Banshee season 4: Jonathan Tropper showrunner interview
With Banshee season 4 out on DVD & Blu-ray, creator Jonathan Tropper tells us about its balance of chaotic violence and human pathos...
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Contains spoilers for Banshee season 4.
Finishing its four season run early this year, Cinemax’s action extravaganza Banshee staked a claim as a new cult favourite from its first moments, with a combination of wild fight scenes, gripping character drama, enormous plot twists and surprising world building. We spoke with creator Jonathan Tropper to discuss the development of the show, the stunning fights, Tropper’s past and future work and how Banshee always managed to balance extreme violence with real heart and pathos.
Your background as a novelist has been predominantly in fairly down to earth, tender dramas. What inspired the hard left turn into Banshee territory?
As much as the place where I ended up finding my voice as a novelist was in contemporary commercial lit-fiction, I had also grown up as a huge fan of action movies, in the golden age in the eighties and nineties when everyone from Chuck Norris to Sylvester Stallone to Schwarzenegger to Bruce Willis were kind of reinventing the genre, which led to a huge secondary market of B-movies, straight-to-video and late night cable action films, all of which I devoured. After trying numerous times to sell TV shows in the same vein as my books and failing, I decided to take this idea I’d had since high school, put it together and see if they bought that and they did. So that kind of put me in that business whether I wanted to be or not.
A couple of years ago saw the release of the film adaptation of your book This is Where I Leave You. Are there any more plans to adapt any of your works for screen?
I’m actively working on the adaptations of two of my books now; my most recent one, One Last Thing Before I Go, which is at Paramount, I’ve written the script for and am trying to get that to go ahead now, then I also have a deal to adapt a book I wrote called How To Talk To A Widower, which is some countries is called After Hailey. So those two are still moving forward, and I would hope at least one of them gets made.
After years as a novelist, was shifting into a more collaborative medium a challenge?
It was actually a welcome challenge. When you write a book you basically sit alone in a room for a year writing and you deal a bit with your editor but essentially it’s a solitary process and when you suddenly have this whole team of people who are united in bringing your vision to life it’s actually very heady, and a really nice antidote to the loneliness of book writing. Working with all these people whether it’s other writers, producers, directors, actors, you suddenly have this family that are working with you and I actually found it to be very welcome. I mean certainly you’re not always happy with everyone else’s interpretation of your stuff, you tend to exert a lot more control over a book than a TV show or a movie, but at the same time it’s really a thrilling collaboration and as long as you’re working with good people, which I’ve been lucky enough to mostly do, it’s just a really nice break from the loneliness of novel writing.
I loved the show’s ending predominantly because of how dark it wasn’t. We liked these characters and wanted them to succeed and they more or less came out okay. Did you ever consider something darker or more downbeat?
Yeah, when the show first got on the air we had plans for a much darker ending, whenever we ended. But over time you become very emotionally invested in these characters, they become real to you and at some point you lose the will to hurt them and you want to kind of take care of them a little bit. When we first got the show on the air our plan was for a big Hollywood end with Lucas Hood’s death, sacrificing himself for the Hopewell family. Over time what became apparent to me about Lucas Hood is that he’s never actually become a person; he was incarcerated so young and the minute he got out he was impersonating a sheriff, so he’s never actually become someone. It became much more interesting to me to send him out into the world to find out who he is.
How far in advance was the arc of the show planned?
We decided before we went into this writer’s room that this was gonna be our final season, so we planned it out pretty much from the end of season three. We spent a little time trying to figure out if we had two more seasons in us, and once I was convinced we didn’t, we just dedicated all our efforts to planning those final eight episodes, to start saying our goodbye from episode one in a way, orchestrating it from there. Which is a great luxury when you can do it, as opposed to being told halfway through a season you’re not coming back.
On a similar note, how strong was the temptation to have a final showdown between Hood and Proctor? Because I think a lot of people expected that but the fact that it didn’t happen worked really well.
We did think about it, because obviously Hood and Proctor have been each other’s nemesis for the entire show, but you know, they had two really big fights, one in season one and one in season three and there didn’t seem to be anything interesting or new about watching them fight it out again. What we thought might be much more interesting was thinking, what could Lucas do to Proctor that is worse than beating him in a fight? And after the death of Rebecca, dumping broken Burton on Proctor’s lap and leaving him with that mess seemed to me like a much bigger victory than just beating him up and killing him.
One of the best and most unique things about Banshee was the ability to balance this gleeful chaos with a huge amount of heart and pathos. How did you as a writer maintain that balancing act?
One of the writers who came in in the second season actually defined it based on a quote, I don’t remember who the original source was, that we were ‘dealing with real frogs in an imaginary pond’. The idea was that no matter how outlandish we made the plot, our characters had to come from a real human place and have real human motivations. They could never just be flat; everyone in Banshee had to be someone who was worth their own spin off show. We worked really hard to humanise them and it helped that from the get go our actors really wanted to play it that way. In the pilot script Lucas was a little more devil-may-care, a little more smartass and that wasn’t Antony’s interpretation of the character. He thought this guy should feel the weight of his sins and the weight of his time spent in jail and he played it with almost a Shakespearean tragic aura and that kind of informed the way we saw the character and the way we saw the other characters. Which evolved into the language of the show; that we would treat these characters with a lot of respect and compassion even while we put them in this entirely fucked up world.
For you personally, what’s your favourite moment of the show overall?
Oh God. (laughs). I’ve never really thought about it. In season four I finally directed an episode and I loved every minute of doing that. I loved our pilot because I lived with it in my head for so long and seeing it produced was really exciting. I really felt good about our finale. I don’t know that I have a favourite moment.
How was the experience of stepping into the director’s chair after years as a writer?
Oh that was great! When you’re running the show, even though there are directors directing the episodes, unlike in features you’re still calling a lot of the shots; you’re the continuity over the four seasons whereas directors come in and out. So I felt like in a sense I had been directing the show in a way anyway, just not really. And I spent a lot of time with the two guys who had directed the most episodes. Greg Yaitanes, who really was responsible for creating the look and all the visuals of the show, he directed a ton of episodes. I spent a lot of time working with him and then O.C. Madsen who directed I think the most Banshee episodes. It became a very fluid process from the writing into the directing so I was able to follow it through and sit behind them while they were directing and watch how they handled it and I had the benefit of doing post with all of their episodes and seeing the shot choices they made and the way they directed, so it felt very easy for me to step in and start doing that part too.
Season four of Banshee was a very different beast to the first three years in terms of tone, pace and style. Can you talk us through a little bit what inspired the shift?
We felt that season three had kind of reached the apex of action and violence and we didn’t really want to try and top that. At the same time we knew it was going to be our final season so I had this really strong desire to take it back to the tone I had first envisioned for the show when I sold it to HBO with David (Schickler) a million years ago. Which was never supposed to be this huge action show, it was supposed to be much more of a stylish, moody, quirky, dark show that had moments of shocking and brutal violence but not these big action set pieces. We came to love and embrace the set pieces and they became the hallmark of our show, but for season four I wanted to really try and get back to that dark, brooding, character, driven tone with moments of shocking violence as opposed to large set pieces.
Stepping back a bit to the early days of the show, you always had such a brilliant cast from start to finish, even in the guest characters. What was the casting process for the show like?
When David and I first sold the show we had no TV experience, so we brought in Greg Yaitanes, who had 20 years of TV experience, to both direct the show and kind of build the world with us and teach us how to do it. He spent a lot of time on the casting, sort of course correcting us when we were being a little too expected or a little too network; he really understood that for this show to work it had to have a really unique, diverse and different cast. From the get go he was largely responsible for finding both the visuals of the show and the casting as well, figuring out what would make the show work.
In the case of Geno Segers who played Chayton Littlestone, was there any temptation to keep him around longer?
No; I mean we loved him but the problem with villains is that at some point it’s the same story and you have to move on. We might have made the mistake in early seasons of killing off guys too soon who might have come in handy, but Chayton got two seasons with us and I think at that point people need to see something new. We tried really hard not to repeat ourselves.
Which lends so much to the potency of a character like Chayton. A friend of mine described his voice as ‘murderous velvet’, which I think is about the most apt description ever.
Great description. That’s his real voice! He doesn’t put that on for the show. Even when you’re having dinner with Geno and he just says ‘pass the ketchup’ he sounds like that.
Being relatively new to TV at the time of Banshee’s debut, were there any huge lessons you learned during the process that you’ll apply to your next show?
Oh yeah, of course. We were learning stuff every day. First of all, it’s not a great idea having twelve series regulars. That’s a lot of work and a lot of money and a lot of time and I would be inclined towards a few less series regulars to be able to write to them more. It’s very hard to keep twelve series regulars in the mix. And then little things you learn; for instance, when we were writing we were trying to write to budget and you learn what costs money and what doesn’t. I always assumed explosions were really expensive and tried to minimise them, then I learned explosions aren’t really expensive at all but two people talking in a moving car can kill you. So things like that, you learn the parts of the filmmaking side of it, what’s difficult, what’s easy, what costs a lot more money than you’d expect and what doesn’t. Learning to incorporate the voices of the actors you’ve cast into the characters so you don’t write them the way you wrote them before there was a real human being portraying them. I could go on and on. You’re continually learning.
Speaking of which, what can you tell us about what you’re working on now? Any new TV shows, novels or films?
All of the above. Today was actually our last day of shooting on a movie I wrote that I’m also producing called Kodachrome, which is a small independent film starring Ed Harris, Jason Sudeikis and Elizabeth Olsen and that was sort of a labour of love, something I’ve been trying to get made for six years. And I have a new television series at Cinemax called Warrior, which we hope to be in production this summer, which takes place in 1870s Chinatown San Francisco during the Tong Wars. I’m doing that with Justin Lin who’ll be directing it. And I’m in the middle of this novel I’ve been struggling with for the last few years that I’m trying to finish. So, all of it.
Going forward, do you see yourself working more on Banshee style material, something more akin to your novels, or something completely new? Or all of the above?
Yeah, I want to do it all. I absolutely want to do it all. I take great satisfaction in writing those novels but I love creating television too and on the movie side I’ll do either. It’s just really hard to get character driven movies made these days.
As a writer, how much say did you have in the ways Banshee’s fights played out? Or was that more the territory of choreographers?
I scripted the fights punch for punch. Our stunt team would come in and they’d interpret it and sometimes they’d come up with better ideas and we’d work together, but I have a background in martial arts and I’m a big fan of action movies. Occasionally writers I’d hired would just write ‘they fight’ and I would send it back to them and say ‘write out the fight’. Fights tell a story too. Watch a Rocky movie; each round tells a story. I think what sells a show like Banshee is specificity; you have to be specific about everything, including the fights.
Did you ever have trouble getting any of the more extreme scenes past the network?
No. (Laughs). No, we never did.
If anything the show almost got more reserved as it went on.
We policed ourselves; we knew if something was a little too much. I think for the most part we policed ourselves pretty well on that. We never got pushback from the network on our fights.
How much of the increased reservation in season four was dictated by the wear and tear of Antony Starr, who was quite open about wanting to fight less?
Not that much, but at the same time we knew we had to make an effort, even in season three, to give him days off. He was the star of the show so he worked every day. It’s one thing if you’re a supporting character and you work three days a week and then you have to learn a fight you’ve got time to do it, but if you’re Ant you have to work every day and learn your fights on the weekend. He basically was working seven days a week and that would tear anyone down after a while. There was definitely a sense as we moved into season three that we needed to build up the ensemble a bit to give him some breathing room, so it was a gradual process from season three into season four.
Can I ask where the decision to focus on the serial killer plot came from?
It came from me, and I take full responsibility for those who didn’t like it. Quite honestly when I decided to do it I was so focused on what it was going to do for our story that I didn’t stop to think about how many times it had been done and how familiar it would seem to everybody. I think we deserved a little bit of the heat we took for it, but the idea was essentially that Brock is finally the sheriff of Banshee and we really wanted to serve up a ‘be careful what you wish for’ situation for him. Like, ‘You’re finally the sheriff of Banshee and there’s a serial killer.’ Even though the serial killer himself only appeared in I think two, possibly three episodes, what it did do was give us the opportunity to reconfigure everybody, and suddenly you have different people dealing with each other that you wouldn’t have had otherwise, which was our goal in season four in general. Lucas isn’t the sheriff but now Brock is and Brock has to deal with Proctor; it was a way to sort of stir the pot a bit.
The show was always extremely confident in how much it set up and left unresolved each year. Season to season, how confident were you that you’d get another year?
Well we knew we were doing well; we had the benefit of a very vocal fan base and the benefit of being the flagship show. We were Cinemax’s first homegrown show, so once we came back for season two and we knew we had done a better job because the learning curve was over, we felt extremely confident that we could keep going. Our fan base was growing and I never had a night worried I was not getting renewed. Cinemax was incredibly supportive and very invested in the show and our viewers were growing. I’m sure it’ll come on another show, but I never had one of those moments of wondering if we were gonna get picked up or not.
Jonathan Tropper, thank you very much!
Banshee: The Complete Fourth Season is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.