A University of North Texas professor leaned on the old adage “write what you know” when he co-created the CBS All Access drama Coyote.
“When you live in Southern California and in Texas, the [Mexican/U.S.] border is just sort of part of your life,” said Josh Gilbert, who teaches screenwriting in the UNT Media Arts Department.
Gilbert and his longtime writing partner, Michael Carnes, had pushed comedy projects through the studio machine in Hollywood for years. When they turned their sights onto drama, they found plenty of inspiration in the dirt that stretches from California to Mexico. That inspiration became Coyote, a TV series starring Michael Chiklis, a retired Border Patrol agent who tangles with a drug cartel while trying to help the wife of his late patrol partner. The stakes skyrocket when the retired agent, Ben Clemmens, helps bring an endangered Salvadoran woman into the States. With each step closer to freedom, Clemmens takes a few backward to settle his debt to the cartel.
Gilbert said Coyote was born out of the writers’ personal experiences and observations when they embarked on a dramatic project four years ago.
“The border was in the news a lot, and both of our dads were retiring,” Gilbert said. “There’s a mandatory retirement age for Border Patrol agents, at age 57 (if they have 20 years of service), and we were thinking about our dads and wondering what they were going to do next. I think our moms were probably wondering what they were going to do more than we were. But it got us thinking about these 57-year-olds and what happens after that. Because there are probably a lot of years left for these guys after that. There was this idea that this guy was in law enforcement and sees things in black and white, and now what?”
Gilbert said his and Carnes’ management didn’t want to pitch the early incarnation of Coyote, which refers to the people who smuggle Mexican and Central American migrants over the border, and the team had to find new management to pitch the project. Paramount picked it up first, and as the streaming media industry shifted the TV landscape even more, the project was picked up by CBS All Access, where only subscribers can view the six-episode series. (Gilbert and Carnes, who are executive producers of the project, planned to produce 10 episodes, but production stopped when California shut down film and TV production to comply with pandemic public health orders.)
Gilbert said another colleague was interested in the story.
“He got (Canadian director-producer) Michelle MacLaren onto it and she got Michael Chiklis attached; after that, things got rolling,” Gilbert said. “Television is a very collaborative environment, and after Michael was attached, Paramount bought into it.”
Chiklis is best known for his work in the lead role of The Shield, which dramatized the life and misdeeds of a rogue cop who justifies breaking the law to bring bad guys to justice. Later, he played a superhero of stone in Fantastic Four and then nabbed a supporting role in American Horror Story. Chiklis joined the show as its star and an executive director.
“He’s a really great guy,” Gilbert said. “He does look like a tough guy, kind of scary, but he’s a really good guy and has a great sense of humor. He loves a joke. We’re thrilled to have him as such a major part of the show.”
Gilbert said he and Carnes wanted to avoid delving into the politics of immigration. The drama touches on the inflamed political maneuvering around the subject, but the writers instead focus on the transfiguration of the central figure — a law and order disciple who finds his life changed through the relationships he forges — both the strategic bonds he forms with lawless cartel henchmen and the real friendships he makes with the residents of the Mexican fishing village.
“He’s a Border Patrol agent who has lived in that world for years, but he’s not a guy who’s done a lot of international travel. He’s not a worldly guy,” Gilbert said. “He goes to Mexico to work on a house for his partner, who’s dead. His wife is there, and she wants it done so she can sell it and move on.”
Gilbert’s classes in screenwriting at UNT mimic real-world writers’ rooms. About 12 writers flesh out a story arc in episodes that propel plots and develop characters. Gilbert said TV writers usually work in a shared room with a screen (reviewing past work helps writers keep a story’s continuity), snacks and the writing brain trust. UNT students collaborate on projects, and Gilbert said they’re preparing for an industry that is changing rapidly. Like just about every other business, television faces the enormously powerful internet.
“Writing jobs lasting a year or so, that’s gotten shorter,” Gilbert said. “Seasons have gotten shorter. It used to be you’d write 22 episodes. Now you’re more likely to have 10. You’d like to have writing jobs last longer, but it’s changing.”
In other countries, television series last for a few seasons — the original version of the blockbuster comedy series The Office was produced in Britain and wrapped in three seasons. The enormously popular Spanish telenovela El Clon had a single season.
“American television is moving toward that model,” Gilbert said.
Screenwriting students learn the craft in his classes, but some lessons can come from experience.
“When you have a writing partner for a long time, you know that when you’re on the same page about something, that’s kind of a built-in audience, and you know you’ve got something that people might like. Sometimes, you get really excited about something and your writing partner isn’t excited about it, and you might not be interested in something they’re excited about,” Gilbert said. “And then there are times where the day after you finish a project you’ve put a lot of time into, you look at the trades, and you see that something almost identical to what you just finished got picked up.”
A writer can also put years into a script, sell it and then have the project shelved for years or never produced.
But the satisfaction of producing a series is hard to match.
“With all the wins and losses, seeing it grow and develop is an amazing feeling,” he said. “I still remember how it felt to go to the set and see all these trucks there, and you look around and see all these people doing jobs you could never do. That’s a good feeling, too. Sometimes, it’s like it takes multiple miracles to get something made.”