3 David Simon talks The Wire, Homicide & loving Baltimore! PODCAST INTERVIEW

David Simon, writer, producer, Homicide Life on the Street, The Wire, Treme, Mr. Media Interviews

David Simon (Photo by Bob Andelman)

Today, it’s January 26, 2007, and I am sitting across from David Simon, creator of the critically-acclaimed and Peabody Award-winning HBO series, The Wire. We are speaking at The Inn at the Bay in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Simon spent the last week working with students at Eckerd College. The fiftieth episode and fourth-season finale of The Wire aired just a few weeks ago, and the fifth season goes into production in March, so Simon is hopefully enjoying a vacation of sorts.

I am an admitted late-comer to The Wire, having seen my first episode just last September in a New Jersey hotel room. I was struck by the show’s tension and extraordinarily tight script and character development, which has often been overshadowed by better-known HBO shows, such as The Sopranos and Deadwood. If you like those shows and you haven’t already caught The Wire, you should consider it assigned viewing. Fortunately, the first season of The Wire is now airing on the BET channel, so us late-comers can start catching up.

If you haven’t seen The Wire, you may still be familiar with David Simon’s work. A former Baltimore Sun crime reporter, he is the writer that the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce no doubt loves to hate, having co-authored (with Edward Burns) the Baltimore-based book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood, and the subsequent HBO series, The Corner, and providing the inspiration and a number of scripts for the Baltimore-based NBC show, Homicide: Life on the Street. Another of his Baltimore-based true crime books, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, was the basis for Homicide.

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BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: So David, what is it about Baltimore? Why do you hate it so much?

DAVID SIMON: Actually, I live there. I live in the city. I have great affection for it. I am invested in the city’s future in the same way as other people who are its boosters. I just feel compelled to comment on that which I covered as a newspaper reporter and as an author and these elemental problems that are at the core of our urban experience. We are not going to solve the dilemmas and the crises and the problems of the city without first addressing them intelligently, and that really is the impulse behind The Wire and behind all of the work, and so I don’t feel as if I am targeting Baltimore or any city per se, but I am aggressively making an argument about the problems that are confronting cities.

ANDELMAN: Could it be any city that….

SIMON: It could be, although I think the problems are paramount in post-industrial places like Baltimore, where the manufacturing base has disappeared and where a large under-educated, under-skilled population is without meaningful work. I think if you look at places like in the Rust Belt – Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, these are places that are experiencing the most profound problems not only with crime and intractable drug culture but also with almost an existential crisis of the population.

ANDELMAN: It’s an interesting place, right? The hour tolling behind us.

SIMON: That’s right.

ANDELMAN: And is the city really as interesting as someone watching these shows would think, or are you compacting so much that it just seems tenser and more exciting? Exciting may not be the best word for it.

SIMON: Listen, life is, honestly, anti-drama, and if you chart people’s lives on a day-to \-day basis, I think it probably doesn’t add up to anything that could be a stage play or a teleplay or a screen play, so there is a certain dramatic hyperbole that is required in any presentation of theater, but we are really trying to root it in the real. These are all events that either have happened and that were either covered by myself or policed by my partner in writing, Ed Burns, who was a homicide detective for twenty years, or occurred to him when he was teaching school in the city school system for seven years, or were covered by Bill Zorzi, who covered city government for twenty years for the Baltimore Sun or… I could go on. It really is rooted in the experiences of the writers as either journalists or authors or people contending in Baltimore. But some of the events didn’t occur in exactly the way and shape and precision that we are describing, and we are taking some license. There is some fictionalization, and ultimately, there is almost a comfort in that, in that you can almost be more honest in a way about what you feel about events when you are not beholden to any kind of argument or dialectic with real people. In some ways, some of the most honest things I felt I have ever written about the city have been in a fictional sense.

ANDELMAN: The thing that really struck me the first time I watched it, and this week, I will admit, I have watched twelve episodes, it’s been sort of a marathon week…

SIMON: Hard week for you.

ANDELMAN: Well, I don’t want to say it’s been fun, because you would interpret that the wrong way by the type of show, but it’s been very interesting. The street corner dialogue, the drug-dealing dialogue, who’s writing that stuff? It’s an incredible…

SIMON: It’s all scripted. One of the things I am a little bit resentful for is we have a remarkable cast of African-American actors who are utterly unacknowledged by the industry. They are never nominated for anything. They are never regarded as having created any characterizations or achieved any sense of craft for what they are doing. It’s almost as if they think we turn the camera on people, and they just were being; that’s the way they are. And in fact, these are incredibly professional actors who are reading from a script. The dialogue is from the world that Ed policed, that I covered as a crime reporter in Baltimore for twelve years that is very common to us from having spent time in West Baltimore. We are who we are. I am sure we miss things because we are a couple of white guys, but what we catch we catch because we have good ears, and we are careful and pay attention and we are patient listeners.

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ANDELMAN: And that’s the thing. I mean, I sit here across from you, and we are about the same age, we both have the same follicle challenges, and I look at you, and I listen to you talk, and I think about the incredible dialogue. The dialogue that I have been listening to so heavily this week before we met, the thing that really struck me is that you or I, I, as much as I like to think of myself as a pretty good writer, I couldn’t write as crisply as that dialogue on the street. I could write the stuff in the political situations, I think, and in the police station, and the classroom, but that corner stuff…

SIMON: But you could if you were exposed to it for day after day and if you… It really is the result of years of reporting. Even when we tried to acquire a new world in The Wire that we don’t know anything about, we are pretty rigorous about taking what time we do have and diving in and trying to acquire everything we can. In the second season of the show, we spent a great deal of time at the Port of Baltimore dealing with the world of longshoremen and stevedores. We hired one other former Sun reporter, Raphael Alvarez, whose family is in the maritime tradition and who knows the Port very well, and that was valuable, and Raphael was a great aid, and we leaned hard on him, but the rest of us all threw ourselves at the actual ILA, the union, and at the Maryland Port Authority and at the Steamship Trade Association and asked for all of the help we could get in the months leading up to production and the creation of the scripts, because we didn’t know enough to write that world. And that’s something that just doesn’t happen if your impulse is to create an entertainment. The average Hollywood television production is going to involve a bunch of people who will pick a story line, and then their research will consist of consulting other Hollywood productions. They will be writing the version of what other Hollywood TV shows say drug dealers sound like or stevedores sound like, or they will be channeling, it it’s stevedores, they will be channeling On The Waterfront, which is a great movie, but it’s certainly about half a century old…

ANDELMAN: Literally that old, yeah.

SIMON: And classic. I have watched it time and again, but they will not endeavor to go out into the world and acquire what I would regard as sufficient authority to speak in these voices, and it would bother me not to. I would be scared. I would be frightened of my own ignorance.

ANDELMAN: The conversation, the dialogue in The Wire puts you in that place as much as the same aspects of The Sopranos puts you there, or even Entourage or Deadwood. That’s the thing that… You start watching that, and you get caught on that, and you’ve just gotta keep listening.

SIMON: Right. I think what distinguishes premium cable at its best in terms of drama is writers who are absolutely committed to creating a world not as an artifice for entertainment but as an artifice to speak to larger themes and to do it in such a way that the universe is entirely credible. I believe that David Chase and his crew know these guys in North Jersey. By that, I know they are fictional, but they know that world, and they have it surrounded, and to the extent that he has created a universe around Deadwood, I think David Milch and his people have done the same thing. Partly that’s because you don’t have to play toward the lowest common denominator of television on premium cable. People are paying for it. They are going to sit there in their chairs, they are going to want to catch the nuance, they are going to want more nuance, whereas in television, in broadcast, my episodes are fifty-eight minutes, theirs are forty with commercials, and every twelve minutes, there is a break, and they start to sell you some soap, and you get up to go to the bathroom, and you get up to go to the refrigerator, and you might come back, and you might miss three minutes, and then you are busy unwrapping the ice cream bar, and pretty soon you have missed three scenes of dialogue. Television is a pretty passive experience in American culture. It is a tool not of provocation but of relaxation, and if that’s the nature of it, then nobody’s going to be able to tell an intelligent story, but premium cable has sort of changed the equation. And the other way it’s done that, not just by getting rid of commercials, but you can catch The Wire four or five times a week on HBO. You can catch it on demand at your leisure, in your time, and you can eventually buy the DVDs. At that point, it’s no longer a scheduled event, and if you miss one episode, or if you get a phone call in the middle of one, you are still going to be able to catch up on it if you choose, and that’s revolutionary for television.

ANDELMAN: Let me ask you this, and this is a basic piece of business, but now I came to the show very late, and I think part of the reason I came to it late was the name. I just couldn’t get my arms around The Wire, so I want to ask you for people who might hear this or read this or haven’t seen it, can you give us kind of the Evelyn Wood breakdown of what the show is about and where the name The Wire came from?

SIMON: Sure. The Wire is a double entendre of sorts. It specifically refers to the electronic surveillance methods used by the police to try to undermine and take apart a criminal organization. In the first season, it would have been a drug organization, the second season, it was a smuggling organization, and so forth, but that’s more the literal reason for the title. The title really refers to almost an imaginary but inviolate boundary between the two Americas, between the functional, post-industrial economy that is minting new millionaires every day and creating a viable environment for a portion of the country, and the other America that is being consigned to a permanent underclass, and this show is really about the vagaries and excesses of unencumbered capitalism and what that has wrought at the millennium and where the country is and where it is going, and it is suggestive that we are going to a much more divided and brutish place, and I think we are, and that really reflects the politics of the people making the show. It really is a show about the other America in a lot of ways, and so The Wire really does refer to almost a boundary or a fence or the idea of people walking on a high wire and falling to either side. It really is sort of a symbolic argument or symbolic of the argument we are trying to make.

ANDELMAN: And is it a show of villains, anti-heroes, or something in between? The lines are never quite clear on people.

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SIMON: Well, that’s by intent. I feel that a lot of American television, particularly in the cop show milieu, we came on the scene as presumably HBO’s answer to the cop show. That’s how we were initially marketed, and I think we weren’t willing to argue the point because our ambitions, which were different, were not credible until we had been on for a couple of years, but originally, we came as a cop show, and cop shows are exactly rooted in good and evil in the Sipowiczes and Joe Fridays and Pembletons of the world, and by the way, I wrote for Homicide, that’s how I learned to do television after they made my first book into the NBC show. Some of that is very well done and not without meaning. However, it does beg a certain question as to what our compulsion is about these sorts of hour-long morality plays and why they are the preponderance of what we absorb as our entertainment, and The Wire is fairly uninterested in good and evil. It regards its characters as being, it’s more sort of social determinist. I guess to follow it all the way back, most American drama on television is rooted in the Shakespearean tradition of the angst of the individual and his own conscience and his own struggle against himself. If you took at Tony Soprano or Al Swearingen and these other shows, there is a lot of Hamlet, there is a lot of Macbeth in their construct, and we are really stealing from older, less traveled tradition, which is that of the Greeks, and The Wire is really constructed as Greek tragedy, except we, post-moderns, have a hard time believing in Olympian gods that hurl lightning bolts and hit us in the butt and are indifferent to our morality or our desires or just basically jealous and whimsical and playful with humans, with mortals. But if you supplant the idea of those old Greek gods with post-modern institutions, with the police department, with the drug organization, with government, with the union, with the Catholic Church, with Enron, you start layering over the institutions that determine how individuals are going to be served by or serve society. Now you have some really indifferent gods, and so we are stealing from Euripides and Socrates and Aeschylus. Those are the guys.

ANDELMAN: Now let me ask you. You speak very elegantly, very philosophically about your program, but it’s also a program that’s full of, it’s very violent, it’s very tense. That can almost be paralyzing. I spoke to my wife this morning, and I was describing The Wire, which she has resisted watching, and I said, you know, there have been times where she has watched The Sopranos, and she has gotten to the end and said, I can’t watch that again for a couple of weeks. It’s just too much. I am overwhelmed. Have you gotten that response from…

SIMON: From some people. I think once people get three or four episodes in, they can’t help but watch. To that, I would just suggest, to go back to the Greeks again, Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother; Antigone dies a horrible death for asserting her own demands of individuality and dignity. Don’t even get me started on Medea! Tragedy and violence and a look at the, if you get later into the dramatic tradition, a look at the profane in life is elemental to what we demand of drama. It’s almost a requirement of some serious drama to address themselves to the most basic human impulses. I don’t know how to make a show about nothing, and I certainly don’t know how to make a show about sort of a light-hearted romp through the end of the 20th Century, which, by virtue of the body count alone, has to be regarded as a failed century. There is a lot to be angry about, and there is a lot to be concerned about, and there is a lot to address ourselves to. And again, that’s the impulse behind the show. We are not saying dirty words to be naughty, and we are not showing any more nudity than we feel that is warranted under the construct of the story, if it’s required for the characters to be in the world they are in, and we are not using any more violence than would otherwise be necessary to address the plot. So I am not sure it’s that violent a show, and I am not sure it’s that profane a show as people say, and I am not even sure it’s that sexualized a show. I think it’s a combination of, it feels like these are real people in this situation, and if that’s the case, if people are disturbed by some of the stuff that happens in the given hour, they ought to be.

ANDELMAN: In terms of story, when people watch most TV shows, it doesn’t have to be sitcoms or even network dramas, but you have this expectation that at some point, all of these story lines will cross somewhere, and yet, that hasn’t really happened that much on The Wire.

SIMON: I think toward the end sometimes, but it’s a very delicate web. Usually, by the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth episode, you start to see connections, stories that seemed disparate actually are headed toward each other, but having said that, we are willing to go longer and further with disparate story lines than any show, I think, before it. The ambitions of the show require that. I think, if you ask me what we are trying to do, we are not trying to do a cop show, we are trying to depict an American city. That’s a big thing, and we are trying to show how power and money route themselves through the modern city-state and why that city-state can’t solve its problems and maintain itself against its problems. That’s a lot to bite off and chew, and so we have to go far afield, and we have to trust in viewers’ ability to stay with the show.

ANDELMAN: Are there particular aspects of the story line that have changed over time in ways that you didn’t anticipate, either because maybe you are watching a character, and you are going, you know, this character should go this way in this…

SIMON: In the writer’s room, there is always a sense of discovery about what a character’s outcome should be or how they should get from point A to point Z. There is always a sense of discovery on the part of writers there, but the unique thing about the show is that we have known since, I think, the end of season one what the five, if we got five seasons, we had to beg for a couple of them, but if we got five seasons, we had five distinct themes we wanted to address. We knew what they were, we knew in order what they would be, we knew where we needed to place our characters at the beginning and the end of those themes, and we know how the show is supposed to end after this last season that we are about to start production on. That’s been a struggle to stay on that path because it’s always a struggle to follow a plan as opposed to just winging it, but it’s also been quite liberating because the nature of most TV shows, when they are designed as entertainment and not designed as specific stories about things, is that if a TV show finds success with one character or one romance or one theme, their job, the show owner’s job in Hollywood is to stay on that and keep repeating those moments that please viewers and to keep the show running for as long as possible, and our sense of what we wanted to achieve has been pretty rigorous. And we have said to ourselves, just because people love Omar or love Stringer Bell, the characters serve story, and we are really intent on executing the story that we conceived in the beginning. So it’s never about sort of appeasing the viewership and keeping the show afloat for as long as possible. When you try to keep a show afloat for as long as possible, you are eventually dishing out a thin gruel of old moments that you have already played for all they’re worth and just trying to sustain your audience. And we have sort of written without awareness of the audience.

ANDELMAN: So as you go into a fifth season, you are going into this planning on this being the final season.

SIMON: Yes. Absolutely.

Bob: There is no nine extra episodes to come at the end?

SIMON: No. I don’t think we have the… Again, we are not the money machine that some other shows are, and I don’t expect HBO to come begging us for another season, but actually, this last season, the fourth season, the one that dealt with the educational theme, the audience grew quite dramatically. Something happened. I would guess it was just people finally caught up to the show. They had the DVDs out there in advance, all seasons in advance of season four, and that was the first time they managed that, and I think the on-demand function, which became incredibly popular on HBO, helped people find the show, so it was sort of available in more platforms, and something clicked.

ANDELMAN: How has it kept going where Rome and Carnival and even Deadwood now have fallen before it?

SIMON: We’re cheaper.

ANDELMAN: That’s pretty straight-forward.

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SIMON: We film in Baltimore, and that’s certainly part of it. Rome cost more than $100 million to make. You have the same number of hours of The Wire for maybe a third of the cost, and we are always under budget. We always turn a little bit of money back in almost as a good faith gesture. That earns you a certain amount of contempt in Hollywood, where everybody always goes over budget, but I learned television production, and Nina Noble, the other producer, she learned it at the foot of Tom Fontana and Jim Federdine. These are guys who played by the same rules. Tom said to me a long time ago, it’s not your money, so going over should not be a point of pride, and we have always been responsible, and by keeping the show’s budget in some proportion, I think it made it easier for them to say, “Okay, these guys, they say they can execute for x amount of dollars, let’s give them another season.” Practical economy of Hollywood.

ANDELMAN: Now, episode fifty, the last episode of the fourth season, “Final Grades,” it felt like it could have actually wrapped up the series. There were a lot of things that were wrapped. There were a lot of things that were covered. We saw….

SIMON: Although they did just pull about seventeen bodies out of some row houses.

ANDELMAN: Right.

SIMON: I think that would have been the pregnant issue. I mean, listen, you never know if you are going to get cancelled, so you try to have some sense of resolution to every season, but the one thing that is different about HBO is they have never cancelled a show in the middle of its run, so you always know you are going to get to the last episode of your season. Whether you are going to get the renewal again at the end, that’s always an open question. It is television. Nothing is guaranteed. But we did feel like we left this one a little more open than maybe… I felt season three with the end of the Barksdale story was the one where we were probably the most vulnerable to somebody saying, “Well, it’s tidy, let’s call it a day.” I think there is more to be said on the theme of Marlo and those bodies in the houses, but ultimately we had one last theme, and we pitched it to HBO. We are going to slice off one last piece of this simulated city we built and address ourselves to that, and I think that will end it.

ANDELMAN: That’s interesting, because I felt like I got some closure, because it’s these people who are still alive, not the seventeen who were on that long piece of paper………

SIMON: I think it was actually twenty-two by the end. I am trying to remember the dialogue.

ANDELMAN: Okay. Yeah. It left me feeling satisfied. I knew that, obviously, lives go on and series, the characters theoretically go on, but I felt, okay, if it stops there, I feel pretty satisfied. But it’s even better to know it goes on.

SIMON: I think that’s exactly what Chris Ulbrecht was saying when he was contemplating whether or not to give us the next season, that if he had to end it here, he felt there was enough resolution at the end of the four. I blanched at that. I wasn’t quite in agreement with him, but he felt that he could hang his hat on it, there was enough resolution at the end of four.

ANDELMAN: What will be your involvement in season five, and are you working on anything to follow The Wire?

SIMON: My involvement is the same as all the other seasons, executive producer along with Nina Noble, dealing with all facets of production and working on the writing with Ed Burns, who is the other lead writer, and we have Richard Price, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, you know, remarkable novelists who are committed to writing for the show. And we will execute one last season, I think probably ten episodes, I don’t think we need twelve to finish, and then put it to bed. And then move on to something else. I am involved with some other projects for HBO, and they may or may not go. I was involved in adapting a book called Generation Kill by Evan Wright. He was an embedded reporter with the First Marine Recon unit in Iraq during the invasion, and I think he wrote what is one of the great pieces of war reporting to come out of Iraq and in a great metaphorical piece for the tragedy there, and I am trying to adapt that as a mini-series for HBO. It’s written, and we are sort of waiting for the decision on HBO as to when to go on it.

ANDELMAN: So your next project will not torture the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce?

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SIMON: Apparently not, not unless Baltimore can dress itself up as Baghdad, but Baltimore can be a lot of things. I have to say, Baltimore, there have been some brushes with the mayor and with some civic boosters, but the truth is, they have been very professional about it, and if you want to have a film industry anywhere, you cannot start dictating terms to the storyteller and saying, we only want a certain kind of story; we are happy to film that. But the film industry exists in places like New York and L.A. and larger markets regardless of story. Nobody reviews story in New York, and the Law and Order franchise alone I think has killed more people in Manhattan in a given year than are actually killed in Manhattan in a given year. Whereas, I think what disturbed some people in Baltimore is that this is really aggressively taking on such issues as the viability of the drug war, the education system, the death of unionized labor…

ANDELMAN: Political corruption…

SIMON: I think in some ways, the fact that it is so attenuated from the real is what bothers people, and I can’t help that. It’s like you are asking me to pull punches now that I can’t pull, but having said that, I think Baltimore would be more stressed out about it if we were from Hollywood and we just sort of landed in their city and said, all right, we are now going to be hyper-critical of you guys, having parachuted from another world entirely.

ANDELMAN: Or how would they feel if you were shooting “Baltimore” in Toronto?

SIMON: Right. The truth is, you can say anything is anything, and if it’s fictional, nobody can stop you, but I mean, the truth is, it shouldn’t be a bargain over the dollars for filming versus the city’s image. Some people put it that way. I never cast it that way. The way I cast it is, we are from here. I live in south Baltimore, and I am committed to staying in Baltimore as a citizen, and if you don’t think that I have the legitimacy to comment on where our city is going and what we are facing, okay, but you are going to have a hard time stopping me, because it’s genuine, it’s not motivated by any sense of cynicism about place or about… And I am not from somewhere else, I am from Baltimore, so what else would I write about?

Bob Andelman (l) and David Simon (Photo by Eric Deggans), MR. Media Interviews, The Wire

Bob Andelman (l) and David Simon (Photo by Eric Deggans)

 

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About Mr. Media® Interviews-Bob Andelman

Bob Andelman is the host and producer of Mr. Media® Interviews. He is also the author or co-author of 16 books, including The Wawa Way with Howard Stoeckel, Building Atlanta with Herman J. Russell, Fans Not Customers with Vernon W. Hill, founder of Commerce Bank and Metro Bank UK, Mind Over Business with Ken Baum, The Consulate with Thomas R. Stutler, The Profiler with Pat Brown, Built From Scratch with the founders of The Home Depot, The Profit Zone with Adrian Slywotzky, Mean Business with Albert J. Dunlap, and Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Click here to see Bob Andelman's Amazon Central author page. He is a member in good standing of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (member page).