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An Interview with David Simon

Around 3-4 years back, a friend of mine sent me a letter in which he mentioned that The Wire was the best thing he had ever seen on television, apart from the classic Mike Leigh BBC play, Abigail’s Party.

This statement was so intriguing that it pulled me in and I got a box set of the show’s first season.

I had never encountered this show before. While it isn’t especially popular in the U.K., it often receives positive reviews, with people calling it “the best programme you’ve never heard of”.

When I watched it, I realized it was nothing like Abigail’s Party, and was different to other cop shows. At one point I was hooked on The Wire and the BBC’s Bleak House, and it made me think of Dickens.

David Simon and his team of writers, including George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane, explore the high to low of Baltimore, offering its street-corner dealers more compassion than had been seen before.

Bubbles, towing a trolley full of stolen items, is Baltimore’s equivalent of Joe the Crossing Sweeper.

We held digital communication and then a couple of weeks after that, we got together in London –David Simon was designing a program regarding the war in Iraq with a person who lived in the adjacent property. 

(It is true. He was really producing a show about the conflict in Iraq, and the manufacturer was literally my neighbor.) We discussed a great deal about sports and music.

— Nick Hornby

In his words, Nick Hornby has stated that “it’s good to have an end to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.” This means that it is important to set goals, but that the act of striving for them is what really matters.

Can I begin by inquiring about your writing process? All of the seasons of your series have had very distinct formats and tempos. Was there something distinct you had in mind when you began, or did that arise as the series was being crafted?

David Simon has noted that The Wire does not follow the conventions of episodic television and instead follows the structure of a modern, multi-POV novel. This is likely due to the fact that the creative force behind the show came from a journalistic background.

Simon is a newspaper reporter and Ed Burns, his co-creator of the show, is a former homicide detective and seventh-grade teacher. The other writers, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Bill Zorzi, and Rafael Alvarez, are all well-known novelists.

All of the creators come from different places than Hollywood and this is reflected in the show.

I was offered the opportunity to write scripts when my newspaper was bought by an out-of-town newspaper chain, which then led me to learn to produce television based on my first book which had been turned into Homicide: Life on the Street.

After that miniseries, HBO agreed to look at The Wire scripts, and I was able to produce the second book for HBO on my own. This happened to me in an unexpected manner, and I find it amusing that it actually came to fruition.

Had I planned it, I would have been content with growing old on the Baltimore Sun ‘s copy desk, smoking cigarettes from younger reporters and telling stories about my experience with H. L. Mencken and William Manchester.

The model for this show may be distinct from other high-end HBO programming like The Sopranos and Deadwood, which delve into the inner torment and scheming of characters like Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen, and draw from the Shakespearean style of modern theater.

In contrast, [show] is inspired by more classical influences, with themes directly lifted from the ancient Greeks. This kind of fatalistic outlook appears to be out of step with the contemporary attitude of the Western world, which is rooted in self-determination and postmodernism.

Nowadays, even the most devout followers tend to not grant the same level of power to their deities.

Rather than the traditional gods, The Wire is a modern Greek tragedy where the postmodern institutions are the Olympian powers.

The police, drug economy, political system, school management and macroeconomic forces are the ones throwing the lightning bolts and punishing people for no good reason.

Many television shows and stage dramas portray characters being able to overcome the institutions and reach catharsis. This drama, however, displays how these institutions are stronger than individuality, morality and justice. Greek tragedy for the 21st century, if you will.

This drama is unique in comparison to other television shows, since it does not provide catharsis and redemption but rather the dominance of the postmodern institutions over character.

The reviews may be good, but the viewership is not as great as other stories. This is due to the fact that viewers in this age of scandal and turmoil want something to take their attention away from the world they live in.

This leads to the last reason why The Wire may be different.

Those making it, or writing about it, come from economically depressed places like Jersey City, northeast Washington, and Dorchester, and not the more affluent cities such as Manhattan, Georgetown, or Back Bay Boston.

They are not trying to make a hit in the entertainment industry and become part of popular culture. In fact, the last time George and I went to the Ivy, we were announced as “The Pelican party” after waiting for 45 minutes.

We don’t need the money or popularity to be accepted, and we write what we want to write about without worrying about whether or not it will be a commercial success.

Writers who are living in close proximity to an American experience that is not based on Hollywood have natural reactions in trying to illustrate that experience. This is actually unusual due to the insulation of the American entertainment industry.

I don’t want to give the impression of being elitist or pretentious here, however it is what it is. For instance, I reside in Baltimore, so how many yachts can I waterski behind in Baltimore harbor?

I am grateful to get paid to make a show about what I would normally write about in newspapers, magazines, and narrative books. It is the same sentiment shared by other writers.

We are not here to provide entertainment, but rather, our goal is to report or write something that has literary value. We apologize if it sounds overly earnest, but we can’t help considering the deeper meaning of this show.

You understand this idea from your familiarity with music; a few chords and the right solo can create something that is truly beautiful.

NH: What was your approach when making the pitch?

When pitching The Wire to HBO, I suggested that it could be seen as a form of rebellion against the usual police procedurals seen on American TV.

My opinion on drug prohibition is adamant; what started as a fight against illicit drugs has now deteriorated into an assault on the lower class of America, and drugs have not been the only factor in destroying inner cities.

I proposed to HBO–which had already made waves in the drama world by going beyond what the broadcast networks could do ( The Sopranos , Sex and the City , etc.).

That they could become even more renowned by taking the staple of network TV (cop show) and turning it on its head.

Instead of the regular heroes and villains, the idea was to raise questions about the labels of good and bad, and if such clear-cut moral concepts were really the main focus.

Ed Burns and the late Bob Colesberry, a consummate filmmaker, planned for the show to explore the untamed aspects of capitalism, how power and money circulate in a postmodern American city.

And why we are no longer capable of solving urban issues or mending our wounds.

The conception of the drama was to use each season to investigate a different aspect of the American city, so that at the end of its run, a simulated Baltimore could represent all urban areas, and the underlying issues of urban life could be fully discussed.

In the first season, we explored the effects of the drug war, the postmodern institutions, and how they can harm those they are supposed to protect.

The second season delved into the death of work and the decline of the American working class in the post-industrial era, which we further explored through the port of Baltimore. The third season focused on the political process and if reform is possible, with the help of the City Hall.

The fourth season focused on equal opportunity, for which we added the public-education system.

Finally, the fifth and final season is about the media and our ability to recognize and address our own realities, which we will explore through the city’s daily newspaper and television components.

At the start, we decided not to mention our ambitious plans to HBO as they likely would have dismissed us. We just focused on inverting the cop show concept and analyzing the flaws of the war on drugs.

However, prior to going into the port in season two, I discussed building an American city to explore these themes further.

This is how we ended up here.

Considering my professional life, it might be said that Baltimore has had a greater impact on me than any other American city. When I consider it, I notice how High Fidelity seemed to be a combination of Barry Levinson and Anne Tyler.

It is peculiar how these creators don’t necessarily share an aesthetic, yet a very unique set of work has emerged from your city. Although I have not been there, I would like to and can you explain how Baltimore could be the source for this work?

I’m at a loss to explain why Baltimore has such a strong allure for storytellers. The fascinating thing is that each of us are looking at a different part of the same place.

My portrayal of the city is not the same as that of Barry Levinson or John Waters in their movies.

And none of us have delved into the prestigious areas of Anne Tyler’s Roland Park. Laura Lippman explores various regions of Baltimore, but her recent solo novels focus on the suburban area of Baltimore County, where a lot of the affluent have moved.

Towson, Padonia, and Owings Mills are some of the places she has extracted her storylines from.

I believe that by writing about cities outside of the traditional hubs of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Chicago, authors can better articulate the experiences of lesser-known, smaller cities.

These four cities are special in their own way – New York is the financial, fashion, and theater capital, while Washington is the home of the government, and Los Angeles is a major film city.

On the other hand, Baltimore is a postindustrial city, located between D.C. and Philadelphia and trying to figure out its future and its past. This is similar to other cities such as St. Louis, Cleveland, and Philadelphia that are facing the same issues.

Writing about these stories can provide a level of detail and local culture, but they will also be universally applicable, thus increasing their relevance.

Acknowledging my limited knowledge, I believe that a tale based in London is only relevant to the English capital and not to any other British city. However, a narrative situated in Manchester is likely to have a connection with Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, or any other place.

We pride ourselves on being distinct, and, indeed, we appreciate the authenticity of Baltimore, but at the same time, we can be viewed as a generic city.

NH mentioned a small detail in an Anne Tyler novel that pertains to the confusion of whether Baltimore is a northern or a southern city. This ambiguity could be beneficial, NH suggested, if someone is attempting to avoid the typical big-city inflection.

DS: All Baltimoreans are familiar with the line about the most northern southern city or most southern northern city.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Maryland (and Baltimore) were very polarized and President Lincoln was forced to imprison the state legislature at Fort McHenry to stop them from joining the Confederacy.

The Eastern Shore, southern Maryland, and much of Baltimore were pro-slavery whereas western Maryland was more pro-union.

The first Civil War fatalities occurred on Pratt Street as citizens were pelting a Massachusetts regiment that was headed south to help Washington in the war.

Furthermore, John Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Lincoln, was from Baltimore and his family of actors, including John Wilkes, are buried in Greenmount Cemetery.

To proceed with this unhelpful recounting of events, one may recall–from an American standpoint–that the writing of our national anthem occurred at Fort McHenry.

Francis Scott Key, who was a prisoner aboard a British vessel that was attacking the fort during the War of 1812, composed the song.

The British had already set fire to Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, and were preparing to do the same to Baltimore after the army had landed near the city. Unless the fort was taken down, the navy would not be able to enter the harbor and back up the invasion.

To everyone’s surprise, the star-spangled banner was still present over McHenry in the morning, and the British army, after having fought the Battle of North Point against Baltimore militia to a standstill, re-embarked onto their ships and departed.

My most embarrassing moment as an American is one I take a strange pride in. On a tour of the crypts of St. Paul’s in London, we were shown the site of General Ross’ grave.

Our guide, who had saved the cathedral from burning during the Blitz, smiled and said to us, the Americans, that Ross was “the victor of the battles of Washington and Philadelphia and active at the Battle of Baltimore”.

His gravestone read “VICTOR OF THE BATTLES OF WASHINGTON AND PHILADELPHIA. ACTIVE AT THE BATTLE OF BALTIMORE”.

In 1985, had I known about the ghetto dick-grab, I may have kept my mouth shut when I said, “I’m from Baltimore. And I can tell you what ‘active’ means. It means we kicked his ass.”

Everyone around me seemed to be frozen in shock, and I was glad I didn’t go on with what I knew:

Ross had been fatally shot by Wells and McComas with squirrel rifles at North Point, making the British so angry that they sent an entire detachment of Royal Marines to kill the sharpshooters.

The two Baltimoreans are buried beneath a monument in the East Baltimore ghetto and streets nearby the fort were named after them.

The tour guide responded with an affirmative “Quite,” and had a merciful smile on his face that seemed slightly amused. At least that’s what I assume.

I’m sure it took a great deal of patience and creativity in order to depict street-corner drug dealers with such detail, not just as an indistinguishable group of violent people.

Was all of that in the script, or did you have a hand in the casting? I know you’ve worked with some of the actors before, such as The Corner and The Wire.

What were you looking for when casting? Are there Baltimore locals in the show? It was quite a surprise to me that Idris Elba, who plays Stringer Bell, is actually English. What was the reasoning behind casting so many English people?

DS: We are very selective when it comes to casting, and the other leading producers and I are involved in every single decision when it comes to a recurring role.

To prevent viewers from being taken out of the immersive atmosphere of The Wire, we avoid bringing on famous actors from Los Angeles. We tend to prefer actors from New York or even London’s theater scene, and also have Baltimore natives in smaller parts.

By having professional actors collaborate with real people, it makes the world more authentic and more believable.

The characters in the show have their basis in people from Baltimore, as per Ed Burns’ experience as a detective and teacher, and Bill Zorzi and I’s journalism background.

That’s not to say there is a one-to-one relation between the real people and the fictional ones; attributes from several people could be combined to create one character. However, the show is rooted in reality, which lends it a unique feel to the characters.

The actors usually stick close to the script, but if they have an ad lib that adds to the story, it’s kept. A producer is present on set to make sure the script is followed, and our actors are knowledgeable and trusting of the material.

When it comes to The Corner and even Homicide, it’s undeniable that once we discover a strong actor, we remember it. Since these actors are based in the East Coast, we make use of them whenever we can.

Clarke Peters, who plays Lester Freamon, has done a lot of his acting on the London stage (he’s currently in Porgy and Bess there). We also observed Aidan Gillen on the New York stage.

Dominic West sent in a tape from London, giving a great performance as McNulty and was called back.

Idris, as Stringer? He came in and read in New York and aced it. We don’t discriminate against a British actor who gives the best read, regardless of what happened to our capital in 1812.

Additionally, one benefit of having a British actor is that if they are not excessively exposed to the American media, it adds to the credibility of our simulated Baltimore, as long as they can master the accent.

Their faces are unfamiliar, hence less likely to take the viewers away from the moment.

Beginning in late March [2007] and running through mid-August, production on the final season of the show will take place. It’s amusing to note that it took American audiences four seasons to discover the show, but during the last one something special happened as people found it.

By the time the show has been off the air for a few years, it will be quite popular. Both the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine have requested to have reporters present for filming for the fifth season, even though it won’t be aired until 2008.

The people of Baltimore are no strangers to being overlooked, but they are somewhat taken aback by this sudden attention and are doing their best to adjust.

NH wonders what the reaction has been from the local government and citizens of Baltimore to the allegations of corruption, negligence, and spitefulness that have been made. He questions if any American city has ever had to confront a situation like this.

He inquires if any natives have written in response and what the press thinks of it all.

The people working in the institutions depicted, such as labor and middle management, are usually more likely to embrace the show than those in charge. The mayor–who is now the state’s governor–clearly disliked it.

After the first season aired, he tried to stop it by blocking permits and telling city agencies not to cooperate.

During a conversation with him, I reminded him that I had warned him that the drama would be a much darker and realistic version of the city and its problems before I submitted the pilot script to HBO.

I also told him that I could easily set and film the story in another city, as the issues presented were not specific to Baltimore. He responded that they were proud of the shows and wanted them to be filmed there.

The mayor reminded me to consider relocating the show to another city. I informed him that it was not feasible to do so for the second season, since we had already constructed the sets and were receiving help from the Maryland Port Authority to get the dockworker scenes.

However, I said that I would be willing to move to Philadelphia as soon as the filming had finished.

Will the performance center around Philadelphia?

I reminded them that McNulty and Co. were Baltimore officers and the city in question was Baltimore. “We have been discussing this for two years now, starting from the day we had lunch together – do you recall?”

In Philadelphia, the funds for you to shoot the film will be provided, yet it will still be shot in Baltimore.

“That is precisely correct.”

After lengthy contemplation, the response was finally given: “I shall think over your application for shooting permits.”

The mayor ultimately kept his silence and the city agencies changed their attitude towards us. For the next three seasons, Baltimore’s political and corporate entities remained professional. It seems that those who have experienced the show have found it to be beloved.

Although not everyone may be a fan, the people living in the city’s neighborhoods embraced the characters when they stepped out of their trailers. The feeling among those in the neglected communities is that the show finally offers a televised drama that reflects their lives.

It became apparent after the first season of The Wire aired and the mayor expressed his displeasure that the city council proposed a resolution to launch a public relations campaign to repair Baltimore’s reputation.

While the author had no issue with the city trying to improve its image, the head of the state film commission privately suggested that the resolution be focused on taking positive action and not referencing The Wire in any way.

However, this suggestion was not taken into consideration and the resolution was sent for a committee vote.

When I attended the hearing, I identified myself not as David Simon, executive producer of The Wire, or David Simon of HBO, or even as the president of Blown Deadline Productions.

Instead I began my introduction by revealing that I was a Baltimore resident living on William Street in the First Councilmanic District and I voiced my objection to… It seemed to take them by surprise that I was there, as if they assumed I had moved away to Los Angeles or something.

My presence and words only seemed to further anger them, which may have been the catalyst for the subsequent heated conversation with the mayor, given that the resolution’s sponsor was a political ally.

Nevertheless, I felt that when they took the first shot at me, I should, if I was able, return fire.

Whenever I consider writing for The Wire, I soon recognize that I’m not aware of my True data from my narcos. Were you cognizant of all of that prior to beginning? Do you get guidance from those more acquainted with the dialect?

DS: My criterion for realism is straightforward and I established it when I began to compose prose narrative: forget the average reader.

When I worked in newspapers, I was instructed to write for the average reader, meaning a suburban white subscriber with a certain number of kids, cars, a pet, and patio furniture.

This person knows nothing and needs every single thing explained to them immediately, which then becomes an immense, story-ruining weight. Ignore them. Don’t give them any consideration.

With Homicide as the starting point, I resolved to craft the book for those living the experience. I would leave out certain details, with the belief that the reader/viewer was capable of deducing the finer points with some effort.

What was of utmost importance to me was that if people from those worlds read or watched my story, they would not feel that I had not accurately portrayed their lives in a manner that they found genuine.

It doesn’t mean I want my subjects to agree with everything that I write, but in terms of dialogue, vernacular, description and tone, I want them to recognize it as their own. That fear of being exposed as shallow and fraudulent drives me, as it does many other writers.

The idea of standing up and claiming to be the one to tell the best story is a daunting thought.

I don’t have any special credentials besides the dozen years I spent as a police reporter in Baltimore and a C-average bachelor’s degree, so why me? I think even the most experienced writers have a little doubt in their voice and their right to have it heard.

Who gave me the right to be a Storyteller?

I devoted many years to researching the lives of drug dealers and law enforcement to better understand them and their language. To capture the world of politics, we invited Bill Zorzi, the top political reporter from Baltimore Sun to join our writing staff.

Additionally, Rafael Alvarez, a former journalist and short-story writer who had left his job to join the seamen’s union, was brought in to provide insight into the lives of the longshoremen.

The rest of us, myself included, spent countless hours getting to know the longshoremen’s operations and the port unions by hanging around the shipping terminals.

The goal was to authentically depict their world, so that when they watched The Wire, they would feel represented. I was always concerned that someone would stand up and say that it was all wrong. So accuracy and authenticity are two elements I never compromise on.

By coming back to Average Reader, we can see that you can’t just write for those living the event, if the market does not follow.

Despite TV still being a mass medium, even with the cable universe now reducing the audience size per channel, there is a secret I learned with Homicide that I have held to: if you write something so believable that the insider will stay, the outsider will come along too.

Through Homicide, The Corner, The Wire and Generation Kill, we are presented with a kind of travelog, allowing Average Reader/Viewer to go to places they would not usually go.

They love the immersion in an unfamiliar, potentially dangerous environment with its own vernacular and idiom, and they like the trust to acquire information in their own way, to make connections, and to take the journey with only their intelligence.

Most intelligent people cannot watch TV because it is often condescending and does not allow for ambiguities, as well as its dialogue simplifying and preventing unique communication.

This means characters from different areas end up talking the same way as the viewer, which is not ideal.

When it comes to traveling, there are two ways to go about it. One is to take a tour guide and basically just take pictures and keep some facts in mind. The other way is to actually stay in a place for a while and get to know the local culture.

This could be done in the form of a series or miniseries. It is important to understand the pieces of the country that are not usually seen or experienced by the average person.

It is necessary to make people understand that this is a part of the country that they have made, and it makes up who they are and what they have built. People should think twice about it.

As opposed to a world traveler leaving a conventional route, our viewers never have to venture beyond the boundaries of their home.

Instead, they are presented with an insight into the workings of a drug corner, homicide unit, or political campaign, all while being exposed to truthful reporting and genuine experience, all of which has been carefully crafted to produce a dramatic effect.

Ultimately, it’s essential to have a deep appreciation for individuals from all walks of life if one desires to portray dialogue accurately. To illustrate, Richard Price once visited Baltimore to get more information on a book he was writing, Freedomland.

During his stay, I had the privilege of taking him on a tour while I was researching and writing The Corner. We bumped into one of my main characters, Gary McCullough, who had recently used drugs and was high as a kite.

He laughed at something I said and exclaimed, “Oh, man, you are an apple-scrapple,” a Baltimore phrase referring to something special. Price noticed the expression and thought it was a keeper.

I was concerned he might beat me to publishing the phrase if I didn’t get my book out first.

Darned authors.

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