Behind the Deal to Adapt Tony Hillerman’s Novels – The Hollywood Reporter

The story of how a Native American film director, an iconic actor and the writer of Game of Thrones teamed for an AMC series based on the Dark Wind novels goes back decades.

In 1979, Thrones author George R.R. Martin moved to New Mexico and met Dark Wind writer Tony Hillerman, who hosted a monthly luncheon at the Albuquerque Press Club for writers. The authors became friends, and Martin got hooked on Hillerman’s series, which follows a pair of New Mexican Navajo police detectives, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, from opposing backgrounds.

Fast forward to 1988. Robert Redford discovered the Leaphorn / Chee novels and picked up rights with the intention of making a series of films. Yet Redford struggled to get a major studio on board. “Getting an all-Native American cast financed above a certain budget was just really hard to do,” Redford told the Los Angeles Times in 2002.

Eventually, one film was made — 1991’s critically panned’s The Dark Wind, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Chee (it went directly to home video). Better received were three telefilms made as PBS’ American Mystery! Specials (2002’s Skinwalkers, 2003’s Coyote Waits and 2004’s A Thief of Time). Two were directed by Chris Eyre, who had broken out at Redford’s 1998 Sundance Film Festival with his acclaimed debut, Smoke Signals, then considered the first film to be written, directed and produced by Native Americans to reach a mainstream audience. Yet Redford felt the PBS projects were constrained by modest budgets and limited distribution, and there were so many more Leaphorn / Chee tales to tell.

Another decade passed (during which Hillerman died in 2008). In 2015, members of Redford’s team suggested a sit-down with Eyre and Martin. All three lived in Santa Fe and had a passion for Hillerman’s novels. Plus, Redford and Martin shared the same agent and had overall deals at HBO. “Of course I’m going to go lunch with the Sundance Kid!” Martin recalls thinking at the time. “I was flattered and thrilled to be a part of the team.”

Together they brought the project to HBO, which put Dark Winds into development — yet ultimately passed. One sticking point was maintaining the novels’ pricey 1970s time period, which the producers felt was essential for the character of Leaphorn, who was raised in a forced assimilation boarding school common to the mid-20th century that attempted to detach young Native Americans from their cultural roots.

HBO permitted the producers to try to find another home, however. And after months of talks, AMC stepped up on July 9 with a series order, paving the way for an adaptation of Hillerman’s series that finally had all the elements: a major platform, an ongoing serialized story, a Native American writers room and cast (led by Westworld breakout Zahn McClarnon), plus permission to film on Navajo lands in New Mexico.

“The funny thing is, it’s been 23 years since I did Smoke Signals, and we were envisioning this whole renaissance of Native American representation and filmmaking,” Eyre says. “I think we were ahead of our time. Now things are changing very quickly, and the time is here and now for a diversity of voices to give context to who we are as an American people.”

This story first appeared in the July 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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