On a warm summer evening, Vancouver-based producer and DGC member Justis Greene and I arrive at one of the night locations for The Returned. The show has taken over a block and half of residential North Vancouver, transforming the area into a Halloween night with ghoulish and clever decorations scattering across lawns and lurking out of windows. One house teems with crew, the murder scene. As we walk towards the action, Greene quietly ticks off the set’s costlier features lined along the road: the crane for a single above-ground shot, $12,000; three helium-filled lighting balloons, $7,000 each; snow, $20,000. I note it’s appropriate that the moon is nearly full for tonight’s scene. “Yeah, I ordered that last night,” Greene quips.
Three years before Greene signed on to produce The Returned, he had been working on the Disney film Tomorrowland, starring George Clooney, when he received a call from NBCUniversal Television. The network asked if he would stop what he was doing and take on a new television series called Bates Motel. It’s unusual for a producer to leave a potential blockbuster to toil in the trenches of television, but this new project intrigued him. The creators, Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), are notorious for making great television, and set to star was Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air). Greene flew to L.A. to meet with Ehrin and Cuse. The chemistry was immediate and Greene took the job.
The new gig required a major adjustment. For the past decade, he’d been on a feature-film roll, producing Tron, starring Jeff Bridges, Time Traveler’s Wife, with co-producer Dede Gardner (president of Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment), Snakes on a Plane, starring Samuel L. Jackson, and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, among others. Compared to film, “television is phenomenally hectic,” says Greene. “You have to step up your game.” Instead of shooting two pages a day, the crew shoots quadruple that—seven to eight pages. “Your decisions have to be so much quicker,” he says.
But Greene found Bates Motel’s dense schedule “refreshing.” It helped that the show, a Twin Peaks-inspired prequel to Hitchcock’s film Psycho, now going into its third season, had broken ratings records for scripted content on A&E and earned an Emmy nod, along with People’s Choice nominations for both its leads. So early this spring, when Cuse asked him if he would double the load and take on his new show, with Cuse’s showrunner Raelle Tucker (True Blood), Greene didn’t deliberate long. The Returned, a remake of the French hit series that tells the story of residents of a small town who grapple with the mysterious return of their dead loved ones, had Entertainment Weekly enthusing, “It has the potential to be one of the most compelling drama series on cable, thanks to the phenomenal scripts written by Carlton Cuse.”
Greene couldn’t refuse. And for his part, Cuse says one of the key factors in his own decision to do the new show was the Vancouver producer’s involvement. “It gave me total comfort that the quality of the show would be at the highest level.”
I meet Greene in his office at Vancouver Film Studios, where the elaborate interior sets for Bates Motel and The Returned are located. His crew—roughly 230 people, including shooting and office staff—was on track to complete A&E’s order of 10 episodes of The Returned by early fall. Tonight, the North Vancouver team is simultaneously filming episodes three and four while others are busy at headquarters, preparing episodes five and six. Still more staff are prepping Bates Motel, which would begin filming in eight weeks, the shooting of its first two episodes overlapping with the final two episodes of The Returned.
Greene, a trim, stylish man with a languid style, exudes a calm certitude. As Cuse says, “I have yet to come up against a problem that Justis doesn’t have a plan for solving.” Greene will tell you that he comes from a crew background, so he has a deep familiarity with many of the technical aspects on set. It’s his greatest asset, he feels, in running a smooth operation. He’s also quick to credit his crew—“the best in the business”—and especially his long-time co-producing partner Heather Meehan, with whom he has worked on some 35 projects over the past 25 years. In fact, much of the crew has followed him from project to project for at least a couple of decades.
Greene cultivates this loyalty by fostering a work environment that’s based on trust and collaboration. “He’s done so many jobs in the industry,” Meehan says, “so he has an appreciation for what everyone does. Because of this, he attracts great people and everyone wants to work with him.” Both Cuse and Meehan note he never lets himself get upset about problems that are beyond his or his crew’s control. “He leads with quiet strength,” Cuse says. But he’s also “extremely funny,” adds Meehan. “Not a day goes by when we don’t all have a good laugh even when the show is difficult.”
During the course of our conversation, the many intricacies of his job continue to unfold. It’s knowing the world’s handful of top aerial cinematographers so he gets the expensive shots he needs the first time around, as was the case for the previous day, spent in a helicopter; it’s a familiarity with every piece of equipment involved in making a film so when a director requests the use of a $12,000 crane he knows that the same shot can be made without such a toy.
Greene “sort of fell into” the business, but from the first time he walked onto a film set, he’s worked with the best. In the late 1960s, both Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller filmed in the Vancouver area. Crews were in such short supply that Greene and all of his roommates landed jobs building sets on the films. At the time, he was a still photographer interested in fashion. On both sets, the people from William F. White noticed his affinity for cameras and lights and asked him to run the first branch of the Toronto-based company with the promise of training on every piece of equipment. Once the shop was up and running, he left it in capable hands and got back to crew work. In 1983, director Fred Shepisi’s Iceman was about to start shooting in northern B.C. and needed a production manager. With no PM experience but first-hand knowledge of the B.C.’s great white north, Greene was hired. Producer Norman Jewison spotted a talent and used Greene on his next film, Agnes of God.
Greene’s first job as a producer soon followed for Glitter Dome, an early HBO made-for-television film. Since then, he’s rolled from one project to another, including multiple Disney films. Much of the work took him around the world so he was rarely home. In order to spend time in Vancouver with his wife and four daughters (the youngest now 25), he took on local television series and pilots like Neon Rider and Outer Limits.
Early in his career, Greene also founded the British Columbia Film Commission, drumming up a tremendous amount of film business. In 1978, the year he started the organization, the province’s annual film revenue was roughly $5.5-million. When he left, three years—and many L.A. traffic jams—later, revenue surpassed $105-million. With the team he put in place, the industry hasn’t looked back. Greene’s behind-the-scenes commitment also saw him serve lengthy stints on both national and provincial Directors Guild of Canada boards. Interviewed for the DGC’s 50th anniversary archival project, Greene recalled of his early days: “We weren’t an industry. We weren’t anybody, we were just a bunch of goofs. Then all of a sudden people started taking us seriously because the government wanted to support this industry. It went from, ‘Let’s not bother with them’ attitude to ‘This could be a significant thing.’”
Greene considers himself fortunate to have never been without work, and for some time now, he’s had the privilege of choosing his projects. “I make choices based on who’s doing the show, rather than what it is,” Greene says. “If you’re going to spend 16 hours a day, five days a week on a job, it’s really nice to be surrounded by people who you like and trust. It makes it a lot more fun.” One career highlight among many was producing A History of Violence for David Cronenberg, someone for whom he “would drop everything to work on one of his films; he’s such a special guy.” Greene and his crew won the 2006 DGC Team Award for the film, which earned two Academy Award nominations. For his part, Cronenberg, in a thoughtfully worded e-mail, says he appreciated Greene’s “intelligence, acute sensitivity to human realities, non-vindictive toughness when necessary, and vast knowledge of the business.” Plus, added the director, he’s “a lot of fun to work with.”
Greene had risen at 4:45 a.m., as he does every work day. He’s in the office by 7:30 a.m. in order to supervise daily tasks even when shooting takes place at night—and let’s face it, a neo-zombies series and a Psycho spinoff are not seeing a lot of sunshine. Indefatigable, Greene’s in good spirits that evening at meal break when he sits down with his longtime AD, Pete Whyte, and Meehan. It’s Friday, and the list of questions raised about Monday’s shoot is handled quickly. As the producer is about to depart, talk turns to weekend plans. A fan of local art, Greene recommends a visual arts festival. He’s also, incidentally, a motorcycle enthusiast and has owned some 30 different rides throughout his life, the latest a scooter.
Before we leave, Greene wants to show me the hair and makeup trailer. One of his closest friends, key hair stylist Donna Bis, works here. She met Greene on the Iceman set and remembers the first moment she laid eyes on the crew’s production manager. “He was body-painting extras,” she tells me. “In those days, everybody did everything.” But Greene’s friendship with the effervescent Bis isn’t exactly what draws him to the blush- and pigment-laden bunker at the start of every day. “If you want to know how your cast is doing that day,” he says as we drive back to the city around midnight, “you talk to hair and makeup. They say things there they wouldn’t otherwise repeat.” He gets a heads up on what’s troubling them and the next thing you know, the problem’s gone. “Been doing it my whole life.”
Ann Elle is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.