Emmy-winner Greg Yaitanes talks about what drove him toward Cinemax’s Quarry
Premiering Friday night, Cinemax’s Quarry offers a great deal more than the surface pretense of a straightforward crime story. Quarry is about coming back home from a war no one wanted. It’s about reconnecting with those you left behind. It’s about finding your place in a world when no one seems to want you there. Quarry is about much, much more once you look beyond its surface. It’s that level of complexity that attracted Emmy-winning director Greg Yaitanes (House) to the series.
Based on the novels by Max Allen Collins, Quarry focuses on returning Vietnam vet Mac “Quarry” Conway’s (Logan Marshall-Green) descent into crime thanks to entangling alliances with The Broker (Peter Mullan). Jodi Balfour plays Quarry’s wife Joni, and scene-stealing Peter Mullan plays fellow hitman Buddy. Thanks to Greg Yaitanes’s balanced direction as well as Michael D. Fuller and Graham Green’s intelligent script, Quarry‘s deft characterizations are nearly as engaging as its action scenes.
Yaitanes’s reputation in Hollywood speaks to both his entrepreneurial spirit (he invests in companies like Twitter) and his extensive directorial work (little shows like Lost, Damages, Heroes and others in addition to his Emmy-winning work on House). His confident hand guides his actors through shocking plot twists while keeping things consistent and grounded in reality. I had the pleasure of speaking with Greg Yaitanes about the making of Quarry and some of its more challenging sequences and characterizations.
So, I’ve seen about five episodes of the series, and I’m already taken by the surprises and plot twists Quarry offers. What attracted you to the material initially?
I was doing Season 3 of Banshee, and Cinemax approached me about this being my next project for them. I was really locked into Mac’s journey. I was intrigued by the era and the dilemmas because they were ultimately timeless. Something about it seemed to speak to issues and backdrops that are alive and present today. A polarizing war, a polarizing election, and polarizing race issues that are all permeating Quarry’s tapestry. It intrigued me to be able to tell this crime story disguised by the deconstruction of a marriage story. It just seemed to be working on a lot of levels to me.
What was the most important theme you really wanted to covey through your direction of the material?
I wanted to see the honesty of a secret within a marriage and really face how the lack of honesty is tearing this marriage to pieces.
You really must have relished the opportunity to tell a complete story yourself. It’s almost like making one big film.
Yeah, it was interesting because Cinemax had a good experience with Steven (Soderbergh) on The Knick and Cary (Fukunaga) had done all of True Detective. This was about two years ago, and it wasn’t as common as it is now. I think it’s a great shift in the dynamic of television in that TV is now truly the writer’s and director’s medium. It’s not just simply film is the director’s medium, and television belongs to writers. I think we’re now in an era of a real hybrid collaboration where you need directors to be big world builders. Given the amount of research and the amount of detail that Quarry has, to ask an episodic director to try and parachute in and absorb all of that seemed like a tall order. I did relish the opportunity because… you start to get that “runner’s high” with all that creativity swirling around you. It’s a very exciting place to live. I had a very symbiotic relationship with the crew and cast that kept feeding on itself, and I think it shows in the work.
I want to talk about two specific, challenging scenes early in the season. First the pilot episode has an incredibly amount of raw sexuality between Mac/Quarry and Joni. It makes sense given his return from Vietnam, but how did you help the actors work through what I would imagine to be a difficult scene?
Through their physical intimacy, you have a better sense of their relationship. You have that long, unbroken take when Mac comes home. We embrace the long take there and treat the writing almost like a one-act play. Through these uninterrupted scenes, the actors have the optimal experience. To be able to do that with Mac’s homecoming and reconnecting with his wife shows… they are a young couple. They don’t have much in common. They’re largely connecting through their physical attraction to each other. You see in that first scene that they barely have anything to say to each other. They don’t share children as Ruth and Arthur [Mac’s best friend/Vietnam war buddy and his wife] do. They are kind of at a loss and just fall into their very young and physical sex. What I love about that is their marriage getting put to the test by the circumstances happening around them.
There’s a dialogue with both actors and, logistically, I always rehearse those scenes well ahead of shooting so that we’re not inventing that the day of. On our own time, we started – and this is something I started doing on Banshee – working out the physicality of the scene and all the choreography. Going a step before that, it’s really in the casting. Having the conversation about how the sexuality will be approached. I like the visual approach of bearing witness to scenes like that. I don’t want to make them any more sexy or any less sexy or any more raw or any less raw than what is happening. I look for a way of shooting those scenes that is unobtrusive and allows the actors to have a lot of freedom. I just want to be able to capture the immediacy of what is happening.
So, given your approach to the sex scenes, is your approach similar to that of Joni’s episode three [particularly brutal] fight scene?
You’re hitting on exactly the right thing. There’s one degree of separation between a sex scene and an action scene in terms of what goes into it. With our action scenes, we work them out ahead of time with stunt actors. In the case of Joni’s escape, that fight sequence was designed to be a single take. I didn’t want to enhance the brutality, which lead the scene to be a continuous take. That’s probably the hardest thing Jodi did as an actress. It was physically and emotionally draining, and that take you’re seeing was the last take. She literally put it all out there for that one final take, and it was a very, very hard scene for her to do. They’re not really faking it, and that scene was probably the most intense one that we did all season.
I can’t imagine what it took for her to go through it. You can tell she’s giving it everything, and her performance coupled with the way you captured it really made the scene work.
Cool. Yeah, it’s ugly and messy. Everything about Quarry had to feel not choreographed and captured. Grounding its visual style provided that observational quality to it. I was very allergic to things feeling showy or slick or rehearsed. I’m glad that worked because there’s a lot of crazy things happening in that scene.
There’s a fantastic small moment in episode three where a lot of bad things happen to Joni, but she stops to make sure a dog has enough water. Tell me about filming that deceptively simple moment. Was that scripted?
That was a fantastic scripted moment. The dogs were scripted into a different section of the building, and it didn’t make logistic sense that she escape through the front and then walk all the way around the building back to them. It was raining that day, and we were behind. We were looking to possibly punt the scene, and you could see Jodi’s disappointment when the conversation came up. We put our heads together to see how we could possibly make it work, and it completely stayed in. I’m so glad that we talked ourselves out of the bad idea of potentially dropping it. It’s such a great unexpected beat, and I think… in the middle of all this, she still has a sense of compassion.
It’s a great moment. One more question, I was curious as to how you specifically worked with Damon [Herriman] to interpret his character’s sexuality.
One of the great things about directing is good casting. Damon was bringing about 90 percent of what you see there. Buddy’s character is one of the characters that majorly appealed to me because he’s living a triple life. He has the secret life of a hit man, but he’s also a closeted hit man only out to his mother, Naomi [Ann Dowd]. Damon really humanizes that struggle in such a beautiful way, and it’s more spending time with his thoughtfulness. I tried to stay out of the way while he was working because he has a natural sense of humor and a beautiful way about him. Damon’s work is truly phenomenal.
Quarry’s 8-episode run kicks off Friday, September 9, on Cinemax at 10 pm ET.