Bryn Pryor and his team want to bring steampunk to the big screen on a new, huge scale: Their film Cowboys and Engines has robots, zeppelins, space travel, and mysterious gadgets galore, all set in a detailed alternative history. I got to ask Bryn a few questions about alt history, world-building, and the film itself.
Just to start off with everyone’s favorite question: How would you define steampunk?
I define steampunk as Victorian adventure/sci-fi mashup with an eye towards the fact that aesthetics are as important as function. That being said, I’m different from many steampunk fans in that it’s important to me that I can believe everything really works. The look and feel of gear and wardrobe is important, but it also needs to be functional. Often, I see steampunk cosplayers and think their designs are pretty, and would look great in stills, but the minute they have to move, it becomes apparent that the gear is completely impractical. I just don’t buy it. So my version of steampunk is a bit more gritty and stripped-down.
In the world of Cowboys and Engines, North America is split into five different nations – can you tell us a bit about what each of those are, and how much of each we get to see?
The five nations of C&E’s North America break down according to the alternate history of the world I’m trying to build, and I’d like to think they make sense in that context. We have the United States, which is the entire northeast, extending as far south as Charleston, SC, and as far west as Denver and Cheyenne.
The Confederate States are smaller than we are used to, including much of the south, but not Florida, Louisiana, or the southern portions of Alabama and Georgia, which are controlled by Neuvo Hispanola, or New Spain.
This latter nation is one of the oldest on the continent. In our timeline, Spain never lost control of Florida, and there was no Seven Years War. Instead, Spain and France fought The Mississippi River War, with France ceding control of Louisiana and the southern Mississippi basin to Spain.
Texas, (as has often been imagined by speculative writers dating back to before Texas was actually a state) is a nation unto itself, officially the Republic of Texas, stretching down into northern Mexico, and encompassing the Oklahoma panhandle, New Mexico, and much of Arizona.
Everything else, from southern Mexico to Alaska, including Idaho, Nevada, and much of Utah, is the vast, powerful and massively wealthy Calexican Empire.
Much of what is currently Canada is hotly contested in an ongoing war between the French and British, but is not a nation, per se, in our 1876.
Politically, North America is a mess. Our civil war started earlier, in 1858, and is still raging in 1876, taking a terrible toll on both the United and Confederate States. Texas, while technically neutral, supports the CSA with money, weapons and advisers. New Spain, while being a close ally with Texas, supports the USA in a similar fashion, fearing expansionist aggression from the CSA should they secure their independence.
The US also gets financial support from France, where Napoleon’s son is still Emperor of France, and King of Italy and Prussia.
The Calexican Empire pretends neutrality, but in fact works against all the other players in the region, hoping to destabilize Texas, the US and the CSA so that it might take advantage of their weakened positions and expand outright. The only true alliance the Empire has is with Britain, and it is largely due to gold from Calexico’s coffers, and the Empire’s military aid, that Britain has maintained its independence from Napoleon II.
What’s the technology in this world like? Favorite gadget/machine?
The tech of this world is clever, but clunky. Electricity is still in it fledgling state, but much steam- and clockwork-based tech is built around the Tesla coil, the work not of Nikola Tesla, but of his father, Milutin, who abandoned the priesthood at a young age in our world, deciding instead to study natural philosophy (aka, the newly-named “science”) at Charles University in Prague. There, along with Professor Nicholas Timéon, Tesla created a small device that exploits barely-understood natural electrical reactions to create intense heat for several months without fuel.
Eventually, refinements to this device would allow a single Tesla coil to remain in use for two-three years without changing. In essence, without really understanding its principles, Tesla and Timéon stumbled upon nuclear plasma fusion and created what amount to nuclear batteries. These now power much of the technology in the world, despite being dangerous when handled incorrectly.
My favorite gadget is probably Professor Timéon’s Temporal Engine, which is central to our story. However, while I can tell you it isn’t a time machine, I can’t really reveal what it does…
What’s your process like for creating an alternate history like this? Where do you start to develop such a detailed world for such a relatively short story?
My process is sort of ridiculously complex. I approach worlds like this the way Lucas approached the world of the original Star Wars, which is to say, I don’t want to explain it to the audience, I just want to drop them in it and have it feel intuitive and real. The way you do that is to have so much detail informing the story and the world that the characters just feel at home. As long as the characters understand what’s going on, and why, the audience will generally understand without having it spelled out for them.
However, as I mentioned, I’m a stickler for things working. I’m the top cop on the bullshit squad, and if I don’t believe it, it doesn’t work for me. So I couldn’t just imagine a “different” 1876; I had to backtrack and figure out why it’s different. Where, in history, did various elements diverge to create this altered timeline? So I kept moving back, step-by-step, tweaking and adjusting elements in history that could logically have led to where the world is, and it turned into a huge, twisting rabbit-hole of detail. It turns out my timeline starts to diverge in the early 12th century, when several pieces of technology that led to the 12th century Renaissance arrive from China a few decades sooner than they actually did, including the blast furnace and the sailor’s compass.
Does any of this bear directly on the movie? No, but it lets me construct our new world on a strong foundation that might not literally work (science fiction rarely does), but functions well enough to suspend disbelief pretty painlessly for the viewer.
How much of the historical back story will we see on-screen?
A lot of the near-term historical background is referenced. We understand that the Civil War is ongoing, and we get a sense of its ravages when we see the Myrmidon; My two leads encounter a renegade mechanical soldier that has wandered away from some battlefield, possibly years ago, and it is horrible. It’s the corpse of a fallen infantryman that has been mechanized, armored, and sent back into battle, partly as a psychological weapon. To me, this indicates how nearly two decades of war have both depleted available manpower, and degraded the morality of the combatants. It’s an example of how the history informs the action, without being implicit.
The fact that Cade Ballard, my main character, saved President Lincoln from assassination when he was Texas’ ambassador to the US is important in that it has made Cade a celebrity, something he very much wants to avoid. The Calexican Empire’s wealth features prominently in the plans of Dr. Clay, the antagonist, in a way I’d rather not specify. And the scarcity of railroads in the West and Midwest — due to the popularity and speed of airships — allows us to have only scattered, isolated, tiny towns between Dodge City and major ports like San Francisco.
Again, these are just examples of how the history gets presented. I never sit the audience down and give them a history lesson, because who would want to sit through it? But it’s always there as a backbone to the story, and I think the narrative would suffer without it.
You say on your website that Hollywood has failed miserably at bringing steampunk to the screen, and I was wondering if you had any thoughts on why that is?
Frankly, I think Hollywood fails at most genres because they are fostered by studio execs who don’t understand what drives them in the first place. It would be like me making decisions about haute couture when I haven’t got the slightest notion what that world is about. Also, when there’s a ton of money on the line — take, for instance, the execrable Wild, Wild West — studios try too hard to broaden the appeal. In their minds, this means appealing to the lowest common denominator, and the result is always shit.
The Kickstarter campaign for the movie ends on March 9th, so if you’re interested in seeing it happen, you can support it here!