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The Boldest Show You Haven't Heard Of (Yet): Showrunner Greg Yaitanes Talks Cinemax's Pulp Saga 'Banshee'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire January 2, 2014 at 2:24PM

"Banshee" showrunner Greg Yaitanes tells Indiewire about the upcoming second season of the Cinemax action drama, whether there's ever been a moment on the show that he thought was too extreme and how the storytelling extends onto multiple platforms in a way few other series manage.
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Antony Starr in 'Banshee'
Gregory Shummon/Cinemax Antony Starr in 'Banshee'

There may be no series on television that takes as much pleasure in the freedoms of cable as "Banshee," the first original series produced solely for HBO sister channel Cinemax. A joyously pulpy saga executive produced by Alan Ball ("True Blood"), "Banshee" is an action drama about an ex-con (Antony Starr) who arrives in the small town of Banshee, PA in search of the woman (Ivana Miličević) for whom he went to jail, and who ends up assuming the identity of Lucas Hood, the newly hired sheriff who gets killed before he ever has a chance to claim the job.

In addition to the hardened criminals trying to pass themselves off as law enforcement or turn over a new leaf as wives and mothers, "Banshee" turns out to have its fair share of interesting complications, including a formerly Amish criminal kingpin (Ulrich Thomsen) and his Native American rival (Anthony Ruivivar). Toss in the brutal Ukrainian mobster (Ben Cross) who's wants nothing more than revenge and the arrival of our protagonist's transvestite computer hacker former accomplice (Hoon Lee) and you have a crazy but far from brainless melange of sex, violence and maybe even a little redemption.

Greg Yaitanes
Greg Yaitanes

2014 is set to be a big year for Cinemax, which will be home to "The Knick," the Clive Owen period drama that will serve as Steven Soderbergh's first project since he announced his retirement/hiatus from filmmaking. Season two of "Banshee" will kick that year off on Friday, January 10th with a new arc that finds the series exploring its emotional side while never holding back on the intense action. Indiewire caught up with series showrunner and executive producer Greg Yaitanes, a veteran TV director as well as an investor in the startup world, to talk about the new season, what's next for Lucas and how "Banshee" has been expanding its storytelling universe across platforms.

It's not really spoiling anything to say that season two finds Lucas sticking around as sheriff of Banshee. What would you describe his relationship to the role at this point? For a man who stumbled into this situation as a convenient way of getting to stay close to his ex, he seems to be getting pretty dedicated to the job.

You're bringing up a real thematic point that we've been saying in the writers' room and talking about through the season -- if you're a guy pretending to be the sheriff and you're doing the job of the sheriff, are you really pretending to be the sheriff anymore? So I think that coming of age really happens in full this season, especially in the third episode, and carries on.

This season is very much a hybrid of Lucas having to approach things from the point of view of the sheriff, but it makes him think, because he's still the criminal who wants to exact justice. We find him being restored into the position in a very unusual and "Banshee"-like way, and we quickly see how Lucas has to react when we have this murder mystery that needs to be solved starting in the third episode.

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Lucas is an interesting character in that he's the toughest guy imaginable, but also a real romantic (albeit one who's slept with most of the show's female characters) -- he's been doing this for love.

That love that keeps him there -- he came there for Carrie (Miličević) but he stayed there for Deva (Ryann Shane, playing the teenage daughter Lucas never knew he had) in a way. The Carrie-Lucas relationship is really recalibrated, and that's part of what's keeping him in Banshee right now is his daughter and being able to have this connection -- although a peripheral connection because she doesn't know the truth about who he is. That's really the thing that's keeping him there.

And the season opener picks up only a few days after the [season one] finale, and he's still very raw and is still connected to Carrie. But as we will quickly find, a new relationship is going to start for Lucas that's going to take his heart.

One of my favorite crazy sequences in the first season was the one involving the flashback to the Albino in the prison, and there's a scene early in this new season involving cow parts being used for vengeance. Has there ever been a time when you felt -- that's too much, that's too extreme?

"We really haven't come up 'with what's the craziest thing we can do?'"

That line, I still think we're pretty far away from it. We do push,  but we're very much about not trying to outdo ourselves. I think that's a trap that a lot of shows can get into as seasons go on. Our thing is everything is as organically escalating when we come back into this season. The structure of the season will surprise people where it's going because you can't predict what's going to happen from one scene to the next, let alone one episode to the next.

In terms of how far are we willing to go, we really let that be driven by the characters and the situations we find them in and then we find a particularly good "Banshee"-like way to resolve it. It's usually not the other way around. We really haven't come up with "what's the craziest thing we can do?" It's like, okay, Alex (Ruivivar) is going to get revenge at the slaughterhouse, and by the end of the conversation I'm taking meetings on having prosthetic cow's head in front of the shot. It's the meetings that crack me up.

The show definitely has a sense of the rules it exists by in its own stylized universe -- I was wondering how much you guys set them up or define them. Lucas, for instance, can bounce back from getting beat up more than a regular human being would even be able to survive.

I don't know even if it's something that gets spoken. With [writer/co-creator/executive producer] Jonathan Tropper, too, it's like a compass where you just know. Having observed the writers' room and contributed to some degree to story this season and the next, what you end up looking at is -- it's a voice and a tone and we know it when were there. We don't set out to be fearlessly over the top as you described us, it just ends up happening organically out of Jonathan's compass and where we are willing to go because we have a lot of reverence for the action films we grew up on. Those things come into play and we just take it a step further.

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Are there particular films you see as touchstones or inspirations for the series?

It's interesting because this season especially we structured completely differently from last year. Jonathan, within episodes, structures them in a lot of ways like "The Empire Strikes Back." One of the things that he says he loved about that movie is all the characters are in different places and you never knew where you were going to go next. What's going on with him, am I going with Luke? The idea that you could move around and surprise people with every turn you took, that's definitely a tonal inspiration.

For us, we looked last season to "A History of Violence" and "Narc" and "The French Connection", things that were very visceral character pieces. And in some sense, the slightly heightened nature of Tarantino's films. We had a Twitter shoutout from Samuel Jackson. We were thrilled.

Trieste Kelly Dunn and Demetrius Grosse in 'Banshee'
Gregory Shummon/Cinemax Trieste Kelly Dunn and Demetrius Grosse in 'Banshee'

The fight scenes in "Banshee" are very visceral and memorable, and I wanted to ask about your approach to them, especially with the ones involving women -- they're not staged in any way as softer than the ones involving the men.

Jonathan and I love Jason Statham films. We also love the old John Carpenter films like "Big Trouble in Little China," "They Live" and things like that, so we had moments where we were like, "We're going to do a man-woman fight in episode eight of season one. If we're going to do it, let's do it. Lets make it the best man-woman fight put to screen." Marcus Young, our fight coordinator -- he is a phenomenal talent, and the way they work is great. If there's anybody I need to pull back, it's those guys. Sometimes it's like, A, I'm not going to shoot that and B, oh my god. [laughs] They'll just go. That's what I want from them. I want them to go all the way and I'll pull them back to where we're at with what's going on.

The end of episode two of this season is one of my favorite fight sequences because it's just so great. It's got this old Russ Meyer kind of throw back with them fighting in prison and the way we resolve [Banshee deputy] Siobhan's (Trieste Kelly Dunn) arc. They throw down as hard as the guys and I like how we don't discriminate in that regard. I'd say the women throw themselves into the choreography and the planning and the precision of those fights even harder than the guys. So, there's a nice friendly competition happening in the cast.

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In that installment, we get some of Siobhan's backstory. How much of the character histories have been mapped out -- and are we going to get a Job (Lee) episode?

We are! We are going to learn about Job this season in a big way. Actually the mythology of the show has been intricately planned out. Part of that came from Jonathan not having worked in television before and me having worked in television for so many years. I personally have frustration with shows that felt like they were winging it, that fans were hanging on every frame but there was no real game plan.

We went into season one with WelcomeToBanshee.com, our whole interactive site with all the backstories we do. We got an Emmy nomination for multi-platform storytelling last year and that's something we have a real passion for, Jonathan and I.

"Banshee" is a story -- where are all the places we can tell that story? In episode two of this season, there's an interactive companion piece at WelcomeToBanshee.com that takes you further, gives you further ammunition as to why Reese is a dangerous person who comes back, because we explore Siobhan's backstory online. We shot a whole companion series called "Banshee Origins" that involves the whole cast that goes across the 15 years that Lucas was in prison. So this year, our backstory, our origin content ties directly into the episodes. There's a full episode's worth of content online that's written by Jonathan and mostly directly by me and involves the whole cast. It's show-quality material. We use that content to fill out the stories we're telling in the actual show.

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And you shot those as you were shooting the episodes?

We are social in our DNA. If you look at a call sheet for "Banshee," there's going to be this scene from this episode, a "Banshee Origins" scene, and the "Banshee" Vine that we're making. All that will be on the page, and we work them in to part of the flow of how we shoot the show -- we don't think of them as some sort of other thing that isn't at the same quality and the care at which we make the show.

You were a showrunner on "House" before this, and I'm curious about what the difference in experience has been for you. You directed some very innovative episodes of "House," but what has it been like in terms of getting to start from scratch and be on a cable network with "Banshee"?

It's something that I look at and it's actually that thing that provides that affirmation of loving what I'm doing. "House" was an amazing experience, and it was incredible to be a part of the life of that series in different ways, from guest director to showrunner. Catching Cinemax at a crossroads of rebranding and starting its original programming -- I work in Silicon Valley startups, and one of the things I love is the excitement of coming in at ground level. That's something that's happened with Cinemax. It was fantastic to come to a place where there were no rules, and there was the full creative freedom of working in cable and telling this big story across this huge canvas.

Part of my success in the business has been being able to run my shows like a business, and treat them as fiscally responsibly as I could possibly treat them. I love the streamlining of Cinemax -- there isn't a lot of the redundancy that I found in other aspects of television. It's a very different experience, but a lot of those boundary-pushing episode of "House" really lent themselves well to the way I approach the scope of "Banshee."

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Do you see "Banshee" as having a particular underlying theme? Is it a coming of age story, as you mentioned earlier?

One of my favorite love stories is "Rocky." The love story is an aspect of this that isn't what's at the foreground for people, and that's one of the things that I love. "Banshee" is at its core this intense character drama, and it has this candy-coated genre shell that allows us to tell these great stories with these great characters.

For me, I get to touch on the human condition and the things that most action films don't get to touch on. Especially this season -- episode five is one of my favorites this year, because it's so out of the box and a departure, but it thematically catches what our show is about, which is: Can we change?

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Cinemax, Banshee, Greg Yaitanes