Small-town sex and violence

Producer Greg Yaitanes spills the beans on making the intense and sexy TV series Banshee

The show follows the exploits of recently paroled master thief Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), who adopts the identity of the new sherrif of the small Pennsylvania town of Banshee in the hope of reconnecting with his former partner-in-crime and lover Anastasia (Ivana Milicevic). But Banshee is not exactly the idylic haven it first appears to be - and with so many secrets bubbling under the town's surface, it isn't long before Hood finds himself up to his neck in more trouble than he ever thought possible.

With HBO Home Entertainment set to release Banshee: The Complete First Season on Blu-ray and DVD here in the UK on September 2, HCC convinced the show's producer-director Greg Yaitanes to spill the beans on the making of this fantastic series...

How would you describe the tone and the mood of Banshee?

We didn’t want to make a very polished Hollywood action movie; we wanted to make something a little bit more documentary-esque, in the sense that we wanted to follow the characters quite closely and see things from the characters’ point of view.

One of our writers yesterday said: ‘They are real toads in an imaginary pond’. In other words, these are very grounded and relatable characters, in a slightly heightened world. It is a rich world of colourful characters, balanced with humour.

Tonally, it was a very tricky line to walk, but having actors like Antony Starr (Lucas Hood) and Ivana Milicevic (Carrie Hopewell) helped ground it and bring out all the emotional relationships which is where I like to live.

So I feel like I have got away with something here - like I made this great emotional European drama that’s wrapped around an American genre. My cinematic influences are the kind of things that inspired this. In terms of the intimacy and sexuality, European filmmakers like Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker and Alan J Pakula. In terms of the love story, the sexual dynamic and the way we witness it, I just wanted there not to be a lot of point of view from me.

Seeing as you've already brought it up, the sex in Banshee is fairly graphic, even for a cable show…

I would not even be able to use the word sex if it was a network show. It would be, ‘that was good last night’, over breakfast. It’s a very freeing thing. We never took advantage of it - it is just a case of having more paintbrushes.

Everyone gets nervous when you start to bring up these kinds of scenes, actors especially. But the way I broached it was to say: ‘If you want to know how I am going to approach it, here are the films to go look at’. I made a trailer for Banshee out of other movies so people could get a sense of what the tone and the texture would be.

It included: Witness, Warrior, A History of Violence, No Country For Old Men, Unfaithful and Sex and Lucia, mixed with the graphic visceral energy of Scorsese’s work, into three-minute trailer. I showed that to everyone, to HBO and then to the actors that were looking at the show.

I was very up front about the sexuality, because I needed people who were going to be game, not shy or embarrassed about it. I made sure that everyone had the scripts and the scenes before I hired anybody - they had to be down with it. And I think the cast of Banshee are all game. It’s not just a matter of being a good actor – with this, they had to be a good actor, and to trust me and dive into it.

It’s still pretty rare to see a guy performing oral sex on a woman on TV. Did you have any qualms about that scene between Carrie and her husband?

It was very important to me in that scene that they weren’t having sex - he was performing oral sex on her. It shows something about the state of their relationship after ten years. It was also happening during the day - they are having daytime oral sex.

Apart from the sex, are there any other differences in making a show for HBO/Cinemax to making a network show?

I have made so many pilots for networks, and they always urge us: ‘say more, say more, say more’, and they want you to club audiences over the head with details and dialogue.

Cinemax have been amazing - they were completely supportive about not giving everything away too soon, but spreading it out instead and letting it breath. For the first four minutes of the show, nobody is talking. You barely get a second of silence in network television.

I do hope the cable model influences the network model. House was a marathon of 22 episodes per season. With that model, not all 22 episodes are going to be good. With Banshee, every episode counts, and it keeps getting better. And in America, those 22 episodes are spread over nine months which is maddening because you are on for two weeks then you are off three weeks, then you are on for a week then its moved around in the schedule for baseball….I would rather watch less of a show I like but know I can watch it for ten straight weeks.

I think a lot of the way American Cable works is from a European model. Do less and do it better rather than do too much.

Do you have qualms or concerns about the violence in the show or with the use of guns?

I was admittedly uncomfortable watching The Dark Knight Rises, when they were shooting up Wall Street. But I don’t feel we are particularly a gun show – we are not a shoot ‘em up show. There’s a lot of fighting which is more fists to fist and face to face – it creates intimacy and in a way, is a sex scene unto itself.

We made certain choices throughout the season to know what was right for Banshee, and the violence isn’t intended to be making any kind of statement. I always feel that any kind of violence in it is coming from a place of character. Lucas acts impulsively - he is just going to punch first and figure it out later. He’s not thinking, ’is this the right thing to do?’ He’s just like: ‘this is what I feel like doing right now, in this moment’.

Our world is also a little heightened, a little more Tarantino-esque this falls a little bit more into that Tarantino world of a little bit heightened.

Why did you decide to set the story in rural Pennsylvania, and is it relevant that it is close to New York, which also features in the show?

Yes, the proximity to New York is definitely a factor. There is nothing scary about someone wanting to find you in New York if you are in LA, but Pennsylvania is very close. In a way, Carrie is almost hiding in plain sight. She’s close enough to New York that she could still check in with Job (Hoon Lee) if she needed to but she’s just far away enough that he’s not really going to know where she went.

I love the setting and I love the town but I like that we open the action in New York but then pull away to Banshee. I’m from a town not dissimilar to Banshee and that town certainly had its secrets.

The female characters in the show are all very feisty indeed…

Yes, the women of Banshee are fierce, and powerful and strong – they are what grounds the show. I am very sensitive to the ‘over the shoulder wife’ - the forgettable person that simply nags there characters or delivers exposition. That was not going to happen with Banshee, as Jonathan (Tropper) and David (Schickler) wrote great scripts for strong attractive characters.

Each of the women gets a moment to shine. For Ivana's character, her alter ego continues to get awakened throughout the season. Episode five is a big Siobhan (played by Trieste Kelly Dunn) episode. Episode eight will introduce Nola Longshadow. And Lili Simmons (who plays Rebecca Bowman) has a double life - there is more to her than meets the eye.

What were the biggest challenges of making the show?

The biggest challenge was building the world, but the most fun was also building the world. Coming in and being able to build characters and build costumes is just incredible fun.

Also, the discovery of all this talent was really great, all these people who are new to me. I love that every scene that Ivana did, she was doing something new. She is often cast as the glamorous, cigarette-smoking foreign one with an accent. So to see her paying a Mum is just so great. I think we will have a lot of break-outs from this group.

Lili was doing Disney and ABC family movies and now, in this role, she is facing her sexuality head-on. To see Matt Servitto (Brock Lotus) in the tapestry of an ensemble, and Frankie Faison (Sugar Bates) - who is one of my favourites – is just wonderful.

Banshee: The Complete First Season is available to buy from September 2 courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment