‘Barkskins’ Creator: The Show Explores An ‘Unknown Chapter’ Of History & There’s A ‘Mystery’ Element

‘Barkskins’ premieres May 25 on National Geographic. HL spoke with creator Elwood Reid about bringing Annie Proulx’s bestselling book to life and how this show could run for ‘multiple seasons.’

Are you looking for a TV show to take you back to a different time? Look no further than Barkskins. The National Geographic limited series premieres May 25. The show is based on the New York Times’ bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx centers around a disparate group of outcasts and dreamers battling to escape their pasts while navigating the brutal frontier hardships, competing interests, and tangled loyalties at the crossroads of civilization: the New World.

HollywoodLife talked with creator Elwood Reid about adapting Proulx’s 700-page epic for TV. Barkskins explores “a completely unknown chapter of North American history,” and there’s not a show like it on TV right now. He also discussed the women of the time period and how Marcia Gay Harden’s character was adapted for the limited series. While the show is being marketed as a limited series, Elwood said that he could expand this into a series that could go on for “multiple seasons.” Read our full Q&A below.

Why did you want to take what Annie Proulx wrote and bring it to TV?
Elwood Reid: It was a couple things. First of all, it’s Annie Proulx. When you get offered a book by Annie Proulx, you pay attention. And then Scott Rudin, who’s a producer and someone I’ve always admired and wanted to work with, was attached. And then on top of that, Carolyn Bernstein is an executive at National Geographic. I had worked with her on The Bridge, and we have this amazing working relationship. Nat Geo also wanted to do functional programming, so there’s just a lot of exciting things for it. As a novelist and someone who’s always looking for cool material, when you read the book and you look at the book, that TV show’s not out there. To me, that was exciting. You get offered all kinds of books, and they’re very familiar worlds or themes. There was nothing like this out there. So that was both of a challenge to overcome and something that made me excited every day when I was adapting. The country had been settled for over 100 years when we started settling in the West. These were the first people coming down into North America, and Jamestown was happening around the same time or a little bit earlier. It’s a completely unknown chapter of North American history, which is another reason why I wanted to do it.

Given that this is a novel, what can you say about the differences and the similarities we’re going to see in the TV series?
Elwood Reid: Annie’s book is huge in scope. I’m a novelist. I’m very prejudiced in that whenever I love a book, I very rarely want to watch a movie or adaptation of it. Particularly if they try to adhere to it too much. I know we’re talking about television, but books are a great art form. If you fall in love with a book, it’s just captivating, deep theater of the mind, and you’re never going to recreate that. But Annie’s book gave me some license because it spanned several centuries. I knew I couldn’t make a TV show that spanned centuries, so I focused on the first 100 pages of her book. In doing so, I had to create some new elements to add plot and to add incident into those first 100 pages. And this thing sprung up, this hybridization of her book. From some of the themes that were inherent in her book and some of the themes that I’m fascinated by and characters that I created to put in there, it was an amazing experience. I know that wouldn’t have been possible without the blueprint of her book.

That time period was a very male-dominated society. What can you say about the place of women in this society? 
Elwood Reid: We know this from history but history now and particularly then was written by men. Most of the accounts you have at that time were written by Jesuit priests. They were written by whatever historians were around, and they were written by the companies and business people that were tracking the comings and goings of the trading area. If you take that prejudice and you remove that prejudice and just look at physically what was going on there, there were several things that really interested me at the time. One was this interesting thing called the Filles du roi. The Filles du roi was a program from France to help populate the New World by bringing over young girls who were either fourth and fifth daughters. Back in Europe, they would never inherit land or marry up. They would just go to the nunnery or they would serve some function of the family. They were street merchants or, in some cases, prostitutes. These women were taken by the church and sent across the ocean. I mean, imagine 14, 15, 16, 17, 18-year-old girls coming over to a new land they know nothing about. What was interesting about that period of time is when they came here, as part of the program, they got to choose their husbands. Over in Europe at that time, you were married off by your father to gain land or gain titles. When these girls came over here, the choices were flipped. So it was both crazy that they would have to come over and marry some smelly trapper, but at least they got to pick. That was interesting. The second thing was, in any reading of the church over there, the ursulines came over and they were the glue that held the society together. They were this order of nuns that were there when there was nothing there. They were outreaching the Native American tribes, some of which were hostile towards them and some of which were very open to them. They were administering to the British soldiers, who were killing their fellow Frenchmen. They were the hospitals. They were the source of all the teaching and learning that took place in the community. That’s not boiled to the top of history because I think the prejudices are baked into most histories from the male perspective. I had this wonderful research woman who gave me so much stuff. If you look at the character of Mathilde, played by Marcia Gay Harden, the innkeeper was the center of the town. There was no town without her. She fed everybody, entertained everybody. She was incredibly powerful. Did she own that property? No, her husband did. So I engineered in the story a way to get rid of her husband so I could see what happened to a woman who could take property and take business and that happened. It happened during that time. I was like going on an archeological dig trying to find interesting things and not trying to put it through the lens of our times. I don’t want to revise history, but I feel stories have to be there.

The characters Hamish and Yvon certainly bring up a lot of questions when watching the trailer. They seem to be on some type of mission. What can you say about what they’re after? 
Elwood Reid: I think one of the things I was trying to do is import a modern-day private eye investigative storyline into a period piece, so those guys come looking for his missing brother-in-law. There’s a mystery of what happened to this guy who was involved in this massacre. As Goames and Yvon begin to explore this mystery, as with all good detective fiction or moral fiction, the search and the quest begins to curdle and affect the searcher, meaning Goames and Ivon. They go into their own heart of darkness. That was something I intentionally planned, but to be honest with you, I just wanted to have some drive in the story. I wanted you to go… What the hell are these guys are looking for? And what happens when they find it? When you watch the series, they don’t find an easy answer. They find something very dark and very dark about themselves. I don’t want to give too much away, but that was the idea from day one.

Claude is also a very central figure in this story. What about his arc over the course of the season?
Elwood Reid: Going back to the reading I did at the time, any place is settled by dreamers and mad men and people who have visions for building a kingdom. That’s what Trepagny is. He’s a Catholic and a wealthy guy who thinks he’s going to build an empire in this new world. Back then, a lot of wealth was land-based. Here’s a guy who was like, “F**k it, I can go over to the New World, and I can get five times the amount of land I could get over in France.” He has this religious bent. He’s a Cathar, which is the sect of the Catholic religion that was put on during the Inquisition. He believed in this dual god. A god of the left and right hand. A god that could do bad things and do good things. That was a heretical thought at the time. So I thought I could embody that in the character. He’s charming. He’s weird. He’s funny, and he can also be kind of scary. If there was one person who could do this, it was David Thewlis. Getting him was super important to me for the tone of the rest of the show.

This is a limited series, but we’ve seen shows like Big Litle Lies end up being more than one season. Are you definitively establishing this as a one-season limited series?
Elwood Reid: I intended this to go multiple seasons. But given the current landscape that we’re in right now with what’s going on with productions already be halted this year, I just don’t know. It was something Nat Geo chose to market the show as a limited series. But you know my answer to that is, whenever you adapt a 700-page novel and you only use the first 100 pages, there’s a lot of story left. When you watch the show, I leave the show in a cliffhanger. I was just getting going with these characters. So I just don’t know in this current landscape. There are so many TV shows out there. The streaming market is shifting. COVID has not helped. So you just don’t know. I’m protecting myself both ways, but my hope would be to continue telling the story.

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