Digging into Southern Neo-Noir ‘Quarry’ with its Creators

Quarry

Quarry co-creators Michael D. Fuller and Graham Gordy talk about the making of their character-driven crime drama

Quarry, Cinemax’s new Southern crime drama, appears relatively straightforward based on its well constructed pilot. Premiering Friday, September 9, Quarry revolves around Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green), a controversial Vietnam vet who returns home in the midst of the political and social upheaval of 1972. As Mac struggles to assimilate in an environment that wants nothing to do with him, he gradually descends into a world of crime dominated by the mysterious The Broker (Peter Mullan). When Conway – or “Quarry” as he’s later dubbed – dips deeper into crime, you think you know where this is going.

But that’s the problem with taking a show at face value. A pilot only whets the appetite for the sumptuous main course ahead, and Quarry holds many surprises ahead for smart viewers.

Quarry evolves into an intense and hypnotic dive into the seedy underbelly of the Memphis crime world over its 8 episodes. As the plot unfolds, viewers meet a series of compelling characters that help color the setting in unexpected ways. Quarry explores not only the inner turmoil of the title character but also the tempestuous relationship with Joni (Jodi Balfour), his wife left at home to await his return. Credit co-creators, primary writers, and native Southerners Michael D. Fuller and Graham Gordy for transforming Max Allan Collins’s (The Road to Perdition) source material into a series that stands as one of the best new dramatic series to premiere in 2016. Quarry is a smart action series that values character over plot mechanics and boasts natural echoes of AMC’s great Breaking Bad.

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Michael Fuller, Graham Gordy (Photo: Michele K. Short/CINEMAX)

Fuller and Gordy met with AwardsDaily TV to discuss their new series, its inspirations, and the daring characterizations that pepper the accomplished series.

So how did you become familiar with the Quarry source material by Max Allan Collins?

Michael Fuller: It’s funny. Graham and I were, again being from the South, we were always very fascinated through stories we’d heard from our own family in addition to stories we’d heard of the 70’s in the South… It was just such a cool and underrepresented time, and we started working on an original idea that we referred to as Gritty Dukes of Hazzard, and that was what we very much what we wanted to do when we started. We were thinking, “Let’s do The Sopranos in the South with Southern wild asses with little regard for each other, much less the law.” You’re always kind of looking at [intellectual property] when you’re working on new stuff, and we were looking at one series of books that wasn’t available. We happened to notice on Amazon that “Customers Also Bought” Quarry by Max Allan Collins. We were both fans of Road to Perdition the film, so we downloaded it. We felt like it was a good jumping off point. The books are told first person, so we were always very interesting in how this guy became who he was.

As you were adapting the material, did you find any particular resonance between the 1972-set story and the modern political and social era?

Graham Gordy: Yeah, Michael and I always tend to use writing as an excuse to do research, and we were fascinated by this 70’s era. There was a while where we debated if we should make this material contemporary. There is a world in which this Quarry character is coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq and sort of dealing with the situation in a contemporary setting, and then we really started researching the early 70’s and sort of going back a little further. A big part of this for us, honestly, is trying to define the 70’s were for two guys who weren’t alive in the 70’s. We have a pretty good grasp of the 1960s as being this particular time of revolution and upheaval that sort of started in November 1963 when Kennedy was shot and the Beatles came to America.

It felt like the 70’s kind of began around the same time we started this show. That hope and idealism of the 60’s and the social contract and promises that Lyndon Johnson made kind of washed up on the shore by 1972. You have this disillusionment and American soldiers coming back, so combine that with a time of great recession and the ending of a war the almost no one wanted to be a part of by the end of it. The resonance allowed us to tackle these same issues in a way we can digest it. There are certainly a lot of great books and films about this era, but we felt the additional time away from the era gave us a chance to process it in a unique way.

The two of you wrote most of the series with the exception of two episodes. Clearly you’d want Max involved in the writing, but what did you look to Jennifer Schuur (Big LoveHannibal) to add to the material as the only female voice of the series?

MF: We had a very small writer’s room for Season 1, and Jen was someone with whom we really clicked. She’s just a really talented writer, and her mom had a very similar backstory to that of Joni in that she was a young woman of that era trying to self-actualize. She just had a tremendous amount of insight in general as a writer, and it was good to have a female perspective to make sure that we’re not being over-masculine or “testosteroney” (which is my favorite Chef Boyardee). We were all breaking the story together, but she particularly had a very strong sense of what episode 5 should be without giving too much away.

GG: She’s hilarious too. Of all the writers we talked to, she was just fundamentally hysterical.

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Logan Marshall-Green as Quarry. (Photo: Michele K. Short/CINEMAX)

Yeah, some sorely needed levity.

Both: Yeah. [Laughs]

Speaking of Joni, by the time we get to episode 3, she’s faced with some very intense physical challenges. Talk about the line you must have had to walk to keep that from being too intense for viewers.

MF: It was very much, in terms of writing and depicting it, we felt the audience by this point had a pretty healthy dislike for Joni… By putting her in this situation and victimizing her a bit… We wanted to see that she’s not just sitting around and waiting for Mac to ride up on his white horse. We didn’t want to punish Joni as a character, but we wanted to take the audience to a point where they see her agency in this situation and she’s able to win the audience and Mac back in a way. She’s able to be resourceful enough to get out of a bad situation. It’s a great conversation to have in terms of television shows and violence towards women, and we certainly didn’t want to be brutal for the sake of being brutal.

GG: When you see episode 4, there are great benefits and great drawbacks to writing features versus long-form television shows. Some of the greatest things that I think we see being done on the shows we love are that you see a certain characters being painted with a certain brush for an episode or a series of episodes or a season… I think nobody’s better at this right now than Game of Thrones where there’s somebody that you can absolutely despise for multiple seasons, and then you’re like “I have a begrudging affection for this person.” And then you’re like “How did this person become a hero in this story?” We wanted the audience to be frustrated with Joni at first but then understand her and sympathize with her in a way that you perhaps wouldn’t with other characters.

Well, I don’t think she’s gotten to Cersei levels yet…

GG: [Laughs] Well, just wait until she watches out of her tower fiddling while Rome burns…

Jumping from Joni to another character that surprised me, let’s talk about Buddy (Damon Herriman). Initially, I didn’t know quite how to take him, but by episode 3 he begins to come into focus. Were there particular concerns you had when conceiving him with regards to portraying his sexuality?

GG: I don’t know that there were every really any concerns. Our main goal with these characters was to base them as much as we could on actual research and make it specific to the particular time and place. We are talking about a world of criminality, but in terms of gay men in Memphis in terms of 1972, it was actually kind of shocking how much research we were able to find. We wanted to be as sensitive as possible, but we wanted to try and understand that each of these people working within The Broker’s network have their own narrative and their own reason to justify how and why they are doing this. One of my favorite parts of this that we accomplished was working out who is this character and how is he able to sleep at night considering what he does for a living, to kill people for a living. One of the things that stems from the novels is Quarry becoming assigned to this person and trying to figure out whether or not this person is good or bad. I may have gotten a little off the subject there… [Laughs]

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Peter Mullan, Logan Marshall-Green. (Photo: Michele K. Short/CINEMAX)

MF: We’re definitely looking to upend expectations. We show [Buddy] as having this very definitive philosophy and world view, and then we almost immediately upend that and start to almost kind of pull him apart. When you’re living in the realm that these people are, you have to know about their defense mechanisms and their rationalizations. Then, something goes down like in episode 2 for him where he thought he had a situation under control, but his grasp on it is upended as is his entire paradigm. This type of character and the unexpected friendship between him and Mac are something that really intrigued us. These are the unlikeliest of friends, and it’s something that makes Mac more endearing because his frustrations with Buddy don’t have anything to do with his sexuality. Buddy looking to Mac for some type of camaraderie makes Mac somewhat more redeemable in a way that Mac himself might not even believe.

By episode 3, we’re introduced to Buddy’s mother, played by Ann Dowd. Their relationship is fantastic, and she’s brilliant in the role. Was this a character from the novel, or was she introduced for the show?

MF: We invented her for the show. There’s a character in the books… that Quarry mentions repeated as one of the only friends he remembers fondly. We wanted to dramatize and serialize this, and we needed to invent a backstory for him. So, what we came  up with was that he had parents who loved their son unconditionally and were accepting, but his dad who, in that Southern wild-ass way, lived hard and died young. Graham and I are both close to our moms… maybe not “Naomi close” but I’m sure our moms would sew us up on the kitchen table no questions asked if we needed them to. We could not have had more dream casting in that role than Ann Dowd.

GG: Yeah, I think there’s some combination between Kathy Bates in Primary Colors and then every other Southern woman that we know or grew up with meshed in that character. There were so many times where Michael and I were like, “Man, wouldn’t it be great to just write the Buddy and Naomi half hour where they just sit around, drink martinis and talk?” Ann was amazing, and we were very proud of the exchanges we’d written for them. They felt authentic and right for the region and the time, and Ann came in and elevated it  to a degree that was unbelievable. We were knocked out by her.

MF: Her chemistry with Damon was everything we were trying to construct on paper but just exponentially greater. They were an old married couple in that way that, at the time particularly in the South, you had that “Uncle Buddy” who still lived with the grandmother…

GG: The “fun uncle.”

MF: Yeah. [Laughs] It was just a dream for us. She just took it and ran with it. She’s terrific to work with and a terrific actor.

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Damon Herriman, Ann Dowd. (Photo: Michele K. Short/CINEMAX)

She really is. Perhaps if Quarry is your Breaking Bad, then perhaps there’s a Better Call Buddy in the future.

MF: [Laughs] That would be amazing.

GG: If there’s no Season 2 of Quarry, then Michael and I are probably just going to pitch the Buddy and Naomi Show… The sort of Dixie Mafia wild-ass who lives with his mother…

MF: Goes to estate sales with his mom…

GG: Plays bingo…

So, last question, what are your plans for the second season?

MF: This is something we’ve talked a lot about, but there’s nothing official on that end yet. Season 1 is so much about what Mac thought it was coming home to and what Joni thought she was getting back in terms of her husband. In the wake of all that without giving too much away for Season 1, how do we move on now that we’ve established those days are long gone?

Quarry’s 8-episode run kicks off Friday, September 9, on Cinemax at 10pm ET. 

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