New TV Show, Outsiders, Inspired By the Hudson Valley
We chat with Athens’ resident Peter Mattei, the creator of the new drama, Outsiders
Ryan Hurst as Lil’ Foster in WGN America’s new series, Outsiders, which premiered on January 26, 2016
Set in Kentucky, shot in Pennsylvania, and conceived in the Hudson Valley, Outsiders is a new television drama about a fiercely independent clan that has made its home on a mountaintop for the last 200 years. The fictional Farrells are completely “off the grid”: they don’t use electricity, plumbing, or money; their moonshine may have mystical powers; and life takes a lustful turn at their fire-lit bacchanals. Trouble comes when the coal company that actually owns the mountain wants the Farrells gone. “Any of you come up that mountain, you ain’t gonna be coming back down,” warns one of the clan. An overconfident sheriff who tests their resolve meets a strange and grisly end.
The show’s creator is Peter Mattei, a playwright, novelist, and filmmaker with a home in the village of Athens. A graduate of Brown University and the Yale School of Drama, he made his first feature film, Love in the Time of Money, with another Valley homeowner, actor Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire). As a writer, Mattei has developed scripts for Greene Street Films and others, and created/written original series pilots for HBO, CBS, ABC, Fox, and other networks. Outsiders is his first drama series to be picked up by a network.
We spoke with Mattei from his office in Los Angeles after the January 26 premiere of Outsiders on WGN America. It reached 5.5 million viewers across all airings, a promising start to the 13-episode series.
What’s your connection to the Hudson Valley?
I grew up in Missouri, but I lived in Brooklyn for 20 years. During all that time I was coming up to the Hudson Valley for escape. Ten years ago, I decided to buy a house. I was looking around Hudson but I couldn’t afford it, so I asked my real estate agent about the other side of the river. She said, “It’s not as nice, but that’s where my house is.” I love Athens.
Creator Peter Mattei (left); at right, the stars of Outsiders: Joe Anderson as Asa, Gillian Alexy as G’winveer, and Ryan Hurst as Lil’ Foster
Are you still living here?
I consider the Hudson Valley to be one of my homes, but I haven’t been able to get there lately. I bought a house in Austin and started working on this show. Since then I’ve lived on and off in Los Angeles, and then in Pittsburgh during production.
Why didn’t you shoot in New York? The mountains look much the same there.
I wish we could have. It would have been way more expensive. We had to shoot in a city where the crew resides, and Pittsburgh is at the tip of the Appalachians, just 45 minutes from West Virginia.
How did you get the idea for Outsiders?
I saw a documentary [The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia] about an outlaw family in West Virginia, and that started me thinking about these kinds of people. Then I read an article about a mixed race people who still live in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains. They used to be known as the Jackson Whites, but now call themselves the Ramapough Mountain Indians. They are descendants of Native Americans, runaway slaves, Hessian deserters, and 19th-century European immigrants. They aren’t completely off the grid like the Farrells, but they are very separate. I was interested in exploring that: What would happen if a separate people had to become more integrated into our culture in order to better defend themselves against it?
How did the series become a reality?
The idea had been cooking around for a while. I decided I would take the time and write it as a “spec” script, as opposed to pitching the idea. So I wrote it really fast over a few weekends in Athens. I sent it to my agent, who is also the agent for Paul Giamatti [best known for his role in Sideways]. Giamatti has a production company, he loved it and signed on. Then Peter Tolan [producer of Analyze This] came onboard. We took it to different networks, and decided to go with WGN America. They’re young and fresh and wanted to take a risk. They wanted to shoot all 13 episodes, rather than just shoot the first as a pilot.
The show deals with a strong people whose way of life is threatened, but they lack political power. Do you see parallels in our society?
We’re not trying to preach a position, but we live in a political world and tempers are flaring. We wanted to make the show timeless. It is about family and nature. But at the same time it is about the haves and the have-nots.
I was born in Ferguson, Missouri, which has changed so much in the last 15 years. The  shooting of Michael Brown [by a policeman] was a dramatic example of the powerless and the powerful. The show is about that, too. When we first meet the Farrells they don’t have any guns; that changes. How do you fight for something that you want if you don’t have any power?
The “mean old devils down in town” are outsiders to the Farrells, but the Farrells are outsiders to the people in Blacksburg.
Everybody in this world is, on some level, an outsider. Everybody is striving for some sense of freedom. And everyone feels like someone is denying them that freedom. I’m an outsider. Before I sold this show I never lived in LA. I had written a bunch of pilots, but I never had a show on the air. I wasn’t in the system. They actually liked that.
Have you ever met anyone like the Farrells?
The Farrells are a fantasy, but if you get up in the Catskills not far from Athens you can find people living the way people lived in Appalachia, away from the social mainstream. You rarely see them in the town. They come down once a year to the Athens Street Festival.
Do you think the Farrells might appeal to people because they live in a more natural way — more Stone Age than modern?
This is the big question the show brings up. We don’t live in proximity to each other. We move around from place to place and text each other instead of talking. That’s what the show is about: What’s a better way to live?
Catch the show on WGN America on Tuesdays at 9 p.m.