Quarry TV se­ries co-cre­ator re­tains books’ South­ern noir

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PHILIP MARTIN

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.

(A less-edited ver­sion of the in­ter­view is posted on the blood, dirt & an­gels blog.)

Q. Quarry doesn’t feel like it’s been fo­cus-grouped. 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?

A. There are a lot of free­doms given you at Cine­max in terms of con­tent. At net­works like AMC or FX or the like, you’re lit­er­ally count­ing your cuss words (and we’re pretty

pro­fane). We have no in­ter­est in be­ing gra­tu­itous, but 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 ini­tially sold the show to HBO … [who] of­fered us a choice: Go into de­vel­op­ment at HBO or shoot a pi­lot at Cine­max. Based on a new man­date 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-inthe-hand.

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 … So there are ben­e­fits and draw­backs to Cine­max. There’s con­tent, of course, but there’s also less pres­sure.

Q. Col­lab­o­ra­tive writ­ing seems like an odd thing, but it’s ob­vi­ously how things are done — and how things must be done — in the world you’re in­hab­it­ing. 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 Fuller and I, and then there’s

the col­lab­o­ra­tion with Max Al­lan Collins, 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 — 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 per­cent of all de­ci­sions. Thank­fully, we have a lot in com­mon and just gen­er­ally have a shared cre­ative vi­sion. Of the 10 per­cent of things we dis­agree about, about 8 per­cent of those are just mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion … Of the 2 per­cent 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 1) is one of the kind­est, most sup­port­ive, col­lab­o­ra­tive, funny peo­ple you could have in that sit­u­a­tion. … Max, the au­thor of the nov­els, wrote one of the episodes in Sea­son 1, but wasn’t in the room. We would talk to him fre­quently and up­date him on what we were lay­ing out … Max ab­so­lutely gave his opin­ions and in­put, but he was ut­terly game ev­ery step of the way.

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, 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 [McKin­non’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 story line 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. The ’70s, par­tic­u­larly the early ’70s, 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. But there’s al­ways a prob­lem in re-cre­at­ing the past, es­pe­cially when you could the­o­ret­i­cally be get­ting your wardrobe from Wal-Mart. You could have set it in 2016.

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 … 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. 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 … 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 is that Quarry seems to clearly be suf­fer­ing from post-trau­matic stress syn­drome. 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 … 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.

For us, it was fas­ci­nat­ing to think about a man who had re­turned — but didn’t know what he was feel­ing or why he had changed.

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. Films like Alan Pakula’s para­noia tril­ogy [ Klute, The Par­al­lax View and All the Pres­i­dent’s Men], 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 … to find the el­e­ments from the era we re­ally wanted to em­u­late.

The ’70s didn’t start on Jan. 1, 1970 … 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 … It’s re­mark­able to me, in ret­ro­spect, that in 1964, LBJ was uniron­i­cally promis­ing to “cure poverty” through his Great So­ci­ety. And, as a coun­try, we had the money to. Less than 10 years later … 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.

Q. Quarry is set in a very spe­cific South — in the sort of slip­ping-down mid­size city we tend to have here. Mem­phis is ob­vi­ously a char­ac­ter. Steve Crop­per has said there never was a race is­sue with mu­si­cians in the city un­til after the King as­sas­si­na­tion (he

dates the be­gin­ning of the end for Stax Records from April 1968). Ob­vi­ously I don’t know where the show is go­ing, but there’s a lot of metafic­tional ter­ri­tory to ex­plore.

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 … 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.

pmartin@arkansason­line.com blood­dirtan­gels.com

In the Quarry nov­els, the pro­tag­o­nist — a Viet­nam vet turned re­luc­tant hit man — is name­less. In the Cine­max se­ries, he’s played by Lo­gan Mar­shall-Green and named Lloyd McKin­non “Mac” Conway — an al­lu­sion both to his nov­el­ist cre­ator Max Allen Collins...


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