Interview: 'Quarry' Showrunner Greg Yaitanes On The One-Take Shot That Will Top 'True Detective'

Fans of Max Allan Collins have enjoyed a dozen stories of Quarry, the Vietnam veteran who becomes a hit man in the '70s, with another on the way. This fall, they can see the charater come to life in their own homes with Cinemax's new series Quarry. Logan-Marshall Green plays Mac Conway, dubbed Quarry by the gangster who blackmails him into meeting him at a rock quarry to take his assignments. Mac wants a peaceful life with his wife Joni (Jodi Balfour) but pressures of the war, and kidnapping attempts made on Joni, make that difficult.

Michael D. Fuller and Graham Gordy created Quarry with veteran TV director Greg Yaitanes running the show and directing the first season's eight episodes. Yaitanes also ran Banshee for Cinemax and his directing credits include shows like Lost, Heroes, and Alias. I spoke with Yaitanes by phone from the set of an episode of Underground to discuss Quarry as well as his developing Discovery Channel series Manifesto, the first season of which will tell the story off Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. 

How did you move up from episode director to showrunner?

I started doing this on House when Katie Jacobs stepped aside. I learned the value of the partnership that I could have with the writers, so David Shore and I were pretty much manning those last few seasons. Then officially coming into the role on Banshee which developed into a bit of a niche for me which is coming in to produce young writers. In the case of Banshee it was untraditional to have somebody that wasn't a writer be running a show, but again it was more steered towards world building. Jonathan [Tropper] was a phenomenal writer. He didn't need another writer to supervise him. He needed someone to come physically build the world around him. That worked extremely well so Cinemax brought me into the mix on Quarry. I fell in love with the material and came on to shepherd that and again to world build. Looking ahead with Manifeso, same kind of circumstances for Discovery Channel. Young, unproduced writer, clearly phenomenally talented, Andrew Sodroski. I'm there to world build and then ultimately build in my obsolescence on the show. It's kind of the best of everything.

For Discovery it's also for a network that's new to scripted series.

Yeah, that's also something, because I have a good amount of experience on the floor, and Andrew is clearly a talent, that was a model that they could get their heads around. I really credit Cinemax for celebrating the role of the director and the importance of it. What ends up happening is you've got this experience that's kind of a hybrid of film and television. It's not exclusively a writer's medium like TV hasn't been in the past. It's not exclusively a director's medium like film can often be. It's this real hybrid of partnership and collaboration. So I like to pride myself on that and that experience for the writer's to keep them safe and protected and make sure their voice doesn't get trampled on.

Quarry Greg Yaitanes Interview

Is the world building of Quarry a little more subtle than some of the other shows? It's a period piece but it's not lots of things that draw your attention to, "Look! It's the '70s!"

I'm so glad you noticed that. It's funny because I went from Quarry to I'm doing an episode of Underground and going from that to Manifesto which is set in the '90s. So I'll be very excited when present day comes back around. I didn't know how good I had it on Banshee. It takes enormous effort for all of us and the team to create something that you don't notice, or disappears. That was very carefully manicured all throughout the process. I'm deeply appreciative of your comment because we had a phrase or motto. We had to keep each other from getting drunk on the '70s. We stayed away from the tropes either musically or visually. For me, as a director, I went back to films that were actually released in 1972 or shot in 1972 just to get the feeling because then, those were present day and they were treated like present day. I've often said the greatest period film was Blade Runner. Science-fiction being a period unto itself and Harrison Ford is not impressed that his car flies because cars fly. That's the same way we approached it. A record player and a rotary phone and those things are not particularly special or ironic or anything. They're just there and part of the tapestry.

We made sure that this was made with a modern eye. It felt of the films of the era but still made by contemporary filmmakers. So it had its feet in Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, Death Wish, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and in present day, Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blue Valentine. It's able to dip its feet in both sides of it. Hopefully the result is a spell that never gets broken. You're engaged and the period melts away and you're left with the characters and the great writing.

Are you gratified that "world building" has become a phrase that fans use now, so they appreciate the work that goes into it?

I think so. I think as TV has become more sophisticated and the scope of TV, you really need people that can come in and world build. I know what I do well and I also know how to guide a writer to shape a season and a story. So what ends up happening is a really good partnership of each other's strengths. I do not feel that you have to be a writer to be a world builder. I feel like that's the genesis of the world and then someone needs to make it into a reality. So I'm glad that people are recognizing that and appreciating that in big scale television which is what I enjoy working on.

Looking back, was a show like Heroes a good example of world building from the pilot?

I think that was outstanding. Dave Semel who did the pilot, I think there you see a great example of a big idea being physically realized and then carrying that torch episodically was thrilling. The show was very popular in its day, in its moment. Again, it's that great collaboration because one doesn't exist without the other. As much as Tim [Kring] created that, I think David Semel needs credit for building the world with him.

If people have read the Max Allan Collins novels, are there still new twists in the story?

Yes. What I tell people that have read the novels is: consider this an origin story of the novels. I think that was one of the things that really came to light. Max wrote an episode for us and in the process said something interesting, which is, "You guys have really nuanced this period. It's a period of time that I stayed away from. I specifically didn't write to this period in Mac's life because it has an enormous amount of complexity. I was really interested in the hard boiled version of that. This is really great to see how he got that way." Then I grabbed onto that narrative as a way to really message his fans or people that really liked the books. If you enjoy them, while there is some material taken from the first novel, it's largely an origin story.

Quarry Greg Yaitanes Interview

Is the plan to catch up with the books at some point?

I think in success, in the future, the books provide a great roadmap and template. Exactly which book, in talking about season two we've pulled from a number of books because ultimately, I think in a pulp novel, we've established now a template that needs other layers of complexity and human struggle that may not be present in all the books, but then we can take plot from various sources that we've got access to. Max has been so prolific with that character, he's given multiple seasons of plot. I think the human trajectory would follow the work we've been doing in season one.

I think viewers will be impressed by the car chase filmed from within Quarry's car. Was that a difficult sequence to pull off?

Yeah, actually we cut a very cool behind the scenes of that sequence. In grounding the pulp and grounding the action, we looked for ways that action could be presented in a fresh, interesting way and pull some cinematic references and came to this idea that we were going to do this car chase all from inside the car with Mac. It was not going to be particularly high speed, but it would be more organic in what it would feel like to be in that situation. So yeah, working out the actual choreography of the shot, there's a stuntman actually driving the car on top but Logan is in there smashing into the other cars. That particular action sequence also speaks to the visual approach which was the long take. Every episode lands on one, sometimes two long takes and ultimately culminating to this very big piece which I don't want to spoil that's coming in the finale. It's basically like a nine minute unbroken take that we did.

So topping the True Detective oner?

You know, I think what they did was terrific and was complex and nuanced. I admired that achievement and what was pulled off for the scope and scale of what was accomplished was pretty impressive. Hopefully, I tried to do those to effect of disappearing again. They're not very showy and they just kind of start to dawn on you. Like Mac's homecoming is a six-minute unbroken take in the pilot. Hopefully by the time you realize that, you're almost through the sequence, that we haven't cut.

When Logan flies into a rage, do you have to direct him?

We actually had a lot of careful discussions about that. So it's directed in the sense that Logan and I page turn every script and go through every scene including scenes he's not in, to really understand, especially since we shot all eight episodes together as one complete [shoot]. The scene in the rock quarry, for example, was the last day of shooting. Keeping all that straight required that we really sit down and map that out. We mapped some of those outbursts so there would not be too many of them or that it would end up having this critical mass of the character. But we also had to show the character's evolution. I'd done everything right in terms of casting and the homework. There's very little to be said on the actual day of. In directing all eight episodes, the amount of backstock we all had with each other was one of the real great byproducts of directing the whole season. Watching the actors and the cast, all of us being able to lean on each other because we knew we were all in there day in, day out. Because the drama of this has so much to do with Mac's marriage and how delicate a thread that is held together by, it was important that we all keep having each other's back in the process. Having that time to have that dialogue was great.

Quarry Greg Yaitanes Interview

When Joni falls on the worms in episode three, was it difficult to coordinate? Did Jodi ever miss the worms?

It's funny because it was originally written as crickets. We had a really hard time wrangling the crickets and that whole concept was going to be problematic, so we landed on worms. Any time that scene got read, there always was this good gross-out factor that people responded to. So when we weren't going to do crickets, we had to make sure we had to find something equally disgusting to fall into and we came up with the earthworms. We only had one good shot at it. We didn't want to kill any worms in the process so it was a whole dance. No, it was great. Vanessa, her stunt double, took the actual fall and then we covered Jodi in worms. Movie magic, I think it all worked out.

What can we expect from Manifesto?

Manifesto is the untold story about the guy who caught the Unabomber. What's great about that is that Ted Kaczynski and his arrest and the story of the Unabomber hasn't been told yet because nobody has told it from this angle. It's really about one of the great unsung heroes of the case that pioneered a whole new way of crime solving, which is through forensic linguistics. Ted's a character in it. The Unabomber investigation is meticulously shown and all the stranger than fiction aspects to that story will be up there for people and dramatized. It's been pretty great and we're currently on the hunt for Ted Kaczynski at the moment in casting.

Is it just one season then?

Yeah, it would be an anthology that Discovery is starting. The first one is Manifesto.

Did you feel satisfied with getting to wrap up Banshee?

I did. I did. I shot Banshee concurrent with Quarry so I couldn't be physically as day to day as I was the previous three seasons. I still did post-production. Jonathan and I, the kind of central story of it for season four was an idea I had a couple years earlier, so my fingerprints were on it. I didn't know when I had finished directing on season three, turning my sights on Quarry would result in me not being able to finish Banshee out, because of the way the schedules ended up lining up. But I was glad that Cinemax gave both us as filmmakers and Sam an opportunity to finish it gracefully and with respect for the fan base. So I hope people enjoyed the finale. I thought it was a great finale.

***

Quarry premieres Friday, September 9 at 10PM on Cinemax.