Michael Hirst talks about Vikings, Billy the Kid and streaming projects
BY Yako Molhov
Hirst took part in one of the Business Content panels at the 61st Monte-Carlo Television Festival called Scripted Format Distribution: Creating an International Hit and also sat down with journalists to talk about his work on Billy the Kid and Vikings.
Hirst's most-recent project is Billy the Kid (Epix) - an epic romantic adventure based on the life of Billy the Kid, from his humble Irish roots and his early days as a cowboy and gunslinger in the American frontier, to his pivotal role in the Lincoln County War and beyond. When talking about the project, the writer said that the railroads played an important role, in all those Western towns that we see in movies, still exist and most of those projects were shot in Calgary (where Billy the Kid was also shot) and when talking to the director - Otto Bathurst who also worked on Peaky Blinders - the latter advised not to use those locations since they don't exist back in the days, we have to build our own locations which will be much more scantier, hanging on to the edge of wilderness landscape and we want to give that impression, we need the landscape but the railroad wasn't there. They were looking for realism but they were also telling a story that was happening before the usual Western story that you get. Another thing that sets Billy the Kid apart from other Westerns is that they do get in the politics of the period. Hirst found out from extensive reading that there were groups of people, organizations of rich people who ran things - they bought everyone - sheriffs, lawyers, farmers, senators, they also had a choosing of who to run for president. It's a big part of the story that Billy runs into. At those times Americans were throwing out Mexicans out of their lands and Billy was fighting against these groups of powerful people. When working on the project, the writer did extensive research about Billy the Kid, to find out who he really was - he is usually represented as a psychopathic killer or a young reckless criminal. There are a number of books on him but not that many in his opinion, and most of them are any good. He was demythologizing him and he discovered he was a compassionate young man who got his moral compass from his Catholic mother. Most of his young life he really wanted to go straight and make his mother proud. The only person who gave him this chance was an English landowner who was killed so Billy was plunged back into revenge drama. He had a beautiful singing voice and he played musical instruments; he lit up every room; he identified with Mexicans and he didn't want to kill people, he said "I don't want to be famous for killing people". In the series his connection with his mother is very strong, his humanity came out of this relationship. Hirst also revealed that there will be a second season of the series.

Hirst also revealed that he has been pitched a project about Monaco recently - someone at the royal family asked him if he would like to write a story about the beginning of the dynasty - a historical project when they were fighting with the Italians. The project didn't happen, though, even though there were good conversations with people at the palace. He has also discussed a possible project about car racing with the Prince of Monaco.

Billy the Kid

Hirst underlined that research for him is vital, since he comes from an academic background but he likes doing it. You have to try and cleanse your mind of all the cliches you know and begin again and try to build a new picture of the character. When he was doing Elizabeth, he wrote notes on a stretch of wallpaper of footnotes in historical accounts, poems, music, he jotted this down, looking for a storyline and he was afraid it would be too classical. Then he realized, when reading the wallpaper, that it was mainly about her as a young woman and he decided to tell that story and to end the story when she has overcome all the dangers and obstacle to her crown - at the beginning of the movie she is being imprisoned and everyone looked down at her because they knew she was going to be killed and at the end, when she kills her main opponents, the camera looks up at her as a loyal subject. He also knew the ending of Vikings right from the start when he sold it to the History Channel - they said why should Americans be interested in the series and he said the show is going to end in America. When asked about misconceptions in the States about vikings, Hirst said that they were the same as in other countries - that they were horrible, the forces of violent and chaos, steal your goods, rape your wife, kill your cattle, rather hairy bikers with no culture and part of this is because early history was written by Christian monks. It is always nice to correct something or to offer another interpretation which is slightly more valid.

In terms of changes that the new streaming services have brought to him, as a writer, Hirst commented that he was only on the edge of that because he has written only for one streamer so far - Epix - but it is not a normal streamer, it is smaller, much more intimate, it has quality controls and it broadcasts its shows a week at a time so it is more like the History Channel than anything else. He also had a couple of run-ins with other streamers - with Apple and Netflix - which were rather mystifying. Years ago he had a project with his Irish producers for the Caesars, starting with Julius Caesar and Martin Scorcese came on board and they thought "this is it" and went to a meeting at Netflix but the meeting was with younger executives and they started to talk about Caesar and he realized quickly that they didn't know who Julius Caesar was and that was it. They also thought Scorcese would be too expensive and Hirst talked to him about this and Scorcese said "tell them I will do it for whatever money they offer and I don't want to direct it, I just want to be involved in it".

When discussing Vikings: Valhalla which is on Netflix, Hirst said that he didn't write it because he was done, he had been working on Vikings for seven years so he couldn't do it and he thought Netflix wanted something else anyway. Another experience with a streaming service was when he was doing a version of the Great Gatsby and he had a very diverse group of female helpers - an academic, an actor, Fitzgerald's granddaughter and he made changes to some of the characters and executives at Apple loved it, it seemed a piece of cake but in the end they turned it down because they had to show all the projects to all their top people, about 22-23 people and they didn't think it was worth enough.

When asked about whether he would be interested in projects focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, Hirst shared that when he was much younger and "needed the gigs", he went to Central and Eastern Europe which nobody wanted to do. He had been in Poland, Hungary, Russia, East Berlin at the time when the communist system was in freefall which was an amazing time, he met with some of the people who were released from prison back then. He wrote a movie together with Krzysztof Zanussi (Wherever You Are...) and he worked with Elem Klimov. He revealed that he wrote a script about the siege of Leningrad last year, working with Russians and the moment he finished it, they said they can't make it since an oligarch was involved in the project.
Michael Hirst was born on September 21, 1952 in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, UK. He has been a professional writer since 1980. He is best known for his films Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) as well as for the series The Tudors (2007, Showtime) and Billy The Kid (2022, Epix). Hirst is also the creator, executive producer and sole writer of History's drama first foray into serialised drama, Vikings (2013, MGM and History Channel). Hirst owns Green Pavilion Entertainment, a production company he launched in December 2017.
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