Andy Greenwald first saw Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil around 2005, when he was 28, during what he calls his “self-imposed film graduate school.” He watched every classic movie he could get his hands on, from first-generation noirs such as In a Lonely Place (1950) to revisionist takes like The Long Goodbye (1973). Greenwald was struck by how Welles’s 1958 film, set on the U.S.-Mexican border, straddled so many boundaries—between nations, cultures, classes, and races. Though nearly fifty years old by then, Touch of Evil still felt relevant to him. But it was a product of its time, and Greenwald cringed at some of Welles’s choices, like casting Charlton Heston, done up in shameful brownface, as a Mexican drug enforcement officer.
Paying tribute to—and offering a critique of—Touch of Evil was one of Greenwald’s motivations for setting his new USA Network series Briarpatch (which debuts February 6) on the U.S.-Mexican border. The 1984 book of the same title that the series is based on was set in Texas. But its author, Ross Thomas, never explicitly identified the town or region where it took place; when the novel was first published, consensus held that Thomas had drawn on his hometown of Oklahoma City for the setting. The TV series, by contrast, has a very particular locale: the fictional West Texas town of San Bonifacio, loosely inspired by El Paso.
Greenwald wanted San Bonifacio to feel authentic, the kind of place where people could see themselves. “My favorite show of all time is Twin Peaks, and that was as much about creating a fictional place that felt like it could be real as it was about a murder,” Greenwald says. What David Lynch did with the Pacific Northwest, Greenwald wanted to do with the far West Texas desert. “I fell in love with the idea of a place that feels electric in your imagination, and West Texas feels completely alive to me as a place where fictional characters might exist and get into trouble.”
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Trouble, of course, is a requisite of noir. But rather than mimic the genre’s tropes—mainly duplicitous femmes fatales and complicated white male protagonists—Greenwald had something more ambitious in mind: rewiring noir for twenty-first-century Texas.
Before he started writing screenplays, Greenwald wrote about music for Spin magazine and was a staff writer at the ESPN-owned website Grantland. But when Grantland shut down, in 2015, he decided to switch gears. As luck would have it, he got an unexpected phone call from Noah Hawley, the Austin-based creator of the television series Fargo, whom he had interviewed for a Grantland podcast just a few days prior. They had hit it off, and, as it turned out, Hawley wanted Greenwald’s help in adapting Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle for TV. (The project is still in development.) Greenwald said yes, and a few months later Hawley gave him another job, in the writers’ room of his psychotropic TV series Legion. With Greenwald’s Hollywood career on the rise, he moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles with his family in 2016.
After Legion’s first season wrapped, Greenwald’s agents suggested he write a few original scripts, to give the industry a sense of what else he could do. Greenwald started with Thomas’s Briarpatch, which he had hoped to one day transform for the screen. He’d first read the book around the same time he had been bingeing on classic films, a period in which he devoured every one of Thomas’s 25 thrillers.
Thomas, who died in 1995, wrote vivid portraits of hard-boiled figures navigating a world of untrustworthy people and dicey situations. He was also a master at establishing a strong sense of place, by including details that made his fictional settings feel real. In Briarpatch, he notes that a local bar had another name (the Select Bar) before it was christened the Slush Pit by oilmen in the thirties.
In Greenwald’s eyes, Briarpatch was the perfect foundation upon which to build his modern noir. The book showcases Thomas’s cynicism and charm without too elaborate a conspiratorial subplot (“His plots can get pretty baggy,” Greenwald says). Greenwald didn’t have much of a personal connection to Texas—he’d briefly visited Austin, Houston, and Dallas—but had long been inspired by Texas writers like Larry McMurtry, Attica Locke, and James Crumley (“Crumley’s Bordersnakes inspired a very particular scene in the ninth episode [of Briarpatch],” he says). Since Texas—and the border—already loomed large in many people’s imaginations, he figured it’d be an apt place to play with an audience’s preconceptions.
Once Greenwald started adapting Briarpatch for the screen, things fell into line. In the fall of 2016, not long after he finished writing the first episode, Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot, signed on to produce. USA Network ordered a pilot in early 2018. “I’ve been writing professionally for twenty years,” Greenwald says, “and this was the most freeing and truly enjoyable experience I’ve had writing anything.”
Thomas’s Briarpatch plot focuses on Benjamin Dill, a Washington, D.C.–based investigator who returns to his Texas hometown after his younger sister, a homicide detective, is killed by a car bomb. The town that Dill comes back to oozes with dramatic tension, and the show’s depiction of San Bonifacio—or St. Disgrace, as locals call it—makes that palpable. The escalating heat is practically a character; in fact, the pilot opens with a billboard for a barbecue restaurant, emblazoned with the slogan “Get It While It’s Hot,” alongside a cartoon pig that has flaming barbecue sauce dribbling down its backside. A digital thermometer displaying the current temperature—a miserable 98 degrees—lies at the advertisement’s center. Just before the camera pulls away, the temperature clicks up to 99.
That’s the first of many ominous moments propelling the series’s narrative forward. In a more surreal turn, someone lets out all the local zoo’s animals shortly before Dill arrives. Our protagonist’s taxi pulls into town just as local law enforcement shoots and kills an unruly kangaroo, and a lingering threat throughout the show’s first season involves an escaped tiger that has yet to be caught. It feels as though the whole town is close to reaching its boiling point.
To bring Briarpatch to life, Greenwald hired Iranian American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour to direct the show’s pilot. Her 2014 feature film debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was, according to Greenwald, “alive and emotional and exhilarating and weirdly nostalgic”—exactly the feelings he wanted Briarpatch to evoke. Amirpour, her production designer, Brandon Tonner-Connolly, and Greenwald then spoke for hours about how San Bonifacio might look and feel. They pulled hundreds of pictures of small and midsize cities, and Tonner-Connolly visited El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. They were drawn to elements of El Paso because, as Tonner-Connolly puts it, it felt like “a liminal space, existing between Texas and Mexico.” (Despite the Texas setting, the show is filmed in Albuquerque; New Mexico provides production companies with better tax rebates than Texas does, so the state has become a frequent cinematic stand-in for our own.)
Greenwald staffed Briarpatch with writers—many of them women and people of color—who had worked on some of his favorite TV shows, including Aisha Porter-Christie (Orphan Black), Eva Anderson (You’re the Worst), and Haley Harris (The Leftovers). “A writers’ room is about having these daylong, week-long conversations about these fictional people,” Anderson says. “If you have too many people of the same perspective, it’s easy to miss huge parts of these personalities, how people would see things, how people would behave. Andy made a point of keeping the voices super diverse.”
To ensure that a subplot involving a Border Patrol agent didn’t devolve into shallow stereotypes, he also hired as a consultant Francisco Cantú, whose memoir about the complexities of being a Hispanic Border Patrol agent, The Line Becomes a River, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in 2018.
Cantú says he’d been approached to work on other border-set TV shows, but he had always said no. “I feel like the border is very often an easy backdrop for a familiar black and white story, and I’m just not interested in lending any of my creative energy to projects that do that,” he says. “I was really surprised and encouraged by how interested [Greenwald] was in capturing a sense of place and bringing nuance to the borderland . . . Even though the Border Patrol agent character I advised them about has a bit part of a secondary plotline, they were interested in creating a very complicated character with muddy intentions and motivations.”
Greenwald kept much of Thomas’s tale true to the text, but there are two big differences. In the book, Benjamin Dill is a white man; in the show, Allegra Dill is a Latinx woman, played by Rosario Dawson. Greenwald knew from the beginning that he wanted the protagonist to be a woman. “I’m just not interested in a traditional white male protagonist doing the same things we’ve already seen him do,” he says. It’s common in noir for an outsider detective to clash with local bigwigs, and Thomas’s storylines were always about the struggle for power behind the scenes. Turning the lead character into a Latinx woman opened up all sorts of narrative opportunities. “Diversity is important for our industry, for our politics, and for our lives,” Greenwald says. “But, selfishly, it’s also hugely important for storytelling.”
Greenwald was curious about how the sorts of tensions Thomas had been fascinated with as a writer might intensify when racism and misogyny were part of the mix. In Thomas’s book, when detectives John Strucker and Gene Colder show up unannounced at Benjamin Dill’s hotel, they make brief introductions, exchange firm handshakes, and swill glasses of Scotch with him before they get down to brass tacks. By contrast, the two detectives seem unprepared for Allegra’s directness; as Colder condescendingly explains how homicide investigations work (“Miss Dill, when an officer falls in the line of duty, it’s imperative to—”), she interrupts him mid-sentence to ask, “Who did it?”
The TV adaptation also ups the ante on the book’s most dynamic relationship, the one between Dill and his childhood friend Jake Spivey, a retired arms dealer with questionable allegiances. In the show, as in the book, the two characters are lifelong friends who reunite after nearly eight years apart. (Spivey is played by Jay R. Ferguson, best known for his role on Mad Men, as Stan, the art director.) But Greenwald has made their relationship more layered than Thomas’s original, bromantic depiction. When Spivey sees Allegra for the first time in years, his eyes brighten and he breaks into a grin, and they share a lingering bear hug instead of a firm handshake. This Jake says sexually charged things to Allegra that his literary counterpart never did, such as “You still like that sort of thing, right? Handcuffs?”
That makes Spivey into something of an homme fatale with mysterious intentions, flipping the script on the cliché of the noir genre’s standard-issue viragos. Dawson plays Allegra with the same coolness Humphrey Bogart brought to In a Lonely Place’s Dixon Steele; she ignores Spivey’s attempts at flirtation, while not initially revealing, either to him or to the viewer, what’s going on in her head. Allegra Dill, at first, seems to wield a lot of power, which is a little discomfiting—if she’s holding all the cards now, it’s likely that she’s going to drop them pretty soon, thanks to the show’s ever-heightening tensions.
While Briarpatch’s central mystery revolves around the murder of Allegra’s sister, Greenwald has given his audience a lot more than that to reckon with. As happens with any good noir, viewers are forced to determine who can be trusted and who can’t—but that’s hardly the most enthralling part of this show about an eccentric West Texas town. “Everyone loves a whodunit, but asking who did it is probably the least interesting question you can ask of a story,” Greenwald says. “Everything else is what makes it valuable and compelling.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Rethinking the Border Noir.” Subscribe today.