"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
The dining room of Graham Gordy's Park Hill bungalow is situated in the center of the house, a way station between the front den and the kitchen. The walls are a deep turquoise; on the largest is a nicely appointed arrangement of decorative ornaments and children's art. Much of the space is filled by a wide wooden table. This is where Gordy works. One end of the table is given over to neat stacks of papers, manuscripts and books. A laptop sits closed and at the ready. Across the country, in New York and Los Angeles, Gordy's various collaborators await dispatches from this room, the next character sketch or scene or snippet of dialogue fresh from a mind that can't stop turning out the stuff.
On Friday, Sept. 9, one of Gordy's ideas, nearly a half-decade in the making, will premiere on Cinemax: the new TV show "Quarry," which Gordy created, wrote and executive-produced with his Los Angeles-based writing partner, Michael D. Fuller. Adapted from a series of pulp novels by Max Allan Collins, it follows in the tradition of serious television dramas centered around good-hearted bad guys — "Breaking Bad," "Justified," etc. — that Tony Soprano begat.
"Quarry" follows the descent of a Marine who returns home from active duty in Vietnam in 1972 and is drawn into a dark business, becoming a contract killer in Memphis and its environs. If the first season is a hit, it could change Graham Gordy's life. It could lead to a second season and beyond, further establish Cinemax (a subsidiary of HBO) as a network for ambitious narrative television and grant Gordy and Fuller a blank check to develop future ideas with complete creative control.
Or it could flop: fail to land with the critics, who will parse the show at every level, tapping against every detail and nuance for signs of shoddy construction; fail to draw an audience to a second-tier network still rehabbing its "skin-emax" reputation as a soft-core porn channel. "Quarry" could disappear after a single season.
Most likely, it will land somewhere in between — not a cultural touchstone like "Mad Men," but popular enough with the critics and viewers to carry it through several seasons. Still, the potential highs are as lofty as one can imagine.
Gordy has seen success before, seen what it can do for a person not unlike himself, a Vince Gilligan (creator of "Breaking Bad") or David Simon ("The Wire"), or even his friend Ray McKinnon, a former Little Rock resident whose show "Rectify" will see its anticipated fourth and final season on SundanceTV this fall. (Gordy and Fuller wrote for the first season of "Rectify.") Gordy has also endured failure: He was a co-writer with Mike Myers on Myers' universally panned 2008 film "The Love Guru," which New York Times film critic A.O. Scott declared "downright antifunny, an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again." That hit took him some time to swallow.
Now, after more than four years of production on a relatively compact piece of work (the first season amounts to eight more or less hourlong episodes) with Gordy and Fuller involved at every stage, "Quarry" is out of their hands. Sitting at the dining room table where he writes, three weeks from the show's premiere, Gordy is composed. "All the ways in which I can react to this concept, I have reacted to it," he says.
Gordy, 40, is tall with an athletic build and a manicured, examined aspect about him that seems to extend to his interior as well. He is thoughtful in conversation, deep-voiced and open, talking his way around questions until his point is suitably illuminated, as if he were searching a dark room with a flashlight. "I have reacted to [the show] with tremendous hope and optimism and belief in what we've done," he told me, while conceding that the anticipation is "curbed by the things I'm frustrated with about it or the disappointments I've had along the way or the things that I don't feel landed."
On the wall behind him, a small framed print reads "A Room is a Place Where You Hide From the Wolves Outside and That's All a Room Is." Here, in the heart of a quaint brick house on a quiet, tree-lined street in a pleasant North Little Rock neighborhood, Gordy continues to work on his countless other projects, all in various stages of development, while Sept. 9 looms. "It has been such a long and sometimes arduous process," he says, "that I have become more stoic about the thing in itself and what reaction comes."
"Quarry." Season 1, episode 1. Black screen. Sound of water lapping and birds' early morning chirping. Fade in, close crop on a vintage election pin half-buried in the pebbly sand at water's edge — you can make out "I VOTED" in a chunky serif font and once-vibrant blue and red coloring from the late '60s, maybe. Quickly cut to wide angle, revealing the full scene: A man lies face down in the shallows of a river. The landscape is black against metal-blue, a predawn picture almost grayscale, like a tintype photograph. In the background, stretched across the river, a bridge, its unnaturally straight angles working against the jagged, dark canopy overhanging the shoreline and framing the scene. With the exception of music — these first four minutes are accompanied only by the foreboding swelling of synths — the overarching aesthetic and central themes of "Quarry" are contained in its opening scene.
After several seconds, the man stirs and crawls ashore. He stands and looks across the river, getting his bearings. Close crop on his face: Duane Allman mustache, wet hair hanging to his jaw. In his hollow gaze, we read he's taking stock of whatever series of events planted him face down in a dark eddy. He turns, retrieves a gun from the sand and stumbles along the shore until he comes to another man standing against a tree. He shoots that man in the back. Cut to a witness: a giant tortoise in the underbrush. The man pauses, as surprised about the turtle cameo as the viewer is, shakes himself back to his task and proceeds to drag the corpse into the river and push it out into the current. In this short time, we are made to know that this show will be these things: wickedly alluring, artistically ambitious and very bleak.
Our antihero is Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green), who carries a prominent knot in the center of his brow that reads by turns sinister and disarming. Conway is a vet, but no war hero; he and his friend Arthur Soloman (Jamie Hector, who played Marlo on "The Wire") are implicated in a My Lai-type massacre of Vietnamese civilians, and their homecoming is met by a protest at the airport. Both are spurned by the community. Meanwhile, their wives attempt to comfort and unpack the men, whom a year away at war has profoundly altered. From this setup, established in the pilot episode, much struggle, suffering and sorrow follows rapidly, and one big debt leads Conway to many bad deeds.
Conway is suffering from PTSD, a mostly undiagnosed, untreated condition at the time, and Marshall-Green imbues the character with a sustained aspect of vacancy, a glaze in the eyes and a little tightness in the jaw. Alongside Marshall-Green, "Quarry's" first season is populated by a number of impressive performances from largely underexposed actors. Jodi Balfour portrays Mac's wife, Joni, who serves as confidant and foil to her husband and, like him, has secrets. As the Broker, the plot's mysterious mastermind and the director of a misfit crew of for-hire hitmen, Peter Mullan has that supremely villainous quality of being unshakable, dispassionate, measured.
The other two central characters of "Quarry" are music and water. Memphis is the city of Sun Records, Stax, Beale Street and Graceland, a heritage the show must attend to. It does: Songs are used to advance the narrative (Conway's missing "Otis Blue" LP is a plot device in the pilot), radios and record players aren't simply playing but are actually listened to, and in nearly every episode characters are put in front of a live set. Scenes unfold in and around the swimming pool Conway built by himself in his backyard (he was a high school swimmer before he got drafted). Once a source of solace and sanctuary, the pool, a key player, seems to have acquired a darker aspect while he was in Vietnam. Always hovering off screen is the Mississippi River. We see it in the season's opening scene and because it becomes quickly apparent that the predawn murder was a flash forward, we know things will get worse. We're headed downriver.
"Quarry" was born from the ashes of Gordy and Fuller's first serious foray, "The Wreck," a proposed TV series about the machinations of a Southern college's football program. They took the project fairly deep with AMC: John Lee Hancock, director of "The Blind Side," was attached, but the network declined to order a pilot, the project's death knell. When Gordy and Fuller encountered the "Quarry" novels, the pair were already ruminating on an idea for a show about the Dixie Mafia and the Mississippi River as an artery of illicit activity. So they moved Mac Conway from the Iowa setting of the books to Memphis and introduced their Dixie Mafia characters into the "Quarry" narrative. For a moment, they considered bringing the story forward to the present day, but the '70s timeframe of the original, they realized, reflected the anxieties and discontent of our time in helpfully uncanny ways. As Gordy told the Arkansas Times' David Koon in 2013, "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 reiterated this point about the early '70s to me: "People felt psychologically or emotionally adrift."
The result is a show brimming with malaise, in which the terrors inflicted upon and by the characters are symptoms of the spoilage in the society at large. "Quarry" depicts both sides of the racial divide of 1972 Memphis, and its protagonists, white and black, are ensnared by wicked manifestations of power and entrapped by the few who wield it. Mac is lorded over by The Broker; across town, Arthur's family witnesses hate crimes by white supremacists and profiling by the Memphis police. There's a terrible familiarity to the painstakingly accurate setting, like finding your own eyes in a Kodachrome portrait of your grandfather in an old family album.
"In retrospect, probably without realizing it so much in the beginning," Gordy says, a primary impulse behind the show's writing was to "understand a little bit more about the era from whence I came. What happened in the era before this, when my parents were relatively young and out in the world? What did the world look like, what did it feel like?"
Gordy was born in 1975 in Conway and grew up there. His father, Fred Gordy, was a doctor, "very old school." Gordy remembers going on house calls with his dad, "getting paid in a couple dozen eggs and deer meat and stuff like that." (On his father's side, Gordy is related to Jimmy Carter.) His mother, Dr. Sondra Gordy, was a history professor at the University of Central Arkansas specializing in the civil rights era.
From an early age, Gordy was attracted to acting, especially sketch comedy. He performed in plays at the Arkansas Arts Center Children's Theatre in Little Rock and, as a teenager, at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. When he was 19, he moved to L.A. and began taking classes and writing sketches at The Groundlings, the famous breeder of comedy stars, whose alumni include Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell.
If people in Arkansas expected to see Gordy a short time later on the big screen, it didn't work out that way. He came back after a year, disenchanted with the realities of acting in Hollywood, and enrolled at UCA. After graduating in 1999, he pursued a master of fine arts in dramatic writing at New York University's Tisch School, where he won the Goldberg Award for Playwriting. When he was 24, his workshop piece titled "The Discipline" was staged by one of his mentors, Frank Pugliese, who cast Wallace Shawn, Marisa Tomei and John Slattery in it. It was a surreal debut for Gordy. "I don't know, man. All I can say is that I peaked early," he offers today. "Frank was one of those people who believed in me more than I did."
After grad school, Gordy worked for comedian Mike Myers for several years and began to write for the screen, contributing to the second and third movies in the "Shrek" franchise. His first major writing credit is attached to the fiasco of Myers' "The Love Guru," which was deemed the Worst Screenplay of 2008 at the Razzie Awards. It's rumored that Myers strong-armed the process, but Gordy declined to fuel that story. In an email, he wrote of the project, "The headline is: I learned a tremendous amount, but it came at a huge emotional cost and it gutted me."
His relationship with Myers winding down, Gordy left New York, and in 2007 was tapped to write the script for the indie "War Eagle, Arkansas," which garnered acclaim at numerous film festivals and reminded him of the kind of work he'd been doing in playwriting. "I spent the next few years trying to get back to what I really wanted to write, which were smaller, character-driven features. The economy had just tanked and I suddenly had written two lower-budget, character-driven screenplays I was proud of at the precise moment when Hollywood decided to stop making movies that size." He turned to developing "The Wreck" with Fuller, whom he'd met in New York. "It was a hard couple of years. I got bites, and hired for things here and there, but nothing got produced."
In 2010, Gordy collaborated with writer/actor Ray McKinnon, then living in Little Rock, on the short film "Spanola Pepper Sauce Company," a dark comedy written by and starring Gordy and directed by McKinnon, filmed over a weekend an hour outside of town. (Gordy was also a columnist for the Times during this period. His wife, Amy, is also the editor of Savvy, which is published by the Times.) When McKinnon's long-simmering project "Rectify" was picked up by SundanceTV in 2011, Gordy joined the writers' room, bringing Fuller with him.
This is how the years fill up as a writer: tinkering and taking what opportunities come along. To talk with Gordy today is to hear a man settled into a productive, creative, but hard-won life. When I asked him about the course of his career, trying to parse his ambitions, he spoke of talent as "cultivated," more about "attitude as opposed to aptitude." He's worked hard, and he hasn't stopped working. "It's taken me a long time to learn these lessons," he said.
Gordy's present path goes back to that wilderness year in L.A., when making up comedic sketches had moved him away from acting and toward writing — potentially "the long game of life," to borrow his phrase. He realized writing was "something that would be very challenging and that I could work at and would probably take me 20 years to get good at and another 20 to tire of." By this math, Graham Gordy has only just started cooking with gas.
In his 1985 essay "Morality," the playwright/actor Wallace Shawn contends that "the difference between a perfectly decent person and a monster is just a few thoughts. The perfectly decent person who follows a certain chain of reasoning, ever so slightly and subtly incorrect, becomes a perfect monster at the end of the chain." Since Gordy got to meet him in New York, Shawn has remained an influence, and "Quarry" exhibits the intellectual moralizing that is trademark Shawn.
"Quarry" is a gumbo of references and allusions and tips of the hat to the many sources Gordy and Fuller employed as they developed the show and adapted Collins' Iowa-based books to Memphis.
Going for a historically accurate, yet lived-in quality for "Quarry," Gordy and Fuller read stacks of books on Vietnam and PTSD, dove deep into auteur-era Hollywood (Gordy cites the 1973 crime film "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," among many others, as a touchstone), and consumed as much of the culture from the time as they could.
"Good writing is about — yes, it's about structure, and, yes, it's about great characters, and it's theme, but it's also specificity as much as anything else," Gordy says. The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Nixon-McGovern presidential race provide a ready backdrop for the story — Mark Spitz's pursuit of seven Olympic gold medals is even used as a foil to Mac Conway's bad turns. The sort of historical accuracy Gordy and Fuller were after required more than timely news clips, vintage cars and flared jeans; it also required attention to the artifacts people would use leading up to that year. To recreate 1972, Gordy explains, you have to go farther back than 1972; you have to gather up the items and records and clothes one would accumulate in the decades prior. One overlooked anachronism could topple the entire effect for a viewer.
Music is key both to authenticity and as illustration of how disconnected Conway is with the present. While the rest of Memphis (including his wife) has moved on to power pop band Big Star, Conway is still an Otis Redding man.
If some moments in the first season remind you of something Charles Portis wrote, or Walker Percy, that's by design. That the show looks like a shot by William Eggleston or Stephen Shore — the iconic color photographers whose work is particularly evocative of the 1970s — is because Gordy and Fuller posted their images around the writers' room. "Eggleston's photography was huge for us," Fuller told me over the phone, "in a way that you can read six books about something and then you see one picture and it's like, 'Oh, that's what it felt like.' " Though he made pictures all over America, Eggleston is synonymous with Memphis, the city where he has been based since the 1960s. Gordy and Fuller even supplied the production crew for "Quarry" with an Eggleston "look book," and they gave director Greg Yaitanes and cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino a syllabus of films that had inspired the writing. "Our mandate, without being dictatorial about it," Gordy told me, was, "We would love for somebody to turn on this show, and for two or three minutes be like, 'Was this actually made in the early '70s? Is this a movie from the early '70s?' " Or, as Yaitanes told me, the avowed goal was, "We're gonna make this, visually, for the deepest diving Memphian."
At one point, Gordy and Fuller weren't convinced the show would ever get made. "Quarry" was conceived in 2012 and picked up by Cinemax early the next year, but, waiting for a green light from the network, it wasn't filmed until 2015, with more than 50 days of continuous shooting that spring and summer. The process is called "cross-boarding," when a TV show is filmed all at once, like a movie; it's a boon for continuity. But the shooting schedule also presented a host of challenges in untangling the raw material from hours of film into the final edited eight episodes. It was expected that "Quarry" would be released in February this year, but the demands of post-production pushed it to the fall. In mid-August, billboards advertising the show's September premiere began to appear around Hollywood. To those who had been involved for years, I imagine they served as a final, irrefutable confirmation: "Quarry" was finished.
"Quarry" was very nearly filmed in Arkansas. This was Gordy's intention from the beginning, to bring this ambitious TV project to his home state, to kick open the front door for Hollywood. Before filming, Gordy, Fuller, Yaitanes and executives from HBO/Cinemax "spent a week driving around Memphis, around Mississippi, around Arkansas and Louisiana," Gordy recently wrote me. Due to unfavorable tax credits in Tennessee and the limitations of Louisiana visually and geographically, the team seemed set on taking Gordy's advice for the production. "Arkansas had the project," he wrote. "HBO and all of our team was ready to do it here and had started the negotiations based on a film tax credit that had passed." But the deal unraveled. The network needed assurance of enough funding for five years, so they could invest in a soundstage and infrastructure. Although then-Gov. Mike Beebe supported the project, as Gordy explains it, the tax credit offered wasn't enough to ink the deal. In the end, Cinemax decided to split filming between Memphis, Mississippi and New Orleans, with the bulk in Louisiana.
"I was heartbroken, of course," Gordy says. "All I've ever wanted, after making a living at doing this, is to be able to do it here." More than ever before, he is committed to realizing this vision for Arkansas. Gordy's next project, a feature titled "Antiquities," is set to film in the state this fall. Gordy and Arkansas filmmaker Daniel Campbell co-wrote the film based on Campbell's short, which won the Charles B. Pierce Award for Arkansas Film at the Little Rock Film Festival in 2010. "Antiquities" is being produced as the inaugural project for Mortuus Pater Pictures, which Little Rock's Gary Newton created after seeing "Quarry" go elsewhere. "The loss of ['Quarry'] was the catalyst for me," Newton, the president and CEO of Arkansas Learns and a former executive vice president at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, told the Arkansas Times in July. "It felt like we finally had the Holy Grail, to have been the first choice of the studio, to be able to put Arkansans to work, and develop a crew base. The fact that we lost that was a gut-check." He formed Mortuus Pater and raised $650,000 to support Gordy, Campbell and Arkansas film and TV projects. Gordy told me, "We have to try to build it from the ground up and build the infrastructure as we go. And 'Antiquities' is the size of a project that the state can financially get behind and incentivize. So, we just have to be successful with it and show it is worthwhile."
Gordy says 2016 "has been a year of re-assessment for me." He has continued to dip back into "Quarry," doing promotional work and some early scheming in case of a second season, and over the summer he wrote what he refers to as "a half-hour comedy full of dick jokes," which he'll shop around leisurely. Still, Gordy gives the sense that he's a little between gigs while waiting for "Quarry" to drop. In one email, he wrote: "The Irish Poet John O'Donohue talks about threshold moments in your life being a threshing, giving up some husk and moving into a more full version of yourself. A lot of that has been trying to go back and examine what made me want to do this in the first place and re-look at the things that left me in awe."
The self-awareness one perceives in Gordy's manners of dress and speech seem to permeate his work as well. All of his collaborators with whom I spoke praised Gordy on a particular point. "He's got a great sense of scene and character and a wonderful sense of how to bring humanity to a character," Fuller told me. Yaitanes says the same thing: "What I admire specifically about Graham is his sense of humanity and his sense of warmth as an individual and how he infuses that into the characters. When you see how much that matters to him as a person, you feel very charged with having to protect that on behalf of them when it passes from page into reality."
Peopling a narrative's "world" — a term both Gordy and Fuller use when talking about their work — with a set of dynamic characters is essential to the success of any long-form drama, which is why Fuller and Yaitanes both point to this as a particular strength of Gordy's.
But Gordy's "ace in the hole," according to Fuller, is his comedic sensibility. Both writers are devotees of Charles Portis, whose 2003 Oxford American essay "Motel Life, Lower Reaches" is referenced in "Quarry" when the season takes an Arkansas detour; on the run from trouble back home, Mac and Joni decamp to the Sunnyside Motel in Huntsville, where they encounter a string of drifters.
Fittingly, Gordy is currently shopping a screenplay for a film of Portis' 1979 novel "Dog of the South," which he adapted with Little Rock writer and editor Jay Jennings. (Jennings and I work together at the Oxford American.) Jennings compares Gordy to "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan, a famously pleasant person whose creativity traffics in dark themes: "He's the nicest guy and ran the best writers' room, and produces this ultraviolent TV show that has this morbid humor to it — Graham is the same way in some senses."
Jennings also extends the comparison to Portis, Arkansas's master writer. Citing Gordy's short "Spanola Pepper Sauce Company," he observes, "the humor that comes out of it is what the character doesn't realize what he's revealing about himself, which is characteristic of Portis as well. I think one thing that Graham's characters share with Portis' characters is that they don't seem able to help themselves in revealing more about themselves to you. There's almost this compulsion to say more than they should."
There is a glimpse of Graham Gordy at work: dogged as they come, tempered in the foundry of New York theater and already met with career disappointments grave enough to turn most creative types out to pasture for good. Relentless not just in his pursuit of landing his creative projects and seeing them through with artistic integrity, but detailed to the extent that his characters' individual humanity has become his calling card in the industry.
Whatever the future of "Quarry," Gordy is staying in Little Rock; no concessions.
This goes back to his theater days: "When I was in New York and writing plays, I was always writing about Arkansas and Arkansans and the South," he says. "That's translated into the things that I've written for the screen as well — I write about the South." After nine years in New York, Gordy remembers how he was called to return to Arkansas, to make his career work here. "I just got to a point where it was like, I know where I'm gonna die."
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