than the TV show,” said Marcus. At this point in the panel discussion, Craig slowly pulled his wallet from his pocket and handed Marcus money. The room erupted with laughter. Marcus continued, “There is a satisfaction and validation in being humans. We are just like everyone else. Native Americans have a way of life that is strong and beautiful. Characters that focus on healing remind us what we have in common versus what divides us.”
The panel members displayed a genuine respect and sincere admiration for each other. What surprised me is the conviction and dedication they continue to hold for their work on Longmire. Their efforts changed people’s perspectives and even today, continues to make a difference. There are new generations discovering the show. My 21-year-old son is hooked and almost through Season 1. “Have you seen this show?” he asked me and was surprised when I handed him several Walt Longmire books.
While listening to the panel, I never realized what a complicated process and emotional commitment is required of actors who become part of a mega hit show. It’s not just another Hollywood production as you might think, but their work obviously consumes them and becomes their life’s passion. That work lives on as new fans discover it every day.
“You judge a man’s strengths by the strengths of his enemies,” said Marcus, a quote he believes is from the Cheyenne. “If you see only beauty and goodness in your heart, then that is what you will create and receive in return.”
Major kudos to Mr. Ellis for putting together this panel and moderating a fascinating discussion.
Natalie Bright is an author, blogger and speaker. She writes stories set in the west for children and for adults. She blogs every Monday at wordsmithsix.com about story craft, and for articles about the Texas Panhandle and writing life check out her blog Prairie Purview, located on the home page of her website http://nataliebright.com.