Given the richness his career as a journalist brought to his previous works of narrative TV fiction (Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, The Wire, and Generation Kill), critical expectations for David Simon’s new series, HBO’s New Orleans drama Treme, were understandably high. And while Treme is an entirely different kind of television drama than what audiences may have come to expect from Simon, it nevertheless represents a logical progression of his vision, branching out from political and economic analysis of urban America to address questions of culture, community, and creativity. Simon spoke with Slant about the challenges and rewards of telling stories from the inside out, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of writing for the small screen in general.
You began transitioning out of Baltimore-based shows with Generation Kill a couple summers ago. What was it like shooting in Africa, and now working on Treme in New Orleans?
It’s the same as filming in Baltimore. The truth is, filming in poor or working-class neighborhoods anywhere in the world is benign. As long as you’re honest with people, as long as you don’t take advantage, as long as your crew is careful not to disrespect people and not leave a mess behind, people are really very accommodating. It’s when you get into affluent areas that it’s a pain in the ass. It was true in Baltimore and it’s true in New Orleans. It doesn’t matter if you have a permit, it doesn’t matter if you’re paying money to the city, it doesn’t matter if you’re making a donation to a local community center. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not enough. You try not to stay so long [in working-class areas] that you become an irritant. You move around the city, you don’t come back to a location for a couple weeks. And if they see you’re trying to get something a little bit right, they become even more tolerant. So it’s been very easy.
One of the things that excited me most about The Wire and also Generation Kill was the realism that you brought to your dialogue, the way you respected Black American English and corner slang and Marine speech patterns. With Treme, it seems like this respect for maintaining the integrity of dialogue is directed more at the way New Orleans musicians talk about music.
We try to get interior dialogue wherever we can. Mostly we’re working off people we know. [Series co-creator] Eric [Overmyer]’s lived down there for a couple decades and I’ve been visiting since the late ’80s. We obviously have spent a lot of time talking to people who are in many ways—I guess “muse” is probably too strong of a word, but templates for some of the characters—and how they talk, and trying to avoid vernacular that is Baltimore-y, or from somewhere else in the country. On the other hand, everyone makes a big deal about how New Orleanians talk, but the truth is, there are some distinct accents. There’s a Yat accent that sounds like deep Brooklyn. Louis Primo had that accent. He was from the Irish channel of New Orleans. But a lot people in New Orleans are from somewhere else. There’s a lot of people who are transplants, and there’s a lot of people who have no accent. You walk around the city and you hear a variety of different accents.
But as to how the musicians speak about their gigs and stuff, any time you hear something, you’re writing stuff on a cocktail napkin, going, “Oh, man, I gotta use that.” I think novelists do that, [as do] journalists if they’re working on a feature story. If there’s anything immersive about what they’re doing, they do that. It’s about getting what you can from life.
It seems like when a lot of the musicians start to talk about music, it’s insular in some ways, or it indicates belonging to a certain kind of group, being able to speak about music in certain ways, being able to describe time signatures or refer to certain performers. Did you consciously choose to maintain a fidelity to that?
You want people to speak as they would speak. You want them to be in their world. That doesn’t mean the writers are musicians who can access it at the drop of a hat or always get it right. Beginning from [our 2000 miniseries] The Corner, the TV that we’ve tried to do is from an interior point of view. It allows for a certain kind of tourism on the part of viewers, but only if viewers are willing to extend themselves. What we perceive of people from the outside can only take you so far. When you walk into a bar and you start meeting people on their own terms, and talking to them in their own vernacular, and trying to understand them, you don’t understand everything right away. And you’re a little confused, or a lot confused. And the next day you understand a little bit more and you go back to the same bar three days later and all of a sudden you’re sort of immersed in a place in a way that tourism doesn’t often allow. And that’s the kind of storytelling that interests me, and it’s from that logic that we’ve preceded.
It’s a mistake on the part of some critics at times to think that if you’re writing from the point of view of a recon Marine, everything the recon Marine says ergo is what the writer wishes to say. That’s insane, and yet you see that, you see people—they believe that because you’re allowing the characters to voice in an interior fashion that you’re embracing that, so the benefit of writing that way is that people really feel as if they’re experiencing some other world, other than their own. That’s a wonderful journey.
I’m currently working on an ethnography on urban culture in Mexico City, so I can relate to what you’re saying.
I have a very funny story about this. When The Corner came out, I [was getting] good reviews, but the book was sort of quietly slipping below the waves, except for anthropologists and sociologists. They wanted to discuss ethnography. Sociology Today wanted to write something on the book.
I also teach an introductory class on ethnography, and we watch the first two episodes of Generation Kill because I feel like the Evan Wright character makes it very explicitly clear what the job of an ethnographer is.
That’s right. And Evan was brilliant at it. Which is to say, your job is to get out of the way as much as you can and sometimes the way to do that is to let everybody get it out of their system that there’s a funny guy standing in the middle of them with a notepad. He was great at that. “I’ll make myself the butt of the joke and then you’ll move on to other business and I get to watch you.” He was great. Even the Marines I met afterwards were like, “He fuckin’ really wrote that book, we thought he was goofin’.”
So, I want to come back to the question of music a little bit. More than just being a source of livelihood for these characters, and more even than being a kind of national heritage, which you’ve alluded to previously, it almost seems like music—and then, to a lesser extent, cuisine—act as sources of a kind of transcendence in the series, at least for those who are initiated in these cultures or subcultures. So, for instance, when Kermit Ruffins laughs at Davis MacAlary’s suggestion that his talent be reason enough for him to tour with Elvis Costello, is the idea that music should be its own reward? Or that these musicians have a kind of social responsibility to the community that gave birth to them?
That moment actually happened, although it didn’t happen with Elvis Costello. It happened with, I think, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, who came into Vaughn’s. And Kermit didn’t know who the Rolling Stones were, or had not experienced them on the level the rest of America might have. For him, they were a couple of musicians who came in, “That’s nice, you’re in a band, that’s great,” and somebody was urging him to go make a friend and he just sort of shrugged. So, in some ways, we were referencing a legendary moment of Kermitism. He is his own unique character.
But you’re on to something, which is that down there, the act of culture becomes, by default, political. That’s not to say that people are aware they’re committing a political act when they play a song or go out and listen to a song or dance. They’re just living. They’re being as New Orleanians. And yet, the truth is, it was culture that brought that city back from a near-death experience. It wasn’t political leadership, because there was none. It wasn’t significant urban planning, because there was no plan. What brought New Orleans back, to the extent that it’s come back in five years is, people couldn’t figure out how to live any other way than the way they’ve been living there for years and years and generations and generations. And there’s something beautiful in that. Because American culture is not exactly a heralded thing. And as most of the country becomes more and more homogenized, and as more of a chain-store ethos pervades our culture, this one strange little island has given the world something that the world didn’t have before America, which is to say African-American music. And it was in danger of dying out. And it didn’t die out because of hundreds of thousands of individual acts of ordinary life.
In a way, it would be enough if we were writing the show just to be a celebration of American roots music, which is reason enough to pause and enjoy a drama, perhaps. But actually, to me, in the wake of Katrina, it’s a political story. And it’s about what Americans are capable of, in the best possible way, when left to our own devices.
I think I know what you’re referring to when you say culture, but it seems like you’re specifically referring to maybe three different things. Cuisine and music seem to be linked up as being part of this culture that you’re talking about, but then there’s also a sort of sense of community. So if The Wire was organized by an impersonal concept of political economy—
It was “Follow the money.” Follow the money, follow the power. Yeah.