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From Academia to Hollywood: An Interview with Tony Tost

Tony Tost is a television writer and producer. He was the creator of Damnation, which Tost describes as a “Clint Eastwood western set in the world of John Steinbeck.” The show (streaming on Netflix) fictionalizes the labor wars of rural America in the 1930s. Before creating Damnation, Tost spent five seasons writing for Longmire (also on Netflix). He just wrapped working as a writer and producer for The Terror: Infamy, which will air August 12 on AMC. Before breaking into screenwriting, Tost was a poet and academic.

Below is an interview I recently conducted with Tony about his personal background and his experience in both Hollywood and academia.

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Quillette Magazine: You are now a successful Hollywood screenwriter but that is not the world you come from. In fact, as you know, we grew up not far from each other in Southwest Missouri. Would you discuss your background a bit and how it has influenced your work?

Tony Tost: I prefer “working” to “successful” as a screenwriter modifier, but sure: I started life in a place called Ava, Missouri, a small town in the Ozarks. My mother was 18 when I was born. My grandmother was 36. My biological father, who I never knew, spent most of his short life in prison. Money was not abundant. My earliest years were spent in my grandparents’ house with my mother, grandparents, and three teenage aunts. Eventually my mother married a local cop and we moved to an abandoned mining town near Mt. Rainier in Washington state, at first living in a camper trailer in my adoptive grandparents’ backyard.

My parents eventually found work in nearby Enumclaw, Washington: my father was the head custodian of my elementary school while my mother was the night custodian. We lived in a series of trailers that got increasingly roomier and nicer as I grew up. We sometimes lived on our own property and sometimes in trailer parks. For a significant portion of my childhood, my parents were the president and secretary of their labor union. My father was also a volunteer firefighter—meaning that he got paid each time he showed up at a fire or car accident, or for going to the station when there was a call. For extra money, my parents would also do security and sell merchandise at country music concerts.

As a kid, I’d tag along for most of this. Some of that sucked: scrubbing all the desks at my elementary school in the summer to help my parents out, or seeing a severed arm on the side of the road when we arrived at a car accident, or watching a whole bunch of houses burn down (sometimes with people inside) at an impressionable age. But some of it was golden: getting to see Johnny Cash, Alabama, Merle Haggard, the Judds, Clint Black, and many other country stars perform for free, or developing a healthy understanding of the value of hard work.

I was a decent but largely indifferent student. I graduated high school and started working at the local pickle factory and quickly realized I wanted to do something more with my life, so I started taking classes at the nearby community college. Like a lot of first generation college students, I struggled mightily to adjust at first, but eventually I learned to cope with the rhythms and demands of college.

My background informs the work I do to a degree that probably exceeds my understanding. It’s all over my instincts and my tastes and my strengths and weaknesses. Creatively, I think I’m defined by my work ethic and my love of blue collar American culture, both of which come primarily from my raising. I was brought up on country music, pro wrestling, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds movies. I think I’m only now realizing to what degree my writing life is about obsessively trying to adapt and refresh and add to these blue collar cultural traditions I love.

QM: You are the creator, executive producer, and showrunner for the television series Damnation. I watched the show and found the juxtaposition of traditionalism, religion, and politics quite interesting and unique. Would you briefly describe to readers who may not be familiar with the show what it is about and what inspired you to create that particular story?

TT: Damnation is about Seth Davenport, a troubled man with a violent past who is pretending to be a preacher in 1930s Iowa and is trying to inspire the locals to revolt against the banks and the elites. He’s opposed by Creeley Turner, a cowboy from Wyoming hired by the Pinkertons to stop Seth and his populist movement. It’s inspired by actual historical events but gives a fictional, pulpy spin on that history.

In first writing Damnation, I basically just wanted to imagine my version of a Peckinpah/Eastwood/Leone western, but I also knew there was an industry bias against the genre. And it’s not like I’m some big name. So to even have a prayer at getting a western made, I had to figure out a way to make this dusty old genre feel fresh and relevant to the well-intentioned Ivy-educated folks in air conditioned offices in Santa Monica and New York who decide what gets made or doesn’t. My thoughts drifted towards stuff like A Bad Day at Black Rock and No Country for Old Men and Lone Star, movies that feel like westerns but take place in a more modern setting. I was reading Studs Terkel’s oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times and kept coming across references to these bloody farmer revolts in Iowa. And that sparked my imagination.

Once I got fixated on these farmer revolts, I soon realized that I wanted to take archetypal figures derived from the westerns I love and drop them into this very real historical situation and see how the genre and the history might enliven each other. In my mind, I was writing the Pinkerton cowboy character Creeley for Lee Marvin, specifically the kind of knowing deadly cowboy he plays in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Bad Day at Black Rock, and Seven Men from Now. Lee Marvin’s been dead for decades, of course, but I wanted to take that kind of character and dig deeper into his psyche and past to discover what made him tick. Likewise, I had a young Clint Eastwood in mind for the violent Preacher Seth, specifically the faux-preacher Eastwood of Pale Rider and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. With these sorta bigger-than-life archetypes in mind, I started reading around in the various histories of the 1930s to see what details might stick to them.

Gradually, the show kinda became a receptacle for an array of obsessions for me: everything from the poetry of Wallace Stevens to pro wrestling to 1920s country blues music made its way into the show. But one thing that excited me intellectually was how this populist labor war in Iowa mirrored a lot of modern day political issues, but that it didn’t map cleanly onto our contemporary moment’s nearly psychotic Left-versus-Right binary. As far as I can tell, the fight in the 1930s wasn’t staged as a Left-versus-Right battle so much as a top-versus-bottom one. So I tried to dramatize the 1930s political situation without having the characters fit too easily into our current calcified liberal and conservative orthodoxies.

For instance, in order to keep fidelity to the actual rhetoric of these revolts, our lead character and hero, Seth Davenport, paraphrases Marx in his pro-strike sermons. And he begins the show simply pretending to be a preacher in order to normalize his political message via the language of the church. So far, pretty Left.

But as the season progresses, his relationship to the church and God gets more complicated as he comes to be a believer himself. He also keeps a gun in his pulpit. When vigilantes attempt a drive-by shooting of his parishioners, Seth pulls out the gun and shoots one of the vigilantes. When questioned on this, Seth says “there’s nothing in the Bible that says I can’t defend this church against cowards and thugs.” So he’s a second amendment guy. And ultimately, Seth is trying to take down the industrialist Duvall family who are patrons of the arts and who worship modern liberal gods likes science and technology and innovation. The Duvalls are privileged elitists who are obsessed with the idea of bringing progress to rural America and are freaked out by the retrograde populist anger people like Preacher Seth are inspiring in the flyover states. So in many ways, there’s a lot of right-leaning stuff going on with our hero as well.

It’s not that I wanted to avoid politics in the show or have it both ways. It’s more that I wanted to grapple with elemental American issues without making Damnation yet another proxy soldier in today’s endless Left-versus-Right culture war.

QM: I didn’t see Damnation until it appeared on Netflix but was disappointed to find out it was cancelled after the first season. Any chance we will see a second season on Netflix?

Tony: Sadly, no. After season one and the cancellation, all the cast were released from their contracts and the props and sets were sold off and everyone has moved on. So we’re one and done. Which isn’t surprising. A period show is very expensive. We had a loyal audience but it wasn’t large enough for those up the food chain making the life-or-death decisions. I would’ve loved to have continued the show but I hold no bitterness towards our studio or network. They really supported my vision and trusted me as a first-time creator and showrunner. I’m still amazed they took a chance on such a strange show.

Who knows? If the cast goes on to become big stars and word of mouth builds for a few years and more and more people watch and talk about the show, maybe then we could give Netflix a nudge.

QM: You have a PhD in English and worked in academia before becoming a screenwriter. Do you have any thoughts on the state of academia, particularly the state of the humanities?

TT: I probably have too many thoughts on the state of the humanities. If you deeply love art or books or music, I really believe the last thing you should do is pursue a graduate degree studying that thing you love. Right now, for a creative or artistic or even just a curious person, I think over-exposure to academia is intellectual and spiritual poison.

But I should qualify that disillusionment by saying that academia also saved me. If I hadn’t read Franz Kafka in community college and discovered (to my utter shock) that I had a gift for writing poetry in my first creative writing class, I have no idea what kind of bad roads I would’ve wandered down. So my disillusionment with academia was gradual and fairly late.

I can maybe explain if you’ll indulge a mini-narrative of my academic career. After community college, I went to a very conservative Christian college in the Missouri Ozarks. It was a school for working class kids where you worked on campus to pay for your tuition and room and board. So for most students it was our one realistic chance at a full college education without crushing debt. So, no matter how crazy the school’s politics got in our eyes, we felt like we were stuck there. But when I was a student, the college also had a great English faculty who turned us on to William Butler Yeats, Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Emily Dickinson, Faulkner, Hemingway. There was also a healthy theater department. Little by little, my handful of weirdo artsy friends and I learned how to creatively thrive without institutional sanction or ideological kinship with our hyper-conservative college.

After my undergrad education, I went to the University of Arkansas’s MFA program in creative writing to study poetry. And that was pretty amazing in its own feral way. I connected with this great generation of old school Southern writers in Arkansas, though that generation began phasing out during my four years in the program. They started getting replaced by writers who were more slick, more credentialed, more politically astute, less problematic but also infinitely less interesting than the generation that preceded them.

But more important than the professors were the other MFA students in the program, who came from all over the country with wildly different backgrounds and were by and large as nuts about books and art as I was. I also fell in with the local music scene and played in a couple drunken sloppy rock bands and found that community to be perhaps even more artistically inspiring than the MFA crowd.

But still, at this point, all I wanted to do was be a creative writing professor and write poetry while teaching and discussing great books. But through a couple of life changes, I found myself living in North Carolina after finishing my MFA and I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at Duke in 2005. Here’s where things started turning in a different direction. And it’s hard for me to pin down whether it was a change in the times or a change in the kind of institution I was in.

This is an extreme example, but at my first department function at Duke after being accepted as a doctoral student, a prominent professor asked me where I went to undergrad. I told him Green River Community College and College of the Ozarks. He looked me up and down, then turned away and simply didn’t speak to me again my entire six years in the program. That wasn’t typical. But it did feel a bit symptomatic.

I didn’t interact with everyone in my program and I’m sure I have my own issues and blindspots, but compared to the largely working class artists and musicians and writers I’d been surrounded by up to then, very few Duke grad students seemed to be intoxicated by books or ideas or art. Many, however, seemed to be experts at positioning themselves within the newest intellectual trends. Many seemed like they’d been cultivating their academic careers since middle school and now were armed with impeccable credentials and tons of entitlement and very little imagination, creativity, or curiosity. None struck me as any more gifted than the brighter working class students at my prior schools. They just had better funding and better connections. In fact, I’m pretty sure the two Duke grad students who struck me as the most interesting minds in the department both happened to come from more blue collar, public school backgrounds. As far as I know, neither has yet to land a full-time academic job after getting their PhDs. Last I heard, one of them is an adjunct and the other is running a bar.

At its worst, this level of academia struck me as a bunch of privileged people ensuring their cultural status. I remember the head of the English department giving a talk about his new ambitious post-colonial literary theory, which was elegantly presented and name-checked all of the right theorists and fused cutting edge notions of the subaltern and post-human aesthetics, etc. And then at the end he asked us if we knew any books that would fit his theory. Apparently, he hadn’t found any yet. As someone for whom books and art have been a lifeline, I was astounded. The art itself simply didn’t matter.

But I want to be careful not to paint with a completely totalizing brush. I think there are plenty of adventurous teachers and thinkers housed in the humanities. And I had some great professors at Duke and was generally treated well in that I was largely left alone to pursue my own weird intellectual project. And I had a handful of generous, enthusiastic supporters. So I think my issues are less with Duke or that particular English department and more with this emerging academic generation, which to me seems to double-down on the older generation’s worst trait (ideological certainty) while skimping out on its greatest strengths (genuine erudition and intellectual curiosity). As an academic, I generally felt like as soon as the older professors retired, I was going to be surrounded by people who all read the same ten theorists and who uniformly had pretty banal tastes in literature and who were all frothing to cancel and leap-frog each other into eternity and/or tenure.

I’d gone into academia because when I was 18 I discovered that books and films and art understood me better than my family did and I wanted to maintain that spiritual intoxication for the rest of my life. By the time I was finishing my dissertation, academia had seemed to turn into some kind of perpetual primary to see who could be elected “least problematic” or something.

QM: What made you leave academia?

TT: I went on the job market my last year at Duke and got a tenure track creative writing professor job at a good university. Ostensibly my dream job. The department seemed like decent people and everyone was kind towards me. But I couldn’t wait to escape it. It maybe takes an associative digression to get at my decision-making.

In my last years at Duke, I was browsing this used bookstore and came upon the literary criticism section. And there was this entire wall of academic lit crit books from like 1985 to 2000. And no wall of books has ever looked more dead and irrelevant and unwanted than that wall of books. It kinda gave me the shakes. Just ten years earlier, I’m sure these were some of the trendiest tenure-making titles. And now they were already dead.

That image stuck with me. It seemed tied to a problem I was having with academia itself: a feeling that most academic writing empties itself out so fully to the present intellectual orthodoxy that when that orthodoxy inevitably changes, the writing doesn’t have anything more to offer.

Many academics seem to think of their present ideological positioning as some kind of apex of enlightenment that’s going to last forever. The sun never sets on the intersectional empire, perhaps. And thus their self-flattering, preening cancellation of so much of the past. But the kind of critical writing that I value—mostly practiced by poets and/or cranks like Norman O. Brown, Marshall McLuhan, Susan Howe, Elizabeth Sewell, Charles Olson, Fred Moten—sees the present moment as the link between a past that can be perpetually rediscovered and a future that’s up for grabs. It’s not that these writers think the past is infallible or that the present is inherently fallen. They just seem a bit more humble regarding the past and their own tenuous position regarding it. And as writers and thinkers, they’re also all brilliant and untamed.

Anyway, so I got this tenure track professor gig. And walked into the first faculty meeting. And it felt like coming face to face with that wall of dead books again. I had to get away before I became one of them.

Luckily, at the same time that I went on the academic job market, a novelist friend of mine had made the leap from academia to television writing. We’d both been discussing the desire to flee academia for Hollywood for years. Once he’d made the leap, he offered to share any scripts I wrote with his agents. I wrote, he shared, and a short time later I flew to Los Angeles for a week and a half of meetings. On this trip I got a great manager, a great attorney, and the possibility of a couple of pilot deals with studios and maybe a couple freelance scripts for Longmire. I flew back home and, at my wife’s urging, immediately quit the professor job and I haven’t had a second thought about abandoning academia since then.

But I’m not going to work as a screenwriter forever. Careers are short and the industry is fickle. Depending on how much I’m able to cash in, there’s probably a decent chance that I’ll end up returning to academia someday. Or at least trying to—who knows if they’d still have me. But if that were to happen, I think I’d try to find a way to teach screenwriting to working class students in either a rural or urban setting. I do miss teaching. I’d just love to find a way to bypass as much of the politics of academia as possible if I were to make my way back.

QM: Right or wrong, both academia and Hollywood have a reputation for being not just radically liberal, but also detached from reality or disconnected from everyday folks. Since you grew up in a working class family in Missouri and have worked in both academia and Hollywood, what are your thoughts on how academia and Hollywood compare to each other and to the rest of society?

TT: As someone who works primarily in television, I interact with maybe three different versions of Hollywood. There’s version one: the world of agents, managers, producers, stars, and executives. I spend at most 2 percent of my work time there. There’s version two: the world of the writer’s rooms. I spend maybe 40 percent of my work time there. And then there’s version three: the world of being on set and in post-production with the cast and crew, actually making the show. Let’s say I spend 58 percent of my time there. (There’s also endless hours alone writing, but I won’t count that.)

When people outside the industry say “Hollywood,” they think mostly of just version one. But a working television writer doesn’t spend that much time in that world. Some phone calls and meeting and lunches and such. But it’s not really your working life.

I’d say Hollywood version one (big shots) and version two (writer’s rooms) can run the risk of being trapped inside their own disconnected liberal bubbles of affluence. It just depends on who you’re interacting with. Sometimes the Hollywood stereotypes fit. Sometimes they’re wildly off the mark.

But when you’re on set 14-plus hours a day working with grips and stuntmen and stuntwomen and electricians and armorers and caterers and editors and drivers and camera operators and primarily anonymous workaday actors and actresses, it’s all everyday working folks. And that’s my favorite part of the entire process. It’s where I feel most at home. And in terms of crew and non-famous cast, I haven’t detected any kind of radical liberal consensus. It’s a healthy mix of viewpoints.

But that privileged Hollywood liberal disconnect—and I say this as someone who still leans to the left on most things, especially economically—that can definitely be there in the rooms where decisions are made and stories are written, especially if you find yourself at a meeting or in a writer’s room exclusively populated by right-thinking liberals from middle- to upper-class backgrounds. But even then, in my experience, it’s never as suffocating or soul-deadening as academia. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experiences, but for me the creative ecosystem of Hollywood has been heterogeneous and open enough that I’ve been able to follow my weird blue collar muse in a rewarding fashion.

QM: What are you working on now?

TT: I just finished working as a writer and co-executive producer for The Terror: Infamy, which will debut on AMC network August 12. Between the writer’s room and production, I spent about 9 months working on the show. I’ll be curious about how it lands with folks. I wasn’t the showrunner so it’s ultimately not my vision or sensibility in the way that Damnation was, but I did invest everything I could to help make a quality historical horror show, especially in terms of the three episodes I produced and guided through editing. And it had a particularly devoted cast and crew. I hope it’s well-received.

I also have a foot in the world of features, with several scripts that have been sold and set-up but await the magic coalescing of timing, talent, and money to actually go into production. At this point of my career, I juggle between sorting through possible projects that are offered to me, pursuing projects for which I’m among the competitive throng, and making sure I have enough time to just write for myself.

QM: What is your dream project?

TT: A tv series called Double Nickel, which would be a female-driven rural crime drama set at an Oklahoma truck stop. It’d be my attempt at updating the trucker and road and rural crime movies of the 1970s—stuff like Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy, White Lightning, Vanishing Point, Charley Varrick—but using that classic genre storytelling to address some very contemporary themes. Specifically, the search for meaning and identity in modern small town America. I’ve written the scripts for the first two episodes. Now I’m working to cultivate the best conditions for getting it on air.

QM: Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters?

TT: It’s a cutthroat industry and incredibly tough to break into. And even harder to stay afloat in. That said, I love it. It’s addictive.

One thing I tell aspiring screenwriters: if 100 out of 100 industry readers of your script think it successfully meets professional standards, there’s probably zero chance you’ll break in. But if just 3 out of 100 industry readers think it’s the best thing they’ve read all year, there’s a decent chance you’ll break in. And it doesn’t matter what the other 97 readers think.

Meaning: when you’re trying to break in, you’re not writing to get a good grade or pass a secret eligibility test or to check the right boxes. You’re writing in order to get one or two living, breathing individuals excited about your script and your talent.

I tell aspiring screenwriters not to settle for aiming at being a pro. I think they should aim at being a unicorn. A unique voice. They should try to write the original script only they can write. People in the industry read tons and tons of scripts. To stand out, yours has to be different. And that means taking risks. And accepting that some people will hate it.

QM: I’m a big film fan and love good television programs but as a psychologist I’ve also become concerned about how much time Americans spend in front of screens. We often focus on kids when we talk about this issue but it is a big problem for adults as well. The more time people spend on social media, watching television and movies, and playing video games, the less time they spend building and maintaining close relationships, engaged in community activities, exercising, exploring nature, and even sleeping. But we know these and other non-screen activities are really good for mental and physical health. Do you have any worries about how entertainment-related technology may be affecting our society?

TT: I worry about everything, so I’ll focus on a perhaps uncommon screen time worry: how our relationship with technology is changing our relationship with art. In a roundabout way, my dissertation at Duke was about this very issue, except I went back to the Modernist period to examine how poets like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein internalized the forms and processes introduced by the telegraph and the cinema and assembly-line factories and used them to reimagine their own poetics.

Right now, I’m maybe most spooked by how a living, breathing cultural memory is seeming to evaporate. My pet theory is that the reason so many younger Americans have apparently no awareness of singers/movies/TV shows/writers from before their teenage years is because their parents (my generation) have been over-indulgent in letting them only access culture that’s directly marketed to their age group. Streaming technological delivery systems probably contribute to this: for a lot of families there’s no reason to trot out the old cultural chestnuts because the newest freshest thing is right at their fingertips.

So it’s no wonder younger folks don’t have any cultural memory or taste for aesthetic adventure. In pre-school their parents played the most recent kids’ music in the car for them instead of the older music the parents actually wanted to listen to. And at home the kids only watched kid-centric youtube channels or superhero or Pixar movies instead of suffering through dad’s weird favorite old movies. So when the kids hit elementary school, they only have ears and eyes for whatever was being marketed to their age group that year. The same thing carried forth to junior high, high school, and beyond. So at what point would they have discovered who Akira Kurosawa or Billie Holiday or even Robert Redford might be? Every step of their development they’ve been trapped in the pre-packaged bubble of the new.

I think we deprive our kids if we don’t make them put up with listening or watching things that only the adults really like. Older and adult art forces them to get out of their comfort zone and deal with a little ambiguity and thematic density and encounter shit that wasn’t manufactured for their immediate effortless consumption. It might even make them develop what John Keats called “negative capability,” the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” With older art, they have to find value and pleasure in something that wasn’t necessarily made for them. I think that’s healthy as hell. And because it’s not happening very much anymore, I’m afraid we’re producing emptier, more fragile, less intellectually and aesthetically adventurous adults.

QM: I’ll close by asking what some of your favorite movies and television shows are and if there are any specific writers or directors who have greatly influenced your work.

TT: I have trouble watching much TV these days because it feels like watching someone else performing the same job as me. I don’t get lost in story and character in TV shows that much anymore. I mostly see a bunch of producing and writing and post-production decisions and compromises. But back in the day, television started and ended with The Sopranos and Deadwood for me. I sometimes say that my biggest storytelling influences are David Milch and Vince McMahon. I also love Stranger Things and Eastbound & Down. Season one of True Detective. Rectify and Twin Peaks.

For fun, I mostly watch NBA games and pro wrestling. I also read quite a few plays. Sadly, I read very little poetry anymore. Mostly just Jack Gilbert. Since I do so much reading for work, when I do read for pleasure I tend to recycle through my favorite books by Marilynne Robinson and Denis Johnson.

I watch a ton of movies, though. Unless I’m in production, I try to watch at least one film a day. I like to be kind of unstuck in time and geography, so my viewing will veer from Japanese new wave crime and samurai films from the 60s to Powell & Pressburger dramas from the 1940s to revisionist American westerns. And I have a handful of totemic films I rewatch obsessively: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Tender Mercies, The Bad News Bears, Ida, Memories of Murder, Miller’s Crossing, Apocalypse Now, L.A. Confidential, Unforgiven.

In the big picture, my two biggest artistic heroes are Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. I try to model my approach on theirs. Both men were equal parts innovators and traditionalists. They were also constant champions of the underdog. I don’t think you can pin either of those two as being either strictly liberal or conservative. They were hunting bigger game than that. I’m trying to do the same.

 

Tony Tost is a television writer and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @tonytost 

Clay Routledge is a Quillette columnist and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. You can follow him on Twitter @clayroutledge