Eric Liebowitz
February 19, 2016
In The Mix

How Would a Hillbilly Have It?

The producers and crew of WGN America's Outsiders think different to re-create Appalachia.

Nicole Pajer

"This is our land. This is our blood. We will never leave this mountain!" declares Lady Ray (Phyllis Somerville), hoisting her staff to a round of applause from her clan.

She will stop at nothing to protect her kin — including taking on the town below and the coal conglomerate threatening to mine their beloved Shay Mountain and remove them from their off-the-grid lifestyle.

Such is the battle behind WGN America's Outsiders, which creator, executive producer and writer Peter Mattei affectionately calls "hillbilly Shakespeare," then explains: "It's a gritty Appalachian drama that is ultimately about a clash of cultures."

Outsiders, which premiered in late January, follows the Farrells, including Big Foster (David Morse), who is next-in-line to rule; his eldest, Little Foster (Ryan Hurst); and black sheep Asa (Joe Anderson).

For inspiration, Mattei and fellow executive producer Peter Tolan studied the ways of gypsy mountain tribes (other exec producers are Paul Giamatti, Dan Carey and Michael Wimer). A hilly region outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was secured as the series' stage, and production designer Jonathan Carlson was tasked with creating the backwoods environs.

"We talked to him about a mash-up between folk art with a sort of old-fashioned way of building things in a hillbilly aesthetic," Mattei says.

Carlson describes the 20 acres he had to play with: "There was a flat meadow, where we created the compound. It fell off sharply with cliffs and little creeks. There were a couple of trails and a very beautiful forest, which lent itself to the feeling of a mountainous community."

In building the Farrell residence, "we decided that their homes were most likely passed down from their original ancestors, people who took pride in crafting them a century before them. But the modern-day Farrells are more concerned with increasing their moonshine production than fixing up their houses."

To foster this mentality, the crew built dwellings with "an eclectic menagerie" of materials — everything from plastic to glass, Lincoln logs and metal. "It became a mishmash of hippie community meets old settlers meets Section 8 folks," Carlson says.

The rustic barn that the clan uses as the local watering hole, for instance, was erected around a large, weathered tree.

"For two or three weeks, I was fighting the carpenters to get more creative with thinking like a hillbilly," Carlson recalls. "I was like, 'Stop with the perfection! Let's see a quarter-inch gap over there. Let's see some crooked boards.'" Mattei insisted that if a set piece weren't something the Farrells could have dragged up the mountain on an ATV, it didn't belong.

Other key elements were contributed by director of photography Jaime Reynoso (the other DP is Scott Peck), who gave the show what Mattei calls a "light documentary look," while costume designer Sarah Beers crafted garments that paired a rebel attitude with classic English style.

"This show is so creative, from the production to the wardrobe," says star David Morse. "Everything they built is a piece of art. I just loved being inspired by the potential of this world and the creativity that has been poured into it."

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