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Greg Yaitanes On Banshee's Startup-inspired Production Strategy

Emmy-winning director/producer Greg Yaitanes used repurposed strategies from tech startups on the Cinemax show, Banshee, a testing ground for a new kind of production efficiency that enhances creativity.

It’s not like Banshee wasn’t enough of a pressure cooker—after all, it’s Alan Ball’s first series since HBO juggernauts True Blood and Six Feet Under, and one of HBO-owned Cinemax’s first original scripted productions. When Greg Yaitanes—an Emmy-winning director and producer of hit shows like Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, and House M.D.—landed as showrunner, he used the drama as a template for restructuring TV production.

An early investor in Twitter, Foursquare, Square, and Pinterest, Yaitanes utilized technology, managerial ideas from Silicon Valley, and his own out-of-the-box thinking to cut costs while enhancing staff creativity. The strategy brought his adrenaline-fueled pilot—which airs Jan. 11—under budget by a reported 7% and picked up an additional episode’s worth of savings throughout the season, which he put back into the stunt and art departments for more powerful visuals.

“The biggest challenge, as a manager, was planning the product, the show, and infrastructure to achieve the product—the stages, sets, location, and cast—at the same time,” he says. “When I did House, I came into an existing ship that was fiscally struggling. I could manage and get the show on track. With Banshee, the set of challenges were completely different. Banshee required my being managerial and creative at the same time from the ground up. Those sides were always fighting each other. I had to learn to achieve creativity within certain limitations.”

Greg Yaitanes. Photo by Gregory Shummon

Chomping at the bit

Yaitanes, who’d spent House’s final two seasons as an executive producer, had tired of network TV’s tight production schedule (“I felt like I was making stuff to fit between commercials”) and actively pursued Banshee as his first showrunning gig. The action drama chronicles an ex-con named Lucas Hood, played by Antony Starr, who assumes the identity of a deceased sheriff of corrupt Banshee, PA to engage his own brand of justice.

“I wouldn’t say lobbying so much as stalking,” laughs Yaitanes. “I’d heard a year earlier that Alan Ball was cooking up a new show. I was tracking the project, periodically sniffing around, until it finally came time to meet.”

Taking his cue from the Silicon Valley design prototype, Yaitanes put together a pitch video, a montage of movie scenes that effected the tone he envisioned for the series, which was created by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler. “For the first time, it gave people a look at what the show could feel like,” he says.

“Alan gives people great room to do their best work,” he adds. “We had an immediate understanding of each other’s creativity. I felt I could create something that furthered his own brand of heightened dramas, but in a new style.”

The pitch video was the first of many ideas from the technology sector he would borrow in overseeing Banshee, which shot over seven months in North Carolina last year.

A newly freed Lucas Hood, played by Antony Starr. Photo by Fred Norris/courtesy of HBO

Lean and mean

In terms of cost, Yaitanes treated the production like a startup. He cut down on paper, DVD, travel, and shipping costs using such technology as Google Maps Street View to location scout, Cast It Talent to view actor demo reels, iAnnotate PDF (which Yaitanes helped develop) to replace script binders, Scenechronize to create scenes and distribute scripts, Pix System for production collaboration, iChat and Skype for meetings, and prosumer Canon cameras to shoot. He found new editors and camera operators through YouTube, Vimeo, and Twitter. For the title sequence, Yaitanes returned to his roots—tapping Tin Punch Media, a new production studio cofounded by his brother, Jason, and Twitter cofounder Biz Stone.

He found a no-frills studio in Charlotte, NC, which offered tax credits and lower union rates. “The least technological thing I took from the tech world was to find a creative space quickly,” he says. “In startups, you set up in your parents’ house, garage, or apartment, and keep an openness to that office space. I didn’t look for a traditional soundstage—more like a warehouse we converted into sets and offices. The open floor plan enabled me to walk through the different departments on the way to the stage. It kept me in touch with the different facets of the product that way.”

He scheduled shooting days smarter—cutting overtime by wrapping actors and crew as they finished, instead of keeping them around for the entire day. And he asked each department to shave small non-essentials from their budgets. “Back in the '80s, American Airlines took one olive out of their inflight meals, and saved $40,000. I charged everyone with finding their "olive"—the one thing in their department that could reduce savings.” The result bought the production seven additional shooting days.

Actors Ulrich Thomsen (left) and Alpha Trivette. Photo: Fred Norris/courtesy of HBO

Non-linear thinking

In order to have more time to prepare for the season, Yaitanes pushed for a 10-episode order up front, and began shooting once the 10 scripts were finished.

Episodic TV traditionally shoots in sequence, with as little as a week between episodes. “Because I had all the scripts, I thought, 'Why should I go in order?'" says Yaitanes. “You want the first thing people see—the pilot—to be as good an experience as you could possibly get. So I shot episode four first—which I chose because it had a lot of the same elements as the pilot. That enabled me to work out the growing pains, the chemistry, defining character, in the fourth episode. The first episode was the fifth episode filmed. By then, everyone knew their character, so there was no preciousness about it. They were so relaxed by time they shot it. There’s a slight difference in episodes three to five, but by then the audience is in and more willing to forgive them.”

Storytelling beyond the show

With the series telling the main narrative, Yaitanes arranged for backstory and additional dramatic flourishes through the WelcometoBanshee.com and Cinemax.com/Banshee sites. Thirteen prequel videos and an IDW-published comic series, both titled Banshee Origins, will reveal backstories. There will also be a GIF store, real-life tweets from characters, changing show title sequence, and final after-credits clip that offer clues to character motivations and future episodes.

“The story of Banshee is a 20-year story,” says Yaitanes. “We pick up after Lucas’ release from jail, but he had a whole life in prison and before. I was interested in the story behind the show.”

The online stories were resourcefully figured into the production budget and schedule. “I can’t stand to see waste,” says Yaitanes. “No matter how well we schedule a season, there are unused pockets of time. Why should the cast and crew be idle when we can use them in that time to create something that could go towards a richer experience? We used that time without taxing the budget to create the short online films about character backstories that tied into the comic books. We want it to feel like a treasure hunt.”

Even the title sequence drops clues about characters. The 75-second opening reveals a table top of photos with images that reflect their character’s inner psychology. The photos change every week. A component of the WelcometoBanshee.com site, called The Vault, will launch during the season and update episodically. The Vault is "unlocked" with the code combination seen in the show’s opening titles. Utilizing interactive video technology, The Vault will host all 10 versions of the evolving narrative title sequences, with creator commentary, to enable viewers to uncover their hidden symbolic meaning.

Share the power

One of the more unusual aspects was the salon-like setting Yaitanes created on-set, which he began cultivating at the hiring stage. He used the pitch video to communicate his vision and attract like-minded crew members. It paid off in unexpected ways. Costume designer Patia Prouty came up with an idea for a fashion-forward photo shoot with the female cast members. Professional photographer friends would use set visits as muses for cast portraits and time-lapsed videos that Cinemax then embraced as marketing vehicles.

Greg Yaitanes. Photo: Fred Norris/Cinemax

“Another thing I learned from Silicon Valley is that I don’t need to be in charge of everything all the time,” says Yaitanes. “People were empowered to be their own producers, and the ones who got that, shined. I didn’t have a lot of money to pay people, so I had to make them want to come to work every day. I surrounded myself with people who were game. When I left House, I’d hit the limit of people’s creativity. I was the only one left who wanted to innovate. With Banshee, I just wanted people excited about all the other ways we could tell stories. It really meant a lot when people told me, 'In my whole life, I never got to be so creative or have my voice heard.'"

He made sure his directors could shepherd their episodes through the entire production process. Yaitanes, who directed three of the 10 episodes, found three other directors from the U.S. and Europe with indie filmmaking sensibilities, and ensured their input through post-production. “The more of themselves they brought, the more ownership they felt they had in the episodes,” he says. “I wanted to create an environment where they did not feel like they were punching the clock. I wanted filmmakers to share ideas, take the ball further down field and, in turn, influence me.”

In terms of storytelling platforms and streamlined production, “I’m hoping that Banshee is a game changer—taking TV further down the field,” says Yaitanes. “That would be an accomplishment I’d be very proud of.”

(Lead photo of Antony Starr by Fred Norris/courtesy of HBO.)

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