Wednesday, April 15, 2009

David Simon Q&A

Posted By on Wed, Apr 15, 2009 at 11:07 PM

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It was only after I filed this week's cover story on the production of David Simon's pilot for HBO that I found out one of my friends has a copy of the script. Oh well. For those who still can't get enough Treme, in-depth, at-length conversations with principal players will have to do. First up: Simon.

What’s the shooting schedule look like?

We start shooting tomorrow (March 10) and we’ll be shooting through the month of March. And then we’ll edit it together over March and April, and I think sometime in mid-June you’ll see a decision from HBO one way or the other. And if they decide, “No thank you,” then that’s it. And if they decide they want to go forward with the first full season, we won’t be back to film the rest of it until fall. The problem being not so much the hurricane season — I think, as most New Orleanians do, you work around that — [but] the inflated and somewhat ridiculous cost of insurance to film down there during hurricane season. So once we — if we did get a show order, we would have to go in October/November and move around to April. That would be our shooting season.

What does HBO have to see to pick it up?

They’re going to want to see an edited pilot. We’re going to spend April and May editing. They’re going to want to see how the characters work; they’re going to want to see probably three or four more scripts and beat sheets for much of the rest of the first season. They’re going to want to see where this thing goes, and that we have a plan. We’re busy writing the other scripts and working on the beat sheets.

Is there a chance to adapt it should they pass?

They own it. I don’t own it. HBO is funding this thing; it’s their project. If they decide they don’t want to do it, I don’t know that there’s another place. I’m currently under contract to them to develop for them. Listen, I don’t mean to sound overly pessimistic; I just don’t want to sound overly optimistic either. It’s the television industry. You know, things change. Everyone loves something until they don’t. We’ll see what happens.

You’ve called TV your “crack pipe,” a telling descriptor for a crime writer to make.

I trained as a prose writer. I had actually intended to remain in journalism and to sort of go between book projects, sort of nonfiction narrative book projects, and working at the newspaper. One of those things didn’t work out because of the trends in journalism; the other thing didn’t work out only because television has interposed in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for the opportunity at HBO. They’re giving you 10 or 12 hours of commercial-free (time), or seven hours in the case of Generation Kill, and they’re saying, “You get to tell a story as you would want to tell it.” It’s kind of hard to walk away from that.

The potential for addiction is obvious. But is there a down side?

There are things that books can do that television can’t. One of the things television can do is, the visual medium is extremely powerful. You bring a much larger audience to bear on what you’re trying to say than books. One of the great struggles in the book industry is to sell more than a handful of copies for even a quality piece of prose writing. It’s heartbreaking. My wife is a novelist and sells very well. But the economies of scale for the number of people who buy hardback books, for example, in this country is tragically small. So if you’re in the mood to tell stories and have a lot of people come to the campfire and listen, television has its merits. And more than that, you can do things with film that are extremely powerful. The all-encompassing emotion that a visually told story can provoke, there’s not a lot to compare to it. I think it is, in a sense, the predominant storytelling medium of our time, and has been since the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, whenever film became fully installed as sort of this basic storytelling element for our culture. That said, you can’t go inside someone’s head in film. There are things you can’t do in terms of point of view, in terms of character, that are enjoyable if you’re a writer in prose. At some point I hope to get back and do more prose work, and maybe even do more journalism. Right now HBO’s making that pretty hard. But I always take it as, the window’s open now and I’m able to crawl back and forth, but at some point the industry will shift, the window will slam shut on my fingers and it’ll be time to go do something else.

There’s another crime-related quote from you that I liked, about how your work was “stealing life.”

That’s true of journalism. I did that (interview) when I was doing narrative journalism. That’s not really TV; that’s what I find interesting about exploring subjects, and I tend to, if anything, over-research them as much as I can. I never intended to fashion everything I ever wrote in terms of Baltimore.

Do outside projects like Treme and Generation Kill teach you more about your skills as a thief, so to speak?

In a way, yeah, because you have to be more of a clinician. But I’m not going to suggest to you that I just picked up a book and magically turned it into Generation Kill on the screen. We not only devoured Evan Wright’s book, I then went to Even Wright and said, “Work on this with me. Because I will not feel comfortable writing in the voices of these marines. I’m going to have to, at some point, but I’ll feel a lot better about it if you’re in the room saying yay or nay, or pitching in your own ideas. I was not in Iraq, and I was not with these marines that we’re going to try to depict. They’re not fictional characters; we’re using their real names. So come along for the ride, or I’m not sure I want to get on the ride.”

How did you get started on Treme?

I’d been hoping to do something in New Orleans for about 15 years, from before the time of the storm. I’ve spent a lot of time there since the early ‘90s. I would come in and out. Sometimes I would use Eric’s house; he has a house down there. In recent years I’ve just taken to throwing myself into a hotel. I’ve stayed for weeks at a time, actually. It’s a town that is very affecting. There’s an awful lot to mend it, and there was before the storm, and there is even now. In fact it’s remarkable to me how some things, culturally, have come back very strong and other things are still fragile. And other things, some of the more mundane things about living in the city that everyone else would consider essential have not come back at all. But I wanted to do something even before Katrina. Eric and had talked about it at various points since I worked with him on Homicide, which was back in the ‘90s. Then obviously the storm and its aftermath did give us a way of explaining our intentions that made sense to people in Hollywood. You could then go in and have a meeting and say, “OK, there’s been this event in New Orleans, and that’s something worth writing about,” even if you don’t get second-line culture or the Mardi Gras Indians or cooking with roux or any of that stuff.

Have you had any surprises or confirmations about New Orleans in the process?

Nothing really surprised, and yet it’s all sort of cumulative. I guess the way to say I’ve been surprised by it is, in New Orleans the nuances have nuances. Three people have six opinions and they will never agree. If you venture in one direction … You can’t make a dissertation into a drama. So at some point you have to make choices, and at other points you have to be practical for what you have available to you to make the film. You just smile to know how intense native New Orleanians are, and even some adopted New Orleanians are, about what this means; where the best etouffee is; who played the second trombone solo on what song, and whether that was track 4 or track 5.

Is detail the salvation for artists trying to characterize New Orleans? It’s such a minefield for modern fiction.

I think most people come down and it’s just a backdrop for whatever they’re doing. They’re not really writing about New Orleans; they’re writing a crime story, so it’s like “Put local color here” is their attitude. Insert local color at this point. I’m only interested in writing about New Orleans. To me the characters are there to serve what’s to be said about a modern American city that was very close to destroyed, that has incredibly ornate traditions and where people resist moving under extreme conditions and have done so for a couple of centuries. This is a town that is very rooted in death. There’s not a lot of places in America where you go back a hundred years and 20 percent of the population was routinely dying of yellow fever. That leads to the culture of Carnival; it leads to second-line culture; it leads to a lot of things that are elemental for American culture, but we don’t even know it. We hear stuff on the radio, or we sense certain things in the American personality, and we don’t even associate them with New Orleans. I guess what I’m trying to say is, going into it I knew that it was going to be very hard to get enough of it right to get any respect at all from New Orleanians. Having been swimming around in it for a while now with people, trying to acquire this and acquire that, once you start asking follow-up questions and learning a little more, it’s even more intimidating. It doesn’t get easier.

You’ve said your greatest fear is people you’re writing about not recognizing themselves in your work. New Orleanians have never recognized themselves in much of anything.

No, but I haven’t recognized New Orleanians in a lot that’s been filmed down there, I have to confess. Here’s the truth about the accents. Like, for example, the big joke is, “They won’t get the accents right.” Of course we won’t. We’re hiring the best actors. But the trick is not coming in and saying, “Hey, do what you think is your Louisiana accent,” because they’ll all sound like they’re from, you know, Bayou Lafourche or something. They’ll all sound like they’re from west Louisiana, and nobody will get a y’at accent to save their lives. I’d rather have them just be themselves. You walk around New Orleans, there’s a lot of people don’t have accents. They speak perfectly fine. There are things that get said: “I’m gonna go now, me.” That’s why we very quickly brought on Tom Piazza and Lolis (Eric Elie). Eric has spent years down here. We’ve spent some time down there. Part of this is just, admit what you don’t know and go from there. Don’t make assumptions. That’s really just the trick to some of this stuff. You can’t possibly report it to the nth degree and satisfy everybody’s sense of what’s true or not. When we started doing Homicide in Baltimore, you’d shut down a street and you’d run the traffic one way because it looked better for the light, you know, and you’d get all these complaints. People walk up to you and say, “In episode two you had traffic going the wrong way on St. Paul Street.” And it’s like, “Yeah, we did. Sorry.” There’s a little of that. But the other thing is, if you’re going to cheat somewhere — because you have to — at least know you’re cheating. Don’t kid yourself that you can get away with it. Somebody from New Orleans is going to walk up to you and say, “You know, um, Hubig’s doesn’t have that flavor.” Or they don’t have that flavor then, in that month.

Are you working with Eric (Overmyer) on teleplays?

We did the pilot together. And we’ll do additional plays, and so will Dave Mills and George Pelecanos; they’ll do their own teleplays as well. We want to take them through the process of three or four of these things before we assign them to their own teleplays, because they are coming at it for the first time. And it is a different form. Writing is writing, but it is a different form with different pacing and different rules.

Several sites are reporting Steve Zahn's character is actually named Davis Rogan. Is he a straight representation?

He’s a jumping-off point, as Donald Harrison is, as Kermit is, as are some of the guys we’ve gotten to know separately from them. I used to say to people, the characters in The Wire were all composites. Meaning, I knew a lot of different drug dealers. Ed policed a ton of them. We threw a lot of stuff into the Barksdales, for example. We threw stuff from five different stick-up guys into Omar. There are a lot of different musicians and a lot of different stories to be told. So if we have a character that has a point of origin that is part Davis Rogan, he’s probably three parts somebody else and two parts somebody else. By the time we get done with it, and by the time the actor steps onstage to add his take on the material, it’s usually something organically different. That was reported inaccurately: As homage we may have given him the first name Davis, but the character’s not named Rogan.

What research was most helpful in relating New Orleans to others?

A lot of this is stand-around-and-watch journalism. You go into the bar and you just sit and you wait for stuff to happen. Sometimes you go home at the end of the night and you’ve not even cracked your notepad, and sometimes you go home and you have such great stuff from some encounter that doesn’t really amount to anything, except it was the way two people related to each other over either an agreement or a conflict. Sometimes the most important stuff you hear is two people talking in a kitchen. So it’s just important to be there and be open to it when it happens.

It will be very interesting to see that synthesized into a script.

First you begin with ideas. What do we want to say about New Orleans? What do we think this represents? Why does New Orleans matter? It has to be bigger than, oh, this is some people in New Orleans and they play really good music. That’s not a reason to tell a story. I think in some ways, if we do this right … New Orleans was knocked on its ass [in 2005]. And if you look at where the country as a whole is right now, and sort of what was coming … I don’t mean to make more of this metaphor than will allow, because one was a hurricane — or, if you prefer the politically correct term in New Orleans, a “Corps of Engineers-inspired calamity.” In any event it was a singular disaster, whereas this has been a series of hollowed-out institutions in America betraying everything they were alleged to stand for. But the country’s in very much the same emotional place as New Orleans — without being homeless, without being in an incredible diaspora, from Houston to Atlanta, without having hundreds and thousands of people missing. But a lot of Americans are feeling very dislocated after the last decade or so, and where the country’s at right now. So the piece could be resonant to more than New Orleans — if it’s done right, if we think about this thing in more universal terms. That’s kind of the important thing. You come to something like The Wire, you don’t say, “Let’s make a crime story in Baltimore. OK, who’s our first character?” First, you sit down and you say, “What are we trying to say? Why are we doing this?”

Top-down.

Right, top-down. You got to be top-down about it. If I went into it now and started arguing it all out to you, there’d be no reason to do the show. I might as well just talk like an asshole for the next hour about what I think we want to say, and that would ruin the joy of trying to say it allegorically using a drama.

Are we going to see it?

I don’t know. If you come around my living room one night and I’m drunk enough to put in a DVD of a show they didn’t like, sure, you might see it. Other than that I don’t know.

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