‘Outsiders’ Creators on Making WGN’s Appalachian Epic

Peter Mattei and Peter Tolan of Outsiders. (WGN)
Peter Mattei and Peter Tolan of Outsiders. (WGN)

By now, you’ve heard us talking about Outsiders, WGN’s new show starring David Morse, Joe Anderson and Kyle Gallner as the Farrell clan, an Appalachian society living in the mountains of Kentucky. While the premiere definitely had some memorable moments involving moonshine, murder and a kind of frontier justice that makes us squirm, show creator Peter Mattei and executive producer Peter Tolan promised us in an interview back in November that there’s a lot more in store for the Farrells. Read our interview with Outsiders world-creators below.

Observer: Outsiders is such an original concept. What inspired you to write a story about this Appalachian clan?

Peter Mattei: I’d been wanting to write something about technology and the world we live in; issues of personal freedom. I thought one way of doing that would be to look at people who live an alternative lifestyle, who choose to live in a different way. I’d always been interested in hippie communes, off-the-grid cults and stuff like that, and it just occurred to me that I could create something original in a clan that had been living on this mountaintop for something like 250 years, so that they weren’t really a part of mainstream culture. What would happen if they had to become more integrated into our culture so as to better defend themselves against it?

Observer: I think Appalachia is an interesting setting for that kind of story. When people think of the term, they think Deliverance, or maybe Harmony Korine movies. Very “crazy, hill people.” How did you go about humanizing this setting?

Mattei: I did do some research; I went to West Virginia and southern Virginia for some time. But it’s important to note that this is a made-up world; it’s fiction. It’s somewhere between reality and a graphic novel. It’s set in a fictional county in Kentucky, it’s set in a fictional town. And as much as we wanted to be true to the spirit of things, we couldn’t be true to the reality…for one, we were shooting outside Pittsburgh, PA.

Observer: The show almost has an epic, Game of Thrones feel. Were there any fantastical elements you looked to bring into the story?

Mattei: Well…yes. But you have to stay tuned.

Observer: Why was WGN a good fit for this show?

Peter Tolan: I think because they wanted to do it. That’s always a helpful thing. And not JUST that they wanted to do it…there wasn’t even a pilot, and they said, “We want to make 13 of these and put them on the air.” So I think you just have to recognize: given that there are so many outlets now, and so many places to put things on television, you have to take a big swing and do something distinctive. So I think they were really behind that.

You said in your first comment that this was “epic.” And I think Peter always approached this as a mythic, cinematic thing…something bigger than life. And I think they responded to that.

Observer: And what an epic cast! David Morse is one of these actors…he can play good, he can play evil. And Kyle Gallner, who I haven’t seen probably since Veronica Mars. Was this the cast you had in mind while writing? How did the casting process work?

Mattei: It was a very long casting process. We just wanted great actors for the parts, and many of them, I imagined very different physically from what we ended up with, which was a great thing. Because then they really owned the part; it wasn’t like they were trying to fit into something that was already pre-imagined by somebody. They really came to embody these characters, and then we began to write for the actors as they interpreted their parts.

Tolan: And I don’t know if this was a conscious thing, but we didn’t go into it trying to get a name. Because if you put a name up on that hill, it takes people out of it. Even David, who is probably the biggest name, is made, by the aide of hair extensions, unrecognizable.

Mattei: And when we did throw out names, you know, ridiculously big names, you’d always say, “But people aren’t going to see the Farrells, they’re going to see an actor.” So we just wanted great actors that would get so subsumed by these parts that you wouldn’t even recognize them, necessarily.

Observer: I’m always interested in how a writer’s room works. How do you find the right group of people to tell this kind of story, and what was it like on a day-to-day basis?

Tolan: I like to use a small room. Too many voices, and it gets muddy, and you spend too much time in debate as opposed to the actual work. So we had really only four other people…well, really three other people for most of production, along with the two of us. It was a huge challenge. (Mattei) created a show bible, which helped a lot, and was a lot of work. And he created very early on, a slide presentation of images: the land, the buildings, the people, the moonshine. Not only that, but we had bookshelves in the office: we had DVDs like The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia; books about Appalachian slang; picture books. And we used that as a touchstone: would they know this, would they speak like this, what words would they use?

But it was very difficult. It wasn’t a show about two guys who work on Wall Street and get in their car every day. You couldn’t make pop culture references, because they don’t know them. It was a challenge, and some of our writers rose to it, and some of them said, by their own admission, “I don’t think I can write this.”

Observer: At what stage did Paul Giamatti–one of the biggest names attached to this project–get involved?

Mattei: Very early on, we sent the script to him and his producing partner, and they loved it and signed on. That’s when we went out wider and talked to a bunch of networks and different people…I talked to a lot of cable networks about this show, and in the questions they asked me, you could hear the fear. And I just knew: “Okay, if you buy this, you’ll make me turn it into something that will suck.” And WGN, you could just hear how excited they were about how off it was. Plus, they wanted to do all 13.

Observer: When you’re writing any script about an “other”-based community, you need a character that works as a guide for the audience. In your case it’s Asa (Joe Anderson), who has left the tribe to see the world, and has now returned. Can you talk about the development of that character?

Mattei: That was pretty much the thinking: there would be two worlds, with very little interaction between them, that were very separate and didn’t understand each other, so it would be good to have a character stuck in the middle between them. That’s Asa. He’s a bit of an anti-hero, as you’ll see as the story progresses, but that’s what his role is in terms of the story’s architecture.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for content. ‘Outsiders’ Creators on Making WGN’s Appalachian Epic