As March in New Orleans was coming to a close, another march in Central City was just getting started. Two children snaked through the ranks of the Treme Brass Band, whose second line trumpeted a horse-drawn hearse. With fans and umbrellas held high, moving to the half-speed strains of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," the group half-stepped past the Payne Memorial Church on Liberty Street, taking a wide left turn onto Toledano Street. And as the song neared its apex, a cry rang out from behind Uncle Lionel Batiste's thumping bass drum.
Except they didn't. The parade, now halfway down the block, continued on toward LaSalle Street. "Someone stop them," said director Agnieszka Holland. Slowly, like an old phonograph winding down, the music petered out as the players caught on, gradually reversing course and shuffling back to their original spots for a second take.
It was the final hours of filming for Tremé, the pilot episode of David Simon's prospective HBO drama, and already the show had run up against questions of realism — i.e., it was due to wrap almost on schedule. Despite threats of rain and hail, the planned 17-day shoot finished on April 2 with a scene at The Times-Picayune's Howard Street offices.
The location was a fitting sendoff for Simon, a former crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun. As creator of The Wire (2002-2008), HBO's universally praised, ratings-deficient supernova, Simon's presence in New Orleans throughout the month sparked a media firestorm about the potential of this follow-up, and for good reason: He brought with him a formidable crew, both in front of the camera (a cast led by film veteran Steve Zahn and The Wire alums Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters) and behind it (the award-winning Holland and an all-star team of scribes, including co-producers and frequent collaborators Eric Overmyer and David Mills, Washington, D.C., crime novelist George Pelecanos, and local writers Tom Piazza and Lolis Eric Elie).
And though the New Orleans setting is a graveyard for televised fiction — as the authors of Fox's unintentional comedy K-Ville (2007), canceled after just 11 episodes, can attest — Tremé's assemblage of literary talent presages the same multilayered, novelistic approach that endeared The Wire to its small-yet-fervent fan base. There is also the man at the helm, whose surname now carries the weight of TV production greats like Bochco, Ball, Abrams and Chase, and whose collaborators believe his passion for New Orleans culture and his journalistic approach to narratives make him the perfect man for the job.
"It starts with his love of music," says Mills, a close friend from college. "Simon is passionate about a lot of things. He's passionate about Ireland. He's passionate about baseball. This passion, as well as [his] interest in the changing story of the American city, that's where he planted his feet in this. This was very fertile ground to drop someone who is so keenly observant, with such a sharp ear for language, and so studious about human interactions. For all those reasons it was an ideal place for him to land and tell stories."
"The vision that we all had in the writers' room — and especially that [Simon] and [Overmyer] had for this pilot — I think got translated in a way that felt very familiar to me when I saw it, and yet surprising at the same time," says Piazza. "Whenever you have a fictional narrative, whether it's a novel or a TV show, that feels both familiar and surprising, I think you're in the presence of something real good."
Wendell Pierce, aka Detective William "Bunk" Moreland, appeared in all 60 episodes of The Wire. He recalls the day Simon casually relayed his interest in dramatizing the post-Katrina rebound of the Crescent City. Naturally, the native New Orleanian was among the first people Simon consulted about the show.
"We were on the set and he said, 'I'm thinking about writing something about New Orleans,'" Pierce says. "This was after David put together a fundraiser right after Katrina. He actually showed me one page one time, of conversations of musicians hanging out before they go to hit. But he would never let me know anything more about it, specifically about the script."
The concept was hatched much earlier, Simon explains. "I'd been hoping to do something in New Orleans for about 15 years, from before the time of the storm," he says. "I've spent a lot of time there since the early '90s. Sometimes I would use [Overmyer's New Orleans] house. 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."
Katrina presented Simon with a hook to use in pitch meetings with executives, and his working relationship with HBO, which includes adaptations of his nonfiction novel The Corner (2000) and Evan Wright's Generation Kill (2008) into miniseries for the network, facilitated an order for the Tremé pilot and a handful of scripts and beat sheets from the first season. With Overmyer on board as an executive producer, Simon began hashing out the main characters, story arcs and initial teleplay.
Early research, he says, often consisted of "stand-around-and-watch journalism" — sitting in a bar and waiting for something to happen. "Sometimes you go home at the end of the night and you've not even cracked your notepad, and sometimes 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."
He also enlisted help from local consultants representing the diverse backgrounds of his characters, a collection of musicians (Davis Rogan, Kermit Ruffins), cooks (Susan Spicer), civil rights attorneys (Mary Howell) and Mardi Gras Indians (Donald Harrison Jr.). Some became inspirations for characters (Zahn's role, based largely on Rogan, is named Davis); others became characters themselves (Ruffins, playing himself, figures prominently in the pilot).
"[Rogan] is 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," Simon says. "The characters in The Wire were all composites. We threw a lot of stuff into the Barksdales, for example. We threw stuff from five different stickup guys into Omar. There are a lot of different musicians and a lot of different stories to be told."
Rounding out the writing team were two locals, author Piazza and Times-Picayune reporter Elie. "We were interested in Lolis because, for one reason, his knowledge of the restaurant culture," says co-producer Mills. "And Tom for his knowledge of jazz music. But once we all get in the room, and we're all kind of trading ideas back and forth or riffing off whatever notion is on the table at the time, those kinds of categories don't count. As soon as we got here and started meeting, the full six of us in the (Hotel) Monteleone up in one of the suites, us TV veterans looked at each other and said, 'Man, this is a great room.' Just for the rhythm of it, the rhythm of the conversation."
Piazza, a TV rookie whose 2005 book Why New Orleans Matters first got Simon's attention, compares the series' formation to building a novel chapter by chapter. "There are different kinds of story arcs," he says. "Characters will have a big arc that takes them from the beginning of a novel to the end of a novel, or the beginning of a season to the end of a season; and characters also have smaller arcs that happen within chapters or within episodes. So basically the collaborative process (is) to discuss all of that — although, I think, [Simon] and [Overmyer] have probably the broadest view, and the most say, over the overall arc of the series. Then we each go and write an episode ourselves."
After the pilot — a Simon/Overmyer collaboration — the season-one assignments break down thusly: Overmyer has the second teleplay and Mills the third, to be followed in no certain order by Pelecanos, Piazza and Elie. (There are 10 planned episodes in all.) Story arcs taking the main characters through half the season were hammered out before meetings began, Mills says. "We were going to drop Tom and Lolis in the middle of it. Lolis in particular introduced something that became a major plot point for the whole series, that we were going to go back in the episodes we had already talked about and weave that through. That's how it goes when you get the right people together."
"The actual collaboration that goes on in the writing of the series, I found to be extremely stimulating," Piazza says. "This was a little like playing on a ball team or something. It was refreshing, and I loved it. If it gets picked up, I'll look forward to doing some more, I hope."
Any suspense should end quickly. The pilot and scripts are due by the end of May, and a decision should follow in mid-June. "They don't wait as long as some others," says Tremé associate producer Laura Schweigman about HBO.
In the interim, Mills says, Simon is planning extensive postproduction work. "Usually, you don't do a full sound mix, because the network executives understand this is not the show you're going to air. Simon wants to go a step beyond that. He wants to deliver something that sounds like it's supposed to sound, because so much of this show is about tone. It's not a genre show; it's not a cop show or a franchise. It's going to be all about its execution — the tone of it, the visual poetry of it, the rhythm of it. If we fail with the pilot, it's not going to matter what these other scripts look like."
Making the call will be a trio of HBO executives: Sue Nagel, head of programming; Michael Garcia, vice president of dramatic series development; and Francesca Orsi, manager of dramatic series programming. "They've all been to set a couple of times, kind of staggered," Mills says. "They're watching the dailies. They're going to be the ones who decide."
"They run a tight ship," says Orsi, observing Simon and crew from the sidelines as another scene unfolds in late March. For this shoot — a second Central City location, the intersection of Third and Danneel streets — a deserted building has been converted into a fictional bar named Gigi's. In keeping with the show's late-2005 setting, all four street corners are set-dressed with familiar, post-storm trash tokens. Duct-taped fridges bear signs of the times in spray paint: "Free food inside," alerts one. "Katrina you bitch!" rages another.
Just outside the bar, half of Tremé's authorial sextet — Simon, Mills and Piazza — watches closely as the final addition to the cast, Oscar-nominee Melissa Leo (Frozen River), performs her first scenes. Between takes they huddle over the monitors to discuss minutiae like inflection, pausing and facial expressions. Simon, looking every bit the Louisiana sportsman in a camouflage Under Armour T-shirt and black jeans, has gone from feet-up cutup to master and commander in a single take. "Keep watching after the smile," he tells Piazza. "I feel like she's on a tightrope."
As she exits Gigi's, Leo flashes an inquisitive look toward Simon. "Oh, stop it," he fires back. "You know it's good."
"She was kind of dropped into this," Mills explains later. "The only concern going into that day was, we [knew] everyone else was right; everyone else had been in town for weeks, had bonded with each other, and now we're going to drop a major character in the midst of it. Will she fit? That got settled right away. The first thing is, when we saw her, she could not look more right. Then at the (Lil') Dizzy's scene, where there was more dialogue and we really got to see her play the character, we jumped the last hurdle."
Details about Tremé's plotlines have been guarded like national secrets — crew members had to sign confidentiality agreements — but some potential story arcs have come to light. Leo plays an Uptown civil rights attorney helping Khandi Alexander's character, a barkeeper, locate lost love ones. (In one memorable barb, police chide Leo for living in the "isle of denial.") Pierce, Alexander's ex, is a down-and-out trombonist trying to catch on with Ruffins' Barbecue Swingers at Vaughan's Lounge, where Elvis Costello appears in a cameo. And Clarke Peters is the chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, which has a run-in with the NOPD.
"I was struck by how close the performances were to the images and to the sound that I had in mind as I was going over the script, as we were working on the different characters," Piazza says. "It was really fun to watch Wendell and Clarke in these roles that are so different than their roles in The Wire. They're just great actors. ... Seeing Wendell practice on the trombone, trying to get it right, was a great testament to human perseverance. That had a certain epic quality to it."
About Simon, he notes, "My guess is that David's a very rare character. Somebody who has as much power as he does, and who has as much experience and as large a reputation as he does, he's very much into having a working group. He'll argue for his side of a point doggedly, but he'll also listen to what you have to say. And if you can convince him, he'll change things."
Mills points to a scene with Peters as an example of the unique dynamic: "The other night we shot [him] in his Indian suit, coming to call in a favor on a neighbor. And he does it with some of the singsong Indian chanting that we got from Donald Harrison. [Harrison] happened to be overseas, so he was not on set to shape that performance, but a couple of his sisters were, and another Indian chief was. There were comments made by our guests about even the timbre of his voice: Is he not singing enough? What should his posture be like? Is he commanding, or does it seem like he's asking when he should be commanding? Simon's only purpose was to be as authentic as we can get. He did not have the scene already carved in stone in his head; he was right there listening to what everyone said about it and deciding what was most important."
But forced authenticity can also become a trap, as Simon is well aware. "Part of this is just admit what you don't know and go from there," he says. "Don't make assumptions. You can't possibly report it to the nth degree and satisfy everybody's sense of what's true or not. But 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 didn't have that flavor then, in that month."
In a 2007 interview with The New Yorker, Simon revealed his greatest fear: the people he writes about won't recognize themselves in his work. It seems masochistic, then, to write about New Orleanians, who rarely recognize themselves in anything.
"I haven't recognized New Orleanians in a lot that's been filmed down there, I have to confess," he says. "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, 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."
Being protective of New Orleans culture is a good thing, Pierce offers. "And we welcome it as we try to portray it," he says, "because it keeps it conscious in our work as we approach it, trying to be authentic. The one thing that's guaranteed is, there are going to be people that hate it. It's New Orleans. That's a part of the culture also, which I hope we reflect in the show."
Standing among the second line of the Tremé Brass Band, trombone in hand, the New Orleanian was struck by the magnitude of what an accurate portrayal could mean for the ongoing recovery. "I was standing in the middle of the street, playing 'Closer Walk With Thee' with the Tremé, and that just brought me to tears," he says. "I realized that for me it doesn't matter, on the business side of it, what happens; what was so great was having this time, taking these two weeks to put on film a prayer, almost, for my city. I just walked over to David and I said, 'Thank you for everything, man.'"
"New Orleans was knocked on its ass [in 2005]," Simon says. "And if you look at where the country as a whole is right now, and sort of what was coming ..." He stops, then starts again.
"I don't mean to make more of this metaphor than will allow, but the country's in very much the same emotional place as New Orleans. A lot of Americans are feeling very dislocated after the last decade or so. 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."