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The untold truth of Yellowstone

Set against the majestic backdrop of rural Montana, Paramount Network's acclaimed drama series Yellowstone is a mix of classic western themes and contemporary soap opera drama. The show stars veteran actor and director Kevin Costner as John Dutton, the patriarch of a prestigious ranching family whose land borders both a Native American reservation and the National Park that gives the show its name. The thrilling mix of family drama and political intrigue as the Duttons try to protect their ranch from being wrested from their control has made Yellowstone one of the highest-rated cable programs in recent years.

Creating a show that tackles issues as complicated as land use politics, substance abuse, and the challenges of life on modern Native American reservations is no walk in the National Park, but the Yellowstone team achieved that and much more. While we wait for the upcoming third and fourth seasons of Yellowstone, let's take a look under the hood (or inside the barn?) at the real story behind one of television's hottest shows.

Creator Taylor Sheridan's on-screen past and inspiration for Yellowstone

Yellowstone fans have Taylor Sheridan and John Linson to thank for bringing the series to life — Sheridan especially, as he first began setting the groundwork for what would become Yellowstone way back in 2013. If Sheridan's name is ringing a bell, it's probably because he's one of Hollywood's biggest up-and-coming, behind-the-scenes talents. After a short career as an actor that saw him taking on a small part on Veronica Mars and a recurring role as Deputy Chief of Police David Hale on Sons of Anarchy, Sheridan decided to move behind the camera. In fact, it was his weariness of acting that turned him to screenwriting in the first place, and thus motivated him to create Yellowstone.

Sheridan is best known for his first two efforts as a screenwriter. 2015's Sicario, a visceral tale of an FBI agent's descent into the world of Mexico's cartel wars, was met with widespread acclaim (and features one of the greatest movie one-liners right before someone dies). Sheridan's follow-up, the modern western Hell or High Water, nabbed him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He also wrote and directed the 2017 film Wind River before successfully pitching his idea for Yellowstone.

The impetus for Yellowstone came from a desire to tell a story about gentrification in the American west. In an interview with Deadline Sheridan explained, "It is the most American of us, the West, and land developers sell that fantasy. And people who can afford the fantasy are very, very wealthy people from LA to New York, Dallas and Florida... In the process, those land values and inheritance taxes are killing a way of life."

Kevin Costner was always meant for Yellowstone, but the transition to TV wasn't easy

One of Yellowstone's biggest draws is its star, Oscar-winner Kevin Costner. It's the multi-talented actor's first time starring on a TV series (not counting the limited miniseries Hatfields & McCoys), and Sheridan viewed the involvement of Costner as being integral to setting the show's tone and style. He told Variety in June 2018, "Kevin's one of the biggest movie stars of the past 40 years, and well deserved. He's an incredible storyteller as a director, as a writer, as an actor, and so when you have that that kind of tool in your toolbox, you can write him into some really conflicting situations."

As it turns out, there's a reason that Costner has been slow to make the leap to TV. He told IndieWire that he's had difficulty feeling comfortable creating a character without knowing what their full arc will be. He described the process as "a more vulnerable way to go through life as an actor," even going so far as to say, "It hasn't been an easy adjustment for me... I don't like it too much."

Despite his misgivings about working in TV, Costner has been effusive in his praise for Sheridan. In an interview with Collider, the actor said of the Yellowstone creator's work ethic, "He's had to pay a lot of dues, and a lot of things — he's cleaned out a lot of horse stalls in Hollywood, so to speak."

Yellowstone lost a producer — and for good reason

As with any massive TV production, things haven't always gone smoothly behind the scenes of Yellowstone. The show hit its first roadblock before its pilot had even aired, and only months after Paramount Network had greenlit the production. For Yellowstone's first season, Paramount Network partnered with the Weinstein Company (as well as John and Art Linson), who would produce the series. However, in October 2017, The New York Times and The New Yorker published reports of the Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein's history of sexual harassment and abuse. Swift action was then taken to distance Weinstein from Yellowstone.

After releasing a statement declaring that Weinstein's name would be removed from the credits for both Yellowstone and another show he'd co-produced for the network, Waco, the president of Paramount Network Kevin Kay stood firm in the decision during a press tour. As reported by Deadline, the exec explained, "There are hundreds of people who worked on both Waco and Yellowstone... and these people shouldn't be penalized... That has nothing to do with them and we want a safe workplace. Nobody wants to be associated with the things that went on there."

When pressed about Weinstein's involvement on Yellowstone and Waco, Kay added, "I want to say definitively that Harvey Weinstein has never been part of the creative process. Until a new name of the company is announced, Weinstein Co. will not be listed in the credits for either show."

A Yellowstone actress has gotten into hot water with the Native American community

Despite Yellowstone's primary focus being on the white Dutton family, their proximity to the fictional Broken Rock Indian Reservation and ongoing feud with tribe chairman Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) means that Native American characters are featured prominently on the show.

Controversy erupted over the casting of actress Kelsey Asbille in the role of Monica Long Dutton, a Native American woman and the wife of one of the Dutton sons. Asbille had previously claimed to be of Chinese and Cherokee descent; Schön! Magazine described her in a July 2018 profile as "part Cherokee and half Chinese," presumably because that's what she stated her heritage as during the interview. A November 2018 profile of Asbille in W Magazine also described her as being of "Chinese, English, and Cherokee descent," and featured the actress stating, "It's been a blessing to get to explore native culture [on Yellowstone]. As a person of mixed race, as you get older it matters more to you who you are and where you come from. So to be able to get in touch with that side of my heritage has been amazing."

However, according to native news source Pechanga.net, when those claims were presented to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the tribe Asbille claimed her lineage descended from, they responded with a statement declaring, "No documentation was found in our records to support any claim that she descends from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians."

Outside of the casting controversy, several Native American people involved in the show's production have spoken highly of their experiences. Veteran actor Gil Birmingham told Indian Country Today that he was thrilled to be playing "a prominent Native American character in a contemporary piece that's empowered and not playing a victimization portrayal." He also praised Sheridan's handling of native issues, but clarified that "it would be nice if we could get some more Native writers included, but getting work for as many people as we can is a good start."

AJ Not Afraid, chairman of the Crow Nation, whose reservation stands in for the fictional Broken Rock Reservation, also praised Yellowstone's portrayal of contemporary Native Americans. He told Variety that when it came to portrayals of Native American characters, Yellowstone is "a lot more realistic than other shows."

PETA also found fault with Yellowstone

In 2018, animal rights advocacy group PETA claimed that a whistleblower who worked on the set of Yellowstone had alerted them that the show used actual dead bovines in a scene that depicted mutilated cow carcasses. As reported by The Wire, PETA pointed out that using actual dead cows instead of props was both wasteful and could potentially expose the cast and crew to disease. The group claimed the whistleblower noted that the carcasses were left out in the sun for a long period of time during filming and produced a stench that was difficult for the crew to later wash away.

Paramount Network denied the claim. Paramount Network's SVP of communications Kurt Patat said in a statement (via TheWrap), "Paramount Network takes animal safety very seriously and with utmost professionalism." He added, "We have been in touch with PETA which presented us with inaccurate claims that we were able to correct including no cows were killed or mutilated for the scene in question." Thankfully, this is the only claim of animal cruelty that Yellowstone has faced. 

Filming Yellowstone can be quite dangerous

Although a lot of the drama on Yellowstone centers on family and political conflict, that doesn't mean that filming doesn't get intense. Speaking with Parade Magazineactress Kelly Reilly, who plays the smart and scary Beth Dutton, described a particularly harrowing day on set when she had to film a scene where her character runs toward a pack of wolves during a very unorthodox date. "They were real wolves, they were tamed, but they were still real wolves," said Reilly. "They had like invisible fishing line on them with two people lying in the grass, so if they had have charged me... I kept saying to them, 'You really think that that's going to stop them?' And they were like, 'Well, we can't do anything else.'"

In another incident, Reilly described how she almost fell victim to a bad Google Maps recommendation during a break from filming. While attempting a day trip, the British actress took a shortcut and found herself on a precarious Montana mountain road in the middle of December in an ill-equipped car. She told Parade that her first reaction when returning to level ground was of shock and gratitude: "I can't believe I survived."