Tall Tales and Texas Rising
Writer David Marion Wilkinson on fudging the facts but getting the spirit right in his new History Channel miniseries
David Marion Wilkinson never expected to be at this place. He's a novelist with a tilt toward the historical. A stubborn novelist. A novelist determined to carve out a long, successful career. But he's also got to eat, and suddenly Hollywood came calling. Soon his life was entangled with the History Channel's 10-hour miniseries Texas Rising, a sometimes historical, sometimes quite fictional account of the Lone Star State's battle for independence from Mexico, that premieres May 25.
Wilkinson's son Dean ended up in Los Angeles after graduation from the University of Texas. In the interconnected world where it matters whom you know, Dean played in a band with a guy who was dating the daughter of a producer. Soon Dean was working for her father's production company. One day he saw two of his father's books – the historical novel Not Between Brothers and the biography One Ranger – on the bookshelf. Wilkinson's son was told they were among a hundred books consulted as research for the show, which began with a focus on the formation of the Texas Rangers. But soon Wilkinson was called in as a historical consultant by Executive Producer Leslie Greif, famed as one of the creators of TV series Walker, Texas Ranger and producer of HC's mini-series Hatfields & McCoys. Greif was brash and confident, the cliche Hollywood producer who gets things done. Wilkinson soon found his role grow to include work on the script and ultimately a co-producer credit.
"The executive producer – a native of Los Angeles with a lifetime in the entertainment industry – and, I suppose, the original screenwriter, Ted Mann, laid out their 'vision' of the original story," Wilkinson says. "They had chosen, for instance, to accept the Emily West [Yellow Rose of Texas] legend in its original conception in the Fifties, even far exceeding that myth, totally beyond the slim historical record left behind by the real Emily West. My first job was as a historical consultant, and I argued passionately for them to reconsider their decision. When they refused, after I came on board as a screenwriter, I set my mind to take their story and their characters and run with them."
Texas Rising may not get perfect marks for historical accuracy, but Wilkinson is proud of his contribution to a project that had stalled with Mann leaving behind a partially completed script. Wilkinson's career was also in a holding pattern when Greif and Texas Rising came calling. His novel Oblivion's Altar was getting positive reviews in 2001, when 9/11 happened and fiction sales dropped off the map. Wilkinson reinvented himself as the co-author of famed Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson's biography One Ranger. But fiction was his love and he aimed to prove it in the semi-autobiographic novel Where the Mountains Are Thieves, about a writer trying to keep his life and marriage together while living in the Big Bend region of Texas. The novel showcases some of his best writing, but Wilkinson's real-life marriage failed and book sales weren't keeping him financially afloat, so he found himself humbly working the oil fields in his 50s as he had in his 20s.
Now remarried and back in Austin, Wilkinson is happy to be playing the Hollywood game of collaboration and constant rewrites, reimaginings. Texas Rising features a sprawling cast including Bill Paxton as Sam Houston, Olivier Martinez as Santa Anna, and Kris Kristofferson as Andrew Jackson in what many expect to be Kristofferson's final role after reports of his failing memory. An estimated 10,000 film extras were hired, a number rivaling that seen in 1963's Cleopatra.
This isn't really Wilkinson's first Hollywood rodeo. Kevin Costner and NBC had his novel Not Between Brothers in development for three years as a miniseries, and it was shopped elsewhere before "returning with its tail tucked between its legs to my bookshelf," Wilkinson says. The book also tells of the early days of Texas from 1816 to 1861, and the author worked painstakingly to keep the facts as true as possible.
"Even when one aspires to depict 'true history,' one always faces the dilemma of what that really is," he says. "For instance, there's a ferocious debate among accredited historians about the fact of David Crockett at the Alamo. Did he go down swinging, to the last man, in the Alamo, or did he surrender as the controversial de la Peña diary insists? A filmmaker must choose one version or the other, and as soon as he or she does, you've got an argument waiting for you wherever you go in Texas. There is no one, true vision of history. It is always subject to interpretation. You will never please everybody, and at some point, it's pointless to even try. You tell your own story and stick by your guns."
Last year, Texas Monthly called out the History Channel's trend toward "history-ish" programming when mentioning the impending Texas Rising. Wilkinson doesn't disagree. "Hollywood, much like many historical novelists and all good criminal attorneys, never lets the facts get in the way of a good story," he says. "That becomes especially true when one considers the many millions of dollars invested in today's productions."
"I don't believe anybody, anywhere, should rely on Hollywood to tell them what to think about anything," he says. "If you want to know what happened in Texas in 1836, you need to read. That goes as much for American Sniper as it does for Texas Rising. And don't get me started on the travesty wreaked upon the Catholic Church and historical fictions that permeated The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown should have been shot for such rampant irresponsibility. Instead, he was rewarded by over $100 million in proceeds for telling a good story. We all have the responsibility to read the historical accounts and think for ourselves."
Texas Rising was shot in Durango, Mexico, where Kristofferson had worked on his first film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. "In essence, Kris Kristofferson will end his career where it started," Wilkinson says. "That is just some of the magic that emerged from a script written by three guys who did not know each other, trying to jump-start a project that had stalled when a very talented screenwriter walked out the door leaving 80 percent of the script unwritten, with just four months left to get it done. We worked our asses off to write this script – and no matter what happens, I will always be proud of the energy, faith, hope, and sheer terror we all experienced as we wrote around the clock for four straight months."
Wilkinson is now working on a Texas Rising sequel and a slew of other projects. It's sometimes grueling work, but it beats the oil fields. "I have this ability to think visually," he says. "I can play the movie out in my head, and I'm lightning-fast with rewrites."
Texas Rising premieres Mon., May 25, 8pm, on the History Channel.