Screen Play

Native son Graham Gordy has made a name for himself in lights


Graham Gordy could tell this better. That pretty much goes without saying, though in many ways his story, the way it traces  the well-trod narrative of so many young people who’ve struck off for Hollywood’s greener—or at least more luminescent—pastures, is a relatively straightforward one. Because at one time, he was the local boy—specifically, the Conway boy—who, with little more than the dream of appearing on the silver screen, set out for Los Angeles at the age of 19 and returned home a year later. Who found a different calling in the world of screenwriting, to craft stories far-ranging in tone and genre, settling in the limelight and building upon the burgeoning career that followed thereafter.

But much in the way that some narratives splinter and refuse the molds we insist they wear—not unlike a very uncomfortable and poorly fitted holiday sweater—so, too, could the same be said here. When we spoke at a North Little Rock coffee shop in January, there was a possibility the show Graham had been working on with his writing partner, Michael D. Fuller, for the past four years, Quarry—a story based on the pulp novels of the same name that follows a Vietnam vet who returns home only to join a crime syndicate—would finally see the airwaves this past spring. However, thanks to what can only be described in decent terms as an imbroglio of epic proportions (there are many other less-decent terms), the airdate has been pushed time and again and again.

Now, tentatively, it’s happening: Quarry’s slated to air on Cinemax this coming fall. But as we wait—and wait—with bated breath, we thought it time to share Graham’s story. And because he speaks faster than you might expect, phrases coming haltingly and in stops and starts, the ideas resolving into full paragraphs before rippling and echoing the larger ideas—and because the 8,000-word transcript won’t rightly fit in a space better suited for a tenth of that—we’ve decided to run some of the most salient parts of that conversation, (which have been edited for length and clarity).

On the reason for getting into this business:

“There’s very few people who get into this thinking, This is the best opportunity I have to get a big house or a car. You get into it for the love of it and because you feel the need to express something. And I think you’re taking something you consider to be art—or artful, at least—and trying to package it in a way that it can be commodified. I mean, as soon as a poem makes a dollar, it’s not a poem. So it’s a matter of taking something you care about the most and trying to protect it from being mangled in the world of commerce.”

On figuring out what you want to do:

“I turned 40 in November, and a lot of this has been a real—maybe ‘crisis of conscience’ is too dramatic. Just figuring out what it is I really want to do. I think you start to realize the road starts to narrow in terms of the time you have left to do these things. This is an incredibly privileged position to be in. And by that, I just mean the opportunity to make a living in this field. It’s ridiculous, honestly. Like, the idea that I can sit in my home in my pajama pants and watch words bump together on a page is completely decadent when people are out here actually working hard to make a living. And it’s not that it hasn’t come without a lot of hard work, a lot of student debt and a tremendous amount of heartache. But I think I’ve gotten to the point recently where you sort of throw yourself away.”

On patience:

“Somebody said very early—I think it was probably in grad school—that from idea to screen, if things go well for a feature, it usually takes about five years. And since we first pitched this to several cable networks—HBO was the one who bought it—it’s been four years now. It’s funny, because TV is supposedly so much more efficient. I rewatched the first season of The Sopranos not long ago. And you see the kids on that show—I mean, they look a year older, maybe more, between the pilot and the second episode. So I guess they have a history of taking a very long time with these things. It’s really unbelievably frustrating. It’s really a testament to choose projects you’re passionate about because—when it comes to television—you may be working on them for five years. You may also be in development with them for two or three or four years before that. So, it’s a long process and a short life.”

On collaboration and staying loyal to what drives you:

“I have a writing partner in this, [Michael D. Fuller], and 90 percent of the time, we see eye to eye in terms of what the show is—what we think it is and what we want it to be. But there’s also some negotiation there. And there’s also the negotiating with the people who are footing the bill for the whole thing. So, it is the antithesis of a solitary experience. If you get a note from somebody, it may be, Oh, that’s their own particular take, or that’s their upbringing or their particular proclivity, or whatever. But if three people are telling you, This isn’t working or I’m not getting that, then you need to listen and probably need to make that change. The rule I use is that if one person tells you that you’re drunk, they can f*** off. But if three people tell you that you’re drunk, you need to sit down.”

On the time period:

“[Michael and I] were talking about a time that kind of fascinated both of us: the early ’70s. We’re both from the South, so something set in the South felt right, and initially, we were talking about, like, what would be a dark, gritty The Dukes of Hazzard. Something having to do with criminality in the South that’s obviously not as, you know, jumping the General Lee and being chased by the same sheriff and whatever. But there was something about that that was instantly kind of nostalgic and cool, and then combining that with the idea of the early ’70s being so rich in terms of culture. Maybe the best period for movies in the history of cinema. Arguably the best period for music. But a terrible time for the country—in terms of recession, in terms of lack of trust in the government. Obviously a lot of paranoia going on at that time. And I felt—and Michael felt—that we were in a sort of repeat of that time to a degree.

“We started looking around for books, either fiction or nonfiction, just to sort of base this on, and Michael came across the Quarry novels. And what interested us the most is that it was about a vet returning home from Vietnam, sort of getting ostracized from polite society. And in the end, he sort of ends up, out of desperation, joining this criminal network all along the Mississippi river.”

On addressing PTSD in the show:

“We really started to examine what that period was like historically: the experience of vets coming home at that time, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) before there was an acronym for it, before anybody knew what it was. That’s what the show became more than anything else to us: How does that individual come back and deal with that when there’s no outlet or even articulation for what that feeling is? Once we found that and started exploring that, researching that—in addition to the time period itself, the culture at the time, the politics at the time, the sort of bifurcation of the country from left and right at the time—we really started to kind of find what the show was. A general audience doesn’t necessarily want to watch eight hours of television about PTSD, so you have to engage them in a TV show they want to watch, and characters that they want to see and so forth. So, that has to be the Flintstone vitamins—it has to look like Barney and Dino, but you have to put something that’s the real reason in there.”

On speaking with vets about their experiences:

“We read a book called What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes who was a Vietnam vet, and it was just fascinating. And we got to talk with him on the phone several times, and he’s just a brilliant guy—one of those guys that’s a Rhodes scholar and then went to Vietnam and then came back. He had gotten married right before he went to Vietnam. He came back, and for the first three to four years, he was so irritable and so frustrated, had this rage. He said he was such a chill guy before he left, and he was like, I came back home from war, and what is different? And then he said, well, I got married before I left, so it must be my wife that’s causing all these problems. So he was blaming marriage and his wife for all of this, and then his wife finally said, you are a different person than you were before. War has changed you, and we need to go speak to a psychiatrist about this. He started writing [the book] in the ’70s, but it was something that he had been working on for 30 years, 40 years, before it was published.

“I had multiple conversations with a buddy of mine from high school who’s a Navy SEAL. And it’s funny, too, because he’s such a lovely guy. He’s totally kind of a good ol’ boy, and I said I wanted to talk with him about this, and I think he thought that because of the nature of the business that I’m in, that I wanted to hear, like, the cool Navy SEALs stories. And I said upfront, I really want to talk to you about PTSD, and he kind of went silent, and he said, OK, I’ll be happy to … let’s set up a time ’cause it’s a long conversation, and he said, I’ll have a few Captain Morgans, and then I’ll be able to talk to you about it. He said, My wife understands my addiction to my brothers over there, and my love for them is more than I’ll ever feel for her. And it’s like, Good God, I can’t believe that you’re saying that.