How Cinemax’s ‘Quarry’ pulled off the year’s best-directed TV sequence

Cinemax's '70s action drama Quarry was among the best-looking TV shows to air in 2016, and tonight's first season finale was its most visually impressive, highlighted by a nine-plus minute Vietnam battle that looked like a “oner,” showbiz parlance for a long scene filmed in a single take. There were actually a few hidden edits in there, but the great bulk of it really was shot in one take, which required an absurd amount of preparation on behalf of director Greg Yaitanes and the rest of the cast and crew.

Yaitanes, a TV veteran who most recently was the producing director on Cinemax's Banshee, joined some elite company when he directed all 8 hours of this season – a feat that's placed him in impressive company with Steven Soderbergh (The Knick), Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective season 1), Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot season 2), and David Lynch (the upcoming Twin Peaks revival), who have each directed entire seasons of their respective shows. With Yaitanes, it wasn't just about having the endurance to pull it off, but the technical proficiency to incorporate a oner into every episode, and the visual flair to make Quarry look gorgeous even when the camera was being perfectly still as we watched two characters talk.

Last week, I spoke with Yaitanes about the logistics of tonight's Vietnam sequence, Banshee lessons that turned out to be useful for Quarry, his thoughts on Quarry's future, and more.

How long did the Vietnam massacre sequence take to film? And how long did it take to prep all of that?

Greg Yaitanes: It was a season-long preparation. The actual filming of the sequence took two days, plus a day of full dress rehearsal. We actually took a day of production just to run it, and run it, and run it, and run it, so that we knew. We were ready to shoot it if we got it, but it took all of that. With all the elements, all the people, all the costumes, if anything wasn't going to work, we wanted to know ahead of that shot, because there were so many factors of things that were going to make it very, very difficult.
With the preparation, I took a cue from when I was watching a 60 Minutes piece about how they had built a replica of Osama Bin Laden's compound in North Carolina to run drills. We had a field across from stage, and we set up very rudimentary shapes of the village, and started working out a path, because we had to build the village. It wasn't one of those things that we could walk into and rehearse. We had to create it, build it, go to it, start working it out. In between that, along the way, the preparation and the elaborate nature of the preparation kept growing. Eventually it went from the field, to walking it in the actual space that we did the village, building the huts, running it with stunts, recording it on our iPhones, working it out, going up Sundays. Probably all in, months of preparation went into that, so it was happening in parallel to the rest of the season.

That's very impressive. How many takes ultimately did you have to do on that full day of shooting to get it all to your satisfaction?

Greg Yaitanes: That is take 12 that you're looking at. It was actually the last take we could do that day, because we were going to run out of actual practical effects. Every time we did it, we had to reload, set up all the mortars, do everything. It's all practical. We would have takes that would almost get there, and then something would happen right there. Actually, when you see the scene, Logan (Marshall-Green)'s gun jamming towards the end of the sequence actually happened, and we were very fortunate that he went with it, because literally, we were burning the set around him. There was no going back if that take had fallen apart.

The thing I'm taught about things that seem to be oners is that often there are seams, and there are ways to hide them and work around them. Is take 12 a complete, unedited take?

Greg Yaitanes: No. The first 7 1/2 minutes are a complete take. There's 2 seams. There's one when the plane flies overhead. It wasn't that we couldn't do it; these were just safety concerns. The issue was that on the second half, once the plane flies over us and then we come back down on Mac, that's when the napalm happens. That required a certain vigilance that we had to pay attention to, so we (cut) for a lot of considerations, safety being the first one. That's where the first break happens. Those practical effects happen.

Then the second break is as he throws the grenade in, and it explodes. That's the second chunk, because we had to light some people on fire, and that is our only focus. While we could have very easily physically pulled it off, we had to make 2 breaks. The first 7 1/2 minutes, from when the group decides to go into Quan Thang, all the way to the plane coming overhead is one unbroken take.

There was, as you just described, an enormous amount of preparation and work to get this right. Why was it so important to you that you try to present it as a oner?

Greg Yaitanes: When I had read the material when I had come on, the guys write in such a way that there was such a strong point of view of character. In doing that, wanted to present not only just that scene, but really every episode has a long, unbroken take within it. That was part of the grounding visual design that I landed on when I started to formulate it: The attack in Quan Thang, the bus attack with Marcus in episode 5, and the sequence in episode 6 where Mac is running with the shotgun, and even Mac coming back to the house in episode 1. 
It started to branch out from there that we would have these long takes where we would experience things as the character was experiencing them. The Vietnam sequence especially, looking at all the references, looking at the shoulders of giants I was trying to accomplish Vietnam on… it was very daunting. Wanting to present it in a way that hadn't been seen or experienced in the genre was also a consideration.

I assumed watching the early episodes that you built that house, or picked that house, with the idea of doing lots of long takes in it in mind. Was that correct?

Greg Yaitanes: Yeah. We had to build the pool in the back. Because of the water table in New Orleans, not a lot of people have pools. Trying to find the perfect house with an actual, functioning, 35-foot pool in the back was impossible. I found the house. We had looked at multiple options. I had seen things that could work. I picked that particular house because it flowed well, and it had a certain geography. There was an image that I had that was inspired by The Searchers: Mac in the door frame. It was kind of a mix of The Searchers and Citizen Kane. Mac at the doorway, and Joni kind of deep through the window. Paralleling that at the end of the pilot was also in my head. When I found that house, that image was going to be possible to achieve. Most of the time you're seeing that house, it's actually on stage, except for sequences like that, where we go to the locations and shoot them.

The Quan Thang sequence required much more work than any of these others, but when you're doing at least one of these per episode, how much more work was required to do these? For Logan and the other actors, was it easier on them, or did it require an extra level of preparation that they wouldn't ordinarily have when a scene's more broken up traditionally?

Greg Yaitanes:    Especially when they incorporate stunts. We do something I started doing on Banshee and I carried into Quarry, which is we do a very elaborate  pre-visualization, usually shot on an iPhone. Something where we know exactly how it's going to move, what we're going to see, and what is needed from everybody. The bus attack was pretty elaborate. That required a lot of preparation. The Suggs and Joni fight in the fishing cabin, which is a oner, was also pre-visualized.
Doing these and shooting them, it is the kind of sequence you cannot possibly work out on a day of shooting. It would be so phenomenally wasteful, and there's a million things you need to have. You need to make sure certain things are padded. If you recall in Banshee season 1, when Carrie and Olek are fighting in the loft, the entire loft was actually built out of rubber. It was a rubber sink, and a rubber floor, and a rubber table, and everything. They could go smashing into everything, because the entire space was padded. That was something that you had to look at what the fight was going to be, and then make sure that everything was ready to accomplish it.

I remember on Banshee, the Nola/Burton fight, when the camera's going up, around, and through the car, I believe there was some digital chicanery going on there, but just watching that, I was thinking, “Holy cow. How was the actually filmed?” That was definitely a show where you got to have some fun and adventure in the ways in which the camera moved.

Greg Yaitanes:   The Nola/Burton fight was a great warm-up to Quan Thang, because that took a month of preparation. It took two weeks just to train Odie and Matt to be physically ready for the fight, and then two more weeks to train them in the choreography. As we were doing that, in parallel we were working out the mechanics and the breaks for the shot.

It paid off. It's definitely all there on the screen.

Greg Yaitanes:    It paid off. We do it in a way that is not indulgent. The car chase in episode 2, the unbroken take when we're in the car with Mac chasing after the gun deal goes bad – that we could do on an iPhone, but ultimately we were like, “Alright, we have to build a steering cage and a steering wheel for the stuntman on the roof, so it looks like Mac is driving, but in fact, we're doing all the work, but that's still Logan in there smashing into the other cars.”

When you talk about not being indulgent, that's a debate that I often have with some other critics and fans: When a show does a oner or when a movie does a oner, what is the line at which it ceases to be of narrative value and is just calling attention to itself, “Hey, look at what we pulled off here”? Where do you feel that line exists? Or does it not matter to you?

Greg Yaitanes:    No, it's something I am very aware of. My first way into Quarry was working from the acting and the writing out. That was the mandate of the visual design, is that the priority is the acting and the writing. Meaning when I stage the scene and the actors have discovered the scene, what is the best version of the scene? That will dictate the visual, how it's shot. It was very rarely the other way around.
For example, I could have this big idea that Quan Thang was a oner, but it was ultimately going to have to feel organic and move. Logan was a creative partner in that, because where his choreography goes, that's how I'll design the shot. These are the things that I have to be sensitive to. As you're going, you're like, “All right, tweak that a little bit to make sure I'm telling this story,” but my goal was that my work was as invisible as possible.
I think often with these oners, maybe if you're watching in a sophisticated way, halfway through or two-thirds of the way through it dawns on you that you haven't cut yet. I don't like showy oners. I don't like Steadicams spinning around 360 for no apparent reason. I really moved away from slick and showy in this part of my career. I think anything deliberately calling attention to the direction and the camera just feels off, intuitively for me. That's what the line is for me. The second you start noticing the craft, then you're not there. I think the best is when you're admiring what's happening, but you're fully immersed in the visceral experience.

I want to talk a little bit about the visual palette of the show away from those oners. In terms of the quality of the light, in the way you chose to frame images, what were you going for overall in crafting the look of this show?

Greg Yaitanes:    I was working with Pepe (Avila del Pino), our DP, for the first time. He was actually just getting out of NYU Film School. Logan had done a thesis film with him and said he had a great vibe and that I should meet him. I happened to be in New York and met with Pepe. Instantly, when he had read the material and showed me a visual deck that he had put together to present himself, the images were either exactly what I had been referencing, or emotionally what I had been referencing. There was a use of texture and soft light, and again, everything feeling that it was not being lit, and just was practically existing, meaning that it was lights that felt like they were on in the house. Framing-wise, I wanted to be on the ground with the characters, so no dollies, no Steadicams, things that felt outwardly modern that would possibly jar you.
Trying to keep the spell of the '70s was pretty critical for me. I would go back and watch Friends of Eddie Coyle, Straight Time, Death Wish, Dirty Harry, Deerhunter, Coming Home. Not to shoot it like a '70s film, but just see how they existed and sunk into the period. Films that came out in '72 are now period films, but they weren't then. I wanted that same fully-inhabited visual tapestry, that you're in it and it's not distracting. The period melts away. I reference Blade Runner as a great period film because Harrison Ford isn't impressed that his car flies because cars fly. It just exists, and nobody is impressed by it. That was one inspiration.
The other area (of reference) was Blue Valentine, Place Beyond the Pines, Drive. Things that had either very graphic framing, without a lot of movement, and stillness, or hand-held, but in a very unpredicted way. I wanted to give it a balance between a '70's film, with a modern eye.

It's funny that you mention the stillness of it, because as impressive as a lot of those oners are, I think of something like Mac in the empty pool with Bill Irwin talking about gospel music, or Mac and Joni sitting on the floor of the bathroom, and just the blue tile behind them. Those are amazing images, and the camera's not moving at all.

Greg Yaitanes:    Yeah, you're picking a couple of my favorite scenes there. That kind of intimacy and trust in the acting and the writing was something that came very easy. I don't think I could have made Quarry at any other time in my career but now. I just feel that the craft came from a place of living life and experiencing life, and being able to find that foothold in all the relationships that exist within the show. Those moments felt, to me, present.
We shot single camera, that was the other thing that I wanted to do, which is one of the conversations that Pepe and I have had.  This is to Cinemax's credit for really being happy with the visual palette of The Knick, was approaching this unlike traditional television, and to make it cinematic, and those kinds of choices were really supported by the network. We shot single camera, and we didn't get into master, over-the-shoulder, over-the-shoulder, single, single type of stuff for scenes. When we use a close-up, it has impact. When we do a quiet scene like that, it's very simply designed, and everything is individually framed. I'd say 90% of the movie, with the exception of a couple of the action sequences, were shot with a single camera.

You directed all 8 of these. This is a thing that 5, 10 years ago would have been unheard of. Now it's not becoming standard, but it's becoming a thing that some people are trying. What made you want to do it, and what allowed you to pull it off?

Greg Yaitanes:    Years ago, I had directed a miniseries called Children of Dune, which was James McAvoy's first American job. It was a 6-hour mini. I directed 100 consecutive days. I directed my second unit on Saturdays and Sundays. It was a phenomenal experience. That was a 6-hour, so I knew I was capable of that – that I had the endurance for it. Cinemax approached me as well, after Banshee, to take on all 8, and would I be interested in that? I gave it all the consideration and found that I could channel all the energy that I usually put into producing other directors – something I really really find rewarding – and focus all of that energy back into the show. That intrigued me, taking an episodic series and doing the entire run of 8. I would say by day 50 and 60 I was having a runner's high, it was such a phenomenal creative experience. By the time I got to day 85, I absolutely could have done 85 more days. It just was a phenomenal creative environment, unlike anything I've experienced before.

Do you feel like this is going to become more commonplace now?

Greg Yaitanes: The benefit was we had all 8 scripts. That's something that you don't have the luxury of having, and that's really the secret to it. I took a cue from Banshee also in the way that I scheduled. What we did was, on Banshee, because each episode is so logistically mad, we'd take two days off between blocks of episodes. That gives us a day to have everybody focused on what the needs are of that episode. We go re-scout it, and then we do a big production meeting. Those are two pretty intense days. We call them “prep hiatus” days. We did the same thing at Quarry. Every 20 days, we would re-scout the next 20 days, have a production meeting about those next 20 days. That kept us from ever having to shut down, or stop, or go in fits and starts. It was a very smooth production.

For the most part, the other directors who have directed entire seasons themselves have been people coming from features. You've worked in features, but you're primarily a television director. Is there any part of you that felt competitive and wanted to say, “Hey, we can do this too,” or does that not enter into it?

Greg Yaitanes:    I don't come from that place. There's a great line from The Sopranos in one of the later seasons, I don't remember which one. There was the garbage route, and Tony ends up getting shot and in the hospital over the route that the garbage trucks are taking. When the other boss comes to see him in the hospital and tries to make amends, Tony nods and he says, “There's plenty of garbage for everybody.” That's kind of how I feel, like there's plenty of garbage for everybody. I'm just worried about the work I'm doing.
I don't feel competitive with other filmmakers. I think we're all working to the same goal. When I see great craft, I don't care who's doing it, what network it's on, where they came from. I just love it and celebrate it, and I just worry about the work I'm doing and what's right for the projects I'm doing.
It did not go unnoticed that it put me in a very exclusive club of people that have done this, but I don't come from a flashy film background. TV's been a great home for me, and being able to do that work kind of unnoticed, and not putting that out in the foreground was perfectly fine for me. I just continue to want to make sure that that's what it's about. I think when you start spinning out on what other people are doing and trying to chase something, you're really on a one-way ticket to things not working out the way you want them to.

Let's flip that around. You've worked with a lot of directors in TV over the years. Over the time that this has been airing, have you been hearing from any of them saying, “Wow, I'd like to do this now”? Or, “How the hell did you pull this off, Greg?”

Greg Yaitanes:    A bit. I've been very happy with the response. I think your good words brought some eyeballs to it. Other people that I have worked with that have seen it have reached out to me, and that's rewarding, because you're often in such a singular job title. You don't usually get to see other directors' work. We're all so busy. Miguel Sapochnik was someone that I brought into television, and mentored and guided into television out of movies. When I see his success, and I see how well that's going, I find that incredibly rewarding. At the same time, when he sees Quarry and understands and picks up the details and nuances, that's someone I respect and care for, and those are often as good as any great review.
When you get something out of your bubble – because I've been living with Quarry for two years – and it goes out into the world, and you see how the critics respond, or you see how the fans respond, that ultimately is exactly what you hoped for. That's what it's made for, it goes out, and people see it and enjoy it.

What is your sense of the future for the project right now?

Greg Yaitanes:    Hard to say. What I like about the way things work at Cinemax is that there's a careful curation to the choices, and where things are going to go, and how they're going to lay out. Quarry's no different. It's a meaningful project. There's a lot of all of us in it (at Cinemax and Anonymous Content), and we'd all love to see it go on.  When Cinemax is ready, they'll make a decision on that.

If there is another season, would you do all 8 again, or once was enough at least for now?

Greg Yaitanes:    No – I mean, look, I'm gearing up to do Manifesto, which is the story of the guy they called the Unabomber, for Discovery. I'll direct a big chunk of that, if not the whole thing, depending on how logistics end up working out and what teams make the most sense. I'd absolutely go back to the world of Quarry. I'd love to now take what I know and build upon it, would be phenomenal. I have a whole plan for that should it come, but I think there's an alchemy to it that's really unique, and I feel very satisfied. I think that people will respond to the finale. I'm most curious to see the vet reaction to the finale. I felt we were tapping into a bit of a nerve with it, based on trying to get vets to consult with us during those sequences in episode 8. I'm very interested to see how the reaction to 8 goes. My heart and soul is laid out there in those episodes.

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