Listening In to The Wire: Part IV

December 08, 2006

Concluding our week of Q&As with cast members from The Wire (previous entries are here, here and here), we present a very extended version of Senior Editor Eric Ducker's interview with series creator David Simon, originally appearing in FADER 41. Read it after the jump, and check The Wire's season finale this Sunday on HBO. You'll miss it when it's gone.

The Left Behind

Inside The Wire’s World Of Alienation And Asshole Gods

By Eric Ducker

Now entering its fourth season, The Wire has always placed itself outside of standard television in everything from its perspective to its construct to its casting. When co-creator David Simon talks about the HBO drama, it’s in terms of literature and theater, and when referring to it generally, he often calls it “the movie.” The message is obvious, The Wire is working on a different plane.

Initially The Wire appeared to be a new take on the cop show—one of TV’s most familiar tropes—with this one following a single case over thirteen hour-long episodes. More importantly, The Wire gave both the police and the drug dealers they were pursuing equal screen time, equal humanity and equal flaws. But as time and seasons progressed, it continued to expand its scope, giving the same treatment to longshoreman, junkies, politicians and, in the new season, the denizens of the public school system.

Before The Wire, Simon was a police reporter at The Baltimore Sun and spent 1988 with the city’s homicide department, researching his non-fiction tome Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets—the basis for Barry Levinson’s similarly named television show that Simon wrote for as well. In 1992 he partnered with former police officer Ed Burns and wrote The Corner about the human fallout of the war on drugs. The book was adapted into a mini-series for HBO, leading the way for The Wire’s creation. For The Wire, Simon and Burns are now joined by a writing staff that includes crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Richard Price, a trio whose collective bibliography includes Clockers, Freedomland, Mystic River and Shame the Devil.

In the following interview David Simon explains what happens when a group of outsiders create something about America in a medium that they have no allegiance to. As he says, “We’re an angry bunch of people and incredibly, they’ve given us a television show.”

Over time as The Wire has integrated all these different communities and institutions, it’s really become a show about Baltimore and how a city works. Was that always the intent?

That was always my intent and Ed Burns’s intent. We talked about changing it every year and slicing off a piece of the city until we had examined what the American experience had become. Did we go to HBO and say that right away? No, they would have thought we were insane. But after the first season when I started to pitch the transition to the port story, I made it clear that if the show were to keep going, I would address a different part of the city every year.

Do you particularly want to tell Baltimore’s story?

I think we’re just using Baltimore in an allegorical way. The vast majority of Americans live in a metropolitan area and we are an urban people. I think the institutions we’re depicting, people can recognize as being very similar to the institutions and problems of their own city. I think the show feels really different than the rest of American television because it’s made by people who are not supposed to be making television. Two of the writers are ex-journalists, three are novelists who address urban cultures and cities that are not LA or New York. It’s second tier cities and the working class and underclass of those cities. Richard Price may be from New York, but he doesn’t write about New York, he writes about Jersey City, or Dempsey as he would call it. George Pelecanos is not writing about the federalized part of Washington, he’s writing about the northeast and southeast. Dennis Lehane is not writing about Back Bay Boston, he’s writing about Charleston, the white working class areas. Then there is Ed Burns who is a former police detective and schoolteacher in Baltimore. We’re storytellers and we’re professionals doing what we do, so it’s not some sort of proletariat revolution where longshoreman and drug dealers seized the means of storytelling, but it’s as close as you can get to an East Coast, rustbelt, post-industrial city telling its own story.

Thematically it’s a very angry show. I think if there’s one thing The Wire consistently says is that in this post-modern America, individual human beings matter less and less. We’re all witnessing the death of work, of mass employment, of the union wage scale. We’re witnessing an existential crisis in neighborhoods where everyone once worked for Beth Steel or Armco or GM or they were longshoreman. Black and white, now the big employer is the drug trade. This is the America we’ve paid for over the last 20 or 30 years, and this is the America that we’re getting.

When did you start feeling this disenchantment with America?

When I was a reporter for The Sun, when I was covering West Baltimore when cocaine hit and just tore apart families. The factories were closing and moving to where there weren’t unions. I watched the port of Maryland deteriorate. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of growth and there isn’t a new Baltimore being born out of the ashes. You look around the harbor and there’s all this real estate development, but it’s all for Washingtonians who are looking for a good investment and are willing to accept a long commute. It’s artificial and it’s leaving behind generations of people who once had meaning in America. A lot of the commentary on the police department and the dysfunction of the drug war, that comes from Ed Burns, he was a police officer from ’72 to ’92 and deeply involved in the war on drugs. A lot of my disenchantment with institutional America came from what out-of-town ownership did to the newspaper I was at. The Chicago Tribune has just about destroyed The Baltimore Sun.

How so?
The Baltimore Sun, when I first started working there, was family owned and in the mid-’80s it was sold to The LA Times or Times America, which was about as benign a newspaper chain there was at the time. We felt like we had ducked a bullet, but they in turn sold their newspapers to the Chicago Tribune Company. And the Chicago Tribune Company has been sucking the profits and the life out of every one of their out of town papers to prop up their stock price (I don’t think they’re even doing a good job of that). Where once [The Sun’s] newsroom had 500 people covering their city, now it’s got maybe 300. They’ve instituted buyout after buyout, they’ve closed the foreign bureaus, they’ve reduced the Washington bureau by half, they don’t give a shit. All they want is the profit. The civic responsibility of running a viable newspaper, of monitoring the government of Baltimore, of trying to improve the city, of creating an allegiance between the newspaper and the city, they couldn’t give a fuck. They’re in Chicago. And they are despised in Baltimore. There are people in the Able Foundation in Baltimore who are trying to buy the paper back, asking what they will sell it for, and they won’t sell. They’ll suck the last dollar out of the place while they destroy it.

So I’m looking at that kind of an institutional arc and that’s very typical of what The Wire tends to portray. What happened in the police department when Ed was there, what happened with the drug war, what happened to the police department, that’s reflected in the story. What happened to my newspaper, that’s reflected in the story.

How did you get into journalism?

My father was a writer. He had been a reporter briefly before the arrival of my older brother and a desire for a steady wage convinced him to take a job in public relations, but he had always been enamored with newspapers. There were always lots of newspapers around our house. When I was growing up outside of Washington, The Washington Post got on to the Watergate thing, and I actually read the Woodward & Bernstein stuff contemporaneously when I was 12 and 13 and 14. I actually read that chase of the Nixon administration. It fascinated me. That coupled with my father’s interest got me to edit my high school paper and then my college paper. Then I got hired at The Sun. I was a stringer out in College Park and I wrote my way on to the paper in Baltimore.

What beats did you follow?

I was cops, I don’t think I ever got promoted. I did some general assignments, I worked the rewrite desk, I did a little of everything, but my bread and butter was crime reporting.

I know there are some other former newspaper reporters on the writing staff, do you have anyone who covered mayoral races, which is a major plot point of this season?
That’s Bill Zorzi. Bill Zorzi was probably the most knowledgeable political reporter The Sun had, at least in state and local politics and I hired him when we introduced the political storyline. I’ve worked with him before at the metro desk. I think I hired him when he was an assistant city editor and he was writing a political column for the paper.

Is the writing staff for this season the same as what it was for season three?

Yeah, there are three novelists (Pelecanos, Price and Lehane), Ed Burns, myself and Bill Zorzi. We added Eric Overmyer, a very talented playwright who I knew from working on Homicide who had gone on to run Law & Order for many years. He would fit that bill of being “institutionally television,” but Eric is different. He’s run with the hounds, but I think his heart is always with the fox. We farmed one episode out to a playwright I admire, a young lady named Kia Corthron who wrote a play called Breath, Boom, which is a remarkable play about girl gang-bangers in New York. I thought she would be interesting for the voices we have this year. Chris Collins, a staff writer who works in the office, he worked on the Bubbles storyline.

Can you explain the decision to use writers outside of the television industry?

I really regard the structure of the show to be novelistic. That sounds pretentious, but frankly, the show has literary pretensions. I’m more interested in hiring people that understand how a modern novel with multiple points of view can work. I bring my own logic to it, which is somebody who wrote a couple of books of narrative non-fiction that had approximately the same structure as a modern novel. I’m not interested in writers who can serve an episodic television drama, they’re not helping us. To hire people who are trying to make television would be problematic.

Is it the normal TV writing process?

I don’t know what the normal TV writing process is. I have some clues from other people who worked on other shows and from when I worked on Homicide, but I don’t even think Homicide was the normal TV writing process. [At The Wire] we have a writers room, but all the heavy lifting happens before the season starts, that’s when we’re trying to figure out everything we want to say thematically with the season, what points we’re trying to address, what characters we need to achieve that theme within the context of the story. We create those characters, then we try to arc them out to see where they are all going to end up, then we start breaking it down to episodes. Usually the people in the room for that this year was Ed, myself, Zorzi, Chris Collins and Eric Overmyer. Then when it got to one of Price’s episodes, Price would come in and we’d work on that episode in the writer’s room with him and then he’d go off and write it.

Are all the scripts done before you start shooting?

No, all the beat sheets are done, we know where we are going, but generally speaking maybe four or five of the scripts are done and the rest are all in various processes of assembly by the time we start shooting.

But you basically know where it’s going to end up?

Oh yeah. By the time the first reel of film is shot we know where every character has to end. Right now we know where every character has to end for season five, if we get a season five.

How far in advance do you guys plan?

We’ve known the end of season five since the end of season two.

How did your creative collaboration with Ed Burns begin?

I met him when I was a reporter for The Sun in 1985, probably the spring of ’85. I was assigned to write a series of articles on a very notable career drug trafficker.

This is Melvin Williams?

Yeah, Little Melvin. Melvin had just taken his third fall on a federal case that Ed and his partner Harry Edgerton had done. I went and met them at the DA’s offices for the first time to talk about the case. It was in the course of working on those articles and then on later coverage that I got to know them. Ed was just a remarkable man. I think the second time I met him he was at the Baltimore Country library branch, that’s where we met. He was checking out a bunch of books and I sort of looked at the stack and it was John Ehle’s novels, I think he had Bob Woodward’s Veil, and he had a series of essays by Hannah Arendt on the rise of Nazism. I looked at them and I said, “You’re not really a Baltimore cop are you?” I was sort shocked at the breadth of his reading. He’s always been very curious, quite the autodidact. I stayed close to him for a couple reasons, one is just that I found him very interesting, but the other one was on a practical level, I was always looking for sources, and Ed being very frustrated and alienated by some of the aspects of policing within the Baltimore department, he proved to be a very good source of mine. When it came time for him to retire in ’92, he was going for his teaching certificate and I convinced him to delay that for a year and go to Monroe and Fayette with me and report and write The Corner. That collaboration has maintained itself now for…we’re coming up on 15 years soon.

How did you guys split the work back then?

Ed had a lot of strong ideas about the drug war that I thought were worth exploring, but the first thing we did, we were just very open to exploring and meeting people, I mean you’ve got to remember what that book was trying to find, the culture of drugs within a family. That is a broken family that was struggling in this neighborhood. It began with Ed in September, I didn’t get free of my paper until December. So in September of ’92, Ed was walking around those corners, introducing himself, handing out cards that said “Baltimore Neighborhood Project.” We passed out a lot of paperback copies of Homicide, we did a lot of stuff you’re supposed to do to convince people you’re not a cop and you’re doing what you are saying you’re doing. We just opened the process and we didn’t lie to people.

How long did it usually take for Burns to tell people he was an ex-cop?

Some of them remembered them. Ed had been a patrolman in the western district. A lot of the older heads remembered Ed. In the beginning there is a lot of distrust, as you’d image, but you wear people down just by showing up everyday and telling the truth. Eventually people get accustomed to the fact that you’re not going to go away. They live their lives. It was what it was, but Ed was the perfect guy to do that project with.

How do you cast people from Baltimore for The Wire?

I think the show does a pretty good job of marrying some very good looking actors and actresses with some regular looking people, and keeps it credible by doing so. Baltimoreans look like people you might expect to be from Baltimore is one way of saying it. We have some excellent actors in the city, Robert Chew who plays Prop Joe is from Baltimore, Maria Broom who plays Marla Daniels is from Baltimore, we have a lot of actors like that who are completely polished. We’ll also find people who are not actors. We realized we can’t give them certain scenes or long speeches, but if they’re comfortable enough in their own skin, they really leaven the project by adding their presence. And to sort of conclude that story about Melvin Williams, Ed got Melvin 24 years on that charge in ’85. Melvin came out I think two or three years ago on parole and we had lunch with him, Ed and myself. Melvin had since joined a Bethel AME Church and we asked Melvin if he wanted to play the Deacon. He was willing to read for it and he read pretty well. The last time I saw Melvin in the flesh before we sat down for that lunch, I was interviewing him in Lewisberg Penitentiary, probably in 1986. Sixteen, 17 years later I’m sitting down in a restaurant in Little Italy with him asking him if he wants to be in a television show playing a churchman. To his great credit, he and Ed shook hands and the past is the past.

What’s the interaction like between the trained actors and these non-professionals?

Sometimes in certain scenes the trained actors have to carry people a little bit. But what you end up getting is at some point it becomes almost beautiful camouflage. People who are trained actors and quite extraordinary in their physical presence, they are surrounded by people who are very much of Baltimore. It makes everybody’s performance more credible. It also allows the actors to rub up against the real. Felicia Pearson [who plays the enforcer Snoop] has been through it. She’s done some time, she’s had some hard lessons, you put her with Gbenga [Akinnagbe, who plays Chris Paltrow] who is a trained actor, and the combination of the two becomes something transcendent, I think.

Are you aware of the impact the show has had on rap music?

We’ve sort of gotten a sense of it. A lot of it filters back through the actors. Very early we were aware that while the rest of America might be slow to pick up on the show, urban America was not. We saw very early on that our actors were getting calls to be in this video or Jay-Z wanted them. We were also getting calls from agents saying this rapper or that rapper wants to be on the show. We were certainly indifferent to the idea of stunt casting rappers. If somebody comes in and they have the best read for the part, we’ll use them in spite of the fact that they might be a rapper. Method Man came in and he just nailed the part, so it wasn’t a matter of giving it to him because he was Method Man, it was a matter of, this guy came to act. This year our music supervisor, Blake Leyh, made an extra effort to hook up with some of the people who are making some of the local hip-hop in Baltimore that you hear out in the neighborhoods. There’s a very fun sampler that these guys Darkroom Productions put out called Hamsterdam. It made us laugh to kind of go circular on it, so we’ve used some of the cuts on that, we’ve hooked up with them and they’ve provided some fresh music. We’ve been careful not to use any songs that are self-referential. When Young Avon is getting on there rapping, we’re backing away.

But now you’re getting guys who the stuff they’re rapping about, you can tell they’ve learned all their knowledge from The Wire?
You know it’s funny, we’re trying to tell a story that we think is more universal than that, but at the same time it always made sense that somebody where their credibility rested on their proximity to the game, to the street world, would be interested is some of what The Wire had to say. We always sort of knew that we might hook into that a little bit. What I love is when you get some 50-year-old white guy with a two car garage who’s watching what D’Angelo Barksdale is going through and how squeezed he is by his bosses, and he goes, “Shit, that’s my job.” That to me is subversive. We’re happy getting viewers across the board. This show is for everybody we hope, even though not everybody is watching.

This season there seems to be somewhat less violence, which makes the violence that does happen seem even more upsetting. Was that intentional?

I think we have just the amount of violence the story needed. We’ve always done that. There’s never been a conversation where somebody says, “You know, nobody’s been killed in a couple episodes…” We’ve never been worried about that. People who die, die for given reasons, because it serves the story. We haven’t hesitated to kill someone who’s work we’ve loved as an actor, who we’ve always had an allegiance to, because that’s not the point. We’re trying to tell a story and the story is paramount. So if nobody is supposed to die in that episode, we don’t invent a murder. The whole debate as to whether The Sopranos has enough wackage in any given year, if I were David Chase, I’d have contempt for the whole notion and I’m sure he does. That’s not what he’s after and that’s not what we’re after. We’re not going to shy away from a moment of violence if it’s appropriate. Same thing with sex. What sex there is in the show is there because it states a point about character or it’s necessary for the story. It’s not because the audience wants to see this person bare-assed. We really couldn’t give a shit about that.

How much do current event effects storylines?

We use some stuff, but it’s usually two or three years old by the time we get to it. Some stuff we change. I’ll tell you this, [current Baltimore mayor] Martin O’Malley never ran against an incumbent black mayor. That didn’t happen. On the other hand, the school system did come up 50 million dollars short. On the other hand, that problem went away when the real estate boom filled the tax coffers of the city. That doesn’t happen in our version of Baltimore, we actually address, “What if the money wasn’t there?” Sometimes we use what we see in the headlines. Sometimes we twist it up to say what we want to say. Sometimes we have a fidelity to what we think is the true story and other times we try to use pieces of the true story and say something different. I think we’re doing what every novelist does. It rooted in the real, but it is fiction. And to suggest that we’re copying right out of the local section of the newspaper and just changing the names belies how much work goes into creating a story that we care about in the writers office. Having said that, we love throwing in, every now and then, inside jokes that only people from Baltimore get. I think in every episode of The Wire there is something that makes people from Baltimore smile or laugh out loud. That doesn’t cost us anything, but it’s not really the point, it’s just something we do because we’re here.

Are you interested in staying with the medium of television?

As long as television does right by these stories. If at some point I need to dumb this shit down, I’m going to go back to books. But right now they are giving me enough latitude to say what I want to say within the context of the medium, so it’s really gratifying to have ten million people find your story either through broadcast airing or OnDemand or DVDs. Stuff has a longer shelf life and has a longer tail and more people find the work, and that’s gratifying. One of the great tragedies of books, and I’m telling you this as somebody who has worked very hard and has written a couple books, is how few Americans read anymore. You sell a hundred thousand hardbacks, you’ve got a best seller on the New York Times list probably. In the context of three hundred million people, that’s appalling, but that is what it is. If it the economy of scale weren’t what it is, maybe I would have stayed with books longer, and I may at some point.

HBO was a different place a few years ago in some ways. Their expectations of what a hit is and what cable is capable of have been changed by Sex in the City and The Sopranos. And so our numbers and critical attentions that might have pleased them five or six years ago, it may no longer be enough for their corporate model. I hope that’s not the case. Having said that, they’ve given me 56 hours of television so far, if you count The Corner, that’s an awfully big commitment and they’ve been courageous about it. It’s not like I have them in my face saying, “Can you make the show whiter? Can you show more tits and ass? Can you kill more people?” They’re not like that. They’re smart and they have integrity when it comes to stories, as far I’ve dealt with them. I can worry about all this, but so far they’ve given me four seasons of this show, which is a very unusual show for American television, and they gave me The Corner and they’re talking to me about other projects. There may come a point at which they’ll figure out that David Simon ought to be writing books, but right now they want to be in business with me and I’m trying to do what I do and have them like it. We’ll see how long it goes. We only have five seasons in our heads, if they gave us six we wouldn’t know what to do with it. I hope we get to finish on our terms because the ending we have conceived will make all five seasons incredibly resonant.

Part of what’s great about the The Wire isn’t just that it presents groups equally, but it finds the commonality between them. What is the purpose of doing so?

The theme in The Wire is that everybody who serves an institution in post-modern America is someway betrayed by that institution—the institution no longer serves the people it was intended to, or the people who serve it are misused, or sometimes both. That betrayal is inherent whether you’re a corner boy, whether you are a cop on the beat, whether you are a longshoreman, whether you are an imported sex worker from Eastern Europe, whether you are a politician trying to hang onto your soul and at the same time serve your ambition. The institution will be indifferent to your individuality and your humanity and your innate value as a person.

The drama that I reread before I started The Wire was not Shakespeare, it wasn’t Chekhov and it wasn’t O’Neill, it wasn’t all the stuff that is rooted in the struggle of the individual against himself. The stuff that spoke to me is the Greek drama in which fated and doomed protagonists are confronted by a system that is indifferent to their heroism, to their individuality, to their morality. But instead of Olympian gods that are throwing lightening bolts and fucking people up for the fun of it, we have post-modern institutions. The police department is the god, the drug trade is the god, the school system is the god, city hall is the god, the election is the god. Capitalism is the ultimate god in The Wire. Capitalism is Zeus.

Posted: December 08, 2006
Listening In to The Wire: Part IV