The Cinemax drama Banshee is about an ex-con who finds a badge and assumes the role of unconventional lawman in the small town of Banshee, Pa. And that’s about as perfect a plot as you can imagine for the series’ showrunner, Greg Yaitanes, an unconventional filmmaker who has found new ways to use technology to change the way Hollywood makes TV. And like its money-savvy EP, Banshee came in on budget and attracted enough of an audience to be renewed for a second season.
Yaitanes, who first gained notice for an episode of House that beat the pilots of Mad Men and Breaking Bad for the 2008 best directing Emmy, also parlayed a family friendship with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Biz Stone into early investments in several start-ups, including Twitter.
Growing up in Wellesley, south of Boston, Yaitanes says he wasn’t good at sports but at 14 knew instantly what to do with a camcorder. He planned to go into psychology until he read in Rolling Stone that you actually could study filmmaking in college. He became the only kid from New England admitted to the University of Southern California’s film school.
He never got his degree, but completed his student short film in an editing room at Universal next door to John Woo, who was working on his first American film, Hard Target. Yaitanes says he was influenced by how Woo maintained an emphasis on character amid a “beautiful ballet of violence and action.”
Yaitanes’ short film Rorschach, a black-andwhite psychological thriller about a man trapped in a mental hospital, started his career off right. He got an agent and a job directing a straight-to-video karate movie called Hard Justice that he calls the first of all the John Woo knock-offs. Rorschach also found its way to action star Steven Seagal, who wanted Yaitanes to direct a movie for him. Yaitanes got a three-picture deal with Warner Bros., and after getting an education on what words like “development” and “turnaround” mean in Hollywood, he decided that doing TV would be a better option than sorting mail at a law firm.
He began directing segments of America’s Most Wanted, then Jerry Bruckheimer’s Soldier of Fortune Inc. “Syndication was like a minor league to the major league networks at the time,” Yaitanes says. He moved up to directing shows including Nash Bridges, Heroes and Lost before landing at House.
“I was invited to start producing House its last four years,” Yaitanes says. “With the Emmy came a lot of offers….But I was really intrigued because with House, I saw that here was a great show that was not being well run. It was inefficient, it was complacent, it was doing well in spite of the way it was physically being made.” Yaitanes produced a list of changes he wanted to make. When they were all deemed acceptable, he took the job.
As House wound down, he had two goals for what to do next: work with HBO and with Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under and TrueBlood.
He “stalked” one of Ball’s projects, Banshee. And when HBO’s Cinemax channel needed a showrunner for the series, Yaitanes got the job. “He actually put together a reel, about a five-minute reel, that laid out his vision for the show,” says Kary Antholis, president of Cinemax. “He spoke very persuasively about how he would organize the show, how he would shoot it, and he made the choice very easy for us.”
Cinemax is ramping up its original programming, but it doesn’t have HBO-sized budgets, “so we really had to be scrappy,” Yaitanes says. Technology was one way he saved money— from using Google Earth to scout locations in New York rather than flying there, to using Skype to conduct interviews—and by circulating scripts, notes and dailies digitally using an iPad app Yaitanes helped develop.
Yaitanes’ mantra is to spend money on things that will be seen on screen and to squeeze out small expenses—much like American Airlines did in the 1980s, when they saved $40,000 by eliminating one olive from the inflight salad (Yaitanes even calls his production company One Olive).
“People who got [the show] are coming back for season two,” Yaitanes says. “The people who didn’t quite get it are moving on. I’m going to build Banshee around people who are creative and are storytellers and also understand that the physical way we make the show is important.”
“He’s always coming up with ways to do things that are very efficient,” says an admiring Alan Ball. “I know that the show looks more expensive than it is. And that means that somebody is being really creative, and I think Greg’s behind that. He has a profound love for the action genre. And he brought a real enthusiasm and very sure hand to the table, and I think it’s evident in how the show works.”
Another unusual move was shooting Banshee’s fourth episode first. “I was always frustrated with the pilot process because it’s usually the worst episode,” Yaitanes says. Doing it Yaitanes’ way kept the episode from being buried in notes and overexplanations of situations and characters.
Yaitanes also built Banshee’s audience by making it one of the most social shows on television. For the rowdy community of “Fanshees,” he’s created online mini-films showing character backstories, hidden codes in the show opening and dropped added scenes after the credits, extending the storytelling.
“As someone who’s intimately aware of how these social platforms work and can help to create a community around a show and build audience loyalty, he’s just been a tremendous added value. Not just to Banshee, but for the entire Cinemax endeavor,” Antholis says.
Last November, Yaitanes married Sheena Zadeh, an artist and actress with a recurring part in Banshee. “I’m a dad,” he adds. “If I have any spare time, and there’s very little, I want to spend time with my new wife and my two boys.” He holds Friday screenings for Banshee with food and wine. “It’s been kind of great to use this show that I’ve worked so hard on for the past year and be able to make a communal experience out of it for our close friends.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette
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