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‘Yellowstone’: Taylor Sheridan Breaks Down a Bloody and Surprising Feature-Length Premiere

The writer and director of the new Paramount Network series talks about the series' startling opening shot and keeping sane while making 10 hours of TV.

"Yellowstone" premieres Wednesday, June 20 on Paramount Network.  Kevin Costner stars as John Dutton.

Kevin Costner in “Yellowstone”

KEVIN LYNCH FOR PARAMOUNT NETWORK

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “Yellowstone” Season 1, Episode 1: “Daybreak.”]

Writing and directing the entire season of “Yellowstone” wasn’t always the plan for Taylor Sheridan. When plans to bring in other people in both roles for Season 1 of the Paramount Network series fell through, Sheridan says that being behind the camera for all 10 episodes actually alleviated some of the standard stylistic pressures of a TV show’s first episode.

“A lot of times in TV, you build a world with a pilot and then you try and replicate that world. But since I was the producer and the director and the writer, I didn’t have to hold myself to what I had done,” Sheridan told IndieWire. “It allowed me to make changes visually as the thing evolved, that hopefully make it feel fresh and unexpected. So I think that was probably the best benefit of it, looking back.”

The point it evolves from, the first scene of the episode, is a jarring opening to a show juggling beauty and pain. A highway horse trailer collision leading to a mercy killing is an idea that came very early on in Sheridan’s conception of the show.

“It was the first scene I wrote. And I went from there,” Sheridan said. “I wanted to find a way to show the beauty and the violence and the connection and the visceral realities of moving out west, and I wanted to put it in a very concise moment and I felt that that encapsulated all those.”

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Along with the heavy lifting of introducing an entire family, this premiere episode closes with a surprising development: the murder of Lee Dutton (Dave Annable). Looking for a way to subvert audiences’ expectations, Sheridan wanted to frame the show’s opening around acquainting viewers with these characters, all while establishing the possibility that any of them could go anywhere once it ended.

“You want to do things that let an audience feel like you can’t pinpoint the consequences. Not to say that no one’s safe but that it’s as real a world as you can imagine,” Sheridan said. “The hope was that you lay out this world and you think of the first episode almost like a prologue. That’s how I approached it, with the intention of creating a world that felt complete but also made you wonder like, ‘What in the world’s going to happen next?!'”

That looming sense of death is part of a genre tradition that “Yellowstone” now enters. Sheridan says he wanted to embrace some of the distinct elements of Westerns, while adapting the genre to this new framework.

"Yellowstone" premieres Wednesday, June 20 on Paramount Network. Pictured (l to r): (Pete Sands), Mo (Mo Brings Plenty), Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), John Dutton (Kevin Costner), Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley)

Gil Birmingham, Cole Hauser, Kevin Costner, and Wes Bentley in “Yellowstone”

Paramount Network

“I was making a modern-day Western, but I also wanted it to feel like a true Western where you have all the tropes that we’re used to — the shootouts on Main Street, etc.,” Sheridan said. “How can I do that and yet not feel reductive, still feel there’s real consequences within this world? So it was a challenge. It’s a delicate balance to try and walk and hopefully, we achieved it.”

One of those tropes is featuring extensive sequences with animals, including the many sequences on horseback and the stallion scenes in the premiere. This will not be the only “Yellowstone” episode with some pivotal non-human characters, a storytelling choice that always presents its own unique challenge.

“Horses don’t hit marks and neither do bucking bulls. So you have to shoot the scene and then you have to make a documentary about whatever the animal is going to do and let them do what they want to do,” Sheridan said. “You don’t want to force anything. There’s a certain chaos to it that’s really exciting as a filmmaker because you just don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

The relationship between Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) and John Dutton (Kevin Costner) will come to be one of the centerpieces of the show going forward. With the fallout from Lee’s murder, tensions between their respective families and communities are a vital part of “Yellowstone.” Along with that element of the show, Sheridan wanted to make sure that the music of the series also reflected its diverse perspectives.

“There’s a song in there by Joey Stylez and one from a band called Blackkiss — Pete Sands — and they’re both really, really gifted Native American artists,” Sheridan said. “It’s an opportunity to give a stage to some voices that people haven’t heard. I love finding new music. It’s part of it. And so it’s exciting to me to go try and find these artists who people may not be as familiar with and use their music to help tell the story.”

Though the production was able to block-shoot the series’ first three episodes, “Yellowstone” is still a show unfolding week to week. Although he brought much of his feature filmmaking experience to the project, Sheridan hopes there’s enough in this prologue to get people invested in where the series goes from here.

“I hope that the experience feels really fresh and cinematic and like a movie made for people who are sitting at home. That was the goal,” Sheridan said. “So I hope that the scope of it and the energy and the emotion and the incredible talent of the cast, hopefully, they really leap from the screen and we have an impression that make people want to come back for more.”

“Yellowstone” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on the Paramount Network. 

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