After seeing Sicario and sourcing the script in 2015, I instantly fell for the voice of this new writer. But Taylor Sheridan was not new. His script Comancheria hit the Blacklist a few years earlier, and would hit cinemas the next year under the title Hell Or High Water.
Today, Taylor Sheridan is the most important screenwriter alive. What other writer is in equal measure popular, prolific, powerful, professional and political? I know none. Particularly that last element usually kills all the other qualities. Let’s look at the detail.
POPULARITY – Taylor Sheridan is crazy popular.
Taylor Sheridan has connected with an ever-widening audience. Sicario’s box office nearly tripled its $30m budget, Hell Or High Water did even better, and Wind River quadrupled it. Then, Yellowstone hit it really big, with nearly fifteen million Americans tuning in for its Season 4 premiere. It beat NFL and any other season premiere of the past 4 years. 1883, the latest offering at the time of writing, last week broke all records for cable premieres since 2015.
Sheridan’s stories appeal to broad demographics, from the farmer to the white-collar worker, from the high school student to the single mother. In the US, he’s found a big audience in the flyover states – which are finally seen on screen – and with city dwellers dreaming of a Yellowstone lifestyle.
The stories are simple, and the emotions are big. The writing is lean and full of melodrama. Yellowstone is not just another dysfunctional family soap; it is rich in theme, brimming with metaphors, and delivered in a sweeping visual style. Easy viewing.
PROLIFICNESS – Yes, that’s a word. I looked it up.
Taylor Sheridan is insanely prolific. Last Sunday, fans in the US saw no less than 4 fresh TV hours drop from his hand. He has 3 shows running concurrently: Yellowstone, The Mayor of Kingstown and 1883. Every single episode of these has Sheridan credited as the sole writer. This is unheard of.
To achieve this, Sheridan says he didn’t sleep for 7 months in the lead-up to the premiere screening of 1883. No wonder.
Over the past 4 years, Sheridan has single-handedly written more than 50 hours of serial material. Before that, he garnered sole credit on four produced features, while his shared credits – Without Remorse and Those Who Wish Me Dead – enjoyed somewhat less critical acclaim. Let him ride alone…
PROFESSIONALISM – Taylor Sheridan’s scripts show a high standard.
Sheridan’s scripts shine in clarity and concision, as apparent from his superb 2012 Blacklist topper Hell Or High Water. Today, he no longer needs to impress, and nobody will mind if he breaks a rule or two. Yet, unlike some other established writers, his scripts still offer solid models for anyone trying to break in. Even if they’re only first drafts, as Sheridan has claimed.
Taylor Sheridan was never formally trained, and so he tries to avoid the mistakes in all the bad scripts he read as an actor. He starts his stories with absurdly simple plots, and he is allergic to exposition. Both are pretty good principles if you want to write for a broad audience.
Under Paramount’s phenomenal time pressure, the quality of the writing may have suffered. Still, the material is pretty strong, given that Sheridan is not relying on a 5-10-strong writers room like about every top-rated show. So, instead of comparing Yellowstone to Breaking Bad (although both pilots have more than a few similarities in their opening shots), perhaps compare it to El Camino.
His material is close to his heart, his stories are simple, raw and direct, and his direction shows minimal cinematic frills. And so is his writing: economical and straightforward. While the material has a masculine bias – he is a cowboy after all – he has created admirable female characters over the years.
About his ability to create compelling scenes, ScriptShadow wrote: “Scripts live or die on their scenes. So if you can come up with an operating procedure that ensures all your scenes are entertaining, you’re set. And Sheridan seems to have figured that mystery out.“
And before anyone points it out, I know. He doesn’t outline.