Once a Baltimore crime reporter, David Simon described his journalistic methods as "stealing life." He's a repeat offender: In his second life — as mastermind of HBO's world-beating series The Wire — Simon proved expert at pilfering details from his previous profession in the service of great storytelling. "That's what I find interesting about exploring subjects," he says. "I tend to over-research them as much as I can."
But Simon never intended to focus solely on Baltimore's underbelly, and recent projects cover a broader range of social issues. In 2007, he adapted Generation Kill, Evan Wright's embedded account of the 2003 Iraq invasion, into a miniseries for HBO. He's now working on a long-simmering concept: the pilot for Tremé, a potential 2010 HBO series, which began production in New Orleans in mid-March. The Gambit called Simon for a sneak preview.
Any surprises in store for this panel? Some of your most intimate disclosures come in settings like this.
I do them pretty much with the naïve and blind trust of the media, since I was a reporter for so many years. Every now and then I'm surprised when I say something to people. I always think I'm answering a question, but I never think about, "Oh, how's that going to lay out?"
What does HBO have to see to pick up Tremé?
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. ... I don't mean to sound overly pessimistic; I just don't want to sound overly optimistic either. It's the television industry. Everyone loves something until they don't.
You've described TV as your "crack pipe," a telling descriptor for a crime writer.
I had actually intended to remain in journalism and to sort of go between nonfiction narrative book projects. 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), and they're saying, "You get to tell a story as you would want to tell it."
The potential for addiction is obvious. But is there a down side?
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. 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. 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. 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.
"Better Than Your Regularly Scheduled Program: Elevating Television to a Higher Art"
Panel discussion with David Simon and Eric Overmyer
2:30 p.m. Sat., March 28
Bourbon Orleans Ballroom, 717 Orleans St., 523-2222; www.tennesseewilliams.net