On a blistering day in August, novelist Philipp Meyer was at a cattle ranch in the grassy Hill Country of central Texas, standing in a field that had been turned into a replica of a Comanche camp.
The makeshift village, with about 20 tepees and buffalo hides spread on the ground, was the backdrop for a grueling scene from AMC’s adaptation of Meyer’s 2013 novel, “The Son,” an epic Western about a Texas ranching family. The series stars Pierce Brosnan as Eli McCullough, the family’s steely patriarch, who was captured by Comanches as a teenager in 1849 and later becomes a cattle rancher with a violent, vengeful streak.
Meyer watched as makeup artists applied fake blood and ash to the prosthetic limbs of a white buffalo hunter who had been captured and tortured by the Comanches.
“This is great,” he said. He studied the scene more closely, and then suggested making the charred ground around the actor’s limbs bigger. After all, he noted, the fires would have been burning for hours.
It’s rare for novelists to wield this much influence over screen adaptations of their work. They may get an executive producer credit and an occasional ceremonial visit to the set, yet typically they just cash their checks and move on to their next novels. But Meyer is far from typical. Bald and muscular, he’s handy with pistols, rifles and hunting bows, and looks at home on a working cattle ranch. He wrote three of the episodes in the first season and rewrote the rest. And he was a near constant presence on the set throughout the five months of filming, weighing in on casting, props, costumes and the choreography of battle scenes.
“He was heavily involved in everything,” Brosnan said. “He’s a gung-ho weapons nut, with his own arsenal, and he was very specific in the choice of weapons I would use.”
Meyer acknowledges that his obsession with historical details was “probably annoying” to the other writers and producers. But his scrupulous oversight of even minute aspects of the production was always part of the bargain.
“He’s definitely put his fingerprints on the show,” said Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV. “It was clear that he was not comfortable just walking away, and he felt like he had something to contribute.”
“The Son” is the first big project from El Jefe, a production company Meyer founded with the writers Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman. The three men, who met at the University of Texas at Austin’s Master of Fine Arts program, created the company in 2014, with the aim of giving authors, who are often sidelined in Hollywood’s creative hierarchy, greater control over the adaptations of their work. The company is developing TV shows based on Meyer’s debut novel, “American Rust,” Wil S. Hylton’s World War II book, “Vanished,” and “Fourth of July Creek,” a novel by Smith Henderson. (Meyer also plans to write and executive-produce the adaptation of “American Rust.”)
“Novelists, who are the most qualified people when it comes to the world of the books they’ve written, are the first people to be benched in this process,” said McGreevy, who was a writer and executive producer on the Netflix adaptation of his horror novel, “Hemlock Grove.”
Television has become an increasingly attractive medium for novelists, who see it as an ideal form for teasing out long story arcs and subtle character development. But it’s rare for them to have as much of a creative stake as Meyer does in “The Son,” and he’s feeling the pressure. Whether “The Son” succeeds, critically and commercially, could determine whether El Jefe becomes a big player in the heated competition for literary properties, which have become a staple of prestige television.
“There’s this sinking feeling of, ‘Oh, this is years of my life,’” he said. “It almost feels like writing a first novel.”
Meyer had been in development purgatory before and was determined not to go through it again. His 2009 debut novel, “American Rust,” was optioned for a feature film, but the production never went anywhere.
So when “The Son,” which became a critically acclaimed best seller that sold 300,000 copies and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, caught the interest of several production companies, he agreed to McGreevy’s pitch.
“I said, you can go with these heavy hitters who will back up dump trucks of money to your house but will likely marginalize you in the process, if the thing gets made at all,” McGreevy said, “or you can take the risk of us doing this together.”
Meyer chose the riskier option. In spring 2013, he, McGreevy and Shipman wrote a 126-page script for “The Son” and started shopping it to TV networks. Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios made an offer on the series but never followed through, and the fledgling studio later shut down.
Even after AMC picked up “The Son” as a series in early 2016, with a role for Meyer as a series writer and executive producer, there were other hiccups. Last summer, actor Sam Neill, who was playing Eli, dropped out for personal reasons, soon before shooting was scheduled to begin. Brosnan took his place and had to prepare for the role on the fly. He read passages of the novel out loud to capture Eli’s cadences and listened to speeches by famous Texans, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Rick Perry and Texas Congressman Ted Poe. (In the first few episodes, Brosnan’s labored accent is never quite convincing.)
Working on a TV show has taken a toll on his fiction writing. Meyer said he’s been struggling to finish his next novel, which is overdue to his publisher.
“The crazy thing is, now I have to make sure I have time to write novels,” he said.
“The Son” premieres at 9 p.m. April 8 on AMC.