Interview: Jonathan Tropper (BANSHEE)

Credit Greg YaitanesJonathan Tropper first made a name for himself writing about the personal struggles of suburban families in bestselling books like THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, HOW TO TALK TO A WIDOWER and THE BOOK OF JOE.

With the hit Cinemax show BANSHEE, Jonathan has created an action-packed television series that maintains the masterful character studies and multifaceted plots that readers have come to expect from his acclaimed dramedy novels.

We spoke with Jonathan about the fourth and final season of BANSHEE, the writing process for the series and our shared love of SIX FEET UNDER.

Can you tell me about your pitch for BANSHEE and how you ended up co-writing the entire first season with David Schickler?

More or less. We separated a few episode towards the end of the first season, but we did do that whole season without a writers’ room.

I started out as a novelist, as did David. We’d both been invited by various outlets like HBO, Showtime and broadcast networks to come pitch television. Having done that a few times with no success, we were both a little frustrated.

I wasn’t getting anywhere selling the kind of shows that they seem to want me to sell, which were more akin to my novels, which are all very different from BANSHEE.

I had this idea—probably since high school—about a criminal who steals an identity to become a cop.  David and I sat down and started fleshing out that show.

We developed what we thought was a really solid pitch for HBO. To stack the deck, we pitched it to Alan Ball to see if he’d want to come on as an executive producer. We were both huge fans of SIX FEET UNDER and TRUEBLOOD.  BANSHEE had a bit of a dark comic graphic novel feel that we thought he might really enjoy. We pitched it to him and he came on board.  Then, we went into HBO with him. We pretty much sold it in the room—right around the time we got to the Amish gangster they bought the show.

David and I had spent so long developing it that we wrote the pilot very quickly. We knew the pilot by heart from the pitch.  Then, it stalled for a while and that was right around the time that everyone was getting into the programming business. HBO had decided that Cinemax, which is owned by HBO, should also start doing original programming.

Cinemax had begun doing some co-productions like STRIKE BACK and were getting into the business of making their own shows. Kary Antholis, who was running Cinemax and also does miniseries for HBO, became aware of the script, looked at it and wooed us over to become Cinemax’s flagship show.

Was it hard to sell an idea for an action show, which is radically different from the kind of storytelling you and David had become known for writing?

When we sold it to HBO, it was less an action show and more in line with David Cronenberg or the Coen Brothers, with off-kilter weird places and moments of brutal violence. It was not an action show.  That show requires a real deftness of tone, character work and we had done enough of that in the pitch that we were convincing.

When the show moved to Cinemax, they actually asked us to rewrite the pilot and ordered additional episodes from us so we could prove our action chops.  Since both of us had grown up being huge action fans, we felt confident that we had them.

When you started writing, were you focusing on first creating this town of Banshee, Pennsylvania, or did you focus on developing Lucas Hood (Antony Starr)? Both seem equally essential to BANSHEE?

On a personal level, I was always character first and story later.  We were very focused on Lucas Hood and his journey, and everything was an outgrowth of that.  The parameters we set within the town itself were, just like Lucas Hood was a cop who was really a criminal, everything and everyone in the town systematically had to once have been something else.  The show really became a show about identity – who we are versus who we used to be. Or seem to be.

Lucas Hood is kind of like the man who would be king.  He came in as an imposter and gradually starts to feel like he’s supposed to be there in that role. The town itself, everyone has a secret.  Everybody used to be something else.  The gangster used to be an Amish farmer.  The police station used to be a used car dealership.  We have a deputy who shows up in season 3 who used to be a Neo-Nazi. Essentially everyone there has a past they’re running from and has been reinvented in some way. That informed both the way we attacked creating Banshee the town and the way we attacked every character.

Lucas is a fascinating character study.  He still runs toward his demons in so many ways and his identity has shifted over the show’s four seasons.  How much of that is attributable to the way the writing of the show has proceeded?

It’s all been very organic.  Lucas’ journey was plotted from the very beginning–that this is a guy who gets out of prison and simply wants to get what’s his.  He wants to take back what was taken from him:  His woman, his money, his life.  His manner of trying to take that back is incredibly destructive and selfish.

Gradually, as he fails to attain any of that, a certain desperation overtakes him. At the same time, for the first time in his life, a sense of responsibility starts to come into that as he starts to care about people and as the people he cares about start to become victims of his quest. He develops a real sense of responsibility for all of that. Forget not being able to escape his past.  He’s now unable to even escape his present.  He’s becoming a prisoner of his own actions.

Every season we look at Lucas Hood and we’re saying, “Look at what he’s done.  Look at what the consequences have been.  Where does that put him emotionally now?  Where does that put him psychologically?”

That’s been ramped up every season to the point where, in season 3, probably the last potential pure thing in his life—the love he has with his deputy Siobhan—he indirectly causes her death, or at least fails to prevent her death.  After that, he’s got nowhere left to go.  At the end of the season, when he fails to stop them from taking Job (Hoon Lee), who for all intents and purposes is his truest and oldest friend, he’s basically giving up.  He feels like his presence in the world is just a destructive one.

How different was it for you when you started with the writers’ room in the second season? Did that drastically change the story?

I thought it was a mistake not to have formed a room for the first season.  I’d never done TV before and while we were figuring out how to make the show, Cinemax continued to order back episodes from us.  By the time we were prepping the show, we already had six episodes written.  At that point, they said, “Look, you guys have already written six.  Why don’t you just write the last four?”

We ignorantly said, “Yeah, that would be awesome,” not understanding that once we got into the actual running of the show, there’s no time for that.  We didn’t understand we would be constantly rewriting the first six episodes to budget, to set, to production.  We looked up around shooting our fourth episode and realized that we’re going to run out of script in two episodes. We’d been too busy casting and overseeing production and rewriting those first six scripts to write the last four.  We really had to buckle down and write those four.

The other downside was we really didn’t have a brain trust.  There was nobody to protect the script if we couldn’t be on set.  If one of us couldn’t be on set, there was nobody who understood the intentions of things.  There were times nobody was able to prep an incoming director.  I got out of season 1 barely alive.

Tell me a bit about the writing room and the process inside the writing room for BANSHEE.

I was new to TV and, because I never staffed on another show, I did not understand how long other shows keep their rooms. I ran a really short writers’ room. I basically hired writers, broke 10 episodes in about two to three weeks.  We would then break the room.

Everyone would go off and write.  I’d write some episodes.  Other people would write episodes.  Then I’d look at those episodes, I’d vet those episodes.  Then we’d come back together and trouble-shoot the season for another three weeks, having now found where the holes are, where the problems are, what’s working, what’s not working.  At the end of those three weeks, the room was over.  Then people would go off and write and the scripts would come to me.

At that point, the writers would have moved on.  Then I was responsible for taking those ten scripts and doing all the final passes and rewrites until we produced them.

Was that able to change during the third and fourth season writing process?

Yes.  I gradually learned that there needed to be additional writing producers, people who stayed with the show throughout the process.  In season 2, we did do that.  We had one or two writers who did write scripts and then come down and produce their episodes, which took a lot of weight off of me as I was getting more involved.

Greg Yaitanes had come on board in season 1 to be the producing director of the show. He did a lot of pivotal showrunning.  I was gradually growing into that role.  I tried to find writers who could come down and produce their own episodes and free me up.  Adam Targum ended up coming on as a co-executive producer in season 3 and then executive producer in season 4. But we’ve never had from year to year an ongoing brain trust. We’re such a fast-shooting show because we don’t have the biggest budget and we never had one of those long-term writers’ rooms.

In between seasons, writers would take other jobs.  I could almost never get a writer back because we couldn’t offer them that security that a 9-month writers’ room on a network show could offer them. I never was able to retain writers from year to year.  As a result, I went through four seasons being largely the only fully informed writer until hiring Targum as executive producer, which gave me somebody to share that with me in 3 and 4.

How did this work in the fourth and final season?

We rewrite constantly up until we shoot, but we’ve always had the bulk of our episode writing work done before we went into prep.  10 episodes isn’t a lot of time.  Generally, I always write the last episode, and I wouldn’t write that until we started production.  Once in a while the penultimate episode might not be written, but we always went into every season with six to eight episodes written.

We do a lot of stunts and stunts as written can never actually work in the physical world. Once we spend time with our stunt team developing the fights and the stunts, the scripts have to change.  Once we found out what locations we could have or not have, the scripts would have to change.  Very often you’d write a scene, then we’d scout a location and the scene would have to be completely rewritten based on the location.

We have had to rewrite episodes based on when certain guest actors are available.  There’s constant rewriting. We went into every season with the episodes largely in place except for the last one or two, which I would get done over the course of the season.

Let’s talk about writing choreography because there’s so much wonderful choreography in BANSHEE.  I’m guessing that it’s beneficial that you’ve written these very wonderful novels and that helped you in writing the choreography.

I think, because I’m a novelist, I write really detailed scripts. It’s actually been a source of frustration to me when I hire writers who’ve been long-term writers’ room writers, because some have habits of knowing the stuff the showrunner’s going to rewrite anyway and they don’t really put a lot of effort into scripting out the choreography.

I had one writer I hired who followed his outline and when we got to the scene of a big fight, he just wrote “They fight.”  Then he moved on to the next scene. He was basically leaving me to write his fight scenes.  I think fight scenes, like everything else, are part of telling the story.  Having been a huge action fan, and also being a novelist who pays attention to detail, I will literally write every punch and kick of the fight.  I will write exactly what happens in the fight.  That doesn’t mean that’s what ends up on screen, but at least I conveyed my own version of what the story of that fight is.

The stunt guys will take it and they’ll develop it, because that’s their expertise, and they’ll come up with better ideas, or things that they feel will translate better on screen and tell the same story I’m trying to tell.  I’ll rewrite it based on what they’ve designed, but they wouldn’t design what they design if I don’t write a really detailed fight that gives them the idea of what I’m going for.   So, yes, our fights are every bit a detailed as any other scene on the page.

Can you give me an example of a scene that went from the script to the screen just as you imagined it or even better than you imagined it?

The greatest fan reaction we got was to a fight we did in season 3 between the ruthless Clay Burton (Matthew Rauch) and this female assassin Nola Longshadow (Odette Annable).  These were two of our deadliest characters who had never actually met.

We decided in season 3 that they were going to have to do battle with each other. We knew that if that happened, only one of them could survive and nobody would have any idea who that would be.  These were two skilled, deadly fighter. Up until this point, they had never been bested by an opponent on our show.  I wrote that fight scene with Adam Targum.  We wrote an incredibly detailed fight scene and we wrote a very specific way in which Nola ultimately gets killed by Burton.  It’s a very graphic, gruesome death.

That death, and the way that fight opens and closes, certainly made it onto the screen exactly as written, which was a challenge in its own right. The entire middle choreography of that fight was developed by our stunt team.  They decided to base the fight around this Rolls Royce that was parked in the driveway. They were fighting on the Rolls Royce, inside the Rolls Royce, through the Rolls Royce.  Burton ultimately wins the fight by using the hood ornament of the Rolls Royce.  They developed a crazy bit of choreography for that fight.  The fight goes on for 3 or 4 minutes of screen time and it is way more than we wrote. It’s much more imaginative than we wrote.

They always shoot a rehearsal of it, and when I saw that, I was actually against it.  I thought they had taken it way too far. I was shouted down by everybody.  They shouted and I figured that in post I would just cut bits of it out.  In the end, there was nothing that I wanted to cut out of it.  That was when the stunt team really took something and developed it to a whole new level that’s way beyond what we could have written.

That was season 3. Now it is your fourth and final season. What are your feelings on wrapping it up and on writing the closing chapter to BANSHEE?

I made the decision that the 4th season would be our last season.  We certainly didn’t have to end after four.  The show was getting the ratings the network needed and the network was very happy with the show, but I’m terrified of a show that sticks around past its due date.

We were sitting in the writers’ room and we were developing the plot of the season and it just felt like we were trying too hard. We had always planned BANSHEE to be a five-season show. I knew what the end-point was.  It felt like we were trying to invent story to keep it going another season.  It felt like we were losing the juice of our show.

One of the things about BANSHEE that I’ve tried to do for every single episode is pack in a lot more story into one episode than a lot of shows do in half a season.  We jam our episodes with plot and we don’t follow a conventional one-hour model.  We don’t build up to a climax in the 48th minute and then a little bit of a wind down.  Sometimes something bad will happens 10 minutes in and then there’s 30 minutes of story and then there’s something else surprising.  We really try to remain unpredictable in our format.

I wanted to make sure we maintained the quality of the storytelling, the quality of the action, the quality of these characters.  We were pushing it by going for that fifth season, whereas I knew if we made this fourth season the last season, we had a good amount of story and the right emotional arc for Lucas Hood to take him to the end of his story.  I didn’t want to fill another 8 to 10 episodes to avoid getting there sooner.  So we made that decision.  When it was explained to the network that way and I pitched them what my story would be for the final season, they agreed and that was the direction we took.

That said, I wish I didn’t feel that way because who knows when you’ll get another show on the air?  I think nobody wants to let go of a show that people are watching, that’s keeping a lot of people employed and that’s keeping you busy and in the conversation. At the same time, I wanted to leave the conversation while everyone still thought very highly of us.

With the show ending, do you plan to stay working in television or will you work in another medium?

I love the medium of television. I also love the novels themselves.  You know, my first movie got made during BANSHEE.  I wrote this movie, THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, which was shot during the filming of season 2 of BANSHEE. Essentially, I was running from a movie set in New York to our TV set in, at that time, Charlotte.  I love both and I always consider novel writing my day job.  The show got in the way of that for a while.

Right now, I’m trying to get another show on the air at Cinemax while at the same time using the lull in between to write another novel.  This is the first spring I’ve had in quite a while when we’re not prepping BANSHEE.  Even though I’m working on some other shows for HBO and Cinemax, I’m excited about the down-time to really get the bulk of a novel done.  At the same time, a movie I wrote is being produced independently.  I’m producing it with other people and that’s hopefully going to be shooting in June.

I don’t really see a difference between TV, movies and books.  It’s all just getting to ply your craft and to tell stories.  I go wherever there’s a good story to tell and hope that the people I’m doing it for are going to let me tell it.

What are some other stories out there, not yours, that have captured your attention recently that you would recommend to other people? 

There’s almost an intimidating amount of television.  I haven’t found nearly the amount of shows that I probably would love, but I’m all over the map.

I love TOGETHERNESS on HBO.  I was really sad to hear they weren’t going to go for another season of that.  I like GIRLS on HBO.  I think CATASTROPHE on Amazon Prime is probably the best comedy out there right now. I love HAPPY VALLEY, a British show about a middle-aged female cop in a small town. EPISODES on Showtime is great.  I’m all over the map.

Is there any character from the history of television that you wish you could have written for? 

I would have loved to write pretty much any character on SIX FEET UNDER.  That whole show spoke to me on so many levels.  I also would have liked to write for any Aaron Sorkin project. He writes dialogue like jazz.  I would have loved to try my hand at that.  Probably one of those two.

Last question. Is there a line you wrote from BANSHEE that you feel captures the essence of the show? 

There’s a line at the end of season 2 where Carrie, who is Lucas’ former lover, discovers that he actually had a different life before she knew him.  She asks him as they’re walking down the street, almost as a coda to the scene–It’s almost a throw-away line—“How many lives have you actually had?”

He just shrugs as they‘re walking away, and he says, “None, really.”

I jotted that down really as an afterthought. The idea to me was the whole show is about identity and Lucas Hood has been in prison for all his formative years and was a thief before that, and is now an impostor sheriff.  He’s actually a man who’s never actually figured out who he is.  Writing that line, I think, didn’t just crystallize it for the show, but it crystallized it for me that in the coming two seasons. This is somebody who’s actually, in a way, a child who never really developed his own adult life as he was constantly either playing someone else or locked up.

Follow Jonathan Tropper on Twitter at @Jtropper


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