In 2013, author James McBride published a remarkable book about Henry Shackleford, an enslaved person who united with John Brown and his abolitionist mission. The book was called The Good Lord Bird. Blumhouse Television producer Jeremy Gold (Sharp Objects) encouraged Hell on Wheels screenwriter Mark Richard to read the book. “He put the book in my hands, and I read it in one sitting,” recalled Richard.
Little did Richard know, Gold had also spoken to actor Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before Sunrise) about the book. Hawke also read the novel in a single serving and then brought the book to Jason Blum of Blumhouse Television as a potential project. Thanks to their mutual love for the book, a brunch meeting was set up and by 2020 the limited series hit Showtime, with Hawke and Richard signed on as co-creators
“The word ‘fresh’ and James McBride just go together,” said Hawke. “There’s something so irreverent and simultaneously incendiary and loving, about James’ writing. It’s completely uncommon. It was such a playful attack on such a serious subject.” Both Hawke and Richard described themselves as “hypnotized” by the work; a tone which they tried to emulate in the series, which is told by Henry “Onion” Shackleford. The character was born into slavery and plays witness to the accounts in somewhat of a tragicomedy.
“Our meeting went as well as a meeting can go because our love for the book was so sincere. We both felt our job was to stick a syringe in the novel and try to put it into the mercury of cinema,” said Hawke. “We didn’t need to fix anything, we just needed to capture it.”
Introducing John Brown
If you briefly jump over the first foreshadowing scene, Onion describes his love for John Brown in a voiceover as Brown says, “What a beautiful country” (while the Undertaker prepares to hang him). This is the first true scene of the mini-series comes when Onion meets John Brown.
“Ethan and I are both novelists, but in James’ novel, there’s a preface about the church burning,” said Richard. The preface came from the book editor’s advice, to ramp up the story. Likewise, Showtime asked the screenwriters for a similar scene, which involved the foreshadowing of John Brown’s potential death.
“The real story begins in that barbershop,” said Richard about the chance encounter of Onion and John Brown. “As much as we tried to ramp up anything to that—we tried three or four different scenes—but we came to the conclusion that James was right, and when something is right, you don’t have to fix it. We came to the conclusion that nothing could really precede that scene.”
“At its core, the story is really simple,” said Hawke. “It’s this love story between John Brown and Onion, so the story begins when they meet. It’s as simple as that. Mark and I are big [Sam] Peckinpah fans, and kind of felt like that barbershop scene had a great Peckinpah feel… outrageous and violent. Let’s just open it like an old fashioned Western.”
Onion, the Protagonist
“I think it’s important to remember that Onion is the main character,” said Richard. “It’s told from the point-of-view of Onion, the novel is. Of course, John Brown is significant, but I don’t think it’s a straight two-hander. The challenge of adapting the novel was that the novel has so much of the interior of Onion.”
In an attempt to showcase Onion’s perceptions, or misperceptions, the writers faced the challenge of reflecting on some of Onion’s thoughts on the “radiance of this over-the-top character, John Brown.” This story has occasionally been described as the inverted Huckleberry Finn. Richard also used this example to discuss Finn or Onion as the main character, but the story is made up of many other remarkable characters.
“The big challenge for us is making sense out of a few things where James didn’t have to make sense out of,” said Hawke. “It’s told from Onion’s point-of-view, so Onion could just say, ‘I have no idea why, but the next day, we went to Iowa,’” joked Hawke. “That works in the novel and it’s kind of funny, but when you’re doing drama, the audience needs more information. How to deliver that information without using the point-of-view was a challenge from page one.”
One way to showcase this inner perspective was within the comedic misunderstandings. At the end of their first encounter, for example, John Brown hears Onion’s father call him Henrietta, even though he’s actually saying “Henry ain’t a…” This, combined with the fact that Henry “Onion” Shackleford was wearing somewhat of a potato sack that looked like a dress, convinced Brown that Onion was a girl. “Whatever he believed, he believed,” said Onion in a voice over.
“McBride mines humor from everything,” said Hawke. “What’s wonderful about his situations, that make them so ripe for adaptations, is that he’s mining our ridiculousness as people, and our desire to take ourselves seriously. He mines it for unending humor.” The actor compared McBride’s story to Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove and Comanche Moon.
Writing an Adaptation
In the past, Richard was given some specific advice about writing an adaptation: “Read the book, then throw it over your shoulder, and write the script.” However, this time, he said it was the opposite. “Our thing was to cherry pick the luscious moments in the novel and try to form them. We had an embarrassment of riches.”
Richard is actually working with McBride on McBride’s new novel. “What the comedy does is mask and help make palatable, an underlying simmering anger. There’s a justified simmering rage in both books, but you can’t preach to the choir. Through the comedy, you can almost lift the pot up and look into the steaming cauldron of that rage and then put the top back down. I think that’s what he does so brilliantly. At those moments of comedy, he lifts the pot and you see what’s beneath.”
To elaborate further on this example, audiences today may wonder, Why doesn’t Onion just tell John Brown he’s not a girl? The answer is because enslaved people did whatever they thought they needed to do to survive. In other words, Onion put on the pretty dress. “You see the anger, the injustice, the fear, and the rage,” said Richard.
“He uses wit and silliness to disguise really grand, significant ideas,” added Hawke about the novelist. “He’s allergic to pretense and prevention, [yet] he still manages to talk about the biggest ideas — ideas of faith and identity — both on a personal level and a national level. He’s attacking these huge subject matters.”
Hawke joked that when he told people he was working on a series about John Brown, they would get a pious look on their face. “Like, this must be a quote-unquote important piece, i.e. one they never want to see,” he added. “James’ magic lies in disguising everything that is profound about his work in silliness and love.”
Frederick Douglass’ Dinner Table
In the series, Frederick Douglass is played by Hamilton star Daveed Diggs. In one particular scene, the writers wanted to discuss men’s desires versus God’s desires, where we see Douglass is helping the Underground Railroad, but he’s also living with his wife and a German mistress at the same time.
The scene actually isn’t in the novel, but the writers wanted to highlight the friendship between John Brown and Frederick Douglass, but also show the unusual relationship from Onion’s perspective. “We asked ourselves, ‘What would it be like to sit at that dinner table?’”
Hawke continued, “These two great minds at this very pivotal moment in history and their friendship… what if we dared to sit you down and break bread with this incredible encounter?” In addition to this unusual friendship, the scene also shows Onion move from this “bloody Kansas” to this beautiful home, and the juxtaposition that atmosphere brings. “It’s a situation ripe for comedy and ideas.”
Richard continued, “That was one of the most fun periods of the show for me. That’s not in the book, but that imaginin g—having lived in the novel so long — we kind of had our footing by that point and I know we were even working until the [shoot] day. We were shooting it and fine-tuning it.”
The ten-page scene, directed by Darnell Martin (Cadillac Records), helped corral the talent in the room. “It was some of the most dangerous work we had to do and everybody was up for it. Everybody smelled it could be an original scene,” said Hawke. Richard added, “I remember Darnell skipping up-and-down the hallway. She was so happy and giddy to continue. I think that kind of excitement and happiness was infectious.”
Onion, in a Dress
Aside from showing Onion’s forced stoicism, having the character weave through the story in a dress served additional purposes beyond the comedy. As a character, he could miss out on some of the action, where other men were forced to do battle, as an example, but Richard said there’s another reason it helped the story.
“To me, it reflected the view of the times. White people saw black people as chattel, as property. If it’s black, it’s black. If it’s in a dress, it must be a girl. It’s just a perspective. You see what you want to see. I thought it was fascinating that the black folk knew [the truth] immediately. Most black folk understand that A, If you need clothing and found a dress, you put it on. B, If that’s the way you need to survive, by passing yourself off as something else, then that’s what you do. C, We’re all in this together. I’m not going to uncover you and you’re not going to uncover me. It made sense that would be a trope throughout the novel.”
Hawke added, “It’s an extremely effective tool, that you hear you’re going to be told this abolitionist story, so your shoulders are aligned to discuss race in America, and you immediately put this young man in a dress, and now you’re talking about gender. McBride immediately starts breaking down binary thinking.”
He continued, “You think you’re talking about race, no you’re talking about gender. You think you’re talking about North versus South? No, John Brown is more angry with the North than he is with the South. Everything gets grey. By that, it’s about identity. It knocks anybody off a knee-jerk position where they think they know the answer and you start talking about humanity.”
John Brown’s Transformative Decision
In one of the conversations between John Brown and Onion, the young man learns that his surrogate father actually has a farm and didn’t pick up a gun until later in life. This tells a great deal about this character, and what he stood for as a person.
“He couldn’t turn a blind eye. That’s why we’re talking about him,” said Hawke about the character. “As an actor playing him, that was the essential question. A lot of radicals, people who take up arms, do it in their youth. It’s rare for a person over the age of fifty-five to pick up a gun for the first time, for social justice. The Che Gueveras and Castros of the world are usually quite young.”
According to the writers’ research, Brown had spent most of his life as a non-violent abolitionist, like his father, and father’s father before him. “It was a combination of his own sons getting older and his sons meeting trouble in Bloody Kansas, and the Dred Scott Act, which made the work he had been doing illegal. He felt backed into a corner, so to be the Christian he wanted to be, he had to take a radical position.”
“He hadn’t seen much change in a lifetime dedicated to non-violent abolitionist movement, so as a character trait, I found that deeply mysterious and fascinating.”
Playing the Fool
While working on The Good Lord Bird, Hawke also delivered a Ted Talk where he discussed the need for creatives to “play the fool.” When asked if there was a connection to the character of John Brown, he replied, “What I meant by playing the fool is a willingness to make yourself vulnerable.”
He explained, “The world can be a really cruel place and it throws a lot of punches at everybody, and if you want to stand up and go to war for your art, you have to be willing for others to see you as foolish, or you’re not going to be treading anywhere interesting.”
“I gave that talk in the days after finishing this part, and John Brown was a person called crazy and foolish his whole life, and the more you read his letters and see his actions, the more you see a person of immense integrity. I felt very inspired by that, but I’m not in the advice-giving business. I don’t know what works for other people. I barely know what works for myself.”
“As far as young people adapting books at all, I would just say make sure you are in love with the material,” said Richard. “There are going to be so many challenges along the way that have nothing to do with anything, and are only going to chip away at what you are trying to do. If you are not in love with the material, you might as well go down to Wal-Mart and sell car batteries.”
“It’s a dead end,” he said again. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been challenged by things that had nothing to do with the adaptation, but you’ve got to have passion for what you’re doing, because you’re going to be challenged in so many ways. Without that passion, you won’t succeed.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version here.