EXCLUSIVE: ‘Quarry’ Showrunner and Director Greg Yaitanes on a Whole Season of Backstory

One of the most pleasant surprises of the fall season has been Cinemax’s outstanding Southern crime drama Quarry, based on the series of novels by Max Allan Collins. Set in 1972 Memphis, the show begins with the return of Vietnam veteran Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green) under a cloud of suspicion of participating in a civilian massacre, as he works to rebuild his relationship with his wife Joni (Jodi Balfour) and weighs a job offer from a mysterious man called The Broker (Peter Mullan). I spoke with showrunner Greg Yaitanes, who also directed all 8 episodes, about the perils of getting drunk on the ‘70s, subverting audience expectations, and why money is never as big as people think.

Logan Marshall-Green and Jodi Balfour are both unfamiliar to me, and that really helped me to get lost in the world of the show that you’re building, so I’m curious about the casting process to find them.

Well, Logan predates me. He was involved in the project before me. But because he has no name recognition whatsoever, and no identifying aspect to him, it was literally like working with new faces, and to be able to have that to our advantage, and to be able to use that low profile that he’s kept. He’s been out there, he’s been working steadily, but he’s got a low profile, and so that was really essential in being able to instantly sink people into the ‘70s and let it melt away.

The great thing with working with Cinemax is [casting director] Alexa Fogel, who I collaborated with on Banshee, she did True Detective and The Wire and Oz and NYPD Blue – I mean, she’s terrific at finding new talent. Jodi was one of those people that she put on our radar, and Logan never actually read but we did a chemistry read between Joni and Mac as kind of the final thing to decide who was gonna play Joni, and Jodi just like – it was combustible, it happened right in front of my eyes, it was so crazy how good those two were together, their instant engagement and chemistry, and the authenticity to the world were to the point where I could let it disappear, really made that effective, so I appreciate you noticing that.

The chemistry between them is so important – it would be hard to buy a lot of the story without that. That first long take in the pilot, when Mac comes home, does so much to set that up and sort of explain it, and it’s such a deeply felt scene, rather than being like, sex because it’s Cinemax.

We were all on the same page about keeping it grounded. Logan would often want to make sure that his character had earned everything, and that was something that we all kept in check. We were very allergic to any kind of contrivance and ease in which these things would happen. I’ve got young kids, and I can’t get anyone out the door without a trainwreck of some kind, so we wanted to bring that into the rest of life.

In those first ten or 15 minutes, we’re trying to teach you how to watch the show: the second the body gets caught in the trees when he’s trying to get rid of it – that’s the kind of show it’s gonna be. It’s not gonna come easy for him, he’s not someone who can just take a beating and get right back up and keep going. Banshee was very much like that, I loved that and embraced that about Banshee, but you’re exactly right, it was very much grounded and real, and it was a great lens to try and approach the action and the violence, but more importantly it gave me a lot of permission for the relationship storylines, which is where my heart goes as a director.

I can’t remember another TV show that was set in Memphis, and the city is like another character. The music in particular makes the show stand out so much, and it makes each character so much more relatable. I’m thinking of that long-take scene again in the pilot, the music Joni has on when she’s cleaning the pool and thinks she’s alone – I feel like I know her better just because of that.

We gave everybody, as much as we could, a musical identity, and that was something that Cinemax was great about and pushed for as well. [Cinemax executive] Kary Antholis is such a lover of soul music, and talked at length about soul music being Mac’s comfort food. We built out the story of his mom, who exposed him to the quote-unquote black music of the time, and it’s unusual and one of the reasons why Mac is so colorblind, because he grew up around it. His mom was white, but she exposed him to soul music and gospel music and these things that were not common for a white upbringing at the time. It sets him apart, and gives him something unique, so when he gets together with his black friends and he can talk about Al Green versus Otis Redding like he does with Arthur, that’s great and is a deep insight into the character.

We did that all across the board. And there are some finer points that didn’t all make it into the final cut, where you got to see Joni’s musical identity more, like coming in on “Tupelo Honey” like you mentioned, or the fact that she covered Big Star, who were a Memphis band, as a reporter.

We worked with our music supervisors to really curate the B-sides, having artists you might be familiar with but tracks you don’t remember, didn’t recall, or are being exposed to for the first time, and we stayed away from all tropes of the ‘70s all across the board. Everywhere in the show we stayed away from the tropes, but particularly musically. I really wanted to make sure that it didn’t sound like anything that had been approached from that era in a long time.

There must have been some temptation to have one of the characters cross paths with Steve Cropper or Rufus Thomas or Elvis, Vinyl-style.

Everybody has a complicated relationship with Elvis, and you’re not gonna see much mention of him. This wasn’t about the Elvis Memphis. We thought about something like that, we had the conversation, but if anything smelled of being drunk on the ‘70s, we just stepped away from it. Elvis is one of those things that was obviously a part of Memphis but really wasn’t part of the culture of the story we were telling in Memphis, which from my experience there is very easy – if you don’t want to have an Elvis experience in Memphis, you can easily avoid it. No knock on Elvis. We all love Elvis.

I also appreciated the fashion, it’s definitely ‘70s fashion but for the most part it’s understated – except, as in real life, when it’s emphatically not. The flamboyant people are super flamboyant, like [Creedence], the big heavy dude we meet in episode 5.

Well, Patia Prouty, our costume designer, one of the reasons I like working with her is because there is a grounded sense of character, and working up from character, and one of the things we put our finger on was that things moved differently through the country then than they do now. Now the world is a smaller place, but then really fashion-wise, car-wise, cuisine-wise – the mid-to-late ‘60s is really the period that Quarry’s examining. It’s set in ‘72, but you think about your house: how many things in there are from 2016? Not probably a lot. So it was the same thing here. Most of what we did, nothing is off the rack in ‘72.

However, Creedence got to scratch that itch because his character and persona and larger-than-life aspect – he has a .357 Magnum because that’s the year Dirty Harry came out, and .357 Magnum sales went through the roof. He’s got the Elvis glasses, because those were in fashion. He’s got the tracksuit because he’s a heavier guy. He was modeling himself on Meat Loaf and Elvis in a character-motivated but still grounded way, it was part of his persona that we wanted to give him, whereas everybody else, I didn’t want to call attention to the Afros or the costuming. Tony Ward, who did our hair, and Patia Prouty, who did our costumes, those were really great talents to really recognize the way into this world was to stay grounded and not do anything that will distract. So we actually, as we were making it with a modern eye, didn’t do the big Afros, because they just looked like, absurd. You’re making something present day, even when you’re trying to recreate a period, so we really didn’t want to do anything that was going to pop your eye and then break the spell of what we were trying to create. That’s why I pushed Cinemax to not have a #QUARRY onscreen during this – I embraced that on Banshee, but I didn’t want to have anything that would be the penny in your hand that would pull you out of the era.

One of my favorite things in the season was in the fourth episode, where Mac tells Joni everything. It was totally unexpected – we’re so conditioned to Skyler White or Betty Draper or Carmela Soprano being there just to be the killjoy who everything has to be kept from, but it felt so true to what they were working through after the whole Cliff thing. It really feels like their arms are locked after that – like if they can get past Cliff, they can get past anything. Was that your intention?

The intention was definitely to be counterintuitive to how those reveals usually happen, and to get it out of the way, and to disarm the audience – “What the hell’s gonna happen? He’s told her everything!” – and the danger that further puts him in. The marriage is in constant peril because it’s always being strained.

I feel as though their arms are locked, but at the same time if you were to ask me I feel as though they don’t have – they’ve been through a trauma together, but the thing I always come back to is that neither of them really have the vocabulary to express themselves. She’s far more evolved than he is, and one of the things we talked about in episode actor to director was about the deficits that Mac has that Joni found in Cliff: Somebody interested in her music. Somebody exposing her to things. Somebody who had a sense of adventure. All these things that were absent from her time with Mac. And also someone who celebrated her.

We have a scene going up this week that was actually the original opening of episode 8, I loved it so much I didn’t want to see it perish so we’re putting it online, and I wrote a small article about it for Medium. It’s when Mac tells Joni, a year before the pilot, that he’s going back to war for a second time. You see everything you need to see. It was actually an audition scene that we ended up filming and trying to find a home for, but we couldn’t find the most organic spot for it. But you see how far Mac has evolved in the series. Even though he’s pretty hot-tempered and stubborn, you see how much he has tried to – the Mac we see a year before, that goes to war, is not the guy who’s sitting on the bathroom floor confessing. And the bathroom confession was especially impactful, in fact we shot it before the rest of the episode, before we went to the motel, so it was great to have the ending locked in so we knew what we were working toward.

Another thing that really jumps out about this show is your affiinity for the long takes. There’s the one in the pilot, there’s the scene in ‘Nam, there’s the scene with Joni and the Broker in the mirror, the shootout in the finale…

Thank you.

Woody Allen relied a lot on long master shots, but he always acknowledged it was because he was lazy and didn’t want to bother shooting close-ups. How did you arrive at this visual approach?

I put a little of a Woody Allen nod in the third episode, when Mac leaves the frame when he’s on the phone with Suggs and Joni, and I let some of that happen organically when it could. Our camera dogma was “Witness, but never anticipate.” Even though these things were incredibly well-choreographed down to every detail, we had to make it seem like they were happening for the first time. I didn’t want them to seem like oners – if they hit you, and you realized it, okay, but I also wanted you to build stronger relationship with each actor, and so everyone was on camera far more than most TV shows. If you think about your favorite TV show, they’re probably on your favorite actor half the time, and the other time you’re on somebody else. Here, you’re watching that dynamic and you’re eavesdropping in the room with them and bearing witness to the events that are taking place.

We pretty much have one long take every episode, and that wasn’t by design – there was something that fit that tool in our box, and a couple of things like Mac at the opening of episode 6, when he’s having that post-traumatic stress episode and we’re following Joni, and Mac’s running naked through the house and into the street, the attack on the bus, and Qu’on Ph’ang, those were the three things that hit me, and from there I branched out and approached the car chase as a oner, and coming home in episode 1 and 3 as a oner, the scene in the mirror in 7, so every episode has a moment like that.

It’s a really distinctive style, and really enjoyable. At the beginning of the season, it seemed like everything that happened in Vietnam was the backstory to the story, but now looking back at the season as a whole, it feels like this season is the backstory, and now the story can really get going.

The way I tried to explain it back to Max Allan Collins was, “this is the origin story of the character in your books.” And that’s what we’re examining in this series. If you’re familiar with the Quarry of the novels, he will get to be that guy, but that is not what we’re examining at this particular point, what we’re examining is his origin story, and so that’s exactly, exactly, exactly right what you just said. This entire season is the origin story of Quarry. This is how this guy came to be, how this guy who wanted to be a swim coach – an assistant swim coach – became a hit man for hire. That was dead on, so thank you for catching that! I’m so glad we had this conversation.

Right, I mean it’s so interesting how the Broker kind of brings him along, just one tiny step at a time.

You’re right, he’s trying to find a narrative that will click for Mac, which happens in episode 6. That’s why I handled the bus explosion the way I handled it, because that’s the moment where it all clicks for Mac. You’re exactly right, the Broker is like, “I’m gonna try this, I’m gonna try that, I’m gonna try this,” but nothing quite lands until he figures out to give him Linwood, and when he gives him Linwood, he has that purpose again. His addiction to war can be satiated now; he knows how to do it. The question the audience is asking themselves hopefully throughout the series is, Is Mac really reluctant, or does he want this at the same time, and that’s what I think really makes great television, and that’s the dilemma that I think we really answer by the end of the season.

It seems for a while like maybe the Broker really is a good guy, doing the world a favor by getting rid of these lowlifes. But then it turns out no, he’s just a heroin dealer.

No, he’s just artfully manipulating everybody.

There were two lines of dialogue that really struck me, that I wonder if I could get your thoughts on. The first one was spoken twice: “Money is never as big as people think.”

Yeah that was a great line, the guys obviously came up with that and it was a bit in response to a story: I was working with Steven Bochco on a series called Over There, and the soldiers find a million dollars being hidden, which anyone could take, but a million dollars doesn’t look like much. I took my son to the U.S. Treasury Museum of Printing and Engraving and they show you a million dollars in tens, and it’s a little square. It’s not as big as people think. And people think, “Oh, a million dollars, let it rain down on me, it’s so much money,” and it’s physically not that much money. It was such a great line, because everyone has that reaction: “Really? REALLY?”

When you pull any one of the guys’ lines out of context and examine it, there’s so much beautiful writing in this show, and it’s a privilege to be able to have that writing and to be able to shape this world was a gift. It was definitely one of the more rewarding creative experiences of my career.

The other line that caught me, it was a total throwaway but it seemed like it summed up the moral struggle that Mac was going through: “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.”

(Laughs) Yeah! Even the Faulkner thing, the callback to Four Roses, there’s so many great lines, and what’s great is when people are on Twitter pulling lines of Buddy’s out of the show, I just love seeing that.

Oh, Buddy! I knew the actor, Damon Herriman, from Justified, where he played basically the dumbest guy in the history of the world, and he’s very much the opposite of that on your show. Just a stunning performance from him, he’s like the heart of the whole thing.

He was a find. You know, I wasn’t familiar with Justified, I had developed Longmire, and at the time I was developing it Justified was just coming out, or was announced, and I was kind of staying away so it didn’t unintentionally influence me and then I never got to it, even though my costume designer designed both shows. So when Damon came on, he floored me, because Buddy’s leading a triple life. Everybody’s leading a double life, but Buddy’s leading a triple. Not only is he a hit man, but he’s a gay hit man in the South, and that sequence you see in episode 8 is particularly poignant – it does not even do the research justice, how sad it was, that they were relegated to these abandoned warehouses and derelict buildings as though they were just outcasts and deviants, and it was horrible. Horrible. Sadly, I don’t think much has changed.

It’s terrible.

Yeah it’s terrible, I mean, I’ve worked in the South for five years, and I’m not a political person, but you just feel that certain frequencies you are addressing in the show are hidden under more layers but are very much there.

Do you think you’ll get another season?

It’ll all be up for discussion. We know what that season looks like if it happens, and we’ll see if we can get the band back together, but I’d love to go back to the world for sure.

All 8 episodes of Quarry are available on-demand to Cinemax subscribers.

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