Series creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer talk about the new HBO drama series Treme, debuting in April
Q: What was the original inspiration for TREME?
DAVID SIMON: When Eric and I worked together on "Homicide," we both discovered a common love of New Orleans, its culture and its music. For many years, Eric had a home in the city and I was a frequent visitor. When we were in the early stages of prepping the fourth season of "The Wire" we began to have discussions about a show set in the city that would be a reflection on American music and the extraordinary creativity that results from multiculturalism, the intimacy of city life and general urban chaos. In short, we wanted it to be a rumination on what we, as an urban people, are capable of and why New Orleans matters and what it represents to the American spirit. But how to pitch a show like this? In order to describe New Orleans, we would have to do the show. In order to do the show, we would have to somehow describe the indescribable - New Orleans. So we hesitated to set up any pitch meetings, hoping to hone our idea with time.
Then, Katrina. And there was suddenly a political resonance to the show. So we went to HBO with it a couple months after the storm, while we were still working on season four of "The Wire."
ERIC OVERMYER: I've been a part-time resident of New Orleans for 20 years. I've always wanted to do a show set in New Orleans. It's never been shot particularly well or represented accurately - aside from Les Blank's amazing documentary, "Always for Pleasure" - and I've been dying to give it a try. David and I met on "Homicide" years ago and found we had a mutual love for the city and its music and culture. And we started talking about, "Wouldn't it be great to do a show there, and get the city right, finally? If it's possible."
I have to be frank - the shows I always wanted to shoot in New Orleans took place before the storm. I wish it had never happened. But this is New Orleans A.K. - after Katrina - and this is the show we have, in the city that now exists. And I'm grateful for it.
Q: "The Wire" could be seen as an extension of David Simon's newspaper work. Was there a similar genesis for this show?
DS: I disagree with the premise. Some of "The Wire" was of direct descent from my newspaper career. But some of it was the police and teaching career of Ed Burns, and some was the political reporting of Bill Zorzi, and some was the sensibilities of other urban novelists who had done their own research - Price, Pelecanos and Lehane. But yes, it was rooted in our collective rumination on urban issues.
TREME is about the history of New Orleans since the storm in 2005. What has come back, what has not. What has changed, what is timeless. It is rooted in Eric's experience as a resident of the city, in my own reporting on New Orleans undertaken over the last four years, in a variety of source materials that includes everything from local journalism here to documentaries, novels and longer non-fiction narrative, and in the consideration of two other writers on staff who have contributed - New Orleans writer Tom Piazza and Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie. In addition, David Mills - a longtime collaborator - is an initial outsider to New Orleans and its culture, but he brings an extensive history of writing and reflecting on Afro-American music.
Q: How did the concept for the show change as you both developed it?
DS: Some things have remained fixed. Certain characters existed from our earliest conception of the show. Other storylines, themes and characters emerged from the writers' room. Projects like this are necessarily organic and changing. It is changing still.
What we know, thematically, is that the depiction of characters and their lives will reflect in some basic ways the history of New Orleans since the storm. It is not an overtly political tract. It is not, in any respect, "The Wire: New Orleans." Those expecting a story with a heavy police presence or ruminations on the drug war or a critique of educational policies should return to their "Wire" DVDs. We have no interest in telling the same story twice in separate cities. Indeed, even if such a thing were our intent, the notion of beginning this as a crime story would be false and absurd; until the late spring and summer of 2006 - well after the narrative of our first season ends - there was very little crime in New Orleans at all. Most of the crime (and most New Orleanians, in fact) was elsewhere.
Thematically, what TREME is interested in is this: New Orleans is as city that still creates. Even in its damaged state, even amid a shocking continuum of national indifference, it remains a city that continues to build things. What it builds - its very product, in fact - is moments. Extraordinary moments in which art and ordinary life intersect. At its best, this is a city that can take a singular, unexpected instant and transform it into something rare and startling. Then the moment passes, and another moment - equally sublime or jaw-dropping - is manufactured. And yet the city has all the problems of urban America, only more so. Underfunded, undereducated, impoverished, with little tax base and a dysfunctional infrastructure, it nonetheless endures and, in an instant, offers itself to the world. And the world, though it takes these moments, does so with either veiled contempt or obvious indifference. We love the music, the dance, the food. But the city and its people?
EO: The only thing I would add to what David's said is that the crime really did start to come back earlier than anyone imagined it would. By March 2006 it had returned in a startling way and kept building through the spring and summer - traumatizing an already traumatized city. So I think that at the end of our first season the storm cloud is gathering on the horizon and will be a real fact of life going forward in subsequent seasons, should there be any. Crime has been an ever-present fact of life for most of New Orleans' history. Nineteenth-century accounts of the city sound surprisingly contemporary.
Q: The Baltimore in "The Wire" can be seen as representing a number of American cities. Is the story you're telling in TREME more specific to New Orleans? Could it have been set in New Orleans even if Katrina has never happened?
DS: Every city celebrates its own local art and its own creative impulse. In New Orleans, that art is in many essential ways a street culture, a product of decades and centuries of ornate tradition. It is omnipresent and constant - in many ways it has become, absent other economic growth, the very purpose of New Orleans. So the relationship between urban America and its creative impulse is overt and obvious, more so in other cities. But if TREME succeeds, it will be saying that all cities matter, and that it is living together in these compacted metropolises, with all their attendant problems and chaos, that allows Americans, as the mutts we are, to be truly creative, and truly unique and, well, at moments, great in the eyes of the world. How we live together - or fail to - is the question for the next century. Small-town values and the rural ethos of "real Americans" is a fraud; 80% of us live in metropolitan areas. Urban values, urban ethos will save us or bury us. And this is true worldwide. If New Orleans can't be saved or isn't worth saving, then what does our society have that can be saved, or is worth saving?
EO: There's no question it would have been a completely different show without the hurricane and its aftermath. I think it could have worked - we were certainly talking about it before the storm. The question always was how to pitch it. As my agent said, "TREME is so low-concept, it's no-concept." Without the after-effects of the storm to deal with, what would we have said to HBO? "It's about a bunch of musicians, and other folks, living in New Orleans. You know - their daily lives." I don't see HBO saying yes to that - that's so low-concept it's minus-concept. The storm provided a way to think about doing a show there.
Q: Some of the actors on TREME are veterans of "The Wire" or "The Corner"; some are not. What was the casting process like? Was it important to have musicians play a part in the series?
DS: We began with Wendell Pierce, who is a New Orleanian and someone for whom we specifically wrote Antoine Batiste. After that, when we began contemplating the Mardi Gras Indian culture, Clarke Peters came to mind, not so much for his work in "The Wire," but for his wonderful history of musical performance on the London stage. After that, we took the best reads for each role, while always giving preference to native New Orleanians who could play certain roles, especially those involving musical or cultural aspects of the city.
EO: I'd just add that it's very important to us to get as many New Orleans and Louisiana musicians as we can on camera, playing themselves mostly, during the run of the show. It's a long list, so we're going to have to make a lot of episodes to get everyone in.
Q: What are your roles in the day-to-day creation of the series?
DS: We are the show runners. Along with Nina Noble, we are responsible for TREME's content and execution.
EO: What's a show runner? Meet us in the bar for further explication.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge during production? The most satisfying thing so far?
DS: Synthesizing the real of New Orleans with the artifice of film. This is an ornate, complicated city. Trying to pull that through the keyhole of television production is always an interesting dynamic.
EO: Will New Orleans translate? I wish we could beam the smell of filé gumbo out to the rest of the world, along with the visual imagery and sounds of this amazing place. We'll see. For me, so far, the most satisfying moments have been when we've captured something authentic - a piece of dialogue, a bit of a second-line parade or a funeral or a few bars of music in a club - and we're able to say, "Look at that - that's New Orleans, for real."
Q: Is there a master plan for how the series will unfold if there are multiple seasons?
DS: Again, it will follow the post-storm history of the city, telling that story through emphasis on the political, cultural, social and economic. That story is still unfolding, but the writers have the last four and a half years since Katrina as a template.
EO: Master plan would be overstating it. It's unfolding as we go.