Someone is lying on a bed of crushed gravel, apparently dead. A nearby vehicle is engulfed in snapping orange flames. Men are pointing guns at each other, and the things they’re growling sound more like promises than threats.
Without a doubt, an already bloody day is about to get bloodier on the set of one of TV’s most violent series: Cinemax’s “Banshee,” a juicy bit of pulp fiction that centers on an ex-con masquerading as the sheriff of a small Pennsylvania town that’s crawling with crooked characters.
The premium cable network – which launches the show’s third season at 10 p.m. Friday – has spent the past three years shooting in and around Charlotte, but plans to move production elsewhere in 2015 pending another renewal.
On this steamy August afternoon, the cast and crew have sprawled out among a complex of buildings that used to make up Union Correctional Center, just off U.S. 74 on the southeastern edge of Monroe.
In Season 2, the show used this location when the plot called for a women’s prison. Today, it’s “Camp Genoa,” a military base near the fictitious town of Banshee, Pa.
Surveying the property, it does look the part. There’s a tan Humvee parked next to one barracks, and a hulking 6-by-6 cargo truck next to another. The presence of a muscled actor (series newcomer Langley Kirkwood as a Marine colonel) in camouflage pants and a dark-green T-shirt helps sell it, too.
But in the scene being shot, something’s clearly awry on this base. After the first assistant director shouts “Action!,” New Zealand actor Antony Starr (as “Sheriff” Lucas Hood) appears, wearing jeans and a bulletproof vest over a black T-shirt; castmates Hoon Lee and Frankie Faison (playing Hood’s accomplices – cross-dressing hacker Job and bar owner Sugar, respectively) join him, dressed in civilian clothes and packing nonmilitary-issued heat.
They have a brief conversation. Then they reset and do it again. And again, and again and again.
That’s how it goes on the set of a substantial movie or TV series: The actors repeat lines of dialogue several times, taking direction, changing inflection. Then the crew moves cameras around and shoots again, from another angle. Several times. Once they think they’ve got it right, they move the cameras again and do a few more takes.
It can take hours to get what will wind up being a couple minutes in a single episode.
At the moment, director/executive producer Greg Yaitanes is focusing on Starr, Lee and Faison, so it could be a while before he needs lead actress Ivana Milicevic. She has retreated to her trailer, where a group of journalists finds her taking a long drag from an American Spirit. She exhales and waves the smoke away from her guests, stubbing it out to add a third cigarette butt to the collection on the steps.
“Just pretend you didn’t see that,” she says, smiling.
Inside the trailer, Milicevic explains the fake blood running down her face.
“I look like I’ve gone through a lot, but we haven’t shot that scene yet. So we have to think about what happened and where I’ll be bloody, based on something we haven’t shot yet. Which is tricky – because by the time you actually have to do it, things change.”
She says she loves when she doesn’t have to be pretty in a scene, and you believe her because there’s nothing diva-like about the 40-year-old actress (perhaps most recognizable as Stacey, one of the hot-to-trot American women in 2003’s “Love Actually”). When she gets called to set, she invites her interviewers to take the van ride back with her; when she gets there and learns the cameras aren’t yet ready, she says, “We can keep talking until they really call me.”
This warm, buttoned-down vibe seems to permeate the “Banshee” set.
When journalists crash the cast’s midafternoon lunch break, Starr puts one of them in the seat next to him and cracks wise about the quality of the second-unit catering (“That’s a crime against rice right there”).
Later on, between takes, Faison trades jibes with an HBO media relations specialist whom he can’t seem to beat at Words With Friends, engages in excited conversation about Price’s Chicken Coop with a visiting journalist, and smiles for photographs with an identically dressed man working as his stand-in.
This is in stark contrast to our experience with Showtime’s all-business “Homeland,” which shot in the Charlotte Observer newsroom in May 2013. Star Claire Danes spoke to (and looked at) virtually no one she didn’t have to, and declined interview requests.
But while you get the sense that every day is casual day on the “Banshee” set, it’s still a business. And like “Homeland,” “Banshee” has probably shot its last frame of footage in the Charlotte area – another project fleeing North Carolina due to the state’s elimination of its film tax credit.
“I really, really enjoyed Charlotte – clearly, since I’m still here,” says Hoon Lee, who moved his wife and son from New York after Season 3 wrapped in September, and hasn’t yet left.
“The people in Charlotte were extremely warm and generous toward the show,” Lee continues, speaking to the Observer in December. “I felt like the population was really rooting for us. ... I also find it very exciting to be in a city that is growing, and establishing its identity. You feel like you can participate in that here, whereas New York and L.A. are somewhat finished products.
“So there’s a lot of promise for the future of Charlotte. I just wish that promise included more film and TV production.”