“Anybody that comes through here tells us it's the hardest thing they've ever done”
No one's forcing Greg Yaitanes to include all that sex and violence in “Banshee.”
The drama about a thief posing as the sheriff of Banshee, Pa., is Cinemax's top-rated show, and has helped it rebrand itself as a home for original programming in the vein of corporate cousin HBO. The show, starring Antony Starr as fake sheriff Lucas Hood, is filled with twists, writhing bodies, and bloodshed — sometimes all at once.
But that's in keeping with the genre. Yaitanes, an Emmy winner for directing “House,” says there's no mandate from Cinemax for a certain amount of skin or broken bones.
“They want to make kind of pulpy noir dramas where sex and violence come into play,” said Yaitanes (left), the main director of “Banshee” as well as the showrunner. “We're just honoring those kinds of scenes. And if we're going to do them, we're going to go all out.”
Cinemax is getting lots of bang for its buck with “Banshee.” Yaitanes, an investor in Twitter and other companies, is known for financially savvy. His production company is called One Olive after an American Airlines initiative to remove just one olive from every on-board meal. It saved the company $40,000. Yaitanes looks for similar small cuts that pay off big.
We talked with him about directing Friday's Season 2 finale, the unlikely inspiration for Banshee, and why we should stop calling it “Skinemax.”
TheWrap: If you're going to watch one episode of Banshee, it seems like this episode is the one to watch.
Greg Yaitanes: Yeah. If you've not watched anything but the pilot to “Banshee,” you can enjoy the finale. It finishes the story that we started 20 episodes ago.
And starts another storyline.
It seems like this would be a really difficult show to direct because there are a lot of sex scenes, which are usually slow, and a lot of violent scenes, which are usually fast.
Finding directors for this show has been particularly challenging. Anybody that comes through here tells us it's the hardest thing they've ever done. Everything they've learned up until that episode, they needed all of those tools to direct “Banshee.” I wouldn't want to throw someone in that has never directed before.
It's more like indie television than normal television. We start mining… we have a Norwegian, I've got someone from Denmark. We look around the world for people making interesting stuff that is “Banshee”-esque and is made on a similar schedule. Ole Christian Madsen, who has directed for us, hasn't directed American television before. But his movies are shot in about the same amount of time as two episodes of “Banshee” are shot, which is how we do the show. We've actually had less luck when we actually hire someone who has done a million hours of American television.
We all know the “Skinemax” nickname that Cinemax is trying to shake.
I think they've shaken it. People — like this interview, or other things… people just keep wanting to throw it out there. [Laughs. ] It's been two years now. I'd like to see people let it go, and accept the fact that when Steven Soderbergh's making a series for you, or Alan Ball's making a series for you, they're clearly trying to rebrand themselves if people would just let them.
We've heard about HBO encouraging nudity. Is there a mandate to include a certain amount of nudity on a Cinemax show? Or a mandate for a certain amount of violence?
No. We really don't operate from a kind of mandate. The fact that we can have adult content in our series is just another tool. … We don't really go through and do a nudity pass or a violence pass. [Laughs.]
Our violence is more heightened. One of our writers last year said, ‘These are real toads in an imaginary pond.’ If you think of it that way, you'll enjoy your experience.
And people are like, “That's not realistic” and “That's not plausible” — I don't care. This is all plausible and realistic within the world we're created. If you and I got in as many fights as Lucas Hood would we be still standing? Of course not. That's the story that we're telling.
This seems like a show that tries to have equal parts male and female nudity, to the extent that you're allowed to. To the extent that you're allowed to show naked guys, you do. Is that a conscious decision?
I lean toward a more European approach to how we show things, which is a witnessed approach. If you're witnessing something, you're going to see both people nude. You're going to see it as much as how it is. I didn't want to over-romanticize it and make it into anything that it wasn't. Anything you see is driven by that choice. It's not driven by, ‘I want to see Antony Starr's ass here.’ It's completely based on what would be happening based on how these characters connect sexually.
Carrie and Lucas have a different kind of sexuality than Lucas and Siobhan have, which is different than what Carrie has with Gordon, which is different than what Lili has with Jason Hood. They're all different things and we just try to represent what the story is telling us to do, using sexuality and nudity as we would anything else to tell the story.
How do you shoot a sequence like the one with Job last episode, which ended with him getting hit by a cab, while still being fiscally shrewd?
We go into the start of the season knowing what all 10 episodes are and what they're going to be about. We're able to pick out battles. And we also spend a lot of time — this goes to the “one olive” — getting the invisible things out of the show: the things that people won't miss that have tremendous financial impact. Every dollar that we save just goes right back on screen. We're doing those things so that we can have the extra day of shooting to do that sequence or to get the visual effects that we need for the end of that sequence.
And we also empower our team to participate in that. … I have to have ambassadors of the one olive everywhere throughout the production. Everybody is surprised at how much more they get when they participate in it. When you work from that place you build a trust so that when people really need something, versus really want something, you know how to handle it. My goal is always to put it on screen. We only have 10 episodes to make our impression. That's why we're paperless. That's why we use video conferencing the way we do. Nobody thinks that any one thing is expensive, but when you multiply it across a hundred days of shooting, it ends up adding up to real numbers that add days of shooting. And days of shooting equal bigger scope.
You grew up in Wellesley, Mass., which is one of the nicest places on earth. Did growing up in Wellesley make you long for a town with all these secrets? Or did you find that Wellesley also had its secrets?
[Laughs]. I've modeled a lot of Banshee off of Wellesley in terms of its scope. In terms of the size of Banshee, in terms of the area of Banshee… The fact that Banshee is a little more isolated allows us to have the Kinaho Tribe, the Amish community, and kind of transport them out to the middle of nowhere.
But in terms of the functioning aspects – they have a hospital, they have the projects, they have higher-end places like where the Hopewells are. There are Ma and Pa businesses and you can go to the clean sides and you can go to the more sketchy sides. And there are lots of ponds and woods.
It is very connected to my upbringing. That town for sure had its secrets. Anything that is going on in Banshee I'm sure was going on in Wellesley. There's no Kai Proctor in Wellesley that I know about, but everyone's got their secrets.
But you know, Wellesley was a beautiful town. … I have a lot of affection for it the same way that I'd love to live in a town like Banshee, with all that action going on.