We’ve been enjoying the on-going series Briggs Land from Dark Horse Comics and at New York Comic Con 2016, we were lucky enough to sit down with writer Brian Wood to talk about how perceptions of militia groups have changed over time, what kind of research he did for the series, the matriarch of the series, Grace Briggs, and the upcoming television adaptation slated for AMC.
There are vague spoilers for the first issue in the following interview, but nothing that would detract from picking up the series and starting from the beginning after reading. Pick up Briggs Land at your local comics shop today!
What was the inspiration for Briggs Land?
Brian Wood: It’s a thing that’s been stuck in the back of my head for a long time, based on research I had done for other books. For years I wrote this book DMZ, which is about a militarized part of America that features civil war. So in doing research for that on militia groups and things like that, I’d absorbed a lot of that material.
And more recently I did a book about the revolutionary war and about the militias then, which were viewed the exact opposite of militias now. Back then they were the noble heroes and now they’re the horrible freaks and extremists. So I was intrigued at the contrast and how context changes the way we view these things that are called the same name.
That was when I thought there was a story there about a family, where I can intentionally play with the perceptions of what a militia is now, what we see about them in the news, what contrasted with the more innocent back-to-the-land hippie types (of which there are plenty of those too – where they never pick up a gun, but they are still very much looking to live separate from the rest of country).
What kind of research did you do? Did you go down the rabbit hole after that jumping off point?
BW: I mostly read books, that’s where I do probably 95% of my research. I’ve always been very good at reading fast and gleaning information out of books. So I’d read, read, read, read, read like a maniac.
In this case, there’s so much happening in current events that it makes it easy to do a lot more human to human research. You can say it’s a little bit like going down the rabbit hole where I reach out and contact these groups, meaning I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m sure my browser search history has put me on watch at Homeland Security.
It’s interesting because they’ve all been really nice and I have to check my own biases and assumptions. And also not allow myself to get charmed, you know? I feel like you get a taste of what a journalist is like.
What kind of responses did you get by reaching out to these groups?
BW: At first everyone was like, “Are you a liberal? Is this a liberal, hip piece?” And the answer is yes, I am a liberal, but that’s not the point of this. Like with a lot of my other books, the point is to try to walk that line showing the good and the bad all at the same time and raise a lot of questions.
I want to put some of the burden on the reader to decide what they think about stuff as opposed to me telling them. Or what I think and what therefore they should think. So once I explained that, you could see they visibly relaxed. They had all their guards up and then they were very candid because their ideology is their way of life. and they like to talk about it just like everyone likes to talk about their stuff.
I was going to ask about groups like the Sovereign Citizens and real world equivalents to the group in Briggs Land, but it sounds like you’ve reached out and contacted them.
BW: I have not quite done the thing I’ve seen other journalists do, where they actually go there physically and live there for a couple of days. I don’t think my wife would let me do that.
Would you go if you could?
BW: If I was a single person I would. I’ve got a wife and kids, I don’t want to be messing around with places where they stockpile weapons. [laughter]
How did these groups that don’t recognize the government that are in the news inform the series?
BW: There’s such a wide variety of types of groups. The Sovereign Citizens are very specific group that I’ve not done a lot of research on, but it’s so fascinating. There are the Bundy ranchers, who are obviously a lot more provocative and intentionally so. And when I would call an actual criminal, their goal is to break the law.
But then I’m reading this book about these 70s groups called the Back-to-the-Land movement, where essentially these post-hippies just moved out into Vermont and other places to live a self-sufficient lifestyle. They grow their own food and there is very little interaction. They didn’t pay their taxes, but it was a peaceful hippie thing. It wasn’t like we’ve got to prepare for the new world order.
So I’m drawing from all of that and the community in Briggs Land is going to represent a breadth of ideology. Not everybody who lives there is all on the same page. There are the racists, the draft-dodger types that are on the run from the law and they just want to hide, there’s the hippies, there’s the old idealists who strive for the purity of spirituality and everything.
That’s where a lot of the conflict of the story is going to come from because you have Grace Briggs, who is sort of in charge of it all and has to figure out how to thread the needle and take care of everybody.
Are we going to explore what her tipping point was in the first issue and how she’s going to weave these ideas together?
BW: She has her own belief system that is definitely at odds with her husband’s and there’s a real crucial story point that I probably shouldn’t say at this point. But that’s the one thing that prompts her to make the break from her husband and take over and her ideology is – she’s not a racist or an extremist in the negative sense. She’s very much an idealist, but all her kids represent the more negative aspects.
Would you characterize Briggs Land as a family drama at its core?
BW: It’s definitely a family drama. I look at The Sopranos as a great example of this type of thing. It’s a mafia story, but anybody that’s watched it knows it’s about the family, about how he interacts with his wife, and his kids coming of age and becoming aware of what’s going on. That’s the type of thing I’m striving for. Like okay this is the world that they live in, but what you’re actually going to care about is the family dynamics.
Who do you think in this series the readers should be rooting for? Do you think there’s anyone?
BW: Grace is not a villain, she’s going to have to do a lot of tough things, as a means to an end and I’m sure some readers are going to look at that and judge it differently than other readers. But she’s the hero of the story, that’s pretty clear from the beginning.
There are a lot of secondary characters, some are a little more complex than others. Some have a lot more dark sides to them, but they have kids and wives too and varying levels of guilt and innocence. So I feel like it’s really going to be in the eye of the reader, who they can identify with, who they can understand, who they can forgive. And I feel like that’s what makes a lot of these family drama shows work.
Did you find it challenging to make it a matriarch-centered series?
BW: It’s interesting because the initial pitch of this book had a patriarch. It had a male lead and in that way it made total sense, it was like every other organized crime thing I’ve ever seen. And it was good, it definitely would have worked. But I thought something about this isn’t quite right, so I put it away for a while.
Then I came back and literally just said, “What if I flipped it?” Suddenly I was like, “Oh now this brings up all sorts of interesting parenting issues that may not have been there in the same way.” It flips expectations and suddenly I got all these story ideas from it and that’s when AMC decided they liked it. They didn’t like it with the male lead.
It just got better. I was raised by a very strong, very single mother, so I think about her and the sacrifices she had to make. She always put herself last and dealt with us three kids, who were all different ages and therefore different needs and personalities and caused a lot of trouble, so Grace feels like somebody I know.
Where there challenges in adapting the story once you decided to swap the focus to Grace?
BW: No, honestly it all clicked into place. It was a magical thing. Sometimes that just happens, something’s not quite right and you’re not really sure and then when it works, it really works.
Can you talk about working with AMC at all?
BW: It’s a little early – tv works on such a different schedule. They bought it and they hired me to write the pilot script, which I’m doing now. I should be done soon. I’m a producer on the show, so I’m going to be right there as I understand it – throughout casting, I can go on set, I’m involved.
It’s not one of those things where it’s an option where someone takes it away. I’m involved in it and so far it’s been great. Like I said, it’s early and it’s moving slower than I wish it was, but it’s the real deal. We’re moving ahead.
Were there challenges in adapting the story from comics form to television?
BW: There were. I had written the first arc of the comic and when I was adapting it in to the TV show, that was the only way I had envisioned the story. I had just written it, so my first pass of the pilot was a pretty literal adaptation and I had to get that out of my system before I was able to step back and realize tor tv, this doesn’t work, maybe if I put this first before this, maybe if I take that out.
So I was able to tinker with it at that point because it takes so much longer and I have so much more time to sit with it and think about it. And I probably shouldn’t say it, but I think the pilot might be better than the comic – because I have all of these smart people giving me notes and I have time to really sit and think and figure it out and try this and try that.
The pilot is the same story as the first arc of the comic, just told in a very different way, which I find as a writer fascinating, that I’m able to do it in two different ways.
It’s going to more of a spiritual adaptation as opposed to a literal adaptation?
BW: It’s almost like we’re taking a different path to get there. If someone reads the comic and watches the show, they’re going to see a lot of the same scenes, the same basic story, it’s just going to be inside out and upside down.