Rochester's David Schickler co-writer of new Cinemax show 'Banshee'
05:00 AM, Jan 06, 2013
A handful of men are brawling in a creek at the bottom of a wooded North Carolina ravine. It’s cold; everyone’s wet. At one point they stop fighting and one of the men spots the guy who’s responsible for their predicament.
It’s David Schickler, wearing the new Timberline boots that he bought for himself in celebration of this event, standing relatively dry and warm among the crowd of 70 or so production people shooting this first scene for a new Cinemax television series,Banshee.
The miserable actor looks at Schickler, the Rochester writer who’s the show’s co-creator, and asks: “Does it get worse than this?”
It may, if co-producer Alan Ball (True Blood and American Beauty) and Schickler have a hit on their hands. Banshee makes its debut at 10 p.m. Friday, and at least a half-dozen people will die in that first hour. The body count will continue to rise. Ten episodes have been filmed. Schickler and his co-creator, Jonathan Tropper, have been commissioned to write another two. And yes, lots of people are also having sex in the fictional town of Banshee, Pa.
“I don’t know what my mother will say when she sees this,” Schickler confesses.
SCENE ONE. Naked women, a lot of corpses, and a love story.
Schickler pulls out his phone and flashes a photo sent to him by Tropper. It’s a shot from New York City’s Times Square, where a huge poster for Banshee glowers from the side of a building. “Small town. Big secrets,” the advertisement reads, and Schickler points out the less-obvious details. “There’s a guy lying in a pool of blood, and in the background an Amish guy digging a grave.”
Schickler explains how the story of an ex-con who steals the identity of a murdered sheriff in Pennsylvania’s Amish country suddenly appears in Times Square. “When you come up with a TV show pitch, you’re selling a world,” he says. “What they call in Hollywood ‘renewability.’ They want to see this is a five-year-long idea. ‘Convince me, as the money guy, that you can keep doing this for five years.’ They want to know that there’s that much depth to the main character’s troubles.”
The money guys want The Sopranos and NYPD Blue, shows driven to hell and maybe back by tortured characters. “Will this man be damned or absolved?” as Schickler puts it. Banshee’s damned man is Lucas Hood, played by the relatively unknown New Zealander Antony Starr. “And we think he’s going to be a star,” Schickler adds. “Lucas Hood is our Tony Soprano; he’s our Andy Sipowicz.” Alan Ball agreed. He has Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe statues on his mantle for writing films like American Beauty and as creator and executive producer of the HBO hits Six Feet Under and True Blood. When he signed on as a executive producer, along with Schickler and Tropper, Banshee had a real heavyweight on the team.
Despite the violence and action, Schickler insists he and Tropper have also written a love story. “It’s not gratuitous,” he says. “There are naked women and a lot of corpses. But there are deep relationships. The main character is trying to get back the woman he loves. In the end, the relationships between the characters are what keep you with the story. We both love a good fistfight, in stories. But there’s a romantic arc at heart in our literary novels.”
SCENE TWO. A killer with a tender stomach.
It might be easier for Schickler to create these kinds of characters if he himself is driving to hell and back. We shall see, perhaps this fall, when his memoir is scheduled to be published. He reveals little for now, merely describing The Dark Path as “how I spent my youth, in the early ’70s, on a path to being a Catholic priest, and where my love for women, writing and the world challenged that path.”
Long story short, Schickler is not a priest. He didn’t even get close.
He was 30 years old when he moved into the basement of his parents’ home in Gates the kind of hothouse environment in which fragile writers bloom like heirloom tomatoes spending the next three years creating what would prove to be his breakthrough novel, the New York Times 2001 bestseller Kissing in Manhattan. The monk-like existence suits Schickler, who seems to like to simplify mundane decisions, like fashion and menus. His closet appears to be nothing more than unadorned shirts in varying shades of graduate-student drab. One place where he can frequently be found writing is a Bruegger’s where the employees know him by name, and where Schickler generally orders the same thing: chicken spaetzel soup. He has a tender stomach, this literary architect of death explains, and doesn’t like to challenge it.
SCENE THREE. The simultaneously wonderful and terrifying world of success.
This is a good lesson for a writer: Schickler learned how to deal with failure at an early age while growing up in Gates. “I failed miserably in Little League,” he says. “My mother would take me across the street after the games to Russell’s Ice Cream to make me feel better that I sucked at any sport involving a projectile.”
He ran cross-country and track at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton, acted in plays and musicals, played guitar in church groups. But Schickler also wrote poetry and short stories. His 10th-grade English teacher has since passed away, but Schickler carefully writes down his tribute to Father Larry Wroblewski, to get it exactly right.
I blame him for making me feel that reading and writing stories would be the coolest, most swashbuckling career possible.
Schickler was still writing while studying international relations at Georgetown University, and afterward while waiting tables at Chili’s, enduring rejections from creative writing programs. His writer’s voice still eluded him: A main character in one of his stories was a refrigerator. “Let’s just say that I hadn’t yet learned much about making characters relatable,” Schickler says.
Columbia University’s writing program finally relented, then Schickler moved on to teaching at a boarding school in Vermont. Still writing. Three novels to this point, none published. “Broke, in a crisis of confidence,” Schickler says. “Wondering: How are you going to make a living doing that?” He returned to Rochester in 1997, took a job at The Harley School, and moved into the basement. And wrote.
Those words became Kissing in Manhattan, a collection of short stories connected by the fact that the characters are living in the same apartment building. The New Yorker took a chance on a chapter called The Smoker, a weird tale of an inexplicable yet palpable relationship between the teacher at an all-girls boarding school and one of his students.
The magazine arrived at stores on a Monday. “It was early June, final exam week,” Schickler says, “and I snuck out during morning break, drove to World Wide News and bought a copy of The New Yorker. Four hours later, I got a call from a Hollywood production company that was interested in the film rights to the story. I had a two-book deal by the end of the week. It was simultaneously the most wonderful and terrifying time in my life.”
SCENE FOUR. Overnight success sometimes takes a decade. Or two.
Peggy and Jack Schickler’s basement was fine for writing, but did little for their son’s personal life. “I was 30. I couldn’t find anyone to date,” Schickler says. “Then Kissing in Manhattan happened, I decided to move to New York City and start dating 1,000 New York City hotties all at once.”
He didn’t get out of town quick enough. Martha DeLaCroix, who taught fourth- and fifth-graders at Thornell Road School in Pittsford, had begun haunting cultural events around Rochester, in the hope of elevating her social circle and perhaps meeting some nice guy. She spotted an announcement in the newspaper about a reading being given by a local writer, David Schickler, at Geva’s Nextstage.
DeLaCroix is not prone to psychic episodes. But when she first spotted Schickler at the side of the stage, waiting to be introduced, she thought: “You’re going to spend the rest of your life with this person.”
They met after the reading, and the relationship began. But Schickler warned DeLaCroix that he was moving to New York City, where the hotties eagerly awaited the new guy on the literary scene. “Don’t try too hard,” DeLaCroix warned him.
He ran the literary circuit with writers like James Frey, whose A Million Little Pieces, a scary memoir of drug addiction, was one of the acclaimed books of 2003. And he met Tropper, a novelist with a taste for literary wisecracks and dysfunctional relationships. “We had a lot in common,” Schickler says of Tropper. “He was close to his family. Close to his religion, me Catholic, him Jewish. As writers we favored a darker, sexier, more-adventurous brand of books and screen stories.”
The reviews were good for Kissing in Manhattan and its 2004 followup, a Bonnie and Clyde-style thriller of laughs and violence called Sweet and Vicious. But good writing does not guarantee a smooth transition to television and film. A screenplay was written for The Smoker. Natalie Portman was to star, but it didn’t happen. Schickler himself wrote a screenplay for Kissing in Manhattan for Robert Redford’s production company. It didn’t get produced. Schickler wrote the Sweet and Vicious screenplay for Universal. That didn’t go. He wrote Toxic, “a sexy thriller script. Nicole Kidman was attached.”
“Attached.” Schickler’s in so deep, he’s using the lingo. But Toxic didn’t happen either.
Then about three years ago, Schickler and Tropper started developing their idea for Banshee.
SCENE SIX. Wicked fun.
The basic job description for writers hasn’t changed for centuries, but the setting does. William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald led a long line of established writers to Hollywood in the 1930s to create screenplays. A similar migration is occurring now, only toward this different medium: the dense, extended cable television series, as established by such shows as The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire. The bright literary lights Michael Chabon, Salman Rushdie and Gary Shteyngart have been toiling on their own shows. But supreme literary content does not guarantee success in the now-superheated terrain of cable drama. Jonathan Franzen, a novelist so celebrated that he warranted his own Newsweek cover, was adapting his bestseller The Corrections for HBO. It died on the storyboard table.
But Banshee lives. It got a B+ review this week from Entertainment Weekly. “Ultra-violent, over-the-top, and wickedly fun,” it writes.
SCENE SEVEN. The loneliness of the long-distance writer.
New York City proved to be an illusion. James Frey’s career flamed and disintegrated when A Million Little Pieces proved to be a mirage of a few hundred fabrications. The New York City hotties never appeared. “I kept calling Martha, saying ‘I miss you,’ ” Schickler says.
The reality for Schickler, now 43 years old, is he’s back home. “Thank God Rochester was here for us,” he says. He and Martha married and have two kids, Luke is 7, Cora is 4. And there is Martha Schickler Photography, specializing in newborns, children and high-school seniors taken on location. Schickler still runs every four or five days, more in the fall, when he returns to McQuaid to coach the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade cross-country teams. When he needed advice on police procedures for Banshee, he called a friend with the Rochester Police Department. He’ll watchBanshee at a private premiere party at the Midtown Athletic Club, with no shortage of family; Shickler estimates he has about 70 first cousins in this city.
Working at the bagel shop, or an office at his father-in-law’s business, or his attic office in his Brighton home, Schickler creates his unsettling worlds. Stories that he was producing even as a teenager at McQuaid, when his sister Anne Marie would introduce him with the biographical addendum, “This is my brother David. He writes weird stories.”
Schickler took no offense. “That wasn’t an unacceptable thing,” he says. “That’s just what I did.”
From here, it is easy enough for him to step into the mirage world of television, where North Carolina is Pennsylvania. With the exception of two days in Manhattan, all of Banshee was shot in and around Charlotte. This TV deception also works for Homeland, set in Virginia, but shot in a studio across the street from Banshee’s studio.
“Making a television show is an incredible collaborative experience,” Schickler says of this gossamer universe he has finally broken into. “As a writer you need to be around to write scenes that are going to be filmed five minutes later. And every minute is costing the company money.
“Writing novels alone, in a room, can be a lonely profession. Even for somebody who likes the sound of his own voice.”