Longmire writer Tony Tost
Breaking all the rules on the poet’s journey to Hollywood
by Lisa Horan
Born in the Ozarks, Longmire writer Tony Tost was always convinced that a career as a TV writer was nothing more than a pipedream. After all, that was just not the kind of opportunity that presented itself to people who grew up in places like he did—from the Ozarks to a nearly abandoned mining town in Washington State. Still, after coming to the realization that working at the local pickle factory just wasn’t his thing, his passion for writing blossomed during his studies at Green River Community College in Auburn, WA. After attending community college, Tost moved back to the Ozarks to study at the College of the Ozarks, feeding his writing appetite by studying poetry and theater. Though his pen was scribing stanzas, his heart longed to write screenplays. “I really wanted to go to film school, but I just didn’t know how to go from the Ozarks to California,” says Tost. So instead of packing up for the West Coast after graduating, he headed to the University of Arkansas to work towards his MFA in Poetry.
Poetry suited Tost. He started publishing poetry books and was honored with a Walt Whitman Award for Invisible Bride in 2004. Still, something was missing, and he wasn’t convinced he had found his calling. Taking the road more traveled by, Tost moved on to Duke University for a Ph.D. in English and American Literature. But in spite of his accomplishments and obvious gifts, he was always reminded of where he had come from. “On my first day as a Ph.D. student, I was at a meet and greet and one of the professors asked me what college I had come from. When I told him I had graduated from a school called College of the Ozarks, he literally turned around and walked away and never talked to me again,” says Tost. “It was a reminder that I came from place where people had anonymous jobs that made you invisible to everyone, and even if you knew you were intelligent and had certain powers of expression, you just got used to people not valuing you.”
Fortunately, Tost’s experience made him more determined than ever to prove himself. And gave him a revelation. “I was getting bored with poetry, so I began branching out and taking on other forms of writing,” says Tost. One of his first forays outside of the poetry realm was a book about Johnny Cash titled American Recordings. The experience was a turning point in Tost’s career. “I enjoyed writing the book so much that it got me thinking about doing more popular forms. Plus, while I had landed a pretty nice professor job at the University of Washington, I was desperately looking for a way out of academia,” said Tost. Nic Pizzolatto had just the solution.
A friend Tost met while studying at the University of Arkansas, Nic Pizzolatto had written a novel that had been optioned for a screenplay and several scripts that demonstrated such talent that he quickly landed an agent and moved to Los Angeles. During a visit, Pizzolatto told Tost how much more he enjoyed screenwriting than working in academia. He encouraged Tost to write screenplays. “Nic’s not the type to heap praise on anyone. To be honest, I think he mostly helped me out of loyalty,” says Tost. Pizzolatto’s intuition proved spot on. Tost’s first pilot script landed agents Jill Gillett and Sylvie Rabineau at RWSG Agency and manager Guymon Casady at Management 360 and generated a number of meetings with producers. The one with Longmire Executive Producers/Creators Greer Shephard, Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny clicked, and he was offered a freelance writing job on the first season of the show. Ironically, his first Hollywood writing gig wouldn’t be in spite of where he had come from, but rather, because of it.
It’s About the Journey, Not the Short Cuts
As A&E’s highest rated scripted drama for 2012, Longmire is set in the fictional town of Absaroka, Wyoming, and follows the life and experiences of the town’s sheriff, Walt Longmire. Walt, who is still coping with the loss of his wife, brushes off his pain—at least on the surface—so he can focus on investigating major crimes that are taking place in his town week after week. For Tost, the plot and setting couldn’t have been a more perfect match. “Most of the things that I write tend to be based on the male psyche, and from the perspective of someone who’s come from a small, blue collar town with some kind of violence in the air. Usually, my characters are people who are from the world they’re living in but not totally of that world, and that kind of theme shows up in the way they handle situations in their lives,” says Tost. As it turns out, that’s a common through-line in Longmire. “I think a big part of the reason I seemed appealing as a writer for the show was my upbringing in the Ozarks and my ability to draw from elements and worlds that people who jumped right from an Ivy League school to Hollywood just wouldn’t have access to,” Tost agreed.
Even after Tost landed the Longmire job, he remained an outsider to the process—at least from a geographical perspective. He and his wife, now in Seattle, packed up their belongings once again. But rather than moving to Los Angeles, they headed to Ann Arbor, MI, where his wife had been hired as a college professor. That meant a two-thousand mile separation between Tost and the center of the TV industry. Not only did he not live in Hollywood, but he had gotten his foot in the door with one industry contact and a spec pilot. He had broken all the rules on breaking in as a TV writer without knowing it.
Destiny had its way with Tost, but hadn’t taken him on a straight path. “A part of me wishes that I would have jumped right into screenwriting, but, creatively, I’m glad I took the detour into poetry because it really served my screenwriting career. Poetry is linking emotions through images to create an emotional sense of the world, and in a lot of ways, a good screenplay is based on linking images that interact to create their own emotional world and reality, so there’s a real similarity between the two genres,” says Tost. “I did have to fight with the fact that I hadn’t taken the shorter path, though,” he admits.
Writer’s Challenge: Taking on Genre Transition
Tost also had to fight the doubts that had waged a war in his mind about his ability to become a part of the TV writing world. When Pizzolatto had suggested he try his hand at screenwriting, Tost felt hamstrung because of his background. Fortunately, Pizzolatto impressed upon Tost a lesson that every writer should take to heart: good writing is good writing.
“Nic told me that Hollywood didn’t want to shut out good writers. In fact, he said producers had an insatiable appetite for good writers, regardless of where they had come from, and he told me not to worry about connections and mingling and networking, but just put everything I had into writing an amazing pilot. I set my mind on writing one fantastic work that was not cynical and that was not trying to anticipate what people wanted, and told myself that’s what was going to get the right people interested,” Toth remembered.
Still, in spite of the “one fantastic work” he had successfully created, the transition from poetry to screenwriting wasn’t devoid of challenges. “There’s an art to constructing a well told, interesting mystery, and I had to learn how to construct one in a way that wasn’t cheap and cynical, but that embraced the genre and mode of storytelling. It took me awhile to develop a facility for voice, character and dialogue, and I also had to and become competent in balancing the episodic story with serialized elements. Interweaving both the crime of the week with long-term stories is an art-form, but it’s become a lot easier for me this season.”
In addition, Tost’s poetry was meant to be read silently, which was definitely a strong contrast from the requirements he faced as a screenwriter. “The works that I had written weren’t connected to the mouth as much as they were the silent voice, but Longmire is obviously much different. I’m learning how to find delight in language and develop language that both hits the ear in an interesting way and is true to the characters that it’s coming from,” says Tost.
And let’s not forget about the high stakes associated with writing for episodic TV, a stark contrast from Tost’s experience inside the poetry bubble. “When you’re writing for TV, you know that there is going to be an audience. In poetry, you hope someone down the line will find your poems and read them, but the truth is, the audience for poetry has really disappeared, and a lot of the time, it’s only poets that read poetry. It’s a self-sustaining ecosystem,” says Tost. The stakes were exaggerated by the fact that Longmire represented Tost’s first foray into TV, and, as a result, he felt a tremendous amount of pressure to measure up. “During the first season, I just wanted to make sure the executive producers knew that they had hired the right person, and I just wanted to write well enough to keep my job,” laughs Tost. Couple this with the fact that Tost didn’t have the luxury of hopping in his car and having a face to face with the powers that be on a regular basis, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for writer’s apprehension. “There was definitely an element of anxiety associated with not being in LA and not being around the producers and the other writers. I did have times where I knew they were in the middle of producing and editing a show that I had written, and I was sitting in my office in Ann Arbor starting to feel insecure because I hadn’t heard anything from them. I think the distance and not being in the same time zone definitely amplified the anxiety,” remembers Tost.
Thankfully, the collaborative nature of TV writing tempered most of that anxiety. Unlike his solo experiences with poetry, writing for Longmire enabled Tost to collaborate with a team of other writers and producers. Tost would fly to LA for two weeks and be in a room with the executive producers all day, breaking down and creating a story scene-by-scene and act-by-act. Then he would fly home and write a one to two page story about the episode and the characters. “This process works so well because it starts from a collaborative place, and everything is not completely on my shoulders. I like the fact that there are other filters that my writing has to pass through, and I love seeing scenes that I’ve written that I thought were just so-so jump off the page because of the way they are acted or directed. Knowing that I’m surrounded by talented professionals and that my writing doesn’t have to carry everything is comforting,” says Tost.
Tost also found the more immediate connection with viewers a refreshing change from poetry. “One of the major philosophical differences in writing for TV is that you know there’s going to be an audience for your work, and the great thing about that is, I can actually speak to people and connect with them through my writing. With poetry, I just had to rely on a wild hope that someday, 50 years after my death, my poems and I would be discovered and I’d be able to connect with people then,” says Tost.
Tost’s connection to the Longmire viewership is already strong. One of his most gratifying moments as a TV writer was the response he received from viewers on his episode “Dog Soldier”— about a mythical Cheyenne figure. “There’s a scene in the episode in which the main character accepts the mythical figure, the dog soldier, as a real thing but also uses it as a weapon to play on the imagination and guilt of someone who he wants to confess of a crime. It was a tough scene to write, but I was really proud of how it turned out. I’ve gotten emails from people who have told me they haven’t seen anything like it in other shows, and that it helped to provide a dimension to the main character that they had never seen before. That’s been really gratifying,” says Tost.
A July move to Los Angeles makes Tost an official member of the Hollywood writer’s club. The writer who was once snubbed because of his background isn’t being looked down upon any longer. Far from it. In addition to writing four episodes of Longmire this season, Tost recently sold an original pilot to Showtime. The show centers on a family that runs a trucking operation and truck stop that is partially legitimate and partially a front for a criminal business. It’s setting… the Ozarks. Poetic justice, oh so sweet.
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