Greg Yaitanes comes from a big Greek family. He grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts and at the age of 18, he moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California Film School. His career started at the age of 23 with his directorial debut Hard Justice (1995).
Greg now counts over 100 hours in the director's chair of top shows including House M.D, Damages, Lost, Prison Break, Heroes and Grey's Anatomy to name a few. His Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Director For a Drama Series came in 2008 as result of his work on House M.D, the most popular show worldwide.
In 2008, House was distributed in a total of 66 countries. With an audience of over 81.8 million worldwide, it was the most watched television show on the globe and far surpassed the viewership figures of the leading TV dramas the previous two years.
Greg's technological entrepreneurship has also made him a respected name in Silicon Valley. His investments in start-up companies such as Twitter, Pinterest, Square and Foursquare, have earned him a reputation for foresight in technology.
Now, Greg and Oscar Winner Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under, True Blood) team up with HBO to bring Banshee to Cinemax. The show is created by novelists Jonathan Tropper & David Schickler. I had a great talk with Greg on Skype discussing the making of the new show, technology and the future of television. The following lines is the transcript.
Alex Maragos: Ok Greg, talk to me about Banshee
Greg Yaitanes: Banshee is about Lucas Hood, who gets out of prison after 15 years and follows his lost love back to the town of Banshee, Pennsylvania. Through a series of circumstances, ends up assuming the identity of the town's sheriff. It's a fascinating character study of what happens when you insert yourself into someone's life like that. As a way to stay close to his former lover and to his daughter that he never knew he had, he impersonates this sheriff and goes about cleaning up the criminals of the town.
• It's a city with some very, very bad people. Lots of violence, lots of fighting, lots of conflict.
Yeah. There's a line in Episode Four when Deva, who plays Lucas and Carrie's daughter, says, "How can one town have so many scumbags?" It's really true. Banshee attracts, is a magnet for trouble, and that trouble follows Lucas all throughout the season.
Also, Lucas is coming of age. He's having to realize that he acts impulsively, but there's consequence to those choices. He assumes the identity of the sheriff without thinking, "What will be the effect of doing this?" So he slowly starts kind of ruining the lives around him by being there and causing more trouble than he's solving.
The thing that always drew me to the material was just the fact that it's so emotional. One of our writers used the expression, "real toads in an imaginary pond." The idea is that the world is a little bit heightened, but our characters are very grounded and very real. They're dealing with themes that we can all relate to. We've all blurred the line between right and wrong. In "Banshee", there's no good guy or bad guy.
We've all been with someone and wanted to be with somebody else. We've all kept secrets, sometimes from the people closest to us. While it's a very kind of heightened world, a Tarantino-esque world, it's very grounded characters that are very based in real, emotional dilemmas.
• Talk to me about Episode Four. What exactly have you done there? You shot it first?
Since we have all the scripts, it didn't make any sense just to go in order, for me. I thought it could be interesting if we waited to shoot the first episode until later in the season. There's so much to overcome with a new production. You need to not only cast everything, build the world, but you have all of these production challenges, and you never want that to interrupt the acting.
My thought was that if we could shoot Episode Four as the first episode and Episode One as the fourth or fifth episode, then we would be in great shape to be able to do what we needed to do with the show, meaning, I wanted to give the audience the best shot at seeing the best possible version of the first episode. What we did was, by going out of order, by the time we shot the first episode, all of the actors were comfortable. The crew was comfortable. Everybody knew what we were doing and there was a great ease and relaxed nature in shooting that first episode.
• There are ten episodes, right?
Ten episodes, yes.
• All ten episodes are ready?
Yeah. All ten episodes are ready.
• Why did you decide to shoot in North Carolina?
A lot of the different states around the country have rebates, tax rebates. If we spend a certain amount of money in the state, we get a certain amount back. What that allows us to do is spend more than we would in, let's say, Los Angeles, and get more money back. We can spend and have a bigger budget.
North Carolina was the right combination of crew, of look, and of tax rebate. It gave us everything we wanted in one place. Actually shooting in Pennsylvania was not as attractive to us as going to North Carolina and pretending it's Pennsylvania.
• So, what exactly have you done to reduce production costs?
We did a number of things, one of which was grouping the episodes together. Each director did two episodes at the same time.
• How many directors?
Four directors. I had to split up one block because a director became unavailable and I had to jump in, but by and large we used European directors. S.J. Clarkson, Miguel Sapochnik, Ole Christian Madsen. We have a mostly international cast and an international directing community. It was a great place for creativity.
You wanted to have as much, you wanted people to bring as much of their vision to the show as I was bringing as well. I wanted every director to take what I did and then take it a step further, and then I wanted the next director to take what I did and they did, and take that a step further, so that each one of us were progressing the visual design of the show, the storytelling of the show.
To finish some of the things we did to save money... I used a lot of technology. I wrote an article about it, but we did something called "the one olive," which was a story that I read about where American Airlines had taken one olive out of their in-flight meal and saved $40,000. One olive. I challenged everybody on the show to find one thing that they can take out that no one will notice, but saves money over the course of the season. If we saved $1,000 a day over 100 days, $100,000 buys another day of shooting. How could we keep putting money back on the screen for the audience?
Instead of flying everybody to New York for the New York sequence, we used Google Street View. We did all of the location scouting from our office in North Carolina. We used Pix, which is a way to stream dailies and footage back and forth without having to ship it, so we didn't have any DVDs. We were paperless, so we didn't have copies of the scripts. Everything was picking up just a little bit of money, and that translated to a richer experience for the audience.
• What about your lead actor Antony Starr? You found him from Cast It right?
Yeah, but it was great because normally he would have to audition in Australia, send it to his agent in New Zealand, send it to L.A., send it to New York. It just would have taken forever. He auditioned and it was up that same day and we saw his audition and we had him in Los Angeles the next morning. It was very exciting.
• Whats the story behind your Title Sequence?
The Title Sequence is designed by Tin Punch Media, which is founded by Biz Stone, who is the co-founder of Twitter, and my brother Jason. I gave the assignment to a number of title houses, because we wanted to have a social component built into the title sequence. I wanted the title sequence to change every week as well as have a social component built into it. They came up with the idea to do this safe dial that will unlock content online and these desktop photographs that change every week. Every time you see an episode of Banshee, the title sequence is telling a different story.
• This company is a startup right?
Yes. It's a startup. It's the first time a Silicon Valley startup has been used by Hollywood to design a title sequence.
• Why Tin Punch Media?
Well, it's a number of things. They actually had the best take on it. A lot of the traditional title houses couldn't wrap their heads around what I was asking. They could make a title sequence that was very straight-forward and interesting, but very traditional. Because Tin Punch Media had never done a title sequence before, they didn't know what the rules were, so they just came up with this incredibly creative thing.
In fact, they made two title sequences. They pitched us two ideas. We used both of them. We used one version that they made for the online series that we did. We've done two things: When Banshee opens, people will see the face of Lucas Hood, and they'll see the back of Lucas Hood. The reason I did that is because one story is moving forward.
"Banshee" the series, all ten episodes, move forward, but there's a whole story of how Lucas Hood was in prison for 15 years, and the years before prison when he was a thief. We have "Banshee Origins" which is a comic book, and an online series is being created all about the back story that happened in the 15 years before the show started.
• You've done so many new things during Banshee. What was your favorite part of the process?
My favorite part is going in and building a world from scratch. It's the daily discovery of the things that will become part of the show. Five towns made Banshee around Charlotte. There's Charlotte, and then there's all of these small towns around Charlotte. Little pieces of all of those towns make Banshee. I feel like a curator at a museum, because of all these towns I have to select the little pieces that will make Banshee.
I had to imagine what Banshee was and then deliver this courthouse, this location, that warehouse, all of these pieces. That was really a lot of fun, and it was funny. That was great, and in building the world I also was building the back story; working with the writers, Jonathan and David, to create what the history of the show was. All of the mythology. It's just great to establish what that is. It's phenomenal. It's like making a ten hour movie. You get to make all three "Lord of the Rings" in one sitting.
• If you had to compare it with your previous works, like "House M.D.", "Lost" or "Heroes", what are the main differences, or, are there any similarities?
I think I would say if you took all of the mythology and curiosity and secrets of "Lost" and mixed it with all of the character drama and emotion of "House", you'd get "Banshee". It's very exciting, because Banshee is so rich, and we've created an experience for the audience that is not like anything anybody's done before.
• Let's talk about technology. How did technology help your work as a Producer and Director?
I consider myself an "iPad Producer".
• "iPad Producer"?!
Yeah. I feel more than ever that the iPad's become such a tool for me. It keeps all of the scripts. What would take a giant bag to fill for Banshee, I have everything at my fingertips. We're Skyping on my iPad right now. I did most of the hiring over Skype. I met with all of my Directors internationally, all of my hires across the country, all from my kitchen. It's a great tool to get ahead of everything that's going on. There isn't that traditional delay of flying somebody in and having to meet them and they're not right. We could upload an episode, and then we could have a conversation about it.
One of the tools that I made for Banshee was a pitch video. I made a video out of other movies, like a trailer for Banshee out of other movies to express what we were doing. We uploaded that online and that would be one thing that we would use to communicate with people. Other places we used technology? We talked about some of the apps we used, but essentially everything is always at my fingertips. I keep my iPad nearby and I'm able to communicate at all times with everybody on the production.
• So you saved a lot of money because of technology.
Tons. People are seeing sequences in the first episode that were made possible by putting as much money on screen so there was no waste. In fact, the online series that everybody can enjoy was all shot between other set-ups. I used some of that savings to pick up time and shoot about an hour of additional content for the audience.
• What was your gear in Banshee? Your camera?
We did three episodes, Episodes Two, Four, and Five on the RED SCARLET, and we did the remaining episodes on the ALEXA.
• How was Scarlet? Compare those two.
We were much more comfortable with the ALEXA. I think both are beautiful cameras. I think what we provided for the Scarlet was field research. I think we gave them a lot of good feedback. We took the Scarlet for three episodes. We tested it in the field. We put together a document of things we'd love to see happen with that camera to make it more suited for Banshee, but the ALEXA was more suited for our needs.
• You shot 1080p with the Scarlet?
We shot 4k on the Scarlet, or 2k on the Scarlet. I can't remember. I have to check, but I think we were shooting at least 2k.
• You had the same DP in all ten episodes?
Yes, Chris Faloona shot all ten episodes of Banshee.
• Do you see yourself using DSLRs again?
We did a couple of times in Banshee. We looked at DSLR for Banshee. It didn't give us the look that I wanted for the show. Obviously, as you know, since I shot "House" on it, I am fond of it. For the needs I had, it wasn't the right tool for the job in this case.
• Do you think that the "DSLR revolution" is dead now? Lots of people have DSLRs now, but the whole thing two years ago was really big.
Yeah. It was great to be at the front end of that. I think it started the evolution, as it should. It should be the seed of what comes next. I think what the DSLR revolution did was bring to the foreground alternative formats that were acceptable to shoot for broadcast and film. What should evolve are smaller, more compact, incredibly versatile cameras that would continue to develop. It's kind of great that it happened, and it's great that it evolved into the next thing.
• And they also pushed the other companies to lower their prices.
• For example, RED cut 50% of their camera prices. You can buy a RED One for $4,000, or you can buy an EPIC half price. I think the whole thing is about pricing.
They're all tools. You still have to have a great story and great talent to best utilize them. That world is going to continue to grow.
• Ok Greg, how do you see the future of television?
It's a good question. I think the future is sort of starting to happen with what we're doing on Banshee. The reason why I feel that, is because the future of TV simply can't be just the TV show you're making. It needs to be all of the components. For us, I look at the comic book and I look at the online series, and I look at the show all as the same thing. All of that material needs to be there. It just can't be one episode. Every episode needs a world, and I think you're responsible now to do that.
If you think about it, when I came on to Banshee, it was 2011. We made the show in 2012. It's airing in 2013. If we have a Season Two, that will be 2014. Season Three, 2015. We're trying to make the moves now to make Banshee a show that can evolve with the TV viewer. I felt that "House" didn't evolve. We made the end of House happen, and that was great, but I didn't feel that the series evolved with the way people were watching TV, and I think that hurt the show and brought it to a premature conclusion.
My goal with "Banshee" is that people engage it and then we have all of the infrastructure that when we air in 2013 or 2014 or 2015, it naturally progresses, because everything is going to change two years from now.
• How about the "Hawaii Five-0" move to allow viewers to choose the ending of an episode in real time via Twitter?
I do not feel that anyone has cracked the second screen experience. I don't feel that people are really watching TV shows live. A lot of people are streaming them or downloading them, watching them time-delayed. I don't think that an interactive experience that is happening live is particularly appealing or is particularly forward-thinking.
I also don't really believe much in putting the fate of a show in people's hands. I think it's cute that for Hawaii 5-0 you can pick the ending because the filmmakers are still shooting it, but if it can be voted upon what the ending is, then there's no clear vision as to what the ending is. Do you know what I mean?
I feel like, for "Banshee", we come from such a strong point of view, that that kind of gimmick really wouldn't work for us. If you are a more mainstream show, like Hawaii 5-0, that that's kind of a fun thing to do to get some attention, but I think week to week, I don't think that's a healthy model.
• They say that the web is the new TV, but I don't really see it.
I don't see it yet... I think there's a convergence still yet to happen. I think everybody's trying to proclaim it, like snake oil. Everybody's got the miracle cure, but nobody really has it yet. It's still a couple of years off.
• Ok, last question. What's the best way to reduce production costs and have quality television at the same time?
One of the things that we did, for example, I felt that "Banshee" did not need a well-known name to hinge the show on. The money that normally gets spent for one actor with a well-known name, we could get four phenomenally talented actors for.
Being able to do that and give people opportunities to do something they didn't normally get to do gave us huge rewards. The most important thing is telling a great story, and being hungry, working with new voices, trusting new voices, trying to find new talent. I think that is a great way to go, but I feel like keeping a model that is fiscally responsible is the way to keep yourself on the air. Make a good show and in close second, make a show that's responsible financially. If you can do those things, people will find it. Everybody loves a great story.
• Nice. If you had to put it in one word: What is Banshee about?