Stephen Harrigan (Writer/Producer) Exclusive Interview!
Hi Steve! Thanks for letting PrairieFans.com interview you about
your work as writer and producer for both Beyond the Prairie movies
that aired on CBS.
1. First of all I want to compliment you on your witting for the first and second Beyond the Prairie movies. Those two movies captured the heart of Laura’s books and is probably why it is loved by so many fans today. My first question is what inspired you to write these movies? Was it a challenge?
Thanks for your kind words about the movies. They were definitely a labor of love for all involved. I first started thinking about the possibility of doing a Laura Ingalls Wilder movie when I was reading Little House on the Prairie to one of my daughters. I had never read the books before, and I was astonished at the clarity and depth of feeling and the palpable sense of time and place that they conveyed. I knew that people had loved the books for generations, of course, but I had no idea that Laura Ingalls Wilder was not just a sentimental favorite but a major American writer. And as I continued to read Little House on the Prairie I was struck by how different it was from the Michael Landon series–so much bigger and grittier. My first thought was to try to make that book into a feature film, but I quickly discovered that the rights were tied up. So together with Dori Weiss, a wonderful producer I had worked with before on an unproduced television movie about the Donner Party, I begin to think about doing what would essentially be the backstory to the Little House books.
2. Many fans have set an image of the Michael Landon’s Little House series as the image for Laura Ingalls and her family. While writing the two movies was it ever a challenge writing something that so many people have set an image of?
Yes, it was a challenge, but in a good way. Michael Landon’s series is obviously a beloved landmark, but I wanted this movie to be almost the exact opposite of that in terms of tone and disposition. I wanted it to be about the strength of family, but also about the fear and discord of living in an inhospitable environment. I wanted it to examine the compromises people are forced to make when their dreams come into conflict with reality.
3. You were also the producer for the Beyond the Prairie movies. What was it like to serve two roles at the same time?
Dori did most of the heavy lifting on the producing front. What the producer credit meant for me was that I was consulted on key decisions such as casting, etc. and was considered a member of the team during production. That’s not always the case for screenwriters.
4. With the success of the first Beyond the Prairie movie another one was asked to be made. This must have been a great feeling for you! What were thoughts about being asked to write the sequel?
We were hoping the movie would be a success but were not quite prepared for the magnitude of the response. And we had never thought about a sequel, so we had to brainstorm quite a bit in terms of what the next movie should be about, what time period it would cover, etc.
5. Since the title of these movies was Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, how did you achieve the level of accuracy fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder would be looking for?
I know that the word “true” in the subtitle has caused a good deal of discussion among Laura Ingalls Wilder purists, who may disagree with this or that dramatic decision that we made. But I started out with the idea that the movies would be true in the sense that they accurately conveyed what life might have been like for these people on the prairies of South Dakota or on a struggling farm in Missouri. I did a lot of research, a lot of reading, a lot of soul-searching. Laura’s unpublished manuscript “Pioneer Girl” was probably my most important source, since it set down without much embellishment the events of her life and suggested areas that could be mined for dramatic purposes. I don’t make the claim that every single scene in both movies is a hundred per cent historically accurate. It’s almost impossible to hold an audience’s interest and create something truly dramatic without consolidating certain events or embellishing others. But what mattered deeply to me was that the Beyond the Prairie movies presented something authentic in tone and texture and emotion, and I think we achieved that.
6. I have interviewed Meredith Monroe and Skye McCole Bartusiak who both had the nicest things to say about the cast and crew of the Beyond the Prairie movies. What are your feelings about the cast? As a writer, do you feel the cast chosen for the role played the character as you had in mind while writing the movies?
We were very lucky to have that cast. Meredith was glorious as Laura–I knew she was right for the part about ten seconds into her audition tape. Skye is almost unnervingly intuitive. It’s so hard to find a convincing child actor, and there was never a false note in her performance. Richard Thomas captured everything about Charles Ingalls, not just his natural warmth but his almost pathological restlessness. Lindsay Crouse played Caroline with the right balance of strength and weariness, and Walton Goggins is a remarkable actor who brought Almanzo to life in ways that I never accounted for on the page, and of course on both movies we were fortunate to have a very gifted director, Marcus Cole.
7. You also wrote the teleplay for Take Me Home: The John Denver Story starring Chad Lowe. Were there any similarities in working on the Denver story and the Beyond the Prairie movies?
There’s always the same challenge in writing biographical movies. You have to answer the question: what is this story about? If you can’t find that theme, and shape the movie around it, then it’s just one thing after another.
8. Many books turned into films from this time period like the Love Comes Softly series by Janette Oke have been very successful. Do you think it’s possible we might see a Beyond the Prairie 3 someday? Maybe based around Rose encouraging her mom to write or Laura and Almanzo’s later years?
It’s possible, I suppose, though the venues for television movies and miniseries have shrunk to the point where there’s hardly any market left. But I’d love to write a Beyond the Prairie 3. The story of Laura and Rose and their relationship and creative collaboration in writing the Little House books is truly fascinating.
9. Some of your recent work has included The Colt and King of Texas, which are also set in the 1800’s. What do you enjoy most about writing for this time period?
I love history and historical research. It doesn’t matter what time period. I’ve written movies about ancient Rome and about the Watergate era and everything in between. There a deep satisfaction in trying to conjure up the past.
10. Do you have any projects in the works that fans can look for?
I’m always working on several projects at once. I’m writing a new novel, set in West Texas and France during and after World War I. And I had just finished a screenplay for Robert Altman, called Hands on a Hard Body, about an endurance contest to win a pickup truck, that was in pre-production at the time of his death. I’m hoping that in some way that project might go forward, though of course no one could make it the way Altman would have.
Thanks very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions.
Webmasters Note: Interview was done on February 28, 2007.