‘Yellowstone’s Taylor Sheridan On Safely Shooting Season Four In A Pandemic, Emmy Momentum & The Benefit Of Having Kevin Costner As Your Series Anchor

EXCLUSIVE: Taylor Sheridan had to push back an hour on his Deadline Emmy nomination week interview, e-mailing simply, “I gotta move cows.” Sheridan is the real thing, owner of a working cattle ranch in Weatherford, Texas and co-creator, writer of every episode and director of most in the Paramount Network series Yellowstone. The drama stars Kevin Costner as the well worn Montana-based ranch patriarch John Dutton, who clings to the largest ranch in the country as desperadoes, bankers, real estate speculators and Native American activists try to wrest it from his tight grip.

Led by Dutton’s children, played by Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly and Wes Bentley, and Cole Hauser, Kelly Asbille, Danny Huston and Gil Birmingham, the show took some dark turns in Season Two as the Duttons battled the Beck Brothers (Neal McDonough & Terry Serpico), two land-grabbing siblings so ruthless they hired Neo-Nazi mercenaries to kill Beth Dutton (Hauser’s Rip Wheeler ended that threat convincingly in a clip you can watch below) and kidnap Dutton’s grandson Tate (Brecken Merrill). The undercurrent of violence has always been part of the show, but last season’s climax evoked contemporary Westerns showdowns like No Country For Old Men and Sheridan’s script Hell Or High Water. In the clip above, Dutton settles up for good with Malcolm Beck (McDonough). Dutton’s problems are hardly over; hanging onto the ranch is a burden, and there is a touching flashback scene in which he promises his dying father (Dabney Coleman) he’ll never let go of the family legacy.

Here, Sheridan explains why he thinks the ratings are growing exponentially by the week, how Yellowstone will soon shoot Season Four around the pandemic, and whether his modern day Western will become a fixture for decades like Gunsmoke and Bonanza or run its course sooner. Sheridan’s success has created opportunities for him: he still writes each episode, but only gave up the directing reins last season because he helmed Those Who Wish Me Dead, a film he scripted that stars Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult and Jon Bernthal, latter of whom was in Sheridan’s directorial debut Wind River.

Its third season is underway and the drama is putting up the highest prime time rating numbers on television this summer, even after a move to Sundays. Yellowstone has also begun to find its way on Emmy lists for contention for Costner and the stellar cast around him.

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Sheridan has signed to create and oversee more shows for Paramount Network and 101 Studios. It is a remarkable mogul turn considering that Sheridan hadn’t written anything until he considered his lot as a supporting actor shooting his umpteenth series in Sons of Anarchy, and contemplated raising his family in a small Los Angeles apartment with work sure to get more scarce as he got older. He quit abruptly and began writing, and the result was the acclaimed spare survival tales Hell or High Water, the Sicario films and Wind River, as Sheridan showed a knack for doing in screenplay form what Cormac McCarthy does in novels.

DEADLINE: So, how difficult is it for one to move cows?

SHERIDAN: It’s not that different than maybe moving 49-year-olds that don’t want to go where you want to go, except you’re on a horse. These cows are good, they know the drill. We’re going to go over here because there’s better grass, and then we’re going to go over there because that grass isn’t good anymore. So, it’s no big thing. It just has to be done.

DEADLINE: Safe to say you are in Texas, then, and not in LA?

SHERIDAN: Yeah. That’s where I am. There’s not a lot of cattle to move in LA, I don’t think.

DEADLINE: Also a roomier place to hole up during a pandemic. When will you start shooting Season Four?

SHERIDAN: We’re supposed to start mid-August, and we’re putting that together as best we can. I’m fortunate that this show shoots on a ranch in Montana. We’re going to shoot exclusively there this year, or in and around it. So we’ve got the crew and the cast up there, and it’s in an area of the state that has no active cases now. As long as we’re very careful to not bring any in…so once we’re there, we’ll be very cautious about how we move. The best thing we can do for the community is limit our interaction with them, really, for now. And everyone will just stay there for the duration. I’ve spoken with the governor extensively about how to mitigate this. He was very fair and also very aware that LA is a hot spot, and that’s where a fair amount of our crew and most of our cast lives.

So he said, hey, look, bring them in, quarantine them for two weeks, test them when they get here, test them when they leave, and just ask them to stay on your set or at their home until that time. And keep a program of very rigid testing as you’re going.

DEADLINE: Seems reasonable…

SHERIDAN: Which is what we’ll do. It’s not unlike…all of the unions have been wracking their brains with what is the best protocol, as has every movie studio. And with my studio, we’re talking about a big corporation in Viacom that has a lot of different companies that could put their heads together and figure out the best thing. I think that under the circumstances, we have come up with a way that will allow us to go back to filming and be as efficient as we can. What you don’t want to do is limit scope as far as the filmmaking or the teleplay. No one’s going to care in a year when Season Four comes out that we were shooting under stressful situations, if the camerawork and the scope of the show and the quality of the product isn’t what it has been up to this point. Finding a marriage of both, I think that we’ve come up with a good plan. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my friend Tyler Perry, who is in a similar situation in that he’s starting up very soon. He, fortunately for him, has his own studio. I don’t.

DEADLINE: Yet.

SHERIDAN: So, he sent me some video the other day where he’s building housing on his lot where the cast and crew and everyone can stay right there, with a restaurant and everything. We’re both debating the pros and cons of building a cantina and anything else we can do to get through this.

DEADLINE: For all those I’ve spoken to trying to be among the first back into production, the plan is anyone who takes part plays by strict rules. Nobody leaves, and if somebody sneaks out to go to a bar, they’re fired and replaced. Insurance is impossible and if your lead actor gets coronavirus, everything shuts for half a month or more. Disastrous. You thinking about it this way?

SHERIDAN: Yeah. Unfortunately, you have to have that zero-tolerance policy, and you have to articulate it to the cast and crew properly from the very beginning, and you have to let them know, look, you may think it’s draconian of us to say you can’t go anywhere, but it’s reckless of you to go somewhere because if you get this…granted, you may be healthy and you may not even know you have it, but you could give it to someone who will have a completely different reaction to it. Yes, one terrible thing could be that the show shuts down for a period of time. A worse thing would be that someone gets really, really sick, and a worse thing than that is someone dies. And so you have to be cognizant of that. We also, as a production company, have to understand that going somewhere for five months and only seeing your hotel room and the set is a terrible working condition, right?

DEADLINE: It doesn’t sound fun.

SHERIDAN: And again, I benefit from the fact that I have hundreds of acres at my disposal at a ranch, where we’re talking about having a restaurant there. And some form of entertainment on set every single day. You can get every meal there. We’re building an outdoor gym. We’re doing everything we can to try and make it as pleasant as it can be under these circumstances. And when we start, I don’t think it’s going to change. I don’t think that somewhere in the middle of Season Four, these restrictions are going to be something we can loosen. I think that possibly by the late spring of 2021, you can look at not having to break your set down into zones, and you know we’ll be testing essential elements every other day. That’ll basically be your interior zone, which is the set, and you have a zone surrounding that and a zone surrounding that, and there’s testing going on for those individuals as well. And then you’re only allowed to be in the zone you’re allowed to be in, and then you have the challenge of bringing in guest-star actors or day-playing camera operators. You can you ask someone to self-quarantine at your location, but can you vet that? There’s a lot of challenges. It will, for sure, magnify the expense of every TV production.

DEADLINE: By how much?

SHERIDAN: I’m going to guess 20 percent when it’s all said and done. That’s what I anticipate. For shows that are really successful, the networks are willing to incur that expense. For some of those shows on the bubble that we’ve already seen cancelled this year, I doubt they would’ve been cancelled had it been a normal year. As they factor in the expense of having an EMT for every department instead of just one on the set, having sanitation teams, all these different things. All those people have to be housed and fed, and paid. So, it’s going to be an interesting challenge. As if this job wasn’t hard enough, it just got harder.

DEADLINE: Before everything shuttered in March, when had you planned to shoot Season Four?

SHERIDAN: The plan was to start in June. The plan’s been to start in June every single year, to be honest with you. And every year, something happens and we can’t start until August. The one benefit of this year, I had written most of Season Four, and then I stopped at episode seven to figure out when we’re actually starting, because I have to factor in weather. I have to know if we’re going to be there in November and December, because if we are, I have to write snow into the story line. Because there’ll be a foot of it on the ground. So, I had to pause on writing the last few episodes, which I’ll start up here pretty soon once I know we’re going, because I would hate to write them and then find out that we can only shoot six episodes this year, and then I have to go shoot in the spring, and then there’s no snow. There are so many things most people don’t realize. When they’re sitting at home, watching TV, they’re wondering well, why did this happen, and that? Well, a lot of times, it was triaging a situation that came up that has nothing to do with story. I’m trying to avoid that circumstance here.

DEADLINE: Do you find that there is maybe a little more urgency and power in what you write when the pressure is on and you’ll have to shoot those scenes shortly after you write them?

SHERIDAN: No, at this point, I’m able to flip the switch. If I have to turn out an episode that they need to see tomorrow, I can do it. If I want to write one that’s going to take place next year, I’ll do that, too. I don’t need a ticking time bomb behind me.

DEADLINE: How must that feel? Conditioned to deadlines, I couldn’t write a grocery list unless I had a gun to my head. You wrote every episode of Season Two, which culminated in that tense showdown with the Beck Brothers that was startling and showed the grit of Dutton kids Kayce, the former soldier unfazed by having to kill especially when his son was kidnapped, Beth, who fought off murderous thugs until Rip Wheeler killed them. And John Dutton, who gave a frontier justice ending to the remaining land-grabbing Dutton brother. You were planning a movie while all this was going on. What was the big challenge there?

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