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Graham Gordy's dirty South 

Arkansas-born screenwriter scores writing credit on one big TV series, and pilot that could turn into another. 

click to enlarge RECTIFY: Adelaide Clemens and Aden Young star image
  • RECTIFY: Adelaide Clemens and Aden Young star.

We'd hate to jinx a homeboy, but 2013 might just turn out to be Graham Gordy's year. 

First off, the Arkansas-born Gordy (a former Times columnist) is a writer on Oscar-winner Ray McKinnon's new six-episode Sundance Channel series "Rectify." Produced by "Breaking Bad" executive producers Melissa Bernstein and Mark Johnson, the series is one of the channel's first original dramas, and will debut with a two-hour premiere Monday at 9 p.m. Meanwhile, Gordy and writing partner Michael D. Fuller also have a pilot in the works for Cinemax called "Quarry," with shooting to begin this summer. 

Created, produced and directed by McKinnon, each of the first six episodes of "Rectify" depicts one day in the first six days of freedom for Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a man released from Georgia's death row after 18 years in near-solitary confinement. Returning to the small town he left as a young man, Holden must deal with the shock of re-assimilating into his family, his community and the free world while simultaneously facing townsfolk who still believe he's guilty of the murder of his girlfriend.

Gordy said he became friends with McKinnon while they both lived in Little Rock, with the pair starting off talking about film before eventually writing and exchanging several scripts for comedy shorts. In 2010, they made Gordy's dark comedy short "Spanola Pepper Sauce Company," with McKinnon directing. 

"It was a good, symbiotic thing, where it was like: If any of this starts to happen for either of us, then we obviously want to be part of each other's creative lives," Gordy said. 

In 2010, Gordy, Fuller and "The Blind Side" director John Lee Hancock came very close to selling "The Wreck," a series about a Southern college football program, to TV powerhouse AMC. Gordy wrote a part for McKinnon into the script, but the project dissolved after AMC execs decided that, though they liked Gordy and Fuller's writing, they didn't want a pilot.

In the meantime, Gordy said, McKinnon had been pitching the script for "Rectify" for years, offering it to several networks. Like "Mad Men," Gordy said, the script gained a reputation, even if no one wanted to take a chance on it. "There are certain scripts that gain such a reputation, even if the bigger networks and even the bigger cable networks are kind of afraid of them," Gordy said. "They just gain this reputation for: 'Man, will somebody take a chance on that?' "

It was Sundance that finally picked up "Rectify" in December 2011. The next month, Gordy said, McKinnon called and asked him to come on board as a writer. Things happened very quickly after that. "I got an email from the writing assistant on a Friday, and it had the next three months blocked out on the schedule. They had it starting the following Monday, so I called and said: 'Does this mean we start work on Monday?' and they said, 'Yeah.' " Gordy would spend a good bit of the next two and a half months in a writers' room in L.A. fleshing out the rest of the season. 

Though "Rectify" isn't based on a specific case, Gordy said there are parallels to the stories of several real-life inmates who were released after years on Death Row, including Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three. Gordy said McKinnon and the writers wanted to explore what those first few days would be like for someone released under those circumstances, with the character feeling like "a twitching nerve" in a place where 90 percent of his neighbors still believe he's guilty. 

Gordy said the show fits into a gritty niche of Southern film, occupied by works by filmmakers like Billy Bob Thornton. "There's no shortage of Southern pieces out there," Gordy said, "but I would say that Ray and Billy Bob fall into a subgenre. It's kind of the alt-country version of filmmaking. There's something a little dirtier and a little grittier about it." 

Gordy said the script for "Quarry" — the new pilot to be shot for Cinemax this summer — came about after the collapse of "The Wreck" project for AMC. In the aftermath, he and Fuller took a step back and started assessing what worked on television. It was Fuller who brought up the "Quarry" series by pulp novelist Max Allan Collins, who also wrote "Road to Perdition."  

The series tells the stories of a Marine who returns home in 1973 after serving in Vietnam and soon becomes a contract killer with a crime syndicate. The pilot will be loosely based on the book series, and will retain the early 1970s backdrop, with locations all along the Mississippi River. Gordy said the 1970s were "an exceptionally dark time" in American history, with many Americans feeling disillusioned after Vietnam and Watergate. It's a time that's always been fascinating to him, he said.

"The '70s, to me, has always been this kind of amorphous decade that felt like nothing was there, like it's been kind of undefined. It's tremendous for film, it's remarkable for music, but otherwise it just feels like futility. ... I'm really interested in what happens to a character that sort of personifies that futility, before we get to that kind of 1980s thought: 'If I can't count on God, and I can't count on my political leaders, and I'm not so sure about romantic love, then at least I can think about me and making money.' "

With the pilot in pre-production and location scouting beginning this week, Gordy said he and Fuller have been asked to write the first four episodes of an eventual first season — probably a good sign for the future of the project. While Gordy appreciates that the ground of "Quarry" — men returning home from Vietnam and trying to fit back into their lives — was well-plowed by '70s filmmakers, he said the longer format provided by a series, if Cinemax goes ahead and picks up the show, could allow them to explore topics that may seem familiar to modern audiences. 

"This last decade has been sort of a scrambled rewind of the 1970s — an unwanted war, a really terrible recession, and a lot of apathy and anger," Gordy said. "We're not going to reinvent anything here, but there is something interesting about the form of this: having 10 hours per season — if we get it — to sort of explore what happens to that individual ... . A big part of this show for us is asking the question in every episode: 'Am I a man, or a monster?' "

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