Writer and Director Hugo Blick on Modernizing the Western in The English

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Writer and Director Hugo Blick on Modernizing the Western in <i>The English</i>

Prime Video’s The English is an epic chase Western with the theme of revenge seated at its core. The six-episode series stars Emily Blunt as the aristocratic Lady Cornelia Locke, an Englishwoman set on tracking down the man she believes to have killed her child, and Chaske Spencer as Eli Whipp, a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout seeking to claim land that has been promised to him following his service. The duo find themselves facing a variety of unforgiving obstacles as they travel together across the violent landscape of 1890 middle America.

The miniseries is the latest from writer and director Hugo Blick, who is most notable for political thrillers such as The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising. He’s always wanted to make a Western and has finally found the perfect story to tell. During a recent press junket, Paste sat down with Blick to discuss creating The English and modernizing the Western genre.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Paste: What was the catalyst behind writing The English? Why was this the story you wanted to tell?

Hugo Blick: Well, I‘ve always wanted to make a Western. The actual time of the cowboy was actually 30 years, and the 130 that followed was about the myth, and the myth has been in our cinemas and our frontrooms. Maybe I had a misspent youth, because I spent nearly all of my life in a front room watching Westerns. To me, it was everything. It was how I understood to orient my life in the world. The idea, once I became a filmmaker, to make one… Well, it was just a privilege beyond expectation. So I’ve always wanted to make a Western.

I think the reason they’re successful is because they’re elevated. They’re operatic. Jimmy Stewart said that the Western is the purest form of cinema. I think he meant that because it’s about one man in the landscape. And the bigger the landscape, the greater the pressure (psychological) upon the man. I took to that. I think that’s absolutely right. These are big, operatic myth themes. I suppose the difference with The English is that instead of the great Jimmy Stewart, we have an Englishwoman played by Emily Blunt and then—perhaps significantly for the above the title lead role that it is—a Native American man played by Chaske Spencer. The stories are always about revenge. The cowboy theme is revenge. I suppose again, The English is kind of unusual, or at least it’s taking on the genre a step further, in that it’s who it chooses to be its heroes and exactly the type of revenge it is ordered, justice that needs restoring. So there we are, that’s why The English got made.

Paste: A crucial part of stories like these is in its historical accuracy and overall sensitivity, especially towards the Indigenous tribes and groups being represented. How did you go about researching and developing these aspects of the show?

Blick: First off, it’s an adventure. It’s an exploration of the genre, it’s not a social documentary. This is an elevated space, that’s what a Western is. However, within that aspect, there is of course those themes of Native representation because if we’re absolutely honest, if we look back at the genre, its Native representation isn’t great. The history isn’t great. I wanted to explore and interrogate that.

To do that, first I researched the scripts for myself in order to construct them to a place—which I hesitate to say, is like Smithsonian-levels of research because it makes me seem like I’m a buff ; on the other hand, it’s true. I did go to the Smithsonian so maybe that’s true—but in the end, once I had the scripts ready, we had to place them in the right hands to really scrutinize for authenticity and sensitivity, as you just described.

We approached IllumiNative, a Native-led social organization for promoting representation within the media space. Crystal Echo Hawk, who is the CEO and also herself a member of the Pawnee-nation (and because Chaske Spencer’s character is depicting a member of the Pawnee Battalion), was able to immediately engage in the scripts and in the project. We spoke to her and her team. She passed the project on, once we were engaged positively, onto a Pawnee team led by a woman named Maggie Cunningham and through others. There was Taylor Moore, Mac Reed, Zach Rice, who really took me through the granular nature of the script from the Pawnee perspective. And from the Cheyenne perspective, because there’s that aspect within the story too, we met with Gordon Yellowman and Adrian Orange to ensure that those aspects were also representative within the genre.

It’s not a social documentary, but within that genre, for what it says, we wanted to be sure that it was said correctly and sensitively. There were many examples within the storytelling that we did do that. I discovered—actually, I think it was in the Smithsonian—a Pawnee song, a Song of the White Foxes, which was very strong. It was a very strong song about identity, despite what had happened, that identity would be maintained. I was very taken with it for the drama of Eli’s character singing to Cornelia’s character at the end of Episode 2 and thought that this song would represent it. When our Pawnee advisors said the singer—the creator of that song—had long since passed and it would be disrespectful to use that song because of that oral history that the Pawnee celebrated, so instead a song was written for us by our advisors. We had Chaske sing it, and it’s phonetically very, very precise. To do that, I think I was in London, the Pawnee team were in Tulsa, and Chaske was in New York. We sang the song across the airwaves in the ADR for the film. It was a very moving moment, to hear such an ancient moment on such modern airwaves. It’s been a long journey, it’s been about two years of their advice on this project and every element has been fantastic.

Paste: Going into your directing methods, you talked about how you always wanted to do a Western. How did you approach capturing the look of a Western? How did it differ from your previous works, political thrillers such as The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising?

Blick: There were no horses in The Honourable Woman at all. What I did was really take serious attention to the genre, particularly the mid-twentieth century period and the work of Anthony Mann. There is a real technical quality to that. We took Clint Eastwood’s documentary interview to heart where he said if you can, always shoot backlit and with light and sun on the slant, so try to shoot in the fall or spring. We were in high summer, so we were scheduled for the afternoon to evening. We got this very interesting slant light of sunlight with the dust up because we’re in the afternoon, a very particular light. And then technically, you use these very heavy arc lamps in front, and the cameras were very heavy. We used animal thick lenses, which meant we couldn’t move the camera very much. You had the bit that was like the talented bit for the director (and I noticed this was happening with Mann’s work particularly), [where] you don’t get to move the camera very much because it’s so strict in the way in which you got these arc lights [and] the back light from the sun. You have to figure out where to place your camera. It gives you a very elegant frame once you decide because you’re not going to move it very much. That’s what I think gives this project a kind of confidence, I hope, pictorially, which you can see when you watch it, feels elegant in a way. If it does, that was the intent.

Paste: Yeah, I really appreciated how it felt very still while watching it, but it was still very moving emotionally. I thought that was touching for me as a viewer.

Blick: That’s right. The genre goes any way it wishes, but for my exploration of the genre, I love the idea of holding the frame and having action witness within it, rather than move the camera to find out where the frames were. It gave you that stillness, and it gave you hopefully that elegance. But then, it also allowed you to witness some pretty wild things in front of the camera which sort of spring out at you even more because the camera’s not moving. So there’s a tension within the storytelling narrative that I hope will engage the audience.

Paste: To close off, what do you hope audiences will take from The English, watching it in today’s modern landscape?

Blick: What I hope is that they will just have a great ride. It’s a Western, it’s just what it is. It’s meant to be visceral, it’s meant to be enjoyable, it’s elevated, it’s operatic, it’s thrilling. There’s this love story that drives it underneath that is tender and intimate. I suppose Westerns mostly celebrate the first stake in the ground, putting the first stake in the ground. The cost to a pioneering spirit of what it took to get there, to put the stake in the ground. I celebrate that. I love those films, I love that aspect of the genre. I suppose what The English suggests a little bit, something of it, is that stake in the ground, as powerful and brilliant as it is, seemed to, well there was another culture there beforehand. I suppose The English speaks to that and just allows the Western genre to also speak to that in a way that felt immediate and new.

The English premieres Friday, November 11 on Prime Video.

Dianna Shen is an entertainment writer based in New York. When she’s not crying over a rom-com, she can be found on Twitter @ddiannashen.

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