ATX TV Festival Season 11 Opening Night with Dark Winds

The ATX TV Festival was back in-person this year with an impressive lineup of panels, screenings, reunions and premieres. Opening the festivities was the premiere of Dark Winds, a crime thriller based on the Leaphorn & Chee book series by Tony Hillerman. A project that has been in development for decades and originally conceived as a feature film, Season 1 kicks off Sunday, June 12 on AMC.

We spoke with some of the Dark Winds cast and creatives on the red carpet, including creator/executive producer Graham Roland, executive producer/showrunner Vince Calandra, director Chris Eyre, actor/executive producer Zahn McClarnon (Joe Leaphorn), and actor Jessica Matten (Bernadette Manuelito). Here’s what they shared about bringing the series to life.

The cast and director of Dark Winds at the ATX TV Festival

This was originally going to be a film, but I’m happy it’s a TV show instead because I want to spend more than a couple of hours with these characters. Was this a benefit to all of you in bringing the books to life?

Chris: Absolutely. Early on, Graham and Vince said, “Hey, we’re making a six hour movie.” And that’s the way it was pinned.

Graham: Obviously, there’s so many books and a wealth of material. Trying to do any novel in two hours is tough. Having the extra real estate to do the character drama and not just make it about the case is what made this right for television.

Vince: And the fact that I work in TV, it’s way better because I’m not a movie writer.

From what I understand, there are procedural elements to this, but there’s also a greater, overarching story. Can you share a bit about balancing those aspects of the story in this first season.

Graham: If this was a movie, it would have been all about the case, who did it, and how we’re going to catch the bad guys. Because we have these extra hours, we get to go home with Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. We get to see them as people outside of wearing the uniform.

Vince: And Officer Bernadette Manuelito. We get to see where they all come from and build out the characters. As Graham was saying, if we were doing a two hour cop movie, it would be a lot of action and you wouldn’t get to know the people. The best thing about TV — and why people come back to TV shows — is because they fall in love with the characters. There’s something about them that they relate to, and they want to keep coming back and watching. That’s what we strove for on the show.

Are there specific characters that you were excited to flesh out beyond what’s in the books?

Graham: All of them. And that’s not just the writing. That’s Chris directing it, and the cast who brought their craft and their own life experience to their roles. That’s a credit to them.

Zahn McClarnon as Joe Lepahorn in Dark Winds

How did your years as an actor help you in your role as a producer on Dark Winds?

Zahn: The experience of being in the business for 20-30 years, and knowing the talent pool that we have out there for Native performers. I’ve worked with most of them, so I helped a lot with casting.

What are you really excited for audiences to discover as they go on this journey with you and your characters this season?

Zahn: Just for them to see a different world of the Navajo culture and the Navajo Nation in the southwest. People will learn more about the Tony Hillerman books and see these characters brought to life. Also, seeing a fully Indigenous cast, and Indigenous directors, producers and writers.

Jessica Matten as Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito in Dark Winds

When you first learned about Bernadette, what was it about her that had you wanting to play the role?

Jessica: It’s interesting because I had just wrapped a lead of a show that I produce up in Canada, Tribal, where I play a chief sergeant of a police force with all men. So I knew Bernadette already. But I saw Zahn’s name attached to it, [director] Chris Eyre, and of course, George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford, and I was like, “What is this? I need to read for this.”

I knew that I could give something to this character that was different and nuanced from the other characters I’ve played before, and what this would represent for the Indigenous community. Specifically, I opened up the first Native film and combat college in the world, and work with Indigenous youth. I also work very closely with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. In terms of what this would do to build self esteem for our women and our girls through a character like Bernadette meant the world to me.

(Images Courtesy of AMC and the ATX TV Festival)

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