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Charlotte's 'Banshee' screeches onto TV

'Banshee'
Series premiere 10-11 p.m. Friday, Cinemax

A man and a woman have graphic casual sex. An Asian transvestite curses a blue streak. An innocent bystander gets shot in the face on a city street. All this happens before the opening credits even roll on the pilot episode of “Banshee,” a new original series from HBO-owned premium-cable network Cinemax.

Like Showtime hit “Homeland,” “Banshee” is a drama that deals with a criminal underworld and revolves around some sort of larger mystery. Like “Homeland,” “Banshee” is filmed primarily in and around Charlotte. But that’s where the similarities end.

“Banshee’s” plot: An ex-convict (Antony Starr) steals the identity of a small-town sheriff – aided by a scheme that may make you groan, but just go with it – and tries to reconnect with his former partner-in-crime/lover (Ivana Milicevic), who has been leading a quietly domestic life in Banshee, Pa., under a false cover for years.

The colorful cast of supporting characters introduced in the first two episodes include the profane Asian transvestite, Amish kids with questionable morals, a crime boss so wicked he’ll cut off a minion’s finger and feed it to his dog, and – well, you get the picture.

“This isn’t ‘Touched By an Angel,’ ” says Milicevic, who herself performs a steamy sex scene in the pilot.

Created by David Schickler and Jonathan Tropper, the series made headlines initially because of its executive producer Alan Ball, who created “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” for HBO. In fact, “Banshee” was initially conceived as an HBO original series.

But “HBO migrated it over to Cinemax since it had this kind of pulpy flavor to it, which was a little more gritty than some of HBO’s other stuff and the brand,” says show runner Greg Yaitanes, who formerly ran “House” for Fox. At the time, “Cinemax was re-branding itself and defining its new platform of high-end pulp, high-end genre programming.” (“Banshee” is the channel’s third original series, joining “Strike Back” and “Hunted.” Yaitanes points to films like “A History of Violence,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Warrior,” and Martin Scorsese’s films as influences.)

Location scouting took producers all over the U.S., including Pennsylvania, since the story is set there; they also considered Canada.

“North Carolina is an excellent match for Amish country,” Yaitanes says. Plus, “it was the right mix of having a strong crew base, as well as the tax rebate.”

The movie and TV industry can get a refund on 25 percent of salaries and money they spend on taxable items in North Carolina, up to $20 million per project. It’s one of the most competitive tax breaks of its kind, and is responsible for luring major projects like “Homeland” and Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games” movie.

Then there was the look of the greater Charlotte area.

“Five towns make Banshee: Monroe, Mooresville, Lincolnton, Gastonia, and Waxhaw,” Yaitanes says. “No one town captured everything that Banshee was, but everything existed in that area, and it allowed us to go to a lot of different places and make that town.”

They found Banshee’s police station, bus depot and train depot in Mooresville; its slaughterhouse, a local diner and Milicevic’s character’s house in Gastonia; the crime boss’s mansion in Waxhaw; the Banshee courthouse in Monroe; and a local watering hole on Old Statesville Road in north Charlotte.

Sound stages for interior sets were built in warehouses along Reames Road just north of Sunset Road off Interstate 77. Uptown Charlotte stands in for Harrisburg, Pa., in Episode 4.

Milicevic, 38, a former Bond girl (“Casino Royale”), rented a furnished apartment in Dilworth from spring till fall and named Soul Gastrolounge in Plaza Midwood, Amelie’s in NoDa, Tony’s Ice Cream in Gastonia, and the U.S. National Whitewater Center as some of her local favorites.

The actress loved the weather, and loved the people; she found North Carolinians to largely be sweet, whereas Los Angelenos can be “snooty and snarky,” she says. When she left, “I remember thinking, ‘I’m really gonna miss this. I’m gonna miss driving on the street and people being like, ‘Yeah, go ahead! Cut in!’ It’s not like a battle everywhere you go.”

She hopes to come back, but time will tell. Cinemax announced a year ago that it had ordered a full 10-episode season, and since the channel’s programming depends less on viewership numbers than on total subscribers – barring a catastrophe – fans of the show will get their 10 episodes.

As for Season 2? There are no guarantees, though Yaitanes and the writers are optimistic, having already mapped out the series’ next chapter. “We’re just waiting on the official word to go ahead.”

Milicevic – who had to fight for the role and feels “very lucky” to have landed it – is crossing her fingers as hard as she can. “I’ll believe it when I officially am looking for another place to live in Charlotte.”

Janes: 704-358-5897.
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