Graham Gordy talks Quarry (with free episodes given away by Cinemax for God knows what reason)September 24, 2016
Little Rock writer Graham Gordy’s Quarry, a ’70s Memphis-set crime drama he conceived with Michael D. Fuller based on the novels by Max Allan Collins, premiered on Cinemax on Sept. 9 to mostly admiring reviews. The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever proclaimed it the best new show of the season and compared it to “another very good show that took forever to catch on … about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who started cooking meth to make money.”
As of this writing I’ve seen two (of eight) episodes. I like the way it both nods to genre conventions and insists on being unsentimental about the repercussions of violence. It maps new physical and psychological territory as it drills down into the mind of a reluctant hit man, a traumatized Vietnam vet with exquisite musical taste.
I know Gordy and have followed his career with an interest that can’t be fairly described as detached. In this spirit, I talked to him about the show. (This is the unedited exchange … see today’s Arkansas Democrat Gazette for a more elegant version.)
Q. First of all, I’m thinking it’s probably a dream gig to have a show like this on a premium cable channel and that an outlet like Cinemax might even allow more freedom than someplace like HBO or Netflix (which I understand is now raking back some control from showrunners). Quarry has a real rusty blade, handmade feel — it doesn’t feel like it’s been focused grouped or like a lot of notes have been given on it. I think it goes without saying that you’re happy where the show has ended up, but I’m wondering if the delivery method has any significant effect on the product. Would this be a different show had it aired somewhere else — even somewhere else with the same standards and practices as Cinemax?
A. There are a lot of freedoms given to you at a place like Cinemax, obviously, in terms of content. At networks like AMC or FX or the like, you’re quite literally counting your cuss words (and we’re pretty profane). We have no interest in being gratuitous, but it’s a show about violence. And it’s a show about the damage violence does, not only to the people to whom it is done but also the psychological damage done to the people doing it. We need some leeway for that. HBO owns Cinemax.
We (Michael and I with Anonymous Content producing) initially went in with a pilot and a show bible and sold the show to HBO. At that point, I didn’t even know that HBO owned Cinemax. Then the company offered us a choice: go into development at HBO or shoot a pilot at Cinemax. Based on a new mandate laid out to us by Cinemax for more character-based original content (which eventually led to them putting on The Knick and some of the other projects they are moving toward now), we chose the bird-in-the-hand option. HBO is the pinnacle of cable programming, but they put very little on the air and there are people who have shelves full of Oscars and Emmys who have had projects in “development” there for years and years and never gotten them on the air. So, there are benefits and drawbacks to being at a place like Cinemax. There’s content, of course, but there’s also less pressure.
The number of people who have subscriptions to Cinemax as opposed to the people who have subscriptions to HBO is minuscule (which is the reason they’re trying to put more original content on Cinemax), so the numbers don’t have to match Game of Thrones to meet their metrics of success. At the same time, this isn’t the age of rushing home on Sunday nights to watch The Sopranos or Mad Men and Breaking Bad. We are at “peak TV” (maybe even bubble TV). I have eight full seasons of TV shows on my DVR that I will never watch, not because they’re not worth watching – quite the contrary – because there’s not time. Because there is too much good TV out there. So, the difficulty with a show like this is getting people to find, or subscribe to and pay for, a channel in order to watch a show that we feel is strong, but is not flashy and doesn’t have big stars. When there are great shows on HBO, AMC, FX, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, and so many others I can’t even keep count, our best shot is positive ratings, social media, and great word-of-mouth. All of this said, I still have no idea what the metrics are for the network that would equate to success or subsequent seasons.
Q. Collaborative writing seems like a very odd thing to me, but itss very obviously how things are done — and how things must be done — in the world you’re inhabiting. Can you talk a little bit about how you work with your partner and with the characters’ creator and with other writers who contribute to the show (as well as actors and others if that’s germane)? There’s bound to be creative frictions, and so there has to be a mechanism for conflict resolution, right? Someone has to be the shot caller.
A. Well, there’s the collaboration between Michael and I (we were the co-creators of this project), and then there’s the collaboration with Max Allan Collins (who wrote the novels), the other writers in the writers’ room, the network, the director, and then our actors. Michael and I have worked together before. We had written two pilots together, one of which we sold to AMC, and then were part of the “Rectify” writers’ room together. We wouldn’t still be writing together if we didn’t generally agree on more than 90% of all decisions.
Thankfully, we have a lot in common and just generally have a shared creative vision. Of the 10% of things we disagree about, about 8% of those are just a miscommunication. We’re tired or it’s late in the day or one of us just isn’t being clear and we’re, for some reason, assuming the other is misguiding the show (even though based on our history together, we know better). We always clear that up pretty quickly, though. “No, I wasn’t saying that. Sorry. What I meant was…” Of the 2% that’s left over, we’ll talk it out and one of us will give. It doesn’t happen a lot, so if one of us is extremely passionate on the point, we’ll usually defer to that person. I guess that if one of us feels that right about something, that person usually is.
With the other writers, it was easy because our writers’ room was tiny and Jen Schuur (our other writer for season one) is one of the kindest, most supportive, collaborative, funny people you could have in that situation. She had more experience and credits than either Michael or I, so a lot of the time, we just wanted her advice. We were always pretty firm when we felt a certain way creatively, but Jen is just a terrific writer and a great human and always wanted to help us realize our vision. Max, the author of the novels, wrote one of the episodes in season one, but wasn’t in the room. We would talk to him frequently and update him on what we were laying out. The guy couldn’t have been more collaborative. For an author who has lived with this character for over forty years and written that character through a dozen novels, I can’t say I could’ve ever been as generous as he was. The first season involved a lot of invention on our parts because we wanted to craft a sort of creation story for how Mac Conway becomes the “hollowed-out” character you find in the novels. Max absolutely gave his opinions and input, but he was utterly game every step of the way.
In terms of the network, they gave us enough rope starting out. They allowed us to write the show we wanted to write before they gave us much input on it. Yes, they absolutely wanted the show to hit certain notes and fulfill enough of the genre expectations they felt the show needed to deliver on for a Cinemax audience – and sometimes that was a little bit of a battle – but as long as we met them in the middle, they were very understanding.
And the actors were exceptional. We did table reads of scripts and some rehearsals on weekends during shooting. They are pros, so there might’ve been moments – either in those rehearsals or on-set before shooting a scene – where they wanted to change a line here or there to make it more natural in their mouths or to their character, and they were, inevitably, right and it always improved the scene. And, just generally, we were lucky to have the actors we had.
I think one of the biggest differences, and the steepest learning curve here, was in the move from being one of those writers in the room to being one of the guys who had to make the decisions. When we were in the “Rectify” writers’ room, there was a lightness to what I was doing. I worked hard, I did all the reading and everything, but when I went into the writers’ room, I was just pitching ideas, some I was passionate about and some less so, but it was trash or treasure. It was Ray’s decision, and I was always confused as to why Ray seemed to be carrying the weight of the world. When I was one of the guys on the other side, one of the ones making those decisions, I understood. Because there may be three or four ways you can go with a storyline that are interesting or innovative or compelling and they can still be “right,” but there are hundreds of ways you can go and it feel wrong.
Q. It’s probably just me, but it seems like there’s something in the air. The ’70s, particularly the early ’70s (though the late ’70s in The Getdown) seem to be having a pop culture moment. I’ve always been deeply interested in this time, as it represents the closest this country ever came to actually flying apart and the curdling of the hippie dream. (Consider Bryan Burroughs’ excellent book Days of Rage and Jeffrey Toobins’ American Heiress, about the Patty Hearst kidnapping.) You personally weren’t around to witness these events, and I imagine the show could have been transposed to another time period (although the My Lai allusions might feel a bit forced and we’ve been taught to worship American servicemen as a reaction to the Viet Nam homecoming experience), but there it is, in the ’70s, which allows access to all those textures — the music, the (anti)fashion and more affecting of all for me, the heartbreaking, gone-to-shite mid-century furniture. (I remember being in a lot of those houses.) But there’s always a problem in recreating the past, especially when you could theoretically be getting your wardrobe from Wal-Mart. Why is it important to set this story in this era?
A. We debated it. We discussed taking the Quarry character and moving him to the 21st Century. When we talked to Max about it he said, “Sure, there always seems to be a war going on.”
But, ultimately, our initial impulse for this show had as much to do with the 70s as anything else. When Michael and I were still in the Rectify room and we were discussing writing something on our own, we immediately focused on the early 70s. It probably had something to do with the fact that Mad Men was coming to an end, but we were also doing a lot of reading on the Dixie Mafia in the 70s. The books Mississippi Mud and The State Line Mob. All of this criminality up and down the Mississippi River and the misnomer of ‘mafia’ considering all of these guys were just wild-ass rednecks with no loyalty to one another, literally and figuratively stabbing each other in the backs for this underground economy in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana at the time, bootlegging and drug-running, back-room gambling, prostitution, etc.
So, when Michael found the first Quarry novel, we kind of merged the character Max had created with the world we had been working on. The other major element of that first novel, even though Max wrote it in the early 70s, is that, as a reader in 2011, Quarry seems to clearly be suffering from PTSD. Suddenly, that became as much a reason to do the show as this character we liked and this world we loved. A man who went away thinking he would return a conquering hero (as his “greatest generation” father had after World War II), but returns not only not supported, but shunned and shamed to the degree that he had to hide the fact that he was involved in the war. And this was authentic to all the Vietnam vets we spoke to and all the research we did. Now, there’s plenty to be criticized in the way we treat our vets and the lack of support they have when they return, but at least there is a system now. At least we have an acronym to classify what they’re experiencing. For us, it was fascinating to think about a man who had returned, was suffering from PTSD, but didn’t know what he was feeling or why he had changed. We spoke to Karl Marlantes, who – for us – may be the greatest writer alive on these matters. His book What it is Like to Go to Warbecame another step in why this felt like a real show. Marlantes told us of his own experience in returning and the forty years it’s taken to truly understand his experiences, but specifically about those first five or so. That felt like an experience worth conveying to us.
There’s also the popular culture of the time. It was a rough time for the country but a great time for music, and arguably the best era in the history of American cinema (at least for my money). Films like Pakula’s paranoia trilogy, and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “Straight Time,” “Scarecrow,” “Fat City,” “The French Connection,” “Mean Streets,” and many of the other more usual suspects of the era were really influential in terms of tone, but are also what we watched and re-watched with our director and DP to find the elements from the era we really wanted to emulate.
Finally, there’s all the historical research of the period. Whether it’s about Vietnam or the era itself, God knows there have been more talented people who have tackled this era. However, there is something to be said for having the 40-plus years of perspective and brilliant authors (like the ones you mention, though I haven’t read the Toobin book…I think it came out recently) to draw from. There are a lot of books I could name that were influential, but none more than Ron Perlstein’s NIXONLAND, oddly enough. The 70s didn’t start on January 1st, 1970. In terms of an ethos, it feels like decades aren’t really like that. We chose 1972 to set the first season because it felt like the last, desperate gasps of the idealism of the 60s suffocating toward death (as well as being the final months soldiers were returning from Vietnam). It’s remarkable to me, in retrospect, that in 1974, LBJ was unironically promising to “cure poverty” through his Great Society. And, as a country, we had the money too. Less than ten years later, after the assassination of some of our brightest lights, after LBJ had ceded his post to…someone…anyone, things had turned from revolution to something more sinister. Political insurrection was either neutralized of hope or went violent and underground (Weather Underground, Black Panthers, etc.). Honestly, the more we read, the more it felt like the time we were living in. A terrible recession, an unwanted war that was coming to an end. The one thing I will say for the era is that the general, cultural despair did seem to be leading to some introspection. It was the cultural birth of post-modernism in some ways (GRAVITY’S RAINBOW was published the next year, after all!). But it seems like a time, like our time, where a lot of people were sad and looking inward and the era could’ve become a lot of things. We think of the 60s as this time of tumult and revolution and we think of the 80s as this move toward “Morning In America” and total self-interest. The 70s was a bridging decade, but it seems like one where there were a lot of interesting ideas being explored. It’s just unfortunate that those ideas had to become the 80s.
Q. And where the hell did you find the terry cloth shirt I used to rock in ninth grade?
Our costume designer, Patia Prouty, found that gem. And our production designer, Roshelle Berliner, and our stunning props department helped create those great surroundings. Our only real mandate was that we wanted it all to feel lived in. It’s 2016, but I’m wearing a shirt that’s four years old. I’m driving a truck that’s 15 years old. We didn’t want watching this show to feel like you had just opened the JC Penney catalog from January 1972.
Q. OK, work for me here. It was a long slog to get this on the air. I sort of know the highlights, but what I don’t have is any perspective on whether your experience getting Quarry to air is unusual. Here in Arkansas, we sort of followed along, and I’m sure you had plenty of people asking you when the thing was actually going to be on the T and V. (And I think that a lot of people are more than a little proud of you for sticking with it.) Can you sum up that experience in a nutshell?
A.It was a little unusual. Nobody really cares when a movie is going to come out unless it’s a sequel to something. Studios never seem to be in a rush, so it’s infuriating, but common. But with TV, there’s a schedule and “time to fill between the commercials,” as they say. So, TV writing is typically more frantic, especially when it’s a network schedule and you’re writing 23 episodes that have to start in September or something. Cable has changed that a bit and HBO is certainly known for taking their time with development, sometimes in order to “get things right” and sometimes just because their Sunday nights are full.
As I mentioned, we went into the room to sell this with the pilot and a show bible (which laid out a 12-episode first season). They ordered the pilot immediately, so we shot that a few years back. Then the network liked what was happening enough to order the scripts for episodes two and three, but also told us that they were moving to only 10-episode or less seasons at HBO and Cinemax, so we also had to re-outline the first season from 12-episodes to 10. Then we wrote the second and third episodes, the network liked those, but wanted to make a couple of changes cast-wise. So, by the time they green-lit the season, they had hired a new director, a couple of new actors, and said, “By the way, can we get eight episodes for this first season instead of ten?”
I’m still not sure the reason for that other than the first season of True Detective had just come out and been a big hit for them. Regardless, changing a season from twelve to ten to eight episodes is pretty significant. They gave us leeway on the pilot and the finale (both are about an hour and twenty minutes), but otherwise we had to cut some story to get it there. We’re ultimately happy with the final product. I’ve bemoaned how long it’s taken only because traditional TV development moves a lot faster (and because I’m getting old), but then you hear stories about how “Game of Thrones” and other shows re-cast roles and re-shot 75% of their pilot and you begin to understand that this experience isn’t as unusual as I cussed about.
Q. Quarry isn’t only set in the ’70s, it’s set in a very specific South — in the sort of slipping-down mid-sized city we tend to have here. Memphis is obviously a character here. I’ll confess I don’t have any familiarity with the source material, but it seems to me to be a near genius decision to place it there. After all, Steve Cropper has said there never was a race issue with musicians in Memphis until after the King assassination (and he dates the beginning of the end for Stax from April 1968), and the river city is a place of confluences and contradictions (and unlike New Orleans or St. Louis) the Dixie mafia faced some strong competition from local thugs there. I loved how Dewey Crowe (he’ll forever be that character, though I know he — like Peter Mullan — is Australian) dropped the line about Williams being one of the group that killed MLK into the conversation — it sort of picked up a rather large rock and showed us the worms, even though he was just kidding. Obviously I don’t know where the show is going, but there’s a lot of meta-fictional territory to explore. Er, thoughts?
A. I’ve always loved Memphis. To quote a friend of mine, it’s as if American colonialism and industrialism washed up together on a single shore. And while it hurts to look at it sometimes, that seems like all the more reason to look at it more closely. I’m so glad you mentioned that Cropper quote. That’s everything we heard and read. Not that there wasn’t covert or overt racism in Memphis before the King assassination. It was a Southern (or should I just say American?) city after all. But Jim Crow was often upended by the collaboration of black and white musicians and black and white audiences enjoying that music together. I’m assuming that’s why the cut was so deep when King was shot on those streets.
It split the city in two, and everyone you speak to who was alive at the time marks 1968 as the shift. White flight had begun, of course, but the combination of the King assassination and the forced integration of busing (which happened in 1972 and we deal with some in season one) hastened and exacerbated it. We are research junkies and, while we were able to work in a lot of what we wanted to touch on in Memphis in 1972 (the tumult of race, the music of Stax and other soul labels shifting toward more rock ‘n’ roll, Big Star, etc., as well as getting to shoot there for a couple of weeks to highlight important locations of the era – we work in Earnestine & Hazel’s, Stax, the classic neon sputnik sign, the Mississippi River, obviously, the roof of the Peabody, Tom Lee Park, the De Soto bridge under construction, and some downtown and skyscapes), there are so many storylines and places of the era that we didn’t get utilize.
Q. I assume you’ve got season two mapped out, at least in a general way. And it looks like there are reasons to be optimistic. I haven’t read deeper than the headlines of some of the reviews (because I wanted to write about the series, which I guess I am) but it feels like critics like it a lot, and the best critics really like it. I like how it seems, in a way at least, to present as a kind of high concept ’70s series, like a more serious-minded Baretta. But more than anything else, for me at least, it’s fun.
A.Yeah, the network ordered a quasi-writers’ room for season two, just to lay out what the season would be, so we’ve done that. That’s positive, but honestly, God knows. Shows I’ve really loved and that were just getting serious traction with me have been cancelled at HBO inexplicably (Enlightened and Togetherness are two that come to mind), so we’re taking nothing for granted. The reviews have been positive, and positive reviews matter practically in terms of the show’s continuation, but mostly I’m heartened that the TV critics I usually read and whose opinions I really care about seem to have embraced the show.
In terms of the high-concept ’70s series, I think that’s a good way to put it. Michael and I start with characters and theme first, then place, and only then do we begin to care about genre at all. But in this climate, it feels like you need those elements. The two big questions for us were: 1) Can we write a violent show that we can ethically and philosophically embrace?, and 2) Can we push this show into genre and still remain true to what we want to do? More than anything, I hope we’ve succeeded in those two things (or at least not compromised ourselves). For both, that’s why the PTSD element was so significant for us.
Ultimately, for us, this is a show about the damage done by violence, not just to the people to whom it is done, but also the psychological damage done to the people doing it. We hope that this is a cautionary tale, but also that it shines a bit of a light on the veteran experience of that era, and how fundamentally different it was then. As you mentioned earlier, in these “Thank you for your service” days, I don’t think people that weren’t alive in those years can really comprehend how different it was.
Also, I’ll check back in with you on the ‘fun’. I’m glad to hear that and want it to be fun, but we go some pretty dark places as the season goes along. We want to walk the line between being as truthful as we possibly can, while fulfilling those genre elements I mentioned before so the experience isn’t suffocatingly dour. Someone smarter than me said, “Empathy is a muscle and it needs relief.” That was something we had taped up on the wall in the writers’ room. I hope we were able to hold a mirror up to the experiences of this time and place, but that there’s enough of an engine, and a care about the fates of these characters, that people continue watching week after week.
Q. Four Roses is a nice grace note. Way to get Faulkner in there, right?
A.Thank you. Yeah, as I understand it, Four Roses was actually Faulkner’s second choice, when he didn’t have enough money for Jack Daniels. It’s funny that Jack Daniels has become the bourbon of the masses while Four Roses holds such an esteemed place now (justifiably so, though; that Small Batch of theirs goes down like Coca-Cola). Honestly, Michael and I are both Four Roses fans, so we knew it was accurate to the era, but we were also hoping to get some free booze, or at least a t-shirt or something. So far, nada.
Q. Just wondering what else you’re into? (BoJack Horseman jumps a level in its third season — it goes from being a Hollywood satire to a devastating experience.) I was amused by Stranger Things. I’ve gotten back into Shameless and in a way that might not pan out, your first episode reminded me of Bloodline (with which I have a love/hate relationship). Now tell me your secret influences.
A. I’m just on season two of BoJack. I was amused by it at first, but nearly gave up on it until it started going to the places you’re speaking of. I’m so enthralled by that show and need to catch up. I’m behind on TV and films generally, though. I wrote a half-hour comedy over the last several months, so I caught up on a lot of half-hours. (It was also a relief for me to watch and work in a different format.) Master of None, Catastrophe, Vice Principals, Baskets. I caught up on Louie, which is a show that sometimes frustrates me, but I will go with him wherever he wants to lead me. I watched a weird show on Seeso called Flowers that got me, but admittedly, it’s an acquired taste.
Oh, and Game of Thrones, of course. Though my wife has to be my Rosetta Stone for that show and remind who everyone is and their backstory. (…I honestly may not be smart enough to watch complex hour dramas.) The Night of… was great. Going back in time a bit, I rewatched Olive Kitteridge and still can’t believe how great it is. But, honestly, how are we supposed to keep up? There’s always been plenty of TV out there, and as with bookstores, you can dismiss 95% of what’s in there as not worth your time, but the issue now is that no one with a job, or kids, or a social life can ever keep up with that 5%. Mostly, I just get really daunted and end up reading something or watching something I already know I love.
Q. You named Mac for Max Allen Collins but there’s also a nod to our mutual friend Ray McKinnon in there too, isn’t there?
Q. There is indeed.
M.A.C. as a nod to Max. And we wanted to make a nod to Ray for giving helping us out and giving us a leg-up with Rectify so that just seemed appropriate. “Lloyd McKinnon Conway, Jr.” His father is “Lloyd” in the show.
Q. So now when are you moving to L.A.?
A. As soon as they move LA to central Arkansas. Otherwise, I’m good here.