Interview: Producer Leslie Greif talks History's 'Hatfields & McCoys'
TV veteran discusses landing Kevin Costner and shooting in Transylvania
Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton are the big stars featured in the poster for History's "Hatfields & McCoys."
The helmer of "Robin Hood: Prince of Tides" and "Waterworld" gets the "A Kevin Reynolds Film" credit.
But before any of those names, as the opening titles roll, the three-night miniseries is "A Leslie Greif Production."
The story of America's most famous family feud -- all apologies to Richard Dawson -- has been a passion project several decades in the making for Greif, the founder and CEO of Thinkfactory Media.
In addition to "Hatfields & McCoys," Thinkfactory is the company behind "Gene Simmons Family Jewels" and Lifetime's "Intimate Portraits," though Greif may be best known as one of the creators of "Walker, Texas Ranger."
I chatted with Greif last week about the long journey to bring "Hatfields & McCoys" to the small screen, the power that comes from Kevin Costner attaching himself to your project and why the story of these bickering clans remains potent to this day.
HitFix: I understand this was a passion project for you?
Leslie Greif: It is. It's one of those passions where it was like going down the rabbit hole. You never knew when it was going to end. I started, back in the day when I was starting out in television, trying to make the most of opportunities and that's when miniseries were in their big heyday. And at the time, they were doing all of the staples. It was a new form that ABC Television had started with Roone Arledge and Leonard Goldenson. And we had "Shogun" and "Rich Man, Poor Man" and "Roots" and "Winds of War" and I thought, "What would be a great American tale?" We had "North & South," which was the big miniseries. There was all of that in the late '70s through the '80s and that's when I thought, "Wow, wouldn't it be a great story about a feud that two families had to pick a side and stick behind?" And tragically and sadly, it was the most famous and bloodiest feud in our history's past, so I locked onto this and I felt that the story was bigger than just the Hatfield and McCoys. It talked about the tragic cycle of violence that's been throughout all of man's history, whether it's feuding with your neighbors over the height of trees or the Crips and the Bloods or the PLO or the IRA or just a bully where both people are picking sides. It shows that really in the end, revenge and vengeance doesn't get you anywhere. It just perpetuates into this other madness. I felt it was a story that if it was told, maybe it would shed some light. And because of that, I believed in it. I worked with some beautiful and very talented writers and I just said, "One day we'll get it made."
And that one day came when, out of the blue, I met two interesting people: The first is Nancy Dubuc from History, who I think is one of our modern day pioneer broadcasters, because she's a broadcaster at heart, and Nancy understands about defining a network and you don't have a lot of that today and you haven't in a couple years. I was able to meet some of the great programmers -- Fred Silverman and Brandon Tartikoff and going back to Leonard Goldenson and Bill Paley -- these are people who wanted to build something and I met Nancy and she had that vision and she gave me the opportunity to put this out there. And then the magic call came and Kevin Costner called and he said, "I'll make the film on one condition" and as I held my breath willing to say "Yes" to anything, he said, "Don't change a word of the script and I'm in." That's like music to my ears.
HitFix: Can we go back to when you first started to kick this project around, why wasn't this a miniseries that you were able to get made back in that heyday you mentioned?
Leslie Greif: Over the years, I was close. Executives change. Programming models change. I had Burt Lancaster at one point. Burt Reynolds. I was talking to Tom Selleck. Over the years, we had deals with CBS, Turner. It got to the point where I went to everybody. It was always, "Well, the timing isn't right" or "Miniseries isn't here" or we had an executive and that executive would change and it would be out with the old and in with the new and the new executives would want to bring in their own projects. So I was always going through that kinda crazy cycle, but I felt that the material would win out, because it was that good, and eventually we'd get it made. And we did.
HitFix: How many scripts did you go through? And what was it that Ted Mann brought to the table that made it work?
Leslie Greif: Ted Mann is a brilliant writer. What he saw was the organic truth of the story of two families in conflict and crisis and set against the backdrop of a country leaving a Civil War and trying to heal and then grow into a union. When you look at that, there's a whole world of characters. Bill Kirby, who was my first writer and had just finished writing "The Rose" at the time, wrote a beautiful script for the day. And as the years went by, the means of storytelling, the ability to be more graphic, the ability to be more complex shifted into what we call modern day storytelling. So Bill had helped craft the original story. The bones were there. That's why Bill and Ted share the "Story By" credit. Bill's since long retired. Ted came in and just embraced what Bill had tried to lay out as a structure and then just brought to light these interesting characters, so robust. And then when he got called into another project, we had a beautiful little taste polish by another Emmy-winning writer, Ron Parker, who did the little finishing touches to bring us home. So it just was a magical combination of people and talented writers that came together and it worked.
HitFix: You said "out of the blue," but how did the script get to Costner?
Leslie Greif: It was one of those crazy stories that you could write about and no one would believe you. I'm sitting around my office with Herb Nanas, who works with me and Herbie produced the "Rocky" movies and the "Rambo" movies and he discovered Stallone and we're batting it back and forth. He said, "Well who'd be perfect?" I said, "The only guy is Kevin Costner." "Yeah, we'll never get Kevin Costner. He's not doing that much. He's a legend, a movie star." And I'm like, "It's a great script. Let's send it to him." So we called his agent, Brad Slater, who is really one of the positive, proactive agents. Today, so many agents never want to commit to anything. I said to Brad, "I'm gonna throw this crazy thing out." And the moment I mentioned the subject matter, he said, "Kevin'll like this. He will like this." He said, "This is what he wants: Americana and epic storytelling." I was even more reluctant, because Kevin has never done television his entire career. Not an appearance. So we took the shot and Brad said, "You know what? Let me send it to him." And the Movie Gods came through. He actually read the script and that's when we got the phone call.
HitFix: And when you have somebody like Kevin Costner on-board, does he immediately become the sort of linchpin around whom all of the other talent can gravitate?
Leslie Greif: He not only becomes a linchpin, but he becomes the leader. He sets the mark that everybody wants to come up to.
HitFix: Presumably with Kevin Costner, Kevin Reynolds comes close afoot to direct?
Leslie Greif: They've worked well together and Kevin Costner wanted to make sure that the film would be shot with a size and a scope. What we set out to do was to make a motion picture that was going to actually just appear on television. Because of their shorthand, he felt that Kevin Reynolds would be able to give him that and so then I met with Kevin and I sat with him and we had that one shared vision that we would give the picture scope and size.
HitFix: Of course they've worked well together, but they're also worked less well together as well. Were there any concerns about that from any corners?
Leslie Greif: You know, with no disrespect, Hollywood loves to feed on the gossip of all of those things. When you go to make a motion picture and people are passionate, you work very hard to try to work to that common goal and you go through it, you're fighting time and schedule. My point was that if you have a clarity of vision and you have a united purpose of wanting to achieve the greatness, don't fall for all of those cliched stories and it wasn't something that concerned me.
HitFix: Talk to me a bit about the size and scope of this production. I was surprised when I got to the third night of my screener and some of the effects were unfinished and I saw exactly how much green screen there was for certain things and how many sets. In the balance, how much were you out-and-about for production? How much were you on stages?
Leslie Greif: We were out and about. We spent five weeks in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania for all the hill and mountain footage. Then we were in the Snagov forest and then we built the Western town on a backlot at Castel Film Studios and then the last five days when the weather had shifted so badly, we build interior sets on the stage. We shot almost 86 days. It was a pretty big production in terms of sky and in terms of production values. We built the towns. We built the stills and those homes up in the mountains that you saw, those Hatfield homes, those were built in the mountains on distant locations. By going to Romania we were able to do that and that's what I think also gives the picture a real kind of... You can't put your finger on it, but you can feel it. The movie feels very true and that's because our production designer Derek Hill replicated those buildings of the time and because we were on History Channel, they held us to a higher standard to make sure that everything was period-period.
HitFix: Who knew that if you wanted to shoot period-appropriate 1880s wilderness you had to go to Romania?
Leslie Greif: I had shot a film in Romania Castel a few years ago, a crazy comedy called "Funny Money," where I built Hoboken, NJ in the middle of a forest, so I knew that they had that capability. But at the same time, there was a wonderful film called "Cold Mountain" with Jude Law and Nicole Kidman and that took place in West Virginia/Kentucky and they shot that outside of where we were. So I was familiar with that and that's what made me gravitate towards going back to Romania.
HitFix: Going back to something you mentioned a couple minutes ago: What was the History Channel's presence both on the script and then on set and in production?
Leslie Greif: History Channel, their philosophy is: Support the producer. They are probably one of the greatest networks I've ever had the pleasure to work with, because they supported and collaborated. They didn't want to produce as a network. They just wanted to support and broadcast. So when we needed them, they were there for us. They gave us the opportunity to make the movie and they gave us the beautiful ability to market this film and launch it. You couldn't ask for a better partner. They had their executives come out, but the executives came out at the beginning and once they realized that we were going, they just supported us.
HitFix: You mentioned that they held you to a higher standard. Had there been any changes to the script from the historical record for the sake of drama or expediency?
Leslie Greif: The creative liberties that we took were we made a few composite characters and we had to condense some of the time, because the feud actually took 30 years, so sometimes instances would be longer between actually occurring, but we wanted to be able to still tell a story that had a dramatic narrative drive. But other than that? The people who were killed or the people who didn't die, that was all through the historians that we checked, fact-checked and double-checked. We actually brought in the state historians from West Virginia and Kentucky and brought in a technical consultant to make sure we got it as accurately as anyone could. Remember that back in those days, it was all verbal history, so there are sometimes different interpretations and you have to track three or four stories to be able to assess what you feel is the right story. But where we are not accurate, it might be inadvertent, but the spirit of this whole film and the tone and the hard story facts, those are as did occur.
HitFix: The actual Hatfield and McCoy families have been trafficking on their names for many decades now. Is there anybody on the direct, primary family side who you have to involve in a project like this?
Leslie Greif: No. We wanted to not get caught up into the personal side of the relatives and descendants. We took it from a historical perspective and we then went to creative storytelling from that point on. We've done a documentary on the Hatfields and McCoys that's a companion piece to the miniseries and we were involved and met with many of the families for that. As a matter of fact, Devil Anse's great-great-granddaughter gave us some very rare photographs which we've used in the documentary version. In June, we are running the documentary for the governor and all the dignitaries in West Virginia and Kentucky, because they're so excited about this. They feel it's going to give a fresh perspective and be a boost for tourism. The families are glad that the story's finally being told. We tried to be as even keeled as we could.
HitFix: Interesting. I actually spent a lot of time, especially in the first two nights, feeling like the film was pretty pro-McCoys, sympathy-wise. Is that where your sympathies might lie? Or is every viewer going to come away with a different rooting interest, as it were?
Leslie Greif: I think every viewer's going to come with a different rooting interest. The McCoys can be perceived as perhaps sympathetic because they had a tragic fate that was even more and in one end you can look back and say, "Why didn't they stop this thing?" At the end, when things really got bad, it was the McCoy boys who murdered the Hatfield brother, which really ignited it to another level. And what was so real was that even though their sons had committed this terrible crime, like any father and mother, they still have to go to try to protect their sons. Like anything, when the cycle of violence becomes so bad it spirals out of control, it doesn't matter who's right or wrong.
HitFix: When you're dealing with a story in which both sides are screwing up equally and there's this steady downward spiraling, does that create challenges in terms of making the audience actually care about this set of circumstances?
Leslie Greif: That's what makes this so Shakespearean. If you tell a story that's real and true and you can see yourself, you can see your relatives, you can see your friends, it's engaging, it's haunting, that's what I think makes this miniseries very special. It's not just a work of fiction. It's the fact that we saw the flaws in all of us by watching them. And you want to say, "Stupid! Let 'em be married! Let 'em be happy. Why don't you just forgive her! Oh, come on! Don't be such a hardass! Oh my God, just stop!" And all of those emotions go through you as you watch this miniseries and you sit back and say, "Wow. If they only would have... If they could have... They should have... None of this would have happened." But they didn't. That's what makes it hypnotic television. We ran the first screening yesterday of the entire film. No one had seen it. We put it all together and I was anxious to think, "Who can sit through almost five hours of a film, particularly with today's audience attention span." We had one intermission and, I tell you, no one left. I was amazed. They were riveted. We had only two or three people leave to go to the bathroom. Once they committed, they were committed to the journey and that's what I was most proud of.
HitFix: Do you, as a storyteller, have a preferred way for people to watch this project? You say you saw how well it played in basically one sitting. History is airing it over three consecutive nights. I watched it in a weekend. What would you say is the best way to immerse yourself in this?
Leslie Greif: Personally, I think you commit to the three nights and watch it. Watch the premiere, which is the extended version that they allowed us to do. Once you get involved and you watch all three nights in a row, you really see the sweep of the film.
HitFix: So much of American history gets gradually white-washed as time passes. Why do you think this is a story that has really hasn't been?
Leslie Greif: When you go back to the time that this happened, I think part of the reason The Feud became part of the fabric of our history is because that's when journalism started to really pop out. We talk about the yellow journalism of the day, but this became a Dickensian serial for the whole United States and the rest of the world. Reporters would come and they would write their stories and they would sensationalize and local photographers would come out. What we call the paparazzi and the 24-hour-news-cycle, in those days it wasn't so immediate, but it crept in and I think part of what made The Feud so big is that the New York papers came in and the papers from the other cities came in and then they wrote the dime novels. They wanted to to sell newspapers and they wanted to sell paperback books and I think that created even a bigger excitement and a bigger tell of the story. As I mentioned earlier, all we have is the verbal history and whatever the journalists wrote at the time. Did they write from the Hatfield perspective or a McCoy perspective? So setting out to tell story, we really tried to tell it as a humanistic tale of two families and two families with two family patriarchs who were trying to hold their families together. I think that while you watch this, your sympathies and emotions can run both ways for each family. You can sympathetic and empathetic at the same time and I think your feelings will change.
HitFix: As a last question: You said that this was a dream project for you and one that's been decades in the making. Now that it's been made, what's the next dream project?
Leslie Greif: I've got a whole trunk-full. I love movies. I love television. It's finding things that you love. We're getting set to do another one called "Texas Rising," which is about how the Texas Rangers, between "Walker" and my love of the period, how a bunch of rogue riders came to become the oldest law enforcement agency in the country.
"Hatfields & McCoys" airs on May 28, May 29 and May 30 at 9 p.m. on History.