Kary:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and Justice are told.

Today’s podcast is a conversation with Jonathan Tropper. Jonathan and I met when he pitched me an idea for a Cinemax show called Banshee. We worked together on that series and on his most recent Cinemax series Warrior. I asked Jonathan to join me for this conversation for two reasons: First, Banshee explores ideas of crime and justice in ways that are very unique in the television landscape. It is a violent and pulpy show, that also examines the existential toll taken by deceit and betrayal. Second, Banshee is the show that connected me to William Barr, the man who is now Attorney General of the United States, and with whose interview I launched the Crime Story Podcast. Towards the end of this interview, I give Jonathan a chance to reflect on the Attorney General‘s thoughts about his show.

And so, with that said, here is my interview with Jonathan Tropper.

Kary:

Jonathan Tropper, thank you for joining me.

Jonathan:

Thank you for having me.

Kary:

Where I usually begin with folks is asking them to tell me a bit about their path into the storytelling business. Beginning with where you grew up and what guided your path. What were the things, events, who were the people that influenced your decisions.

Jonathan: 

I can spend a whole hour on that.

Kary: 

Go for it.

Jonathan: 

I grew up in Riverdale, New York, which is the least toughest neighborhood in the Bronx. I grew up in an upper middle class area where there were not a lot of artists or writers. It was a lot of doctors and lawyers and teachers and business men. Story telling of any kind was appreciated. The New York Times Book Review was a staple, but it wasn’t something that I think anybody considered practical in terms of going into a career. So I was always a very avid reader, and I loved reading, and I love the movies, and I love television, but it was never something I really thought about doing for myself until probably high school. 

Jonathan: 

In high school, I became obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King. At the same time, I started reading both of their libraries. And what those two writers have in common is that they write in an incredibly conversational way that makes you think you could do it too, even though that’s not true. There’s tremendous art to what they do, but when you read them you feel like they’re just telling you a story. It’s just like your buddy on a bar stool telling you a story. So I started reading them a lot and that’s when I began actually really writing and trying to write.

Jonathan: 

The first thing I tried to write was, really just a knock off of Christine by Stephen King. It was about a haunted piano. And then I once wrote almost a complete novel that was a very much end of the world apocalypse novel in the style of Kurt Vonnegut. And I think, just imitating those guys started to get me excited about writing even though I hadn’t yet reached a level of confidence or skill where I would write in my own voice. But I started getting interested in writing and then in college I majored in English. There weren’t a ton of writing courses, but I took some and I majored in English. I actually entered a short story contest that I ended up winning. So when I was looking at graduating college with a major in English and absolutely no real career prospects-

Kary:

Where did you go to college?

Jonathan: 

I went to Yeshiva University. I had a circuitous route through the education system because I never finished high school. But, I immediately applied to NYU’s master’s program in writing fiction. I applied there and got into that program on the strength of a short story I had written. That was the first time I was surrounded by other people who wanted to be writers. And that’s what got my juices flowing and got me into writing. 

Jonathan:

I just started writing… I was always starting to write novels… Everyone else was writing short stories and try to get them into these obscure literary journals. And that always felt fruitless to me. I never did that. I was just always trying to write novels. And I think every year I started a new novel that went nowhere. And then at some point in my mid 20s, I dropped it. I was starting a family and I was working in sales and business and I kind of gave up on writing. I didn’t know what happened. At some point I had a moment of truth where I realized if I don’t try again, this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.

Jonathan: 

So I had this idea for a book and I decided to really force myself to write it in my spare time. And, I ended up… I wrote a novel in about nine months that ended up getting an agent and selling. It was called Plan B. It was my first novel. It’s not a very good one, but it sold to a major publisher and got me an agent and a publisher.

Kary: 

What was it about?

Jonathan:

It was about a group of friends, all turning 30, one of whom is a movie star and he has developed a very public drug addiction. And when he comes into New York for a movie premiere, his old college friends kidnap him and take him up to a summer house in the Catskills to force him to detox. And it really is a book about… It’s a meditation on turning 30, which at the time I thought was a big deal. It certainly doesn’t feel that way now. And so that book sold, and then once I had a publisher and I had an agent, I decided now I need to actually get good at this. So I took quite a few years between the first book and my second book. My second book came out in… My first book came out in 2000, which was when I turned 30. And my second book came out in 2004, but at that point in between, I read a ton. I read every contemporary novel I could get my hands on and just really worked on my writing as much as I could. So that when my second book came out I treated it like my first novel again.

Kary: 

During that course of time when you were reading what were the books? Who are the writers?

Jonathan: 

There were a bunch. The three writers that stand out most in my mind are Jay McInerney, Michael Chabon, and Richard Russo. And those three guys remain… I mean, there were other individual books that really excited me. Like I always loved What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges, and a few others. But Chabon, Wonder Boys in particular and McInerney and Richard Russo, they remain to this day three of my favorite writers.

Kary:

Can you describe what it was about them that captured your imagination?

Jonathan: 

McInerney is just a beautiful writer. He wrote Bright Lights, Big City, which a lot of people my age kind of looked to as a major novel. It’s like 200 and something pages. It’s written with such beautiful efficiency where not a single word is wasted, but every sentence feels perfectly crafted. So, you just want to write like him. There’s a crispness to it and a smartness to it. And he was telling a very basic story but making it fascinating and emotionally complicated just by using just a really economical way of telling the story. Just the way he crafted sentences really got me excited. ‘

Jonathan:

With Richard Russo, it was more just the scale of his storytelling. It was creating whole world’s out of upstate New York towns and populating them with characters. And the way he sort of created layers in his characters was really interesting to me. There is a real unpretentiousness to Richard Russo. I mean, I like John Irving a lot too, and I feel like Richard Russo is like a calmer John Irving with less of the bells and whistles and just a real calm, assured style of storytelling. That really interested me. And I really just love diving into his world and his characters.

Jonathan:

And then, Michael Chabon is sort of both. He’s great with character, and he’s very erudite and there’s just a tremendous intelligence that kind of leaps off the page when you read him. When you want to be a writer, there’s two books that excite you. There’s the ones that excite you because you aspire to be like that. Then there’s the ones that excite you because like, if this schmuck can do it, I can do it too. And so I read a lot of those, but these were the three that really got me excited. And also because you could write about anything. They weren’t writing about what in the movie business we would call high concepts. They were just writing about people and situations. That was the path that got me really excited. And then I wrote my second novel, the Book of Joe, which did a lot better than my first novel and put me on the path of book writing for the next seven or eight years.

Kary:

And what was that about?

Jonathan:

That was about a writer actually, who left his hometown in Connecticut after high school, having been through some bad experiences and years later has become a bestselling novelist on the strength of writing a book that really trashed his hometown. And now as a 30 something year old man, he’s forced to go home because his father has had a stroke and face all these people he really betrayed with his book. That made me a novelist and put me on the novel path. And that book got optioned to be a movie by Warner Brothers and Brad Pitt’s new company. So that’s when I began this dim awareness that I could also move things into the entertainment business. 

Jonathan:

So, I continued to write. I had another book come out the next year, which was optioned by Sony. And so I was writing novels, but Hollywood kept optioning them and then those movies weren’t getting made and I decided to find out why those movies weren’t getting made. So I started asking for the scripts that were being generated. When I read the scripts, I thought, “Well, I mean, I can do this.” I was expecting it to be much more esoteric and complicated than it was. So I began writing spec scripts based on my books and that got me a job adapting the play Harvey, which was a famous motion picture in 1950. I wrote an updated version of that for 20th Century Fox, which was my first paid job.

Kary:

Is that with Tom Hanks?

Jonathan:

No. What happened was for a while, Steven Spielberg was going to direct it. It was never Tom Hanks. That was just speculation. As a matter of fact, I believe Tom Hanks advised him not to do it. So there was a period there where my first screenplay, I’m working with Spielberg, and he’s talking about Robert Downey Jr., and I feel like my career is made as a… Like, how could this ever go wrong? But in fact, the movie fell apart, and he ended up not making it. But on the strength of that script, and I guess the company I was keeping, I began getting hired and then I became a feature screenwriter. And after a while of writing movies that we’re not going to get made I saw Six Feet Under, on television and figured out that the good writing was heading towards television. And ended up eventually meeting Alan Ball, and creating Banshee.

Kary: 

Was Banshee your first television pitch?

Jonathan:

Banshee was my third television pitch. The first two television pitches I did, both of which were to HBO, we’re idea similar to my novels, which are much more sort of contemporary, middle class-type novels. Very much like Jay McInerney and Michael Chabon, a little less imaginative than Chabon. I failed to sell either one of those and so finally I said, “You know what, I’m just going to go for something a little more hardcore.” So at the time I had met another writer, David Schickler, got together with him, fleshed out the idea.

Kary:

So this was the first time you’d worked together with Schickler?

Jonathan:

Yeah. And I happen to be in LA, so I sat down with Alan Ball, and he got excited about it. So we went in and pitched it to HBO and sold it and kind of sent me on this weird trajectory into pulp action television, while at the same time I started getting a little more traction on the movie side. So I wrote an adaptation of one of my books, This is Where I Leave You, which got made and started getting other kinds of movie work. But I would say 90 to 95% of the movie work I’ve done has never been made. And TVs going pretty well. So TV is the place to be right now.

Commercial for Crimestory.com.

Kary:

So let’s dive into Banshee. And go back to meeting Schickler, and how the idea to do this emerged?

Jonathan:

So Banshee was actually an idea that I had had since high school. It came out of reading The Count of Monte Cristo. And it was the notion, The Count of Monte Cristo, he gets framed, he gets sent to prison, and he comes out years later, and he basically manufacturers a new identity for himself because he’s out for revenge. So I had this idea of a criminal who’s not framed, but he goes to jail for a while and comes out and manufacturers a new identity because he’s out for revenge. And it gradually morphed into the notion of a guy who steals the identity of a cop. But in my younger years the idea was much more the kind of the NBC or CBS version of that show where he uses all his skills as a thief to be a good cop. But, when I was younger, I was a lot less conscious of the concept of an anti-hero. So, as the sophistication of entertainment grew, and my own understanding of it grew, I thought it’d be much more interesting to have this guy steal the identity of a cop, but not because he’s remotely interested in law and order, but only because it’s a perfect way to hide in plain sight. And he could use the badge to kind of enact his own agenda, which is to get back all the money he’s owed and to get back the girl.

Jonathan:

So, it just grew from there. David and I met at a luncheon, very small lunch that had been thrown together by James Frey of about five or six writers he liked. And I think he just thought it’d be cool for us all to meet each other. So we had this really nice lunch in Manhattan and then… I had admired a book David had written. So when I publish my second novel, The Book of Joe, I had had my publisher send it to him to see if he would give it a blurb before it came out. And he did not give it a blurb. So when I met him at the lunch, he said, “Why do I know you?” And I said, “Because you chose not to blurb my book.” And it was the start of a friendship. We got to talking and we found out we both been unsuccessfully pitching television. And I mentioned this idea I had and he really liked the idea. So he came on board and started working with me over the next few months to really flesh out all the characters, and the world, and the story, and the arcs of it all. And to name the show, to name the town, we put the whole thing together and then brought it to Alan Ball and then sold it in the room at HBO.

Kary:

And then from your point of view, tell me how the project migrated from HBO to Cinemax.

Jonathan:

I still remember where I was when I got that phone call. I was at a movie theater with my kids and Alan called me, Alan Ball and said, “Cinemax is going to start doing original programming.” And I said, “What does that have to do with me?” And he said, “Well, did you know HBO owns Cinemax?” And I said, “No, I did not know that.” And he said, “Yeah, they like the script and they’re interested in making it their first homegrown show.” And I said, “Yeah,” but I really had this dream of having that HBO static logo on my show. I thought we were going to be an HBO show. And he said, “Well, Cinemax will give us a 10-episode order.” And I didn’t know anything about television, but I understood that you don’t say no to a 10-episode order, especially when HBO is still not even gotten around telling you you could shoot a pilot. So we already had the pilot script at that point. Alan at that time was probably the most influential television maker at HBO. He had True Blood on TV. So he had gone from Six Feet Under to True Blood, and he felt the Cinemax deal was the way to go.

Jonathan:

So, I trusted him and we moved it over to Cinemax, to you, and to Scott. Scott was there at the time. And I guess to test this out a little bit or to test the proof of concept, Cinemax ordered a few more scripts from us. So we developed a few more scripts. We wrote a few more and then we said we’re going ahead. Yeah.

Kary:

One of the things that really struck me when we had our initial conversation about the pilot that you’d written, and then subsequently about the two backup scripts that we ordered was that you really knew the mythology of the show. And when I say you, you and David, but particularly you knew the mythology of the show. And so when we would poke with questions. The mythology was very resilient. You were very quick to respond with answers. Tell me about how you fleshed out that mythology and tell me about how you leaned into the genre of show that it was in the creation.

Jonathan:

So in terms of the mythology, I think when you have two novelists working on a television show, you’re never going to be short on background and mythology because when you write a book you need all that to inform every page. And you can’t cheat it because it actually has to be on the page. You could write a TV show and the first few episodes don’t have to reveal all the mythology. But a book is a completed project that requires everything. You need to know it largely from page one to write the book. And so I think we probably over prepared, and there’re still probably scads of history and mythology we wrote about the people in the town of Banshee that we never got to explore. But the idea was to just really create what felt like a fully fleshed-out three-dimensional world. And I think part of what happens is once you start doing it, it comes alive for you and then you take great pleasure in doing it because it’s fun. It’s like you’re building a world.

Jonathan:

So I remember I would go out to Rochester where David lived or David would come into New York and we would spend two or three days just figuring things out and spit-balling. And it was actually a lot of fun because you’re building something. And we already knew we were going to get to make the show. We had a good shot at it. So there was a real sense of excitement to it. So it’s the perfect way to galvanize creativity is just to know you’ve got a shot at actually getting it made and also to be excited about the world you’re building. So we spent a lot of time on that. Having been in sales before, I do feel personally, like I never want to be caught with my pants down in the room. So from a neurotic Jewish writer level, I always, way over-prepare because I think when you’re going to ask somebody to believe in you, you have to come off as the smartest guy in the room. And you have to really know the product you’re selling. You have to know everything about it. And I never want to be in a position where I get asked a question and I’m like, “We didn’t really go that deep or we didn’t really think about that.”

Kary:

Can you pause there for a second and just talk about your experience in sales and your family business a little bit?

Jonathan:

I was working in advertising, actually, and I wasn’t making a lot of money. And the sense I was getting was that the way you get ahead in advertising at the time, which was the mid 90s, it was you change jobs every two years to get promoted at somewhere else. So you had people moving from Ketchum to Saatchi and back and forth. And it didn’t really… That lifestyle didn’t really interest me and I didn’t like wearing a suit and go into an office. So, my family owned a company that had various smaller companies that all had to do with the visual merchandising business. One day my dad called me and said, “Look, we have this division that the guy who was running it passed away. It was jewelry and watch displays, branded jewelry and watch displays. And we have no idea what he was doing, but he was making money and if you want to sit at his desk and figure it out, it could be yours.” And I liked the idea of being my own boss, even though I had no idea what I was doing. But I went in there and I immediately got a higher salary because nothing paid lower at the time than advertising at that point, other than maybe publishing.

Jonathan:

And it just happened to work out that the year I took over that business one of the major competitors had a factory that didn’t work out. Suddenly I had a lot of customers. And so I just learned through trial and error. But the whole name of the game was going around America to where all the large department store chains were and selling them your company so that they’d ordered their displays from you. So I would go to St Louis to meet with the Macy company. Yeah, I’d go out to Seattle to meet with Nordstrom, and with federated groups, and just going around and pitching them your company, and your manufacturing capabilities, and your design capabilities. On the watch side of it, I would go out to New Jersey to pitch the Movado group, which owned a bunch of brands and I had to Tag Hauer group. And you just get used to going into these rooms and doing your spiel and taking people out to lunch.

Kary:

So you’ve got two novelists working on it. So novel mythology building is in both of your DNA and you want to over prepare for selling. What about leaning into the genre of Banshee?

Jonathan:

So that just comes from when I grew up. Both David and I, we’re the same. I’m 49 years old now. I was a teenager in the 80s, of which I think was the golden age of action movies. It’s when action movies really were reinvented. First, in my mind it was Stallone, and then Schwarzenegger, and then Die Hard, which was the apotheosis of that. But, the notion of John Rambo, and John McClane, and Schwarzenegger in his movies where we suddenly were okay on ground in the action and making it bigger than life, and giving it a sense of humor. So there was a piece of that and then because I was heavily into martial arts, I also used to watch on cable late at night where all the straight to video movies and the B movies that the lesser known actors were making. 

Jonathan:

You watch these movies… And there was a certain aesthetic to them, and there was a certain honesty to them because they weren’t being made at these high budgets. And I think Banshee was a celebration of both those B movies, as well as a nod to the pulp and the sense of humor, and the over the top nature of the action movies as they were reinvented in the 80s.

Kary:

Where did the influence of the Cronenberg movies and a bit of Scorsese’s Cape Fear, where did that come in?

Jonathan:

We were just big movie fans. We really thought when we were thinking about Banshee, and small towns, and violence coming to towns, and people having secrets, I mean A History of Violence was the movie we kept talking about. We kept talking about, I mean, just the drama on the one hand and the fun on the other hand, finding out that the guy who owns the diner is actually a killer. So, in Banshee, we have a housewife who it turns out was a professional jewel thief. And we also used to talk a lot about The Long Kiss Goodnight, which you never really see around anymore. It’s such a great movie with Geena Davis and Samuel Jackson. Those are movies that left a big impression on us in terms of the world we were trying to create. It was a small town that could be anywhere America, even though we set it in Pennsylvania, but bringing the big criminal element into the small town and watching the fun that happened there.

Jonathan:

So it was everything from Cronenberg to… And there’s a Tarantino element to it too. Even though it’s hard to reference Tarantino because he himself is celebrating earlier works, whether it’s John Ford or Sergio Leone. But just merging that all together into something that fell completely new and unique, and certainly there was none of it on television at the time. And it was exciting to try to bring that to television.

Kary:

Talk a bit about assembling a team to make your first television series.

Jonathan:

So we were in a really odd position in that we had been given a green light on a show and yet we didn’t know the first thing about producing a show. And in subsequent years I’ve come to really appreciate the fact that nobody tried to make us take a backseat. And I think that was the advantage of being at a place like Cinemax, which wasn’t in a sense a startup, is that there wasn’t a corporate culture yet where they would say, “Okay, we’ll put you guys in the writer’s room, but we’re going to bring in a showrunner.” The — I think very smart — idea was, let’s just bring in somebody who knows how to build a television show and let’s bring in somebody who knows everything else. And so, we brought in a producing director, Greg Yaitanes, who had spent 20 something years, not only directing television but actually building productions. And so, in all honesty, even though the showrunner title generally belongs to writers, for that first season, for sure, Greg was the showrunner in that he really guided us through the whole process. He hired all the department heads, he worked on casting, he worked with the production design, he did the location scouting and he brought us along with them.

Jonathan:

But it was really him quarterbacking it and figuring it out and putting the show together while we worked on the scripts. So I learned how to make TV basically just by watching Greg and learning from him. And he actually really enjoyed imparting the lesson so it was very easy to say to him, “Can I sit in on editing?” And then I’d begin to learn about post production or how are we going to scout this location? Or how are we going to hire this person? And Greg would include me in those. I think my confidence kicked in mid-season two, is when I felt like, okay, I feel like I know how to do this now well enough that I could take over and know that Greg’s there if I fall on my face or if I have any questions, I don’t understand how to do.

Kary:

For the listeners, you are talking about Greg Yaitanes. What, if anything, did you learn about the mythology of the show itself from Greg?

Jonathan: 

Well, Greg had a tremendous appreciation for exactly what we were trying to do. And the reason we hired him, we sat in Alan Ball’s office and met with three or four different potential guys to fill his slot. And these were all accomplished guys who came in and sat on the couch and talked about why they liked the script and what they’d like to do. And what was different with Greg, was Greg who had worked more than all of them treated it like an audition. He came in with a sizzle reel and a board and an entire explanation of how he saw the show. And he won us over immediately because, I mean, if you know Greg as you do, like there’s no bullshit with Greg. He didn’t need the job, he really wanted the job. And he showed us that he actually saw the show very much the way we did. So it was interesting because when it came to casting, we had been picturing certain famous people. We had been picturing, I think for our lead for a long time we were picturing Colin Farrell.

Jonathan:

And we were picturing a number of famous people and Greg sat and he goes, “We don’t want any famous people.” He’s like, “I don’t want to put faces on the show that people will expect. I want to put faces on the show that no one’s ever seen because we’re creating a world that no one’s ever seen. And like, a familiar face is going to take people out of it.” And it was just something that had never occurred to me but as we went through the casting process and I saw who he was gravitating towards, he had two goals. One was he wanted the cast to be completely unexpected and at the same time he also wanted it to not look like a broadcast network show. And he came from broadcast network and he knew the kinds of conventional-looking people they cast for these types of roles. And he said, “We’re not going to do any of that.” So it’s something I really took with me to everything I did after that is to try to cast if not against type, just at least against expectations. And you take that into your scripts and you take that into the way you look at sets.

Jonathan:

One of the things Greg solidified for us was we had said in our script that the thing about Banshee is nothing is quite what it appears to be or everything in Banshee used to be something else. Everyone on Banshee used to be someone else. Our cop used to be a criminal, our gangster used to be an Amish boy, like everyone used to be something else. So Greg applied that to our production design as well. Our police department is a former car dealership and… He just sort of took the notion that Banshee is a show about changed identity and changed identities and he applied that into all the departments. So it was a very instructive few years working with him.

Kary:

That’s interesting. I never thought about that when it came to the location. So the forge used to be a forge, right? Interesting.

Kary:

Tell me about the moral universe of the show. I found a quote from Chernobyl. And I was thinking about this quote when I was watching the episode this morning. Because in addition to it being about justice and vengeance, law and order, law enforcement, there’s a quote in Chernobyl where Valery Legasov says, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

Jonathan:

That’s a great quote.

Kary:

So talk to me a bit about the moral universe of the show.

Jonathan:

The way we spoke about that which was a lot less eloquent than what you just said, is that everyone on the show is going to have consequences for their deceptions. And Lucas Hood already served his… He already served 15 years for being a thief, but now he’s come out and he has taken on this ruse of being the sheriff of Banshee. And he is leading a path of destruction in his wake because he’s only really out for getting what he needs out of this. He doesn’t care if he destroys the town, at least initially. And as a result, we always understood he’s not going to get out clean. And then so actually in the episode that you’re talking about, which is in our third season, he finally pays the ultimate price where Siobhan who looked like she was going to be in some ways his redemption and his salvation ends up getting killed.

Kary:

Give me a brief description of that episode.

Jonathan:

That episode is a very conscious tribute to Assault on Precinct 13. So what happens is, a number of our characters for a lot of different reasons are all in the police station, which we call The Caddy at the same time one night. And it happens to be the moment where Chayton, who is the leader of a native American gang, a very violent man, has gotten hold of an arsenal of weapons. And because two of his guys are in holding cells there, he comes with his whole army to get those two guys out, but he also wants a Native American deputy that works for Lucas Hood. He wants him also because he killed his brother. And because our sheriff refuses to hand over those prisoners, it ends up being a siege situation all night and an assault and a battle to the death to see who’s going to survive this night. While all of our various factions locked up inside the police station, many of whom have conflicting agendas or are actually sworn enemies to each other end up having to form alliances and work together to fight Chayton and his guys not let them get in.

Kary:

And there’s also a culmination of the core storyline of the entire series that’s coming to pass as well. Correct?

Jonathan:

Well, it’s the fact that Siobhan has figured out that Lucas Hood is not who he says he is. That happened in a prior episode that this is the moment where his cover has been blown and she’s deciding whether or not she’s going to expose him. And in that episode, she ultimately tells him, “I’m not going to expose you, but you have to leave.” Or in the prior episode, “You’re going to have to just leave. You can’t be here anymore,” because he’s rendering every arrest they’d done obsolete. Like nothing they’ve done is going to ever stand up in court. And he’s fooled her and he’s fooled the town and she just says… And even though are lovers, she tells him he has to leave. And ultimately, this very intensive siege situation gets them into a bit of a rapprochement, and he actually whispers in her ear the thing I’ve been asked ever since the show aired, which is, what’s his real name? He actually tells her his real name, although we don’t hear it.

Jonathan:

And very shortly after that she gets killed by Chayton, which leaves him back in his position as sheriff. It’s kind of saves him, but at the same time she was his one shot at escaping the consequences of his actions and instead she became a victim of them. Certainly our notion is that everyone has to pay and nobody gets off clean. So whether it’s Kai Proctor, whether it’s Siobhan, whether it’s Lucas Hood, whether it’s Carrie, the idea is that everyone has a secret. There are no good guys and bad guys. There are no villains. Everyone here has done something wrong. No one’s innocent. And the question is how they’re going to pay for it. And everybody does pay. They don’t pay necessarily by dying, but everybody pays their debt to the truth.

Kary:

There’s also a strand in the show where the lead gangster in the town, who is part of the siege. Outside of the caddie, his mother’s dying and he’s not there for it. Talk to me a bit about the themes woven into that storyline.

Jonathan:

What we tried to do from the inception of the show is just find the humanity in everybody. And I think Kai Proctor was the most complicated “villain” we’ve ever had because like Lucas Hood, he had his own moral code, which didn’t necessarily jive with conventional morality and certainly didn’t jive with the law. Just like Lucas Hood’s, ideas of justice and fairness didn’t jibe with the law. What that did was that made them incredibly fun characters to write because they were very unpredictable. Because you never knew when they would turn around and do something noble versus do something self serving. They were usually pretty self serving, but if somebody rubbed their moral code the wrong way, they would suddenly wake up and achieve this humanity, and this morality. And for Kai Proctor, who we’ve been watching as the lead gangster and really a bad man, we see how undone he is by the fact that his Amish parents have shunned him all this time.

Jonathan:

And he finally forms a connection with his mother that he hasn’t had since he was a young man and he left the Amish mold. And that connection is super important to him. And you see that he’s still really pained by the fact that his father won’t speak to him and that his father has shunned him. So when he finally connects with his mother only to find out she’s dying, it’s deeply painful to him and he actually risks his life to get out of the siege, just so that he can go be with his mother before she dies. And he makes it to her death bed just as she dies. I think he gets there after she dies.

Jonathan:

And you just see him cry like a little boy in a way and lie down next to her. Our goal was always just to show that morality is subjective and has nothing to do with the law. And everybody has their own code, and there are people you would consider very bad or very good, who are all going to surprise you because ultimately they operate on their own compass that can’t be really legislated.

Kary:

As you know, the gentleman who is now Attorney General of the United States is a huge fan of Banshee. I’m going to play for you what he says about Banshee and then we’ll go back on and you can respond to that.

Attorney General William Barr:

Well, to be honest, the first thing that drew me to the show was, I think, the writing, the quality of the acting, the plots, sort of the unexpected story line and so forth. It does have undergirding it this basic tension between justice in the sense of the ultimate outcome versus justice as a process. To me justice is the right outcome … I believe a sense of justice is hardwired into human beings. Don’t ask me why, but it is there and it’s satisfying to see justice done. And we feel angry when we see injustice that isn’t rectified. So, Americans have tended recently to view it more as a process, as if the criminal justice process is justice, and it isn’t. It’s a process that’s supposed to achieve justice, but very frequently doesn’t. 

Jonathan:

I think he’s touching on something thematically that we were very conscious of and that we dealt with a lot, which is that, weirdly, a guy who doesn’t follow the rules and who has his own moral code and isn’t caught up in the letter of the law, in some strange way becomes a much more effective sheriff than the one who would. There’s a lot of rules and regulations and laws about how you enforce the law. And we all know that our own system of enforcement often gets caught up in that and gets stymied by that. And on the one hand, the importance of a lot of these protections and these laws, are undeniable. And at the same time they sometimes get in the way of achieving justice in other cases because the thing about law is you don’t get to apply it subjectively when you’re executing it, right? You have to follow the law. But if you’re not someone who follows the law, you can apply it subjectively, and I think that’s what he means where people find it satisfying. There’s a level of wish fulfillment.

Jonathan:

We wish we could apply justice where the law does not allow us to. But we can’t because we’re a nation of laws and we need these laws to protect all of us. So we end up watching people get away with murder, watching people get stymied, watching law enforcement people get stymied and watching sort of a corruption of the intention of the law. And so, the fun is in having this renegade who doesn’t care about what the laws are. He cares about reaching justice. And so, I think it’s just wish fulfillment and it’s exciting because we all know deep down we can’t really have that as a society or it would ultimately devolve very fast into anarchy.

Kary:

Thinking about all of that. At the beginning of the fourth season, after Gordon is killed, Carrie becomes frustrated with the lack of prosecution or attention on the corruption of the town. She becomes a vigilante.

Jonathan:

Yeah. She’s not happy that the prosecutors, she feels are all in Proctor’s pocket and nothing’s happening. And because Gordon was a prosecutor who was actually incorruptible and she never really gave him his due, now that he’s gone and he’s been killed, she sort of feels like as a tribute to him, she needs to achieve justice for the town he gave his life to, and it’s not happening in his office. Like the prosecutor that’s replaced him is weak, and is under Proctor’s thumb. And so she just makes herself a self-styled vigilante to achieve the justice that her late husband stood for.

Kary:

It’s interesting because while the Attorney General was focused on criminals getting away with crimes because of weak law enforcement, in the last season of the show, you kind of turned that on its head and the system itself has become corrupt. And there’s a vigilante that’s attacking the system.

Jonathan:

We didn’t invent the concept, but there’s always that thrill in applying criminal expertise in the pursuit of justice. One of the first shows I remember as a kid, I don’t think it lasted even a season. I remember a show coming on when I was a kid called Renegades, where a cop had an idea that he was going to put a bunch of kids from different street gangs who all fight each other, and turn them into an undercover police unit. So, he gets the kid from the black gang, and from the Hispanic gang, and from the white gang, and from the biker gang, they all hate each other, but yet he puts them all together and makes them work as cops. And it’s a fantasy. It’s like, these guys who don’t need to follow due process, are able to kind of get the bad guys.

Kary:

I remember in Marathon Man. Dustin Hoffman’s character-

Jonathan:

He gets the kids to break into his apartment because he can’t go. Right? 

Kary:

Yeah.

Jonathan:

Yeah. It’s the same thing. It’s always that fantasy of like, we’re rooting for the criminals. And there’s just tremendous wish fulfillment in that. That’s what the whole show is really.

Kary:

Banshee was the biggest hit we ever had at Cinemax. Tell me about your experience of its impact out there. We are obviously a little niche channel. But, I know from you and from some of the actors, particularly Matt Servitto, the show seem to have an outsized impact given it’s kind of niche profile.

Jonathan:

Yeah, and I can’t really quantify it, but I will say that the fans of the show… We tapped into something that for the fans of the show, it became irreplaceable. And to this day, I can’t write anything on Twitter or Instagram without getting at least five or six responses that say, bring back Banshee. Do more Banshee. I have this show Warrior on Cinemax now and we’re airing our first season. And I put out tweets about Warrior or Warrior cast and all I get is bring back Banshee. Interestingly, the show wasn’t on a super mainstream platform, so it wasn’t seen by tens of millions of people. But weirdly, it feels like it was seen by everyone in the industry too, because every meeting I go to at any network or studio, everyone references Banshee.

Kary:

I also think it’s been helped by the Amazon distribution of it as well.

Jonathan:

Possibly. Yeah. But I just find that it was such a weird show that kind of came out of nowhere and there was nothing else like it on television. And it was violent and it was sexy and it was… I think it was smart, but it didn’t really pull its punches. So if that was the kind of thing you were looking for, like my goal in making the show is I wanted to make the kind of thing that I would love to find on TV late at night when I can’t sleep. I think for a lot of people they really believed in the characters and they fell in love with them. And they wanted to see the humanity of Lucas Hood, and Carrie, and they wanted to see where did they end up, are they going to be okay?

Jonathan:

I think they were fun to watch because we all have secrets and we all have this desire to break out of our shell. Like Carrie is the perfect example. She seems like this perfectly subdued housewife and yet she’s got this crazy skill set, those as a thief, as a fighter, as a gunslinger. And it’s just a fantasy that we could all slip these shackles and become true cowboys in a way. I think the fans of it just love it. And that’s also why I chose to end it after the fourth season was I felt we were starting to reach the end of the story. And I didn’t want to contrive, to keep going because our fans were so vocal and so passionate. I didn’t want to be there when they turned.

Kary:

I don’t want to leave Banshee without talking about the character of Job. He was a breakout character in the show. Can you talk about where that character came from and how it grew in Hoon’s hands?

Jonathan:

Yeah. I mean, the character just came out of the keyboard. We’re just trying to figure out who’s this guy that Lucas turns to? And we just thought it’d be interesting if this very masculine, very butch guy, if his best friend was actually somebody who defied all the standard terms of masculinity. So, we have this guy who seems to be pansexual or omnisexual who’s willing to dress like a very tough man or like a woman who seems to just be super gender=fluid and very confident and comfortable with it. And I’d like to say we were quite a bit ahead of the curve there. I think we were doing that when not a lot of people on TV were, but the idea was to care about job and not care about what he was wearing. We would really test that. We would put him in preposterous costumes and other times we put him in really down to earth…

Kary:

My favorite was the “oh snap” t-shirt. That was the bet.

Jonathan:

But you can’t say is Job gay? Is Job straight? What is Job? It doesn’t matter. Job is Job and everyone accepts him for who he is because his personality demands it. And that’s who we wanted for it. And Hoon just brought him to life in this very vivid three-dimensional way where you actually really cared about him. And I understand why he became the favor because he had the smartest mouth. He had a lot of sass, he was a lot of fun, and he could also handle guns and fights. He was pleasure to watch.

Kary:

One last question. What’s the best piece of advice you ever got? Or alternatively, what’s the one piece of advice for young storytellers, young aspiring storytellers that you would share?

Jonathan:

The best pieces of advice I ever got, I got about, I don’t know, six years ago. I had been divorced a few years before that and I just remember talking to a friend of mine who actually is a producer, and just saying I felt very adrift in the world and that I couldn’t seem to figure out who I was or where I lived or what my story was. And she said, “Don’t try to control the result,” which has always stayed with me. Is like, just do the things you’re going to do and do them for the sake of doing them and don’t try to control the result. And it was something that I think is a good piece of advice in life, in dating. I think we were talking about dating at the time. But even just about like, doing creative work is… If you have something you want to write, you have to write it and make it as good as you can and don’t say, “Well, if I do it this way, will Apple buy it? And if I do it that way, will Netflix buy it? And if I do it this way, will it be a network show?” Just do everything to the best of your ability and don’t try to control the result. And just have faith that you’ll get a result at some point. So that would be my advice.

Kary:

Great. Thanks man.

End of Interview.