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The Untold Truth Of Yellowstone

Set against the majestic backdrop of rural Montana, Paramount Network's acclaimed drama series "Yellowstone" blends 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 as well as the very National Park that gives the show its name. A thrilling mix of family drama and political intrigue that results from the Duttons trying to protect their ranch from being wrested from their control has made Yellowstone one of the highest-rated cable programs (via The Hollywood Reporter) in recent years. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that "Yellowstone" has broken viewership records in spite of the fact that new episodes premiere exclusively on cable, rather than on a streaming service as has become increasingly standard.

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 has managed to achieve exactly that and much more still. With the series' considerable popularity in mind, 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 (via Missoulian). 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 (via Rotten Tomatoes) — 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 (via New York Times). 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 the most significant factors that draws viewers to "Yellowstone" draws is its star, Oscar award 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 in 2019 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 Sheridan'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 (via Deadline). For the first season of "Yellowstone," 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, titled "Waco," the president of Paramount Network Kevin Kay stood firm in the decision during a press tour. (via The Salt Lake Tribune) 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 the primary dramatic focus of "Yellowstone" 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 as well.

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 the portrayal of contemporary Native Americans in "Yellowstone." 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 in a video interview that a whistleblower who worked on the set of "Yellowstone" alerted them that the show used actual dead bovines in a scene that depicted mutilated cow carcasses. They characterized this as both wasteful and having the potential to expose the cast and crew to disease. Furthermore, 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 this claim shortly after it became public. 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, "The production has taken necessary precautions to provide for animal safety and their well-being on set. All animals are monitored on set by professional handlers. 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. As Reilly explained, the scene involved Beth yelling as said pack of wolves as they attempted to feed, intensifying her worries about the scene going south beyond simply acting opposite a notoriously dangerous species of animal. "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."

Yellowstone's music has a cult following

As detailed in a profile by MusicRow magazine, the music featured in "Yellowstone" has itself become an attraction for many viewers. While series co-creator Taylor Sheridan is partially responsible for picking the songs used in key moments on the show, its soundtrack is likewise determined in large part by music supervisor Andrea von Foerster. Her prior filmography includes working in a similar capacity on films and TV series like "(500) Days of Summer," "Devil's Due," and "Modern Family."

While some artists, like Sturgill Simpson and the Brothers Osborne, were well-established prior to their songs popping up in "Yellowstone," for others the series acted as something of a big break. A band called Whiskey Myers, for example, performed live in the Season 1 episode "The Long Black Train." Then, in its immediate aftermath, three of the band's albums landed on the list of the Top 10 most popular country albums on iTunes. Another artist, named Zach Bryan, saw a similar bump in listenership after a song of his was used by the show. Von Foerster told MusicRow that she discovered Bryan online, and reached out to him through Twitter about featuring one of his songs on "Yellowstone." "His record was very lo-fi—I think it was recorded in an Airbnb so it didn't quite sound how we needed it to," von Foerster said. So instead, von Foerster helped him record a new version in a professional studio, which ended up making the cut.

Cast members have various levels of horseback riding experience

Following the finale of "Yellowstone" Season 3, an interviewer for Deadline asked series co-creator Taylor Sheridan how members of his cast took to horseback riding, noting that Sheridan himself appears skillful on horseback during his cameo appearances on the show. Sheridan revealed that Beth Dutton actor Kelly Reilly is the most experienced rider, though viewers might not know this given that her character is on horseback the least of its main players. Jimmy Hurdstrom actor Jefferson White, meanwhile, had to learn how to ride a horse more-or-less from scratch. "We had him out there two or three days in a row... horseback riding is all about trust between horse and rider," Sheridan said. "It takes a lot of trust for someone who has never been on a horse to get on one. And the horse can feel that fear so it was pretty dicey for a bit. To his credit, the second day I had him out there, just riding, never complaining. And when he got off, he said, I'll fix this, I promise."

Some of the ranchers featured on "Yellowstone," meanwhile, are professionals in their real lives. A video shared by Paramount Network to its YouTube channel details how real-life cowboy Jake Ream started working behind-the-scenes of "Yellowstone" before he was offered an on-camera role as a character simply named Jake, through which he's now able to show off his wrangling skills on TV.

The Dutton family's cook is played by a real-life chef

Dedicated viewers of "Yellowstone" know that the Dutton family employs a cook named Gator. Perhaps most famously, Gator makes Beth (Kelly Reilly) a smoothie consisting of three scoops of ice cream and three shots of vodka, per her specifications. As it turns out, Gator is portrayed by a man actually nicknamed Gator, with the birth name Gabriel Guilbeau. Beyond bringing his real-life nickname to the character, Gullibeau is likewise an experienced chef, and responsible for many of the meals served to the "Yellowstone" cast and crew. In a profile of the man Paramount Network shared to its YouTube channel, Jimmy Hurdstrom actor Jefferson White claimed that "anybody on the crew, anybody in the cast, can't talk about this show for five minutes without mentioning Gator." Ryan actor Ian Bohen described Guilbeau's presence on-set as essentially "a restaurant open from crew call to wrap" where he "does whatever you want."

Though Guilbeau was born near Santa Barbara, California, he grew up in Louisana, the cuisine of which influenced his style of cooking. On his personal Instagram account, Guilbeau often shows off some of the meals he cooks during the filming of "Yellowstone," like, for example, a pair of whole pigs he served to its cast and crew. Guilbeau also recently headed craft services for the FX on Hulu comedy "Reservation Dogs," and posted a few different meals he cooked up for them during the making of that series too.